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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."

Chapter Text

"Well, I'm going to the police," said Cadogan. "If there's anything I hate, it's the sort of book in which the characters don't go to the police when they've no earthly reason for not doing so."
"You've got an earthly reason for not doing so immediately."
"What's that?"
"The pubs are open," said Fen, as one who after a long night sees dawn on the hills.

Edmond Crispin

---------------------

The next morning was chillier and damper than June had any right to be, even in London. Hilary and St. George found Dr. Fitzmorris' practice, and each other, on a street corner across from a dog park. "Good morning," said St. George, half-heartedly, and glanced up at the sky, which began to drizzle on them as if on cue. "And a beautiful morning it is."

"Morning." Hilary followed his upward gaze a moment and then, as fatter drops began to spatter down, drew him under the awning of a shop next to the doctor's office, which was still dark and locked up tight. It might have been the colourlessness of the morning, or the damp flattening down her hair against her cheeks, but to St. George's eyes she looked rather more subdued than usual. "Are you holding up all right?"

"I'll do," said St. George noncommittally, "though I'd do better with an umbrella. This hat was nearly new." He reached up and felt at it, without much hope for its survival. "How about you? You don't look as though you'd slept all that well yourself."

"Thanks very much," said Hilary, with no real edge to it for once. "You do realise you haven't shaved this morning?"

St. George touched his own jaw and found, to his consternation, that she was right as always. "I do, actually." He was improvising and she clearly knew it; but her smile spread and warmed a degree or two, which was something. "Just experimenting, really--thought I'd see how it looks. I suppose you're going to say you don't like it."

"Oh, I don't know." Hilary tilted her head and scrutinised him. "Give it a week or so and a moustache might suit you."

"Really." He ran his thumb along his upper lip, experimentally, and flinched at the unfamiliar prickle of it; then again, it was the closest thing to an outright compliment he could ever recall receiving from her.

Dr. Fitzmorris came around the corner then--at least St. George presumed it was he, a solidly built middle-aged man with a neatly trimmed grey-speckled beard and a battered black bag at his side. He was, indeed, the most singularly doctorlike person St. George had ever seen, and he eyed the two young people huddled under the awning with grave attention. "You would be Miss Kapoor's young friends, I suppose--I'm sorry, Miss Dougal told me your names last night, but with all the confusion I'm afraid I don't quite recall. Mr. Rogerson, was it?"

"Not quite," St. George said, after what he hoped wasn't too long a moment of bewilderment. "But nearly so--it's Christianson, Mr. Roger Christianson." And an odd feeling it was, being a commoner; he wondered whether he'd have time to get used to it. "And this is my friend Miss Caroline Hood," he added, and cupped her elbow lightly.

Hilary neither flinched at his touch nor pressed closer; the greater part of her attention was on the doctor. "I'm sorry about that," she said solemnly. "I only met him once--had he any family?"

Dr. Fitzmorris shook his head, turning away from them to unlock the front door of his practice. "Not here. He was a village boy--came to London to make a life as an actor, and went the same way as most with that kind of dream. We get a lot of that sort around here," he went on, tinging that sort more with sadness than malice.

"But his family will be told," Hilary pressed. It didn't sound even a little like a question. "If not the police, surely them at least."

Fitzmorris paused. "They will be found and told, yes. Now come along in; I haven't any patients scheduled for an hour yet, and I can see we have a good deal to talk about."

-------

"I hear you were there last night," Fitzmorris began, once they were all three in his office. Even out of the rain, he looked drawn and grey; St. George expected the man hadn't slept much last night. "I'm very sorry you two had to see that without explanation. Someone ought to have spoken to you sooner."

Hilary's hands were folded neatly in her lap, but she shifted restlessly in the chair next to his. "Ought to have spoken to us about what?"

"About what you've involved yourself with by moving here," Fitzmorris said patiently. "Why have you moved here, of all places?"

Hilary shrugged. "I needed a place to live, and Amita--Amita Kapoor--told me she knew a woman who might take a boarder, and Jerry followed me here because we've become close recently. But I gather there's something not quite right around here recently--are we not wanted, then?"

"You might say so." The doctor smiled thinly. "Or, well, it isn't so much that you aren't wanted as that, had you been fully informed, you might have wanted to live somewhere else. You both look fairly well put together; surely there are more reputable parts of the city you might have chosen."

"I'm afraid I've rather come down in the world recently," said St. George, a bit distractedly; he was wondering when Dr. Fitzmorris intended to make a point of any kind, and also whether this was what it felt like to interview for a job. "It's made rather a hash of my reputation as it is. And my priorities," he clarified, with a pointed glance over at Hilary, who smiled back at him with implausible sweetness.

"Ah, yes, well." Fitzmorris cleared his throat and shifted in his chair. "It seems to be my duty to warn you that one or both of you will be...approached, soon, by one of the less-savory gentlemen who have moved into this part of the city recently. They will make you an offer--more of a threat, really--and, underhanded as it might seem, for your own sakes and the sakes of those around you, I recommend strongly that you accept."

"What?" St. George sat up a little straighter in his chair. "Like gangsters? Organised crime?"

Fitzmorris nodded. "Exactly like that, I'm afraid."

Hilary frowned at him, looking thoroughly unconvinced. "The entire neighbourhood has been coerced into working for gangs and no one's thought to contact the police?"

"Oh, people have thought of it." Fitzmorris folded his hands across his stomach. "I'm sure many would like to, but they know better than to try. Look at what happened to your friend William last night."

St. George mulled this over. "How do you know that's got anything to do with it?"

"I wish I could say this was the first time such a thing has happened around here," Fitzmorris said soberly. "You've met Miss Field, haven't you?"

"I don't believe so." Hilary glanced over at St. George; she was beginning to look slightly lost. "She was supposed to be at the Kapoors' last night, wasn't she? But she never came. I know people were worried--she is all right, isn't she?"

The doctor grimaced. "As all right as can be expected. Her brother was killed not long ago--just the same way as happened last night. Stabbed and left in an alley. It's a filthy matter, all of it--and they left a calling card on his body. An actual business card, dropped next to him."

"A business card." St. George was beginning to feel like an echo chamber; he was also beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable. Hilary had gone quite stiff and wide-eyed in the other chair, and out of the corner of his eye he saw her begin to reach for her pocket and then jerk her hand hastily away again.

Dr. Fitzmorris looked more resigned to the situation than anything else, and St. George felt sorry for him. He wondered how many other people had had to have this explained to them, over the last--however long this had been going on. Several months, he thought Hilary had said. "It was very unpleasant, when Hargrave's men first came here. No one was killed at first, but there were plenty of nasty threats made on both sides, and it happened that they were swifter and more efficient at following through than the people who lived here. There were some people badly hurt--you'll hear about that soon enough, if you haven't--but no one killed until the Field boy."

"And William," Hilary said quietly. "Why don't people move away?"

Fitzmorris shrugged. "A few have. Most around here can't afford it. Or if they can, like Mrs. Bloom or the Kapoors, they've lived here long enough they'd rather try to stick it out than give up their homes."

"I know the feeling," Hilary admitted. "So what are we meant to do?"

"We could still move out," St. George suggested, without much hope. "But I don't expect you'll want to."

"And leave Amita?" She scowled openly at him a moment, and St. George flinched. "I think not."

"I wouldn't either," St. George said guiltily. "I only thought--" he wasn't sure what exactly he'd thought, he realised, and chose to subside into a confused silence.

"I'm sorry," Dr. Fitzmorris offered. "For what that's worth. I doubt this is what you expected when you chose to live here."

Hilary pursed her lips. "No, I can't say it is." She stood from the chair and gave Fitzmorris a smile, though a thin and distracted one.

"Thank you," St. George said, for lack of anything better to say, and got to his feet as well. "I'm glad you were honest, at least."

"It's the best I can do," said Dr. Fitzmorris, and smiled ruefully. He looked more tired than ever. "I'd feel a little silly, telling you to have a good day after this."

St. George glanced at Hilary, who was waiting for him in the doorway. "Thanks anyway," he said, unaccustomed to feeling so awkward. "I think we can find our own way out," he added, and left with her in tow as hastily as he could.

"Leave?" Hilary burst out, as soon as they were back on the sidewalk. It was raining harder than ever, but she seemed to have forgotten that fact. "Did you really think I'd agree to cut and run? I should think you'd know me a little better than that."

"I never thought you'd agree," St. George complained, abashed despite himself; he didn't precisely blame her for being annoyed. "It seemed like what a man would say who'd found himself in something well over his head. Which I should jolly well say we have."

"Well, we aren't leaving." Hilary hunched in on herself, seeming finally to notice the rain, and headed off down the street with barely a glance to indicate that she expected him to remain at her side.

St. George hastened to catch up with her; she didn't seem inclined to talk, however, until they had purchased an umbrella from an enthusiastic man on the street corner. It wasn't a very impressive-looking umbrella, and it arrived too late to spare them a thorough soaking, but its presence was a comfort nonetheless. "Then what are we doing?"

"I don't know." Hilary shivered at his side. "I can't think what we could do about it that the people living here wouldn't already have tried."

"Nor I--though." He poked his tongue into his cheek, weighing the potential damage to his pride; it would be significant indeed, but it would be The Right Thing To Do. "I expect no one here has an Uncle Charles and an Uncle Peter."

Hilary paused in front of a bakery. "Not your Uncle Charles and Uncle Peter, at any rate," she agreed quietly, when they'd made it inside and were--to the evident irritation of the baker--taking their time about choosing pastries. "But I thought you said Lord Peter was out of reach."

"As best I know, he is. St. George shrugged away from her a step or two and selected a scone with more precision than the object probably deserved.

Hilary paid for an impressively large bun and trailed after him to a far corner. "A great deal of use, I should think."

"Is that so?" St. George leaned against the wall and tossed his scone absently in one hand a couple of times before breaking it neatly in two for greater ease of consumption. "Haven't you ever seen one of your friends in the throes of romance? How much use were they to anyone?"

She laughed, pushing her damp hair back out of her face with her bun-free hand. "Not much, I'll admit, though I'd like to think your uncle's got a little more sense than that."

"Uncle Peter," said St. George, with all the air of knowledgeability he could gather about him, "much as he hates to admit the possibility, is a human being like all the rest of us. I'll wager he won't be much good to us--or to anyone but Aunt Harriet--until after the honeymoon at the least."

Hilary sucked an errant drip of butter from the side of her finger. "So, the Chief-Inspector it is, then?"

"Afraid so." St. George grimaced; he had never had much in the way of dealings with his uncle-by-marriage, and was not at all sure of his footing with the man. "I hope he's feeling credulous."

-------

As it happened, Chief Inspector Parker was not feeling particularly receptive this morning--of disreputable nephews, conspiracy theories, or much of anything else. He had shut himself in his office with instructions that he was not to be disturbed, but Parker's was not precisely the line of work where one could hope to go undisturbed for any length of time, so he did his best to treat the knock at his door with resignation and good grace. "What is it?"

"Young man to see you, sir," said the sergeant, who looked a little overwrought himself. "Claims he's your nephew and it's an emergency."

Parker manfully held back a groan. He was well aware of St. George's tendency to appeal to the rest of the family for financial assistance, and had hoped his more modest circumstances would at least spare him this particular conversation; apparently it was not to be. Steeling himself, he admitted to having such a nephew, and gave the sergeant permission to show the young man in.

Viscount St. George showed himself a minute later; he looked unhappy and rather harassed, and Parker--who felt very much the same lately--caught himself sympathising with the boy for a dangerous moment; then he recollected the likely cause of St. George's unhappiness and therefore of this visit, and suppressed the urge. "Good morning," he greeted warily. "Would you have a seat?"

"Good morning," St. George echoed. "Oh, thank you very much," and deposited himself obligingly, if rather stiffly, in one of the chairs in front of Parker's desk.

"Well," Parker went on, after a moment of uncomfortable silence during which he had shuffled all the papers on his desk into a neat pile. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"

St. George grinned, though the expression looked strained. "Can't a man visit his uncle?"

"Not you," said Parker stiffly; "not when the uncle is me; certainly not at this time of day. So what's the matter?"

St. George shifted in the chair opposite, looking thoroughly sheepish; Parker's suspicions of him were strengthening by the moment. "Well, you see--it's all an enormous embarrassment, and I'm not quite sure how to explain it."

"Of course you're not." Parker frowned; he was only just working out how to cope with having a son, and felt that he'd been going along just fine, for all intents and purposes, without a nephew. "Though while you're sorting it out, I do have work to do."

"Yes, I know that, but you see--" St. George grimaced, but--as if on cue--the telephone rang, and Parker was forced to excuse himself and spend the next few minutes being reminded, by a man significantly better paid than he, just what it could do for a man's career to capture someone like Hargrave-- and what it could do to a man's career not to.

When the Superintendent finally hung up, St. George was still there, drumming his fingers on his thigh and looking absently around the office; he snapped right back to attention, though, when he realised that Parker was no longer on the telephone. "It really is important," he said earnestly, leaning forward in his chair. "A matter of life and death, my hand to God, if you'd only listen.”

"All right." Parker folded his hands on the desk, offered up a quick prayer for patience, and took a deep breath. "Let's have it, then."

The story St. George produced in response could, if Parker were feeling generous, have been termed confused; it was jumbled, implausible, and there seemed to be a lot of uncertain detail and speculation involved. The gist of it seemed to be that part of London, or possibly all of Great Britain, was being blackmailed into silence about an undefined series of cleverly concealed murders which had been committed for no reason at all that Parker could discern. That the younger man was genuinely alarmed about something, Parker was willing to grant; but what that thing was he couldn't imagine, and he severely doubted that it was an actual police matter.

"So," he said, when the story--such as it was--seemed to have run its course. "If this is all so obvious, why haven't any uniformed men noticed anything out of the ordinary?"

"Because--" St. George gaped, fishlike, for a moment while he considered the question. "They're taking bribes," he concluded after a moment, as if this were the most obvious of possible solutions. "On the take--that's what it's called, isn't it? Uncle Charles, you've got to do something."

Parker did his best to keep a sceptical look off his face as he considered his nephew and his job in turn. The former individual was pretty obviously alarmed about something, at any rate, and Parker felt he should at least try to be charitable and find out what that something was. He was still, he comforted himself, resolute in his determination not to lend any money towards the solution of it. "I'll tell you what," he began, as sympathetic-sounding as he could manage, and St. George perked up in his chair with astonishing alacrity. "I honestly haven't got any time for this at the moment--" St. George's face fell again-- "but I'll have a talk with you about it soon, all right? Once you can explain it a bit more clearly."

"That's what I was afraid of," said St. George, with a tinge of bitterness, but he stood back up all the same. "Thanks for your trouble, all the same. I daresay I can see myself out."

"Tell me when you've got your story straight," Parker reiterated, rather shortly, and had returned his attention to the files in front of him before he even heard the door close.

-------

While St. George was preparing to embark on these delicate negotiations with his uncle, Hilary was breakfasting with Priya and Amita at a window table in Dougal's, though not for long; Amita was still restless and anxious about the prospect of an entire summer of dealing with Ames, despite her companions' best efforts to cheer her up. "I wish I hadn't," she was saying unhappily, tea mostly forgotten. "I don't think I can keep my temper with him for two more months of this."

"I didn't know you had a temper." Priya eyed her sister, a mixture of concern and astonishment clear in her expression. "Perhaps going to university has been a bad influence after all."

Hilary sneaked a piece of her toast as subtly as possible onto Amita's plate; the other girl looked as though she could use a little extra bolstering. "You did say your father knew some other solicitors that were more--well, respectable. Surely it isn't too late for you to quit Ames and find a place with one of them?"

“It’d be as good as giving up." Amita darted a glance at Priya. "No, I said I'd go through with this, and I intend to. Especially now I've roped Caroline into it to back me up--it wouldn't be fair to you.”

"Or to Jerry, for that matter, since he was silly enough to move here after me." The thought of St. George made Hilary twist around involuntarily in her seat to look down the street, on the off chance he had already returned, though chances of that were slim; all the same, it was nice to have a hope to cling to.

Priya pursed her lips anxiously. "Just be careful of him, all right? I'm the one who talked Mum and Dad into letting you stay here, so I'm the one they'll be taking to task if anything happens to you."

"I'll do my best." Amita leaned in to peer over Hilary's shoulder at her wristwatch. "Speaking of which, I'd better get going--I'll see you both later."

"I'll be by at one to take over for you," Hilary promised. "Don't take too much nonsense from him."

"It's like a whole neighbourhood full of surrogate mothers," said Amita, without too much genuine ill will, as she gathered her things. "Good morning--" and fled for the solicitor's office.

Hilary looked helplessly at Priya, who shrugged back. "I don't know what'll give Dad the worse fit if he finds out how this has gone," she said glumly. "Ames messing about with Amita, or Amita toughing it out on her own. He'll likely find a way to pin the blame on one of us."

Hilary snorted. "What, for Amita knowing her own mind?"

"For her being stubborn to a genuine fault." Priya's lips twisted oddly as she looked down into her cup of tea. "I think that, two years ago, she might have been much more cautious about a situation like this."

"Well, I suppose I can see how she might have learned that from me," Hilary admitted. "I'd be flattered if I weren't so worried about her."

"I might not have backed her up so strongly if I'd known Ames was so--well." Priya pulled a face, and Hilary laughed despite herself. "But I've no intention of leaving her in the lurch, all the same."

"I didn't think you had." Hilary fussed absently with her napkin, not certain what else to say.

"Tell you what," said Priya, with sudden determined cheerfulness. "You were curious about the Sentinel, weren't you? Well, I'll take you back behind the shop and show you around a bit, if you'd like."

"I would like," Hilary agreed, and let herself be hauled enthusiastically indoors.

"Gail," Priya called the moment they were back indoors, and then when the other woman didn't immediately respond: "Gail. Snap to, would you?"

Seated alone at the counter, Gail obligingly lifted her head, which she had propped on one hand for a free moment. "Leave off, Priya," she grumbled. "You ought to know by now how much use I am first thing in the morning."

"None whatsoever," Priya agreed cheerfully. "Perhaps you ought to look into another line of work."

"Not a chance." Gail settled her chin back into her hand, frowning. “What I ought to do is hire someone to replace William, but I just can’t bring myself to do it yet. What do you want, anyway?"

Priya held her hand out expectantly. "Keys to the back room, if it isn't too much trouble. I thought I'd give Caroline a look round, since she and Roger were curious."

Gail nodded, tiredly, and got up to rummage under the counter. "Morning, Caroline," she added as an aside. "Where is your handsome shadow, anyway?"

"I don't know if he'd like you calling him my shadow," Hilary objected, though perhaps it wasn't so far from the truth. "I'm not sure where he's gone this morning, honestly. He said he had to call on a few people." Nor was that.

Gail shrugged and tossed a key to Priya, who caught it neatly. "Go on, then. Let half the neighbourhood back there, while you're at it."

"I might, if you keep on being this unpleasant first thing in the morning. Better make yourself another coffee." Priya wrinkled her nose. "Come on, Caroline; I doubt she'll be much use for another hour or so."

Hilary acquiesced, a little awkwardly, and gave Gail a wave before following Priya around behind the counter; set beside the other women's long familiarity, she felt faintly intrusive. "I feel as though I'm being let in on a secret society of some sort."

"You give us far too much credit." Priya laughed, though it took a moment's struggle for her to get the lock open. "Eight pages a month of mixed Socialist rhetoric and neighbourhood announcements hardly qualify."

"To be fair, I haven't seen an issue of it yet." Hilary hovered in the doorway, trying to peer into the room while Priya groped for a dangling pull cord. "But surely it can't be that bad. You and Gail seem capable, after all."

Priya sneezed violently in response; a moment later there was a rustle and a click, and the fixture in the ceiling flickered to surprising brightness. "Sorry," she said hastily, fumbling for a handkerchief, "sorry--this is it, anyway. Not terribly impressive, I'm afraid--it's certainly no Labour Monthly--but we are rather fond of it."

"It's marvellous," said Hilary, and meant it. The place wasn't anything scenic, certainly, but it was better: musty and cluttered and quite obviously lived in, piled high with reference books and stacks of old newspapers of every description. Wedged in somehow amidst the chaos were a sofa and a handful of chairs of varying comfort and stability--and presumably some desks and tables as well, though they were difficult to spot. "How long have you been at this now?"

"Five years." Priya beamed with pride. "Or nearly so--we'll have our sixtieth issue fairly soon. Of course, the paper’s been going much longer than that--since the turn of the century, just about. You might say Gail’s father left it to her along with the shop."

Hilary settled into a wooden chair which, defying all probabilities suggested by its apparent state of repair, accepted her weight with resignation. “Might I have a look through a few of these?”

Priya shrugged. “Go right ahead; I can’t expect to get an opinion from you otherwise, can I?”

“No, though I doubt my opinion on the matter is all that educated.” Hilary chose a back issue of the Sentinel, based purely on what came first to hand, and leafed through without removing her attention from Priya entirely.

Priya frowned. “Really? Amita said you’d written sometimes for Cherwell.”

“Well, yes, but I read Greats,” Hilary admitted sheepishly. “Which generally isn’t much use outside of university walls. Now, Jerry—“had read History, she nearly said, which was true; but she couldn’t immediately recall whether they were meant to be admitting to his university education, and he cut even less of a respectable academic figure than she. “He’s far more likely to be knowledgeable about politics and finance than I,” she improvised. “I can write for a newspaper, certainly, and have before, and would like to again, but—“

As if on cue, there was a murmur of voices outside and St. George appeared in the doorway, peering around curiously. "Gail told me I could find you both back here. What have you got us into now?"

Hilary raised her eyebrows at him sceptically. "Any luck with that meeting of yours?"

"Meeting?" Priya's ears pricked up, almost visibly.

"Family business," St. George told her, with admirable brevity. "Nothing terribly interesting. Or fruitful, I'm sorry to say--I'll tell you about it later, Lee."

Hilary slumped a little, despite Priya's curious eye on both of them. "Are you sure?"

He dropped easily into the nearest empty chair, not looking terribly bothered to Hilary's eye, and shrugged. "I did tell you I haven't a lot of credibility remaining along that particular line."

"You did," Hilary admitted, and turned resolutely back to Priya. "Sorry to air this out in front of you--it's a private matter, really."

"I understand." Priya shuffled through the stack of Sentinels in front of her, clearly doing her best to hide some degree of curiosity; the prospect set Hilary a little on edge. "I'm sorry," she said after a moment, with a rueful smile. "I could swear I was raised better than to be this abominably nosy, but I've known Gail for so long that I expect it rubs off after a while. I do the organisational and political bits around here, really; she's more the interfering sort by far."

St. George let out a helpless snort of laughter at Hilary's side, and she couldn't help but grin back at him for a moment. "For what it's worth," he offered, "I doubt either of us has much ground to condemn you for nosiness."

“Well, I can’t blame you, either. Things are so queer around here lately.” Priya’s smile dimmed somewhat, and Hilary shifted restlessly in her seat for an awkward moment.

“Jerry,” she interjected, at last. “Since you asked—I’ve been speaking to Priya about writing for the Sentinel, if she’s willing to let me. And even if I don’t prove to be much use, it might at least be interesting to read back through old issues of it.” And of use in a multitude of possible ways; she hoped she had successfully conveyed that implication to him.

She must have managed it, for St. George’s eyes widened momentarily, and he nodded and beamed. “I was thinking I might be able to make a contribution myself; had I mentioned that?”

“You hadn’t,” said Hilary dubiously. “Me, I think you just hate being left out of anything.”

“Perhaps I do,” St. George admitted cheerfully. “But honestly, this paper—I’ve looked at it, and it’s all text. Which is all very well if you’re Cherwell, I suppose, or whatever relentlessly dry publication on which Miss Hood happens to be wasted at any given time—“

Hilary sputtered a moment, trying to figure out whether she’d just been complimented or insulted.

“—but the entire neighbourhood reads this paper, doesn’t it?” St. George continued, without batting so much as an eyelash in her direction. “So I feel it could catch the eye rather better, is all.”

“We had a cartoonist, once, if I could find you some of the older issues—“ Priya looked around the back room irresolutely. “But that was Jeremy Field—you know, Kathryn’s brother, and, well. We simply never found someone who could replace him.”

St. George smiled exactly the sort of winning smile to make Hilary wince in reflexive trepidation. “Well, it’s a pretty good job I'm a good hand at caricatures.”

“Caricatures?” Priya repeated, sucking on her lip in thought.

“Caricatures,” Hilary also echoed, with a groan. “You’re doing this on purpose because I suggested you might be an actual valid source of knowledge, aren’t you?”

“You did? Well, I’m flattered, anyway.” St. George turned his grin on her for a moment before returning the bulk of his attention to Priya. “How about it, then? Any chance I could be some use to you?”

“I honestly can’t say,” Priya concluded, after due deliberation. “Gail’s the painter, after all; it’d really be more of her purview. I don’t suppose you’ve got a portfolio.”

“A portfolio?” St. George repeated, pronouncing the word as though it were something faintly obscene. “The closest I’d have would be the margins of my notes from school, and I burned those all years ago. It was very cathartic,” he added, a little defensively.

Priya, who was clearly a sensible sort of woman, didn’t appear to be listening; she had reopened the door that led out behind Gail’s counter and gone in search of her co-editor. “Gail,” Hilary heard her say. “Are you awake yet?”

“Very nearly,” Gail grumbled, off behind the door somewhere. “I almost wish it were busier this morning; at least I’d have something to do.”

Hilary tugged St. George resignedly back into the shop. “Come on—they’re talking about you, after all, so we’d better be there when they pass judgement.”

“That’s such a harsh word,” St. George objected, trailing in her wake. “Even if Gail were the judgemental sort—which I’m sure she isn’t—I’m sure she has the good taste to like me just fine.”

Gail clearly caught the end of this at least, for when she paused to greet them on her way to clear away a pile of used cups there was an odd sort of half-smile on her face. “Is he trying to butter me up?” she asked Hilary, earnestly.

“He is,” Hilary agreed solemnly.”I’m afraid it’s probably nothing personal.”

“Well, it’s working regardless,” Gail announced, and swept on past with her trayful of crockery.

“I was wrong,” Hilary confided to St. George, trying her utmost not to laugh. “You aren’t an embarrassment to your class. You’re a personal embarrassment to everyone you know.

“You didn’t know?” St. George murmured back. “Uncle Peter should have had the sense to warn you beforehand.”

“He doesn’t know we’ve even met,” Hilary pointed out. “And he can only do so much, really. You ought to wear a collar with a bell on it.”

Priya, who had been occupied rummaging around below the cash register, reappeared triumphantly with a blank scrap of paper and a sharp pencil stub. “Here you go.” She offered them hopefully to St. George, who accepted warily. “If you want judgement passed on you, go on and draw something.”

He hopped up onto a stool obligingly, spreading the paper out in front of him and staring blankly at it. “Anything at all?”

Hilary took the stool next to his and peered over his shoulder, immensely curious about his apparent secret artistic talent. “Just someone famous?” She glanced up at Priya, who nodded. “Whoever springs to mind, Jerry, go on. I know I’d like to see how you do.”

St. George emitted a wordless noise of annoyance; then he tilted his head thoughtfully, squinting at the blank bit of paper, and the tip of his tongue poked out of the corner of his mouth; then he set to work, sheltering the paper with his other hand and shooting occasional quick glares at Hilary and Priya as if he were writing an exam and afraid that one of them meant to cheat off his paper. “There you are,” he announced, after ten or fifteen minutes of this had gone by, and half a dozen customers come and gone with bemused glances towards him as they entered and exited the shop. “I hope that’ll do,” and passed his work over to Gail, still taking great care not to let Hilary have a look at it. She still had no idea whom he’d even chosen to draw, and hoped he’d put at least a little thought into his choice of subject.

Gail inspected the result with a perfectly solemn, critical expression for all of three seconds; then she laughed and passed it on to Priya. “Oh, I think you’ll do, Roger. I think you’ll do quite nicely.”

Abandoning all dignity, Hilary knelt up on her stool and leaned over the counter towards Priya, trying to see the drawing upside down, though with little success. “Who is it?”

“Sir Impey Biggs,” St. George confessed unhappily, just as Priya turned the paper around to show Hilary. “He was the first to come to mind, just like you told me to do. And you must admit he’s a temptingly easy target.”

And it was, after all, not bad work at all—sketchy, certainly, but Sir Impey was clearly recognisable, his impressively magisterial frown exaggerated amusingly but not maliciously. It was good enough to get a startled but genuine laugh out of Hilary, which she supposed was the really important thing.

“Amita ought to have a copy of this,” Priya suggested. “I feel she’d appreciate it better than any of the rest of us.”

St. George shrugged—trying for once, Hilary realised, not to look quite as pleased as he really was. “You can do whatever you like with it, honestly; it’s only doodling, after all. I certainly haven’t got a use for the thing.”

“Well, initial it at least, would you?” Gail paused meaningfully, and Hilary remembered after a moment that she was still holding the cartoon and needed to return it to St. George for him to make the necessary modification. “Unless you’d like it printed as Anonymous.”

“Oh, I’m not that modest.” St. George wrote R. Christianson by Sir Impey’s feet with a flourish, and only the barest hesitation beforehand. “There you are.”

Priya accepted the scrap of paper and filed it neatly into a pile under the register-- not the same pile the scrap paper had come from, Hilary hoped. "I hope you've got more of those where that came from."

"I might well." St. George bowed slightly to Hilary; he had given up the struggle, and looked so insufferably pleased with himself that she almost wished she were not too well brought-up to smack it off him. "Just as long as I can be of some use to you."

Gail shrugged. "Staff meetings-- can we still call them staff meetings if no one gets paid?" She glanced at Priya, who shrugged unhelpfully. "Just be at the Stag and Swan at noon on Saturday. We'll do our best to act like I suppose a real newspaper does, but I can't promise anything."

"You've got a customer," Priya murmured.

Gail jerked to attention. "Excuse me," she said hastily, and sidled down the counter. "Mrs. Anderson!" Hilary heard her say, suddenly chirpy. "And how are you this morning?"

"Don't be ridiculous, dear." The woman who had just come in the door was easily old enough to be a grandmother to any of them. "You only just saw me three hours ago."

"Gail's downstairs neighbour," Priya confided to St. George and Hilary, who smiled.

"It's like living in a tiny village all over again," Hilary observed, leaning her elbows on the counter. "Everyone knows everyone else. I'd never have expected that, living in London."

"Nor I." Priya propped her elbows on the counter as well, absently watching Gail fetch tea for Mrs. Anderson. "My parents' neighbourhood certainly isn't this way. Very scenic. The people aren't that much better off than here, they're just--different."

Hilary laughed. "I know what you mean. I expect it feels safer. But I'd rather know my neighbours, all the same--even if that does make me a country girl. Jerry--" She looked around for his input, but he had followed Gail down the counter and was industriously charming the elderly customer there. With a sigh, Hilary went to see if he needed extricating.

"I say, Lee!" He sat down on a stool and glanced over at her, but his attention was almost entirely on Mrs. Anderson, which Hilary took to be a sign something had happened. "Mrs. Anderson says her house is haunted."

"Haunted," Hilary echoed, and smiled at the lady in question; she didn't feel she could very well mock the idea, but she could see where St. George might see something else in the story. "I might have known a ghost or two myself. What's yours been up to?"

"Oh, how sweet of you two to worry." Mrs. Anderson beamed up at her. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name?"

"Oh, I'm Caroline Hood." It was beginning to be disturbingly easy to lie about her own name. "I haven't lived here that long; I'm a friend of Amita Kapoor's from university. And I really would like to hear about your ghost."

"Well." The older woman laughed. "She does make such a ruckus-- I don't know how you don't hear it, Gail dear."

"Me? I sleep like a log. Amita might have heard something, but if so she hasn’t said." Gail glanced at Priya, who shrugged in response.

"Go on," said St. George patiently, "Caroline still doesn't know."

Mrs. Anderson leaned in confidentally. "She goes knocking all through the basement, some nights. Coming and going all hours, and laughing and whispering, and Gail here and I the only women with flats in the building."

Gail set a cup of tea on the counter and spread her hands. "I've never heard a thing. Maybe she just likes you."

"Or maybe you're too modern," said her neighbour comfortably. "Ghosts don't like sceptics, you know."

Hilary suddenly discovered something on which she was qualified to have an opinion. "You ought to be careful," she observed to Gail, only half in jest. "I don't believe some ghosts take so well to being doubted."

Priya smiled. "Had a bad experience, did you?"

"Not me exactly," said Hilary. "But the church where I grew up was supposed to be haunted."

For a moment she was afraid she had invited too many questions, but St. George was, by accident or design, mercifully quick on his feet. "I don't suppose this terribly exciting building of yours has a residence free? I've yet to find a decent place to stay around here."

Mrs. Anderson shook her head, taking up the tea Gail had provided. "I'm afraid not."

"I believe someone's moved out of Kathryn's house recently--not her house, I mean, but the house where she lives." Priya frowned. "I believe she doesn't get on very well with the landlord, though; she says he's very unpleasant."

"The mysterious Miss Field," said St. George portentously. "I'd rather like to meet her; she doesn't seem to get out much." He glanced at Hilary. "What do you think?"

Hilary shrugged, chin in one hand. "You did stipulate that it be decent." She hadn't much faith that St. George's common sense would win out over curiosity under any circumstances, including these, but she could at least try. "You're the one who'll have to live there, if the man really is that unpleasant."

-------

The man in question, one Mr. Fleetston, was small and thin and red-faced and rather unappealing even to look at; he seemed decidedly unenthusiastic about the necessity of allowing boarders to rent his rooms, and furthermore appeared to distrust St. George on first sight.

"No women visitors," he warned, the moment names had been exchanged. "Not upstairs. I won't permit it."

"What," said St. George irresistibly, "not even for the women boarders?"

"No men visitors for the women, either." Mr. Fleetston's mouth puckered. "In fact, I'd rather you receive all visitors downstairs in the sitting room--and I lock the doors when I go to bed, so you needn't think of putting anything over."

"It's always a pleasure meeting a man willing to stick to his principles." St. George, following him up the stairs, considered pulling a face at the man's back, but thought better of it.

Mr. Fleetston appeared neither to detect any sarcasm in this statement nor to be flattered by its literal reading. "You're in luck, I suppose; this is the largest bedroom in the house, save of course my own on the floor above. You'll have to share the lavatory down the hallway, but there's a washstand if you'd care to keep a jug handy. You seem like a clean young man, at least, and that's a mercy; so many of the working type simply don't take the time."

"A real pity," agreed St. George off-handedly, leaning in to take a look at the room. It looked clean and comfortable enough, at any rate, if modest in size. Rather below the standards of the rooms he'd had at Christ Church, and a significant step down from his lovely newly obtained flat back in Bloomsbury, a place he thought of quite wistfully for a moment; he would have to arrange, he noted mentally, to have it done for in his absence. He wished, after all, that he had brought Hilary along to advise him; but the thought of her was a reminder of his own purpose, and enough to make the prospect of living here for a little while a far more palatable one. "How much?"

"Ten shillings a week," Mr. Fleetston suggested. "One pound, with board thrown in."

St. George tried to imagine the man before him as the household cook, apron-strings and all; the resulting mental image was neither convincing nor entertaining, and he discarded it hastily. "I think I'll forgo the board, thanks." Recalling vaguely that some negotiation might be expected under the circumstances, he shoved his hands in his pockets and put on a show of giving the price some thought. "Would eight bob suffice?"

"I won't haggle." His prospective landlord was displaying a disturbing propensity to somehow seem more and more disapproving the more expressionless he became.

It was a tendency that, not least by its reminiscence of Lord Peter, was making St. George disastrously inclined to fidget. "Nine and sixpence?" he offered, but the desire to adventure in haggling wavered and died in the face of Mr. Fleetston's patient stare. "I suppose not," he concluded, and found the coins in his pocket. "It'll be a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Fleetston."

-------

"Excuse me, sir." The voice was startling--not only because there had been no one else sitting on the bench a moment before, but because there was a tone of profound distaste there that he was nearly certain he'd done nothing to deserve. "I'd like to have a talk with you, if you don't mind."

"If you insist." St. George crossed his legs idly, not yet looking up from his newspaper--the perfect picture of nonchalance, or so he hoped. "But I do hope it won't take long--I'm meeting someone else here shortly, and I'd hate to have to keep a lady waiting."

"Oh, it shouldn't take long at all." The man smiled smoothly; St. George could see that even out of the corner of his eye. "I've merely heard a rumor that a man had moved into the area recently--a man, let's say, who can appreciate a good business deal when he hears one."

"Sounds intriguing." St. George turned the page and found, to mingled disappointment and relief, that the horse he would have backed had come in third-to-last; perhaps there was something to be said for the lowbrow life. "I take it you've a deal to offer him?"

"I have indeed." The man slid closer, and St. George stiffened warily, newspaper forgotten in his hand. "Perhaps you'd like to hear it."

"Can't hurt." St. George folded the newspaper into his lap and looked over at his companion. He once again sounded, to his own ears at least, perfectly light and casual; Hilary would have been proud. "One does need a bit of amusement to keep one busy, after all. What have you got in mind?"

"Well, Mr. Christianson, my name is Mr. Smirt." The other man proved to be thoroughly nondescript, wearing a plain dark suit of middling quality; St. George supposed Smirt's probable line of work was one of the few where that would be an asset. "I represent Lord Hargrave--I expect you've been in the neighbourhood long enough to hear something or other about him."

St. George licked his lips. Dr. Fitzmorris had warned them this would happen, he recalled; at least, he hoped this was what Fitzmorris had warned him of, and not something more personal having to do with his ancestry. "I hear he's a very important man."

"Then you've heard right." Smirt seemed pleased by this response. "And I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that his lordship--having heard you were in a rather dire financial situation--would like me to offer you a job."

Now, this sounded hopeful--all the more so because Smirt didn't seem to have recognised St. George, thank God. "What sort of a job?"

"Not the sort you're used to, I'm afraid, but I expect you'll do fine all the same." Smirt eyed him up and down, looking slightly less than impressed. "An evening or two worth of physical labor each week, for the most part--and your ability to keep quiet about it when it counts, naturally."

"Naturally," St. George echoed. "And what would the pay be like?"

"For the labor?" The tip of Smirt's tongue appeared, rather unappealingly, between his teeth. "How does five pounds a week strike you?"

St. George shrugged; to be honest, he had no idea what a reasonable wage was, and on the allowance he already received, it really made no difference, but he had to act like it did, and five seemed reasonable enough. "It's a good start," he agreed cautiously. "And for my silence?"

Smirt smiled greasily and leaned in, just a hair too close to be comfortable. "I've seen your friend Miss Hood," he confided. "She's a very pretty girl; you made an awfully nice catch there."

"I don't see how that's any of your business." St. George flinched away, despite his best efforts to the contrary. "This arrangement's got nothing to do with her."

"It's my business because we're doing business," Smirt clarified, looking quite pleased with this turn of phrase. "And your pay for keeping quiet when you ought is that your pretty young lady stays pretty, get my drift?"

St. George was speechless for a few seconds, but then he recovered his wits and very nearly laughed. The man couldn't possibly be serious, after all; people simply didn't do that kind of thing, not outside of Aunt Harriet's novels and certainly not in St. George's life. "You'd do better not to talk so much like the villain in a silent film," he suggested, eying Smirt sceptically. "You might find you were more convincing that way."

The man looked equally astonished for half a moment--clearly this was not the reception he was used to receiving. "You'll be convinced soon enough if you break faith with Lord Hargrave," he said, smirk fixed firmly back in place. "Do we have a deal?"

"We do." St. George set his newspaper aside to offer a handshake.

Smirt eyed his hand dubiously and declined to reciprocate. "You'll be contacted with instructions," he said shortly, rising to his feet.

"I'll look forward to it," said St. George, only mostly in jest, and waited until Smirt had walked away to resume perusing his newspaper; he tried, but didn't quite manage, to suppress a shiver of glee. Finally--something exciting was happening.

He had got through most of the paper, and was contemplating venturing into the gossip pages to see what news they held about people he knew personally, when Hilary arrived at his side, sudden and rather breathless. "Sorry," she said by way of greeting, shucking her gloves and tucking them away into her purse. "sorry, I didn't mean to get held up, but I had a sort of accident with a bookshop." She rustled the paper shopping bag at her side by way of explanation. "What's wrong with you? You look like a cat who's not only eaten the canary but is dying to confess to it."

St. George frowned, moment now thoroughly ruined. "Nothing's wrong with me."

She laughed and turned towards him, elbow propped on the back of the bench. "Well, what's right with you, then?"

"I've got a job," St. George said proudly, and told her all about the conversation he'd had with Smirt--most of it, at any rate; he still didn't lend much credence to the threats involved.

He'd thought she'd be impressed--he'd accomplished something useful, after all--but Hilary's good mood appeared to fade as St. George continued explaining himself. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" Judging from her tone, her own opinion on the matter was already set. "Honestly?"

"Whyever not?" St. George folded his arms, beginning to feel defensive. "If I'm working for Hargrave, we can find out more about what he's doing here. Surely it can't hurt."

"What, exactly, can't it hurt?" Hilary snorted derisively. "You really don't think about these things in advance, do you?"

"Of course I did." He had, even. "I can spy on him from the inside of--I don't know, whatever it is that's going on here, and you can do some nice thoughtful armchair detecting like you want to do, and this'll all be sorted out in no time." It seemed perfectly clear, really.

Hilary tightened her grip on her purse; St. George wondered, for a brief alarming moment, whether she was thinking of hitting him with it. Her expression certainly implied that she was. "You do realise that this all seems to be some sort of highly organised criminal operation, don't you?"

"Well, yes, I should think so." This seemed perfectly obvious; St. George didn't see why she felt the need to point it out. "Isn't that why we're sticking around to try to do something about it?"

"An organised criminal operation," said Hilary again, quiet and exaggeratedly even, "of which you are now an employee. Of your own free will, no less."

"Er, well." As a matter of fact, St. George hadn't quite thought to look at it from that point of view.

Hilary began to methodically unfix her hair from the back of her head, one pin at a time, eyes fixed blankly on a lamppost across the street. "Well," she said resignedly, "it was a good try, I suppose."

St. George sat up a little straighter, watching her absently. "What was?"

"Thinking you'd be of any use." Hilary ran her fingers through her loosened hair, working the curls apart and still determinedly not looking at him. "Thinking either of us could be any use, to be honest. I'm more than half tempted to call one of your uncles, have them sort this out--which is Inspector Parker's job, after all--and have you locked up in a tower or something, for your own good and that of the human race. I expect you wouldn't even be missed."

"Surely someone would miss me," St. George objected. "Winnie would miss me."

Hilary blinked, looking momentarily thrown. "Winnie?"

"My sister," St. George reminded her.

"Right." Hilary shook herself back to the point at hand. "Regardless--I think we should try again to get hold of your uncle. If he isn't here in Town or at Denver, surely Miss Vane would know how to get in touch with him."

St. George shook his head. "She doesn't always--he's not always allowed to tell her, else he would. And we can't--look, Lee, we just can't, all right?"

Hilary frowned, looking thoroughly incredulous. "I'm sorry--am I hurting your pride?"

She was, to be honest; St. George had been feeling the dim stirrings, lately, of the idea that maybe he ought to learn to work himself out of his own messes for a change, but like hell did he have any intention of admitting that to her face. "I just don't think it's a good idea," he said uselessly. "That's all."

"Well, I'm fresh out of ideas." Hilary sighed. "And all of yours are terrible."

St. George twiddled his thumbs briefly, trying his very hardest to come up with an idea that wasn't terrible. "Have you still got that card?"

"Hmm?" Hilary blinked over at him; she looked distracted, and momentarily irritated at being recalled to the present. "What card?"

"That business card--the one you found, well, with William. Have you still got it?"

"Of course I have," Hilary said, startled. "It's in a drawer in my sitting room."

St. George felt a momentary thrill of smugness at the possibility he might actually have remembered something she had forgotten. "Then that's something, isn't it? We can have a look round that address--see if there's anything interesting."

"That's true--we can." Hilary nearly smiled, before she appeared to catch herself at it. "I suppose it counts for something."

"Of course it does," St. George said, feeling better about himself already.

-------

The address proved, however, to be a disappointment; it was a small shop-front a few blocks west of what Hilary would have considered to be the bounds of Foxgrove. What sort of shop it was, or had been, was impossible to tell; the pole where the sign would once have hung was bare, and the windows and doors all boarded over.

"It was a good thought," St. George said a little defensively, before she could say anything, and edged away around the side of the building.

"It was," Hilary agreed, though he could easily have been out of hearing by then.

She wandered after him, presumably for the same purpose--to see whether there was anything of interest to be seen around the sides or back of the building--but this purpose was quickly thwarted by a high iron fence someone had inconsiderately built between the shop and the vacant lot next door.

"Damn," said St. George fervently--and then bounced on his toes once or twice before hopping up and hoisting himself high enough to see over the top of the fence. "More windows," he reported, leaning out over the fence at an alarming angle. "All boarded up, it looks like."

Hilary folded her arms and peered up at him sceptically. "Just what do you think you're doing?"

"Detecting?" St. George twisted neatly and dropped down to perch on the fence and grin down at her. "Don't tell me you were just going to go home and wait for something else to turn up."

"I thought I might, in fact." Hilary frowned. Déja vu was setting in; she wished for a fleeting, futile moment she'd never felt the need to go chasing after him to begin with. "There are laws against breaking into other people's offices, you know. I'm sure either of your uncles will be pleased to tell you all about it." There was a hint of a very childish threat in there, but, given the way he was behaving, a little childishness in return didn't seem entirely uncalled for.

St. George drummed the heel of his shoe restlessly against the fence until the metal rang. The prospect of adding to his criminal record seemed not to concern him at all. "There's no one inside," he wheedled. "The windows are all boarded up. No one will ever know besides you and I."

"That, or they're boarded up because someone doesn't want us seeing inside," Hilary hissed. Admittedly she was curious as well, but someone had to keep him from killing himself, and that someone clearly wasn't going to be him. "You'll get in there, and in a confrontation between half a dozen very surprised professional killers and one very surprised idiot, who do you think's going to survive?"

That prospect, at least, widened St. George's eyes for a moment; then he shrugged and took on an expression of inexplicable sympathy. "I suppose I ought to be grateful we never hit it off properly," he said solemnly, "considering what a crashing bore you've turned out to be. Regardless--" he punctuated the word by hopping down into the yard and grinning at her through the fence-- "you said something ought to be done, so I'm off to go do it. I'll make sure to tell you all about it when I get back."

Hilary spluttered briefly as he vanished from sight; large portions of that had hit rather closer to home than she would have liked. After a few moments at best, she cursed and scrambled over the fence after him.

Before she had even finished dusting off her skirt she found St. George at one of the back windows, tugging determinedly at the sheet of wood that covered it. "Knew you wouldn't want to miss all the fun," he said happily, and paused to give it an emphatic yank; a nail sprang loose from one of its upper corners and clattered to the ground. "Come and help me with this, would you?"

"I only came along to avoid any awkward questions if you get killed," said Hilary, still a little disgruntled, but she claimed an edge of the plank all the same; two or three more concerted pulls worked the rest of the thing loose, to be discarded in what remained of the back garden. The window behind it was small, but still large and low-set enough for them to crawl through. Hilary leaned through, first, to have a look around; it was nearly dark inside, but there was just enough light shining through between the boards on the windows to show that the ground floor of the house, at least, was empty.

"See any trained killers in there?" St. George asked, behind her; she chose to believe she had imagined the hopeful note in his voice.

"Not yet," Hilary admitted. She got a knee up on the sill, waving away his attempts to give her a hand up, and swung herself over the ledge, wincing at the clatter of her shoes on the wood floor. "It's horribly dusty in here. I don't think anyone else has been here in ages."

St. George climbed through the window to join her in looking around. "You see? Perfectly safe."

The small room itself, while clearly out of use, was not empty; it had been some sort of shop at some point, and beneath the film of dust covering everything Hilary could make out posters advertising magazines and newspapers. The racks for those periodicals were still here as well, and the counter at the front, but the wares that had once been on display were all long gone. "I wonder what's upstairs," Hilary mused, glancing up along the steep metal staircase in the back corner. "It's too bad we haven't got a torch."

"If you leave the door open at the top of the stairs, you might get enough light in." St. George followed her glance, briefly, and shrugged. "If you wanted to see what's up there, I could have a poke round down here."

Hilary gave in and went upstairs.

Upstairs was rather like Hilary's own living place: barely big enough to qualify as one room but divided into sitting-room and bedroom all the same, a bathroom and a tiny excuse for a kitchen, and even a few pieces of furniture, but here too everything was covered in dust. Someone--probably the shopkeeper from downstairs--had lived up here, and hadn't bothered to take all their things away with them or to locate new tenants for the building. All the explanations Hilary could think of, off the top of her head, were depressing ones.

She flinched at the loud creak of the closet door, even though there was no one around to hear but St. George doing whatever he was doing downstairs. There was nothing informative in this closet, either, and the brief thrill Hilary would never admit to Jerry that she'd felt over breaking in here began to fade. Not only had it been unwise, it seemed to have been fruitless. Hilary groaned in frustration, tipping her head back--and saw something, the startlingly white edge of an envelope sitting up on the wide lintel of the closet door.

The doorway was too high for Hilary to reach the envelope on her own; she was crossing the room for a chair when St. George appeared suddenly in the doorway. "Shhhh," he hissed, sidling towards her. "We've got to get out of here."

"What--" Hilary began, automatically pitching her voice lower to match. "How do you expect to get out this way?"

He shrugged helplessly. "We're not getting out downstairs-- listen."

Hilary listened.

"Someone's been round here before us." The voice, clearly audible but unfamiliar, drifted up the stairs to them; now that Hilary and St. George were both standing still, she could hear faint footsteps roaming the shop below as well. "Kicked up a lot of dust, too. Bloody amateurs. Wonder what they're playing at."

"A friend of the dearly departed, d'you think?" wondered a second voice. "Took their time coming round to pay their respects, if so."

Hilary glanced at St. George in confusion, wondering what this place could possibly have to do with William, who was after all not very long dead, but before she could make head or tail of it someone downstairs set foot on the first stair. "Come on," St. George breathed, and bundled her hastily into the nearest closet--which was, naturally, not the one where she had found the envelope. "Wait--" Hilary began, and then shut her mouth again hopelessly. The closet door clicked quietly shut behind them, and within seconds the arrival of a heavy tread told them that the men from downstairs had arrived upstairs. St. George had let go of her arm, which counted for something at any rate, and was staring a little blankly at an empty patch of closet wall just over Hilary's shoulder. He appeared to be holding his breath.

"Everything's still here," said the younger-sounding man; there was a soft click, and the shadows under the closet door brightened briefly as the beam of an electric torch swept by. "Some sister she is, leaving all his things here to rot. If I had a brother to lose, I'd be selling off his things before they were done filling in the grave."

"And I'm sure he'd do the same for you," the older man said irritably. "Now be quiet and have a good look round. We ain't paid to be sentimental."

"Can't be sentimental about a brother I haven't got, have I?" The light flashed past the doorframe again, shining into Hilary's eyes for a moment and making her wince. "Sure this is the address you saw on that card? It doesn't look all that interesting to me."

"I'm sure. What did you want, the tobacconist's across the street?" The elder of the pair sighed, sounding much put-upon; his voice and footsteps were crossing the room towards the closet where Hilary and St. George were hidden, and Hilary realised that she too was holding her breath and forced herself to let it slowly and quietly out.

"Here, look at that." The light flashed over the floor again. "Dust's kicked up over that way."

There was very little light in the closet, but there was also very little space, and Hilary could feel St. George tense up next to her, suspiciously as though he were steeling himself for something. She grabbed his forearm tightly, just in case he was thinking of doing something unwise--which was, to be honest, a fairly safe assumption at any time. Thankfully the footsteps continued past them--not so thankfully, to the other closet, the door of which still stood ajar.

"Looks like you got it right after all." The younger man sounded genuinely surprised. "There's something up here. An envelope, maybe."

Hilary sagged momentarily in disappointment; St. George took advantage of this to try and jerk his arm free of her hand. She held on, determined to keep control at least of one small aspect of the situation, and he pulled harder. For a moment Hilary stumbled, off-balance, and knocked her head against the closet wall--which, to add substantial insult to minor injury, clicked softly and fell away behind her.

Hilary fell backwards with an involuntary yelp of surprise, losing her grip on St. George, and had skidded a good way down a rickety flight of stairs that had no business being there before she managed to catch herself. "Hell," she grumbled, and then remembered St. George--and, worse, the fact that they'd been trying not to attract attention--and looked up, just in time to see him come skittering into the stairwell and slam his hand haphazardly against the wall. The panel slid closed again, miraculously; unfortunately, this also left them in complete darkness. "A lot of help you are," she said aloud.

"At least I didn't let them know we were here." St. George clattered the rest of the way down the stairs, one of his hands grabbing for Hilary unexpectedly and then hastily relocating to a more appropriate part of her body. "Are you all right?"

"Bruised, probably." Clutching at him in return seemed to be a necessary evil for the moment, so Hilary let St. George help her to her feet. She nearly lost her footing again--the stairs were narrow and well-worn, and the sound of the men upstairs trying to locate the catch for the hidden panel was unfortunately distracting. "And you didn't seem likely to stay in there much longer in any case."

"I could have handled them," St. George said optimistically. They sorted themselves out, finally, each with one hand in the other's and one on the wall as they descended further.

"Which I'm sure would have made a wonderful impression to the rest of the neighbourhood. Maybe they're--" Hilary shrugged. "Policemen. Insurance salesmen. Maybe they own the building."

He let out an audible sigh of relief as they finally hit a dirt floor at the bottom of the stairs. "You don't really think that. Did they sound like policemen to you?"

Hilary could feel blood trickling from a scrape on her knee. The sensation was bizarrely childish, and only added to her irritation. "Right, I forgot, you know all about policemen."

"You're incredibly determined to have an argument about something right now, aren't you?" St. George let go of her hand, but Hilary could still hear the faint rustle of his clothing and his quick breathing at her side as they felt their way along the passage. "And you think my priorities aren't in order."

"They're not," said Hilary shortly. "Shh--"

The panel up the stairs had opened again, and the electric torch shone through it. Hilary flinched at the sudden return of her sight. "We know there's someone down there," one of the men called down, though the glare of the torch made it impossible to see either of their faces. "Might as well give it up now, yeah?"

The beam hadn't found them yet, but it was a matter of moments. "Better run," Hilary murmured, already backing away; she could see the passage bending not so far further on, and made a run for it herself. She'd given up trying to haul St. George around but thankfully he followed her anyway, careering headlong after the corner after her, where they found the tunnel branching off into three. Hilary could have sworn she heard the roar of the Underground echoing down one of them somewhere, although she couldn’t remember which station was nearest.

"Well," St. George said hopefully, balanced momentarily on the balls of his feet. "At least we'll be harder to find?"

Hilary let out a breath of laughter before she could catch it, and chose the direction that looked like it might branch off again soonest. There had to be another exit somewhere down here, and after all they couldn't get lost if they didn't know where they were going to begin with.

St. George scrambled after her, thank goodness, though even the imminent danger didn't seem to stop him talking. "Are you sure you know where you're going?"

"Of course I do," Hilary gasped, hauling him around a corner more or less at random. "I've been down here a dozen times before--can't you tell?"

"Have you always been this disagreeable?" He sounded slightly more out of breath than she, which was some kind of a small consolation. "I could swear you weren't."

"I haven't always been saddled with rescuing you from your own poor judgement," Hilary pointed out. "Now be quiet and look for another exit like a good boy, would you? I'm fairly certain they can hear us." To be honest, in the veritable maze that someone seemed to have dug under this house, following someone by ear would probably only do the men searching for them so much good; then again, it was as good an excuse as any to keep St. George quiet for the moment. He was right; she was feeling particularly disagreeable at the moment, but all things considered she felt fairly justified in it. And at any rate, she could hear the men's voices somewhere not too far off--not near enough that she could make out words, but they didn't sound happy.

"Shhhh." St. George paused and grabbed her arm; Hilary was about to protest that it made no sense for him to shush her, when she realised he had his head tilted, listening for something. "Hear that?" His voice was lowered, his head bent closer to her ear. "There's traffic going by, down--" he hesitated for a nerve-racking second, and then pointed with his free hand. "That way."

Hilary could hear it; at least, she was almost certain she could, a faint hum of automobile engines and voices besides those of the men who had followed them into the maze--and who had, she realised, fallen worryingly silent. "That way, then," she agreed, and let him lead her along by the wrist for a few minutes before she remembered to pull her arm away.

It was a good few more minutes before they located the nearest doorway--a hatchway, really, like a perfectly ordinary cellar door. A rather shifty-looking wooden staircase led up to it, much like the one Hilary had fallen down to begin with, but not nearly as high. Street-level, Hilary guessed, and the hum of automobiles and passers-by was comfortingly loud behind it.

It was padlocked, naturally.

St. George yanked at the padlock experimentally; it didn't budge. "Damn."

Hilary groaned and sagged back against the banister--and sprang upright again when it creaked loudly under her weight. "Now what?"

He looked sheepishly over at Hilary. "Got any pins in your hair?"

"What?" She gaped, genuinely astonished, and then yanked one free and handed it over. "You had better not be showing off."

"Well, I am," St. George admitted, sounding indecently cheerful about the prospect while he poked uncertainly at the padlock. "A friend of Uncle's showed me this about ten years ago. Don't tell my mother, or she'll have the hides of everyone in sight, and I rather prefer yours where it is."

"God help me," said Hilary fervently, and fidgeted restlessly behind him; she hated the feeling of being useless. Especially since St. George didn't look at all certain of what he was doing with her hairpin and that lock--then again, it wasn't as though she had any idea at all what he was supposed to be doing. She certainly hoped he did, but ten years was a long time, and she thought she could see the glow of what was probably an electric torch brightening around a corner. "No, seriously, Jerry--you'd better get us out of here. I'll be impressed and everything, I promise."

"Would you just--" St. George sounded as though he were gritting his teeth.

Hilary was about to turn and check on him when someone did appear around the corner: a small man in a dark suit, who for half an instant looked as surprised to see Hilary as she was to see him. "Hey!" he called out; his voice was oddly dulled by the earthen walls and the length of the tunnel, but understandable nonetheless. "Hey, you--oi, Eli, they're over this way!"

"Damn," Hilary groaned, and turned hastily away, in case he could make out her face. "Hurry up," she murmured to St. George, trying not to jitter. "I think I saw a gun in his hand."

There was a click just then, and St. George grinned through the gloom and tossed her the open padlock. "There, a present for you."

Hilary closed her hand around it, reflexively, and helped him heave one of the doors wide open. "Come on," she said, breathlessly and probably unnecessarily--but it was difficult, after all, to be sure of what St. George might consider a wise course of action. "Before he can recognise us."

"But--" St. George began, unfortunately predictably, and glanced down the corridor. This close, Hilary could tell that he was so tense he was practically vibrating with it.

"No," Hilary said firmly, and all but dragged him up the last few stairs.

The alley was shadowy but still painfully bright in comparison to the tunnels, and the pavement even more so once they reached it; a block later, when they had entered enough of a crowd that there seemed no chance of the men still following them, Hilary laughed with relief and squeezed St. George's arm, which she was still holding on to for some reason. "All right," she admitted, more than a bit giddy with vicarious accomplishment. "I promised I'd be impressed, and I am. I honestly am."

He beamed back as they walked. "I think we really did rather marvellously, don't you?"

Hilary remembered belatedly to let go of his arm; instead she played with the open padlock, for lack of anywhere else to put it. "Quite well, I think, for rank beginners."

"For me and a rank beginner," countered St. George, but only half-heartedly, and Hilary felt far too pleased with them both to bother complaining. "I told you it wouldn't kill you to have a little bit of fun with this."

"Well," Hilary allowed. "It certainly hasn't yet."

St. George shrugged, pausing to fold himself down in front of the nearest house with unguarded front steps. "If you've got to do something dangerous, I say you might as well enjoy it anyway."

Hilary claimed the stair immediately below him. "Can't you take anything seriously?" she demanded, turning the heavy padlock over in her hands. (Really, what was she going to do with it?) "People have died, we've been threatened--it doesn't seem right to be getting such a thrill out of it."

"Seems healthier to get a thrill than brood about it." St. George considered his own words. "Well, a little healthier, at least."

-------

"Miss Hood?"

Lost in her own thoughts, and forgetting that she was meant to be answering to the wrong name, Hilary barely even glanced up.

"Miss Hood," said the man again, with the beginnings of irritation. "You are Miss Hood, are you not?"

"Oh!" Hilary blinked up at him and abandoned her eggs--which, given the degree of skill that seemed to have gone into frying them, could not be called any great hardship. "Yes, that's me, I'm sorry--have we met?"

"My name is Merrick." The man--compact, middle-aged, clad in a rather unflattering dark blue suit--smiled toothily at her and sat down at her table without being invited or even offering a hand to shake.

Hilary sat up a little straighter, smiled back without bothering to feign sincerity, and gave in to a rather dreadful urge to be polite. "Is that Mr. Merrick, or is it your first name?" She crossed her legs and folded her hands over one knee. "Because I don't feel we're well enough acquainted for me to call you by your first name, do you? It wouldn't be proper."

Merrick's smirk wavered for a moment; he looked, Hilary noted with pleasure, as though he thought she might be mad. "Oh, but really," he went on after only a brief pause, "a man I know knows a man you know. So we're really very nearly bosom friends, Miss Hood."

Hilary wished heartily that she might never again have to connect this man with her bosom in a single thought of any sort. "Is the man you know named Smirt?" she inquired earnestly. "Because that would be such a terrible first name. I can't imagine what his parents were thinking."

"Mr. Smirt," said Merrick resignedly, "has made a business arrangement with your friend Mr. Christianson. Perhaps he's told you something about that."

"I had heard something of the sort, yes." Hilary took a sip of her tea. "And I thought there must be some mistake, because honestly, what use could Roger be to anyone? He's never held a proper job in his life. It may not even have occurred to him, when you offered him money, that he would have to actually work for it."

Something about this sentiment seemed to be of genuine interest to Merrick. "I was given to understand the two of you were quite fond of each other."

"Well, yes, Roger does have some charms," Hilary admitted, and leaned forward confidentially. "But only of a sort that can't possibly be of any interest to you."

Merrick frowned at her, though an extraordinary grimace flickered briefly across his face as he realised just what she meant. "Miss Hood, are you trying to make a point to me, or might I carry on with the message I was sent here to convey to you?"

"Oh no, do go on." Hilary cupped her tea between her palms and watched him. She was trying to seem as unconcerned as possible, but her curiosity was quite genuine; she had a nasty suspicion the man had been sent merely to threaten her, and a nastier suspicion that the threat would be quite legitimate if it came. "I'd look awfully silly if I tried to reason with you without all the necessary information, wouldn't I?"

"You would look very silly indeed," said Merrick, with an evident distaste that Hilary dearly hoped to be the only thing mutual between them, and gathered himself back up. "I have been sent by Lord Hargrave," he announced, quite importantly, "to make sure you've been made aware of the part you've got to play in the deal between his lordship and Mr. Roger Christianson."

Hilary nodded patiently. "And what part is that, exactly?"

"Collateral." Merrick appeared to be rather cheered by the thought.

Oh, Hilary was going to have words with St. George when she next saw him, and quite a lot of them, but for the moment she kept what she hoped was a steady eye on Merrick. "Meaning what, exactly?"

Merrick folded his arms on the table between them and hunched towards her. "Meaning, as my friend told your friend--Mr. Christianson keeps his end up and his trap shut, and you keep your looks. Your very pretty looks," he elaborated, forcing Hilary to return her hands to her lap so he wouldn't see her digging her nails into her own palm.

"Which seems straightforward enough, I suppose," Hilary agreed, forcing herself not to squirm. "Though I feel it's a little ungentlemanly, your putting my safety on the table without consulting me first."

Merrick sighed. "The deal has been made, Miss Hood, and it would be even less gentlemanly--of me, or his lordship, or Smirt, let alone your own Mr. Christianson--to break it."

Hilary bit her lip. "Look, Mr. Merrick, honestly, you don't want Roger; he doesn't take instruction a bit well. And I doubt he's much good at keeping secrets, either." She felt obscurely guilty to be talking about St. George in such a way behind his back; she didn't (entirely) mean it, and it was certainly no worse than many things she had been known to say to his face, but it felt rather backhanded all the same.

"I see." Merrick eyed her, head tilted. "And you'd like to keep your face intact, I take it?"

"I wouldn't mind," Hilary admitted. "Isn't there a job I could do for Lord Hargrave, and get Roger off the hook? I've got a brain in my head, I'm fairly fit--" this was something she really would rather not have brought to the attention of Merrick, of all people-- "I'm sure I could make myself useful in some way."

That earned a definite leer from Merrick, but mercifully it passed without him voicing any suggestion to go with it. "With Mr. Christianson's health on the line instead of your own, hmm?"

"Oh, no." Hilary shook her head. "It's not gambling my health I mind so much as not being the one who's gambling with it; I'll stake my own looks on my own good behaviour, thanks."

"I fear that's not the way Lord Hargrave prefers to deal, Miss Hood. May I?" Merrick took a forkful of Hilary's eggs, and she chose not to protest; let the man suffer if he wished. "All the same," he went on, before he had even finished chewing, "you seem like the sort of girl we ought to keep an eye on."

Hilary was fairly certain this was meant to be some sort of compliment, but in no possible sense was it a compliment she wanted to hear. "Well, if I'm no use, then I suppose we'd best forget it and leave things where they stand."

"Please, Miss Hood, it isn't that simple." Merrick leaned forward with his elbows propped on the table (shockingly ill-mannered, observed a voice in Hilary's head that sounded distressingly like St. George) and his eyes fixed on hers, suddenly intent. "You wanted to change the arrangement, and changed it shall be. It's only a matter of how--and you, though you seem to think otherwise, do not get the final say in the matter."

Hilary forgot her self-restraint so far as to flinch back from him. "Then what do you propose?" she asked, as lightly as she was able.

"You both seem quite capable to me," Merrick observed, still watching her narrowly. "I expect his lordship can find some use for you and your friend both. And if either of you talks where you ought not to, the other will regret it." He leaned back in his chair again, wearing a horrendous expression that he probably imagined to be a friendly grin. "That is the final word, Miss Hood; do you like the sound of it, or shall we skip directly to the regretting?"

Hilary thought briefly, inescapably, of what had happened to William; for the moment, she could see no way to talk her way back out of this, and it seemed in fact like the lesser of two evils. Perhaps, as St. George had insisted, it might even be informative. "It'll do," she agreed, with as little hesitation as possible. "For the moment."

"It'll have to do indefinitely." Merrick let her fork clatter back to the plate and stood. "Good day, Miss Hood."

Chapter Text

"Well," said Tuppence, "something has got to be done about it. Here we are bursting with talent and no chance of exercising it."
"I always like your cheery optimism, Tuppence. You seem to have no doubt whatsoever that you have talent to exercise."
"Of course," said Tuppence, opening her eyes very wide.
"And yet you have no expert knowledge whatsoever."
"Well, I have read every detective novel that has been published in the last ten years."
"So have I," said Tommy, "but I have a sort of feeling that that wouldn't really help us much."

Agatha Christie
---------------------

St. George was not terribly impressed with Hilary's negotiating efforts, and told her as much; he found some small consolation in knowing that she had dealt with the situation no better than he had himself, but ultimately it still meant that the situation had in fact been made worse. "I thought," he observed, with what was in immediate retrospect a regrettable degree of self-satisfaction, "we were meant not to be trying to add to our respective criminal records--which have, in the last week alone, been growing at an astonishing pace."

"You needn't be quite so smug about it," said Hilary shamefacedly. "I was trying to do you a favour, after all."

"And I was trying to do you a favour when I signed on with Smirt to begin with." St. George frowned at her from the depths of his armchair. It was really a tremendously good armchair; he would have to remember to ask Hilary's landlady where it had come from. "I thought it might give me the chance to collect information about Hargrave's operation--remember?"

She smiled ruefully at him. "And I have to admit you may have had a decent point there. Now--" the smile faded, and Hilary leaned forward slightly-- "I can't say I think much of your using me as a bargaining chip. Or even my face."

St. George shifted, suddenly not quite so comfortable in his chair; it was difficult to be entirely at ease with Hilary looking at him like that. "It wasn't my idea, to be fair; it was Smirt's, and I couldn't dissuade him from it."

"Nor I Merrick," Hilary admitted. "And I'm ashamed to say it, but I do feel a little better to have a rather more active role in this arrangement than merely being your coin in the pot. Especially given your success rate with gambling."

"That was unnecessary." And it had stung all the same that she should think he would be that careless about holding her well-being in his hands. "I wouldn't even call it a gamble--though," St. George concluded after a moment's thought, "I can't say I can think of a more flattering metaphor for it."

Hilary nodded. "Better that we don't try, then; at any rate, it isn't terribly important, and they're holding us each as collateral against the other now. Uncomfortable, but admittedly more fair."

The prospect of either of them being injured as a result of this arrangement still seemed bizarre and remote, in St. George's estimation, but all the same he preferred not to dwell on it. "I wonder what sort of work we'll be given, anyway--and how they mean to let us know." He slumped back again, considering a myriad of possibilities. "Mysterious notes under doors, chalk marks on flowerpots--"

Hilary shrugged. "Mine came by the afternoon post."

"Came?" St. George blinked at her. "What, already?"

"Quite efficient of them, really." Hilary nodded towards the small table by the stairs. "And all very ordinary; it seems a solicitor in the neighbourhood is in need of a secretary, and would I please come round Monday morning at eight to claim the position?"

"Are you certain it's Hargrave? Or someone to do with him?"

"You could look for yourself." Hilary gestured permission. "Same paper and the same initial H at the bottom--though I expect it isn't from him personally. We can't possibly be that interesting."

"Oh, I believe you." St. George didn't bother budging from his chair to go look for himself. "I wonder why I haven't been given anything to do yet."

Hilary eyed him. "Starting to miss your bookkeeper and your other women, are you?" She didn't wait for a denial, or sound particularly put out about it; St. George was beginning to gather that her tendency to be derisive bore little relationship to her actual mood at any given time, and that it was her tone he ought to pay more mind to. "Perhaps I did what I meant to after all; perhaps he's decided you aren't worth the trouble of keeping on the hook."

"Surely I can't be that useless," said St. George opimistically. "He just hasn't found a job worth my valuable time yet. In the meantime--" He shrugged. "I hope you enjoy being our first line of attack."

"Oh, it's an attack now, is it?" Hilary laughed. "I thought you Wimseys were supposed to be of rather more chivalrous stock than the rest of us."

St. George stretched his legs out idly. "And I thought you didn't approve of chivalry."

"I don't," she said indignantly. "But you seem awfully eager to throw me into the line of fire."

"You threw yourself into it," he reminded her. "And you certainly don't want rescuing, I'm sure."

"I certainly don't."

"Well, I didn't either," St. George announced, triumphantly.

Hilary sighed. "Look, Jerry, I'd like to say I'm sorry I hurt your pride, but I'm really not; I'm only sorry I wasn't able to talk him round the way I tried to. But seeing as I couldn't, we might as well take advantage of the situation--as," she admitted, "you have already pointed out."

"So I have." St. George brightened at being given credit for that much. "So what's your point?"

"Trying to wriggle out from under Hargrave's thumb clearly isn't going to do us much good. It certainly hasn't done anyone else any good, as far as we know." Hilary folded her hands over her knee, pressing her lips thin in thought and staring a bit blankly over St. George's shoulder for a moment. "So my point is just about what you've been saying all along, I suppose--we stay under his thumb for a bit at least and see what we can learn. Which can't possibly be as easy as it sounds."

"This really is a lot more difficult than Uncle makes it look," he agreed. "Or Sexton Blake."

Hilary smiled, half-heartedly. "Or Miss Marple. No one ever threatens her."

"Perhaps if you powdered your hair white and tucked a few knitting needles into it--" St. George suggested, but Hilary pulled a face at him, and he decided he'd better not continue that line of thought. "Very well; the grey Rolls it is for our heroes. A better option all round, really."

--------

Next morning, Hilary ventured out on an errand to the chemist's; she felt she was going to be badly in need of something for headaches for the next while. The route turned out to go past Fleetston's boarding house, and she eyed the front door a bit warily, not sure she was awake enough yet to cope with St. George at that hour.

That particular young man was not in evidence, but someone else was on the front step: a woman who appeared at first glance to be about thirty, unusually tall and broad-shouldered with dark hair knotted up on the back of her head. She was smoking a cigarette, and thoroughly absorbed in the task; she didn't even appear to notice that anyone was passing until Hilary was almost past the building.

"I say," she said abruptly, and Hilary stopped in her tracks so quickly that she nearly caught her heel in the pavement and tripped. "Have they got you yet?"

"I'm sorry?" Hilary stared, but the other woman still seemed to be devoting all her attention to her cigarette.

"You're new around here," she said, "but I've seen you about with that young man who lives above me, so I expect you're not too new to know what I mean. Have they got you yet?"

Hilary, who did in fact know perfectly well what she meant, considered her response carefully. "I think they think they've got us," she concluded.

The other woman laughed, finally looking up to meet Hilary's bewildered gaze. "I wish you best of luck, then, although I wish I could say I think it'll do you much good in the end."

-------

Although Hilary had offered once or twice to walk Amita to or from Mr. Ames's office, as a kind of moral support, her friend had always declined the offer. Therefore, when she arrived as instructed on Monday morning, it was her first time there, and she took what time she had for a good look around.

The office was rather dingy-looking inside--not because it was itself unclean, was Hilary's impression, but because it didn't seem to receive much sun, and what light did reach the indoors was further filtered out by a set of front windows that was badly in need of washing. Since the interior seemed well enough done for and fairly neat, she couldn't help wondering whether the dirty windows were a deliberate atmospheric choice on someone's part.

Whether deliberate or not, the effect was rather apt. Ames, when he emerged from the inner office, proved to be a small trim man in a suit that Hilary suspected would have made St. George ill to look at, although she hadn't the sartorial knowledge to explain just what gave him such an air of trying desperately and unsuccessfully to look fashionable. She could say for certain, though, a thing that St. George in turn might not have been able to put words to--that she understood precisely the reasons why he was looking her up and down with such approval, that she knew those reasons had nothing to do with her clerical skills, and that she didn't like anything about this situation one bit. "Good morning," she ventured, after a few too many moments of silence.

"Good morning, Miss Hood," said Ames levelly. "It's a real pleasure to have you here. I've heard you're a girl with a good head on her shoulders."

"So is Miss Kapoor," Hilary pointed out, voicing a concern that had been bothering her since her note had first arrived.

"And I haven't any desire to replace her; she's proven herself very handy already. It seems you're both very bright young women, really, but it seems Lord Hargrave feels you need an eye kept on you and that I'm the man to do it. You can divide the time up however you care to, just so long as you each do your bit."

Hilary nodded, head tilted. "And if I don't do my bit, then Mr. Christianson--"

Ames smiled. "Let's not discuss that in too much detail, eh? Such a distressing prospect to consider at this hour of the morning, and I trust you've the sense to never make it an issue."

His trousers were too long, Hilary decided, or perhaps it was something to do with the waist of his jacket. (It was more entertaining to wonder about than what they were actually talking about, at least.) She would have to get Ames and St. George in the same room at some point and hope that if St. George broke out in hives as a result, they wouldn't disfigure him badly enough to keep him from telling her why. "I certainly hope so," she said aloud, supressing a grimace. "Naturally I shouldn't like to cause any trouble for his lordship."

"A clever girl indeed," said Ames, with such pride as to suggest that her wits were somehow his doing. "Yes, I should say that was the wisest course."

Hilary folded her hands behind her back so that he wouldn't see her fingers clenching into her skirt. "And what sort of work should I expect?"

Ames shrugged; it was the last sign Hilary needed to confirm that she might have been brought here for multiple reasons, but actually being useful to him was not one of them. "Only the usual sort of office girl's work; typing, managing my appointments, and the like. I'm sure you get the general idea. And you'll make five pounds a week, just the same as your friend; so you see, his lordship and I really are willing to treat you quite well as long as you behave decently in return."

Something about the perspective that she was being decent to Hargrave and Ames, more than anything else, stuck badly in Hilary's throat; but the alternative they offered seemed worse still, and likely enough to be genuine that she didn't care to risk it. Not just yet, anyway. And it might be worth something, looking at the problem from a slightly different angle, to keep in mind just how valuable her silence and St. George's really were to these men. "It sounds like quite a generous deal to me," she said, with only slight hesitation. "Where shall I start?"

-------

The Stag and Swan was full to pleasant moderation at lunchtime on Saturday; it was the first weekend of July, and St. George had guessed the good weather would draw most people outdoors, which was in fact where he would have preferred to be himself. Still, there were enough patrons scattered through the pub to suggest that it would probably be quite lively later in the evening, but not so many that it felt oppressive. St. George arrived almost precisely at noon, and determinedly remained proud of his punctuality despite being greeted from the largest table by Hilary, Gail, Priya, and a few other people he didn't recognise. He forwent buying a drink for the moment in favour of going to join them, and before he could even get out any hellos was startled by a warm weight that settled down atop his feet. "Er--" He tried to twist around to see under the table, but found he was pressed too closely between Hilary and the wall to maneuver at all. "Is there something alive down there?"

"Shh." Gail glanced hastily over at the bar. "That's Aphra. She isn't allowed in here, but I feel so awful leaving her in my flat all the time and I don't feel particularly safe leaving her in the shop. You don't mind dogs, do you?"

"Mind?" St. George laughed. If anything, it was difficult to resist leaning down and greeting the animal properly--if only he could manage it without climbing into Hilary's lap, which he didn't think she would appreciate. "I grew up around more dogs than I can even count. Just as long as this one hasn't got a taste for ankles or anything like that." He shifted his feet experimentally, but the creature under the table only grumbled quietly in response.

"Not unless your ankles are made of fried egg," said Priya resignedly. "Nothing on God's earth will get her to leave that alone."

"I'll keep that in mind." St. George looked around the table and grinned hopefully. "In any case, it's a pleasure to meet you all...?" Upon closer examination, there weren't so many strangers there; the only people he didn't recognise were a small dark-haired young man fidgeting on Hilary's other side and a heavier woman across the table-- not comfortably padded like Gail, but tall and broad-shouldered, incongruously dreamy and distant-looking. And Aphra, arguably, but judging by the amount of hair likely being shed on St. George's trousers the dog had already decided that they weren't strangers after all.

"Thomas," said the dark-haired young man, with a solemn nod in St. George's general direction, and took a quick swig of his beer. "I'm the layout man--which sounds terribly official, I know, but really all that means is that my dad's got a print shop and if I work there afternoons after I finish up here, he lets me lay out and print the papers there every month."

"A pleasure," said St. George cheerfully, and half-raised his hand to offer a shake before he realised that there really wasn't much room for that either. "My name's Roger, and if we get to have official titles and everything I suppose that makes me the house caricaturist."

"So I'm told." Thomas's eyebrows lifted. "You have quite a pair of shoes to fill."

"So I'm told, but I'm sure I can at least rummage something up to fill the space." St. George grinned hopefully at the tall woman sitting across from him. "And you are...?"

"Kathryn." She smiled back at him, appearing to suddenly snap back from whatever fog she'd been in. "Kathryn Field--your downstairs neighbour, I believe, though we seem to keep missing each other."

"We did meet once, though." A sharp heel, presumably Hilary's, nudged gently against St. George's ankle under the table. "I think I mentioned to you, Jerry--though of course we weren't properly introduced at the time."

"Oh, of course, I do remember that." He did, too, a vague memory of Hilary having mentioned a brief odd encounter in front of the boarding house; it only sharpened his curiosity about the woman. "And what is it that you do?"

"I work in a grocery, like any good oppressed working girl, but here--just writing. The same as Miss Hood, it seems." Kathryn didn't seem particularly odd, beyond that little bit of distraction that had now vanished, and given what things had apparently been like for her lately St. George couldn't very well begrudge her that.

"Caroline, please," said Hilary, and smiled with just a tad more formality than he was used to seeing from her. Unlike St. George, she still seemed a bit wary of the woman, and he found he couldn't begrudge her that either; by her account Kathryn had rather an abrupt manner of making new friends. "And I'm sure it isn't just the same; surely there's something in particular you care to write about?"

"Local news, mainly," Kathryn admitted, with a brief dip of her head. "It sounds rather small fare, I know, but seeing as the paper circulates mostly in our own neighbourhood--it helps sales, you know, and I do rather enjoy it. People like to see stories about themselves. And about their neighbours, for that matter."

"It makes perfect sense to me," Hilary said, and indeed her smile seemed to St. George to have warmed a bit. "I suppose, then, you're in need of someone to hold up the political end of things?"

"I do my best," said Priya, with an aggrieved sigh, "but some of us--" she cut a glance at Gail, who rolled her eyes-- "seem to have forgotten that this is meant to be a political publication to begin with."

"It's all very well having a cause," agreed Gail, with perfect good humour. "But we shan't be much good to it if we can't afford to keep the paper running."

"I could do some sort of social commentary," suggested Hilary. "Layman's economic stuff, corruption among the upper class, Socialism In Art--it isn't quite my area of specialty, but it seems like it'd fit well, and it'd go nicely with Jerry's cartoons."

"Which I should like to see," said Thomas hopefully. "I've been curious for days."

"He did that one of Sir Impey Biggs," Gail reminded him, "and I know you've seen that; we ran it last week."

Suddenly unaccountably nervous-after all, he'd never really had to do this for an audience more critical than a gaggle of schoolboys--St. George produced a leather wallet with half a dozen drawings inside. He'd resorted largely to taking his parents' friends as subjects, and hoped the pattern wasn't likely to become noticeable, not least because caricaturing his parents' friends was the most fun he'd had in months and he had every intention of continuing. He felt a bit funny about sitting there watching the rest of the table inspect his finished work, however, so he worked his feet out from underneath Aphra--who grumbled distantly and then, judging by Hilary's expression, found a new pair of feet to warm--and then went to see about feeding and watering himself.

He returned with some mild trepidation, a pint of stout, and a plateful of fresh chips to find the other four getting on quite happily without him--although Hilary did steal two chips from him as soon as he sat down. "Well, have I passed muster?"

"For the moment, it seems," said Kathryn, and passed the wallet back to him--short a couple of cartoons, St. George noticed, and glanced at the other side of the table just in time to see Gail tucking them in with her own papers. He forced himself, for the sake of dignity, not to immediately look through the leftovers to see which ones had been approved.

"They're really marvellous, I think," said Hilary. "I'm quite impressed," and it wasn't as though St. George had been looking for her particular approval, but he was excessively gratified by her praise all the same--and all the more so when she twisted in place and hugged him, one-armed but firm.

"You two," said Priya in mild reproof, but St. George was staring at Hilary. Of course they were meant to be pretending to be close; but somehow he didn't think that gesture had been in pretence.

-------

In all honesty, since taking up residence in Foxgrove, St. George hadn't found much interest in keeping up with his usual correspondence--a few particularly close friends, of course, and his sister and (out of pure necessity) his parents, but for the most part he had found a small wooden crate, placed it tactfully out of sight in a corner of his room behind the washstand, and the vast majority of the mail his landlady forwarded to him had been deposited there to be dealt with whenever he damn well felt like it. As content as he was with his usual way of life, he found it rather a relief to feel himself no longer obligated to stay connected to it, even if the disconnect was only temporary and most likely illusory as well. Like taking a holiday no one knew one was on, so that one need not even send postcards.

The Tuesday after his first Sentinel meeting, however, brought something rather different: an envelope with not only no return address but no stamps, made of a rich heavy paper that was beginning to be depressingly recognisable as Hargrave's stationery. St. George noted it the moment he collected his mail from the hall table, and wondered briefly whether other tenants of the house had noted its presence as well. He was far more immediately concerned, however, with what its contents might be, and hardly had the door to his room closed behind him before he was fumbling the note out of the envelope.

It seems high time you set about holding up your end of our arrangement. Dress for hard work--real hard work, mind, not a tennis match--and be at Field's old news-stand at one AM Tuesday night.

- H

"I see," said St. George happily, anticipation quickly soothing his hurt feelings at the suggestion that he might not know how to dress for any occasion whatsoever. "Or at least, I hope I shall."

After all, surely something informative ought to come out of the evening.

-------

He arrived at the old news-stand promptly on time--Field's old news-stand, the note had specified, and St. George suspected that meant Kathryn's late brother. It felt like a fact that ought to bear some significance, but he couldn't imagine what that could possibly be; he would have to share it with Hilary tomorrow and see what she made of it. In the meantime, he had dressed as suitably for hard work as he knew how--in a shirt loose over his vest, with a soft cap and trousers a full year and a half out of fashion and therefore not good for much else.

After a bit of exploration, he found that the back door had been unboarded and left open, and that a handful of other men of assorted ages had already gathered there. One of them St. George recognised, but only from vague acquaintance, as the week-night barman at the Stag and Swan, a man called Carmon; one or two of the others he thought he might have seen at Fitzmorris's party, but all in all the group was an unfamiliar one. He sidled over to join it, considered the potential informative benefits of trying to start a conversation, but settled for lighting a cigarette to keep himself occupied while he waited to see what would happen.

After a few more minutes Ames arrived; he didn't bother introducing himself, but he was perfectly recognisable from the description Hilary had given, and his sad excuse for a suit was every bit as horrifying as promised. St. George didn't feel himself breaking out in hives just yet, but he probably had the entire night ahead of him to accomplish that.

"Good evening," said Ames shortly; he was looking over the assembled group as though he would rather have been in the company of anyone else at all. The feeling, St. George was quite sure, was mutual for all concerned. "Most of you know what you've been brought here for; those who don't--" he glanced pointedly at St. George-- "will figure it out quick enough; it should be simple enough even for you. You all know what it's worth to you to do your jobs right, and what you stand to lose if you don't. Now come along. We've got to get this latest load taken care of before sunrise."

St. George glanced around at his companions, but everyone else either knew what Ames was talking about or was making a better show of it than he. Carmon gave him a brief nod of greeting, which was probably more of a reassurance than it was meant to be, but that was the only sign he saw. He straightened a little, more intrigued than ever; whatever turned out to be happening, it didn't seem as though he was personally going to be doing anything particularly reprehensible, so he saw no reason not to greet the situation with enthusiasm. If anything, the novelty of this paid-employment lark was really rather exciting; at least it was for a few more moments until Smirt arrived, brandishing an oversized electric torch.

"Certainly took you long enough," said Ames scornfully, hardly glancing at his colleague. "Shall we proceed?"

Up the stairs they went, with Ames in the lead and Smirt taking up the rear. "Hope you aren't a sickly sort," he confided to St. George at one point, "you'll be wanting for fresh air for the next few hours--assuming of course you come back up at the end. Might spare us all a lot of trouble if you didn't."

"I might be able to breathe better if you stayed downwind," suggested St. George, and then winced minutely, remembering too late that it was Hilary's safety at stake on his good behaviour, but Smirt only laughed and moved away again.

St. George had guessed that, once reaching the top floor of the building, they would be immediately descending again into the tunnels he and Hilary had previously discovered; he felt terribly clever when it turned out he'd been right. There was a great deal less panic involved in the process this time, of course. The group proceeded down the stairs, still not without much conversation, Ames in front and Smirt herding them from the rear. Ames, St. George noted with delight, appeared to hate the damp closeness of the tunnels most of all; he kept glancing around nervously and wiping his hands on his trouser legs. Indeed, the air seemed to grow heavier as Ames led them on, and St. George feared at first that he was beginning to experience a touch of claustrophobia as well. But at last they arrived in a single enormous room. It was open at one end to the river, which at least explained the humidity, and when Ames hit a switch on the wall the space was illuminated by a handful of electric lights, revealing that the better part of the room was full of large, unlabeled wooden crates. St. George could just make out the bulk of a cargo ship docked outside.

"Seeing as you lot are such dawdlers, it is now--" Ames glanced at his pocket watch, the chain of which was a horror all on its own-- "just gone two o'clock. By five or so, the more usual shipping business on this river will be waking up, and we'll have no further hope of subtlety, so I expect that by then you'll have all this lot cleared safely out of sight."

Contemplating the prospect of carrying all those crates out to the river without any knowledge of what was in them, St. George began at last to have reservations. Without putting the work in, though, he hadn't any chance of bringing back any useful information with which to impress Hilary, so it couldn't hurt to give it a try.

On this point, however, he proved to be mistaken. By four forty-five, when the last of the crates had vanished into the bowels of the ship outside without St. George obtaining the slightest opportunity to find out what was inside and a few overenthusiastic birds were beginning to chatter outside, he hurt everywhere, and was only just beginning to recover a vague memory of his physical therapist giving him some strict and likely disapproving instructions about heavy lifting.

There was no sign for the moment of Ames or Merrick: a circumstance which seemed to St. George vaguely alarming on the grounds that in an adventure novel it would have been a probable sign that the room was about to be flooded with water, or perhaps poison gas. In the meantime he couldn't do much about it, so he produced a cigarette and sidled a little way out towards the water's edge; if he were about to be permanently silenced, at least he could enjoy his last smoke in relative peace.

As luck would have it, Ames and Merrick had sought privacy outside on the dock as well; St. George hesitated well away from them, making a great show of putting all his concentration into lighting his cigarette just in case either of them looked in his direction. Straining to hear anything of the conversation, he caught a few instructions from Ames-- "Battersea Park, same as ever, one o'clock Thursday night--and mind you're a bit more quick getting there, this time."

"Better late than useless," said Smirt a bit huffily. At that point he glanced around, and St. George made haste to interest himself very thoroughly in his cigarette and in looking out over the river. It might have been an effective show of not caring about the conversation at hand, but it didn't by any means make him invisible, and in a moment he felt a hand clamp onto his elbow. "Come along now," said Smirt, and guided St. George firmly back into the tunnels with the other workers. "This isn't one of your pretty little garden parties."

-------

Hilary was well into a late breakfast and the morning's News Chronicle when St. George dropped into the chair opposite her with a groan. "I can't think how people tolerate this full-time employment nonsense," he complained.

"Necessity, perhaps?" suggested Hilary, peering at him over the top of her mug of tea. "Or enjoyment, if one's tremendously lucky."

St. George appeared, through a mouthful of her buttered toast, to have doubts that this was possible.

"Look at it this way," said Hilary resignedly. "It's a matter of necessity for us, too, only the necessity isn't money but our own safety. Believe me, working for Ames isn't much fun for me either. It feels like making a living at being a pork loin in a butcher's shop window."

"Now there's a gruesome image," said St. George, though it didn't seem to have spoiled his appetite any.

Hilary fended him off with a forkful of kipper and reopened the newspaper. "Go get your own breakfast with your hard-earned wages. And I expect to hear all about how you earned them when you come back."

St. George dutifully hauled himself back to his feet, making a great show of the effort involved, and vanished into the cafe in search of an employee.

"I say, Lee," he said, returning several minutes later with his own breakfast. "I don't suppose you'd care to keep up the pretence of liking me long enough to come home and meet my family?"

"Of course not." Hilary gave her newspaper an irritable rustle. "What on earth gave you the idea I might?"

He grinned, though Hilary noticed that when he pulled out the chair opposite her he winced slightly for some reason. "I've been thinking lately how tremendously over the moon my mother would be if--let's say--I told her I'd found a smart, pretty girl to marry who'd got a healthy share of respectable country squires in her ancestry."

Hilary folded the paper with another gratuitous snap. "And then of the disaster that would ensue when we actually met?"

"Just so." He tilted his head hopefully. "You see, you'd enjoy it too."

"I might," Hilary admitted; there was something alarmingly engaging about the glint in his eye. "But the answer is still no. Think of having to explain ourselves afterwards. Has something really gone wrong with your arm, or are you trying to soften me up?"

St. George gave the shoulder in question a brief shrug, and grimaced. "I wouldn't say anything new has happened, no, but all the same I shouldn't recommend doing an evening's heavy lifting with a recently dislocated shoulder. It aches rather, and I don't fancy the prospect of keeping this job indefinitely."

"Would you care to trade, perhaps?" suggested Hilary lightly, though she pulled a sympathetic face all the same. "I'd hate to think you were in less than fighting trim, come the next occasion when we need to get away from some of Hargrave's men in a hurry. Or climb a few fences into places we don't belong, perhaps."

"It's funny you should mention that," said St. George brightly and paused to dig into his eggs, with timing so impeccably dramatic that he could only have done it on purpose.

"All right," said Hilary, abandoning the remains of her kippers and propping her chin in her hand. "Let's have it." It wasn't really much use pretending that she hadn't been waiting all morning to hear about this regardless.

Between eggs and rashers St. George gave her the whole account, Battersea Park and all; knowing that was what he'd meant when he mentioned fence-climbing, Hilary couldn't help but be particularly intent on that bit.

"Tomorrow night," she observed. "It's a wonder these men ever get any sleep."

"It'll be a wonder if I ever get any sleep again," said St. George piteously. "Awfully irregular hours this detecting gig makes one keep, doesn't it? No wonder Uncle Peter's always got such a short temper."

"No one's asking you to go." Hilary shrugged. "If you'd rather, you could always stay safely home in bed; I'm not entirely sure I shan't do the same."

St. George frowned, looking hurt. "Find things out so I can sit around and work things out by logic, you say, and I find you out a beautiful bit of a thing, time and place and all, and you'd rather stay home in bed. I don't suppose flowers would have done it, either. You really are the most maddening girl."

"It's an excellent bit of information," said Hilary, finding herself inexplicably indignant. "Flowers wouldn't have come close. I'd just like to be a bit careful about how we decide to crash this particular party, that's all."

"Can master detectives’ assistants commit mutiny?" inquired St. George. "Because I think I'd like to give it a try, if so. And if not, I think we ought to quit playing detectives and play pirates instead, and then I shall mutiny."

"Just you try it." Hilary brandished her fork at him again. "We may yet have to resort to going ourselves, but I'd like to have one more go at getting the police involved before we tackle one of Hargrave's staff meetings. We don't know how many men are likely to be there, or how alert they're likely to be, but we do know they're likely to be dangerous."

"But that's the fun of it." The frightening thing about St. George was that he appeared to sincerely believe this. "And anyway, while I have the greatest of faith in your wits, it's not as though there's an entire neighbourhood full of idiots; there must be a damn good reason why no one's managed to get the proper authorities in here by now."

"I've been thinking the same," said Hilary, reluctantly pleased that they'd independently come to the same conclusion. "But I'd rather try. After all, you got through to Inspector Parker once, and it was sheer bad luck he didn't believe you; I might get a second bit of luck. And if not, it might do us a bit of good to know why the police aren't paying it any mind, and then we can go on your night-time adventure all the same."

"I hope it isn't that the unfortunate Mr. Jeremy Field was the last one to try it," St. George said darkly. "But all right--that makes sense, I suppose."

He still looked discontent, and Hilary eyed him warily. "You will behave, won't you? I'd hate to come back from Scotland Yard and find you face down in the Thames. It'd mean so many awkward questions from your family, and I'd rather not go though all that bother."

"I think you'd miss me," said St. George, leaning back comfortably in his chair and tipping his head back. "After all, who'd do all your dirty work then?"

"I'll admit there might be a little less laughter in my life." Hilary reached for her newspaper once more, sliding out the Society pages. They made a helpful diversion; if she didn’t want him knowing she really was worried about his injury, she certainly didn’t want him noticing that the conversation had drawn her attention to his muscles, however fatigued, under his thin linen shirt. "Speaking of which, I saw an item this morning I thought might interest you." She ruffled through, found the little three-inch block of copy--she'd nearly missed it, not being a habitual reader of that section--and handed the paper over.

It didn't take St. George long to find what she meant. "It seems that Lady Winifred, only daughter of, et cetera, expected to be highly sought after when she comes out in a few years--says who? we'll see about that--ah, I see, lewd anonymous letters." His nose wrinkled. "Terribly distressing to a girl of her delicate upbringing, family pursuing the matter quietly while denying her ladyship has once received a single letter in her entire life, the illustrious Uncle Peter naturally nowhere to be found just when his services are most required. The paper doesn't provide that last bit, but I infer it based on precedent."

Hilary raised her eyebrows. "I wonder who's been spreading a story like that about."

"Poor old Winnie," St. George said, unexpectedly. "I do wish I hadn't said a thing like that about her, now; I really didn't think it'd go anywhere, but she doesn't need the trouble."

Hilary's curiosity prickled, despite herself. "Why poor?"

He produced a cigarette from somewhere and lit it absently. "Oh, she's a good egg and all-- we used to get on quite famously, when we were kids. But she's taken to putting rather more stock in our mother's opinions than is entirely healthy, if you take my meaning. Worries me sometimes."

"While you are, of course, a model of healthy living and good sense." Hilary reached over, filched his matchbox from his blazer pocket and lit one for herself. "Isn't that so?"

"Oh, come on, now." He stole it back and tucked it away out of her reach. "If you had a sister, you wouldn't want her growing up like my mother."

"And if I had a brother like you," Hilary observed, "I wouldn't want to grow up like him either."

St. George took a long slow drag on his cigarette. "No," he said after a minute. "I don't suppose you would."

-------

Hilary had never before had cause to visit Scotland Yard; now that she did have reason, she wished it were under less pressing circumstances. Then again, she wasn't St. George, and didn't exactly have cause to be making idle social calls there either, which was perhaps for the best.

Despite the urgency of her mission, Hilary hovered for a long valuable moment on the corner of Derby Gate. She knew very well how fantastic her story was likely to sound; if Inspector Parker hadn't believed it from his own nephew, what were the chances he'd believe it from a girl he knew only by reputation if at all? On the other hand, by what she knew of him by reputation, Parker was an intelligent and reasonable man, and she had come here hoping that if two people came to him corroborating each other's stories, then surely--

"Miss Hood. What a pleasant surprise."

Hilary froze, heart slamming in her chest and breath stopping entirely for a moment.

Given the neighbourhood, she hadn't thought to take much notice of the dozens of dark blue uniforms coming and going around her. But one of them had slipped up behind her back to greet her--and that one, under his tall unmistakable helmet, was grinning Merrick's equally unmistakable and faintly sharklike grin. "Out for a walk, are you? Lovely day for it, though I see you've come rather far from home."

Having recovered her breath but not yet conceived of a response, Hilary took a step away. "You can't just do that," she said feebly. "Impersonating a policeman--that's a crime, isn't it?"

"So it is," said Merrick, visibly pleased. "But I fear it isn't one I could honestly take credit for. I've got a real live billy club, if you'd like to see it."

"I'll take your word for it, thanks." Hilary grimaced. "What do you want, Merrick?"

"Oh, his lordship just wants to be sure you're well looked-after. For everyone's safety. But it's His Majesty what pays me to keep the peace, and that includes providing a firm hand for young ladies who are inclined to put themselves on offer, as it were. Last I looked most girls these days would fall in that category--and even if the law does insist on a narrower definition, I doubt anyone'd think twice if I brought you in on charges."

Hilary scowled. "On what basis?"

"On the basis of you looked like you were making up your mind to go visiting anyway, and I thought I'd help you along." Merrick spread his hands. "It'll keep us both entertained for a day or two, and in the meantime if your friend takes some damage to those superficial charms you take such joy in--well, I can't very well help that.”

"How in God's name," demanded Hilary, "did you ever get put in a uniform?"

"I expect it's my irresistible charm," said Merrick, with no apparent attempt at irony, and gave her a horrifying semblance of a wink.

-------

St. George wasn’t at all sure how he felt about letting Hilary go to Scotland Yard alone; he wasn’t even sure whether she and Parker had met or not, but he knew how she would respond to an offer of aid, so he had saved them both the trouble by not offering. The Sentinel was printed that day, luckily, which gave him something to do while he sat on Mrs. Bloom’s back steps waiting for her.

"Lee!" he exclaimed in delight, waving it at her the moment she came into his view. "Have you seen this? I've never had my name in print before."

Hilary sat down heavily opposite him. "Haven't you?"

"Well, yes, of course." He twitched a conciliatory shoulder. "But never in a by-line. It isn't even my real name, I suppose, but it's rather gratifying to be given credit for something positive for once, rather than for whatever minor accidental property damage one is supposed to have committed. I think I envy you a bit, getting to do this on a regular basis and all."

"It's nothing you couldn't manage, if you were only willing to put in the effort." Hilary smiled at him shakily, but she didn’t much seem to be in a laughing mood. "And at the rate things are going, you'll have quite a while to get in the habit."

St. George snapped the paper, folding it in two. "I take it you haven't had more luck with Uncle Charles than I did."

"I'm sure I would have, if I'd been able to get anywhere near him," said Hilary glumly, and reported her encounter with Merrick more or less in its entirety.

She was somewhat vague about what exactly he had said that had convinced her to turn back, but she wouldn’t even meet his eyes at that point, so he resisted the urge to press the point; instead he just listened intently to the entire narrative, folding the Sentinel in half again and again and creasing it carefully with his thumb each time. "The man sounds like quite a charmer."

"And an effective one at that." Hilary crossed her ankles tightly, frowning down at the wooden stair between her feet. "Haven't you even got his telephone number? He's your uncle."

"No, I'm afraid he's terribly close with that; it isn't listed." St. George was still watching her, concerned, but he still couldn’t bring himself to simply ask. "Uncle Peter would have it, but I think our feelings about contacting him run in fairly similar lines. And a letter won't reach either of them by tonight regardless."

"You seem to have put a great deal of thought into this."

"As have you, I don't doubt." He tipped his head expectantly. "Which is why I'm wondering whether you've come up with another option besides the obvious."

Hilary leaned back against the banister, arms folded across her knees. "I'm interested to know which option you think is the obvious one."

"Going to the park tonight ourselves," said St. George carefully. "And don't tell me you haven't thought of it yourself, because it's the simplest strategy short of going peacefully home to bed and letting all my perfectly good eavesdropping work go to waste."

There were times--rare times, admittedly, but they existed--when St. George was not only sensible but correctly so. Or so he hoped. "I've thought of it," she admitted. "That doesn't mean it's a good idea."

He scoffed quietly. "Since when do you ever have bad ideas?"

"Since yesterday noon or so when I said I'd go visit Inspector Parker," Hilary pointed out. "And I seem to recall you were all for that one, too."

"There was nothing wrong with it in theory. We weren't to know that Merrick would show up and be so terribly discourteous to you."

Hilary pulled a face at St. George that suggested ‘discourteous’ might be a grave understatement. "But he did, and now that we haven't a hope of getting Parker's help, you honestly think we ought to go to Battersea Park our own damn selves at one in the morning in hopes of catching Hargrave in the act of whatever it is he's in the act of."

"Exactly," said St. George brightly. "Anyway, what's Uncle Charles got that we--no," he cut himself off, "never mind, don't answer that, but you agree with me and I know it perfectly well. I expect you're only being contrary because there are laws against trespassing on public property, or something like that."

Hilary watched him inscrutably for a moment. "That, and I think it's quite a lot of risk for very little reward."

St. George stared at her. "When did you get to be so God-damned skittish?"

"Skittish," said Hilary sceptically. She was beginning to sound annoyed, but that had never stopped him yet. "Just what are you implying about my courage?"

"I would never say a thing like that to you," said St. George, affecting great offence. "I might go so far as to say you've been blessed with an excess of wisdom."

Hilary laughed, appeared to remember she was annoyed at him, and hastily stopped. "And what, may I ask, is wrong with that?"

St. George tucked the Sentinel into his breast pocket--he had folded it small enough by now to function as an incongruous-looking and ultimately nonfunctional pocket square--and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "A year ago, you would have climbed a park gate--or anything else, for that matter--just for the chance to make a nuisance of yourself, and you wouldn't have hesitated a moment over it."

"A year ago, I did."

"And as a result, you now have the privilege of my company." He offered a winning smile, but Hilary was doing her best not to be won, and after a few seconds he gave it up. "Look, if you'd rather not take the risk, I don't blame you. God knows you've had enough trouble for one day. But I'm going either way. Someone ought to--it's too great a chance to pass up entirely."

"No," said Hilary at last. "No, you're right for once. I'll go with you--if there is anything important to be learned you'll likely miss it anyway."

"Am I really that bad?" He didn't wait for her to respond. "Regardless, look at it this way: if an honest bobby catches us and we're both arrested at once, there won't be anyone for Hargrave to take it out on."

"That's lovely," said Hilary tiredly, and got to her feet. "That's really comforting, Jerry, thank you.”

“I do hope you’re going to come along,” said St. George, smiling back, enthusiasm entirely undimmed. “It’ll be a lot less fun without you.”

Hilary sighed. “I’m sorry I snapped--I think Merrick’s got me more rattled than I thought. Now if you don't mind, I think I'll take a nap, and maybe--" she offered him a weak smile-- "it'll improve my temper by tonight."

-------

"You know," said St. George quietly, contemplating the locked gate that stood before them, "the authorities don't even try, do they? If one didn't know better, one might almost think this gate had been designed to tempt people into climbing over it."

"A veritable insult to an experienced wall-climber like yourself, I'm sure," Hilary agreed sympathetically. Her nap and a few hours’ peace had improved her mood considerably, as hoped, and she found herself looking forward to a bit of harmless lawbreaking after all. "Perhaps it poses a greater challenge to those who haven't the advantage of an undergraduate education."

"Says the girl who beat me up a seven-foot wall the first time we met." St. George bounced in place once or twice. "Shall we? Ladies first works well as a rule of thumb in most things, but I'm not sure whether it holds up in cases of minor criminal activity."

"I'd better go first anyway; you might need a hand up." Hilary found a foothold on the iron railing, then another, and paused at the peak of her ascent to offer a meaningful hand; St. George declined with a polite enough shake of his head, and she swung herself over and dropped, landing neatly on her feet in Battersea Park.

St. George followed with comparable, almost pointed ease. If he was having any further trouble with his shoulder, he didn't let it show. "Have you got the time?

"It's nearly one," Hilary whispered, squinting at her watch in the light of the moon that was just rising. "If anything's going to happen tonight, it'll be any minute now."

"And they could be anywhere here." St. George frowned into the interior of the park as best he could; the area was dense with trees. "Shall we go exploring?"

"Yes, let's--though separately, I think, to be twice as quick about it." Hilary eyed the landscape rather warily--she had only been here once before, and that by broad daylight and with her aunt for less-than-congenial company. "Better be careful; make sure you aren't seen, if there's something to see."

"Right-ho; whatever you say, miss." St. George bobbed a brief curtsy, the most incongruous there had ever been, and mercifully vanished into the trees almost immediately thereafter.

Hilary muffled a fit of giggles, infinitely grateful that he had not remained long enough to hear them, and then set herself firmly back to the business at hand and went cautiously off in the other direction.

The park was, so far as she could tell, genuinely deserted. In the course of her exploration, Hilary encountered not one other living soul. By the time she even re-encountered St. George it was nearly two o'clock, and Hilary had given up the search already and was standing at the age of the lake, staring blankly at it.

"I say," said St. George at her shoulder, and caught her arm when Hilary yelped in surprise and whirled around. "Sorry--sorry--all I meant to say was that for someone so new to the detecting business, you brood very prettily."

Hilary sighed, reclaiming her hand. "Have you anything of real interest?"

"Nothing. Surprised another trysting couple--a trysting couple," he corrected himself, putting on a tolerable show of having genuinely misspoken. "They mistook me for a bobby, though I can assure you that for a multitude of reasons the error was not long-lasting. But of actual interest to the question at hand? Not a damn thing."

Hilary hummed in thought, half-turning back to look at the lake. The moon had risen further and glazed the water a very pretty silver. "Are you sure you heard right?"

"Entirely," said St. George indignantly. "There's nothing wrong with my hearing, even if they were a little way off; and anyway, how many words can you think of that sound like Battersea?"

"Flattery," suggested Hilary, "but there's no such thing as Flattery Park. Oh, hell, I really thought we were onto something."

St. George patted her shoulder. "We are onto something. We've simply been wrong about what it is.”

"That's certainly a way of looking at it," Hilary admitted. Taking a deep breath, she set her shoulders. "But in the meantime, we got something wrong, and if anything happened tonight we're most likely too late to get a glimpse of it now. We'll have another go at this in the morning."

"Time to stumble our way on out, then?" St. George glanced around. "They really ought to light these places at night. A fellow could walk right into the lake before he realised it."

Hilary snorted. "What, when they're gated and locked because people ought not to be here?"

"And yet, here we are." St. George shrugged and slid his hands into his pockets. "The view's still nice, at any rate."

Unable to determine whether he was talking about the lake or her person, Hilary settled for a vague shrug of agreement, sitting down on the edge of the dock. "It's a pity it's not for swimming," she observed carelessly, shifting to tuck one leg underneath her. "It seems like ages since I've had a decent swim."

He sat down next to her and grinned. "That's not quite true, really. During the park's official hours--well, yes, that's a fishing lake. But who's to stop you now?"

"It's marvellous, how predictable you are." Hilary tucked one leg beneath her and grinned right back at him. "You might even say I was hoping for you to say that--so if anything comes of it, I can say it was all your fault."

"You're a horrible woman," said St. George, not very convincingly. "I suppose you're going to send me in first in case of piranhas." He was already unbuttoning his shirt, and putting on a not-very-good show of looking reluctant.

Hilary shrugged distractedly, busy removing her own shoes and stockings. "Well, I shouldn't think the authorities would tolerate that, but since you've volunteered--"

"It's a thrill a minute, being your assistant," he grumbled, but while Hilary was still distracted unzipping the back of her dress, there was a quiet splash at her side and she was alone on the dock; a moment later, St. George resurfaced, folding his arms on the edge of the dock and propping his chin on them. "No piranhas yet," he announced cheerfully. "It isn't even as chilly as it should be, by rights, at this hour of the night. Quite pleasant, really--although of course this is the first time I’ve been in fit shape for bathing in far too long."

Finding the dress a little difficult to squirm free of while seated, Hilary got to her feet. "You're impressively quick at taking your clothes off," she observed.

"Oh, you're not even trying." He extended a hand to pat Hilary's ankle, and she yelped and jerked away from the cool damp of his fingers. "Are you joining me or not?"

His voice sounded somewhat muffled, so she looked down and saw that St. George had buried his face in the crook of his other elbow; Hilary paused partway through pushing her dress down over her hips. "Just what do you think you're doing?"

"Averting my eyes while you undress?" St. George offered hopefully; his voice was slightly muffled.

"Well, stop it." She eyed him doubtfully, but--as best she could determine while he was refusing to look at her--he appeared to be perfectly sincere. "You've already convinced me to strip down and jump in a lake with you; I hardly think now is the time to be chivalrous."

"Oh right, of course--I convinced you. Not that you have jumped in, yet," he pointed out, though at least he lifted his head again--and Hilary, reduced now to brassiere and knickers, dove neatly in after him. The water was quite pleasant, it turned out; pleasant enough that Hilary swam a few lazy strokes before resurfacing to tread water. "Better?"

"Much." St. George grinned, and then swam out to join her, stopping so short that the closeness could only be deliberate. "This was a very clever idea of yours. It's certainly improved the view."

Having got a good eyeful of him in return, Hilary thought she agreed; however, she had no intention of giving him the satisfaction of admitting it. "A gentleman," she reminded him, rather less sharply than she'd intended, "would remember that I'm doing this for the exercise, and the opportunity to give you an eyeful of what you're missing out on is--well. Mostly incidental."

"You sound like a lawyer," said St. George, somewhat disgruntled.

Hilary shrugged, as best she could manage while treading water. "I expect it comes of spending too much time with Amita. That sort of thing rubs off on one."

"I imagine it would, yes." St. George blinked absently for a moment, train of thought clearly derailed, and nodded towards a point some way along the shore. "How far do you reckon that is?"

"Only one way to find out," Hilary said cheerfully, and struck out for it without waiting for a response--showing her legs off perhaps a bit more than strictly necessary to the process.

-------

It proved to be an excellent lake for swimming, fish and all, and they did not return to the dock for some time. When they did, Hilary collapsed briefly onto her back next to her discarded clothing, pleasantly worn out; but something about her scanty (at best) state of dress that had seemed enjoyably flirtatious in the water made her self-conscious out of it, and she did not wait long to squirm back into her dress and shoes. St. George seemed to feel much the same way, for he dressed with equal haste and silence, and waited with hands in pockets for her to sort herself out. "Well," he said at last. "I have to say, this wasn't half a bad idea you had."

Hilary gave up trying to put her stockings back on over wet legs and wadded them instead into her purse, to be better dealt with later. "Why thank you," she said, smiling up at him as she strapped her shoes back on and got to her feet. "I can't think what I'd do without your approval." Try as she might, the words had no bite to them; she was too contented herself to feel irritable right now, or even particularly sarcastic.

"All right, you're reliably brilliant." St. George grinned back, hand brushing her shoulder as they skirted the edge of the lake towards Chelsea Gate, a dim shadow backlit by streetlamps. "Better?"

"It certainly took you long enough to catch on." She laughed, turning to look at him for a moment as they walked; if the movement pressed her shoulder more closely against his hand, that was entirely by coincidence.

St. George laughed with her, briefly, and then stopped; stopped walking as well, brow creased, like a man who had just remembered something important and rather concerning. "Lee," he said slowly.

Hilary paused in her tracks as well, peering back up at him; it was difficult to discern his expression, but the sudden change in his manner was potentially alarming. "Are you all right?"

He blinked dumbly in response, as though she had asked him something in Russian; and then he leaned over and and pressed his lips to hers, with rather less finesse than she might have given him credit for. It was only for a moment, and afterwards Hilary could only stare at him, dumbfounded. "I'm sorry," St. George said hastily, before she could find words for herself. "I forgot where we, I mean, that we weren't--"

Perhaps he gave up hope of recovering the situation by verbal means; perhaps, by some ill-advised reflex, Hilary herself closed the distance between them again; at any rate in another moment they were kissing once more, and this time neither of them seemed in any hurry to withdraw. Indeed, Hilary wound her arms around his neck to keep him to task--not because of any particular affection for him, she paused to assure herself, but because it had been a good while since she had been kissed by anyone, and an even longer while since it had been anyone who really knew what he was about. Which St. George most certainly did; he kissed thoroughly and carefully, fingers drifting over the side of her face, and for a moment Hilary was very nearly sorry she hadn't kissed him sooner.

"Well," she said as they disengaged at last, a bit more briskly than was really necessary. "Did you get what you came for?"

"I'm sorry," St. George began again; he at least had the decency to look plausibly stricken, but it was too late for either of them to have much faith in his apology.

Hilary opened and closed her mouth hopelessly. The pleasantness of the evening was swiftly giving way to irritation--both at him for trying anything and at herself for getting swept up in it even briefly. "I'm going home," she said, as firmly as she could muster, and turned on her heel to head for the gate. “Alone,” she added over her shoulder, in case St. George felt the need to suggest otherwise.

He hurried down the path after her. "Oh for God's sake, Hilary--"

"No," she said sharply, raising her voice rather than slow her stride. "No, Jerry, there's no excuse for it. None whatsoever."

"I didn't mean to, all right?" St. George scrambled to catch up with her and appeared, slightly breathless, in her peripheral vision; Hilary refused to look over at him. "It just--you were laughing and I just--" he spluttered for a moment. "And anyway, it isn't as if you complained."

"I'm complaining now." Reaching the gate, Hilary was forced to pause while she decided how to get back over. She felt suddenly very tired, her dress was clinging uncomfortably to her damp skin, and she was beginning to regret this entire excursion. "We had a deal, and it most certainly did not involve--that." She found a foothold, finally, and clambered hastily over the gate before St. George could offer her a hand. "I told you, Jerry--maybe I meant to show off a little, but that was all, and I'm sorry for playing along--oh, damn." She flinched, realising that in her haste she had scratched up the palm of one hand.

He peered through the gate. "Are you all right?"

"Never mind," said Hilary; she moved back on the pavement to give St. George room to follow her over, but felt no need to offer any assistance.

"I thought you were going home," he observed once he had his feet back under him, eyebrows twitching upwards.

"I am,” said Hilary shortly. "Perhaps you'd better do the same. I thought I could trust you, for God's sake."

Judging by the look on his face, that struck home, but Hilary didn't wait around to make sure; it was a long walk over the bridge back to Mrs. Bloom's house, after all, and going to be a far less interesting one without St. George for company.

-------

Hilary had not expected it to be all that long until she saw St. George again, and indeed it was not; the very next afternoon he slunk into Ames's office, tail between his legs and a rather delicious-smelling parcel under his arm. "Luncheon delivery for Miss Hood," he announced, by way of greeting. "Assuming she's at home to me?"

"Service entrance is round the back," Hilary informed him half-heartedly. She hadn't had very much sleep, and found herself wondering how St. George--who could hardly have had much more than she--could be so cheerful. "But you'd better hand that over all the same; it smells far better than anything you deserve to eat."

"Hot chicken sandwiches and cold ginger beer." St. George set the parcel on her desk. "I've already eaten one of the sandwiches--purely, of course, to ensure that they weren't poisonous. Or in any other way unfit for your highly exclusive tastes." He perched on the edge of her desk. "So--am I still sacked?"

"I wish I could sack you," said Hilary with sincere regret. "But I will be, if Ames comes back from lunch and spots you hanging around here. I don't think he much likes having other men hanging around his--" she grimaced-- "secretaries."

St. George looked around warily, but didn't budge. "I really am sorry," he insisted, more quietly. "About last night."

Hilary allowed herself to give him a small smile, at least. "So am I," she admitted. "I'll admit just as much of the blame should be mine--but it did startle me so." Which was true, but she didn’t feel up to explaining the entire truth to him: that she had been trying to prove to herself that the way Merrick had spoken to her hadn’t bothered her, and that any genuine attraction aside, St. George had simply got in the way of her need to make an exhibition of herself to somebody.

"Not to mention that you still appear to think it's a matter of blame.” St. George wiped his palms on his thighs. "You still don't really like me, do you?"

"Well, I don't dislike you," Hilary protested automatically, and rolled her eyes at the brightening of his grin. "Though I can't say why not, half the time--but I'd never have let you take me out to begin with if I did."

St. George shrugged, fidgeting with one of her pens. "Well, it didn't seem to go over so well at the time, either, and I never could figure out why not."

"Because it's just that inconceivable that a woman could ever resist you?" Hilary jabbed out a few more words on the typewriter and then shrugged resignedly; she should have expected that being stuck here with him would end up in having this conversation sooner or later. "Surely you must have some idea where you went wrong."

"Perhaps." He fidgeted harder, with a nervous glance towards the street door. Hilary briefly considered mentioning that Ames wasn't likely to take less than two hours over lunch, but decided she'd rather not just yet. "But I'd prefer to hear it first-hand. For the improvement of future service, you understand."

"Naturally." Hilary sighed and settled, finally, on returning to him the same complaint she'd made to Amita at the time. "Going to dinner with you--it was like going to dinner with a phonograph playing etiquette lessons on repeat. You went all stiff and formal and would hardly even touch me, and it was awful--you didn't seem much like yourself at all. Not that I had much basis for comparison at the time, but I knew what I'd hoped for out of the evening and that wasn't it."

"Really? Oh, Lord." St. George buried his face in his hands, pen and all. "And here I was trying to impress you."

Hilary patted his knee soothingly. "Does that act often work on girls you meet on top of walls at two in the morning?"

"I wouldn't know," he said hopelessly. "You really weren't my usual sort at all, and I didn't know what to do; usually women just sort of happen to me. I suppose I just reverted to training."

"And look where that got you," said Hilary ruthlessly, to cover for an inexplicable moment of pity. "All I wanted was a nice couple of nights out, Jerry, and I'd heard you were good for that. That was all. Now, if we'd had something more like last night--" She shrugged. "I don't know how it would've turned out."

St. George propped his chin in his hand sadly. "But by last night it was too late?"

Hilary pressed her lips together. "We're in enough of a mess already, don't you think?"

"Look." St. George sighed. "Can I just say, last night--I didn't mean anything tricky by it. Nor anything serious," he added hastily. "I simply wanted to kiss you, that was all, enough to forget myself a little. It won't happen again, I swear it."

"It had better not," Hilary warned him, not as sharply as perhaps she ought to have. "Otherwise I might start thinking you do mean something serious."

Something foreboding glinted in his eye. "And if I did?"

She wrinkled her nose dismissively. "You wouldn't. And even if you did, I expect it'd do you good for someone to tell you no for once."

St. George returned her pen to its place on her desk with excessive care. "I think perhaps you ought not to spend so much time with my uncle. He seems to be altogether too good an influence on you."

Hilary laughed. "So have you ever actually taken an interest in a woman before? Or do you just take whatever you can get?"

"Oh, I have." St. George nodded solemnly. "And I avoided her like the plague until it blew over. That sort of thing can get dangerous, you know."

"I wouldn't know, actually." Hilary patted his knee again and then, remembering that there was no need to maintain a pretence with no one else in the room, removed her hand. "And I have no intention of it, either."

He regarded her with interest. "No intention of what?"

"Emotional attachment," Hilary said patiently. "Love. Marriage. The old ball and chain, I hear men call it."

"I think that might be pushing it a bit far." St. George rolled his shoulders lazily. "But, well, if you don't mind taking your virtue to the grave with you, who am I to argue? It's your loss."

"Excuse me," Hilary said indignantly, before she could think better of it. "I never said anything about that."

"Good Lord." St. George straightened in alarm, nearly toppling off the edge of her desk. "What have you done?"

Hilary frowned. "I don't see that it's any of your business."

"I happen to think I've been awfully forthcoming with you, just now." He narrowed his eyes at her. "It's only fair you do the same--and anyway, it wasn't I who brought it up."

It was, admittedly, a decent point. "Well, I am human, aren't I?" Hilary said, resigned to embarrassment. "I wondered what I was going to be missing out on. So when I first went up--" She flushed slightly, despite her best efforts, and looked down at her lap for a moment. "I found myself an obliging young man--from Trinity, I think--and we fooled around for a few months. That simple. And I liked it enough that I’ve met a few men at parties since then. That kind of thing."

"The poor devils." St. George propped his chin in his hand and stared at her, looking somewhere between alarmed and impressed. "Has anyone ever told you you're a damned calculating brute of a woman?"

"Why, Lord St. George." Hilary smiled and squeezed his knee lightly, audience or no audience. "I believe that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me."

"Just don’t tell Uncle Peter about it. He’ll never get over the thought of any woman he knows going out with a Trinity man." He patted her hand, and then paused to brush his thumb a little more carefully over the bandage Hilary had wrapped around her palm. "May I?"

"What are you now, a medical professional?" Hilary turned her hand palm up for inspection, all the same.

"No, but it'd be awfully inconvenient for all concerned if your hand had to come off." St. George peered down at her hand, stroking his fingers absently over hers until a pointed look from Hilary induced him to withdraw them again. "It hasn't, has it?"

"Of course not. It's a scratch, Jerry; I put iodine and plaster on last night and it's probably already half healed." In truth, it stung like hell, but what good would it do anyone for Hilary to complain about it?

"Well, we were being chased," St. George went on doggedly. "If you had left a trail of blood or something--"

Hilary stared at him, suddenly profoundly grateful not to have known Lord Peter at as young, impressionable an age as he had. "Jerry, I was being chased. By you."

"Right, well, then--" He shrugged. "And here I am."

"An answer for everything," said Hilary resignedly, and startled to attention when the street door knocked open and Ames oozed in. "Mr. Ames," she said instantly, nudging St. George off her desk as unobtrusively as she could. "Good afternoon."

Ames peered suspiciously at them both over his glasses. "You're not meant to have visitors here, Miss Hood."

"Mr. Christianson isn't visiting," Hilary said hopefully. "He was only bringing me sandwiches."

"And I'm going right away again," St. George added, "only wanted to help Miss Hood be the most efficient she can be," and offered her an apologetic smile before bowing out the same way Ames had just come.

Man and girl eyed each other warily over her desk for a moment; Ames pushed his spectacles up on his nose without breaking eye contact. "You'd best be careful if you want to keep this position, Miss Hood; I give instructions for a reason."

Biting back the urge to point out that she did not, in fact, want to work for him, Hilary smiled politely and nodded. "I'm sorry," she said through her teeth, "won't happen again," and decided she had better have a rummage through his desk sooner rather than later.

Chapter Text

How could he think of him as an escaped murderer, a fugitive from justice, when everything was going on just as it did yesterday, and the sun was shining just as it did when they all drove off to their golf, only twenty-four hours ago? How could he help feeling that this was not real tragedy, but merely a jolly kind of detective game that he and Antony were playing?
A. A. Milne
--------------------

When St. George showed up at her door a couple of mornings later, uninvited and unexpected but with breakfast for two in hand, Hilary looked suspicious, although it didn’t stop her letting him in. “What do you want?” she asked, without even bothering with a good morning--although she did accept the paper bag he offered her, which was fresh from the bakery and certainly smelled like it.

“I need you to help me think of diseases,” said St. George with a rueful smile, and settled in on her sofa to distribute his own portion of food across the coffee-table. “Some nice contagious ones--but preferably not fatal or permanently disfiguring.”

“Over breakfast?” Hilary blurted, and then collected herself. “Just what are you trying to get yourself out of?”

“Look,” said St. George, “it really isn’t my fault. I mean, it is going to be a problem for us, but I can’t very well be held responsible, and in any case I had no idea when I moved here that five weeks on I’d still need to be making myself inaccessible. Have you tried that bun yet? They’re perfectly fresh--an hour out of the oven at most.”

“I suppose I’d better before your charming conversational skills ruin my appetite entirely.” Hilary sat down next to him and opened her bag; inside was a large hot bun and--even better--a substantial orange, which St. George happened to know to be one of her favourite breakfast foods. “All right, I suppose this is acceptable--now are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”

“It’s my birthday next week,” said St. George; it felt more like remembering a dentist’s appointment. “I’ll be turning twenty-one.”

Hilary pursed her lips a moment; then she seemed to catch his real drift, and frowned thoughtfully. “And that’s something of an occasion, I suppose?”

“Oh, nothing much.” He tore a piece off his bun. “Only an enormous party my mother’s been planning for months. Everyone worth seeing invited, except for a select handful she probably feels need to be kept in their place or something; Aunt Harriet invited too, because one can’t very well exclude one’s own house-guest, even though I doubt Mother wants her there any more than Aunt Harriet wants to be there. All the best food and music and decorations. Lots of photographs for the society pages, which I’m sure half this neighbourhood reads. That kind of thing.”

“Poor Aunt Harriet,” said Hilary with half-hearted sympathy, mouth full of orange pulp. “But if you don’t show up, surely that’ll attract attention as well?”

“Most likely, but all they’ll have to go on are archive photographs, which are notoriously terrible and unrecognisable.” He grinned. “Not to mention most of mine are from drunk-and-disorderlies and the like, so they were all taken to be purposely unflattering.”

Hilary leaned back against the arm of the sofa. “You don’t seem terribly put out over having to miss your birthday party.”

St. George shrugged. “I’ve devoted a lot of thought to it, and concluded that it isn’t really my party anyway. It’s my parents’ party, to celebrate having produced an heir and nurtured him to adulthood despite the best efforts of family detectives, loose women, and automobiles. Most of my friends wouldn’t be welcome--you, for example--and the rest would be only thanks to an error on my mother’s part regarding a correlation between breeding and respectability. Unfortunately, I’ll also have to plead some kind of horrifying disease to get out of the party my actual friends were going to throw me, but somehow I doubt that’ll stop them from holding it in my absence either.”

“I’ll buy you a pint on the day,” Hilary promised; which was, after all, more than he had expected of her. Quite heartwarming, really. “If you’re a good boy, you might even get a digestive with a candle stuck on top. What about tuberculosis? That’s a nice tragic affliction; you could get a lot of mileage out of it.”

“It’d be a great deal of fun,” agreed St. George wistfully. “Tragic Death of Titled Young Consumptive--though I would hope they could fit the words ‘handsome’ and ‘eligible’ in there somewhere. But it would do the exact opposite of what we want, which is to keep my family at a distance, not descending in bulk to pack me up and ship me off to a sanatorium. Not to mention having to live where I was put. No, Lee, I’m afraid you won’t kill me off that easily.”

“Mumps,” suggested Hilary, taking the matter seriously at last. “Influenza. Toothache. Whooping cough. Shingles. Bedsores--no, I think you have to actually stay still in bed to get those, no one would believe that of you.”

St. George pelted a small piece of bread at her, halfheartedly; after all it wasn’t any use denying it. “Not mumps either--it’s so terribly unattractive, and toothache isn’t contagious. The others show promise, though--particularly shingles. No one wants a man with shingles at their party, especially not as the guest of honour.”

“What--not even your own parents?” Intellectually, St. George was fully aware that his relationship with his parents bore little relationship to what her own family had been like, but all the same he was surprised she hadn’t got the idea already. “Surely they’d rather have you there all the same.”

“Perhaps they would.” St. George shrugged and half-smiled. “In which case I’d better take the safe option and say it’s ’flu.”

“‘Flu it is, then. What are you going to write to them?”

“Oh, nothing much; I’m severely ill, aren’t I? A nice short wobbly scrawl ought to do it. Really can’t get myself out of bed just now, deathly ill but sure to recover just fine, please carry on just as you intended and don’t worry one bit about me. All my love to Winnie, hope it all comes off splendidly, et cetera.”

“Have them save you a bottle of champagne and a slice of cake,” Hilary suggested. “That way the occasion won’t be a total waste.”

“While I’m concocting lies, shall I include you in them?” Hunting through his pockets, St. George located a pencil and a scrap of paper and began making notes to himself. “I might have to say we were living together, of course, so that my loved ones can be sure you’re looking after me around the clock, but you needn’t take it personally.”

“You might as well take the thing to its logical conclusion,” said Hilary, eating another slice of orange and giving in to the spirit of the occasion. “Tell her I’m pregnant and we think it’s a boy. That way even if you die there’s still an heir to the title, and then they really will have nothing to worry about.”

“Now you’re just making fun,” said St. George, but he laughed and wrote something down all the same. He was beginning to really enjoy this. “Are we married? Legitimacy is important, you see, and in theory I can’t spring any surprise wives on them until I come of age, but somehow I don’t think that’s ever stopped anyone.”

Hilary thought the matter over carefully and laughed. “Not yet, but we’ll be sure to take care of it before the baby comes.”

St. George made another note with a triumphant flourish. “You’ve a knack for this, you know.”

“What, upsetting your mother?” Abandoning decorum, Hilary scrambled up to sit on the back of the couch and read over his shoulder--though she tucked her feet carefully in the other direction, which kept him from seeing anything interesting in return. “I’ll admit there’s something very satisfying in it--but then again I’ve never even met the woman.”

“Really? I thought for some reason that you had.” St. George stuck his tongue into his cheek, still making notes. “The fact of desertion,” he muttered absentmindedly, “I will not dispute, but its guilt as I trust is removed--”

“So far as related to the costs of this suit, by the Alibi which has been proved,” said Hilary, through a mouthful of pulp, “meaning me, I suppose.”

St. George gave her a startled smile. “Perhaps being married to you won’t be such a hardship after all.”

“The hell it won’t,” said Hilary cheerfully. “I mean to make your last days as miserable as humanly possible. Are you really going to tell them I’m pregnant?”

“As tempting as the prospect is--no, I think not.” St. George patted her knee, giving in to temptation, and Hilary kicked him away--lightly.

“Tell them,” she said decisively, “that I’m tending to you round the clock. It’d be ever so much more fun to let them decide between themselves what that means.”

“Now that is perfect.” St. George jotted it down and put the paper and pencil away again. “It even vaguely resembles the truth--I mean, if I must be stuck here, there are so many worse people I could be with.”

“You make it sound like we’re trapped down a well,” said Hilary, but she didn’t look particularly bothered.

-------

Not in the mood to eat lunch out for once, Hilary was having a go at toasting a cheese sandwich on the small gas stove in her attic. She was just beginning to feel rather pleased with how it was turning out when the telephone rang and she felt obliged to leap for it. "Hello?"

"Hilary." It was Amita, voice low. "Can you come round the office? I've found something and I'm not quite sure what to do about it."

"Of course. You are all right, aren't you--oh, damn." Hilary glanced towards the kitchen, from whence she was beginning to see a whiff of smoke.

"I am, though you don't sound it." There was a glimmer of humour in Amita's voice for a moment. "Just be quick, would you please? I don't know how soon he'll be back from lunch."

"I'll be right there," Hilary promised, in a bit more haste than she might have usually, and ran to salvage the charred remains of her sandwich.

She arrived to find Ames still absent and Amita dutifully at their shared desk, poking inattentively at her own lunch. "Oh, thank goodness," she said by way of greeting, scrambling to her feet. "I really haven't a clue what to do--I thought you might like to see it."

"See what?" Hilary followed her back into Ames's office, not without some trepidation. "You do realise he'll have both our heads if he finds us rummaging about back here?"

"I only wanted to find his file for something I'm typing up," Amita protested. "I suppose I ought not to have been in his desk, but I'd rather that than have it unfinished when he comes back."

Hilary grimaced. "I can't say I blame you. What did you find instead?"

Amita crouched down to peer underneath Ames's desk; after a moment she fished out a soft leather-bound notebook. "This--hidden just under the drawer there. I shouldn't look at it too closely if I were you."

"What is it?" said Hilary, amused. "Obscene fiction?" She unwound the cords holding the notebook shut and skimmed through; after a few pages she found her amusement fading rapidly. The book was two-thirds full of Ames's cramped shaky handwriting, in a variety of coloured inks. There appeared to be no particular pattern to the colours, but the pattern to the entries became clear with depressing speed.

Bennett, Arthur, said the first that happened to catch her eye, having affair with his brother-in-law. The rest seemed to be in much a similar vein, though she found herself flinching away when she recognised a name. Field, Kathryn and Jeremy, for each others' safety. Finch, Margaret, embezzling from her office. Clarridge, Maud, gambling debts. Carmon, Paul, invalid sister with expensive medicines. Some names--she thankfully noted Amita's, Gail's, and Priya's among them--had no notations as yet. She flipped hastily towards the end of the book, and let out a shocked little laugh at finding Christianson, Roger, recent financial disaster & safety of C. H. and Hood, Caroline, for safety of R.C.

"I see," she said, shutting the book firmly and holding it shut with both hands. "So that's how he manages it."

It looked very much as though, while Hargrave ran the business at large, he'd left Ames in charge of getting workers under the business's thumb and keeping them there. Perhaps he had a similar system set up elsewhere--wherever it was St. George had been helping to ship crates off to. It was a job admirably suited to Ames, regardless.

"We'd better put it back," said Amita anxiously; she'd been hovering by the window in the outer office, keeping an eye out for Ames's return. "It's all very well you playing detective, but I can't afford to lose my position. It's beastly, and I know he's beastly, but it's the only thing I've got."

"No, you're right; it wouldn't do for him to notice it had been tampered with." Hilary slipped down under the desk, found the pair of metal clips that had kept the book hidden there, and slipped it back into place. "Thank you," she added, "for telling me."

"Well, it isn't as though I were going to shield him from anything," Amita declared. "The sooner we're rid of him, the better--don't you think?"

"I think you're terribly clever and you don't deserve a stitch of this." Hilary shut the office door carefully behind her, joined her friend at the outer doorway, and gave her a quick hug. "Look out for yourself this afternoon. I'll buy you dinner when it's over; you've certainly earned it."

"I'll see you at six, then," said Amita, though she didn't look sure she believed it.

-------

"Caroline?"

It wasn't the voice she had been expecting. Hilary twisted around on the sofa and found that Kathryn had come down the stairs behind her--making surprisingly little noise for such a solidly built woman. "Yes," she said distractedly, "hello--do you know if Jerry's home? He said he'd meet me for breakfast, but I crept up and knocked at his door and got no answer, and I don't dare risk Fleetston by going up again."

Kathryn shook her head. "I haven't seen him this morning, sorry. Could I talk to you?"

"Of course." Hilary gestured towards the other end of the couch. It was difficult to read the other woman; Kathryn seemed tired and oddly dulled, but then that was nothing out of the ordinary for her. "Is something wrong?"

"Not precisely." Kathryn took the offer and sat down, which was at least something. "I was hoping you might do me a sort of a favour, although it'll probably sound very silly once I actually ask it."

"I like to think my tolerance for silliness is quite high." Hilary laughed, but quickly caught herself and stopped when she realised Kathryn still appeared to be taking the matter quite seriously. "Sorry, I'm listening. What do you need?"

Kathryn bit her lip. "Well, you see--Hargrave scares me, rather, and I was wondering if you might do me a favour."

"Well, I should say he scares most of us." Hilary leaned in a tad closer, sympathetically. "But I'm afraid I can't get rid of him quite as easily as I would like."

Kathryn laughed shortly. "Oh, I wish. But it's something similar than that. I haven't given Hargrave very much reason to trust me lately, and I'm afraid he'll be sending one of his men to go through my things--or for me."

"Under any other circumstances, I'd be laughing at you right now." Hilary sighed. "I take it there's something you'd like me to look after for you? Though I can't promise I won't resist the temptation to provoke Hargrave myself."

"And I wouldn't blame you--but then again I've got personal reasons, and I hope for your sake that you never have those." Kathryn watched her patiently. "I have a box of documents I'd really rather Hargrave didn't get his hands on--can I trust you with them? They were my brother's, you see, and I want to be specially certain nothing happens to them."

"Of course." Hilary nodded quickly. "Though I do believe there's nothing to worry about, but if it gives you peace of mind, of course I'll take them."

Kathryn beamed--Hilary thought this might be the happiest she'd ever seen the other woman--and stood up. "I'll be right back."

In another minute, long enough for Hilary's thoughts to begin to stray back towards wondering where St. George had misplaced himself, Kathryn came back downstairs with a worn paper box. "It's not so much, really--but promise me not to look in here? They just want keeping in a safe place, that's all. Unless--hell, even I feel silly saying it, but if something happens I'm sure you can find a use for them."

"I would never have looked." Hilary accepted the box; it was not very big, but it rustled in a way that suggested a large quantity of small bits of paper. She was, of course, instantly wildly curious what these documents might be, but she hadn't one intention of breaking her promise, and hoped like hell that she would never have cause to. "And I'm sure it won't come to anything like that."

"I wish I could agree with you." Kathryn smiled and leaned on the back of the sofa; pessimism and all, she looked about a thousand times more relaxed than she had ten minutes ago. Whether there was anctually anything of worth in the box or not, Hilary felt that having soothed her friend's nerves was worth the almost nonexistent trouble of babysitting it. "I see there's still no sign of Roger," she added, glancing up the stairs. "Hasn't he got an alarm clock?"

Hilary sighed. "To be honest, I'd be surprised if he'd ever bothered to buy one. Could you do me a favour and go knock him up for me?"

Kathryn shrugged one shoulder idly. "I suppose it's the least I can do."

"And tell him," said Hilary, feeling suddenly wickedly inspired, "tell him I've already gone to eat on my own and he can damn well find his own breakfast."

"I'll pass it along." Kathryn laughed. "Since I owe you the favour and all, I might as well throw a bit in about how utterly furious you clearly are with him, and how a bit of bribery might not go amiss to settle the situation back down."

"Don't encourage him," said Hilary, alarmed. "If he ever gets the idea he can win my heart with presents, we’ll never get him to stop again." This was quite believable, actually, considering that their courtship was almost entirely a sham.

"I'll think of something else, then, never fear." Kathryn moved for the stairs and paused. "Are you going out without him?"

Hilary settled back with the box on her lap and set her feet on the ottoman, ankles crossed. "I think I'll give him five more minutes."

-------

While this was going on, thanks to a miscommunication the origins of which neither party would likely ever be able to trace, St. George was sitting outside Dougal's waiting, in turn, for Hilary. Being more accustomed to punctuality from her than she was from him, he grew swiftly restless. A brief stop at Mrs. Bloom's had informed him that she was not apparently at home, so surely she must have been held up on the way; he returned to the coffee shop, determined to wait there until Hilary arrived or it could no longer reasonably be called breakfast-time.

Bored witless in the meantime, he decided to have a look into the back room, and found there only Priya, poring over a pile of papers with her hair tied sloppily back. St. George knocked lightly on the doorframe by way of greeting and smiled hopefully at her when she looked up. "Are you at home, Miss Kapoor?"

"Am I--oh! Oh, sorry, yes, of course." She tucked her pencil behind her ear, looking quite academic for a moment, and St. George felt a twinge of surprise that Priya hadn't joined her sister at university; she would have fit in quite well, he felt. "Did you need something?"

"Not particularly," St. George admitted, and then decided he'd better give some sort of reason after all. "Though I was thinking--might I have a look through some back issues? I know Caroline keeps meaning to, but now she's got a job she really hasn't time, and I can always give her the highlights afterward."

"Fair enough, as long as you bring them back promptly; I like to have them about. Bit of a completionist, you know, and you never do know when you'll want to refer back to something." Priya set her papers aside for a moment. "The two of you do work so very well together, if you don't mind my saying--I thought you hadn't known each other so very long?"

St. George slipped properly into the room, shutting the door behind him and shoving his hands in his pockets. "Do you think so? I really haven't been seeing her that long--a few months, really--but I've got high hopes, you know."

"I've noticed," said Priya indulgently. "So have most of the neighbourhood by now, I should think. But she seems a bit of a difficult girl to read, your Caroline."

"You don't need to tell me.” St. George had quite forgotten for the moment that his affections for Hilary and his explanation for his current location were both meant to be ruses and no more. "I never thought I'd go for an academic sort of girl, you know--and now I've got one I'm never quite sure what to do about her."

Priya laughed. "I'm afraid I can't help you there; my own sister's a bit of a mystery to me these days. I expect that's what an education does to people."

It didn't to me, St. George almost said, but remembered just in time that he was meant to have been doing far more exciting things with the last few years of his life than obtaining a university education. "I can't say much more about your sister than you can about Caroline," he said ruefully. "I only know her through Lee--reading Law, isn't she? In her second year? She does seem rather quiet for a prospective solicitor."

"Always has been," Priya agreed. "It gave the whole family an awful shock when she said she wanted to go to Oxford. I still don't think Dad is over it; I don't know what he ever expected of her, but it certainly wasn't that."

St. George leaned back against the nearest table with an edge available and, being greeted by an alarming creak, jerked upright again with faint embarrassment. "Do you think she'll be any good at it? The law, I mean."

"H'm." Priya rustled the papers in her lap. "Amy's a marvellous student, certainly; she wouldn't be at university if she weren't. But she doesn't speak up much--and I never heard of a quiet solicitor being famous, did you? One always thinks of them as--not shouting exactly, but being very firm about things. And yet," she went on reflectively, "Amy does always seem to get her way, somehow. When she does ask for things, which isn't often."

St. George laughed; this at least was a subject on which he could offer some expertise. "I expect that's more because she's your little sister than anything else. It's a peculiarity of the species; things always seem to turn out exactly the way they like without any apparent effort on their part."

"They do, don't they?" Priya eyed him. "I didn't know you had one of your own."

"I have," St. George confessed. "Winifred--well, Winnie--" he paused for half a moment, wondering whether he ought to have said that, but surely dozens or even hundreds of men had younger sisters named Winifred? "She's like Amita in a way, I suppose--she knows to keep her mouth closed most of the time. A talent I never seem to have acquired. Although--" He frowned as a long-abandoned memory rattled free. "I seem to recall that she started out very loud indeed. In fact, I think I was quite indignant, when we first met, at the idea that someone so much smaller than me could make so much more noise than I could. But she grew out of it, naturally." Or had been civilised out of it as she grew; their mother was quite good at that.

Priya absorbed all of this with apparent fascination. "How old is she now?"

"Sixteen," said St. George sadly. "It always seems so young when I think of it, and then I remember that Lee went up when she was sixteen, and I start to get quite frightened." For the first time he found himself really sorry not to be going home for his birthday; it was too late to resolve the situation otherwise, but it did seem cruel to leave Winnie at the mercy of their mother’s friends.

"Eurgh, don't say that." Priya winced. "At least your sister is still safely at school; personally, I prefer not to consider the possibility that Amy might be doing anything there save studying. She isn't, is she?" she added, peering up warily at St. George.

He spread his hands wide. "I haven't any reason to think so--though if I did have reason, which I'll swear on any book you like that I honestly don't, I'd be sure not to tell you."

Priya laughed. "Grateful, I'm sure."

"If you did want to know," St. George went on, in the interests of being thorough, "and if there happened to be anything to know, which I'm sure there isn't, Lee'd be the one to ask. The trouble is, Lee has an unfortunate tendency to tell the truth about things. She isn't much of one for sparing one's feelings."

"I hope you aren't angling to be felt sorry for, because I've no intention of doing so." Priya glanced around the room. "Didn't you say you were looking for back papers?"

St. George glanced around irresolutely. "Right, yes, of course."

She just sat and watched him patiently. "Anything in particular in mind, or would you rather just pick out a few at random?"

"Some from around the time of my predecessor might be nice," St. George suggested. "Jeremy Field, wasn't it? I imagine it'd help to know who it is I've got to follow up."

"Makes sense enough to me." Priya twisted in her chair--apparently she shared St. George's rather lackadaisical mood of the afternoon. "Up there," she suggested, "on that shelf," and pointed. "Those are about six months old; they should do quite nicely. He wanted to be a professional artist, you know, Jeremy; it's really too bad that he never got a proper chance at it."

St. George stood up on his toes, balancing precariously in an attempt to shuffle through a dusty stack of papers on a shelf immediately above his head. "Were you two close?"

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Priya shake her head. "Not terribly so--I knew him through Gail, mostly. She took it awfully hard when he died, though of course that was a long while after they cancelled the wedding."

"Wedding?" St. George spluttered, tried with limited success to disguise it as a sneeze, and nearly lost his precarious balance in the process.

"Careful," said Priya, cheerfully unhelpful.

St. George effected a safe return to solid ground, armful of newspapers and all. "Gail and Jeremy were engaged?"

"If you can call it that; they were good friends before it and went right on being good friends afterwards, and I don't think anyone else noticed much of a real difference while they were claiming otherwise." Priya managed, somehow, to convey the impression of peering at him over the rims of a pair of spectacles she was not in fact wearing. "What's so startling about that?"

"I just hadn't heard of it before, that's all, and it seems the sort of thing one would hear about rather quickly in a place as fond of gossip-mongering as this one." St. George brought forth his selection of papers for judgement. "That, and I had the idea Gail just wasn't the marrying sort, somehow. Not ambitious, exactly, the way Lee sometimes gets-- just too caught up in other things to have much time for men."

Priya frowned, examining him narrowly. "Funnily enough, I thought just about the same thing at the time. I expect Gail and Jeremy came to the same conclusion, in the end, but she never really gave me much explanation for making or breaking the arrangement, just drifted smoothly right on through. She has a way of doing that." The frown softened into an affectionate smile that was quite clearly directed at the absent Gail, rather than at St. George, though Priya was still more or less looking at him. "Anyway," she went on, with unexpected sharpness, and reached up to relieve him of his dusty burden. "What have you found for yourself there?"

Having been granted passage back out into the rest of the world, St. George and his bundle of newspapers re-emerged into the shop, only to find Hilary sitting there quite calmly with her tea and a small mountain of toast. "Jerry," she said, startled. "What are you doing here?"

He set the papers down on a chair; Hilary's nose twitched at the resulting puff of dust. "Meeting you for breakfast, I thought, but you seem to be getting along all right without me."

"I thought you'd overslept," Hilary admitted. "As a matter of fact--oh, dear, I only just asked Kathryn to go knock you up and let you know I was coming here without you. Were you waiting here?"

"Afraid so." St. George claimed the remaining chair and filched a piece of toast from her. "I don't much mind, though; I think I may have accomplished something useful."

"You always think that," said Hilary through her toast, but St. George caught her leaning over to peer at the papers all the same.

-------

The next day was St. George's birthday; Hilary worked a few hours for Ames that morning, which did nothing in particular for her mood, and by the end of them she was resolved to celebrate the occasion to the letter of what she had promised him and no more. In fact, she was just emerging from the office on her way to go shopping specifically for chocolate digestives when a boxy Austin pulled up alongside her at the kerb--dark blue and white, and not so much new as well-looked-after. "Oh, what now?" said Hilary irritably, but she couldn't see who was inside and didn't want to risk its being Hargrave or one of his emissaries, so she stopped all the same.

St. George cranked the window open and grinned out at her. "I must admit, this birthday is turning out rather better than expected."

Hilary stared, so astonished she forgot to be irritable. "Don't tell me some unfortunate soul has given you that."

"Only lent," he said happily, and gave the steering wheel an affectionate pat. "It's Kathryn's. She thought I might like the chance to take you out of the city for a bit--get some fresh air, have a picnic with some cows, all that kind of rot."

It was an incredibly tempting image, Hilary had to admit, if only he were more trustworthy. "Does she know what you did to your last one?"

"She does,” said St. George solemnly. “Which is exactly why she lent it to me to begin with, and I've sworn to compensate her if I so much as scratch this one.”

He extended a hand out the window--symbolically, Hilary assumed, but she laughed and took it for a moment. “I’ve no objection to a bit of mischief, as long as you came by it honestly, but I’m not dressed for it at all, and someone has to actually provide the picnic. Will you settle for picking me up in an hour?”

-------

In fifty minutes she was waiting outside Mrs. Bloom’s house as promised, wearing a much more comfortable dress and shoes, and with a shopping bag at her feet. She was expecting a bit of a wait, but St. George arrived early as well; he had shed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, and the top of the car was now folded behind him. “Lovely day,” he said cheerfully, and got out to relieve her of the shopping and let her in at the other side.

Hilary tolerated the courtesy, because she really was looking forward to the afternoon, and slid into the passenger seat as St. George deposited the food safely in the boot. “Happy birthday,” she said, when he had rejoined her in the front of the car.

“Thanks,” said St. George, with the kind of anticipatory cheer that always made Hilary feel she ought to be more worried than she really was. “It seems to be turning out much better than anticipated, so far.” His arm crept along the back of the seat towards her shoulder, but Hilary nudged it gently away again. “Fair enough,” he said, mood undimmed; the car rumbled to life and pulled away from the kerb, and Hilary settled back in her seat. “How’s your day been?”

“I’ve been at work,” said Hilary bitterly. “Let’s not discuss it.”

“Then we shan’t.” He grinned over at her, though thankfully only for a moment before his gaze returned to the street in front of them. “Any preference as to destination? All I ask is the opportunity to put this machine through its paces for a few minutes.”

Hilary shrugged--though she took care to remove her hat and stow it at her feet. “It’s your birthday. Go wherever you’d like.”

They didn’t speak for a little while after that; St. George was clearly ecstatic to be at the wheel of a vehicle again, and Hilary was enjoying the breeze. Lunchtime traffic was easing up again, and they made it without too much trouble out past Wimbledon and Richmond, heading towards Surbiton with the traffic lighter all the time. “Looser speed limits out here, too,” he said happily, and sped on away from the city. “You don’t mind, do you? I’ve a suspicion Kathryn has better taste in cars than I might otherwise have given her credit for.”

“I don’t mind in the least,” said Hilary, and in fact sat up a little straighter in anticipation. “Have at it.”

St. George put his foot down, and the car shot forward, so suddenly Hilary shrieked in surprise and then laughed, half embarrassed and half delighted. The wind was roaring in her ears, too loud for conversation, and her heart was pounding, but she didn’t care; she understood very suddenly why St. George loved this so much. The only thing better than being driven this fast, surely, was to do the driving oneself, and somewhere in the back of her mind she made a note of that possibility for future investigation.

They were well outside the city by the time St. George slowed back down. Hilary laughed again and settled back into her seat. Her hair was a wreck, she was sure of it, but fortunately they weren’t on a real date anyway, so she just pushed it haphazardly back out of her face and left it at that. “Happy?” she asked, when she’d got her breath back.

“Very much so,” said St. George; he certainly looked it. His own hair was hardly as neat as it had been when they’d set out, but he didn’t seem to particularly mind. “You seem rather pleased yourself; haven’t you ever been driven this fast before?”

“Not nearly often enough,” Hilary admitted; innuendo or no innuendo, it was true. “It’s a good thing this isn’t your own car, or I’d consider asking for a turn at the wheel.”

St. George shook his head. “I don’t know whether I’d trust you, even if it were.”

“I’d trust myself better than I’d trust you, but I suppose that’s Kathryn’s lookout.” Hilary let her head fall back against the seat, watching him. “What do you make of her taste in cars, anyway?”

“Will it mean anything to you?”

“Not in the least,” said Hilary. “I’m giving you a free pass to show off for me. Part of your birthday present.”

“The nature of this present seems remarkably elastic,” observed St. George. “Just how far ought I to be getting my hopes up?”

“Not as far as they’re getting,” said Hilary easily. “I can promise you that much.”

“I’ll make a note of it.” He tapped his fingers on the wheel. “Since you ask, it’s not a bad specimen at all. A bit stiff in places, but after all--given Kathryn’s profession--I expect this one was built a bit more for hard work than speed. Now, if I had my own machine, you’d really be impressed; I didn’t much care when I had the use of it, I admit, but I’ve missed it lately.”

“I heard it hadn’t survived,” said Hilary, mildly surprised. “Where is it now?”

“In my father’s garage, waiting for me to be deemed fit to drive it again.” St. George glanced away from her, over towards the scenery at the side of the road. “That looks a likely spot, don’t you think?”

The spot was probably part of someone’s land, but there was certainly no one there at the moment to object to its being claimed for a picnic. There were trees and grass, though, and presumably a lot of ants lurking somewhere, which was all Hilary really felt was necessary, except-- “Damn,” she said, halfway through getting out of the car. (A moment later she remembered that she was supposed to wait for St. George to let her out, and decided immediately that she didn’t care.) “I forgot to bring a blanket.”

“There might be one in the boot,” said St. George, enthusiasm undimmed, and after a moment of rummaging emerged slightly dusty but triumphant. “You see, nothing to worry about.”

Having chosen her food in a bit of a rush, Hilary honestly wasn’t entirely sure what she’d bought; to her relief it turned out to be a decent assortment of cheese, bread, fruit, a few potted meats, and the promised chocolate digestives, along with two bottles of beer and a small lone candle. It wasn’t a birthday candle, more the kind of short stubby thing one kept in a drawer for emergencies, but it was the best she had been able to find on short notice.

While St. George was busy fussing with the blanket, she found her lighter in the pocket of her skirt; by the time she had his attention again, she had balanced the candle stub atop a biscuit and lit it. “I did promise,” she said, a little sheepishly; never mind that she had made the promise in mockery to begin with, it seemed like a very silly offering compared to what he would have otherwise had to look forward to. “Happy birthday.”

“A woman of your word, I see--not that I would ever doubt it.” St. George leaned over to accept the biscuit, taking it between his fingers with care, and blew the candle out. “Thank you,” he said, and grinned up at Hilary, brushing a quick kiss over her temple before pulling away again.

“Go away,” said Hilary half-heartedly, leaning back on her hands to enjoy the sunlight.

-------

St. George had rather thought of passing over the Society pages the next day, but his curiosity got the better of him; it was too tempting to know whether his absence had been missed. It had, according to the Times, but the occasion had apparently been rescued by his mother’s “consummate skill as a hostess,” and little damage had been done.

On the other end, he had got quite a nice little picnic with Hilary out of the deal, and several rounds of free drinks from the rest of their friends after that; really both parties had both got the best possible out of his absence, and his mother ought to be grateful, he told himself. Not that she would be.

--------

"Damn," said St. George, swinging in through Hilary's doorway almost simultaneously with her opening of the door itself. "Damn, damn--Lee, what are you doing here of all places? I've been looking everywhere."

"I live here," Hilary began to point out, but--noting that his distraction was quite genuine, and he was rocking back anxiously on his heels, decided to postpone that line of debate. "Jerry, what's happened?"

"Mr. Carmon's happened," said St. George obscurely. "You know, the week-night barman at the Stag and Swan?"

Hilary nodded. "I know who he is. What's he done?"

"Died." St. George gestured impatiently. "Haven't you been listening?”

"Oh, no." Hilary gaped for a moment and then stood, the better to collect both her wits and her shoes. "How did it happen? He had a weak heart, didn't he?"

St. George was by now all but vibrating with excitement. "Of course he had. Anyone's heart would be weak with a knife through it."

"That's a good one," said Hilary, startled. "Finish it off with a dash and an exclamation point and you could put it across the back of one of your aunt's novels--oh hell, Jerry, a man's dead, what am I talking about? Just tell me what's happened, would you, and try to make sense while you're about it."

"If you'd only let me explain--" He dropped down heavily onto the sofa she had just vacated; whether the great whumphing sound that resulted had come from man or furniture, it would have been impossible to say. "He was supposed to have closed up shop early yesterday evening--said he was ill and was seen closing up shop, at any rate. But when the doors were unlocked this morning there was poor old Carmon, face down over the bar with a knife in his back."

Hilary bit her lip. It had been weeks since their fizzled adventure in the park, and over a month since she had nearly stumbled over William’s body at the party; she was annoyed to find that it was taking her an effort to get back into the mindset that they were here for a purpose, and not just to carry on with everyday life. "Very picturesque, I suppose, in an awful sort of way. Who was last to see him alive? That's what you're supposed to ask in this sort of situation, isn't it?"

St. George spread his hands. "Haven't a clue yet, sorry; I've got all this second- or third-hand at closest. I thought I'd better run along and give you the news so you wouldn't miss any more of the excitement."

"Thanks awfully." Having managed at last to locate her hat and bag, Hilary pinned one to her hair and tucked the other under her arm. "Who did tell you?"

"Thomas. I'm afraid he's terribly cut up--oh, your hat's on crooked." St. George rose to his feet to correct the situation, and Hilary bent her head unthinkingly to let him. "There; much better."

Hilary patted tentatively at her head and could feel no difference, but decided that on this matter at least it was better not to question his judgement. "So where is all the excitement? I'd think the pub, generally, but under the circumstances I expect it's closed. Even with no police to close it down."

"Even if it is, it's still got a pavement, hasn't it?" St. George restored his own hat to his head--how was it, Hilary wondered, that men held a monopoly on hats that could be kept in place without pins or a lot of fussing? "I'll give you odds that's where all the gossips will be, craning to see in the windows."

"Rather morbid; but then again people always are." Hilary locked her back door and led the way down the stairs. "Good for finding things out, though, I hope."

-------

Not only had the pub closed and a crowd accumulated outside it, there appeared to be more people knotting up the pavement and chattering madly than St. George would have thought actually lived in the neighbourhood. It took some searching and weaving through the crowd for he and Hilary to find a familiar face; the first person they recognised proved to be Amita, which only seemed to prove his theory that the site was becoming a minor tourist attraction. (If true, Carmon's death was likely to end up running quite counter to Hargrave's purposes. St. George wasn't sure whether that would ultimately prove to be a good thing or not.) "You heard, I suppose," she said unhappily, catching at Hilary's arm.

"It seems everyone's heard," Hilary agreed, looking around. "What on Earth are you doing here? I thought you had to work this morning."

Amita shrugged. "Ames is all shuttered up for the day, it seems. I went to his office this morning and it was all dark and locked up; there's a note on the door saying our services won't be needed today. I was going to come by and tell you, but all this has been going on."

"Well, that's one less thing to worry about for the moment." Hilary glanced towards the front of the pub. "You haven't seen--what happened?"

"The body? Thank God, no. But Priya did."

St. George decided it was time to re-inject himself into the conversation. "Saw what?"

Amita grimaced. "Well, she thinks she might've been the last one to see the poor man alive-- or very close to it."

"Saves you a question," St. George murmured to Hilary, who snorted. "I don't suppose things are going very well with her either, then?"

"She isn't in the best of moods," Amita admitted. "But she's probably still about somewhere, if you'd like--?"

"I'd like to buy everyone here a nice soothing cup of tea," said Hilary, in an unexpected display of sentiment. "Everyone certainly seems to need it."

"It'd be a good niche for Gail to get into, if this keeps up," St. George observed without thinking. "She could take a little cart to the scenes of crimes, serve tea and biscuits to calm down the witnesses--it'd be a good service all round, really, even to the police."

Amita had turned half away from them, scanning the crowd and presumably trying to locate her sister. "I don't think she's in much of a state to make decisions right now, honestly. They were all three of them together here last night, Gail, Priya, and Kathryn; Carmon shooed them out last before he locked the door. Or so I understand."

"Then we ought to buy them something at the very least," Hilary decided, shifting from foot to foot. "It's the least we can do. Are they still about--do you see them?"

St. George was fidgety as well; a question had been bothering him, but he couldn't seem to find a tactful way to ask it. "About Carmon," he tried at last, cautiously. "Is he still about? I mean, has something been done?"

Amita swallowed. "I believe Dr. Fitzmorris has been and gone? But, you know, hearsay and all--oh!" she interrupted herself, in clear relief, and went up on her toes to wave a hand over her head. "Priya, over here--"

St. George waved as well, helpfully, since he was several inches taller, and soon enough they were joined by Priya, who looked harried and anxious and not at all like someone who had slept well the previous night, if at all. "Lot of vultures," she said bitterly. "All hoping to catch a glimpse of blood so they can rush away and tell all their friends. And of course the one person I'd actually like to see is nowhere in sight."

Hilary offered her a half-hearted smile of greeting. "Who, Gail?"

"No, I know where she is; she's gone off and opened up shop for the morning, same as ever. I don't think she wants to be anywhere near this mess--I wish I weren't. Poor man, I can't imagine what he did to deserve this." Priya passed her hand over her face. "I'm looking for Kathryn. You haven't seen her anywhere today, have you?"

"She wasn't at breakfast," St. George offered. "But then, she often isn't."

"Not terribly fond of breakfast, no," Priya said absently. "She says it turns her stomach to eat that early, and Gail always calls her horribly uncivilised for it--anyway, she certainly hasn't been seen anywhere near this ruckus. Or anywhere else, as far as I know, and however unhappy she's been lately she's generally an early riser."

"We could ask Jerry's landlord--" Hilary began.

"I phoned there first thing." St. George was beginning to think that Priya was a better detective than either of them, and perhaps he and Hilary ought to just pack up and go home. "He hasn't seen her. On any other day it'd only be rather queer, but under these circumstances--" She glanced over her shoulder at the Stag and Swan, or at least at what little of it could be seen through the slowly lightening mass of gossips, and St. George noted that Amita edged subtly closer to slip a reassuring arm around her sister's waist. "Lord, I hope nothing's happened to her; I'll never forgive myself for leaving her here."

Hilary glanced at St. George, startled, and then back at Priya. "I thought the three of you left together?"

"We were last to go," agreed Priya, still looking around in irresolute hope. "But Kathryn was last of all--Gail and I left together, but she stayed back to talk to Carmon for a little while, Heaven knows what about."

"You think she was still there when--" St. George gestured futilely; he could see all too clearly what Priya was afraid of. "Surely not," he answered himself, without even finishing the thought first. "Surely they'd be more careful than to do anything to him while there were still any customers about?"

"I hope so." But Hilary's head was tilted in thought--not at him, but at Priya. St. George wondered whether the thought was anything substantial. "Where did you go--you and Gail, last night?"

"Where did we--" Priya looked sincerely taken aback at the question. "Why?"

Hilary shrugged. "I'm only curious; if you were in the neighbourhood still, you might have seen something, and I thought it couldn't hurt to ask."

"Well, we weren't." There was a brief, odd sharpness to Priya's tone; perhaps she didn't see the need for the question any better than St. George did, but then again everyone was on edge that morning, under the circumstances. "We went for a walk--just down by the river, you know; it was a lovely evening for it. At least," she added bitterly, "we thought it was. Apparently we ought to have stayed in instead."

Amita squeezed her shoulder briefly. "She'll be fine," she said quietly, with such unexpected aplomb and firmness that St. George believed her quite unquestioningly for a moment; there, he thought in mild surprise, might be the seeds of a fine solicitor after all. "Either she saw something last night and was rattled into staying home, or--most likely--I expect she has no idea anything's happened at all. I'd hate to be the one who'll have to tell her, though," she added sadly.

"Well, you won't," said Priya firmly. "I'll do the telling, if there's anything to be told. But I do wish we knew where she was."

"Not here, it seems." St. George had been hoping that he and Hilary would be able to glean some useful information from being here, but the crowd was such that it was utterly hopeless. "Perhaps we'd better take the conversation elsewhere?"

Hilary nodded. "I'd be all for that, if the two of you are? I'd quite like to go see Gail, myself-- and I think we could all use a hot drink."

"Not I--as long as you're all right?" Amita added hastily, glancing at Priya. "I'd really rather go home and spend the day with Mum. Nice and quiet and ordinary."

"I got along for the first six years of my life without you, didn't I?" Priya managed a smile. "Go on home; I'd rather have you out of the way of this in any case."

Amita sniffed indignantly at that but departed anyway after bestowing a brief hug on her sister, leaving Priya, St. George, and Hilary to work their own way back out of the crowd and around the corner to a relatively uncrowded side street. "Where's Tom got to?" Hilary inquired, at last. "Jerry said he was terribly cut up about the whole thing; I didn't know he and Carmon had been all that close."

"Well, Tom found him this morning; didn't I say?" St. George honestly wasn't sure what he'd said, in his rush to let Hilary know what had happened, but he was sure he had mentioned the other man in some capacity. "Opened up the doors same as ever and--" He grimaced in sympathy, fully imagining for the first time how that moment must have gone. "And that was that, I suppose."

"People get used to it." Priya's shoulders were slightly hunched. "That's the really horrible thing, I think; it isn't all right, I don't think anyone I know thinks it's all right, but it's happened often enough that it seems inevitable now. It only really shocks you when it's really one of your own people, I think."

"They can't be making this up as they go along." Hilary reached out for no discernible reason and touched St. George's wrist lightly as they walked. "All of this works so well; it shouldn't, it's so unwieldy, but it's been going on for months now and it's worked nearly perfectly."

"Except for all the people who've died," St. George pointed out unhelpfully.

"Perfectly for Hargrave," Hilary clarified. "And those actually working for him. Not so much for everyone else involved--but you did say he travels a lot, didn't you?" She had lowered her voice and dropped back a little, letting Priya walk a few steps ahead of them; lost in her own dark mood, the other woman appeared either not to notice or not to mind.

St. George snorted. "As if we had any guarantee at all that what I'd heard about him before coming here was true. I wouldn't be surprised if he spread rumors about himself ]to confuse people. For all we know he isn't a he at all, but a sweet old lady with a particularly ruthless streak."

Hilary let out a quick snort of laughter, but hastily stifled it. "I can't seem to stop laughing at things right now," she said miserably. "What on earth is wrong with me? I don't want to become callous, Jerry, no matter how long we end up being here."

St. George shrugged. "Some people laugh their way through a crisis because they don't know what else to do; it doesn't make them callous. At least, I don't think it makes me callous--it certainly doesn't make Uncle callous, and he does it constantly."

"But people get used to death, when they've seen enough of it. That's an established fact, isn't it? Priya's seen it happen here, I'm sure it happened to Lord Peter--and to Inspector Parker, even--long ago. I suppose, even if death never seems any less terrible, it can become, well, commonplace. And I don't want even that to happen."

"Perhaps," St. George suggested, "with a few strokes of luck, we'll manage to do some good heroic detecting and clear the whole thing up. We'll get a break in the case, or something, and Carmon will at least not have died in vain."

Hilary stared over at him; her hands were tucked into her sleeves as though she were cold, and she looked torn between sadness, amusement and irritation. Which was, to be fair, how she looked at him the vast majority of the time, and much less unpleasant than letting either of them descend into brooding. "Do you honestly believe that?"

"That the man died for some ultimate good purpose, or that we're due for a detecting breakthrough of epic scale?" St. George shrugged again, more slowly. "The latter is always possible; as to the first, I don't think I'm qualified to speak to that sort of metaphysical speculation."

Hilary huffed out a sigh. "In books," she said, moving on with laudable haste from the prospect of St. George having retained any university education obtained in his actual lectures, "in mysteries, I mean, when someone dies, it's always worth it in a way; it always furnishes the detectives with a whole wealth of new information to work with. And even if books often aren't like real life, God knows this whole situation is absurd enough to qualify to be in a book somewhere, and it does seem a sound enough principle."

"In a book, we would have some form of authority," said St. George morosely, thinking again of the effort it had taken to catch even a glimpse of the front of the Stag and Swan. A chance to inspect the actual scene of the crime seemed far too much to hope for this time; as irritating as the local flock of gossips had been, they might prove to be the only actual source of information about what had happened. "Instead we're pretending not to have any at all, and a fat lot of good that's done us."

"And a fatter lot of good it would do us if we went about identifying ourselves as knowing Lord Peter Wimsey and promptly got knives in our own backs." Hilary's arms wormed deeper into her sleeves.

"You'll ruin your frock, doing that," warned St. George. "Puts bags in the elbows."

She pulled a face at him--not amused at all, this time. "What were you in a past life, a lady's maid? I'll wear out the elbows of my own frocks if I damn well please."

St. George laughed--he couldn't help it. Though he knew she was genuinely irritated, it might have been the most trivial thing he'd ever been snapped at over. Priya, who had still been lost in her own thoughts ahead of them, looked around in astonishment. "Sorry," he said hastily to both women at once, "sorry," and forced himself back to solemnity. "You are, of course, entitled to treat your own clothing however you like, short of outright public indecency."

"You’re right," Hilary admitted. "It's a terrible habit; I ought to have broken it years ago." Her hands withdrew from her sleeves accordingly--though it might also have been because they had reached Dougal's, and Priya had paused to let them catch up.

The news must have reached the coffee shop already--though St. George would have been greatly surprised if it hadn't. The long narrow room--never terribly spacious to begin with--was nearly overflowing; St. George was ready to guess that everyone who lived within half a mile and wasn't rubbernecking at the Stag and Swan had come here instead. For a moment he despaired of getting indoors here either, but it appeared that the majority of the clientele knew better than to get between Priya and the front counter, so that Hilary, Amita, and St. George were able to trail along in her wake without too much difficulty.

Gail, when they finally caught sight of her, looked harassed and wan but bizarrely unoccupied. "All these people," she grumbled, unprompted, by way of explanation; "you'd think more of them could be bothered to buy something to drink before taking up all of my seats."

"Are you all--" Hilary began, at the same moment Priya asked, "Have you seen Kathryn this morning?"

Gail shook her head dazedly; she looked distinctly off-colour, rather as though she hadn't slept. "No, I'm not sure I'm all right, I've been run off my feet here by people who aren't even paying me for it for the most part--and no, I haven't, not since last night when we left the Stag and Swan to go to dinner. Oh, hell, I hope she didn't get mixed up in what happened to Mr. Carmon, did she? Is she all right?"

"She wasn't at breakfast this morning," St. George admitted. "And we can't find anyone who's seen her at all."

"If I'd seen anything like what happened to Mr. Carmon," Amita suggested, faintly hopeful, "I expect I wouldn't want breakfast either."

Priya frowned. "Perhaps--but if she knew something had happened she'd have told someone. Not just holed up in her room--or at the very least, I should think she'd tell someone first."

Hilary propped her elbows on the counter and her chin in her hands. "I can't say I'd blame her if she did; she's had such a rough time of it in the last few months."

"All the same, I can't believe she would." Priya shook her head stubbornly. "It isn't a bit like her."

"I could go home," St. George suggested. "See if anyone's seen her. Most likely we're all worrying ourselves for nothing, and the poor old girl overslept and knows nothing whatsoever about any of this."

"I do hope so." Hilary patted his arm absently. "You might ask Mr. Fleetston, too, if you're on speaking terms with him today."

St. George grimaced. "That man is never on speaking terms with anyone."

"Not with you, anyway." She half-smiled encouragingly. "You’re officially a grown man now, aren’t you? Go ask him--and good luck."

"I'll go with you," Amita offered. "Not to talk to your landlord, I mean, but I made lunch plans with Dad; I'd better go."

"Look after yourself, all the same." Hilary's smile, half-hearted as it was, slipped further. "Both of you. God only knows what's going on around here, lately."

"I'll call here and let you know if anything unfolds, though I'm sure we've had more than enough of that for one day." St. George glanced at Amita, who edged over a little closer to his side. "I don't think our paths lie together any further than the front door--but shall we?"

-------

When St. George and Amita had gone, their departure obscured by half a dozen customers coming and going from the counter and--much to Gail's evident relief--buying drinks, Priya went round behind the counter and took her friend's arm. "Time for you to get off your feet, I think."

"And who else, I ask you, is going to run the place?" Gail scowled.

"You, of course; if you want to get technical about it, you run it even when you're drunk. Or asleep. But I'm perfectly capable of minding the till for half an hour." Priya cast Hilary a beseeching look. "Do something with her, won't you?"

Hilary joined them and took Gail's other arm, a little more gently. "The place won't vanish if you let it out of your sight. I promise."

"Are you sure?" Gail grimaced; up close she looked visibly off-colour. As she wavered, an elderly couple approached the till, and Priya abandoned them to take the pair in hand without hesitating. Finding herself thus replaced, Gail sighed. "Half an hour," she warned Hilary, "no more," and tugged her arm free before retreating into the back room.

At the moment only one chair was free of books and papers, so Hilary let Gail have it and found a spot for herself on the threadbare carpet at her friend's feet. "What's wrong? I didn't know you'd been ill."

"I wasn't, until this morning," said Gail miserably. "I expect it's something I ate; the place Priya and I tried for dinner last night was rather seedy-looking, though the stew tasted good enough at the time. All she had was a vegetable pie, damn her, so of course she's right as rain."

"Luck of the draw, I suppose. I'm sure it'll pass soon-- oh, was it that place around the corner?" Hilary settled more comfortably on the carpet, feet tucked under herself, and promptly sneezed. "I don't like the look of it myself; it smells appealing, but it always looks sort of grimy inside when I look in the window. I hope you at least had a nice walk."

"Walk? I wish." Gail shook her head.

Hilary wavered between worry and confusion. "I only thought--well, it was such a nice evening, I thought it might have been a good time for a walk on the Embankment."

"So it might have been, but we ate dinner, parted ways, and went home. A proper waste of an evening," said Gail gloomily, "even if that had been all that had gone wrong. Oh God, poor Carmon. Poor Kathryn, probably, wherever she's hidden herself away. Poor all of us." She groaned and dropped her head down between her knees. "The hell with a walk, I wish I had a drink."

"That's right, get sloshed on top of the bad meat. I hear it's what all the doctors recommend." Hilary patted the other girl's shoulder. "I don't know what to say about the rest--" this was truer than she was willing to let on, but she didn't want just yet to examine the idea that at least one of her friends was lying to her-- "but your gut will settle down if you just wait it out, I promise you that much. I really wish you'd go home."

Gail let out another pathetic groan. "I know, but it never seems like it, does it? And I don't want to go home. I'd much rather stay here. In case someone hears something."

"I don't blame you." Hilary scrambled back to her feet. "I'm going to go get you a cup of tea, all right? Something nice and soothing. Don't do any calisthenics while I'm gone."

Gail sat up partway and produced a wan smile. "I don't think there's much chance of that."

-------

Hilary was wakened at an ungodly hour that night by a minor commotion at her door. She didn't bother glancing at the clock to find out just how ungodly the hour was, just located the nearest robe to hand and shuffled out to make whatever it was go away again.

The commotion turned out for the second time that day to be St. George, and tremendously indignant about it to boot. His hat and tie appeared to have abandoned him at some point in the interim. "Can't a man even get a place to sleep any more?" he demanded, somehow managing to make it from the outside landing into the sitting room without Hilary letting him through the door in between.

"I know the idea has been difficult for you to grasp," said Hilary sourly, "but you don't in fact live here. Haven't you got a home of your own?"

"Some home," complained St. George, wobbling distinctly on his way to the sofa. He didn't quite make it there, but seemed perfectly content to sit where he'd found himself on the floor. "The man locked me out. I say it's thoroughly unreasonable. What civilised person comes home before midnight, anyway?"

"What civilised person fills himself to the brim with liquor on a Wednesday night?" returned Hilary. She supposed she ought to be grateful he'd chosen to take possession of the sofa and not her bed.

"A civilised person," said St. George, rather pompously, "who has been detecting things. Terribly important things."

Hilary tightened the belt of her dressing gown with a vicious jerk. "I'll get you some water. I think you need it." On a sudden whim, she came back from the kitchen with not one glass of water but two, and set one on the coffee table.

"I don't need water." He eyed the glass in her hand with great suspicion. "I've had plenty to drink already."

"Oh, trust me, you do," said Hilary, and upended the glass over his head.

"Hey!" St. George yelped, giving himself a brisk shake, though when he'd pushed his wet hair back out of his face his eyes looked substantially more focused. "And what, may I ask, have you done with your evening?"

"Lent my sitting room for the night to a drunken lout." Hilary wandered off again, this time to the bathroom for a towel, and when she returned found that St. George had hauled himself far enough up to be dripping all over her sofa instead of her carpet. His loss of dignity was more than worth the trouble. "Here you are," she said, feeling the playing field to be evened, and tossed him the towel.

He muttered something that sounded suspiciously like "wretched humourless woman," but the words were muffled in his brisk efforts to scrub his face dry, and Hilary cheerfully pretended not to have heard anything.

She offered St. George the second glass of water to drink, and he sipped dutifully from it. "Now," Hilary said at last, sitting down in front of him on the coffee table, "just what have you been up to that's worth knocking me up at this hour?"

"Having a drink with Thomas. Two drinks, I suppose. Maybe three." St. George frowned in confusion for a moment but then grinned at her again, cheer evidently undamaged. "Have you thought of getting a new dressing gown? That one's wearing a bit thin in places--fit looks a bit snug, too. Quite a fetching colour, though."

"You can sleep in an alley for all I care if you don't start making yourself useful," said Hilary grimly. "I don't give a damn if Hargrave's decided to surrender to you in person."

St. George tipped slowly to one side, suit and all, to rest his cheek on the sofa arm. "You must be a tremendous riot at parties."

"I can enjoy a party just as well as you." Hilary resisted the urge to tilt her own head sideways to go on meeting his eyes. "But this isn't a party; it's just you being a nuisance."

"It might yet become one. I have a talent." St. George extended a hand towards her, appeared to forget a moment later what he was doing with it, and let his arm fall again. "What's that disaster that's befallen your head?"

Hilary resisted the temptation to reach up and touch the rags knotted into her hair; they had been part of her routine for months now, and she barely even spared the process a thought any more. "You were telling me about Thomas," she said with what patience she could manage. There was nothing she wanted less than to be playing detective right now, but she had had friends at Oxford whose memories tended to go blank from the moment alcohol first crossed their lips to the time they woke up next morning, and she didn't know whether St. George was likely to turn out the same.

"Right. Of course. Thomas. Poor blighter," St. George reflected, unhappily. "Shed a lot of tears into his Scotch and not a few into mine. It seems Carmon was his second uncle ten times removed, one of those kinds of things, known the boy since he was in nappies. Since Thomas was in nappies, I mean, I'm fairly certain."

"I should think so." Hilary hoped she was being encouraging.

For a moment St. George beamed as though she'd given him an enormous compliment. "People used to tell Carmon things," he went on, rolling over to address this to the ceiling, with more illustrative hand gestures. "Naturally they did--he was the barman, it was his job, but what with his being particularly close with Thomas, he used to pass on the particularly interesting bits. All strictly in confidence, et cetera, but our friend Kathryn having blipped so inconveniently off into the ether last night, it seems there was one particular bit that's been sticking in the boy's mind."

Hilary caught herself leaning forward hopefully.

"It seems Kathryn took rather more to drink after her brother died--understandable, I suppose, though I wouldn't have thought her the type." St. George's hand, still dangling over the edge of the sofa, was tracing absent patterns over the carpet. "And when she got a few in her she said some rather nasty things to Carmon on the subject. She was particularly fond of saying she'd like nothing more than to put a bee in Hargrave's bonnet, if only she could find just the right bee."

"Was she, now?" Hilary slumped entirely forward, putting her chin in her hands and frowning. She was thinking of the box Kathryn had entrusted to her, which was tucked safely away behind a stack of books on a shelf near at hand. She hadn't yet told St. George about it, but if it was time to open that box, it was also time to confide in St. George about it.

Well, tomorrow it would likely be time. Tonight he didn't seem likely to be of much further use.

"I suppose she must have found something really juicy," she mused. "I wonder whether she shared it with Carmon--or whether they simply killed him because he was there--but it's a pity she never got to put it to use either way, if it was enough to get Hargrave worried."

"Thomas and I are going to mount a rescue mission," St. George announced into a sofa cushion. "Charge right in with guns blazing and all the rest of it. It'll be terribly thrilling, and we'll have her back safe and sound in no time. You'll love it."

"Just you tell me where to show up," said Hilary indulgently. "I'll happily join you."

"Of course. Wouldn't be the same without you." St. George waved a lazy hand at her.

Hilary sighed. "I haven't got any spare bedding to lend you, you know."

"Don't need it," he sulked, and huddled deeper into his jacket; a moment later he was snoring.

Feeling rather that she could have done with a drink or two herself, Hilary left the glass of water at his side and shuffled back to bed.

------

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 slam of a door far too close by. “Don’t do that,” he said, trying to pull a pillow over his head--but there was no pillow, and when he flailed out to find one he rolled right off the sofa with a thump.

What the hell was he doing on a sofa, anyway?

“Look what you’ve done,” he went on, finding his way over onto his back to try and see just who was making all the trouble. “Must you really crash about like that?”

“I thought you were asleep still.” Hilary leaned over him, frowning. “How are you feeling?”

St. George let his eyes close again. His shoulder was aching, probably because he had landed on it when he rolled off the sofa. “How do I look?”

“Terrible,” she said cheerfully. “But I’ve brought some bacon and eggs; I bribed Gail into bundling some up for us. I thought you could use some, and I could certainly do with something solid given how much sleep I didn’t get last night.”

The parcel she’d brought in with her certainly smelled delicious enough; by the time St. George had sat up and was examining the crumpled wad of fabric that had been his jacket, Hilary had gone into the kitchen and was clattering plates around. “Your head,” he said suddenly. “There was something wrong with your head, wasn’t there?”

“I had my hair in rags,” Hilary confessed, dropping a plateful of bacon, eggs, and toast on the coffee table in front of him. The food looked rather jumbled for its journey, but no less delicious, and St. George attacked it eagerly enough that for a minute he nearly forgot his headache. “Not that that seemed to discourage you any.”

He hesitated between. “I didn’t pester you too much, did I?”

“You beat down my door at two o’clock on a Wednesday night and claimed my hospitality without asking first--but not in the way you mean, no.” Hilary sat down on the sofa beside him and tucked into her own plate. “You made a few passes, but I don’t think your heart was in it.”

St. George groaned and let his head drop between his knees, weighing whether he ought to apologise for trying or for not trying hard enough. It seemed safer to leave the matter entirely alone, and anyway parts of the rest of the evening were beginning to come back to him. “I hope the occasion was some use to you.”

“I think it might have been, actually.” She half-smiled, and he found himself relieved. “There’s still been no sign of Kathryn; Gail’s really beginning to be dreadfully worried. I think you might have been onto something with Thomas.”

“Well, that’s good, because it didn’t feel like much at the time. No one should have as many opinions about typesetting as that boy does.” Having rapidly exhausted his supply of breakfast, St. George remembered his headache and grimaced. “You haven’t by any chance got--”

Hilary’s own mouth was full, but she nudged a glass of water and a couple of aspirin tablets closer to him.

“You are a goddess,”said St. George, with complete sincerity, and sent the aspirin after the bacon and eggs with all due haste. “I owe you something enormous, but I can’t think well enough to decide what just now. What are your feelings about jewellery?”

Hilary’s eyebrows lifted.

“An automobile, then,” he concluded. “A deep red would suit you nicely, I think.”

“I need to go to work soon,” said Hilary, and waved at the plates. “You might start with cleaning this lot up--I’d tell you to make yourself at home until you feel better, but you’ve already done that.”

St. George tried to smile apologetically, but it came out more of a grimace. “I shudder to think what you must think of my drinking ability. I can hold my liquor all right, but every man has limits.”

“That reminds me,” said Hilary, who had been on the verge of standing up. “I’ve something I ought to show you, before I go for the day. Since Kathryn hasn’t reappeared.” She went to rummage through her bookshelves without further explanation, and for lack of anything else to hold his interest St. George gathered up the plates and wobbled to his feet to take them to the kitchen.

When he returned with more water, Hilary had found what she was looking for: a small paper box, apparently, tied shut with string. “What’s in it?” said St. George--very understandably, he thought.

“I don’t know.” Hilary set it down in the center of the coffee table and stared down at it as though she thought it might be a bomb. “Kathryn gave it to me last week--she said I was to look after it for her, and only open it if something happened to her.”

“Then why don’t--” St. George began, and hesitated, seeing her expression. “Oh, I see.”

“Better to know than not,” said Hilary, jaw set. “But for all we know she could show up by lunchtime just the same as ever, and we’d have dug up something terribly private for no reason.”

“I don’t think detectives have much luxury to worry about privacy,” said St. George,” and anyway you know perfectly well you just want to look inside already.”

“Guilty as charged.” Hilary sighed and turned away, leaving the box where it was and picking up her purse instead. “Let’s give it until tonight, after I finish work. You can buy me dinner, and we’ll consider the debt paid. Or even better--” She grinned.

“What?” said St. George warily.

Hilary found her purse and tucked it under her arm. “Next time you feel the need to get tight in a good cause, bring me along for the fun, won’t you?”

Chapter Text

"Of course, when people bury treasure nowadays they do it at the Post Office bank. But there are always some lunatics about. It would be a dull world without them."
Arthur Conan Doyle
--------------------

Later that evening, after a late and thoroughly mediocre dinner that St. George felt to be a waste of his hard-earned wages, they reconvened in Hilary’s sitting room. The box was still sitting on her table, looking ominously normal and harmless, and Hilary and St. George sat down side by side on the sofa to stare back at it.

“Well,” said Hilary brightly, “at least we can be nearly certain it isn’t a bomb.”

“At least then we’d know what to do about it,” said St. George; it wasn’t that he wanted Hilary’s house to be blown up, but there was something appealingly simple about the thought of dealing with explosives instead of endless fruitless intrigue. “I’ll risk it, if you’d rather not.”

“That’s the feeblest effort at chivalry I’ve ever heard,” said Hilary with unsurprising scorn, and reached to unfasten the lid herself.

There was another minute’s silence while they contemplated the contents; then Hilary withdrew the bundle of letters and turned them over in her hands. “These don’t look like something we ought to be reading,” she said, and then sighed. “And you’ve probably had enough of my waffling for the day, so we’re going to anyway.”

“Ribbons and perfume and everything,” said St. George, impressed, as she divided up the bundle and handed him half. “Someone’s been going about their affairs in a very traditional manner.”

“Maybe not so recently.” Hilary’s nose wrinkled. “This paper looks awfully old, and see--this one’s dated in June of 1917.”

St. George rustled through the letters in his own hand; they spanned a few years, but none later than 1920 that he could find. “Then she’s forgiven, whoever she is.”

“Not for her taste in men,” said Hilary with a grimace. “Have you seen the signature?”

The letters were signed, one and all, by Hargrave--and with no last name attached, either.

“It was a long time ago,” St. George observed hopefully. “Perhaps it was his father. And perhaps his father was really quite a decent chap.”

Hilary laughed. “Let’s assume that until further notice.”

In the next few minutes they were able to ascertain that the letters were all written from Hargrave--a Lord Hargrave, if not the current one--to a woman named Julia, whose last name was nowhere in evidence; they bore little resemblance in form or content to any of Hargrave’s more modern correspondence, apart from being written on the same paper. By all appearances they were all genuine love letters and nothing more, but St. George was a little uncomfortable reading them too closely; they were extremely descriptive in places, and there were some things he just didn’t want to add to his mental picture of the man.

Hilary seemed unconcerned, or else she had got the less explicit share of the reading material. What she did appear to be was frustrated. “Perhaps it’s a code,” she said at last. “It’s a very cleverly disguised one if so, but there must be something important about these. There must be. Kathryn was so insistent about it.”

St. George sighed and dropped his stack of letters on the table in front of them. “Must we venture into codebreaking tonight? I’m not sure I’m up to a close examination of his prose, if it’s all like this.”

Hilary laughed. “It’s such fun seeing you get prudish about things--but all right, we’ll leave these for now. They’re rather beginning to stick in my throat, too.”

-------

Hilary was on her way to Ames's office one afternoon the next week--trudging, one might have said, except that Hilary refused to think of herself as trudging, no matter how reluctant she was to get where she was going. It was such a terribly unflattering word.

She was making her way to work, regardless, when someone behind her called out. "Oh! Miss Hood, isn't it?"

Hilary paused, turning on her heel. The elderly woman approaching her looked familiar, but it took a few moments to place her. "Mrs. Anderson?" she ventured.

"Yes, that's right. How sweet of you to remember." Mrs. Anderson, five feet in height at absolute most, beamed up at her in approval. "How are you finding the neighbourhood?"

"I quite like it," said Hilary, not quite dishonestly. "I've met such a lot of lovely interesting people--though no ghosts yet, I'm afraid. How's yours holding up?"

Mrs. Anderson giggled. "Still as lively as ever. I've often wondered whether I might not go down there and see what it's all about, for I can't imagine she's anything but friendly, but it's so terribly damp down there, you know. And what with my rheumatism--now that, you wouldn't know about, but I expect you will some day."

Hilary glanced briefly down the street, and then looked back at Mrs. Anderson. She hadn't really devoted much thought to the subject of ghosts since their first meeting, but a vague suspicion stirred in the back of her mind. "Mrs. Anderson, I'm afraid I've got to get to work--"

"Oh, of course you must." The woman waved carelessly. "I only thought I'd say hello."

"And I'm pleased you did," said Hilary patiently. "I was just thinking--I might like to do a spot of ghost-hunting myself, if you shouldn't mind letting me into the building one night. You've got me rather curious myself, now."

"Why, of course." Mrs. Anderson patted her arm. "Any evening you like. Just be sure and let me know what you find out."

-------

St. George had been summoned to his own employment that Friday evening, which Hilary supposed was just as well; when she thought about ghosts, which was rarely, she imagined them as rather nervous creatures, easily startled. The smaller the number of investigators involved, she felt, the better; and if there turned out to be nothing in it at all, there was no need for her to embarrass herself by admitting to him that she'd got desperate enough to look for information from a spiritual source.

Not that she really thought there were spirits involved; she was perfectly willing to admit the possibility, but there were so many more probable explanations in a neighbourhood riddled with underground tunnels and people behaving suspiciously. Either way, she had been buying up codebreaking books and trying to apply their contents to the letters in Kathryn’s box with no success whatsoever, and a spot of ghost-hunting seemed at least like it might be a change of pace.

Most probable of all, of course, was that luck would not be with her and she would see nothing whatsoever; after Hilary had been sitting down alone in the basement for quite some time, this prospect began to look more and more likely. She had brought along a torch, but she didn't dare light it unless absolutely necessary, which had left her unable to check her wristwatch or do much of anything else but eat her dinner of cold sandwiches in pitch darkness. With those gone, Hilary sat back quietly and set about composing the better part of a column for the Sentinel in her head, wishing more and more for company all the time. Even if St. George were otherwise occupied, she thought ruefully, Gail and Amita lived in this very building, and might at least have found the prospect of ghost-hunting an entertaining one.

Somehow, without pen and paper to keep it in line, the column grew grimmer and grimmer in her head, until Hilary was just about resolved to stuff every penny she had to her name into the nearest poor-box, if Lord Peter would allow her to. It might have been a good idea on principle, but it would most likely make for poor writing, so she elected instead to scrap the whole idea. She was just about to risk the torch, if only so that she could look at her watch and decide how much longer to wait before giving it up as a bad job, when something rustled nearby--not coming down the stairs, but somewhere in the basement already with her. It occurred to Hilary far too late to wonder whether there might be rats in this basement, although she didn't think it sounded like a rat; all but holding her breath, she shrank back into her corner, scrabbling to get a tight grip on her torch but otherwise keeping quite still.

There were a few more noises from the opposite corner--not rats, Hilary told herself firmly, it sounded more like the swish of a frock--but nothing much came of it for what felt like several more minutes. And then, at last, she began to see light. It was only the flickering light of a torch coming down the stairs, but after sitting so long in the darkness Hilary squinted and flinched away from it all the same. It wasn't until the figure had nearly reached the last step that she was able to focus and recognise the figure.

It was a good job she hadn't invited Gail along to chase ghosts after all, Hilary decided, because it seemed Gail was the ghost.

At this realisation she froze entirely, watching as Gail crossed the basement with torch in hand. When she reached the corner opposite Hilary, the light washed over a second figure that had been there waiting for her. Certainly not a rat, which was some small relief, but even in the feeble distant light it wasn't difficult to recognise the other woman as Priya, and that wasn't a relief at all.

Across the room, Gail and Priya whispered together briefly; someone giggled, and then they vanished together into the shadows. Hilary remained quite immobile--still clutching her torch, though there was no real way it could help her beyond the soothing feeling of cold metal in her fingers--and waited several minutes after they'd gone, just to be absolutely certain, before switching her own light on and going to examine the opposite corner. Just as she'd thought, there was a narrow opening there and a tunnel extending beyond it, but somehow she didn't fancy the idea of investigating any further without a companion at her back. To her mild surprise she realised she would have very much liked St. George’s help after all; he would have been fool enough to go after them and resolve the situation immediately, but Hilary found after a minute’s careful self-examination that she fell just shy of that mark.

It was pretty unpleasant, slipping home alone and wondering what to do about what she'd learned, but what Hilary really couldn't decide was how to explain it to Mrs. Anderson. Or to St. George.

-------

Meanwhile, not really so far away, St. George was hard at work for once in his life and trying not to regret it. His shoulder had given him no trouble for a good couple of weeks before the end of term, but it was beginning to produce sensations that--while not themselves painful--suggested that pain was about to set in very soon. Somehow he didn't think Smirt or Ames would be particularly sympathetic to the problem, so he was doing his best with the problem; he would need to give Dr. Fitzmorris a visit in the morning, perhaps, and see if there was something that could be done. It had been more than enough of a bore going without the use of his arm the first time around; a second time in a row would be intolerable. Not to mention that there was no way to know whether his inability to work might mean a risk to Hilary's safety.

The evening's work party had arrived in the underground chamber to find it quite empty, and at first St. George had entertained the hope that they wouldn't be needed that night after all and could go quietly home again. But the same ship had been anchored outside again--or a quite similar one, in any case--and tonight's task had turned out to be not loading cargo into it, but loading the self-same crates (or so it appeared to St. George) back onto land. The things really were abominably heavy, too; much heavier than when they'd been sent out, heavy enough to require two or three men at a time to lift them, which at least gave him the opportunity with a little ingenuity to let his left arm bear the brunt of the labor.

As before, when the task was finally finished, there was a few minutes' pause before they departed. St George took advantage of this time to sidle nearer to the crates, although he'd already noted that they appeared to be pretty securely locked. He couldn't help feeling that it was terribly important to find out what was inside them while he had the chance, but his efforts at stealth were foiled when he was joined there a middle-aged man whose name St. George had yet to find out. "Care for a cigarette?"

"No, thanks, I've got some of my own." St. George patted his trouser pocket. "I just prefer to save it until we've got back above ground; it feels like celebrating an escape."

"I suppose I can see that." The other man lit his own, all the same.

With a tinge of regret, St. George gave up his hopes of getting a chance to examine the crates more closely. "Is it always this kind of thing?" he inquired, mostly to be social. "Loading boxes on, loading them back off, repeat indefinitely?"

"Afraid so. Not very interesting, I know, but it pays well enough, and one learns quickly enough not that it's safer not to wonder too much about them."

St. George wiped his palms on his thighs, wincing at another twinge in his shoulder--and then at the smears of dirt his hands had left down the front of his trousers. "So no one knows what he's moving in these things? Or where they go to, or come from?"

"No one that I'd care to risk asking." The older man shrugged. "I've heard that poor young man Field got a look inside one once, but never what he saw there. And in any case, he was always nosing about in Hargrave's business more than was good for him, and you see what came of that. Not pleasant, I'm sure, but you see it's wiser to keep your head down around here."

"I see," said St. George, on the grounds that he could see very well without agreeing in the slightest, but before they went back out he made a quiet note to find a way to get a look into a crate.

-------

"That's absurd," said St. George firmly, next afternoon, when he was nursing his assorted muscular aches in Hilary's sitting room. It was fortunate her sofa was so terribly comfortable, because there certainly wasn't much soothing about the conversation. "I'm not even sure what you're implying, but I can tell you right now that I've no intention of buying into it."

Hilary scowled. "I'm not implying a damn thing. I just thought I'd better share it with you."

He settled comfortably back into the corner of the sofa. "I should think they spend more evenings together than apart; it's only natural one evening should become much like another."

"God help the poor woman you marry, if that's the attitude you take towards her." Hilary claimed the other end, perching on the arm and folding her feet up onto the cushions, shoes and all.

"That's not at all the same thing." He shrugged, half-heartedly indignant. "Nor was it my point."

"Look here, I don't find Gail and Priya terribly convincing as villains either." Hilary sighed. "I know perfectly well there are hundreds of perfectly ordinary reasons why people make things up, or that they might have simply got confused; all I'm saying is, they've two separate stories about the night Kathryn disappeared. And they're certainly up to something very secretive in that basement."

"I'll grant you that," St. George admitted. "But people get up to all sorts of secretive things that aren't illegal. Or perhaps they simply went exploring. It can't hurt to know one's way around down there."

"I've been thinking perhaps we ought to do the same sometime," said Hilary. "See just where they go, and what they might have been built for, if not Hargrave's convenience. Believe me, no one'd be happier than I to believe that Gail and Priya are quite blameless in this mess."

"I'm all for exploring," said St. George drowsily, head dropping back against the back of the sofa. "But not for a few days, surely? I'm all worn out still from last night, and I've got to make an appointment to see Dr. Fitzmorris."

"It's astonishing, how quickly you're becoming decrepit now we're out of university." He couldn't see Hilary's expression; it would have been too much work to lift his head and turn it towards her to find out. "Nothing too terribly wrong, I hope?"

"I certainly hope not--it's my shoulder again. I'm hoping he can give me something to stop it hurting, at the very least. I hope you don't mean to go exploring without me in the meantime. I'd hate to miss all the fun."

"You are getting decrepit," said Hilary, with a distinct hint of relish. St. George sulked at her. "But out of respect for the elderly, I'll be sure to wait until it's taken care of."

-------

Dr. Fitzmorris did his best to be reassuring when St. George went to visit him the next morning, but the effect was rather the opposite. “It looks well enough under the circumstances--I hope you’ve been careful?”

“Ish,” said St. George, uncomfortably. “Lifting from the knees, and all that. But it does burn, and sometimes it pulls, rather, in a very alarming fashion. Isn’t there anything I can do to help it along?”

“Not much more than you’ve been doing, I’m afraid.” Fitzmorris’s fingers probed his shoulder gently; St. George winced and tried to sit still. “If it gives you much more trouble, I may have you wear it in a sling.”

“I still remember the exercises the physical therapy chap gave me,” St. George suggested. “Ought I to be doing those again?”

Fitzmorris pursed his lips. “I wouldn’t start again--not yet. Better for now to rest it as much as you can, which I expect will be challenge enough for you.”

“It is my right arm,” St. George pointed out. “I do need it for things. Most things, in fact.”

“You survived just fine without it the first time you hurt it,” said Fitzmorris implacably. “As a matter of fact, perhaps I’d better put you back in the sling for a few days or so, just to see if it helps the pain. You can take it off again if you really need,” he added, in response to St. George’s grimace. “For heavy lifting, for example.”

This was perhaps the least encouraging thought yet. “Look here,” began St. George hopefully. “You’re on rather even terms with Hargrave, aren’t you? I mean, no love lost and all that, but it’s clear he trusts you on important matters like, say, dealing with corpses. That is what happened to Will and good old Carmon after the fact--isn’t it? I certainly don’t recall either of them having a funeral.”

Fitzmorris looked more bemused than offended. “Are you trying to blackmail me out of making you wear a sling?”

“What? No, of course not; I think you’ve been living here much too long.” St. George laughed. “I only thought you might be able to put in a good word for me, as it were, and see if I might be given another job more suited to my delicate condition. And then I suppose I sort of accidentally got curious along the way.”

“I could try,” admitted Fitzmorris. “But he isn’t exactly known for his compassion.”

St. George sighed. “I don’t much relish the thought of my shoulder popping out again--let alone the thought of what might happen to Miss Hood if I couldn’t work at all. I wish I could glue the thing back in place.”

“I don’t think that would work as well as you hoped,” said Fitzmorris, with only a hint of humour. “Dislocated shoulders aren’t much fun, I know, but there really isn’t much to be done for it besides trying to limit the damage.”

St. George applied himself to buttoning his shirt back up. “Some girls like a man in a sling, you know; it appeals to protective instincts, or something. What do you think, doctor--is Miss Hood the type? There must be an upside to this somewhere.”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Fitzmorris frankly. “But I wish you the best of luck. And as for your other question--”

St. George’s mind, already elsewhere, took a second to backtrack and recall what the question had been. “What about it?”

“You’re a good guesser,” said Fitzmorris. “Let’s leave it at that.”

-------

Hilary reconvened with St. George late the next evening, outside the news-stand just as they had several weeks ago. His right arm was tied up in a sling; it coordinated oddly well with his collarless shirt and battered trousers, and she rather suspected he had dressed to encourage sympathy as much as to be practical. “Well,” said St. George, trying not to fidget with the sling, “this seems rather familiar. Are you going to need goading again?”

“Are you going to need a leg up?” Hilary returned; she considered asking about the sling, but that would have given him the satisfaction of knowing she was concerned, and anyway she already knew what it was for. “You don’t look fence-worthy, but we did agree something ought to be done, so I'm off to go do it. I'll make sure to tell you all about it when I get back.”

“The hell you will,” said St. George cheerfully, and scrambled one-handed over the fence, which mercifully had a few footholds along the way. The process looked rather more awkward than it had last time; for both their sakes, Hilary hoped there wouldn’t be too much more climbing involved on this expedition.

Hilary followed him over readily; she felt better already about this expedition than the last one. Most likely, she suspected, because it had been her idea to begin with, but there was always the chance St. George was just a bad influence on her. And even if he was--well, at least it was entertaining.

Hilary had brought along a crow-bar and an electric torch this time, which for one thing made the work of unblocking a window much easier than it had been the first time. “I don’t suppose there’s an entrance down here?” she asked, deferring for once to St. George’s knowledge of the building.

“Not that I’ve seen,” he said, perching thoughtfully on the windowsill for a moment before dropping to the floor with her. “It’s a poorly thought-out system all round, really.”

“Up we go, then, said Hilary, and together they trooped up to the attic to examine the closet. St. George pressed the catch and the wall slid open; they glanced at each other.

“Well,” said Hilary resignedly, “if it all goes wrong, they can’t say we didn’t try,” and switched on her torch.

“They?” inquired St. George.

“At the inquest,” said Hilary lightly. “Assuming we can be found so that one can be held.”

St. George grimaced. “I’m not sure I like the direction in which your sense of humour is developing.”

“Really?” She paused. “If anything, I’d think it was a hazard born of too much time spent around your family.”

“Mutual blame, then,” said St. George. “Shall we proceed?”

“Yes, let’s.” Hilary crept forward, and then glanced over at him. “Stay close, would you? I don’t think I trust you on your own. I wish I’d brought a leash--like my nurse used to walk me on when I was about three.”

St. George laughed. They had turned into a long brick-lined tunnel--Hilary stopped to mark the place with a piece of chalk--and the laugh echoed eerily. “I wish I knew more about civil engineering.”

“No, you don’t,” said Hilary. “Even I don’t wish that.”

“Well, no. I imagine it’d be unspeakably tedious. But I’d rather like to know how long it would have taken to build a place like this.”

“That’s a good question,” Hilary admitted. “Hargrave’s been operating down here less than a year, hasn’t he? I can’t imagine he ever had the time or the manpower to build these himself.”

”Perhaps they’re sewers,” suggested St. George, with a mixture of horror and relish.

“It doesn’t smell like sewers,” said Hilary, but to her irritation she looked around warily before she could catch herself. “You’ve been down here much more than I; got any suggestions?”

St. George shrugged. “I could show you the way to where we’ve been working. It’d make a good starting point, though there’s so much more of this place I’ve never been through.”

“I like it,” Hilary decided. “It’ll give us somewhere to start, at any rate, and I already feel I could use a bit of fresh air.”

“Well, I wouldn’t call the air at water level exactly fresh, but as you like.” St. George nodded further down the tunnel. “As it happens, we’re already en route.” He paused. “At least, I’m fairly sure we are.”

“A lot of comfort you are,” said Hilary, but after all they’d come down here to explore no matter where they ended up, so she followed his lead regardless.

Exploring wasn’t turning out to be nearly as interesting as she’d hoped; one tunnel looked much like another, especially by the meagre light of her torch, and nothing tremendously informative appeared along the way. Once or twice, as when she’d been down there before, they thought they heard the Underground off in another direction. “Maintenance tunnels,” suggested Hilary half-heartedly, but she couldn’t even follow the thought through. “No, that can’t be right. The nearest station’s Walham Green, isn’t it, and that’s ages away--surely that’s no reason to put all these tunnels stretching right out to the river.”

“God only knows what goes on in the minds of engineers,” St. George pointed out. “Suppose there were an emergency that required the train to be driven right into the water?”

Hilary shuddered. “Tell me if you think of one. And anyway, there aren’t any tracks.”

“Jolly thoughtless of them, then.” St. George whistled a few notes, tilted his head interestedly at the faint echoes that answered him, and set off in the opposite direction; he tried to gesture grandly for her to follow him, but this effort was rather hampered by having tried to use his slung arm. “Just around this corner, I think.”

The air where the tunnel opened out was in fact fresher; it also smelt much worse, being on a busy shipping lane, but that only made sense. Hilary wrinkled her nose and looked around; St. George sat down atop a crate and made a show of nursing his shoulder, ankles crossed comfortably in front of him. “And you say you brought all these in here the other night?”

“From a ship docked outside.” He nodded. “They parked it right up close, though, so I couldn’t see much of it; not too big a vessel, though. That was my impression, at any rate.”

Hilary sat down next to him, tucking a foot underneath herself, since there was no one terribly important around to see her sitting so childishly. “Then perhaps this stuff isn’t going very far.”

“The Continent? Northern Europe, even; they’d only have to get it down the river and across the North Sea, and we all know what’s there.”

“You’ve thought about this before, haven’t you?” Hilary frowned. “It’s a pity we can’t get into these and see what it is they’re shipping out of here.”

“I’ll try and get a look sometime.” St. George glanced around. “Any other brilliant thoughts?”

“Not at the moment.” Hilary grimaced out towards the river. “Not as nice a view from here as there is from street level, is there?”

He laughed. “And here I’d thought we were here on another bathing expedition. Are you sure you wouldn’t care to at least try the water? I’m in poor shape for swimming at the moment, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy yourself regardless.”

“And here the water looks so lovely--but no, I think not.” Hilary unfolded her legs and hopped to her feet. “Well, it’s been nice and all seeing your office, but shall we move on?”

“I’m hurt, you know. I was quite looking forward to showing you all this lovely scenery.” St. George hopped to the floor as well, not quite as steadily; he tilted to the right, clearly trying to lean on his nonfunctional arm, and nearly wobbled over into her.

Hilary caught him, leaning back into the crate a little to take his weight, and patted his chest with one hand. “Careful.”

St. George wet his lips, glancing down.

Hilary grinned. She hadn’t meant to flirt, exactly, but it was so satisfying to fluster him a bit that she couldn’t resist pushing an inch or two further. She tugged gently with one finger at the open neck of his shirt, and then removed both hands, lingering on his unhurt shoulder as she went.

“Thanks.” St. George leaned in closer; his lips pressed above her eye for just a moment, and then he too withdrew.

“Let’s go,” said Hilary again more softly, feeling that they were wobbling together on a very unstable precipice, and slipped out from between him and the crate. For a moment she was actually sorry for breaking the moment, but then again she rather suspected she had just changed her standing answer from no to not yet; she also found after a moment’s reflection that she wasn’t one bit sorry about that after all. Perhaps he was a bad influence, perhaps the tension in the neighbourhood was simply beginning to wear on her, but she was beginning to feel that she preferred to keep her options open wherever possible. “Where to next?”

“Second star to the right,” suggested St. George.

Hilary nudged him. “Don’t you start. And anyway, I’d much rather be somewhere with a sky, but that doesn’t seem to be what we’ve got here.”

“You don’t often get skies in these kinds of places, no. Perhaps that’s what makes it so terribly unromantic down here.” He glanced sidelong at her, adjusting his sling.

Hilary batted her eyelashes at him; it was far from her usual tactics, and luckily her insincerity must have shown, because he laughed. Hilary laughed with him for a moment, and felt that they were once again on more or less steady ground. “We came here for a reason,” she reminded him, and touched his free arm.

“I honestly don’t know where to,” said St. George ruefully. “I’m no expert past this point. I maintain my position from before--shall we choose a direction at random and see where it brings us out?”

“Why not,” said Hilary, and switched her torch back on with unnecessary emphasis. “I’d hate to have got all this grime on me for nothing.”

They took a few wrong turnings on purpose leaving the storage room, just to add interest. “You’d think there’d be markings or something so Smirt and his like could find their way around,” said St. George. “Thomas says that when they make him work he never goes near the river at all; it must get dreadfully confusing keeping track of which people are going where without letting them work out anything about what other groups are doing.”

“Perhaps that’s why,” suggested Hilary, peering hopefully around a corner and finding only another stretch of tunnel. “They know their way around down here so you don’t have to.”

“You make him sound so considerate.” St. George was a step behind her, but she could hear the distaste in his tone.

“Don’t worry, I don’t mean anything of the kind. I haven’t forgotten what he threatened to do to me if Hargrave feels you’re not performing to expectations.” Hilary reached out for his arm almost instinctively; in the direction they were going the floor was littered with stray brick and stone, and she was starting to have trouble keeping her footing. “It doesn’t look like anyone’s been down this way in a while,” she observed. “This expedition isn’t turning out nearly as exciting or useful as we hoped, is it?”

“It’s had its moments,” St. George admitted. “But you’re right; this evening really hasn’t been all one could hope for from a dark maze of mysterious tunnels. By all rights there could at least be a dinosaur or two, or some ghosts. Or the ghosts of dinosaurs. It’s only fair.”

“You and my father would have been great friends,” said Hilary, half irritated and half wistful, but she didn’t let go of his arm.

St. George tugged at her, gently; he had stopped in his tracks. “I thought I heard something move up ahead there. Didn’t you hear anything?”

Hilary paused and listened, and thought she agreed; there was something rustling and shifting further along the tunnel, out of range of her torch. “I think so--although I’m not sure whether it’s up ahead or behind us. I do hope there isn’t anyone else down here--we’ll have an awfully rough time explaining ourselves.”

“Well, there’s no use guessing.” His arm tensed under her hand in a way Hilary thought she recognised by now. He was spoiling for a bit of excitement, and her own heart fluttered in sympathy. The sound might be nothing; then again, it might not.

As they advanced, she heard the more clatters as rock shifted, both under their feet and further down the tunnel--and once again discerned the fainter rumble of the Underground. “If nothing else,” she murmured, “you’ll get a nice thrill when we turn a corner and find ourselves playing chicken with the District Line.”

“We can only hope,” said St. George cheerfully.

Hilary groaned, disgusted, but she thought he might yet get his wish. The rattle of the train was increasing--and then it roared past on the other side of the wall, the entire tunnel shaking, and St. George yelped in surprise and clung to her arm. Hilary clung back, if only a little bit, and she was glad of that connection when the ceiling let out a resigned grumble and dropped a few stone more of masonry around them.

After a minute the crisis seemed over; Hilary uncovered her head, heart pounding, and glanced warily upward. “You were scared,” she said, smug and breathless.

“I was startled.” Whatever he was, St. George was leaning heavily on her, crouched at her side. Something about his hair looked odd, but Hilary had to feel around to get her torch back into her hand to realise what it was: his hair was full of brown and grey dust. She was probably equally filthy; it was a good thing she couldn’t see herself.

St. George snorted, letting go of her hand to brush dirt out of her hair, and then more sheepishly out of his own. “This isn’t a thing I say often, but I don’t think this has been one of your better ideas.”

“Perhaps not.” Hilary laughed and leaned on him a moment longer before scrambling to her feet. “I’m for finding a way out of here; how about you?”

“I’ll buy you a drink if we ever get out of here and thoroughly washed up,” said St. George, staggering upright. “In fact, I might buy you quite a lot of drinks.”

“You ought not to make promises like that when you’ve never seen me drinking for keeps.” Hilary eyed him and, finally, gave up and asked the question. “Is your shoulder feeling all right?”

“It’s been worse,” said St. George, twisting his neck to frown down at the malfunctioning joint, “and it’s been better. It could probably do with a brick or two fewer landing on it, but one can’t help that, can one? Are you entertaining when drunk, by the by? Because you’ve got me intrigued now.”

“I’m always entertaining,” said Hilary, offended. “Come along, would you?”

The next ten or fifteen minutes quickly became tedious; there wasn’t much more to see besides more scatterings of fallen masonry. The tunnel had stopped branching off, too, which meant that either there would be stairs appearing soon or they’d got themselves stuck in a dead end. Which would still be rather romantic, she thought--indulging herself briefly by taking St. George’s likely view of the matter--if only they weren’t both so grimy. Since they’d given up conversation for the moment, she allowed herself the fleeting amusement of fantasising further about a hypothetical interlude; she’d certainly more or less given up actually looking around for useful information, being resigned to the thought that there was most likely none to be found.

“Would you look at that,” said St. George brightly, and Hilary focused her attention (and the torch) ahead of them again. There were stairs there, climbing one side of the tunnel, and she sighed in relief. “They’re looking rather poorly, though,” he added, jostling the banister, which complained loudly and listed several inches further to one side.

“These can’t possibly be only months old.” Perhaps it wasn’t too important, all in all, but it comforted her to have got something out of this expedition. “This whole place, especially down here. It looks ancient.”

“Terribly convenient for getting large mysterious crates down to the river, though, aren’t they?” St. George glanced up at the ceiling. “One might almost think that was their intended purpose.”

“It’s a pity the Sentinel doesn’t go back further--I imagine there’d be something about it.” Hilary traced the remains of a bit of graffiti in the wood; it was too decayed to be legible. “Do you suppose Hargrave knew about them when he chose this particular part of the city to set up shop?”

“Sounds reasonable enough.” St. George ventured a few steps upward. “I do hope there isn’t another padlock at the top of these. I don’t think I can pull the same trick off as last time, not one-handed.”

Hilary followed him up, but her foot went through one of the steps, and she swore loudly. By the time she’d extricated herself, St. George had fumbled his way to the top and was feeling out the door. “There’s a padlock, all right,” he reported, “but it’s all rusted.”

“Oh, just give it here,” said Hilary, nudging him aside, and gave the lock an enthusiastic whack with the butt of her torch. The light flickered, but the padlock crumbled--all down the front of her skirt, of course.

“I think I’m in love with you,” said St. George in visible delight, and patted her shoulder as they emerged.

“God forbid.” Hilary switched off her torch at last; it was fully dark outside, but at least now there were streetlights. And fresh air, or what passed for it above ground in London, but that was an infinite improvement on what was available below ground. “We’ve almost made it to Earl’s Court,” she observed, with a grimace.

“If only we’d come a little earlier we could have gone skating,” suggested St. George, but Hilary’s laugh was rather half-hearted. “It’s not much of a walk home, at least,” he said optimistically. “Or a tram ride, if you’d rather.”

“Walk, I think.” She was tired, but not physically, and she was feeling a touch of claustrophobia; better to get home under her own power than to stand about waiting to see if a bus was still running. “And then a bath, I think, for about a week.”

“I think you’ve got the right idea there.” St. George’s hand was still at her waist, ever so lightly.

Hilary pretended not to notice for a few seconds longer before tactfully shifting just a few inches further away. “We’ve left a lot of damage behind us,” she said after a minute. “That window, the locks we’ve picked, probably footprints everywhere. I wish we’d been more subtle.”

“No use wishing now.” St. George shrugged. “And anyway--what’s to tell them it was us?”

“I suppose,” said Hilary doubtfully; she was trying not to dwell on the idea, but now that it had occurred to her it was making her anxious. “But I do hope nothing comes of it.”

“As do I,” said St. George, although he didn’t seem terribly concerned. “At least, not before I have the chance to to fill us both up with alcohol.”

-------

In recent weeks Hilary had begun to cherish an increasingly powerful suspicion that St. George preferred her residence to his own. Not that she blamed him, given what Fleetston was like, but he was showing an increasing tendency to want to spend his free time in Hilary's sitting room, or on the back stairs. Luckily Mrs. Bloom didn't raise any particular objections--she had mentioned it once or twice when they happened to cross paths, but only to say that she trusted Hilary to look after herself properly, a sentiment open to interpretation if ever Hilary had heard one.

It wasn't as if they were getting up to any kind of trouble, illicit or otherwise: speculating idly about Hargrave and his associates, mostly, or attempting to produce content for the Sentinel, or reading back numbers of the same. (Admittedly, St. George was rather relishing the rediscovery of the closest thing he had to an artistic bent, and a significant proportion of his output was not only irrelevant to the paper but too rude to be printed anywhere at all.) St. George had joined Hilary in her codebreaking efforts, but he hadn’t had any more luck, and Hilary was increasingly inclined to believe the love letters were no more than they appeared.

Regardless, it was no particular surprise one sunny afternoon when he knocked on her door, and a mere formality on Hilary's part to invite him in. "I come bearing splendid news," he announced, claiming one end of Hilary's sofa all in one graceful sprawl; it was very nearly graceful, at least, but Hilary was a little alarmed to realise he was still wearing his right arm in a sling beneath his jacket. "At least, it will be splendid if you think so."

Hilary returned to the other end of the sofa, where she'd been sitting anyway--ostensibly trying to write poetry, but in practice basking idly in the sunlight and trying to come up with showy ways to twirl a pen between her fingers. "Well, I can't very well pass judgement on it until you've told me what's happened." She considered asking about the sling, but she already knew what it was for, and anyway she refused to give him the satisfaction of showing ongoing concern.

"Fitzmorris is throwing another party," said St. George happily. "This coming Saturday--a dressier occasion this time, and one should think a far less morbid one as well."

"And now you've said that, something's sure to go wrong," said Hilary dutifully. "I'm impressed, though; I wouldn't have thought Fitzmorris the type for it, but that really is bold of him."

St. George gave her a lopsided shrug. "If it were me, that's exactly why I'd be doing it--put one in Hargrave's eye, make a show of not lying down quietly, et cetera. Will we be in attendance, or have you seen enough of me in formal settings for one lifetime?"

"I haven't any objection," said Hilary readily; as a matter of fact she was already a little distracted trying to recall the last time she'd needed to wear a nice frock somewhere, and which one she had worn, and whether she could wear it again or it was one St. George had seen her in before. "It seems like it might be rather nice, actually."

"Well, if that's how you feel about it, I shall be at my very best," said St. George with an ominously straight face. "White tie, I think. Perhaps a monocle. I've been rather itching lately to see how I'd look in one."

Hilary grimaced. "You would look like a man whose best girl has very suddenly decided he's too horrifying a sight to ever come near again, and is making hasty plans to move to South America so she'll never have to. And since I'm not actually yours anyway, you can be sure I'd have absolutely no regrets about it." She thought about pointing out the more legitimate concern that men of Roger Christianson's age and purported background didn't seem likely to go about in decorative eyeglasses, but she was willing to chance that St. George didn't mean it. Fairly willing.

"That's pretty harsh, don't you think?" He lifted his hand in appeal. "After all, Uncle Peter has had his screwed in since the cradle and it doesn't seem to have done him any great harm."

"That we know of," Hilary pointed out, more for the sake of being contrary than anything else.

"Oh, Uncle will never die," said St. George lazily. "He's like a fungus, you know, or the bally plague; just when you think you've got rid of him for good--he honestly did this once for a case, you know, willed away all his loot and everything--he pops up in Outer Mongolia or Wales or somewhere making more of a nuisance out of himself than ever."

"Honestly, I can believe it." Hilary sighed, deciding now was as good a time as any to advance a theory she'd held for a while. "It was because of your uncle, wasn't it?"

"The responsibility for so many great tragedies rests firmly on my uncle's shoulders." St. George peered at her quizzically. "Which one in particular did you have in mind?"

She sucked briefly at her lip. "Contrary to most available evidence, I don't believe you're a complete fool; I certainly believe, if nothing else, you know what to do with a woman once you've got her. And I choose to believe--whatever you claim--I'm not so very unwomanly that the prospect of showing me a good time was completely baffling to you."

St. George stiffened indignantly. "That isn't the least bit what I meant."

Hilary offered him a brief smile that might almost have been apologetic. "And seeing as we got on so much better before you asked me to dinner, and again after you stopped trying--it wasn't me that made you uncomfortable, was it? It wasn't anything to do with me. It was because I told you I knew your uncle, and you were afraid I'd bring him down on your head if you looked at me wrong."

St. George didn't seem to find much use in trying to deny it. "That may have had something to do with it," he admitted. "I only thought I'd better be on my best behaviour, you know, just in case. I didn't mean to be quite that stiff about it, or for you to take it so personally. I'm sorry. I really am."

Hilary laughed ruefully. "Honestly, I don't think your uncle gives a damn who I do and don't see--and if he did, I wouldn't give a damn what he thought, so it still wouldn't make a lot of difference. I mean, I suppose he could cut off my allowance, but he's far too decent ever to do such a thing, so what does it matter?"

"It wasn't his approval of you I was concerned with," St. George reminded her, "but of me--you being his responsibility and all, in some capacity that I still can't exactly make out. You aren’t his daughter, are you? Because that might make things a bit awkward."

"I am not his responsibility. In any way." Hilary pulled a face at him. "Although it certainly took you long enough to think of asking. It's more like a business relationship, really, and I honestly can't imagine Lord Peter wants to know about my social life any more than I want him to know anything about it. I can sort things out on my own, if I ever need to."

"You didn't sort me out," complained St. George, rather rudely.

"You never gave me the opportunity," said Hilary, with a promptness she felt rather proud of; she smiled sidelong at him and then glanced hastily away again. "I'm almost sorry I ever told you I knew him; it seems only to have complicated things. We could have had a bit of fun and then parted ways, without you getting all--dutiful about the matter--and that would have been the end of that."

St. George appeared to consider the possibility and find it wanting. "But then you'd be here dealing with this nonsense all by yourself."

"Exactly," said Hilary cheerfully.

"Now don't get too sentimental, Lee; you aren't used to it, after all. You might strain something." He smiled, though, and smugly--as though he suspected she didn't really mean it.

"Thanks for your concern, but I think I'll survive just the once." For that matter, Hilary wasn't sure she really meant it. It was really a pity, she thought, that neither of them was romantically inclined; he might even make some woman a rather endearing husband, some day.

"You know," St. George began cautiously, "I don't mean this as, well, as a shot at anything, but--I do think you're womanly. Very much so. In case there was any concern on that point. I would never have asked you out to begin with if I didn't."

Coming just when it did, just as Hilary was making a determined effort not to do anything unwise such as actually be fond of him, she found the sentiment horribly ill-timed--and yet, though she knew he had offered it largely as a courtesy, distressingly pleasing. "I know," she said hopelessly. "Or at least I had flattered myself that far. But thank you."

Another awkward pause, during which Hilary forcibly composed herself, and then: "I wish you'd stop beating around the bush," St. George declared, a little too brightly, "and tell me what exactly your connection is with my uncle. It might save us a lot of confusion in future."

"It isn't exactly a secret, Jerry; I just don't think it's terribly important, either." Hilary seized immediately on this relatively comfortable topic of conversation--much the same as he had, she suspected. "I inherited an enormous pile of money when I was fifteen, after my parents died--some from them, but an entire other fortune for, well, more complicated reasons. And your uncle was the executor of that other will, so until my majority in January he's got to look after it all for me." She shrugged. "I suppose you could say I'm an heiress, but it's such a damned stuffy word; I hate it."

“You are?” St. George favoured her with an entirely unfeigned gape. “I mean—I gathered your situation was comfortable enough, but I didn’t realise. You don’t act like an heiress.”

She peered warily up at him. “And how is an heiress meant to act? Like a female version of you? It’s bad enough having one of you about.”

St. George frowned at her. “What else would one do with a great deal of money but enjoy it?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Hilary admitted. “Your uncle and I arranged a reasonable allowance, and increased it when I went up, and that’s really all I’m comfortable with. We’re going to have another look at it after my birthday in January—see what to do once I have the full run of it—but I haven’t a clue what one does with two family fortunes and an emerald necklace. I’m not sure I even want it all. It seems like far more trouble than it’s worth.”

“You don’t want--did you say emeralds?” St. George shook his head, quickly, as though he were trying to jar something loose within it. “Lee. That was you, wasn’t it, a few years ago? The girl who found the stolen Wilbraham emeralds and inherited the whole rest of their family fortune to boot. Aren’t they supposed to be cursed, or something of that sort?”

Hilary shook her head. “It was Lord Peter who found them--and inherited them, too, if you want to be accurate--and they aren’t cursed; I simply don’t want them, after all the nonsense there’s been about them. Where did you pick up all that rot, anyway—the papers, or your uncle?”

“You might have a little faith in Uncle’s discretion,” St. George complained. “I heard of the emeralds and most of the rest of it from him—it doesn’t half make a bad yarn in the retelling, you have to admit it. But he barely said a word about you. I don’t think your name even registered when I did see it in the papers; I was too busy boasting to half my form that my uncle had made the headlines again. Are you serious—you don’t want them?”

Hilary pursed her lips, considering him in a slightly different light than usual. “Jerry,” she said, at last resigning herself to taking the bait, “since you’re clearly dying to give me the benefit of your expertise—and I will even grant that, in this case, you actually have expertise—go right ahead. What do you think I ought to do with the money?”

“Live well,” St. George suggested, promptly and simply. “Eat well; drink well; take a nice flat or three, and for God’s sake hire a few servants to staff them. Buy a car, if you like to drive; if not, get a car and hire someone to drive it for you. Throw better parties than everyone else. “

“I don’t know,” said Hilary doubtfully. “It doesn’t sound all that different from being a full-time job—and not the kind I’d like to have, either.”

“Buy the affections of men by the score,” St. George continued, determinedly. “I’d suggest a club, but I don’t know if there are any for eccentric spinster heiresses, so I expect you’d rather take up women’s cricket or something like that.”

Hilary laughed at that. “I did try once, actually, but it didn’t suit me; I simply haven’t the patience for it. I fancied Lord Peter was a little bit let down when I told him about it."

“Good lord, imagine the results if he and Aunt Harriet produce any daughters.” St. George’s voice was thick with sudden alarm; clearly this was not an eventuality that had occurred to him until just now. “Imagine it, Lee: a whole horde of terrifying little girls in sub fusc, each wielding a cricket bat in one hand and a fountain pen in the other. The rest of us would never stand a chance.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Hilary, a little dreamily; she was perfectly happy to let the conversation be derailed down this track. “I rather like the idea, myself. Think of the side that St. Hugh’s could field with a couple of Wimseys in the mix.”

“Of course you would be selfish at a time like this.” He sounded thoroughly betrayed. “I suppose it isn’t enough my three-year-old cousin wants to grow up to be a policeman like Uncle Charles. My three-year-old girl cousin, Lee. I think that threweven my grandmother for a loop.”

Hilary frowned, twirling her pen between her fingers. “Is she old enough to know what a policeman does?"

“I doubt it,” St. George admitted. “Not that that seems to be stopping her.”

“Leave her to it, then. She’s got fifteen years yet to sort it out.” Hilary tapped the pen briefly against her lips. “You know, you may have a point.”

“I have?”

“You have,” Hilary admitted reluctantly. “I don’t know about all the rest of it—though I’ll admit I could stand to hire a decent cook—but I think I’d enjoy being a rakehell an awful lot. Can women be rakehells?” she went on, absently. “Or would that just make me fast?”

St. George squinted disapprovingly down his nose at her; it was such a completely atypical expression for him that Hilary felt a spark of pride at having inspired it. “Lee, no one can be a rakehell outside of Mills and Boon. Not even you, and I even admit you’d make a damned good one.”

“There you go, then.” Hilary spread her hands, though the effect of the gesture was rather damaged when her pen clattered to the floor and she had to dive hastily to save it from rolling under the sofa. “I was right,” she concluded triumphantly, once the rescue had been effected; “there isn't any fun for me to have from being rich.”

"Certainly not with your taste in literature." He tilted his head, considering her. "I wouldn't have thought you the sort to go in for pulp romances."

Hilary curled more comfortably into the end of the sofa, tucking one foot under her and kicking St. George's knee with the other. "And what would you know about it?"

"One hears things," said St. George vaguely.

Hilary jabbed at her still-blank paper once or twice with her pen and winced at the blot that resulted. "I say," she said after a moment. "That party, Friday night--"

"What about it?" He glanced over at her. "Would you rather not go? I realise it isn't precisely your kind of do, and there's no reason I can't survive going on my own."

It was nowhere near what she'd actually meant to say, but Hilary hesitated all the same, distracted by the impression that this was a thought he'd already been turning over. "Would you rather I didn't? Because that's just about the opposite of what I actually meant to suggest."

"Of course not," St. George said indignantly. "Though since we'd already meant to go together, I'm interested to know what third alternative you've found."

Hilary flushed, looking back down at the blot on her paper, which had somehow multiplied into a cluster of blots. She was going to need to buy a new pen if she kept on doing things like this to the nib. "I was thinking we might make a proper evening of it--you and me really on a date, not just pretending for appearance's sake. I owe you that, at the very least, and it isn't as though anyone else will know the difference."

"I'd say we owe each other, if you must bring it down to that." He grinned, though, looking honestly surprised. "But if you're really willing to tolerate my genuine attentions for one evening, I'd be honoured."

Something in Hilary's chest relaxed. Which was silly, because she hadn't really expected him to decline the offer, and either way it didn't matter that much; all she was doing was putting a proper resolution to something they ought to have finished up a year ago. "Don't get excited," she warned him. "It seems like the honourable thing to do, that's all."

St. George's smile only widened. "That's what you say now."

-------

Hilary had meant to go to bed early that Thursday night, but somehow she simply failed to. The more she struggled with the letters, the more convinced she became that they weren’t code for anything whatsoever, but she kept on working at them--partly out of sheer obstinacy, and partly because the process itself was rather fascinating.

Eventually, growing restless, she shoved the books off her lap onto the floor and wandered into her bedroom to stare, with hands on hips, at the new frock hanging over her wardrobe door. She was nearly certain she liked it, but it had been at least as much the shopgirl’s choice as her own, the available range having thoroughly bewildered her.

On the spur of the moment she shed the blouse and skirt she’d worn most of the day and wriggled into the gown. It was meant to be worn over a girdle, and she had yet to work out what she’d done with hers since coming down--but that wasn’t what made her frown at her reflection in the wardrobe mirror.

Hilary had always been her father’s daughter, without question, and her mother had never once pressured her to be otherwise; it was Hilary herself who had always suffered from fits of fruitless longing to be more like her mother, soft-spoken and elegant. Even her body, tall and lean and bony, had betrayed her childhood expectations. Her elders had reassured her that she’d grow into it eventually--as she became a woman, her relatives had liked to put it--but Hilary, who was now a woman by every conceivable definition except just barely the legal, had found out otherwise. If she possessed any innate sex appeal, it was thanks to good health and athletic ability, not to any real sense of feminine aesthetics, or any feeling of belonging in stylish clothes once she’d got them. Even such a simple thing as curling her hair, a process she had come to genuinely enjoy, felt sometimes like an affectation better suited to a different kind of woman.

Hilary hadn’t any illusions about how she got men’s attention; it was because she was as direct and shameless about what she wanted as one could possibly be within the bounds of polite conversation. She wasn’t coy, or alluring, or mysterious, and she didn’t much mind any more, since even if she had been she doubted she’d have had the patience to sit back and let those qualities bring men to her. Whatever her assets, they worked for her; surely that was the main thing.

It had all seemed fairly straightforward--until she’d agreed to this third date with St. George. Which had seemed like a small thing when she’d suggested it, but nonetheless took their relationship to something just outside the bounds of Hilary’s experience. On the one or two occasions when men had shown a more lingering interest in her, she’d always put them off promptly; with St. George she found that for the first time she was inclined to explore the possibility before dismissing it. In fact, she rather suspected that this was the first time she’d entirely believed someone might want her for more than a single night. His persistent interest in her, lackadaisically expressed though it might be, made her uncomfortable--not unpleasantly so, not when she found herself returning it to increasing degree, but rather the discomfort of being seen differently than she saw herself, and not knowing which point of view to trust.

Hilary twisted in front of the mirror, looking over her own shoulder, and for a moment thought she glimpsed something like elegance in the line of her bare spine; then she lost sight of it again, and sighed.

-------

While Hilary was trying on her frock, St. George's curiosity finally got the better of him.

He went round back to inspect the window that he and Hilary had originally uncovered, and found it had once again been boarded up anew. It seemed terribly unsubtle to invade the building the same way thrice, but it was that or give up, so he wrenched the fresh sheet of plywood away--it was a substantially more difficult enterprise without a second pair of hands--and clambered through the window.

The job of getting down below the basement was much easier, now he knew the way, but finding where Ames had taken them was a trickier proposition. It had seemed simple when St. George had been sitting comfortably at dinner, formulating his plan and feeling terribly clever about it all, but in practice everywhere underground seemed much like everywhere else and his expensive electric torch rather feeble. He had just about given himself up for hopelessly lost--perhaps that was a deliberate feature of the arrangement, since most of the tunnels seemed to lead nowhere in particular--when the space began at last to widen, and he found himself in the familiar chamber filled with crates. Or at least a different chamber filled with crates, which was good enough for his purposes.

He had had the forethought, at least, to bring a packet of hairpins, though the druggist had looked at him a little oddly for purchasing them. The padlocks on these were more complicated than the one he'd picked on the exit, though--too complicated, in fact, for St. George's minimal and rarely-tested skills, which was why in the course of inventing a burglar's kit for himself he had also brought a crowbar. It wouldn't leave much doubt that someone had been poking their nose in, but it seemed a better option than simply giving up and going back home to bed.

It took a few good heaves, and was all the more difficult for trying to put most of the effort in wrong-handed, but at last the lid of the crate lurched upward with a satisfying crunch. St. George shoved it up a little further, high enough that he could shine his torch in and get a good look at the contents--and once he'd got it, he let out a low whistle and slammed the lid hastily back down, more or less into place. "Well," he said to himself, "here's a pretty state of things," and winced at the echo of his voice off the damp stone walls. There didn’t seem to be much to be done about it, anyway, so St. George maneuvered his arm back into the sling he’d left loose around his neck--it did relieve the ache, he was reluctant to admit--and backed away.

It was going to be an interesting job explaining this to Hilary, he thought ruefully as he tried to find his way back to the news-stand--or to any convenient exit, really. There was a reason he hadn't told her about this expedition beforehand, a good reason, and that reason was that she would have called him an idiot for suggesting it and been right to do so. St. George almost wished he hadn't found anything important, so that he would at least have had an excuse to never bring it up at all.

He hadn't got very far, feeling despite the torch that he was more groping his way than anything, when a second pool of light wavered around a corner and someone cleared his throat behind him. "Mr. Christianson, isn't it?"

St. George turned sheepishly around, though he refused to turn off his light, and was greeted by Mr. Ames, whose cheap but showy pinstripe suit looked entirely out of place in the dank tunnel. "Ashamed to say it is, yes."

Ames took a step closer and gave him an appraising once-over; though St. George suspected this had nothing to do with the way the man routinely looked at Hilary and Miss Kapoor, he began to feel a sympathetic discomfort all the same. "I wasn't aware you had business down here, Mr. Christianson."

St. George offered an ingratiating smile; he happened to think they were among his greatest talents. "I haven't," he said apologetically, "but knowing these were here and all, I couldn't very well help having a bit of a look round. They might come in handy, you know, for catching buses and the like. Hope I haven't made a nuisance of myself."

"For your sake," said Ames solemnly, "so do I. Someone certainly has been, lately. I promise you, there are no shortcuts down here that you'll find of any use. It is a pity about your arm, though; I heard you’d been having some trouble with it. I do hope it won’t be getting any worse."

"It was worth a try, at any rate," St. George pointed out, trying desperately not to think about the visibly damaged crate he'd left behind, and hurried away without the usual courtesies. It was a surprise, though a welcome one, that Ames didn't try to follow.

-------

He slept in till nearly noon the next day, and once awake considered seeing if Hilary wanted to join him for lunch. It seemed somehow odd to take her to lunch the same day that they were (for once) going on a proper date, so in the end St. George ate his lunch and later his dinner alone, wondering in retrospect if perhaps he should have invited her to dinner as well. Somewhere nice, worth dressing up for; but then again that hadn't gone over well on his first attempt, so perhaps she'd rather a more casual setting. There was always the distant and humiliating prospect of asking what her preference was on the matter, but surely it would go over better if he worked out the solution on his own.

An occasion like this in his native circles would have merited black tie without question, but some deeper-bred instinct told him that that would be excessive. Instead he resigned himself to dark grey worsted and a necktie of a bright orange just on the right side of the line between striking and eye-searing, garnished the lot with a carnation that was trying its damnedest to still look fresh, and ventured out with unaccustomed trepidation to retrieve his companion for the evening.

Hilary was waiting for him, seated on the front step of Mrs. Bloom's house, and as St. George approached she rose to her feet and came to meet him.

Her frock was nearly the same green as her eyes, not that St. George had been paying that much attention, honestly he hadn’t; it had some pretensions to modesty in the front, but none whatsoever in the back. What was more, she carried herself perfectly--any governess he himself had had as a child would have been impressed--and looked uncharacteristically, impossibly, elegant. St. George had never felt outclassed by a woman in his life (except occasionally his mother and grandmother, which was a different matter entirely) but at that moment he felt very thoroughly out of his league.

He took off his hat to cover for his lack of words and gulped--actually swallowed, as though he'd never seen a woman before. "You look stunning," St. George managed, eventually. "Most of the men in the Empire are sickeningly jealous right now and they haven't a clue why."

"And you are buttering me up, though I can't imagine why you'd feel the need." Hilary laughed incredulously, but her shoulders relaxed somewhat, even as she ducked her head and blushed distinctly. The gesture was so very like her that it brought St. George back down to Earth with a bump--and yet that same reassurance that she remained herself even in low-cut satin only made her more entrancing than ever. “You’ve got both arms again,” she observed, still pink. “Have you given up looking for sympathy?”

“No, it really has been feeling better--and anyway, no one seems to make slings for evening wear.” He wished, suddenly and violently, that they were not pretending; that he had been courting her for real all along, so that he could have kissed her right here in the middle of the street with at least some certainty that she wouldn't slap him for it. But he wasn't, and she probably would have, so he tamped down the urge and remembered belatedly to put his hat back on. "I ought to tell you something," he said instead, because it was the next most generous gesture he knew how to make. "Something I learned about Hargrave last night."

"Must you?" Hilary frowned and tugged her cape closer around herself. "Will it keep until tomorrow?"

"I expect so." St. George tried not to let his relief show too visibly; at least he was no longer chancing ruining their evening. Tomorrow, of course, might be a different story--but tonight mattered, in some way that was alarmingly hard to define.

"Then let it keep." Hilary was watching him carefully as she tucked her arm into his. "You're looking terribly aristocratic tonight," she observed, lips pursed in thought. He had never made particular note of her taste in shoes, but it occurred to him now that she must usually favour low heels, because whatever shoes she wore tonight brought her up nearly to matching his own six-foot height.

St. George narrowed his eyes at her, not entirely certain how else he was meant to look. "Is that bad?"

"Generally, under the circumstances, I'd say yes; we are supposed to be incognito, after all." Hilary pressed a hair closer to him as they walked, and when she smiled back at him it was small but undeniably warm. "But you do wear it so well."

"If I ever cease to wear my own identity well, let me know," St. George told her, faintly alarmed at the prospect.

"I can't imagine you ever will," Hilary reassured him. Though his jacket and shirt interfered between his arm and her hand, he could have sworn he felt her thumb stroke briefly and soothingly over his forearm. "I suppose it wasn't a very good way of returning the compliment--I only meant that you look very handsome tonight, even more so than usual, but now I've admitted it I'm sure you'll never let me forget again."

"I do try to be helpful," said St. George modestly--but privately, he was surprised at how genuinely pleased he was to be told something he already knew.

Fitzmorris's house was already full and lively; Hilary smiled at the noise and, unthinking, squeezed St. George's arm a bit more tightly. "I miss this kind of thing," she confessed. "I never thought I cared for it quite so much one way or the other, having a ready supply of parties to go to, but I can't quite imagine going without them entirely." She shrugged.

St. George appeared delighted by this admission. "Perhaps you're more a woman after my own heart than you care to admit. Although I must say, you've always struck me as someone with a terribly reasonable attitude towards self-indulgence. Everything in moderation, and all that."

"That's not what you said when I first told you about it," said Hilary wryly, but she laughed.

"I still say you ought to indulge in a car or two." He transferred his hand to rest between her shoulders as they crossed the street. "I think you'd take quite well to motoring--either that, or you'd be an unholy terror, with about the same result either way."

"I'll tell you what," said Hilary, who was feeling particularly accommodating without even having had anything to drink yet. "If this evening goes better than your last effort--which wouldn't take much, to be honest--I might let you give me driving lessons.” She paused a moment as St. George opened the front door, ushering her indoors with an exaggerated wave of the hand. “You can sit in the passenger seat, and I'll drive poorly on purpose. I learn to drive and you learn to fear for your life once in a while." She beamed up at him. "Everyone benefits. Now, which do you care for first--drinks or dancing? There seems to be music right around the corner there."

"I'd say dancing--oh, I forgot, I'm sorry." He looked briefly sheepish--a rare event. "You told me the first time I took you to dinner--you don't dance. Though it's terribly generous of you to offer regardless."

"Weeeeelll." Hilary fidgeted in her own embarrassment, remembered she was trying especially hard to be ladylike this evening, and clasped her hands tightly instead. "I can dance; I've had lessons, of course. And I don't even always mind it. It just seems like such a chore most of the time--not physical enough to be a proper sport or anything, just a thing one's expected to do before or after dinner. Especially," she concluded, resigned now to confessing this particular sin, "if one's partner is being a bore."

St. George tipped his head, eyes narrowing in a way that was for a moment so reminiscent of his uncle that Hilary was almost alarmed. "You lied?"

Because she was trying to be ladylike, Hilary did not hunch her shoulders in the slightest. "I was trying to cut the evening short--so, yes, I lied. I'm sorry."

"Well, if I did as terribly at keeping you entertained as you claim, I suppose I deserve what I got."

He still looked rather hurt, all the same, so Hilary reached over and took St. George's hand--his left in her right, quite deliberately. "If I still thought you were a bore," she said consolingly, "I'd have let you go on believing it. As it happens, I would care to dance with you, if you're willing to forgive me?"

"You're lucky I happen to be a rather forgiving soul." St. George accepted her hand with excellent grace and kissed her knuckles. The gesture never grew any less ridiculous, but she very much feared she was growing accustomed to it all the same; rather than being irritated this time, it only made her smile. "It sounds as though the dancing is down the hall that way," he went on, cheerfully; his elastic good humor, too, was beginning to grow rather endearing. "If you'd like to test my paces."

Hilary let herself be led, without much real reluctance. "Don't worry, I hadn't any doubt of them to begin with."

"Yet another sign of good taste on your part. Come on, then, if you've such great hopes for me as a partner." He slipped his other arm around her waist and swept her neatly in among the half-dozen other dancing couples.

Across the room, Amita was dancing in the arms of a dark-complexioned young man Hilary didn't know; she brightened visibly at the sight of Hilary and St. George together, freeing her hand long enough to make a quick gesture of greeting over her companion's shoulder.

Hilary rolled her eyes in response, but when Amita had revolved back out of sight she indulged herself so far as to rest her chin briefly on St. George's well-tailored shoulder.

"You're terribly affectionate tonight," he murmured. "Are you sure you're feeling all right?"

"Better than I have any right to, most likely." Hilary withdrew back to a tactful few inches' distance and grinned up at him. "Either that, or I just feel that--having given you a second chance--I ought to do the thing properly."

St. George laughed; for a moment she was very conscious of the warm pressure of his fingers through her thin satin frock. "I'm overwhelmed by your generosity."

Chapter Text

"So," he said, and returned to Abbershaw, "you are just an ordinary headstrong young man who, like the others downstairs, is under the impression that this affair is a melodrama which has been especially devised in order that they may have the opportunity of posing heroically before the young ladies of your party...but I, one of the chief actors in your theatre, I am not playing."
Margery Allingham
--------------------

They danced a few numbers together, but eventually Hilary began to feel warm, and suggested an expedition to locate drinks. St. George offered to take care of it alone, but Hilary insisted mildly on going with him--partly on the principle of not being catered to, but partly because she refused to run the risk of being cornered and gloated over by Amita. In theory they had thought no one would be able to tell the difference between their usual pretence at being a couple and tonight's effort at being the real thing; however, if there was anyone who knew Hilary well enough to know the difference, it was most certainly Amita, and Hilary didn't feel at all up to explaining the circumstances. Tomorrow, perhaps, she would be brave enough.

Mercifully, the drinks table proved to be outdoors, in Fitzmorris's small back garden. One of the graces of the small variety of offerings was that there was no need to worry about impressing St. George with her nonexistent knowledge of fancy cocktails; Hilary ladled herself a glass of punch, and it contained just the right proportion of alcohol to remind her that she didn't really care about impressing him anyway, let alone over things like cocktails. "Shall we--" she began, turning around, and found that Amita--exhibiting a deviousness that could only have been created by legal training--had taken St. George captive instead of her. "I can't leave either of you unsupervised for a minute, can I?"

"It seems not," said St. George cheerfully. "I don't suppose you'd mind sparing me for a dance or two? It seems only polite, and I promise not to leave you for too long without the joys of my company."

Despite his glib unrepentance, there was something about his tone that suggested that he was genuinely concerned with whether she would mind; Hilary decided, however, that she didn't. It would give her a few minutes to sit quietly and enjoy her punch. "Go on," she said carelessly. "I'll have my drink and be back inside in a bit."

"Either that, I'll come back out and find you," St. George promised, and made a point of touching her hand before escorting Amita back inside. Hilary missed him a little, and then swallowed the feeling down like the silliness it was. There was something tremendously compelling about seeing him back in his element, so to speak, sharply dressed and lazily charming, and his obvious comfort made him particularly appealing. That was all.

Keeping half an eye out for Amita's own partner--fair was only fair, after all, and she was genuinely curious about the man--Hilary located a folding wooden chair and settled into it. She spotted Thomas just coming in search of a drink of his own, and was just sitting up straighter to greet him and hopefully call him over when someone preemptively appeared at her side, not quite imposing enough to loom properly but doing his best, and said "Miss Hood, I've been meaning to speak to you for some time."

"Hello, Mr. Fleetston," said Hilary warily, only just suppressing the annoyed oath that had been first to spring to mind; if St. George thought this might not be her kind of do, she wasn't sure she wanted to know what brought his landlord there. "It's a lovely party, isn't it?" She was going to be polite, she decided, but not to the point of outright encouragement; there were chairs available, but like hell was she inviting him to sit down.

"That remains to be seen," said Fleetston ominously.

Unfortunately, there was nothing to be said to that that would not be perceived as encouragement. "Is something wrong, Mr. Fleetston?"

"You might say that." He frowned down at her. "I thought I might give you some useful advice while you may still be in a position to benefit from it."

There was a definite hint of a threat about the phrasing, but judging by his tone Fleetston seemed merely annoyed about something, so Hilary held her tongue for the moment and tried to decide which of his potential topics of choice seemed worst. "That's terribly generous of you, but really you needn't bother."

"Under the circumstances," said Fleetston, in an excessively patient tone that set Hilary's teeth on edge, "I think I'd better, all the same. You see, I have got a few years' experience on you, and I happen to know a little bit about the way a certain kind of young man's mind works--having at one point been one myself, of course, before I learned the proper respect due to the more delicate sex."

If this was what came of endeavouring to appear ladylike, Hilary reflected, she wanted no part of it. She almost wished she had offered him a chair, if only so he could stop looking down his nose at her like that. "I suppose you mean Mr. Christianson."

Fleetston nodded. "I do, most certainly, and I'll go so far as to say it straight out: I believe you'd be safer breaking your ties with him."

"I thought you might." Hilary folded her hands. "But I was at Oxford for four years and I think I know a little about that variety of young man myself. You may be quite sure that I know exactly what Mr. Christianson's interest is in me, and what to do about it. It doesn't in any way mean he's been rude to me, or that I don't enjoy his company."

She had hoped this would settle the matter neatly, but Mr. Fleetston appeared to have lingering doubts. "Perhaps so, but surely it'd be safer for all concerned not to encourage him."

Hilary found herself beginning to feel a bit cross. She didn't want to feel cross; she had been looking forward to this evening, and refused to let this conversation go on dampening her mood any longer than necessary. "May I be quite candid with you?"

"Of course." He smiled. Hilary imagined Fleetston feeling rather fatherly towards her, in the worst possible way, and wished very badly for her own father for a few abysmal seconds before collecting herself.

"When I lived in Oxford," she told him, "there were a fair number of your sort of men, too. Very well-meaning men, anxious to protect me from the wild untamed undergraduates and so on." Somehow, the word undergraduates in that context had only ever seemed to encompass men. "And in my experience, most of them were after just the same thing as the younger men, only they thought they could sort of herd me into it like collies instead of being honest about it. So I hope you'll understand that I really don't care for your taking such a close interest in my personal life." It was very tempting to go on to tell him that this particular sheep had long since escaped the pasture, but that did seem to be going a little too far.

Mr. Fleetston emitted a heavy sigh. "That's the difficulty with university educations for women, isn't it? You're so very unwilling to take the advice of your elders, even where it's clearly needed."

"I really don't think it's their advice they wanted me to take," said Hilary before she could stop herself, and choked--too late. Oh, well, since she'd lost her pretence of politeness, might as well not waste time and conversation on trying to recover it; she gathered up her long skirt and her empty punch glass and rose more or less gracefully to her feet. "And I can promise that you haven't a chance of convincing me not to go on seeing Mr. Christianson, especially not if you're going to take the tack that I can't make my own decisions when you don't know a damn thing about my life, so if you'll excuse me I think I'd rather take my chances with him."

Thankfully, she seemed to have taken Mr. Fleetston rather by surprise, and he was too occupied with turning odd shades of purple to hinder her escape.

Having extricated herself, more by accident than design, Hilary retreated with alacrity to the lavatory and spent a minute there feeling terribly silly. Once she had settled her mind again, and reapplied her lipstick so as to have a plausible excuse for being in there at all, she decided that what she really needed was a few minutes of fresh air.

She looked around half-heartedly for St. George as she found her way out of the house, but he was nowhere in evidence; Hilary assumed he had been absorbed into some fascinating social situation or other, but he had been so attentive for much of the evening that there was something a little odd about not having him ready at hand. Something very nearly alarming--but that was only a brief twinge of a thought, and Hilary shrugged it off as a lingering aftereffect of the way that Fleetston had jangled her nerves.

Once out on the front steps, she produced her cigarette case and hesitated a moment, wondering whether perhaps smoking would defeat the purpose both of fixing her makeup and of getting any really fresh air. In the end, though, Hilary felt she wanted something to do with her hands, so she perched on the short railing and lit a cigarette, gazing absently across the street as she smoked it. No one else from the party joined her. A car or two went by, but the pavement on both sides of the street was blissfully quiet in contrast to the music and chatter inside, and the dull ache in Hilary's head began at last to abate.

In fact, the relative solitude was so soothing that it was all the more jarring when someone moved across the street--not someone coming around a corner, but a stir of motion in the shadows between two houses; it took Hilary a split second to realise that whoever it was must have been there, standing still, at least as long as she'd been in the porch. Hilary squinted, trying to make the figure out. It was a man--no, two men, in suits so dark and drab that it was no wonder they'd blended so easily into the shadows. One of them appeared to have taken notice of her as well, and gave a polite nod; something about his build and his way of moving struck Hilary as familiar, and when she realised what it was she stubbed her cigarette out hastily and hurried back into the house.

She hunted through the whole ground floor and out the back door only to find St. George already outdoors, conversing cheerfully with Amita; about what, Hilary didn't wait around to find out. "Excuse me," she said hastily. "I'm sorry, Amita--could I borrow him for a moment?"

Amita shrugged. "Certainly--since it seems he's yours anyway."

"Don't I ever get any say in the matter?" St. George demanded indignantly.

"No," said Hilary shortly, and claimed his arm firmly. "Come on, I need to talk to you."

"Enjoy," Amita called after them; she looked suspiciously smug.

Hilary made sure to get herself and St. George well away from the general mass of partygoers--indeed, a good ways into the little park that backed the house and only barely still in view of the party at all. She wasn't entirely sure she felt safe getting this far away from the crowd, but at least the two of them were together, and she wanted to be very sure no one was listening to them.

He followed willingly enough, though he looked understandably bewildered. "Lee, are you all right?"

"For the moment." She found a bench that was relatively secluded but not entirely out of sight and sat down, smoothing down her skirt and gently tugging St. George down to take a seat next to her.

"Lee," he began, and then went abruptly quiet; it might have been because Hilary was contemplating him rather narrowly in return. "Lee, what has got into you?"

Hilary had thought she'd need to steel herself, but in truth it was surprisingly easy to cup his jaw with her free hand and to kiss him, gently, at the corner of one eye, and then on the temple.

"Oh." It was more of an exhale than a word; St. George leaned in closer, neck curving under her hand. "There are better ways to lead up to this sort of thing, you know."

"Don't take it personally," Hilary warned, nuzzling idly against his shirt collar--though he did smell good; she was willing to grant that much. "I wanted an excuse to speak to you alone."

"And here I thought you might actually have grown to like me." St. George's hand slid up her arm and settled between her shoulders; Hilary shivered slightly, despite her best efforts towards indifference. "What's so urgent?"

Hilary squeezed his other hand, suddenly reluctant to dent his good mood; all the same, he needed to know. "Hargrave's got men here," she murmured into his ear.

"What on Earth for?" He tipped his head, lips tickling her fingers, and kissed her palm--but his eyes had gone wide and sober. "Not that I don't believe you--and I can't imagine you're the only one who's seen them."

"I doubt it." Hilary shook her head-- if only slightly, given their close quarters--and found, to a rather alarming and incongruous degree of satisfaction, that St. George made a small but extremely distracting noise when she ran her thumb along the edge of his ear. "But no one else seems to--but I could swear I saw Merrick lurking across the street a way. And at least one other man in a dark suit with him."

"It's a dinner party," St. George pointed out. "Nearly all the men are in dark suits."

"You know what I--what I meant." His fingers were tracing absent patterns along her spine, and Hilary leaned back against them, forgetting for a moment that she was meant to be pretending that she was only pretending to enjoy this.

"Of course I do." He was beginning to sound distinctly breathless, and Hilary was nearly certain he wasn’t pretending.

Hilary let her hand wander under his jacket to the small of his back. "What do you think we should do?"

St. George smiled and dropped a kiss on the end of her nose, unexpectedly affectionate. "You do realise that I'm not very well suited to clear thinking under these circumstances?"

"Even less so than usual, you mean." She leaned into him more closely to kiss his neck again--what she could get at, anyway, above his collar--and all right, Hilary admitted to herself, it wasn't half a bad feeling at all, making St. George's breath hitch like that; and when he stroked his thumb along her collarbone, she let out a small murmur of approval without quite even minding.

"Why, Lee," he breathed a few minutes later, almost a laugh, and Hilary realised she'd lost the thread of the conversation altogether. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were actually enjoying this."

Hilary tried, as best she could, to remember that this really wasn't what she had intended. But then again, she was enjoying herself, and there really didn't seem to be all that much they could do about Merrick or anything else at the moment, and--and, well, St. George's hand was very warm at her waist through the thin fabric of her dress. It was terribly hard to believe, by now, that there was really any reason for her to be frightened, and maybe she had wanted, somewhere along the line, to have an excuse to enjoy this kind of intimacy with impunity for just a few minutes. "Then what if I am?"

"Then I'd be very concerned that you're taking advantage of me." St. George did laugh then, if only quietly, and Hilary cut it off by kissing him properly, finally, on the mouth.

She was gentle about it--not because she was uncertain, but indeed because it seemed so surely like the right thing to do at that moment that there seemed to be no need to rush or press things. St. George was kissing her back, just as slow and careful but not in the least methodical--which mattered somehow, though Hilary refused to go chasing down that line of inquiry when there were so many more immediately interesting things demanding her attention. His hand had left her waist, for example, and his fingertips were now rubbing up and down against her spine, and Hilary was suddenly jealous that he had so much of her skin available to touch and she so little of his. It wasn't as if she intended to undress him here--but it seemed very important, suddenly, that she fumble one of his cuffs open as best she could without breaking the kiss to look down, and slide her hand inside to wrap around his wrist.

It was he who broke away, then, with a gasp and a shiver. "Lee, what on earth--"

"I don't know." Hilary shook her head and smiled helplessly; the mere warmth of his skin under her palm was distracting. Oh, she was in trouble, but at the moment she wasn't entirely sure she minded.

St. George nuzzled happily into her neck, and then kissed her again; Hilary looped her free arm around his neck to keep him at it for a while, twisting her entire body in an attempt to press closer to him. "You're so lovely," he said softly, lips brushing her ear. "Not just tonight. All the time." There was a rawness in his voice that set her heart hammering, as surely as the slight flex of his leg under her hand.

"I wouldn't go taking things too seriously; it doesn't suit you." Hilary laughed breathlessly and broke off into a gasp as his attention wandered further down. "Oh. Jerry--not there, not in public."

He hummed assent against her skin, mouth trailing back up above her collarbone, though not with any great haste. "And if we weren't in public?"

Hilary returned his grin; dropping that bait had been irresistible, but after a year and change of waiting for this, she saw no reason not to take the time over it that the occasion deserved. "We'll see when we get there," she promised, but when she kissed him again it was with rather less restraint than before.

"This," she said a while later still, forehead pressed to his, trying half-heartedly to collect herself. "It's nice. It's really nice."

St. George smiled; she was really beginning to grow quite indecently fond of that smile. "You needn't sound so surprised."

Hilary kissed the corner of his mouth. She felt very warm and very secure, here with him, and she wanted more than anything to settle in and just indulge herself tonight--but there was a reason she hadn't before, a good reason, and for almost purely academic reasons it irked her that she couldn't seem to remember what it had been. "I," she said slowly, "am going to go get a drink."

He tensed up: just a tiny bit, but Hilary could feel it, this close. "And coming back with it, I hope."

"And coming back," Hilary assured him--and to prove it she slid outright into his lap and kissed him once more, lingering rather longer than intended, before getting to her feet. "Would you like anything?"

"I'd like you not to think too hard." St. George grinned hopefully up at her. "Just for tonight?"

"I promise." Hilary smiled back, letting the backs of her fingers skate briefly over the side of his face. There was such a thrill in touching him like this and openly meaning it, in the thought of taking something she'd wanted entirely unreasonably for months. "I really just enjoy keeping you in suspense."

He narrowed his eyes. "Not too much, I hope; I'm not in the habit of being patient."

"Brat," said Hilary, with a degree of affection that startled even herself. "Just don't go anywhere."

She picked her way back towards the main bulk of people, as quickly as she could on grass in her high-heeled shoes; it was tempting to take them off, but the grass was damp and would likely have felt more unpleasant still through her stockings. Hilary made it to the improvised bar in the back yard without interruption, but on her way back was briefly waylaid by Dr. Fitzmorris, who had for once chosen to appear in person, and spent a few minutes praising her host's hospitality, with only a vague sense of guilt that most of her contentment was really not his doing at all. Indeed, she had only half an idea at best of her surroundings at all, and if asked could probably not even have said what drink she had poured herself only a minute or two before. Hilary's mind was still in large part off on a park bench with St. George, and on getting back to him as quickly as possible.

Something about tonight was making Hilary feel thoroughly off-kilter--more so than usual, even. Something about the slightly surreal glitz of the occasion, and indeed all such occasions; something about seeing St. George so much like his usual self, and seeming more comfortable than he had in weeks; something about the way he'd been looking at her all evening, just a little more openly attracted than usual, had been catching her off-guard. And yet, for once, she didn't mind feeling so off-balance. They'd been dodging around each other for well over a year--much more narrowly of late, perhaps, but the attraction had always been there, and after all they were both in the habit of casual intimacy. And seeing as St. George was exclusively hers for the duration--well, Hilary reasoned with a distinct flush of relief, why shouldn't she take advantage?

As it turned out, there was a very good reason why not--and that reason was that St. George, despite her instructions otherwise, was not where she had left him. His jacket was, left in a careless heap on the bench, but the man himself was not in evidence.

"Jerry," she said aloud, rather sceptically; the combined buzz of wine and anticipation began to waver. "I do hope you don't think--" and was cut off by being yanked abruptly behind a tree, the glass falling from her hand and smashing on the ground. She hoped for a fleeting second that it would be St. George, or at least another of her friends; but it proved to be Merrick, in the same nondescript dark blue suit that seemed to be the only one he owned, and once they were face to face he did not even loosen his grip on her arm. "Looking for your boy friend, are you?"

"I might be," said Hilary, as evenly as she could while trying to yank her arm free. "What about it?"

"Funny thing," said Merrick, quite matter-of-fact. "He's been asking for you, too."

Hilary gave up struggling, for the moment; better, she reasoned, to hear out what he had to say and conserve her energy in case he wanted to do more than talk. "Where is he, then?" She was trying to keep up the same pretence as he, that this was a perfectly casual conversation, but Merrick unnerved her, and she feared she wasn't hiding it very well at all.

Merrick shrugged. "Can't see that it makes a difference now, really. All he wanted was for me to give you a message."

Hilary forced herself to stand quite still, though the bark of the tree was digging into her back. "And what would that be?"

"How the hell should I know?" asked Merrick irritably, and laughed; it was an incredibly unpleasant sound, and only more so for being combined with the hum of music and laughter from the party somewhere off behind them. "I'm not your errand boy. And anyway, I slit his throat before he could tell me."

"You didn't," Hilary snapped reflexively, refusing to make it sound like a question, but her nails dug painfully into her palm. "You wouldn't dare. I don't believe it." But they had done it before, and would do again, and St. George--was not exactly the most subtle of potential threats.

Something that might have been fear, and might have been anger, began a cold trickle down her spine.

"Nice fancy shirt he was wearing," Merrick went on, clearly enjoying himself. "All soaked through with blood now, of course--pity to ruin something of such quality, don't you think?" He leaned in a little closer, peering curiously up into Hilary's face. "You must so have been looking forward to getting him out of it, later tonight. They do breed such wretched little tramps around here."

"If you've hurt him--" It seemed like a lucky hit at first, but then Hilary realised where he must have been all the time that she and Jerry had thought themselves alone, and her stomach twisted violently. For a moment she couldn't remember how she'd meant to finish her sentence. She refused to believe what Merrick was telling her; his word wasn't exactly as good as gold, and yet--

Merrick snorted. "If? Lord Hargrave is running a business here, Miss Hood. He made an agreement with Mr. Christianson, your friend broke it, and that, quite simply, was the end of that."

Hilary devoted all the energy she had, briefly, to forcing herself to keep breathing. "I will make you so sorry," she finished, trying to sound grim and only managing panicked instead.

"His Lordship was afraid you might feel that way." Something small and shiny flicked out of Merrick's sleeve into his hand.

The motion drew Hilary's gaze for a moment, but in the poor light she couldn't tell what it was he was holding. Now seemed as good a time as any, all the same, to pull away; but the moment she began to struggle again Merrick shifted his grip, pinning her to the tree with an arm across her stomach while he yanked at the neckline of her dress. Something tore, and Hilary flinched.

"You know, I really am a romantic at heart," he said conversationally, and smoothed a thumb idly over the newly bared side of Hilary's neck; she shuddered. "And I think it's such a pity the two of you didn't get to see each other one last time."

It wasn't until Hilary felt the burn of the needle sliding into her neck that it occurred to her to scream, but it didn't seem to come out of her throat properly, and the kick she aimed between his legs somehow went awry as well. "You bastard," she choked out, but Merrick only grinned imperturbably at her, and then--

-------

It was dark here--really, incredibly dark, wherever this was.

Even once St. George had made absolutely certain that his eyes were open, he still couldn't see a thing; then he tried to move, and something scratched against his face. There was a bag over his head, and--inevitably--his hands and feet were bound; the floor was hard and cold under his back, and he heard faint rustling noises not far off. His mouth had been left ungagged, so he felt free to make use of it while he tried to maneuver himself into sitting up. "Who's there?" he demanded, though it was difficult to feel demanding under the rather undignified circumstances, and added half-hopefully, "Caroline?"

"Afraid not." The voice was harsh and oily all at once, and nothing like Hilary's at all. "Indeed, I'm afraid you won't be seeing much more of her at all."

St. George tensed, wondering vaguely how hard and how accurately he could kick someone in the shins with his ankles tied together. "I said, who are you?"

"Oh, I'm hurt." The footsteps stilled, and the voice was suddenly immediately overhead, just a few inches from St. George's ear. "I'm your good friend Mr. Smirt, remember? And my job--" Smirt flicked St. George's ear painfully hard, and with astonishing accuracy given the interference of the bag. "My job," he said again with relish, "is to make sure you don't cause his lordship any heartache. You've been rather a disappointment to us so far, young man, and I'm sure you wouldn't want that. And seeing as that young lady of yours has been interfering with Mr. Ames's private business, we thought it was about time to steer you two back on course."

"Just don't hurt her." It was only a lifetime of training in pretending to like everyone, no matter how objectively foul, that kept a pleading note out of St. George's voice, and that only just. "I'm sorry if you think I've wronged you somehow, I'm really very sorry, but if I have there's really no reason to take it out on Miss Hood."

Smirt's grin was so wide and pointy as to be audible. "Oh, she hasn't been hurt in the least," he said soothingly. "She didn't feel a thing, in fact. Just like going to sleep and never waking up--like when they put down your favourite dog when you were a little boy, remember?"

St. George did kick out then, but only managed a useless sort of jackknife, making no physical contact at all. "Shut up," he gritted. "Why should I believe anything you have to say?"

Another rustle at his side, and a moment later the toe of Smirt's boot jabbed sharply into his ribs; St. George yelped in surprise and pain before he could swallow the noise and rolled instinctively over onto his other side. "Are you saying," Smirt murmured, "that I am not a man of my word?"

"I'm saying--" St. George groped for a complete sentence and somehow, miraculously, found one. "I'm saying you can't have hurt her, because then you'd have nothing to hold over me."

"You think that?" Smirt emitted a hiss of laughter and kicked viciously at the small of St. George's back, sending a sudden sharp burst of pain up his spine. "Unfortunately for Miss Hood, his lordship and I haven't quite the same faith in your strength of character. And I figure--" his knee settled into St. George's gut, weighing down and down until St. George was groaning and wheezing for air, and then Smirt grabbed his jaw and yanked it up sharply, making it harder still to breathe. "I figure," he said again, "being the soft-shelled creature you so clearly are, if the loss of your favourite bit of fun don't do the job, the promise of some more physical pain ought to keep you nicely in line."

St. George did his best to squirm free, but with his back throbbing in pain and his air nearly cut off, he hadn't much hope. "I'd like to see you try," he choked out, and realised a moment too late that even this pathetic attempt at bravado might have been ill-advised.

He'd been in his share of fistfights, and possibly a few more than that, but as it turned out being trussed up and thoroughly pounded on was not actually very much like being in a fistfight at all. A fistfight, he had always believed, was a perfectly sporting, dignified, and therapeutic method of settling a dispute; the next several minutes of his life were the precise opposite of all these things. St. George tried, at first, to squirm away or kick back, but these efforts were nearly entirely fruitless, and the one blind kick that did connect--with an ankle, it felt like--inspired Smirt only to curse, crouching down to slam his fist squarely into the younger man's face. After that, in order to preserve what little remained of his dignity and what little there had ever been of Smirt's temper, St. George stopped resisting and simply waited it out; he did his best not to make noise as the blows fell, but in that too was largely unsuccessful.

It stopped, finally, when a voice called out from somewhere nearby, and Smirt let St. George drop back to the ground while he went to converse with the newcomer. Lost in a vague haze of pain and misery, St. George found he could not muster the attention to understand the conversation; but in a minute there was a soft heavy thud next to him, very like the sound of another body being dropped, and then someone was untying his hands.

"We've brought you some company," said Smirt suddenly, right next to his ear, and St. George flinched. "It's been a pleasure doing business with you, sir; do remember this next time you're thinking of misbehaving."

His footsteps receded, were joined by another set, and in a minute were gone entirely. St. George waited another minute after that, not so much to make sure the men were gone as because the idea of movement was unfathomable, and then finally set himself to fumbling with the ties at his ankles and the bag over his head. No part of him felt especially broken, which was promising; then again, that was partially because most parts of him hurt equally. His shoulder had taken a good wrench at some point in his being tumbled about on the ground, and it burned like anything, but at least it was still where it ought to be.

But far more pressing than that, suddenly, was the sight that greeted him when he worked the sack off his head. The body that had been dropped beside his own was Hilary, as he had feared; she was crumpled in a heap where she'd fallen, and lay quite still.

St. George went cold all over, eyes fixed on her; with his current throbbing headache and the dim light in the alley, it was all but impossible to see whether she was breathing or not. "No," he said vehemently, startling himself when he realised he'd spoken aloud, "no, no, no--oh God, no," and scrambled to her side. Hilary had been in his arms and laughing, not so long ago; the memory seemed surreal compared to the way she looked now, but she couldn't be dead. He refused to admit to the possibility.

All the same, it took a bit of effort for St. George to muster his courage and press a finger under Hilary's jaw, and when he felt the steady flutter of a pulse there he nearly sobbed in relief. He tugged her onto her back, carefully, and slid his hand up to cup her cheek. She wasn't even that badly hurt as far as he could see; certainly she hadn't taken the same sort of beating he had. Nonetheless she was unconscious, and in St. George's highly inexpert opinion breathing rather more shallowly than she ought to have been.

"Lee?" He sat up with an effort and patted her cheek hopefully. "Time to wake up." There was no response at first--she barely even twitched, and alarm began to overtake relief. "Hilary," St. George tried, a little more quietly, a little more frantically, giving her shoulder a cautious little shake. "I need you back here with me. Please?"

He didn't understand what was happening, but he was certain that he didn't like it. He'd done his best for weeks to pretend to Hilary and to himself that their situation really wasn't that dangerous or desperate at all--but clearly it was. He couldn't really imagine that Hargrave's men, having backed out on a threat this serious, would back out on the same threat a second time; and there was no conceivable threat more serious than that of harm or death to Hilary. St. George liked to think of himself as a reasonably courageous man--more than reasonably, even--but courage failed him even at the thought of being left alone in a mess like this without her. Hilary was undeniably more levelheaded than him, not to mention gifted with substantially more capacity for forethought; to be left without her, it seemed to him at that moment, would be to be left without direction, without hope, without--

"Oh, damn it," said St. George miserably, beginning now--out of all the shocks he'd taken that evening--to blur with panic. "Hilary, loveliest, please wake up. Please?" He shook her again, a shade more firmly, and at last she let out a soft breath of a noise and leaned into his hand just a little. "That's it." He leaned over her, giving her shoulder one more encouraging squeeze. "Come on, Hilary, come back to me."

She groaned, finally, and her eyes fluttered open; St. George sat back on his heels as relief washed over him. "Jerry?" She stared up at him blankly for a moment and then flailed out, clutching at the front of his already-ruined shirt. "Jerry, I'm so sorry, he grabbed me and stuck a needle in my arm, I don't know--you're bleeding," she said blankly. "It's got all over your shirt."

"It's not my only shirt. Don't worry about it." He smoothed a hand down her arm, trying to soothe both her and himself, and noticed for the first time that her frock had been torn down from where it tied behind her neck; he recalled having thoughts about doing much the same, not so long ago, and felt an irrational twinge of shame. "Come on and wake up a bit, would you? One of us has got to be rational and we both know it's not going to be me."

"You look terrible," said Hilary dazedly, and tried half-heartedly to push up onto her elbows without dislodging his hand. "You are all right, aren't you?"

"Far as I can tell." St. George helped her to sit up; she raised no objection to his arm around her shoulders or to his reflexive move to brush her hair out of her face. "Are you?"

Hilary wasn't answering him; her head rested on his shoulder, so that it was impossible to make out her expression, but she was breathing in quick shallow pants, breath hitching occasionally, and shivering at least as hard as he.

"Lee?" St. George ventured after a minute, still trying desperately to assimilate the highly inconvenient recentering of his world about her axis. "I think you'd better keep talking."

"I'll kill him," Hilary blurted; her voice was weak and shaky still, but no occasion when he had ever thought her angry at him could hold a candle to the chill in her tone right now. "I will, Jerry; I could wring his rotten neck."

"I wish you wouldn't joke about things like that." St. George pressed his face into her hair, heedless of the fresh varieties of pain every movement brought, and closed his own eyes briefly. She was alive and mostly well, which was one thing, but she was miserably unhappy, which was another, and the torn side of her dress had slid down almost to the point of indecency, and really it was all too confusing to be borne. "Here," he said, latching on to the one item he could actually do something about, "you've got--better keep an eye on that," and tugged the strap back up.

"No one's joking," said Hilary darkly, though she reached up to keep the fabric in place, reknotting it behind her neck with shaky fingers. "Jerry, they hadn't the right--” She broke off with a shudder. "How badly did he hurt you?"

He had forgotten for a moment that he was hurt at all. "Just cut up and bruised, I think, though it felt like a pretty good kicking at the time. But I wish you'd go to the doctor. We don't know what they put in you."

"I know, I don't--" Hilary shook her head briefly. "I don't quite feel right. But you'd better go with me, just to be sure." She smiled ruefully and touched his his cheek, just under the bruise. "You should see yourself--your poor face."

"I've had worse," said St. George bravely.

"Oh, yes, of course. You are a tough one, aren't you." Hilary laughed shakily and hugged him, to St. George's utter astonishment.

He stroked her back and tried not to flinch when her elbow pressed a particularly sore spot on his ribs. "Lee, what are we going to do?"

"I think we'd better stop going to parties, for a start. Nothing good ever seems to come of it." She kissed his cheek, and St. George wished he weren't too rattled and sore to enjoy this moment the way it deserved to be enjoyed.

-------

"You don't need to be here, you know." Dr. Fitzmorris glanced over at Hilary, who was hovering in the corner of his surgery. "I've finished with you already."

Seated shirtless on the exam table, St. George took advantage of the pause in the doctor's examination to slump back against the wall. "Oh, leave her be." His attempt at lightheartedness didn't sound quite so light as it usually might have. "I'm sure she's only appreciating the view."

Hilary hugged herself a little more tightly and pulled a face at him. He did look good shirtless, mottling of fresh injuries and all, and under any other circumstances Hilary might have appreciated the view quite a lot--and been annoyed at him for catching her at it, to boot. But she'd been frightened for a minute tonight--really scared for him--and the lingering anxiety was enough to keep her from taking advantage. Much advantage, at any rate. "Sorry." She glanced at the door. "I'll just go--wait outside."

St. George reached out to catch her hand briefly as she moved past him; his wrist had been rubbed raw, and something seemed to lodge in Hilary's throat. If something serious had happened to him tonight--well, it sufficed to say Hilary didn't need to be answerable to the entire Wimsey family on top of an already impossible situation. "I was only joking, Lee. You don't have to go."

"You're a grown man, in theory, and have been for nearly an entire month now." She squeezed his hand before releasing it and glanced at Dr. Fitzmorris, who was waiting in patient amusement for them to sort themselves out. "If you really can't cope without me, I'll be out in the waiting room."

The doctor had retrieved a bottle of astringent from somewhere; Hilary heard a yelp and a complaint from St. George as she shut the door behind her.

She tried to take advantage of the waiting room's quiet to settle down a little, but she found herself pacing restlessly instead, heels ticking on the wood floor, afraid to stop moving--and then the bile rose up in her throat and sent Hilary stumbling down the hall, jerking at doors until she found the bathroom just in time to hunch over and vomit into the sink. So much for the hors d'oeuvres, she thought senselessly, and took her time rinsing her mouth out thoroughly and pulling herself back together.

When she emerged, St. George was sitting in the waiting room, right arm freshly bound and his left hand still fumbling with the top button of his shirt, as though being properly buttoned up would somehow compensate for it being a shredded bloodstained mess. "I was afraid you'd gone home."

Hilary shook her head slowly, still feeling a little ill, and crossed the room to sit down next to him; one of her heels skidded out from under her, and she stumbled.

She caught herself, barely, but St. George was already half back on his feet. "Lee?"

Hilary recovered her balance--though the prospect of simply sitting down on the floor was not unappealing. "I'm all right," she said unconvincingly, and wobbled the rest of the way over to the chair next to his, touching his arm soothingly. "How're you feeling?"

"Well, I'll probably live, though it doesn't feel much like it. I suppose they didn’t want to do too much damage to a perfectly good worker." He sat back down and pressed his side against hers, bruises and all, still watching her warily. "What'd he tell you?"

""Nothing exciting." Hilary shrugged. "It was pretty weak, whatever he shot into me, and Dr. Fitzmorris thinks it's harmless, but all the same I'm to lay off alcohol for a day or two till it clears out of my system."

"That's a pity," observed St. George. "I was just going to suggest that what we both need is a good stiff drink or five."

Hilary nodded tiredly, but she still felt fuzzy and out-of-sorts as it was; a stiff drink was precisely what she didn't need right now. "And any other day, I might agree. But I think I'd rather keep a few wits about me for the rest of tonight. Though--" she smiled momentarily as a fresh thought occurred to her-- "I might not mind having a soda water and watching you get sozzled."

"It really wouldn't be the same," he said regretfully. "But thanks for offering. You’re holding together all right--otherwise? I imagine it’s not too comfortable being heaved about like that."

“Oh, I’ve some impressive bruises coming in as we speak, I’m sure.” Hilary reached up and touched the fresh knot in the neck of her dress, just to be certain it was still in place. “But I asked and he said it wasn’t anything worse than I’d have got from getting tossed into a van and then back out onto the street. I mean--I’ve been thinking about it--if he’d hurt me while I was knocked out, I’d know. He wouldn’t have left any doubt about it. I almost envy you, though," Hilary went on, vaguely aware that this wasn’t a thought she’d usually share. "I think I'd have taken a good honest pummelling before this."

St. George regarded her in outright alarm. "Lee," he said sadly, "I've been doing my honest best to repress all my gentlemanly instincts towards you, for your sake and my own, but you do make it awfully hard sometimes. Explain yourself, would you?"

"Well, I'd rather no beating and no needle, of course." Hilary permitted herself to lean more heavily against him, if only slightly. "But if they'd tried to hurt me, I could've bitten, or kicked, or done something. With the needle..." She shrugged. "Not much to do but hope I woke up and matters hadn't gone much further downhill when I did."

St. George propped his elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand; her answer didn't appear to reassure him at all. "I'd ask what I could do to help," he said after a moment, "only I think help's precisely what you don't want, right now."

That stopped Hilary in her tracks; she'd expected sympathy from him, but not genuine understanding, and she found herself unexpectedly profoundly grateful for it and for him. "You could at least try to keep either of us from getting killed." She licked her lips and managed a weak smile. "I think that would be a nice start."

"I've been doing my best. And succeeded so far; you can't deny that." St. George gave the half-hearted chuckle that was all the joke really deserved. He looked exhausted and rather pathetic; it was difficult to tell how much of that was genuine, and how much was the patchwork of bruises and bandages he'd become under the remains of his dress shirt.

"I can't, at that." Hilary reached over thoughtlessly to brush her thumb over his forehead, which was still creased in concern. "And you can stop looking at me like that, do you understand? You'll start getting lines, and then I shan't be able to be seen in public with you any more. It's been a long night, that's all. I'll be fine." It was bad enough, half the people in the neighbourhood being frightened all the time, but Hilary wouldn't stand for herself or St. George being scared as well. She simply refused to let it happen.

"I know you will." But his fingers trailed through her hair, down the back of her neck, lightly between her bare shoulders; his touch was so warm and so careful that, for a precarious moment, it recalled Hilary's more affectionate mood of earlier in the evening.

“Here, look,” she said quietly. “You’re still bleeding.” She lowered her hand to rub something bright red away from the collar of his shirt, but it felt strangely waxy, and Hilary laughed a bit shrilly. “No, never mind--you’re not, it’s just my lipstick.”

"Good Lord, you're still here?" Dr. Fitzmorris emerged into the waiting room, closing the surgery door behind him with a sharp click; Hilary and St. George all but leapt back to a more decorous distance from each other. "Go home," he went on in exasperation. "Get some rest. Haven't young people got any sense?"

"Not a shred," said St. George placidly, but he still put up little protest when the doctor herded them out into the street and grumbled his way towards home. "And you," he added to Hilary, looking her over critically, "you still don't look so good. I'm walking you home." It was neither a question nor an offer.

On any other night Hilary would have turned him down; even now, her pride protested, but she had the sense at least to know that she ought not to be walking home by herself in her current condition. "It feels like I'm wrapped in wool," she confessed, not only allowing St. George's arm around her waist as they walked but leaning into it slightly. He was warm and familiar, and as shameful as the feeling was, Hilary badly needed something stable at the moment. "I feel all wobbly and off-balance. Everything's just--off, somehow, and I can't think straight. I hate this."

St. George snorted, guiding her around a corner. "What, you've never been drunk?"

"I've been drunk," Hilary objected. The fresh air was clearing her head, though not nearly as much as she might have liked. "You’ve seen me drunk, Jerry. But I've never had someone get me drunk on purpose to scare me."

"There is that," he admitted, more quietly. "I didn't know there was anything that could frighten you."

"I didn't say I was frightened. Only that someone tried." Hilary made a sporting attempt to elbow him; he was trying to needle her, same as ever, and she appreciated the effort.

"Then the world remains on its axis," St. George said solemnly, though he didn't sound at all satisfied.

Hilary leaned more heavily on him and peered regretfully down at herself as they walked; quite apart from where Merrick had torn it deliberately, her dress was grimy and ripped in half a dozen places. "I liked this dress," she complained.

St. George's thumb traced a small soothing circle at the small of her back. "The best part of being rich," he confided into her ear, "is that you can buy as many frocks as you please."

“I hope you aren’t speaking from personal experience,” said Hilary before she could stop herself, and giggled, not very happily. For some reason, at the moment the destruction of her frock seemed quite the worst aspect of the whole evening. "And anyway, I don’t care for fancy dresses usually. It’s just that I was rather enjoying this one."

He smiled over at her. "I enjoyed it too--though I certainly wouldn't say that was entirely the dress's doing."

"Oh, I noticed." She smiled back, more tiredly than she might have liked. "It's part of why I'm so fond of it."

"All right, now I'm sure you aren't yourself."

Hilary blinked. "What, because I like the way you've been looking at me?"

"No, only because you've admitted it aloud." St. George hesitated, drawing her to a stop. "Here we are."

Hilary hesitated by the alley gate and noticed that he had yet to withdraw his hand from the small of her back. If she were sensible, if she were entirely herself tonight, she would have bidden him goodnight and sent him home to recover from his own injuries--but tonight she was tired and rattled and selfish. St. George had been right: she didn't want help, but tonight she did need it whether she wanted to or not. "Jerry," she said impulsively, "don't go."

St. George blinked at her in surprise. "What, seriously?"

"You're hurt," Hilary pointed out, trying in vain to retain at least a little shred of pride. "I'm worried, that's all--someone should keep an eye on you."

"Oh, Lee." He smiled ruefully, and something highly inconvenient twisted in Hilary's gut; it didn't really feel like nausea, but she chose to file it away as such anyway.

Hilary bit her lip, watching him think it over. A fragment of recent memory drifted back to her, of trying to grope her way back to consciousness, and St. George trying to bring her back--please, he'd said, I need you. He'd been frightened, of course, not talking sense, but it was funny, Hilary thought distractedly; for all his comfortably padded upbringing, it had never really occurred to her before that he might need anyone.

"I could use a change of clothes," he began, slowly. "And a chance to wash up, at least."

Hilary tried not to let her shoulders sag in disappointment. "I'll see you in the morning, then."

St. George hesitated. “Look, I know you’re rattled. If you do want me to come up--I really only meant I’d have to go home first and come back.”

"No--no, that's all right." Hilary groaned sheepishly. "It was a silly thing to ask--forget it."

"Are you sure?" His arm tightened around her for a moment. "You know what I'm like without supervision. Anything could happen."

Hilary didn't want him to go, as it happened, but under the circumstances it seemed flat-out cruel to prevent him from going home. "Honestly, it's all right--go ahead. I'll manage."

"That's my girl." St. George brushed a kiss over her temple before disengaging with clear reluctance.

"Jerry." Hilary hesitated, then decided that by now she had more than earned the right to candor. "Be careful? I don't think I fancy the idea of dealing with this alone much more than you do."

"Oh, I think you fancy it very much indeed, though it's kind of you to spare my feelings." St. George caught her hand in his. "But since you've so ordered, I promise not to get myself killed by tomorrow." He kissed her fingers, quickly, and had fled towards his boarding-house before Hilary could even react to the gesture.

A few moments later found her trying to creep up the back stairs despite the leadenness of her feet. Her successful arrival home was soothing, however, and within another few minutes she had washed her face and jerked the pins out of her hair and scrubbed her teeth to the bounds of endurance, and was contemplating her rather unimpressive selection of nightwear as though it actually mattered. The water had cleared her head a little, and she found herself unreasonably annoyed at having to make a decision. "Blast it," she said aloud at last to her haggard reflection in the wardrobe mirror; though the sentiment was wholly inappropriate for the situation, its familiarity was soothing. "What does it matter, now? It isn't as if anyone's going to see you in it."

She ultimately elected for comfort over fashion, and had just finished coping with nightgown and robe when, sure enough, someone knocked quietly at the outside door. Hilary went hastily to open it, snatching an empty beer bottle from the kitchen rubbish bin just in case of surprises.

It was St. George, though--still in his ruined dress shirt and slacks, and looking down at the bottle with interest. "I thought you weren't allowed alcohol."

"I'm not." Hilary bolted the door behind him. "I was going to break it over your head--if you hadn't been you, I mean," she added, when he looked offended.

"Makes all the sense in the world to me." St. George wandered aimlessly into her sitting room, wearing an expression as though he had never been there before.

Hilary followed him, still turning the empty bottle absently in her hand. "I thought you were going home for the night."

"I was." St. George grimaced. "But my landlord had already bolted the front door and gone to bed."

"Is that so?" Hilary smiled feebly. "I'm sure a man of your ingenuity could have found another way in."

He rocked back restlessly on his heels. "Well, yes. I could have. I suppose."

Hilary smiled properly at that; she couldn't quite seem to help it. "I'm finished in the bathroom," she offered; the words at least were familiar from years of sharing a hall bathroom. "If you want to wash up, undress, I don't know. I could make something for you to drink, too, if you'd like."

"No, that's all right--better just carry on as usual, I suppose." He hovered in the middle of the room for a moment, though, looking lost, and Hilary--who had never seen St. George look anything less than entirely comfortable in his own skin--had no idea what to do about it.

"The bathroom's through the bedroom," she said at last, taking his elbow and nudging him in the necessary direction; that gesture, at least, got him to smile faintly and snap out of his daze. "Come on, this way."

"I know which way," St. George objected, half-heartedly affronted at worst, and followed her into the bedroom, going on into the bathroom while Hilary sat down tiredly on the bed. Standing up again to shuck her dressing gown onto the chair in the corner seemed suddenly to be a forbidding endeavour, but she forced herself to do it and then to slide under the covers. It occurred to her for a moment that it might be considered immodest for him to emerge and find her already in bed, but for an assortment of reasons she just couldn't bring herself to care.

She could hear St. George in the next room, rattling and rustling and running water; it was a strange feeling, sharing her living space with another person like this, but tonight it was also unexpectedly comforting. She had been right, it seemed, in anticipating that she'd want company.

All the same, when he emerged from the bathroom in undershirt and shorts, sling once again disposed of, and dropped his ruined clothes carelessly over the chair where she'd left her robe--and if the sight of their clothes heaped together stirred something oddly sentimental in Hilary, that was surely only an aftereffect of some sort--there was an awkward moment before St. George crossed the room and perched as little of himself on the edge of the bed as possible. "So I'll be on the sofa if you need me, I suppose."

Hilary reached out for him; it was more instinctive than anything. "Come here?" she asked, without much real hope, but he only hesitated a moment before sliding over and slipping an arm around her back. She leaned into him, and he shifted nearer still in return, murmuring soothing nonsense against her temple.

"Shh," she said in response, "shhh, don't worry about it, I'm here, aren't I?" hardly knowing whether she meant to reassure him of her safety or his own.

They sat in close-pressed silence for a few minutes, and she was just beginning to find St. George an increasingly heavy weight against her side when he began, quietly and without any fuss, to snore into her hair.

For another minute or so Hilary tried to keep still; then she realised the situation would not be indefinitely tenable, and gave in to the urge to giggle. "Jerry." She nudged him. "You can't sleep like that, you'll strain something."

He jolted awake, blinking at her dazedly. There was an ugly bruise inside his elbow and a couple of dark stains still drying on his undershirt, and Hilary suspected his shoulder wasn’t quite the colour shoulders were supposed to be; she was struck by simultaneous waves of affection for him and anger at the man who had hurt him, such a bizarre and overpowering mix of sensation that it knocked the breath from her. "Sorry." He sat up straight, though he somehow managed it without actually creating any distance between them. "It seems it's time for me to keep my date with your sofa."

"You're a damned nuisance," said Hilary fondly, holding on to his arm. "You might as well just not bother." She was too tired not to be reckless, and the thought of giving up physical contact with him was not a soothing one at the moment.

"Lee, you're tired. You were drugged." St. George licked his lips and smiled thinly, though he didn't withdraw from her grip. "I rather think the moment for that has passed, don't you?"

The regret rankled for a second; Hilary had been doing her best not to imagine how differently things might have gone had she taken him home before everything had gone wrong, and not after. "Jerry," she said, as patiently as she could manage, "I haven't any designs on your virtue--if I had, I certainly wouldn't have worn this old cotton thing. It was a present from the vicar's wife, for God's sake."

He laughed, a blessedly ordinary sound; it filled Hilary's heart right up with something she really wasn't inclined to examine too closely. "I suppose I'll have to trust you, then. Budge over, would you?"

She shifted away from him obligingly, lifting the blanket as she went, and St. George slipped into bed with her. There was another uncertain moment while they stared at each other; and then Hilary caved first and hugged him for all she was worth, making him grunt in surprise. "Oh!" Hilary pulled away again, hastily. "I'm sorry--I didn't mean to hurt you, I wasn't thinking."

He shook his head and sank back against the pillows. "You didn't hurt me. Fitzmorris gave me something for the pain--I'll be sore as hell in the morning but I'm fine now."

"All right," said Hilary dubiously, but all the same she was more careful about settling back down against him; St. George started to put his arm around her waist, but hesitated halfway through the process. "What's wrong?"

He groaned and pressed his face into her hair. "I'm not used to sleeping with women and trying not to get a feel in."

"Never let it be said that you aren't a gentleman," Hilary grumbled, and tugged his arm more tightly around her.

They got themselves situated, eventually, in a way that involved as much physical contact as possible without offending St. George's few remaining sensibilities, and Hilary began finally to doze off, surprisingly comfortable and vastly reassured by his presence. "Better?" she murmured, after a little while.

"I'll get there." She'd known he wasn't asleep; he was toying with her hair, alternately stroking and tugging idly, though not nearly hard enough to hurt. "You gave me quite a scare tonight, you know."

There was nothing to be said to this that couldn't be said better without words, so Hilary kept quiet and kissed his temple lightly. It occurred to her for a moment that the evening might not end up so far off its intended course after all, if only she tilted her head an inch further and kissed him for real. It would settle her remaining regrets, surely; in just a minute she'd kiss him. Or the minute after that. She was so comfortable, after all, and so terribly tired.

-------

There was nothing St. George would have liked better, when he woke up the next morning and rediscovered where he'd fallen asleep and with whom, than to linger there indefinitely; unfortunately, he could foresee no outcome to this that would not involve severe embarrassment for him and Hilary both, so he disentangled himself from her with great care and withdrew to the bathroom to wash up, put his trousers back on, and tend to his wounds both physical and emotional. The sling he reluctantly tied back into place after an experimental roll of his shoulder; his pride stung, but his arm hurt more, and if he had managed like this for weeks after the first injury surely he could put up with it a little longer. For the greater good, and all that.

He wandered back through the bedroom and shoved the curtains wide open; sunlight poured into the room, and he tried not to pay much mind to the angry dark bruise that had bloomed on Hilary's shoulder between sleeve and blanket. Not sure what else to do, he went rummaging absently through the kitchen with vague thoughts of preparing tea and toast. He had just managed to find a box of tea, and was contemplating the meagre contents of the fridge, when Hilary appeared in the kitchen doorway. She was tying her dressing gown around her waist, still sleepy-looking with her hair a mess; St. George remembered all over again that he was in love with her, and felt abruptly hollow inside in a way that had nothing to do with having slept through breakfast.

"Need some help?" She folded her arms across her chest, but she was smiling faintly.

"Lee!" St. George shut the refrigerator hastily and straightened up, feeling faintly guilty for no reason he could place. "I thought I could make us breakfast."

Hilary narrowed her eyes slightly. She seemed to have recovered her irritability, which was paradoxically encouraging. "What time is it? Come to think of it, can you even cook?"

St. George leaned back to check the clock over the sink. "It's quarter to twelve--and it's only tea and toast anyway; I didn't know how you were feeling but I thought it couldn't hurt to try."

"Better you buy me lunch than Mrs. Bloom a new house," said Hilary uncharitably. "Not that I think I want lunch, anyway."

St. George frowned at her. "You are feeling better?"

Hilary appeared to consider carefully for a moment, then nodded. "Just a little queasy. Much better than last night, though--please don't worry about it."

"What, me worry?" He grinned, though maybe not quite convincingly, crossing over to lean against the side of the doorway opposite her.

"You? Of course not." Hilary grinned back; she didn't look quite convincing either, but she had at least shed the visible daze she'd been wandering in last night, which was an enormous relief. "How are you feeling?"

A whole line of reasoning fell abruptly into place in St. George's mind; it was a phenomenon he was used to seeing in his uncle but not in himself, and for a moment the sensation of enlightenment was almost as unnerving as the realisations themselves. To start with, he was hopelessly in love with her; there was no objective way to prove this particular point, but St. George had never been good with objectivity in any case. He knew that, in return, Hilary was reasonably fond of him and even attracted to him; but even when she had been drugged last night, she had been doing her best not even to admit any affection towards him. It followed, therefore, given what enormous value he knew she placed on her own autonomy, that even if she did return St. George's substantial affections toward her--which seemed too incredible to be true in any case--chances were minimal that she would ever admit to it, let alone want to pursue a relationship. His first instinct was to cut and run, but in truth he would rather have left one of his own limbs behind; and he couldn't tell her, because this was a woman who had mistrusted his every glance and touch barely a month ago but trusted him to share her bed last night. To be so infatuated with her felt, bizarrely, like a betrayal of that trust.

It hurt far worse than any of the blows Smirt had delivered the night before; St. George ducked his head, unable to meet her eyes for the moment, and groaned.

"Jerry," Hilary said patiently, and leaned in to touch his slung hand. "Are you all right?"

St. George shook himself back into the present; unfortunately, in the present he still felt shaken and off-balance, with an unpleasant dash of helplessness to which he wasn’t the least bit accustomed. "Sore," he said shortly; it wasn't even a lie. "My back hurts--it happens when you take a few kicks to the kidneys. Not that I have extensive experience in that area," he added hastily.

"I should hope not," Hilary agreed, but she too was looking slightly distracted. "Wait," she said slowly. "What time did you say it was?"

"Quarter to--well, eleven-fifty now, I expect. Why?"

Hilary drew her brows together briefly in thought, and then grimaced. "And it's Saturday. Almost noon on a Saturday, Jerry."

He stared back at her in sudden alarm. "Gail and Priya."

"Are going to kill us," Hilary finished, and then winced at her own choice of words.

St. George watched her expression carefully. "You don't seriously still think they had anything to do with last night?"

Hilary shook her head slowly. "I can't believe it. I won't. It would break Amita's heart. But there's something going on--I don't know."

"There is that," St. George agreed; he wished he could feel more convinced. It was proving depressingly difficult to trust anyone in this neighbourhood. "I do hope you're right, Lee."

Hilary pushed her hair back out of her face, which only served to muss it further. "Look," she said determinedly. "You'd better get down to the Stag and Swan and apologise for us both. I'll get dressed and be down there with you as soon as I can."

"Right." St. George fidgeted for a moment, not wanting to leave but vaguely aware that he was being ridiculous. "I stuffed my shirt in your wastebin--I hope you don't mind. I was sick of the sight of it." And it hadn't been about to be much more use to him in any case.

Hilary nodded. "I'll burn it for you." She didn't quite look like she was joking, either. "And Jerry--" she added hesitantly.

He had finally managed to take a step away into the sitting room, but he paused immediately. "Is something else wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," said Hilary hastily, though they both knew that that was patently untrue in the larger scheme of things--and then she came over and hugged him gingerly, which suddenly made things look a lot better. "It really was a lovely party last night, Jerry--before you ruined it by getting kidnapped, I mean--and I wanted to thank you. That's all."

St. George palmed the back of her neck and laughed, not quite steadily. "What, for getting kidnapped?"

"God, no." Hilary shivered. "For showing me such a good time. You're really very nice company for an evening, once you act like yourself." She hugged him a little more tightly for a moment--St. George winced at the pressure on his arm, but it was worth it--then released him. "I really did have a wonderful time, even if things didn't turn out quite how we hoped, and I didn't get the chance to tell you last night. So--thank you."

St. George beamed helplessly at her. He'd taken a good number of women on a good number of excellent dates before, though most of them had ended much more pleasantly or at least much less unpleasantly; he had made Hilary happy,though, for an hour or two, and that threw a lot of the last eighteen hours into a whole different light. "Well," he said, trying hard to seem casual and rather failing, "as long as the evening had some redeeming features."

"It had several," Hilary confirmed--which was encouraging, if not terribly informative. "Now get out to the pub, all right? I'll be there as soon as I can."

"You're marvellous," St. George informed her solemnly, and realised too late that this was not actually a logical response to what she had said. Instead of trying to recover the situation, he chose to flee out the back door and down the stairs; at least he'd have a few minutes to recover himself while he ran home to acquire his cartoons and a change of clothes, and then to the Stag and Swan.

-------

St. George was a little calmer--not much calmer, but a little--by the time he made it to the pub. Hilary was not yet there, thankfully, but Priya and Gail were, heads bent close together and talking quietly in their usual corner booth. The sight reminded St. George of his and Hilary's earlier suspicions, and made him restless all over again, though for a very different reason. Gail smiled at him when he collapsed into the booth opposite her, but her smile was thin and oddly sharp. "We were beginning to think you wouldn't make it."

Priya wrinked her nose, looking St. George over critically; her gaze lingered pointedly on his black eye, which had darkened rather spectacularly overnight, and his bound shoulder. "I'm still not sure he's going to make it; he looks in pretty rough shape to me. Caroline's still sleeping it off, is she?"

St. George thought about denying that he'd spent the night at Hilary's place, but in a neighbourhood this gossipy chances were high that someone had noticed them vanishing early and simultaneously from the party last night--or even seen him emerging from Mrs. Bloom's back alley a few minutes ago. Better to be safe. "Lee's getting dressed," he admitted. "I'm sure she'll be along soon."

"I hope she didn't give you that." Gail tapped the corner of her own eye meaningfully.

"Good Lord, no." St. George stared at them both, forgetting for a moment that he would easily have believed that of Hilary himself just last night. The prospect of her committing physical violence against him seemed far less likely than it had last night, somehow. "It's--" He fidgeted a moment, and then decided he'd better not say anything before Hilary got there. "It's a long story. I'd rather not talk about it, if you don't mind."

"That embarrassing, hey? Well, I hope the blow hasn't permanently damaged your drawing ability." Gail held out a hand, pointedly, and St. George obediently slid his battered leather folder across the table to her.

"I'll be right back." He left the two women poring over half a dozen bishops and earls while he went to the bar to see about a pint and a pie--and, upon second thought, order a mug of tea as well. This turned out to be the right decision, since when he returned a few minutes later Hilary had appeared in the booth. "Good morning," he said happily, though he'd said it to her already and it was no longer even morning, and set the tea down in front of her. One hand hadn’t been enough for three dishes; he had to go away and come back again, juggling his own lunch.

Hilary gave him a quick grateful smile when he sat down next to her, though it soured a little at the sight of St. George's lunch; if even that repulsed her, she must really not have been feeling herself. "You could at least have the decency to pretend to be hung over.”

"I'll be sure to try harder next time." St. George shifted his plate a few inches further from her, all the same, and watched to make sure Hilary drank her tea while he attacked his pie. “Likewise for sprains,” he murmured encouragingly, “rub it in; and for the cholic, a great spooneful in the hour.”

This one took Hilary a moment, but at last she managed a giggle. “Hush, Davie my lad,” she said, and patted his hand. “I’ll be fine. I’ve had worse mornings that I came by perfectly honestly. Just for God’s sake don’t talk to me about colic.”

Priya frowned at them both across the table. "Good Lord, you two did have a rough night, didn't you?"

"As anything," Hilary agreed absently, nursing her tea and eyeing St. George's pie as though she thought it might explode at any moment.

"We were wondering what happened to Roger's face, but he wouldn't tell us." There was a note of shameless hope in Gail's voice.

"Well." Hilary hesitated for a moment, but then she brightened visibly, and St. George braced himself for the worst. "You know how, when someone robs you at night in a dark alley, you're meant to give up all your valuables quietly and not fight back?"

Priya's eyes went wide. "Yes?"

"Well, Jerry doesn't," said Hilary resignedly.

St. George scowled indigantly. "Only you could make that come off as an insult. And anyway, it drove the man off, didn't it?"

"You're a hero," Hilary said dryly, and leaned against his side a little. A few more people arrived, just then, and in the general confusion of people making space and greeting each other she leaned in momentarily closer still. "All right?" she asked, under her breath.

"As long as you're here." It occurred to St. George that he was going to need to learn very quickly not to be quite so candid; but then he caught Thomas trying to steal a forkful of his lunch, and whatever awkwardness might have come of the moment, the opportunity passed safely away.

------

"Haven't you got something to tell me?" Hilary inquired, later on, once Priya had jeered at all St. George's art and accepted half of it anyway and they had repaired back to the relative peace of Mrs. Bloom's back stairs.

St. George flinched in alarm; so much, he thought resignedly, for subtlety. "Have I?"

She smiled tiredly. "Last night, remember? You said you'd learned something about Hargrave, and I told you it would keep--though it seems I was wrong about that."

"Yes, of course, that." St. George fidgeted; he had half-forgotten that there was an entirely separate confession he'd been dreading making to her. There was entirely too much of that sort of thing going around, really; better clear one of those things up at least. "I went back underground, you see, the other night, wanting to know what it was Ames had had us shifting in those crates."

There was a long pause during which Hilary stared at him a moment, lips pinched thin, and then sighed. "I suppose I can't blame you for being curious. I can damn well blame you for actually going to satisfy your curiosity, but under the circumstances I can't quite bring myself to be angry; you've taken more than enough for it already, if I'm guessing right."

"You are." St. George ducked his head. "Ames caught me on my way out--I did wonder at the time why he let me go with hardly even a talking-to, but I don't think there's much more doubt now about that."

"Well, it's good to know what all that last night was about." Hilary was quiet at his side; he wondered what her expression was like, but didn't dare look up and see. "And since the thing's already been done, you might as well tell me what you found."

"Guns," said St. George; once the word was out it sounded unexpectedly blunt. "The big complicated sort that you see in American gangster films. And if that's what's in all those crates, then a hell of a lot of them."

"Gosh," said Hilary inadequately, and made an ill-sounding noise that surprised him into looking up in alarm. "I expected drugs or stolen jewelry or something, but not guns, somehow. Though really any of those would be awful."

"Just yesterday I was so proud of myself." St. George sighed. "I felt I'd done something terribly brave and terribly useful--only slightly tinged by my fear you'd ship me out to sea in one of those crates once you heard about it."

Hilary smiled. "But?"

"But I don't know what it tells us, logically speaking." He staunchly refused to acknowledge the derisive noise she made, which was only too clearly aimed at the idea of him being logical. "We already knew he's been importing something bulky and valuable and likely illegal, and I don't see where knowing what it is gets us. Uncle Charles might have a way to track big shipments of weapons going in or out, but he isn't much use to us at the moment either."

"Have a bit of faith," said Hilary consolingly. "You keep insisting I'm the brains of this outfit, and you haven't even given me a chance to apply them properly to what you've given me. I'm barely even awake."

St. George succeeded, this time round, in swallowing the compliment that sprang to his lips. "I hope so," he said instead. "I shouldn't like to have taken this kind of damage to my looks for nothing."

"You'll live," Hilary scoffed, sitting up straighter and offering him a cigarette; St. George gladly accepted, having left his own supply behind at the party with his jacket. “You’re going to take this the wrong way, Jerry,” she went on a bit more hesitantly, offering him a light as well, “but I really am glad to have you as a friend.”

St. George did take it wrong for a moment, but she pressed her leg against his, just long enough to assuage any worries that the title of friend didn’t exclude the possibility of other kinds of intimacy; after that they smoked in more or less comfortable silence.

"It was your fault, you know," she went on idly, after a few minutes.

It was such a tempting idea to go back to his own room and simply go back to bed. And a more appealing thought yet if he could have Hilary for company, but he doubted that was the kind of luck one got more than once in a lifetime. "Hm?"

"Hargrave'd never have caught on to you--if you hadn't had to be so damned heroic." She didn't sound annoyed, for once, only oddly sad. "I just wish you'd take a bit more care. Not that I imagine it'll make much difference saying so."

St. George lifted his head, resting his cheek on the banister instead, to look at her. Half a dozen smart responses sprang to mind; after all, even if this particular exercise had been futile, she couldn't very well expect him to back off from future opportunities, could she? But then again, he still held all too vivid a mental picture of how Merrick had left her to stumble home, bruised and dazed--and that too, if she were reasoning right, had been in a way his doing. "I'm sorry," he said, startling himself with his sincerity; startling Hilary too, if her expression were anything to go by. "Next time I take a risk, I'll make sure it's entirely my own to take."

Hilary blinked and then smiled uncertainly. "Thanks--not what I meant, exactly, but thanks. Although what I meant is that if you’re going to get me into trouble, I’d like to get in on the fun parts first. Or at least get some warning."

St. George grinned back. “I think I can manage that, too.”

Chapter Text

"I say, Campion," he said, "who the hell are you?"
Mr. Campion paused on the running-board. "Ah," he said. "Shall I tell you? Listen--do you know who my mother is?"
"No," said Abbershaw, with great curiosity.
Mr. Campion leaned over the side of the car until his mouth was an inch or two from the other man's ear, and murmured a name, a name so illustrious that Abbershaw started back and stared at him in astonishment.
"Good God!" he said. "You don't mean that?"
"No," said Mr. Campion cheerfully, and went off striding jauntily down the street.

Margery Allingham
--------------------

Despite her best efforts, Hilary was beginning to suspect she was feeling things about St. George. Not the purely aesthetic interest she'd already had in him, and not a nice safe friendly fondness, either, but the more dangerous sort of affection that seemed to have mixed the two up into something singular and faintly ominous.

She had always been given to understand that, if this sort of thing ever happened to her, it would be above all a sort of weakness; she had seen plenty of her friends fall in love with quite happy results, but what had stuck with Hilary more vividly than anything was the way that, after her mother's death, her father had seemed to just quietly fade away, illness or no illness. And so far, when she allowed herself to think a little too hard about the idea that St. George might be coming to mean something to her, the sinking vulnerable ache in her gut seemed to bear that impression out.

She wasn’t going to indulge the feeling, she told herself, she wasn’t going to let it worsen; but what Hilary had not anticipated was the accompanying sense of resolve. For the life of her she could not seem to forget the sight of him when he'd first shaken her awake in the alley--and it panged her with guilt, certainly, for ever having wished to see him fully understand how dire their situation was. But what the memory brought above all was a sick feeling of rage that anyone should have dared to reduce St. George even briefly to the battered, terrified man she'd woken up to, to someone so entirely and horribly unlike himself. It wasn't a pleasant sensation by any means, but Hilary clung to it all the same.

So if she were perhaps more inclined than she had been, in the days following, to physical affection, she told herself that it was largely for his reassurance and not her own. Because it was crucial that one of them at least remain rational, and there was little hope of St. George being that one (he had been right enough about that, at any rate), she contented herself with reaching more often than usual to take his hand or his arm, or to lean on his shoulder--and admittedly with the way he smiled in response, as though it were a happy surprise every time they touched.

But that last was an especially dangerous line of thinking, and Hilary had been trying to avoid it.

Unfortunately, she couldn't very well avoid herself, not without the aid of others, and she didn't feel much like being social either, which left few options. Even going to work Monday afternoon had seemed a bit too much for her, and Hilary had begged off in favour of staying quietly at home until the need for food forced her out to buy dinner that evening. At which point, of course, Amita had located her with almost uncanny efficiency. "Caroline! Caroline."

Hilary groaned, regretted that she was fond enough of Amita to stop and let her catch up, but paused all the same.

In another minute Amita was at her side, and they continued on down the pavement together. "I've been looking everywhere for you," said Amita petulantly. "Where've you been?"

"In the two entire days since I saw you last?" Hilary laughed. "Asleep, mostly--Jerry and I had a terribly rough time of it Friday night, and I haven't much wanted to go anywhere since. Speaking of which, thanks for covering me this afternoon; I suppose I'll have to go back in tomorrow, but I wish I didn't have to deal with him."

Amita raised an eyebrow. "I know he's rather unpleasant, but surely it wasn't Ames who tried to rob you in an alley? He doesn't seem the type."

"Not exactly," said Hilary, and grimaced, thinking again of St. George's many bruises. "I suppose it was Gail that passed that story on to you?"

"So it was." Amita's hand touched her elbow. "Really--are you all right? I thought she must have been exaggerating, but you really do seem sort of--off. Do you need to be bought a drink or something?"

Hilary considered Dr. Fitzmorris's warning and decided to risk it. "I think I do, if you're willing."

The Stag and Swan was comfortably full, although Hilary couldn't help but give a regretful glance at the bar where Thomas--who had been prematurely promoted in Carmon’s place--was making shift for the week-night crowd as best he could. Hilary found a booth and gave him a wave and a sympathetic smile while Amita collected their drinks and returned to the table. "You see," she announced, "now you owe me gossip. What happened?"

Hilary leaned in close, chin in her hands. "We weren't robbed," she confided. "It was Hargrave's men, sent deliberately to frighten us, and they did a damn good job of it, if I must be honest. Jerry thinks it was Ames that sent them--so you see why I wish I could keep well away from him. And you too, if I could."

"And to think I asked you to move here for moral support." Amita shoved Hilary's beer at her, pointedly. "Are you saying someone attacked Jerry on purpose? Gail did say he looked to be in rather a state, but I haven't seen him."

"He looked pretty awful last I saw him, but I expect by now he's found a way to dress it up and decided it makes him look dashing and roguish or something." Hilary laughed, and thereby restored her spirits enough to sit up and begin making inroads on her bottle. "But he was all over bandages Friday night. It was rather gruesome, really."

Amita's eyebrows shot up. "All over?"

"From what I saw," said Hilary firmly, "when we went to the doctor." It was funny, she reflected; had she and Jerry actually done anything when they'd shared a bed Friday night, it would no doubt have been the sort of thing to confide to one’s closest friend, if perhaps not in a crowded pub. Yet when nothing had, it felt too private to talk about.

"Pity," said Amita, though her heart didn't seem to be quite so much in it as usual, and who could blame her? "And things seemed to be going so well."

Hilary bit her lip. "They were," she confessed, "and then we got in all that mess. And see here, Amita, I appreciate your trying to be helpful and all, and I may even be coming round a bit to the idea--oh God, I know that face, don't you make that face at me--but there's all kinds of terribly dangerous things going on around here that Jerry and I are trying to sort out. It doesn't seem right, somehow, fooling around with him while there's something so much more important to worry about."

Amita tapped her nail gently against the side of her bottle. "You hauled me out for drinks last year when I was in the middle of Mods, didn't you? I seem to recall feeling much the same way at the time."

"That," said Hilary defensively, "was a rescue mission."

"But the principle is rather the same," Amita pressed. "I admit I haven't been as concerned about this Hargrave business as you seem to be; I know that Gail and my sister are terribly frightened, and I understand why now that you and Jerry have been hurt--but I don't know what to do about it. Some of us need our jobs, you know, and I can barely deal with having to work for Ames without knowing that he's some kind of villainous mastermind out of a radio serial."

"I'm sorry." Hilary frowned down into her beer bottle, by now half-empty. "It's a rotten mess for everyone."

Amita smiled hopefully. "Which is why there's all the more reason you ought to get your fun in while you can, isn't it?"

"Speaking of which," said Hilary, suddenly remembering something and latching onto it with more than a hint of desperation. "Is there anything you'd care to tell me about that young man you brought along the other night? He had rather a military look about him, even if he wasn’t in uniform."

-------

Things went quiet again after that; it seemed as though they had no right to, but for the next week at least no one was kidnapped or beaten or killed, and life returned to a semblance of sanity. St. George found, after some surprised introspection, that it was easier than ever to accept everyday life in Foxgrove as genuinely ordinary. Two months was a long time to live somewhere; he had no intention of making the arrangement permanent, but in the meantime he had a job of sorts, and friends, and cartoons to draw, and not least Hilary to pine after from a (very short) distance. It wasn’t at all a bad way to live, and he found it so much more reassuring to settle back into it than to dwell on the thought that in fact he and Hilary walked a thinner line with Hargrave than ever.

There was no reason whatsoever for him to go calling on her one particular Tuesday evening, after a week or so of relative peace, which meant he probably shouldn't have. The difficulty was that he couldn't seem to think of anywhere he wanted to be besides in her company, so he showed up at her door regardless. She answered the door dressed but in her stocking feet, hair a bit tousled, and blessed him with a startled smile as she took in his own less-than-impressive wardrobe. "Nothing the matter, I hope."

"No, thank God." He shook his head hastily. "I've been summoned to gainful employment this evening, that's all, and I'd nowhere else to pass the time until then so I thought I might as well impose myself on you for a little while."

She took a step back, waving him into the sitting-room. "Well, I'm afraid you won't find me terribly interesting company this evening. Though there is beer in the kitchen, if you'd like something."

Privately, St. George begged heartily to differ with the idea that Hilary could ever be uninteresting; aloud, he said "Yes, please--no, don't trouble yourself about anything, just go back to whatever you were doing, I only came to bask quietly in your wisdom--" and went to see about the beer while she was still trying to decide whether to take him seriously or not.

When he returned, he found that she had apparently taken him at his word, and was curled up in the armchair by the window with a paperback of The First Men in the Moon that had been battered to near-unrecognisability. A nearly empty glass of lemon water on the table nearby suggested, to St. George's keen detective mind, that she had been thus occupied for some time before his arrival. Taking the hint, he grabbed the first magazine he found on the bookshelf and settled onto the sofa with it and his bottle.

The magazine proved, unluckily, to be an aged edition of Nash's, and St. George could not have brought himself to give the slightest damn about a ten-page cover feature comparing various tinned baby foods. He managed with somewhat more success to flip idly through a few pages of gossip about film stars, and amused himself further with wondering what the magazine was doing there to begin with; it was hardly Hilary's kind of reading fare any more than it was his, and surely Mrs. Bloom was past the age of needing to worry about baby food, and had been even when this magazine was published.

None of these things was remotely as fascinating as watching Hilary read, of course, which was inevitably what St. George kept catching himself doing over the top of his magazine. She smiled sometimes, or pursed her lips; every so often she squirmed around to reposition herself in her chair, and each time her skirt inched up a bit further from her knees. By the time three-quarters of an hour or so had passed, he was seriously beginning to doubt his ability to keep her company quietly as he'd intended, but thankfully Hilary was the one to look up first, with a distinctly mocking smile. "Are you enjoying your magazine?"

She had noticed, damn her; had noticed his poor choice in reading material, at least, but hopefully not his fascination with the hem of her skirt. "I'm reading about Eve Gray," said St. George, mustering a hint of indignation. This was not entirely untrue; there was an article on Eve Gray, and in fact he'd just recognised one of the photographs as one he'd kept handy under his pillow at school when he was sixteen, but there could never possibly be a good time to mention that.

"Really." She closed H.G. Wells, marking the place with her finger, and took a sip of water. "That reminds me--I've been wondering something."

Nothing good could possibly come of this. "Fire away."

Hilary grinned outright, which only made St. George more apprehensive still. "You told me once that you'd once been in love with a girl. What happened?"

St. George's heart tried to leap and sink at once, with results that were physically painful. Once upon a time, if a girl had asked him a thing like this, he might have taken it for granted as a flirtatious gesture; but this was Hilary, and Hilary was just as likely to be genuinely and merely curious. Or, for that matter, to ask solely because she wanted to see him suffer. "You'll laugh at me," he said miserably, already resigned to his fate, and sank lower into the sofa.

"So I'm hoping," said Hilary cheerfully.

He wanted to hate her, he did, but it was so difficult to hate someone whose red curls were falling down into her face like that, who despite her gleeful anticipation was already leaning forward sympathetically. "Very well," he said, abandoning all hope. "Do you remember the Sticky Dog?"

"Of course not," said Hilary airily. "A girl could get sent down for frequenting a place like that."

St. George shrugged. "Fair enough, but I know it, and our first year of university--well, my first and I presume your second--there was a barmaid there named Eleanor."

At this point he was forced to pause, because true to her promise Hilary was already laughing. "A barmaid?"

"Barmaids are just as lovely to look at as any other girl." St. George cast his eyes up to the ceiling; it seemed safer, and really there were some very fascinating cracks up there in the plaster. "Statistically more so, I suspect--bearing in mind that you outstrip the whole lot by far."

Which had probably not been the wisest thing to say aloud, but it had felt important to do so, and judging by her tone Hilary had taken it as an attempt to placate her and no more. "I've nothing against the poor girl--it just seems so terribly cliched of you. Are you sure you wouldn't have preferred a chorus girl? Or the girl working the perfume counter at Elliston & Cavell?"

St. George removed his attention from the ceiling to glare at her. "Do you want to know what happened or not?"

Hilary held up her hands. "No, please, go on. I'm intrigued by Eleanor already."

"As was I." St. George, craving something to do with his hands, ruffled absently through the pages of Nash's without even looking down at it. "Hell, I was besotted, and I don't think we'd ever exchanged more than five words that weren't to do with alcohol. In retrospect of course she didn’t give a fig for me, but she never seemed any less glad to see me than she did anyone else, so I'm sure you can imagine what a tremendously loyal customer I became for a term or two."

"I thought you said you'd avoided her."

"I never said it was by choice," he pointed out.

"Oh, God, I should have known." Hilary propped her chin on her arms, folded on the arm of her chair. At least she had stopped laughing for the moment.

All the same, St. George kept a wary eye on her. "The last weekend of Trinity term that year, we went out for a proper carouse, as does every right-thinking man--or woman--who's just found he survived Mods and isn't quite sure how he managed it. We happened to end up at the Dog rather late in the process when I wasn't my usual stoic self--" he tactfully ignored Hilary's snort-- "and, well."

Hilary took a swallow of her water, eyes fixed patiently on him. "Well?"

"I proposed to her," said St. George miserably; the infatuation in question was years gone, but somehow the humiliation always seemed to come back as fresh and painful as ever. "On both knees. At great tearful, drunken length. She never even dignified me with a response, because as it turned out her brother owned the place, and he didn't feel much like keeping me as a regular after that. I’m not sure I even made it to the end of my proposal by the time I landed out on the street."

"Jerry." She was laughing again, but at least it sounded sympathetic. "I'm sorry. I really am. Which isn't to say it's not hilarious, because it is, but it sounds pretty rotten for you all told."

"It was at the time, but I seem to have coped all right in the end." He grinned over at her. "Honestly, I hardly ever think about it any more, except to be terribly embarrassed by myself."

"As well you should be." Hilary settled back into her chair, curiosity apparently satisfied. There was something so terribly affectionate in the way she was smiling at him that St. George was tempted to confess his love on the spot, but talking about Eleanor had given him only just enough of a spark of self-consciousness to know that it could only come off as a tragic irony. It wasn't an unfamiliar sensation in any case; he was in love not only with Hilary as a whole but with the lift of her eyebrows and the way she held her fork when she ate and about a thousand other things, and he felt constantly at war with himself not to tell her so. Most likely he would slip sooner or later, and thereby lose all of her at one swoop, but damned if he was going to let it happen any sooner than necessary.

"I ought to go," he said after a moment, not particularly sorry to get up and return his magazine safely to the shelf from whence it had come. "I'm just about due to go to some lifting and carrying of heavy objects. Very impressively manly--lots of grime. It's a pity you can't come along."

"If that's the future you suggested to Eleanor the unluckiest of barmaids, I can't imagine why she didn't marry you on the spot. I suppose you'll be asking for a kiss goodbye," said Hilary idly, not budging an inch.

St. George eyed the top of her head and decided he was being taunted. "I wasn't going to, but if you're offering I shan't decline."

As he wandered past the armchair towards the door, though, Hilary reached to catch his arm lightly in her hand and knelt up in the chair to kiss his cheek--not a quick polite kiss, either, but an exaggeratedly loud smack. "There you are, then. Domestic enough for you?"

"I can honestly say," said St. George carefully, "that I was not expecting you to follow through on that." Ever since the most recent disaster of a party they'd attended, he had found himself chronically unsure whether they were still two unattached people pretending to everyone else that they were a couple, or a genuine article pretending to each other that they were not. He would have asked Hilary, except that he was fairly certain she didn't know either.

"I thought it might get you out of my flat quicker," said Hilary with a quick shrug, though her fingers were still on his arm. "Try and keep out of trouble tonight, will you? Just for once?"

St. George kissed her cheek in return, and her startled smile would have warmed any man's heart. "I promise nothing."

-------

St. George slept in extremely late the next morning--he was in the habit of it when he’d been working overnight, and Hilary couldn’t say she blamed him. At any rate it left her to her own devices for breakfast the next morning, so she indulged in a long leisurely meal, tucked away in a corner of Dougal’s with the stack of old Sentinel issues she’d been neglecting.

Even working her way scattershot through the papers St. George had borrowed, over the past month or so she had worked her way back well past the point where Priya and Gail had taken charge of the paper. The issue she was currently reading was one of the oldest, dating from 1919. It hardly qualified even as a leaflet, and the minuscule print would have driven Thomas to tears. Squinting at it in the dim light at the rear of the cafe, Hilary thought she might be driven to tears any minute herself, or at least to a bad headache.

She was about to give the paper up as useless--in fact, she was beginning to seriously doubt that any material that old could be of any use in learning about Hargrave at all--when a small box of birth announcements caught her eye. A woman named Julia Cruxton had had a son named William; there was no mention of a father being in the picture, married to her or not.

Hilary frowned at the item for a moment, and then she remembered why the name was familiar, and felt guilty.

“Gail,” she said, sidling up to the counter with her used plate. “Didn’t you say no one knows much about William’s parents?”

“What?” Gail shook her head. “He hasn’t really got any; his mother got sick when he was small and left him with an aunt, and the aunt died last year. He must have had a father, I suppose, but no one was ever able to find out who it was or whether there was a marriage involved.” She smiled. “I was old enough at the time to gather that this was a tremendous disappointment to the local gossips, though I doubt I understood why.”

-------

“And I thought the letters were bad.” St. George made a really magnificent face when she explained it to him later. “To think the man has actually reproduced. That poor woman.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Hilary, although she felt inclined to view the matter similarly. “I’ve the idea they were really fond of each other. And we still don’t know it was the same man.”

“I hope not,” said St. George, and shuddered a little. “And if it is, that means he killed either his own son or his brother--and for no real reason at all that we know of.”

-------

"I don't feel right about this," said Hilary, for about the hundredth time or so. "We might just talk to them, but I suppose that wouldn't satisfy your desire for secrecy and intrigue."

"And just what would you say to them?" demanded St. George. He had been wearing his arm slung again since his last work shift a few days ago, on orders from Fitzmorris, and if it were anyone less even-tempered Hilary would have sworn it was making him irritable. "'Good morning, coffee tastes specially good today, and by the way just what have you been doing sneaking around Hargrave's tunnels in the dead of night?"

Hilary sighed. "Which is just about what we're doing, at the moment. And I hate it down here. All the nasty dripping noises." Against all the principles of reasonable or competent detecting, she had been putting off dealing with this particular problem for weeks now, and she was almost sorry that they had finally agreed to look into it.

"At least you needn't work down here a night or two a week--shh," said St. George suddenly, and Hilary switched off the torch. In the ensuing darkness, she felt his hand settle on her arm, and wondered whether it was so she could be sure of him or he could be sure of her. Now was emphatically not the time for sentiment, however, so she forced herself not to dwell too long on the question.

Unlike the last time she'd been down here, what St. George had heard turned out to be Priya and Gail creeping quietly down into the basement together. They were hand in hand, likely because Gail's torch looked to be on its last legs, but not speaking to each other; down through the tunnels they went, and Hilary and St. George steeled themselves and crept after them.

At one point Hilary hung back around a corner, catching St. George's free arm so that he stopped with her. "Do you know where we are?" she asked under her breath, but he only shook his head.

"Bearing in mind that these tunnels all look more or less the same," he murmured, "no, I don't think I do know this part of them. The things must go damned near everywhere in this part of the city."

Hilary smiled ruefully and continued on around the corner, just in time to catch the flicker of the torch as the objects of their pursuit vanished around the next turn.

It was twenty minutes of this, perhaps, before the tunnel ended in what appeared to be a dead end. While Hilary and St. George hung back in confusion, Priya stretched upward, only just caught something shadowy on the ceiling, and gave it a sharp yank. A trap-door opened out of nowhere, dropping down and spilling something else out with it that, as best Hilary could see it, might have been a rope ladder.

St. George flattened back against the wall at her side, watching Priya and then Gail climb up--hauling the ladder up after them, but leaving the trap door open. It let in some light from above: enough to let them see each other, but not much else. "Where do you think we are?"

"Haven't a clue," Hilary admitted. "I've been trying to keep a sense of direction down here, but it's terribly difficult trying to match up our route to what I know of the actual streets."

"I think I've had even less luck than that." He glanced down the tunnel. "I don't hear anything from up there. Fancy having a closer look?"

Moving up to stand directly under the trap door, Hilary tried to peer up after their vanished friends, but it was fruitless trying to catch a glimpse of anything without actually climbing up. "Come on," she hissed, "you're taller, aren't you?"

“Taller and injured.” St. George strained up on his toes regardless, and just managed to catch the edge of the opening and hold himself up with his left hand. "It's Dougal's," he said after a moment, peering back down at Hilary. "We've come up right in the middle of the shop. I don't see anyone here. Perhaps they've gone into the back?"

"There might yet be someone else coming to meet them," Hilary pointed out. "After all, if it were just Gail and Priya, they could come here whenever they liked without needing to be so furtive about it."

"Well then, we'd better get out of here in case there's someone else coming this way." St. George bounced on his toes and, with a grimace, managed to snag the ladder and pull it back down.

"I suppose we can always hide behind the counter or somewhere if we need," Hilary conceded, and followed him up the ladder.

Dougal's was eerily dark and quiet; the lights in the shop hadn't been turned on, but once up the ladder the light of the street outside was more than enough to navigate by. The door to the back room was cracked open a few inches, however, and light spilled out from within, along with the murmur of voices. Hilary swallowed hard, took a look round to be sure there wasn't anyone else there--and then another longer look, more to postpone the inevitable than to really be thorough. St. George caught her eye and shrugged, looking none too certain himself.

It had to be done, Hilary told herself firmly, and crept around behind the counter to listen in at the door, feeling a little sick. Rather than join her there, St. George leaned over the counter to observe quietly from the other side, rubbing his shoulder absently; if it hadn’t been so dark and he hadn't been so visibly tense, he might have looked as though it were any ordinary morning and he were simply waiting to order his breakfast.

"We can't keep doing this here," Priya was saying, somewhere further back in the room outside the limited slice of it Hilary could see. "It's not the least bit discreet."

"And whose fault is that?" Gail laughed. "My flat was doing just fine until you talked me into letting your sweet little baby sister move in for the summer. We can't be on anything but our very best behaviour with her around."

"It's only for a few months," said Priya soothingly. "And you can be sure I'll make it worth your while. But I still feel we should find a safer place--somewhere more neutral."

"Not just now," said Gail firmly. "Just now I'd like to see something of this compensation you're promising."

There was a softness in her tone that didn't go with the words; Hilary could almost have put a word to it, an explanation she hadn't considered for a moment until just now. Certainly it was silent in the back room for nearly a minute, and then she heard a rustle and the distinctive heavy squeak of a person (or two) dropping onto the old sofa. And then somebody made a soft appreciative noise, quite unmistakeable, and Hilary choked and stumbled back away from the open door.

"Lee?" St. George whispered, eyes wide and quizzical; clearly he hadn't been near enough to hear the last of what had happened.

Hilary just shook her head at him, backing out past the till; she had been afraid of learning something about her friends she didn't want to know, but not a thing like this. Not something about which their need for secrecy was so thoroughly understandable. But she wasn't used to navigating the tight space when it was largely in shadow, and she tripped over something and crashed backward heavily to the floor.

The back room fell into silence--real silence, a stillness so ominous Hilary could practically feel it, and she quite forgot to get back to her feet at first. St. George scrambled around the counter to crouch at her side and check on her. "We shouldn't have," she murmured unhappily, leaning into his hand on her shoulder. "I knew it. I wish we'd stayed home."

"What is it?" said St. George. "I don't follow at all--oh. Now I see. Oh, damn."

What he saw was, in fact, Priya emerging warily from the back room; her lipstick had smeared, and behind her Gail was redoing the top buttons of her dress as discreetly as she could.

Hilary pushed St. George's hand away and got back to her feet. "Er," she said, and found there was really no good excuse coming to mind.

"Caroline?" Gail's expression of horror was slipping rapidly into anger. "Have you been spying on us?"

"No! Well." Hilary, who had never been the best of liars even to people she wasn't fond of, fidgeted and glanced at St. George--whom, if she hadn't known better of him, she might actually have thought to be blushing.

He offered a hopeful smile by way of moral support. "I say, you two--look, whatever you think we're up to, I can promise you it's nothing of the sort at all."

Priya leaned back against the wall, arms folded. "It certainly can't be worse than what I'm thinking."

"Oh, damn." It was difficult to tell in the poor lighting, but to Hilary's eye Gail appeared to go pale. "Hargrave?"

"Or a more ordinary sort of perversion," said Priya grimly, eyeing Hilary in a way that made her wish more than ever that she'd followed her instincts and spent the evening quietly at home.

"God, no," Hilary burst out, "It'd be difficult to explain, but no. Absolutely not either of those."

Priya's eyebrows went up. "So there is something that needs explaining?"

St. George groaned and rose to his feet as well, edging closer to Hilary. "Perhaps we'd better tell them?" he suggested quietly into her ear. "We seem to have misunderstood things pretty horribly--it'd only be sporting, really."

“Sporting?” Hilary echoed. "Jerry, this isn't one of your polo matches."

"I don't know about sporting," Priya intruded. "But you two are meant to be friends of my sister's, so you'd better have some account of yourselves pretty quick."

Hilary looked at St. George helplessly and then dropped her head into her hands. "I am who I say I am, all right? More or less. I just finished reading Greats at St. Hugh's, and that's where I met Amita. Only my name isn't Caroline--it's Hilary, Hilary Thorpe. I came here to back Amita up because she thought there was something queer going on, and as it happened there was, so I'm really quite glad I gave a false name."

Gail nodded, though she still looked rather sceptical. "And what's he got to do with it?"

Hilary considered St. George for a moment. "You know, I'm still really not sure how he got into this."

"Uncle says I've inherited his talent for getting mixed up in things that don't concern me," St. George offered brightly.

"I'll concede that," Hilary agreed, with rather less enthusiasm. "I only wish you'd picked up his ability to get back out of them while you were at it."

Priya clucked impatiently. "But who is he?" She addressed the question to Hilary, having seemingly given up on St. George's usefulness altogether, a feeling with which Hilary could sympathise.

"I wish you'd trust us," said Hilary, without much hope of it. Gail looked bewildered, and Priya outright furious, and she couldn't very well blame them. "We really can't have it getting about who we are."

"Sounds like a good story to me." Gail looked momentarily wistful, though she appeared to recall herself and pulled an apologetic face in response to Priya's grimace. "Though, regardless, given what you've got on us--I think it might be safer, all round."

"I suppose," St. George said resignedly, and leaned forward conspiratorially. "I'm Viscount St. George, all right? And my uncle's Lord Peter Wimsey, and I don't think he even knows where we are, so it's as much as our lives are worth if Hargrave finds out who I really am."

Priya stilled, partway through the process of making sure she'd buttoned her dress back up correctly. "Lord Peter Wimsey," she echoed. "That Lord Peter Wimsey?"

"It's not as if there were more than one," St. George pointed out indignantly.

"Oh damn," said Gail bleakly, "we've been letting the son of a peer work on the Sentinel. We'll never live this down."

"We wouldn't have told anyone about you anyway," Hilary pointed out, too late, and leaned back against the counter. "But it's such an enormous mess, and you'd been acting so furtive about things, we were afraid--" She shrugged. "I'm sorry."

"We always did think it was a bit absurd," St. George offered. "But we thought, if there was a chance you two were in real trouble--it might be better to know, mightn't it?"

Gail laughed quietly, though she seemed to be sobering up finally; Hilary noted that her hand was covering Priya's behind them. "So if you're making this up--and it certainly sounds ridiculous enough--we're in deep trouble. And if you're not, we're all in deep trouble."

"Amita can back me up." Hilary startled as this new aspect of the situation presented itself. "God, she's going to kill me, she was unhappy enough having to call me by a false name--does she know? About this?"

Priya bit her lip. "I didn't think so, but if you've found us out, Heaven only knows what my own sister knows."

"Well, we certainly shan't tell her," said Hilary in hasty reassurance. "Or I shan't--it doesn't seem to be any of my business, really." She was too much in a whirl to give the situation proper thought, but she had some idea at least of what the consequences might be if knowledge spread of what they were doing. It was a result she felt she preferred to avoid, purely on the principle of not wanting to see her friends hurt; any other principles involved she could examine later, at her leisure.

"Don't look at me,” said St. George indignantly. "You're the one who's always making clever remarks about how morally dissolute a titled upbringing has made me; I don't care one way or the other, honestly, and I promise I haven't any intentions of complicating the situation still further."

"Thank you," said Gail, quiet and heartfelt. "Really."

"I feel awful," said Hilary once more; perhaps she was laying it on a little bit thick, but she did so badly want to make things all right if she possibly could. They had so few real friends here, after all.

"I do wish you hadn't come here tonight," Priya admitted. She still looked rather wary, but Hilary couldn't very well blame her for that. "But it's gone much better than I ever thought a thing like this would, and I suppose that's something."

"We really ought to be going, I think," said Gail, with a glance at Priya, who nodded resigned agreement.

"What a beastly wash-out this evening's turned out to be," St. George observed. "For everyone--though I suppose Hilary and I really ought to be glad of it, given the other possible options."

Hilary could find nothing to say to this, really, and luckily it seemed that Gail couldn't either; she moved forward, past all the rest of them and towards the door. "Come on, you lot, I'll let you out. It's well past closing time." She took Hilary's arm and tugged her along, just to emphasise the point.

-------

As St. George turned to follow Hilary and Gail out towards the street, Priya caught his wrist with a rueful smile. "Roger--er. What ought I to call you?"

St. George shrugged. "Roger will do; Lee can get away with calling me Jerry if we pass it off as a pet name, but I expect it's better to be safe."

"Roger, then." She pursed her lips. "I don't think you realise how long my sister's wanted to be a solicitor."

"Perhaps not," St. George agreed, not at all sure what she was driving at.

"Well, neither did I, at first--but when she was nine and I was fifteen," Priya said deliberately, "we were mad over the Denver murder trial. Followed every word of it. Amy was all for Sir Impey at the time--said he couldn't possibly go wrong and of course your father was innocent; I thought--well, you know my opinion of the aristocracy at large. For what it's worth," she added sheepishly, in response to what was presumably some change of St. George's expression, "I felt awful about it afterwards."

St. George had never yet found a gracious response to this, so he elected to remain silent.

Priya sighed. "My point is--we used to wonder what that was all like for Denver's children. For Viscount St. George--and his sister Winifred."

"Steady on." He blinked at her, dumbfounded. "You guessed who I was because I told you that I had a sister named Winifred?"

"That, and your family gets in the papers on a fairly regular basis, and the resemblance is rather distinctive. I'm afraid you're really not that good at this." Priya didn't look terribly apologetic, really. “Not to mention I seem to remember something about you fouling up your shoulder recently.”

St. George hunched his shoulders a little and moved to go out into the street, hoping she would follow. It was oddly uncomfortable to be talking plainly about his family with anyone but Hilary. "Why didn't you say something?"

Thankfully, Priya followed him towards the door. "I didn't know what to say, or why you were here, or if Caroline knew. Though believe me--" she smiled grimly-- "if I'd thought you were trying anything on with her, I certainly would have found something to say about it."

"I don't doubt it." St. George tried to give her an ingratiating smile. "I'm glad, you know--if someone were going to see through me, I mean, I'm glad it was you."

"Flattery will get you nowhere." Priya opened the door and glanced out towards where Gail and Hilary were sitting. "But it's only fair, don't you think?"

Looking at the matter that way, St. George couldn't help but agree.

"Is it true, by the way?" said Priya, ushering him out. "That your sister's got a secret beau. It's in all the gossip rags, though they seem to differ on whether the feeling's mutual or not."

"Nobody has any feelings whatsoever," said St. George with grim determination, and shut the door behind them with unnecessary force to emphasise the point.

-------

"It's insane," said St. George. His voice was muffled; he was lying facedown on Hilary's sofa, one leg sliding down towards the floor with his face hidden in one arm. The other was still in its sling and trapped underneath him, which really looked rather painful. Hilary herself was slumped on the floor with her cheek against the coffee table, so she couldn't really fault him for having given up his dignity entirely. The evening, after all, had not been a dignified one.

"Not entirely, I suppose." Hilary adjusted the arm on which she'd pillowed her own head. "I mean, people do do that kind of thing; it's not at all unheard-of."

"Well, no, but 'not unheard-of' is a very different beast from 'surprised two of one's lady friends in a compromising position.' Etiquette books ought to have a chapter on this kind of thing."

"Don't tell me you're embarrassed," said Hilary, although she really had no right to be gleeful, seeing as she felt at least as awful about the whole thing as he appeared to. "Surely a man of your high-quality education--" She paused at her own turn of phrase, having heard things about just what an Eton education entailed, and gave him a speculative look; unfortunately St. George's face was still hidden, and he gave her not even the satisfaction of a fidget.

“What are you going to tell Mrs. Anderson?” he inquired, when he deigned to show his face again. “It’s a bit awkward for her, all told.”

“I’ve already told her I didn’t see anything,” Hilary admitted, “and luckily she doesn’t seem to have heard anything that night herself. I just hope she doesn’t take it into her head to go ghost-hunting herself, because Gail and Priya must know it’s them she’s hearing.”

“It’s rather a damp basement, you know,” said St. George straightfacedly. “Drafty. Not the place for a charming old lady like her to be hanging around at night.”

Hilary laughed. “I don’t believe they’ve anything to worry about, honestly. She seemed more relieved than anything; I think she rather likes the mystery. Or she just wanted to be sure it isn’t rats.”

St. George stared. “Do you know, I never thought of rats? But you can be sure I will, the next time I’m down there.”

“Glad I could help,” said Hilary; for a moment she was cheerful, and then her cheer failed. “Oh, Jerry, it’s going to be so dreadfully uncomfortable. I shouldn’t blame them if they’d had enough of us for good after this.”

-------

Unfortunately Saturday came around two days later, as it was wont to do, and Hilary found that it took more willpower than usual to get herself down the street to the Stag and Swan. When she entered, a little hesitantly, she was relieved to find that the only Sentinel staff in evidence were Thomas and St. George, who were hunched together over a shiny new wireless set at the bar and arguing half-heartedly. Hilary joined them at the bar, just in time to hear the undeniable clink of Thomas dropping coins into St. George’s hand.

“This young man,” said St. George, grinning up at Hilary and dropping a few shillings into his pocket, “is even worse at choosing a horse than I am. It’s a modern miracle.”

“I’m not that bad,” protested Thomas. “You’ve just been lucky.”

St. George snorted. “Lucky, hell.”

“Jerry,” said Hilary mildly, wriggling up onto a stool. “Be nice to the poor city boy. It isn’t his fault he couldn’t judge a horse if it bit him.”

“You see!” said Thomas, though he grimaced at her. “It isn’t my fault.”

“Jerry can buy me a drink with your money,” suggested Hilary. “We can call it even.”

Thomas appeared to have doubts about her logic, but by the time he looked like he was working his way up to saying so, St. George had already exchanged some of his earnings for two bottles, one of which he passed over to Hilary.

Hilary wasn’t too far into her cola when Priya slipped in--alone for once. It was an odd feeling, seeing her without Gail. “Gail’s doing a bit of shopping, and her bus home was delayed. She sends you all her love. Even you two,” she added, nodding towards St. George, who startled and sat up straighter, and Hilary by association.

Thomas laughed, taking the joke the way Priya had clearly meant him to, and after a moment Hilary and St. George joined in, a bit uncomfortable but relieved all the same. “What a marvellous relief,” said Hilary, and patted St. George’s knee a bit too heavily in case he had any ideas about being clever. “It’s always so nice to be sure.”

-------

"Your young man's here," Gail observed, when she brought Hilary's coffee one morning the next week.

Hilary looked automatically towards the door, but saw no evidence of St. George. "What--in the back?"

"And has been since we opened this morning," Gail confirmed, pouring another cup for herself. "Whatever you've been doing to him, it seems to have instilled a work ethic of some sort."

Hilary collected her coffee and scone and slid off the stool. "Mind if I go back there and keep an eye on him?"

"You're Sentinel staff, aren't you? Go right ahead." Gail shrugged. "Just behave yourselves back there, would you?"

"You're one to talk," Hilary grumbled, but Gail's smile thinned momentarily, so she promised to be on her best behaviour all the same, and slipped around the counter into the back room.

St. George was there, all right, lying on the sofa with a sketchbook propped on his knees and Aphra curled up asleep on his feet. He had left his sling to hang loose around his neck and was sucking determinedly at the end of his pencil, brow creased; something about the whole scene made Hilary laugh. "What's so funny about--oh, Lee!" He brightened the moment he saw her. "I didn't realise you were here."

"I wasn't, until a moment ago." Hilary contrived to gather up a pen and a few sheets of paper in addition to her breakfast and, thus equipped, crossed the room to sit down on the floor next to him. "Got anything useful done?"

"Most likely not." St. George shrugged. "Just fiddling around. It's too early in the morning to be useful, anyway."

"Well, Gail will be relieved; she was worried you'd grown a work ethic." Hilary twisted around, trying to see his sketchbook over her own shoulder. "Can I see what you've got anyway?"

St. George showed her, rather sheepishly.

Hilary considered his output carefully. "Well, I'm flattered," she concluded. "But I don't think I'm famous enough to be worthy of ridicule in the Sentinel, personally."

"Did I make you look ridiculous?" He frowned, turning the sketchbook away again for a critical look at his own work. "I didn't mean to--I was only daydreaming a bit. Lend me some of that coffee, would you? It might help clear some of the cobwebs out."

"Lend?" Hilary echoed, and scoffed. "Go buy your own."

St. George appeared to consider his situation--hemmed in by Hilary to the left, a large snoring dog to the fore, and an extremely comfortable sofa everywhere else--and slumped back with a sigh. "Not worth the effort."

"Do without, then." Hilary settled down as well, back against the front of the sofa, and arranged her blank paper in her lap and her breakfast on the floor next to her. "I'm going to be productive and write something," she announced pointedly, uncapping the pen with her teeth. "You may want to join me." In fact she hadn’t much in mind--she’d been considering comparing the art on British and Soviet Socialist posters, but that seemed terribly dry for an opinion column, so she really needed a better idea.

Behind her, St. George made a wordless grumbling sort of noise, but then he rustled forward and kissed the top of her head; Hilary batted him away and ducked down a little further so he wouldn't see her smile.

-------

The day had started pleasantly and easily enough, and went on productively enough too, but by the end of it St. George could feel his mood steadily worsening. Nothing that had happened that day had any particular reason to cause this; if anything, the very pleasantness of it began to make him anxious, uncomfortably aware that for the most part he and Hilary had spent the last two weeks going about their daily lives as if there were nothing seriously wrong around them. As if, he reminded himself once or twice, this was ordinary daily life for either of them--though St. George found that he rather wished it were. The life of a commoner, or at least of the particular commoner he was pretending to be, seemed an increasingly appealing one, especially as long as Hilary was involved in some way--but the awareness that it was illusory on multiple levels had finally caught up to him, and served only to depress him thoroughly.

And Hilary picked up on his change in mood, despite his best efforts; for most of the day she mercifully said nothing, but St. George occasionally felt a concerned eye on him as the evening wore on, and as they walked home together from dinner she tucked her hand into his arm with a solicitousness that made his heart sink.

"You're awfully quiet." She glanced up at him with wary concern. "Is there something I ought to know?"

"No," said St. George hastily--though he pulled the elbow in question a little closer to his side, in hopes of encouraging her hand to stay there. "Nothing you don't already--I'm just tired. It takes hard work to be as idle as we've been today, you know."

Hilary laughed, and even that was enough to raise his own spirits a jot or two in sympathy. "You should know; you're the professional, after all."

"I do rather--" St. George sighed, smiled ruefully, and decided to go on confessing. "I know it's terrible of me, but I rather wish something would happen."

"Something like what?"

"Like--oh, Hargrave turning up on the front steps of Scotland Yard gagged and bound," St. George suggested, voicing purely the first thing that came to his mind. "Preferably in some way that could be put to our credit without any further effort on our part. But failing that--" He shrugged, rueful. "We thought we had a lead with Gail and Priya, and it wasn't even a very good one even if we had been right--which we thankfully weren't. I don't much like the feeling of being adrift and waiting for something to happen--do you?"

"No, I can't say I do." Hilary paused by Mrs. Bloom's back gate, tongue poking into her cheek, and looked very distant for a moment. "But all the information we can get about him seems to come of people getting hurt--and that's no good either."

"Which is why I feel so terrible to be wishing for it." He leaned against the alley fence, not able to meet her eyes for a moment. "I wonder if Kathryn--"

"So do I." Hilary gave his arm a quick squeeze. "But wondering won't do her any good, even if she is."

"It might," said St. George obstinately. "Like sending good vibrations, or--or something." Perhaps if he believed in vibrations it would work--but he didn't, so even that wasn't terribly encouraging.

"And here you say I worry too much." Hilary frowned over at him, looking like she couldn't decide whether to be exasperated or genuinely concerned for him. "At least when I worry it's about productive things."

St. George tipped his head back to watch the sky, darkening above them between the rooftops. "Well, I don't, not very often. Perhaps one needs some practice to do it properly?"

"And I've told you, if you worry too much you'll spoil your looks." Hilary was silent for a minute at his side. "Come up and dance with me a little?"

He hadn't meant to look back at her, but he did anyway, startled. "I thought you didn't care for dancing all that much."

"I don't mind it, either; certainly not with a friend." Her smile, though brief, was reassuring. "There's usually the right sort of music on the wireless in the evening--I just thought it might get your mind off things."

"In that case, I accept." St. George unlatched the gate for her, with a slight flourish that won him a snort from Hilary. She wasn't terribly fond of dancing, except apparently with him; surely that meant something? If only that he was a particularly good dancer. "Dinner and dancing," he observed, not so much as a fishing expedition as to tease her for the sake of teasing. "If I didn't know better, I'd think we'd made a proper date of it. Another one, for that matter."

"You can think anything you like," Hilary informed him, eyebrows high, and pressed the key into his hand. "Go on up; I'll go round the front and make sure Mrs. Bloom doesn't mind us clomping around for a little while. Behave yourself," she added, warningly, and swept with great dignity up the alley towards the street.

St. George watched her go, turning the key between his fingers; he missed her once she had gone around the corner of the house and out of sight, but even he knew that was a little absurd, so he went on up the back stairs--at least as familiar as the stairs of the house where he himself was staying--and let himself into Hilary's sitting-room.

Once there, it seemed an eternity before she came back upstairs, though it couldn't possibly have been more than three or four minutes. St. George paced around the room, fidgeted with the wireless set, found dance music almost immediately and flipped it off again; straightened a clock which was already perfectly centered on the mantelpiece; and eventually sat down on the floor to rustle aimlessly through Hilary's stack of old Sentinel editions. The papers reminded him sharply of the real reason he and Hilary were living there at all, and the despondent mood settled down upon him worse than ever.

When Hilary came back up the stairs, shutting the door quietly behind her, she found him sitting there still; he had produced his sling from the pocket where it had been stuffed since dinnertime, and was twisting it around one hand and staring rather blankly at one of the old newspapers. '"Mrs. Bloom says she'll be downstairs for a while yet, just be careful of anything breakable--why, Jerry." She crossed the room and perched on the coffee table next to St. George, looking down at him with sudden concern. "You look quite ill all of a sudden."

"Not ill." He shook his head in hasty reassurance. "Just perhaps not in the mood for dancing after all."

"Then something must be seriously the matter with you." Hilary blinked for a moment, dumbfounded, and then slid down to kneel on the rug next to him. "What's the matter?"

"I'm tired," said St. George fitfully, as though the act of complaining would somehow soothe the complaint; "I'm tired of this, Lee. I can't do it. I must be a terrible disappointment to you."

Hilary shifted, tucking her feet under her, and a quick faint smile flickered over her face. "You couldn't possibly be a disappointment compared to what I first expected of you."

The tortuousness of the compliment was so typical of her that it ought to have been soothing--at least, St. George was nearly sure it was a compliment--but he didn't feel quite up for being jabbed at just now. "And yet--here we are, at a dead end. In every sense I can think of for the phrase. This is absurd, Lee, and I don't know what to do about it."

"It is absurd." She bit her lip and shrugged. "Everything feels so ridiculous that I don't think things can stay as they are. Something's got to give soon, for better or ill."

The thought reminded St. George, however unhelpfully, to touch an exploratory finger to his eyebrow; he found the place still sore, and grimaced. "That's what I'm afraid of. I can't see how things can get better on their own."

"Your uncle could show up," Hilary suggested.

"Oh Lord, I hope not," St. George said fervently, briefly distracted from his primary concern, and shuddered. "I think I'd rather take another beating, a nice honest beating, than face up to him if he finds me in this mess."

Hilary shrugged again and shifted closer, pressing her shoulder against his. "Then what could possibly be worse than that?"

"Plenty of things." St. George leaned on her, and was abominably pleased that she didn't seem to mind. "I want them gone, Lee--I really do. The people here don't deserve this nonsense. But I've tried to do something, I really have, and--you were right, I'm no good to you or to anyone else here. And even if we knew what to do--" He paused, just on the verge of the most dangerous of confessions.

Hilary tipped her head in closer to his, damn her, trying to see his face. He almost wanted to tell her to stop. "And if?"

St. George swallowed convulsively. "I'm the one who'd be best positioned to do something," he said, as carefully as he was able. "If there were anything to be done. But I've made Hargrave angry once and if I did again, or if my damned arm gives out again and I'm no longer of any use--I don't know what he'd do to you. I don't want to know."

"That is so like you." Hilary snorted softly, barely a puff of air near his ear, but her hand brushed lightly over his back to his shoulder, and St. George had leaned further into her before he could think better of the idea. "To finally show something like a sense of responsibility, and then be tiresome even about that. I'd like to see them try to grab me again, honestly."

"That isn't the point." St. George ran his fingers through his hair, trying desperately to explain himself, and slumped against her more heavily still. It was becoming starkly clear in his mind just what he had gambled here, and what the odds against them were. "The point--the point is, Lee, I've let the side down, I've let both sides down, and any day now Hargrave is going to realise that and he'll want to take it out on you. And I don't--I'm not sure I can cope with that. I don't think I can see that happen." Though a far more immediate danger still was that he would break down entirely and thereby make his humiliation complete; he felt dangerously close to it already.

"Jerry, you're being ridiculous--oh, hell, I'm no good at this." Hilary's voice softened, and her hand slid in a hesitant circle over his shoulder. "This is what he wants, all right? He wants you frightened for me, he wants you to think that anything he does to me is your fault, and if it comes to that--" She hesitated herself, fingers digging into his back for a moment. "It won't be your fault. I'm not your responsibility."

"Hilary," St. George said desperately. She was strong and solid and perfect, and something nebulous but awful was probably going to happen to her because he was so entirely useless, and the thought was more horrible than he could bear. "I don't want to see you get hurt--is that so damned hard to understand? I couldn't do this, I don't know what I'd do, what would become of me if something happened to you." He could hear his voice wavering alarmingly, but all even slightly more rational considerations were falling like dominoes before his sudden need to make her understand. "I can't let that happen, Hilary, I--" The words he'd been trying to keep back were on the tip of his tongue, too close for comfort; so he did the first thing that sprang to mind to prevent himself from talking further, and kissed her.

By the time it occurred to St. George that this strategy might be counterproductive, Hilary was already returning the kiss--and even then, in a last dying burst of misdirected panic, his only thought was to cup her jaw and slide his fingers into her hair to prevent its premature end. Against all odds Hilary made a pleased little noise and pressed closer to him still, her nails scratching lightly down the back of his neck, and it was a long breathless while before the need for air forced them to part.

"Yes." Her eyes, fixed on his, were dark and intent; her fingers curled against his shoulder, grip nearly painful for a second. "Yes, all right, finally--" and Hilary kissed him back with shocking urgency, all but hauling him into her lap.

He clung to her, because he had completely forgotten there was anything to be done in the world that was not kissing her, and actually felt her shudder--and then the free hand Hilary had been leaning on skidded out from under them and she collapsed backwards, a dozen papers crumpling noisily beneath her as she pulled St. George down after her. He followed without question, and found her warm and restless beneath him; she kissed with all the desperation he had tried to put into words, but her hands smoothed down his back with odd gentleness, as though he were the one who needed care taken with him. He ventured a hand up under her jumper to splay across her stomach--no higher, only wanting to relish the feeling of her skin there and more than half expecting her to object--but Hilary only gasped and pressed up into his hand, squirming briefly and dizzyingly against him. The tilt of her head was too tempting to withstand, so St. George broke their kiss to press more of them down her neck; she let out an unexpected huff of laughter, and he froze in confusion for a moment. "What is it?"

"It tickles,” Hilary managed, sounding dazed. “Oh, there." St. George nuzzled her there a little longer, obligingly, until she let out a gratifyingly strangled sound; he had to reluctantly disengage then, long enough for her to work his waistcoat open and off him--and to take advantage of the momentary pause in the proceedings to roll St. George over onto his back and straddle his waist. "Jerry," she murmured, and leaned down to kiss him again. "Jerry--" hesitating for a moment, and St. George groaned mentally in resignation, sure she'd come to her senses. But she only bent her head, hair falling into her suddenly solemn face, while her fingers tangled into his own hair. "Please don't give up hope. There's got to be a way out of this." Her voice was impressively steady if breathless, considering one of his hands was drifting down her spine and the other creeping up her thigh.

St. George tried his very best to focus on the haste with which Hilary was unbuttoning his shirt; it wasn't in fact all that difficult. "I haven't--I promise."

"Good," said Hilary firmly, wriggling in a way that didn't at all help him work her jumper up to bunch under her arms. "Because if you did--" A small hiss jolted out of her as he traced the newly exposed top edge of her brassiere. "I'd know there really wasn't any hope left to be had."

St. George stared up at her, dumbstruck; he thought that might be the single best thing she had ever said to him, though he was hardly in a fit state of mind to consider the question seriously. "Come here," he said hoarsely, flattening his hand over the warm skin between her shoulder blades, until she settled down against him and they were kissing once again.

They made it off the carpet and to her bedroom, though it was a difficult and halting process. By the time Hilary hauled St. George to his feet, his shirt was shoved down to his elbows; a few moments later she had wriggled out of her own jumper and left it on the floor along with his shirt; their progress halted again in the doorway between the two rooms, when he decided she wouldn't be needing her skirt either. By the time St. George found himself sitting on the bed and Hilary settling down astride his lap, they were both down to a minimal amount of underwear, though he couldn't for the life of him quite remember how they'd got there. "Hilary," he murmured, voice hitching as she shifted to press against him more closely. "Oh, look at you."

"Is that all you mean to do?" She laughed, and he could feel it, with one hand pressed to her bare side. None of this could possibly be real. "We're not in public now, you know; you'd better get on with it." He reached up obediently to remove her brassiere, and Hilary's fingers joined his in tugging at the clasp. "I'm so glad I decided to wear this today," she went on, squeezing his hands briefly before letting him proceed. "It wouldn't have been very seemly, you finding me going without."

"On the contrary." He laughed, disposing of the garment in question without paying much attention to where it went, and slid his arms back around her waist so as to properly enjoy the view. For such a thin girl, she made one hell of a satisfying armful. "I would have found it tremendously considerate and farsighted of you."

Hilary smiled, but she looked almost--inexplicably--apologetic. "It isn't as if I had much use for it."

At first St. George took this as a reference to her current state of undress; then he caught her drift, and was momentarily appalled at the thought of the most beautiful woman in the world thinking of herself as anything but. "Lee, no." He spread his hand deliberately over her breast--not large, certainly, but firm and astonishingly soft, her nipple tightening against his palm and her breath hissing sharply in through her teeth. "You're perfect."

"And I suppose you always say that at this point in the proceedings." But Hilary's voice was the right sort of unsteady, and when St. George touched her cheek and kissed her--rather more gently than he was in the habit of kissing girls who were already in his lap and nearly naked--she smiled against his mouth, eyes slipping shut. He chose to take that as a sign that she genuinely appreciated the compliment, and got on with the real business at hand.

There were freckles clustered in the hollow of Hilary's throat, scattering out from there over her chest and shoulders; St. George had noticed them before, and perhaps even devoted a certain amount of thought to the matter, but had never yet been able to pay them the attention they deserved. Now, however, he took a minute to suck a kiss there between her collarbones and then brush his lips along one to her shoulder, and Hilary sighed approvingly. "'S nice," she said dazedly, fingers trailing promisingly low on his stomach for a moment before dragging back up his back. "Harder," she suggested, when he stroked one thumb across her nipple, "mm, just like that."

"You're very bossy," St. George observed, completely entranced, as he nuzzled down between her breasts.

"I do believe you like it--Jerry!" A sharp, pleased cry cut off whatever she'd been saying; he had applied his mouth to her nipple, and was sliding his hands--and her knickers with them--up her thighs. Her skin was astonishingly soft and warm, but under it she was leanly muscled; it seemed impossible that anyone should be so strong and so precious, all at once.

It was a gratifyingly short space of time until Hilary was panting and eager, squirming on his lap in a way that might or might not have been deliberate but was most certainly distracting as all hell. Her every breath tailed off into a noise so high and needy she could only be said to be squeaking, and her hands and mouth seemed to be all over him all at once, exploring with such unabashed delight as to warm St. George's heart almost beyond bearing. "Come on," she urged, hips rocking maddeningly against his, "do something already--"

So he slid a finger up inside her knickers and stroked, quite deliberately, up along the crease of her hip rather than down. "Will that do?"

"Think you're funny, do you?" she demanded, and bit him--none too gently--making St. George yelp in surprise, though not at all in protest.

Nor, when he returned the favour, was the little shriek Hilary let out, though it dissolved quickly into a bewildering fit of the giggles. "We mustn't," she said breathlessly, fingers skittering against his shoulders. "Mrs. Bloom--she might hear, we ought to be quiet."

"Mrs. Bloom?" St. George repeated, his indignation only mostly feigned. "How can you think of her at a time like this? I ought to be offended."

By way of response Hilary's hand slid right down the front of his shorts, and all St. George could manage for a moment was a helpless noise vaguely resembling her name.

There was then, of course, no further question of making her wait any longer; he pushed her knickers aside and curved two fingers up and in, and a low moan shuddered out of her as her fingers stumbled on him for a moment. "God, yes." Hilary tilted her hips helpfully and let her head fall forward on his shoulder, mouth moving sloppily against his neck. "Not half a bad start," she added generously, "just--there."

It was a good start, certainly, but it wasn't enough; only good enough to drive St. George nearly mad with wanting more. The position they'd tangled themselves into was awkward at best, and soon Hilary's whimpers sounded more of frustration than pleasure. "Enough," she said desperately at last, hips still working against his hand. "We need--we need--damn it, I can't think--"

Her hand withdrew from his shorts, but before he could complain something complicated and improbable happened, and when it was over he found that she was on her back and had brought him firmly down on top of her. "Well." He leaned down on his elbows and kissed her. "Think you're funny, do you?"

Hilary laughed up at him and shifted her hips, drawing a sharp gasp from herself and a moan from him. "Oh for God's sake, Jerry, please." Her hands were roaming into distracting places again, trying to dispose of his shorts and her knickers both at once.

"Anything," St. George promised, driven at last beyond all patience; Hilary arched and twisted slightly under him, just so, and in the next dizzying instant he was sliding inside her.

There was a good chance that, up to this precise point in his life, St. George had never given really thorough consideration to some of the more marvellous and sentimental ramifications of being even partially inside another person; unfortunately, now that they had become relevant, he really wasn't inclined to give much thought to anything at all.

When he pressed all the way in, finally, she let out a little "Oh!" of delight and what sounded almost like surprise, hooking one leg over his hip and letting her head fall back. "Jerry," she murmured again, and smoothed her fingers through his hair, with a huff of breath that might have been another laugh. Her eyes were warm with something that wasn't--surely couldn't be--lust alone; but St. George couldn't seem to think clearly enough, nor stay still long enough, to make anything of it, and Hilary's eyes slid shut as she surged up against him with a breathless curse. Those few affectionate moments having passed, she seemed more in a rush than ever, wriggling and bucking wildly under him.

"Lee," he gasped. "Lee, Lee--" meaning it to be soothing, but it emerged sounding more like a plea of his own, and she only clutched at him harder; she was so perfect, such a marvel, that he thought he might die if he didn't tell her so. So he murmured his adoration into her skin, kissed it into the crook of her neck--until Hilary shuddered and fell apart in his arms, muffling a strangled cry against St. George's shoulder, and the drag of her nails down his back pulled him over the edge after her.

The next thing he was fully aware of was Hilary working the blanket up over them and folding into his arms with a shiver, as comfortably as if she had belonged there all along. She wrapped around him with lazy affection, all her haste wound down into evident satisfaction, and St. George mouthed a wordless greeting into her hair and held on tight. "Feeling better?" she murmured against his collarbone.

"Oh, is that what this was about?" St. George had entirely forgotten how this had begun; he briefly considered being disappointed at the possibility that she had done this just to shut him up, but he was really too contented--not to mention more than a little entranced by the way his hands fit over the curves of her shoulder and hip.

Hilary leaned up on one elbow and smiled down at him, drowsy and sweet; it was odd, seeing her so comfortably off her guard, but not in the least unpleasant. "That depends; did it work?"

"It helped," St. George promised, and that much at least was true; their outlook might have been just as grim as ever, but for now that fear was away out of sight behind the perfection of tonight. "It honestly did."

"I'm glad," said Hilary lazily, ducking her head until their lips met, and they kissed like that-- slow and easy, for what seemed like ages, until she dozed off with her head tucked under St. George's chin.

Nothing good could ever come of this, he knew--and God knew he'd devoted a lot of thought to it recently. In the long run Hilary was going to end up in happy spinsterhood or else living with some nice reliable intellectual sort, and with St. George's birthday safely past it would only be a matter of time until his mother located some eligible stranger to saddle him with. He couldn't see them ever being really right for each other, but he wanted to be; he wanted to be good for Hilary more than he'd ever wanted anything.

In the meantime, he had her asleep in his arms for a second time, and that on its own felt like a miracle; there was nothing much St. George could do but to enjoy this while it lasted and see what came of it.

Chapter Text

Bachelorhood, complacent in a hitherto indefeasible citadel, was startled into attention and began to peer anxiously from behind its fortifications. Discomfort, it whispered persuasively: inconvenience. All your small luxuries, your careful arrangements for peace of mind, would go by the board if you got married. . . . A little mild flirtation, perhaps, but nothing more.
Before the undoubted common sense of these remarks, all that Emotion could do was to mutter gloomily but doggedly: I love her. And at this a real panic broke out in the citadel.

Edmond Crispin
---------------------

It was not entirely a surprise, the next morning, when he woke and found himself alone in bed, Hilary having removed herself and the only blanket to the sofa. A disappointment, perhaps, but not a surprise, and to add further insult she appeared to be sleeping much more soundly than he had himself; what was worse, the newspapers they had scattered last night had been carefully collected and left in a neat stack on the table.

There were a thousand possible explanations. Perhaps she'd been too warm; perhaps he'd been stealing the blanket; perhaps she'd come to her senses and realised that she had no business being in bed with a mere undeserving mortal like himself. St. George rocked back on his heels once, twice, looking down at her--and was struck out of nowhere by an abrupt wave of spiritual claustrophobia; a moment's hasty thought brought the conclusion that her departure (if largely symbolic) had absolved him of any further responsibility to be gentlemanly, so St. George scribbled something faintly resembling a note and fled across the city for more familiar and comforting ground.

He hadn't seen all that much of his Aunt Mary in the past several years, not since she'd settled down in London with Inspector Parker; he still wasn't even quite certain how he felt about calling the man Uncle, and their last encounter certainly hadn’t cleared anything up. But St. George had the general idea that Mary had managed, somehow or other, to become quite the sanest member of his family--though that didn't necessarily signify much--and regardless, she was the only relative readily available to him, and hopefully the most likely to be sympathetic.

It took a minute after he had rung the bell for her to answer the door, distractedly wiping jam off her hands onto her apron and looking so astonishingly normal and civilised that St. George nearly hugged her on the spot. "Why, whatever--" She recognised him, after a few seconds' apparent delay, and stared in open horror. "Good lord, Gherkins, what have you done?"

St. George felt a little too frayed, this morning, to protest the use of a nickname he'd long since grown out of. It hadn't occurred to him to consider the image he must present: cheaply and hastily dressed, with a less-than-impeccably shaven jaw and the fading remains of a black eye from a few weeks ago. His shoulder ached from the previous night’s exertions, even if the pain was worth it, and he wondered whether that showed, too. "Why does everyone always assume it's something I've done?"

"Because it generally is," said his aunt briskly. "Now, just what is it this time?"

"I don't know, exactly," St. George confessed. "Please, Aunt Mary, I didn't know where else to go."

"You're not getting any money out of me," Mary warned, but she stood aside to let him into the flat. "Look after yourself a minute longer, would you? I'm just clearing up from Peter's luncheon."

Hearing the name startled St. George back on edge for a moment, before he pulled himself sufficiently together to understand--and sure enough, when he found his way into the sitting room, he was confronted with another of his neglected relatives: a small and rather sticky-looking boy, along with an impressive army of lead soldiers scattered across the carpet. "Hullo," St. George ventured, crouching down and trying to make sense of it all. "Which ones ought I to be cheering for?"

"Not those," said Peter reprovingly, indicating the ones arrayed on St. George's side of the room. "That's the Germans. Come sit over here," he suggested, before St. George had time to be too terribly hurt by being told off by, on top of everyone else, someone who barely came up to his waist.

St. George crossed the room obediently, careful not to disturb the combatants, and tactfully refrained from mentioning that the antagonists appeared from their uniforms to be in fact French. "I thought you had chicken pox. Shouldn't you be in bed?"

"I did," said his cousin with unwarranted pride. "I went all spotty and everything. That was ages ago," he added sadly. "I'm mostly better now."

"It's a pity it only comes once," St. George sympathised with as straight a face as he could muster, which wasn't very. "Otherwise I could buy you an aeroplane to make you feel better."

Peter's eyes widened to approximately twice the apparent size of his face. "An aeroplane?"

"A toy aeroplane," St. George clarified hastily, to head off any potential confusion on this matter. "For you to dive-bomb those Germans with. In fact," he decided suddenly, since he was feeling particularly sentimental this morning, "I'll buy you one anyway. For my birthday."

The idea of being bought something for someone else's birthday seemed to confound the boy, despite the promise of aeroplanes, and he squinted suspiciously up at St. George. "Did you get in a fight?" he enquired suddenly. "Father says never to fight anyone."

"He would," observed St. George meaninglessly, and leaned in confidentially. "I did, though."

Peter looked suitably impressed. "Did you win?"

"We-eell." St. George poked his tongue into his cheek and wondered how honest to be; he had suddenly remembered having an uncannily similar conversation to this one with his uncle, when he'd been not so much older than the littler Peter was now and laid up with--something he couldn't recall, measles or something. The thought made him feel inexplicably uncomfortable in his own skin: the same vague disquiet he'd felt watching Hilary sleep that morning, a feeling as though despite all his best intentions he'd managed to miserably foul up something tremendously important.

Aunt Mary saved him, bless her, reappearing in the sitting-room door with her hands clean and apron gone. "And how are you two getting on?"

"Swimmingly." St. George grinned sidelong at Peter, who beamed back up at him, and then wiped his hands on the knees of his trousers. "Aunt Mary, I really do need to talk to you."

"I know," she said unexpectedly. "Come on, I'll put tea on and toast you some muffins. You look half-starved."

"Such is the life of an artist," St. George observed tragically. "I'll get back to you about that aeroplane," he added aside to Peter, before getting to his feet and following his aunt into the kitchen.

She was leaning in the doorway, arms folded across her chest: an easy vantage point for keeping an eye on Peter, St. George, and the teakettle all at once. "Did you know your parents are looking for you?"

St. George froze in place, halfway through lowering himself into a chair. "I can't think why." He didn't sound convincing even to his own ears--though he'd tried to cover his tracks, he honestly had. "I've been writing home just the same as ever. A great sacrifice on my part for the sake of their peace of mind, might I add, considering how ill I’ve been."

"Not great enough, I suppose, since your sister's been in town asking after you." A wry smile crept across Mary's face. "And when your landlady wouldn't tell her where your letters were being forwarded--"

"Good on her," St. George said absently, and sat the rest of the way down. "Mrs. Jenkins, I mean, not Winnie--I wouldn't've thought she'd be the one to come looking for me."

"Well, Helen and Gerald can't very well admit in public that they've misplaced their only son." Mary watched him speculatively. “The papers haven’t made much of it yet, but it hasn’t been for lack of trying.”

"So they sent Winnie, plus chaperone, on down to be frail and sweet and pleading, is that it?" St. George demanded, in a sudden flash of irritation. "That's got Mother written all over it."

"No, she took the train up here on her own. She's been staying in our spare room--and believe me, your parents aren't pleased about that either." His aunt settled back comfortably against the doorframe. "But they'll tolerate it for the moment, in the hopes that you'll be more likely to answer to her than you are to them."

St. George flinched, duly chastised, but wasn't entirely certain this was an improvement. "She's not here right now, is she?"

"Don't worry, she told me she was going to be out all day." Mary watched him narrowly. "I really ought to tell someone you've been here, you know. If you're in real trouble, Peter and Charles could--"

"They can't." The vehemence of St. George's interruption startled them both, and he attempted to conceal his alarm at the idea by springing right back up to deal with the whistling teakettle. "These people, Aunt Mary--they'd know Uncle Peter in an instant if he stuck his nose in. I'm not entirely certain they don't know me,” he added, unhappily, and poured them each a cup of tea.

Mary accepted hers, startled by his turn for the domestic, and peered narrowly at her nephew. "Don't you think you'd better explain this from the beginning?"

St. George applied jam to a muffin and explained himself in between bites of it, not very coherently and leaving out as much detail about the situation as possible-- "because," he said apologetically, "I wouldn't want you feeling like you had to repeat it to Uncle Charles," and Lady Mary's expression darkened a little.

"I'll grant you this much," she said when he was finished, "you don't seem to have done much worse than anything else this family's ever been raked through the papers for, but you seem to have managed most of those things at one go. I'm almost impressed."

"That bad, then?" St. George settled his chin into his free hand.

"Possibly worse." Mary took a long, thoughtful swallow of her tea. "What on earth were you thinking?"

"I thought it would be a nice little lark," St. George confessed; it sounded idiotic even now. "And Miss Thorpe had asked for my help, and I didn’t particularly want to go to my own birthday party, and--" He gestured vaguely with the remains of his muffin. "I thought I might try my hand at being a useful member of society. Just this once."

"I suppose there are worse goals in life," his aunt allowed, though she didn't look especially convinced.

St. George fidgeted under her gaze. "So what are you going to tell them?"

"Your parents? As little as I can." Mary shrugged, while St. George sagged in relief. "But I don't know what to tell Peter. Or Winnie, when I see her."

"I think--" St. George finished his muffin and set about methodically splitting open another one, more for something to occupy his attention than anything else. "I think," he said again, more cautiously, "I'd prefer to do this without Uncle's help."

"Then I'll be sure to tell him that, too. Though he would, you know," Mary said gently. "If you needed it."

"I know. Believe me, I know. And at any rate," he went on, trying with minimal success to retain some dignity, "Hilary--Miss Thorpe and Uncle know each other, and I don't think Uncle Peter's the sort to think it's anyone's business but her own to keep men off, but I can't see him being all that impressed with my professionalism all the same."

"What professionalism?" Mary paused in astonishment. "Oh, Jerry, you haven't gone and fallen for her."

“I’faith, to the very tip of the nose,” said St. George morosely, and buried his own face in his hands.

"It happens to us all," Mary said patiently. She was beginning to smile again; St. George made a mental note to look into trading in his current aunts for some more properly sympathetic models.

"But I don't want it to," St. George complained, knowing how unreasonable he was being and not caring; it was just too much to cope with this morning, Lord Hargrave and Hilary and the Sentinel and his mother, and the more he tried not to think about it the more it all seemed to weigh down on him somehow. "And I don't want to talk about it, either."

"Then don't." Mary peered over into the sitting room, where Peter had found something to chortle to himself over, but seemed satisfied that whatever it was it was nothing irreparable.

St. George's shoulders slumped as if on cue. "She's the most beautiful girl I've ever seen," he said hopelessly. "And she's brilliant and fearless and she terrifies me, Aunt Mary. I wouldn't even know where to begin. I probably haven't a prayer. I think I want to marry her," he concluded, in precisely the dismal tones of a man who thinks he is about to be violently ill.

"Put your head down between your knees for a bit," suggested Lady Mary, who had apparently drawn the same parallel. "Perhaps it'll pass."

The only appropriate response to this, St. George felt, was a thoroughly betrayed glare.

His aunt sighed, to all appearances unfazed, and stroked her thumbs thoughtfully along the sides of her mug. "She must think something of you, to have put up with you even this long."

St. George thought of what had happened last night, and could still make nothing of it; and anyway, it really wasn't the sort of thing one discussed with one's aunt, and especially not with one's young cousin in easy earshot. "Oh, she's fond of me," he allowed. "The same way you'd be fond of, say, a dog with three legs. And only one ear."

"Stop wallowing," Mary said severely. "There may be a solution, but I'm certain that isn't it."

St. George took a long swallow of his tea and obediently tried to pull himself back together, at least a little. "Nothing I do seems to work. And even if she did think much of me--" He smiled, probably not very happily. "She'd never say so. She's one of those independent types--you should know. Too proud. She did throw me rather a nice birthday party, though," he added reflectively. “Particularly on such short notice.”

"The pair of you sound very well-suited," observed his aunt, without any visible trace of irony. There was after all some sympathetic warmth in her expression, and St. George was glad to see it. When he had been much younger and she had been engaged to Cathcart, he had hated the subject, reluctant to see his much-admired aunt diminished by such a silly thing as love; but now, knowing that she really did love Parker, he was glad to see the signs of it--and for much the same reasons.

"What would you do?" St. George looked up at her. "About Miss Thorpe, I mean, not all the rest of it."

"Do you really want to know? Or are you just trying to butter me up?" Mary looked back down at him, gaze steady. "Because I don't know that you'll like my opinion."

"I can always pretend I didn't hear it," said St. George with forced cheer. "If it comes to that."

"So you can." She nodded. "Now, you went into this to begin with to help Miss Thorpe's friends, remember? That's the most important thing to worry about. Or should be."

That was true enough; St. George might not have kept it in mind as much as he ought to, and he suspected his aunt knew that, but he did know better. "And I am worrying about it."

"Good. Then don't worry about anything else." St. George opened his mouth to object--not really certain how, just on principle--but Mary stared him down, and he shut it again in a hurry. "You can deal with the family after this is all over. And it seems to me there's only so much you can do about Miss Thorpe--and in any case, if you get all this sorted, that part of it might work itself out."

"Do you think?" St. George realised how extraordinarily pathetic the question sounded the moment he'd asked it, and sagged against the table.

She smiled for real then, and reached over to rub his shoulder. "It is a rotten feeling, isn't it? The not knowing?"

"It is," St. George said glumly, "it's a beastly, damnable mess, all of it," and buttered yet another muffin.

-------

It had hurt, just a little, to wake up and find St. George gone; Hilary knew she had no right whatsoever to complain, since for all intents and purposes it had been she who had got up and left him first, but for no rational reason that she could finger it still stung that he had got the very message she'd meant to send by doing so. He'd at least left a note on the coffee-table, though the scrawl of Have to go--be seeing you--Jerry hadn't been particularly informative or soothing. What irked her most of all, however, was how aimless she seemed to become as a result. She'd grown so accustomed, over the past weeks, to spending most of her time with St. George; unable to find him, and without even any sudden bursts of crime-fighting inspiration to chase after, Hilary had bathed and dressed and gone down to the street before she realised she had no idea where in particular to go, or what in particular to do when she got there.

She went wandering, for lack of anything better to do, and found herself buying a book nearly at random and taking it across the street to a tea-shop where she could convince herself she was reading it when what she was in fact doing was staring blankly at a page and brooding. Hilary hadn't wanted to brood over this, had left her attic specifically to distract herself from brooding, but so far it wasn't working.

It wasn't as though she hadn't known precisely what she was about when she had invited him upstairs. That evening, out of all the many times he'd visited her attic, had already felt more promising, and Hilary had fully intended to dance a few songs with him, just so that he could feel that all the necessary prerequisites had been fulfilled before she kissed him. So, to begin with, she couldn't very well be upset that he'd upended the process by being overeager.

If anything, Hilary was glad; she'd rather feared St. George might be the type to get all gentlemanly and careful and boring in bed, and was pleased to have been proven wrong, whether it was because he knew her well enough to have guessed there wasn't any point being coy, or had simply been too enthusiastic to bother. (Either explanation was a flattering one, really.) The evening had been a giddy scramble, and she had loved it--although, if she had ever wanted to take her time with a man, she thought that man would have been St. George. It might not have been so boring with him after all.

She had spent a handful of nights with young men, but never a morning; it seemed so much more personal somehow. St. George, she thought, would probably be rather slow to wake in the morning; would kiss her for simply ages, hand gentle at her waist, all of it quite comfortable and unhurried. And she had had the opportunity to find out just that morning, except that she had been so unexpectedly happy to find him there with her that the strength of the feeling had frightened her right out of her own bed.

It made no difference now. She had made a choice, leaving him there; it might have been the wise choice, or the wrong one, or perhaps both at once, but it was too late to start the morning over. She would simply have to see how things fell out when she saw him next, though in truth nothing about the prospect seemed simple at all.

Hilary was mercifully distracted from this train of thought by the arrival of someone else at her table. She'd chosen the spot specifically because it was tucked away in the back of the shop where people would be least likely to interrupt her--yet here someone was.

The girl was at least a few years Hilary's junior, and looked even younger than that; her suit was stylish and well-tailored, but would have been much better suited to someone several years her elder. Her blonde hair had been curled into extraordinarily precise ringlets, her pale blue eyes were wide and anxious, and her knuckles were white where she was gripping her handbag at her side. "Excuse me," she said--quietly, but without a trace of the apprehension evident in her expression. "Miss Hood? Miss Caroline Hood?"

"That's me, yes." Hilary sat up straighter and set her book down on the table without bothering to mark her place. The girl didn't look like someone working for Hargrave; but then again, nor did most people who lived around here. "Can I help you?"

"So everyone around here says, at least." The girl slid into the chair opposite hers without asking permission. "I've been asking ‘round for you all day."

Hilary nodded patiently. "But what is it you need help with?" No sooner had she asked than something about the girl's appearance clicked in her mind, and an apprehensive knot began to form in her chest.

"I'm looking for my brother." Lady Winifred folded her hands on the table between them. "And I'm told you're the one to talk to."

-------

It was difficult to say how long St. George had been out of Foxgrove when he returned that afternoon. He'd bid his aunt and cousin goodbye, and in exchange for Lady Mary's temporary silence had promised to get back in touch if things got truly desperate; Peter's was rather more difficult to ensure, but St. George was not beneath shameless bribery, and had made this as clear to the boy as possible. Even after these extensive negotiations, he had taken his time returning home, not even certain whether he wanted to go home or not; home meant Hilary, and Hilary had fallen asleep with him last night but hadn't wanted to wake up with him that morning. St. George was a little afraid of seeing her. He'd bought flowers along the way, and then presented them instead to an astonished small girl seated across from him on the subway; poked his head into a couple of shops hoping for some other form of inspiration, found nothing; and finally decided that Hilary was too smart to be placated by gifts in any case and he'd better slip quietly back to his own temporary rooms. He'd go back and see her tomorrow, perhaps, once they'd both had a little time to reflect.

Unfortunately, he needed to pass Mrs. Bloom's house to get to his own boarding house, and Hilary was sitting outside waiting for him. She looked as though she'd been waiting comfortably for quite some time, but she rose instantly to her feet as he approached. "We have a problem," she said, all business--though she was having rather more difficulty meeting his eyes than usual.

"I know we do." St. George stuffed his hands in his pockets and was suddenly very glad he'd decided not to bring flowers. "Though we might want to discuss it somewhere a little more private," he added, and glanced around the street irresolutely.

"Not that," Hilary said hastily, and folded her arms across her chest. "Though that is a problem--not so much any more, I hope, but anyway it isn't the one I meant. We've got a more important problem; I think we'd better go upstairs."

St. George reached up to touch her shoulder as he followed her towards the stairs, out of pure reflex, and she flinched away; he decided he'd better keep quiet and his hands to himself, after that. He'd expected discomfort between them, but not outright hostility, and in the face of it he thought he'd better be careful.

"Look who I found," Hilary announced to the attic once they'd made it upstairs.

For half a second, St. George couldn't understand who she was talking to. But then someone appeared from the kitchen--not just anyone, either, and St. George froze. "Winnie? What are you doing here?"

His sister hovered in the kitchen doorway, staring at him in equal astonishment; having had a day full of his relations already, St. George was pretty sure that by this point he knew why. "I hadn't seen you since Christmas," she said uncertainly. "You haven't been writing like usual, your landlady says she's forwarding your mail to an alias, I just thought--I thought something might be wrong."

St. George had sixteen years' experience at telling whether she was genuinely upset or playing vulnerable to get something from someone; his hapless landlady had most likely cracked under the latter, but he was fairly certain this was the former. And if she was here, the damage was already done--no harm, he concluded, in crossing the room to hug her. "I'm sorry." He kissed the top of her head. "I've missed you too, Winnie, and I'm so sorry. But you can't be here, do you understand? It isn't safe."

Winnie squeezed him, tightly. She had grown up so much while he wasn't looking, and yet she was still so small; she barely came up to his shoulder. His baby sister, wandering into the middle of this thinking she was looking after him. "If it's not safe, what are you doing here?"

"That's not the point." St. George flailed for an explanation, guiding Winnie to a chair and looking frantically at Hilary for help. "The point is--what do you mean? I wrote you just last week."

"Yes, but you missed your birthday, and you wouldn’t say anything about what you’d been up to, not really." A smile flickered across her face. "And you haven't phoned to beg for money in weeks."

"It's good to know the brains went somewhere in your part of the family," Hilary said briskly. "Tea, anyone?"

"I could use some," St. George said inattentively. He'd wished for a distraction, and here was the one person guaranteed to take his mind off Hilary for the time being; he would have been grateful if he weren't so thoroughly appalled. "Winnie, you've got to tell us everything, all right? How did you find us?" The most probable answer occurred to him nearly before he'd finished answering the question. "Did Aunt Mary put you on to it?"

Winnie shook her head. "Of course not. Why should she?"

A beat of silence went by, and then Hilary looked back in from the kitchen. "I'm curious myself," she said slowly. "Why should Aunt Mary know anything about it?"

"Oh, hell." St. George slumped down to sit on the floor at his sister's feet with a groan. "Now look what you've done," he told her, completely unreasonably.

"It was your landlady. Mrs. Perkins." Winnie fidgeted unhappily. "You mustn't blame her, Jerry, really--I went back every day for two weeks until she told me she was forwarding your mail to a Mr. Christianson around here, just to make me leave her alone." Despite her alarm and confusion, there was a distinct note of pride in her voice. "She fairly made you proud, I'd say--his lordship won't like it, she kept saying--she was awfully nervous about telling me anything. I thought it was rather silly, really, anyone being frightened of you."

St. George felt a twinge of guilt. “I may have been a bit excited when I explained things to her,” he confessed. “I hope she isn’t really frightened--she’s really a very decent old lady.”

"Winnie hasn't mentioned your real name to anyone around here," Hilary interjected. "I made sure to ask that first thing."

St. George grimaced; he wasn't at all sure, after all, that he could cope with both of them at once. "Well, that's a small mercy, anyway." He wondered whether he might be able to get himself and Winnie back out of here and to his own place before Hilary decided to press the question of Aunt Mary; his chances didn't seem terribly high. "What have you been telling people?"

Winnie bit her lip. "Only that I was looking for my brother Roger and thought he might be in trouble, and a good half-a-dozen people knew you right away and said they were always seeing you with a red-headed woman, a Miss Hood. And I stopped into a place and, well--there she was. Are you really in so much trouble?"

"We really, really are." St. George reached up to pat her hand half-heartedly. "And you really, really ought to go home, Winnie. Bad enough Mother's going to murder me next time she sees me; best not to leave the household entirely childless."

Hilary returned from the kitchen, bearing a mug--only one--with a comfortingly warm smell to it, which she handed down to Winnie. "I think I could use a smoke," she said tiredly. "I think you could use one too, Jerry, don't you?"

St. George knew better than to argue on this point. "We'll be right back," he told his sister, who looked all too understanding. "Just sit quietly and drink your tea like a good girl, all right?"

"You needn't be like that," Winnie sulked, but she made a show of taking a sip from the cup all the same. "I'll stay here, don't worry, but I'd like some sort of explanation when you come back."

-------

The back stairs were a familiar seat for them both by now; Hilary lit a cigarette for herself but chose not to do St. George the courtesy of offering one, instead watching as he fumbled through his pockets to find a pack of his own. "Now," she said after a moment. "Just what has your aunt got to do with all this?"

"Nothing," said St. George automatically, but with obvious discomfort. "Even less than Winnie's got to do with it, certainly."

Hilary leaned back against the stair rail, though it creaked unhappily under her weight; the pose was casual enough, she hoped, but she loathed the incipient feeling that matters were spinning out of her control. "We'll deal with her in a minute; first I want to know why you think your aunt knows we're here."

There was less than no object to lying, and they both knew it; St. George confessed unhappily where he'd been that morning and why without any further provocation. "But she doesn't know where we are," he added hastily. "Or what the trouble is. I was careful about that."

Hilary stared at him. "You imbecile," she said, in blatant astonishment. Clearly she'd overestimated his good sense--and that shouldn't even have taken much effort. "How in hell was that a good idea?"

"I don't know." He was staring at his cigarette rather than at her, watching it burn down between his fingers instead of actually smoking it. "I needed to get out of here. I needed to talk to someone, that's all."

Hilary could almost sympathise, but she refused to; it was so much easier and more soothing to be angry. "You wanted to talk to someone?" she demanded. "And that was worth risking being followed? Worth risking the lives of your aunt and cousin?"

St. George looked stricken for a moment; at least one of those possibilities clearly hadn't occurred to him, and it only remained to be seen whether he'd bother to cover it up with a lie or not. "I checked, all right? As best I could. I thought I might be followed there, so I kept an eye out. They won't touch Peterkin or Aunt Mary," he went on rather desperately, suddenly remembering his cigarette and putting it to its intended use. "Hargrave's terrified of letting police anywhere around here, isn't he? He wouldn't dare touch the Chief Inspector's family in their own home."

"And what about us?" Hilary stubbed her own out and folded her arms, voice rising steadily no matter how hard she tried to keep it level. "What about the Chief Inspector's nephew and his lady friend? A Wimsey and his lady friend, poking around here where we aren't wanted and where no one will miss us until it's too late?" The morning's sick suspicion that she might be growing dangerously fond of him had not abated, and she was if anything more physically aware of him than ever, though the night before seemed such a long time ago--but rather than tempering her anger, these things only fed it further. "What happens when someone finds out who we really are?"

"And what about the Chief Inspector's niece?" St. George shoved his hair back with his free hand; he was beginning to look distinctly off-colour. "Winnie's got no business anywhere near this. Why'd you bring her here?"

"I didn't," Hilary protested, thrown by the sudden turn in subject matter. "She found me, just like she told you. She was all but sick with worry about you, Jerry. What ought I to have done?"

He gestured emphatically with what little was left of his cigarette. "You tell me, if you're such a wonderful liar. You could have put her off, lied to her, sent her away, kept her out of this."

Hilary gripped the banister behind her tightly, doubt beginning to prickle at her. "I didn't know," she admitted, trying to force her voice back down in the vain hope that Winnie wouldn't hear them. "She was upset and she wanted to see you and I didn't know what else to do."

"Yes, well, I didn't know what else to do this morning either." St. George seemed to sense that this was treading too near to ground neither of them wanted to touch, for he hesitated a moment. "That's my baby sister in there," he said at last, sounding thoroughly unhappy, and jabbed an emphatic finger towards the door they'd emerged from. "People have threatened to kill us, and here's my sister walking right into the middle of it and you welcoming her with open arms. She's not tough like you, Hilary; I doubt she's ever been left unsupervised this long in her life. She hasn't got a clue."

This, at least, was the sort of thing Hilary could cope with; she forced herself to let go of the railing and stand properly upright. "And yet, left unsupervised, she got as far as finding you all on her own. Perhaps you ought to give her the credit she's due for that much."

"I want her out of it," St. George insisted flatly. "Though that may no longer be an option, thanks to you."

Hilary huffed out a sigh. "Well, I don't know what we should do with her. And clearly neither do you."

"I'll take her home," St. George said, almost defiantly. "Down the street, I mean, until we can sort something out."

Hilary looked down at the wooden stairs, at her own feet; she was immensely fond of him whether she liked it or not, but she could hardly bear to look at him right now. "You'd better tell her." It was the one thing she was sure of now. "As much as you can--if it worries you so much that she doesn't know what's going on."

"And then what?" He was still looking at her; Hilary could feel it. "We keep her here? Send her back to Inspector Parker? Or to our parents?"

"That's what I don't know," Hilary said frankly. "In fact, I don't think I know how to deal with either of you right now. Perhaps I'll give it another try tomorrow."

She hung back as they reentered the attic, hovering near the back door while St. George crossed the room to rejoin his sister. Winnie had been flipping through a book from Hilary’s coffee table, apparently absorbed, but she set it down in her brother’s favour the moment she spotted him.

Seen in such close proximity, the resemblance between them was startlingly obvious--not only in their colouring, but something in their expressions and mannerisms as well, though their features were nothing alike. He was crouched in front of her, talking too quickly and quietly for Hilary to discern the words from across the room; even Winnie had leaned forward to tip her head closer to his as they conversed. And while Hilary was still frightened and uncertain and furious with St. George for being so indiscreet, there was something comfortingly normal in the sight of their reunion.

And yet she felt more than a tinge of bitterness. St. George had his sister, now, and an aunt to run to when he was desperate; Hilary generally went to Mr. Venables or to Amita with her problems, but neither of them were precisely appropriate under the circumstances. She'd been so certain she had St. George to fall back on, but right now she only felt hopelessly alone. "You'd better go," she said dully, and both Wimseys glanced up at her with near-identical expressions of startlement. She might just as well have walked into the room only a moment before. "I'll be round to see you tomorrow." She nearly regretted the promise as soon as she'd made it; the prospect of a long aimless evening without company or anything to do seemed just as bad, if not worse, than having to deal with them. But it would be better to feel lonely in solitude, Hilary felt, than in company.

-------

The rest of the afternoon went by slow and dull, more or less as Hilary had expected. Something was bothering her--something more, even, than the renewal of contact with St. George's aunt and cousin and the ensuing argument, though those certainly were bothering her a great deal. It was something else, some other thought that was niggling at her without condescending to reveal itself. The more she chased after it, the more difficult it inevitably became to pin down, so eventually Hilary gave up the pursuit for the evening and went downstairs to raid Mrs. Bloom's kitchen for food.

Mrs. Bloom was not in evidence when Hilary first went downstairs, but she peered in just as Hilary was completing her preparations. "Thought I heard you rustling about down here."

"Sorry," said Hilary by sheepish reflex. "I'll make the food up to you--only I've had rather a day and I really didn't feel up to shopping for food tonight. I'm afraid I'm not feeling terribly social, either."

"Well, I hate to bring you the news, but there's a girl at the door to see you. A Miss Christianson--would that be your Mr. Christianson's sister?"

Hilary huffed out her resignation. "It would. I'll let her know to come up the back from now on."

"No trouble." Mrs. Bloom smiled, just on the verge of turning to leave her to it. "And remember, you've always got a lonely widow handy to talk to if you need."

Hilary managed to smile back. "Thanks."

Mrs. Bloom departed, mercifully, and was replaced in short order by Winnie. "Miss Hood?" she said cautiously. "I hope I'm not disturbing you."

"God, no," Hilary said fervently. "I was just about to go out and have a picnic--it's nothing urgent."

Winnie held out one hand, a clear offer to carry the paper sack Hilary had filled with food. "Want company?"

Hilary hastily added another bottle of lemonade before letting her take the bag, but not without some confusion. "I thought you'd come here looking for Jerry."

"So I did." Winnie shrugged and followed Hilary out the kitchen door and through the back garden. "And I didn't quite hear all of that row you had this morning, but he's been in quite an impressive sulk ever since. I may be his sister, but I don't feel obliged to keep him company if he's going to act like this."

"And I don't blame you in the least." Hilary grinned, feeling suddenly uncommonly fond of the younger girl. "I'm afraid I'm not at my best today either, but I'll try to be better company than Jerry would. It can't be all that hard, after all."

Winnie hurried a few steps to catch up with her. "It's not like him, you know."

"What isn't--sulking?" Hilary glanced over in surprise. "It seems very like him to me."

"Worrying over someone else's opinion of him." Winnie shrugged solemnly. "He's really not one for caring for anyone else's opinion of him. Except Uncle Peter's, of course--and sometimes mine. Miss Vane's, lately, though that might be as much on Uncle Peter's merits as her own. And, apparently, yours."

The thought of having a substantial impact on St. George's opinion of himself was so astonishing that Hilary actually paused in the middle of the pavement to stare at Winnie. "You can't be serious."

Winnie shifted her grip on the packet of sandwiches, tucking it under one arm. "It'll win you a point or two with Mother?" she offered hopefully. "If you get to meet her."

Hilary set off again, heading resolutely for the bench she'd had in mind, though the drama of the moment was dampened by its being only a few more yards away. "I've no intention of meeting the Duchess." She sat down tiredly and waved the other girl down next to her. "Why would I want to?"

"I thought you and Jerry--I'd heard you were very close." Winnie coughed delicately and peered inside the bag to retrieve the sandwiches and lemonade Hilary had packed. "He doesn't often get involved with women for more than about a week," she went on, a little more subdued. "And even more rarely with women he actually likes. Perhaps I was optimistic."

"There's ham, chicken, and cheese in there," Hilary provided, grabbing a bottle for herself and reaching for a chicken sandwich. "And for all your talk about leaving your brother alone in his sulk, you're awfully determined to make me feel guilty for hurting his feelings."

"Fair enough." Winnie smiled apologetically and selected a ham sandwich with great care.

"We're not involved," Hilary went on, and hoped she didn't sound bitter. "We've only been telling people so to explain why we spend so much time together--look, in fact, I'd rather not talk about Jerry at all." This was not strictly true; Hilary had no remaining clue how to cope with him, let alone with the situation she'd unwittingly brought him into, and would have liked nothing better than to ask for advice on the matter. But not today. She'd had more than enough of him for today. "We could talk about--oh, I don't know." She searched frantically for some other common point between them. "Tell me how you're doing in school. Or what you do when you aren't in school. I don't know."

"All right, then." Winnie offered a sympathetic smile and took a thoughtful bite of her sandwich. "I quite like being at school--it's a bit silly, I suppose, but I don't get to see many girls my own age otherwise. Family friends, mostly, though some of them have children as well. Oh, and I do do well at school--it's kind of you to ask."

She sounded sincere enough but, in Hilary's unpracticed estimation, a tiny bit stilted; it occurred to her guiltily that the younger girl probably had this precise conversation with the family friends in question on a regular basis. Still, one had to start somewhere. "What subjects do you like best?"

"Maths," said Winnie immediately, eyes suddenly bright, and Hilary remembered her fascination with her code books earlier that day. "Though I don't think Mother feels quite right about it. She can't imagine where I got it from--she says her side of the family lacks the pedestrian sensibilities necessary to mathematical skill, and the Wimsey side lacks the clarity of thought."

"Clarity of thought?" Hilary laughed, astonished, and paused to enjoy part of her own sandwich, not quite so neatly as Winnie. "Has she met your uncle?"

"Uncle Peter," said Winnie with great solemnity, "is marrying for love. An irrational indignity to which my mother would never subject herself. Not to mention his less than exemplary social connections, his glory-hounding, his less than reputable choice of bride--” She ticked the points off neatly on one hand with the remains of the sandwich in the other, perfectly straight-faced. "You must admit, from a certain point of view he hasn't exactly shown himself to be practical-minded."

Hilary swished her lemonade thoughtfully around in her bottle. "And from your point of view?"

"I don't know. I don't know him very well at all." Winnie shrugged. "He's never paid me much mind, and my mother's never exactly encouraged me to pay him much either. And I've never been able to spend nearly as much time away from home as Jerry could." She took a measured sip of her lemonade; everything about her was careful and considered and deliberate, and Hilary wasn't sure whether to be envious or unnerved. "Though even I know my father most likely owes Uncle Peter his life, and that Mother can be--really extraordinarily rigid in her views."

"She's famous for it," said Hilary drily, and perhaps a little too sharply.

"She worries so--that's the thing, and people don't realise." Winnie sighed and smiled ruefully down at her dinner, which she was neglecting for the moment to actually eat.

Hilary hoped with a twinge of guilt that she hadn't seriously upset the girl. "Well, she certainly has reason to; I'll grant that much."

Winnie nodded. "Mother wants everything to run just so, but she does worry about Jerry--only she'll never admit it outright, and he can't see it. Or won't, though I've tried to tell him." She straightened somewhat and laughed. "I think, when Mother and Dad went to see him in hospital in March, that was the first time in years that Mother and Jerry managed to pass a civil time in the same room from first to last, and that because he was drugged to the gills. If you'll excuse the slang."

"Of course." Hilary blinked; it took a slight effort even to adjust to thinking of the phrase as such. "For what it's worth, I've never thought Her Grace much of one for meeting anyone halfway, even her own children, and Jerry--well, it's surprised me lately, how stubborn he can be when he cares to be. I don't envy you, being caught in between them."

"They're my family, aren't they?" Winnie smiled up at her--more fully, this time. "It just wouldn't be the same if Mother suddenly learned to be diplomatic. I'm sorry," she said suddenly. "I'm so sorry--you said you didn't want to talk about him, and here I've brought him right back into the conversation."

Hilary shrugged. "He is rather--well, inescapable. I believe he takes great pride in it."

"He would," said Winnie, with such evident fondness for her brother that Hilary couldn't help but express something similar--even if her own affection for St. George was of a very different nature.

"Look," she blurted; she'd been restless all evening, and as firmly as she'd professed not to want to talk about St. George any further, she couldn't hold back. "I don't know what, exactly, people have been telling you today about me and Jerry, but--I just want to keep him safe, Winnie." There was no just about it, in truth; Hilary had felt so lost and so bewildered all day that St. George's safety--and now his sister's--seemed like just about the only thing left she had any hope of control over. "That's all. I was fool enough to get him into this, and now you, but I mean to get you both back out of it if I possibly can."

Winnie paused, startled, in the middle of shuffling their picnic refuse back into the sack Hilary had brought it in. "Is that what you told him that's got him in such a sulk?" She didn't look much as though she believed it herself.

"No," said Hilary hopelessly, "though perhaps I should. But that's not--it's not so strange, right? Just to want to keep him from getting hurt again." Even the possibility made her slightly ill.

The younger girl frowned at her. There was an uncomfortably sharp look in her eyes--Hilary had never met the Duchess of Denver, but she had met the Duke once, and that was enough for her to know that that kind of sharpness did not come from him. All the same, Winnie only shrugged and blushed. "I'm not sure I'm best qualified to answer that," she said apologetically, "for a whole number of reasons," and went back to crumpling up her sandwich wrapper.

-------

The next morning, when the telephone rang in Great Ormond Street, Lady Mary snatched it up with astonishing haste, though her face fell after a moment. "It's only Peter," she called back to Parker, who was just coming in from upstairs.

"Sign of a close-knit family, that," said Lord Peter cheerfully from the other end of the line. "Really, it’s marvellous to feel so very welcome when phoning one's own sister. I take it you were expecting someone else?"

"Winifred hasn't been home," said Parker tiredly, sitting down at one end of the sofa and leaning over to share the mouthpiece with his wife. "She's been staying with us the past few days, but she left trying to find St. George yesterday morning and hasn't been back."

"Well, Polly, I expect she can't be doing much worse than you would have, had our parents let you loose in London at the age of sixteen under minimal supervision--on second thought," Wimsey added after a moment's reconsideration, "that really isn't terribly reassuring, is it?"

"I should say she and Jerry had most likely found each other," said Lady Mary morosely, "but that's even less of a comfort, because we don't know where he is either. And if that were all, Winifred should at least have had the sense to 'phone and let us know."

"As a matter of fact--" Lord Peter could be heard rustling some papers. "Much as I hate to admit it, I think Winifred may've been on to something when she went haring off after her brother. I've got an idea of what he's been up to, if not where--and I don't just mean all this trouble I'm told the press has been giving Winifred, though that smells of Jerry if anything ever did. Charles, you've been in charge of the Hargrave case, haven't you?"

"And much good has it done me or it," Parker confirmed bitterly. "I can't say I'd be disappointed if you took an interest in it, though I wouldn't've thought you had the time."

"Well, I wasn’t interested, until this morning," his lordship admitted. "But judging by a rather cryptic wire I received this morning, someone seems very anxious indeed that I should stay uninterested."

"Well, damn," said Parker, only remembering afterwards to have a look round to make sure none of his offspring had been present to hear him say it. "That's exactly the sort of complication we needed."

"I think you're right, actually." Lady Mary perched herself on the arm of the sofa next to her husband, hands clasped a little more tightly than might be strictly comfortable. "I wasn't sure if I should tell either of you, because he was very determined that I shouldn't--but he was here two days ago, after Winifred went out. They must have run into each other then."

Parker stared at her. "Who, St. George?"

She nodded. "He's certainly in some kind of trouble, bad enough that he wouldn't tell me what it was, let alone where he could be found. I gather he felt the involvement of the police--or even of you, Peter--would only make the situation worse."

"Or already has, if my receipt of that telegram this morning is not entirely coincidence."

"There's a girl in it with him too," Lady Mary went on. "A Miss Thorpe?"

"I ought to have known those two would find each other. Damned careless of me, really, letting them both loose on Oxford at the same time--what are you harrumping about, Charles?" Wimsey demanded suddenly. "Has the boy been dropping his problems at everyone's doorstep but mine?"

"It was months ago," Parker confessed, "and I thought he was inventing something so I would lend him money."

"To be fair, under most circumstances that might be a safe assumption." Wimsey sighed. "What sort of account of himself did he give you?"

Parker related it, as best he could recall.

"Well," Lady Mary said doubtfully, when he was finished. "It certainly doesn't sound very plausible; even compared to some of the things you've got up to in the past, Peter. Though if it's true I can well imagine why he wouldn't want either of you mucking about with it."

"If he wasn't here to get help about that, what did he want?"

She smiled ruefully into the telephone. "Advice about women, naturally--well, about Miss Thorpe, specifically, but at any rate that was his main concern."

"It's good to know the boy has his priorities in order," Parker grumbled.

Wimsey coughed at the other end of the line. “To his credit--in a way--I’ve never before known Jerry to hesitate about asking for help when he needed it. I’m inclined to think that if he’s declining it now, he has good reason.

Lady Mary patted her scowling husband’s hand. “Then you believe that they’re in serious trouble?”

I’m afraid I do--and if I were in England at the moment, there might be ways for me to tactfully look into the matter.” Wimsey sighed. “As things stand, I imagine the best course is to let matters develop on their own. I’d wager we’ll be hearing from one of them just as soon as they feel it’s feasible.

-------

St. George slept unwisely late next morning, not entirely by accident; he and Winnie had had a hell of a time convincing his naturally suspicious landlord that they were in fact brother and sister, not to mention rummaging up a cot which barely fit into the room and yet was too small for St. George to comfortably sleep on. There was also, of course, the question of reconciliation with Hilary, which after the way yesterday had gone had become both more imperative and more daunting than ever--so that, when Winnie arose that morning and announced she was going to go find some breakfast, St. George had settled for a mumbled acknowledgement before burrowing back under his covers and going immediately back to sleep.

Once again, however, Hilary removed from his hands the ability to escape a confrontation with her for any length of time. When he finally stumbled downstairs, she was waiting in the sitting room, dutifully chaperoned by Mr. Fleetston, who looked as always vastly displeased with him. "Behave yourself," he growled, standing up to leave as St. George came into the room, "she's certainly been waiting long enough for you to bother coming down to see her," and brushed pointedly against the younger man on his own way out.

St. George edged cautiously towards Hilary, noting with mild alarm her distracted expression and slightly puffy eyes.

“You forgot this,” she said quietly, holding out his sling without looking up at him. “On my floor the other night.”

He took it and stuffed it absently in his pocket; to hell with the thing, anyhow. "Are you all right?" He'd had rather a more sophisticated greeting in mind, but somehow that wasn't what came out of his mouth. "You don't look like you've been sleeping your best."

"Oh, Lord." The corners of Hilary's mouth twitched upwards, though she didn't yet look up at him. "We are a mess, aren't we?"

"You mustn't talk like that, Lee." St. George sat down on the sofa with her, leaving a carefully measured distance between them. "I don't like it, the idea that you're not infallible. Goes right against the natural order of things." He had meant it to come off as a joke, but it was true nonetheless.

"But that's what you wanted when you came here, isn't it?" Hilary asked bitterly. "To throw me off balance? You ought to be gratified."

St. George blinked stupidly for a minute; several potential implications of this statement were so staggering that he flat-out refused to consider them. "I'm not." He nearly reached over to touch her arm, but he thought better of the idea just in time. "I'm only worried."

"I can't say I blame you." Hilary shifted restlessly at his side. "I should never have brought you into this, nor Winnie. I wish you were both well out of it."

"You thought you were doing right," St. George said gently. "And I think so too, or else I wouldn't still be here. And as for Winnie--well, it'd take a lot to put her off. Even from you." He finally gave in to temptation, and to the exhausted hunch of her back, and moved to slip an arm around her shoulders. "When we were small, you know, when I was old enough to go away to school and she wasn't yet, she used to stow away in the boot of the car when I left. Of course, that was when she was too little to grasp that I would be coming back again at some point."

Hilary smiled briefly, but twitched away from him. "Better not," she said quietly. "We ought to be more careful."

"Just this once? Just because you look like you need it?" St. George watched her anxiously. "You were right, you know--you nearly always are, I mean, but at the start, when you said you needed help." He wasn't certain where he was going with this, only that he intended to keep talking until she looked at least a little happier. "And I know you could probably do much better for help than me--you'd probably rather Winnie than me--but you don't deserve to feel alone in this, all right? I really wish you wouldn't do that to yourself."

Hilary sat quite still for a moment, and then she sagged sideways against him; from her even that much of a concession was as good as a sob, or many, and St. George wrapped both arms around her as tightly as he dared. "I don't know who you think I am, Jerry." She made a quiet, unhappy little noise against his shoulder. "But I very much hope you're right."

"I think--well, er." St. George hesitated, and then judged that some degree of candor might be worth the risk under circumstances like these. "I think you're positively brilliant," he admitted, if a little gingerly. "I think you're doing the best you can if not better, and I think if anyone can find a way to sort this out it's you."

"And I think you're a shameless flatterer, and what's more have always thought it." Some warmth crept back into Hilary's voice, however; St. George fancied she might be smiling. He hoped so. "You're very sweet, but that's an awfully generous way to treat me after yesterday. I've fouled up pretty miserably; you can't deny that."

"So have I," St. George pointed out. "What possessed me to go running off to Aunt Mary, I really can't imagine."

"Of course you can." Hilary shifted away again with a sigh, and he tensed somewhat himself; so very much could go wrong with the conversation St. George feared that they were about to have. "When you're frightened, you go running from it; when I'm frightened, I sit and fester in it and go very quietly off my head. I'm honestly not sure that yours isn't the healthier way."

"Lee," he said, struck suddenly by a horrifying thought. "I know you don't think much of me--and I daresay you're right not to, a lot of the time. But you know I wouldn't just hare off and leave you in the lurch, don't you? That's the one thing I couldn't bear for you to think of me."

Hilary jerked upright and stared, the first time this morning she had looked directly at him; it was a relief, at least, that even the possibility took her so much by surprise. "No," she said fervently. "No, of course not, Jerry--never that, not even of you. And it wasn't Hargrave you were running from in any case, was it? It was me."

"Well," St. George wavered. "I wouldn't put it exactly like that, but-- it wasn't Hargrave, no."

"There you are, then." She sounded as though she were trying to pull herself together and be brisk; it wasn't working, in his opinion, but then again he had spent far too much time in the last several weeks learning what Hilary was like when she was only pretending to be all right. "Then perhaps the issue had better not show itself again."

"But," St. George began, and then--precedent having shown all other methods of self-silencing to be ineffective or outright counterproductive--bit sharply down on the inside of his own cheek.

"It shouldn't," Hilary insisted, now sounding severely strained. She might have sounded, even, like someone who wanted to be talked round, but St. George wasn't sure he dared trust his own judgement at that point. "We had a go at something last spring, and now it's run its natural course, and even that seems to have been a terrible idea."

St. George had anticipated having this conversation, and yet had somehow failed utterly in planning for it; the best he could come up with on the spur of the moment was please God no don't leave me, which would be nonsensical at best and unmanly at worst and ineffective either way. "You're right," he agreed, dully. "I suppose we ought to have known better."

"Jerry." Hilary glanced at him again, sucking at her lower lip; her eyes were very wide. "You do know, don't you, that you matter terribly to me?"

St. George nodded, stupefied. He was quite certain that for the last few minutes he had been doing something with his arms that didn't involve putting them around her, but all of a sudden he couldn't seem to figure out what that could have been. Sitting on his hands, while undignified, seemed safest. "I had suspected--under the circumstances." He wet his lips, uncertain whether this was leading into something he was going to want to hear.

She smiled, though unconvincingly; her brow was still creased. "I haven't a clue what to do," she admitted. "I've never gone all--silly over a man like this, I never wanted this sort of thing, I never expected it. But I'm rather afraid I might be going a bit silly over you, and it makes things so terribly complicated."

St. George's heart let out one great, painful thud and then seemed to stop entirely. "Well," he offered encouragingly, "I have always felt that you could do with more silliness in your life."

"It's a good thing I've been paying attention when you say so, then." The spark of hope that lit up Hilary's eyes was mesmeric and unmistakable; St. George recognised it as precisely the same hope that had been keeping him afloat for what felt like an age. "I need a bit of time, Jerry, that's all. To sort this out, or stamp it down, or, oh, I don't know, I just don't know what to do at all."

"I wish you wouldn't," St. George blurted. "Stamp it down, that is." It was miles from being any kind of worthwhile declaration of his feelings, but it was the closest he had yet come to it, though God knew he had spent plenty of time lately composing more more eloquent and effective methods. Perhaps he might yet have a use for them.

"It isn't terribly fair to you, then, is it?" She sighed. "I don't much care for the feeling that I'm tormenting you, but this is the sort of thing one has to make a decision about, if you follow, and I don't think I caught on to that until yesterday."

St. George didn't quite follow, as it happened; he had considered several downsides to monogamy, while never really believing he had much hope of such an arrangement with her anyway, but it had never once crossed his mind to turn down such a commitment if the chance were offered. She must have a reason, of course, but he couldn’t fathom what it might possibly be. "Of course," he managed. "Although I'd rather you weren't too long about it."

Hilary smiled and touched his knee lightly--and then leaned over in a sudden burst of motion to kiss him, quick and almost shy, as though she had never done it before.

"Lee," St. George murmured, but his fingers had barely brushed her cheek before she was gone again, withdrawn back to her side of the sofa with her hands folded in her lap.

"Was it at least worth the wait?" Hilary asked after a moment, fidgeting with the hem of her skirt.

"What?" St. George blinked stupidly out of his daze, watching her not look at him.

She shrugged lightly. "Well--you've spent so long trying to get me into bed, I only wondered if it was worth the wait."

He thought he could see what she was trying to do, and maybe even appreciate it, but in truth St. George didn't think she could have said anything more painful if she had tried. "You were," he said, sincere but subdued despite his best efforts. "Oh, you absolutely were. And--oh, Lee, I really did think you seemed happy." Most likely he’d said too much, but he couldn’t not say it; he needed so badly to know.

Hilary snorted. “Afraid your skills weren’t up to par, are you?”

“Of course not,” said St. George, immediately indignant. “I’ve no reason to be.”

“I was. Happy, I mean. Very much so--so you needn’t worry about that, either.” Hilary smiled off at nothing in particular, small and a bit wistful, and that was right about the time St. George decided he couldn't look at her either. His chest hurt terribly; this wasn't the least bit how he'd imagined this conversation going.

"I'm glad," he admitted. There had to be something else he could say, something that would somehow make everything all right and not horribly awkward, but St. George had no idea what that could be. He knew what he wanted to tell her, certainly--that it had been different with her, that it had always been different, that he wished she weren't always so ready to withdraw within herself--but he didn't dare say any more than he already had.

The silence lasted for a few minutes, and then Hilary made a visible effort to pull herself together; St. George did the same, hastily, and when she turned back around to look at him he was trying his very best not to look as though he had been staring besottedly at the back of her neck. "What do you think they'll do?"

He blinked stupidly at her. "What who'll do?"

Hilary shrugged. "Well, your aunt, really. And I suppose your cousin."

"What, Peterkin?" St. George scoffed. "He's too young for disloyalty. I should say I bribed him pretty thoroughly into silence."

"Well, yes, you did at that." Hilary twisted to face him more fully, tucking one leg up under herself. "But when you were that small and your uncle told you a very important secret, what did you do with it?"

St. George thought it over and grimaced when he realised just what she was driving at. "I toddled round to the whole household," he admitted, reluctantly, "and my sister, even when she was too young to understand, and announced that Uncle Peter had just told me a very important secret and I was not to tell anyone under any circumstances what it was. Which I didn't," he added in hopeful parenthetical.

Hilary half-smiled. "So it doesn't matter what your aunt makes of the situation, does it?"

"It most certainly does." St. George settled back into the sofa--still thoroughly sheepish, but at least feeling himself on slightly steadier conversational ground. "If Uncle Charles is anything to go by, my credibility with most of the rest of my family isn't enough for my behaviour to merit serious concern no matter how suspect it is." He tilted his head at Hilary. "Just what are you driving at, anyway?"

Hilary bit her lip. "You won't like it."

St. George groaned and folded his arms. "Better get it over and done with, then."

"The way I figure it--" Hilary was watching him narrowly, as though he might explode. "We've no way to make sure, at this point, that Lord Peter won't catch on that we're in serious trouble. Now Lady Mary and Inspector Parker have both got the wind up, it could easily only be a matter of time. We don't know."

"You're right." St. George frowned at her, much good would it do him. "I don't think I like where this is going at all."

"But," she continued relentlessly. "We can find a way to make sure he does catch on. At least then we'd know what was happening."

St. George let his eyes fall closed and his head fall back against the wall. "Lee, do you really have to make so much sense all the time? I hate it when you're right. I honestly do."

Hilary laughed shortly. "But you agree it's the best solution?"

"I'll never live it down," St. George said unhappily. "But I expect you're going to say I brought it on myself, and I probably did, so--yes, all right, I agree."

"Good." He could hear her let out a long breath. "I don't suppose you know a good way to get your uncle's attention, then? Because I don't expect Hargrave to let any of us simply walk out of here again."

St. George slit one eye open and grinned at her through his preemptive humilation. "Old thing," he said solemnly, "I am the world's foremost expert at that."

"I thought you might be." Hilary sat for a moment, considering him in return; then she began to smile, and nudged her foot briefly against his ankle. There was a glint in her eye that boded ill, but it was such a familiar glint that St. George welcomed the sight of it all the same. It was certainly a vast improvement over the funk in which she'd begun the morning. "I don't like the thought any more than you do--giving up and running to your uncle for rescue. I don't like the idea of running to anyone for rescue, at any time, but in this case--well, it does seem terribly anticlimactic, doesn't it? After we've done so much for ourselves."

"You're very cryptic this morning," St. George complained. "Aren't you the one who just suggested we find a way to contact him?"

"Yes, and I think we should." Hilary's smile widened into something nearly approaching a smirk. "But I don't think we ought to simply give up and wait for him to come save us, do you? Not when we still might be able to work this out ourselves before he has a chance to. And I daresay we still could."

He smiled sidelong at her. "So Uncle Peter is only the backup plan? That would rather soften the blow to my self-esteem."

"Your self-esteem," said Hilary, with the air of someone who had been saving up a good turn of phrase for the right occasion, "is so well-padded I doubt you'd notice a blow to it from a sledgehammer."

"I try to cheer you up a bit, and this is the thanks you give me." St. George emitted a long-suffering sigh. "So where do we turn next?"

"I'm working on that." Hilary sucked at her bottom lip and pulled a pained face. “You know what would have happened if we hadn’t both been idiots yesterday morning, don’t you?”

St. George thought of a few extremely appealing options, but kept his mouth shut; it didn’t seem to be what she meant.

“Someone would have sent Winnie around to my place,” Hilary went on. “While we were still in bed. Imagine how well that would have gone.”

“Good God,” said St. George, horrified.

“Exactly,” said Hilary in sympathy. “Speaking of which--where is Winnie?"

"She went to forage for breakfast--" St. George paused to check his watch. "By Jove, it's been a good two hours."

Hilary sobered instantly. "Perhaps she's only got lost? She doesn't know the neighbourhood very well, after all."

He shook his head. "No, Winnie's marvellous with directions. She'd have no trouble tracking back here by the way she came."

"If one of Hargrave's men--" Hilary began.

"If one of them has gone within a mile of her, he'll be the sorriest man there ever was," said St. George firmly, and was a little distressed to realise how strongly he meant it.

“I’m sure they haven’t.” St. George thought he felt Hilary’s hand touch his shoulder, but she’d said she meant to be more careful of him, and for once he was too distracted to worry about it either way. “Either way, though--perhaps we’d better go and look for her?”

St. George shuddered briefly and nodded. “You’re right; we’d better. Just let me go find my--oh the hell with it," he interrupted himself in sudden exasperation, "my sister's gone missing--what on earth am I doing worrying about hats?" and hurled himself, bare head and all, out the front door with a startled Hilary in tow.

-------

St. George found his sister again quite by accident; poking half-heartedly down a side street, by now incredibly anxious but without the faintest idea where she might be. He met her at last emerging from, of all places, Dougal's; she looked pale and red-eyed, as if she had been crying, but quite composed--not that she was often otherwise. "Winnie," he said, startled into sharpness, and hastily softened his voice again. "We've been worried sick. What happened to you?"

"I'm not quite sure," she admitted, coming nearer and tucking herself, neatly if only briefly, under his arm; St. George gave her shoulders a quick reflexive squeeze before she slipped free again. "I met a few friends of yours, I think."

"Let's head home," he suggested, and Winnie followed; she looked as though her mind were only half there with him. "You look as though you've seen a ghost. Surely our friends aren't that awful to behold?"

The girl smiled. "I met--Gail and Priya, their names were, and they were all right, but your friend Kathryn--she's in a terrible state, do you know? I think something happened to her."

St. George stumbled and looked over his shoulder, back at the cafe. "Kathryn was there?"

"More or less," said Winnie cryptically. "Why shouldn't she be?"

"No one's seen her in weeks." St. George still hesitated in the middle of the pavement for a moment longer. Curiosity and concern urged him to go back and see Kathryn immediately; a much stronger fraternal concern urged him to stay with his sister and make sure she was all right; common sense and the perpetual tendency to gravitate towards Hilary, for once in agreement, both urged him to find her first and make sure she knew that Kathryn and Winnie had both been found safe. The second option won out, after a moment; he had no better method of locating Hilary than he had had of locating Winnie, but chances were good Hilary would find out about Kathryn from another source and go see about things herself, neatly taking care of the other two issues. It was really quite convenient, this partnership arrangement.

"Jerry," Winnie said, a little plaintive. "What's happening?"

He sighed and ventured forth once again towards the boarding house. "I think we were all afraid she'd been killed--what do you mean, more or less?"

Winnie fidgeted in silence for a moment. "She'd had an awful scare," she said at last. "Gail was trying to calm her down as best she could, but she wasn't making a lot of sense-- Kathryn, I mean, but they took her into the back eventually."

"To be fair, Miss Dougal doesn't always make a lot of sense either," said St. George before he could think better of it.

Mercifully, Winnie didn't seem to hear him; her shoulders heaved, just once, up and down. "Miss Kapoor said to find you and tell you, so--there, I suppose I've told you. Oughtn't we to go back and see her?"

"I will," St. George promised, trying to sound as authoritative on the matter as he possibly could. "Lee and I've been worried, after all. I'd like to see how she's doing. And she might know something useful--though she may not want to talk about it for a while. Right now I'd rather just get you home where you can calm down for a minute, all right? That's a hell of a thing to have with your breakfast."

"I don't think I had breakfast." She seemed startled by this realisation. "It was such a mess in there, I completely forgot--and I was going to bring you yours, too."

St. George snorted. "Considering what pocket money you get, I ought to be feeding you. Don't worry about it; we've missed whatever food there was at home, I'm sure, but we can sort out where to get some."

"Can't hurt." Winnie looked at him sidelong. "You don't mean to just leave me in our room and go running off, do you?"

They weren't far from the boarding house now anyway, so the point was more or less moot, but St. George still looked over at her in surprise. "I thought you wanted a nice quiet sit-down for a bit?"

"I do." His sister pressed her lips together--an expression unfortunately reminiscent of their mother, but generally much less foreboding on Winnie's face. "Just for a bit, though--and you can go out and get breakfast for us both," she added. "But I'd like to go back with you; I want to know if your friend's all right."

"Fair enough." Since they were now in sight of what passed for home, St. George fumbled in his pocket, located his latchkey, and gave it to her. "I'll go to the shop around the corner and find us something; it'll only be a few minutes, I promise."

Winnie nodded; her hand was now quite steady in his, but despite her best efforts at composing herself she still looked alarmingly pale. "See you soon, then."

--------

St. George made haste getting breakfast, if the meal could still even be called that; he didn't want to leave Winnie alone for any longer than necessary. Armed with a bag of buns and a thermos of hot tea, he came back to their room to find Winnie sitting on the end of his bed, staring a little blankly at the wall. She shook herself back to attention when she saw him. "Thank you."

St. George sat down on the floor at the foot of the bed, reaching up to offer her a cup of tea. "I thought I might as well, since you fouled the task up so miserably."

She smiled wanly, cupping the tea between her hands without yet drinking it. "It smells lovely."

"You are allowed to actually put it in your mouth." He passed her a bun as well, to emphasise the point.

Winnie freed one hand from her cup of tea to take it,but then sat and stared as though she had never seen the like of either. "She was so frightened," she said quietly.

St. George hopped up to sit on the bed with her, his own tea sloshing dangerously but not overflowing. "Care to tell me about it?"

She took a sip of her tea, finally, watching him narrowly. "Because you'd like to play detective some more?"

"Because I'm worried," said St. George indignantly. "For you and Kathryn both."

Winnie shrugged. "It isn't as if she were terribly specific--I don't think she was even hurt all that badly, now I think about it. Not physically hurt."

"But badly frightened?"

His sister nodded.

"Hargrave is awfully good at that," said St. George ruefully. "We'd heard before that he wouldn't hesitate to get rid of anyone who happened to inconvenience him; it seems he doesn't mind giving them a good scare first." He rubbed a thumb absentmindedly next to his eye; when he had checked it in the mirror that morning, the bruising had faded to a yellowish tinge, but the memory of the blow still stung. As it had no doubt been meant to.

He swallowed hard; Hargrave had frightened his sister, the bastard, and even though it had been only as a side effect of whatever had been done to Kathryn, the incident made St. George go quite cold inside to think about. It was bad enough that he and Hilary had been scared half out of their wits; they had provoked that, and known they might be provoking it, but Winnie didn't belong anywhere near the business.

"I'm all right," said Winnie quietly, while he was still searching for something more to say. "She only frightened me somewhat. I ought not to have let it; it isn't as if anything had happened to me."

St. George scowled. "You ought not to have been anywhere near this. And I ought not to have let you out by yourself this morning. I'm sorry."

"That might not have made a difference." Winnie's voice was growing steadier. "And in any case I was out last night by myself, for all you knew, and nothing came of it then."

"You weren’t by yourself last night, were you?" St. George pointed out, beginning to fidget. "You were with Hilary. Miss Thorpe. She's got Hargrave properly terrified."

Winnie laughed, and St. George felt selfishly better; at least he was some use to somebody. "I can believe it of her." She bit her lip for a moment. "Jerry, what is going on? Between you and Miss Thorpe, I mean; I can't seem to tell from one moment to the next whether the two of you are friends or--well, something else."

"Nor can I," said St. George candidly. Winnie didn't seem to follow this at all; considering her age, St. George chalked that up in the back of his head somewhere as a profound relief. This wasn't exactly what he wanted to talk about right now, but if Winnie didn't want to dwell on what had happened this morning he certainly wasn't going to force her to. "Why--did she say something about me last night at dinner?"

Winnie considered the question. "She was quite adamant about not wanting to discuss you, actually."

"You're enjoying watching me squirm," St. George accused. "You're the one who brought it up, Winnie. What happened?"

"Nothing happened," she insisted. "Why does it matter so very much?"

St. George attempted to explain, with what little brevity he was capable of, what exactly he thought of Hilary and why her opinion of him mattered more than quite possibly anything else on the planet.

"Then why can't you just tell her?" Winnie demanded, irritatingly sensible. St. George was beginning to suspect that criticising him was actually cheering her up; he was all for cheering her up, of course, but he did wish it didn't have to be at his expense.

"Because she'll be furious." He slumped a little lower just at the thought of it. "I promised her I would only ever be pretending to be in love with her; if she finds out I'm not pretending any more it'll be like I've been--taking advantage, or something. But if she figures it out without my telling her--" This was a freshly imagined prospect, and just as horrifying as any of the other options. "I'll have broken her trust and been too much of a coward to tell her. I can't win."

Winnie wrinkled her nose in clear scorn. "I see; you've gone completely mad."

"Five hundred years ago," said St. George mechanically, persistent thoughts of Hilary briefly tempered by a vague memory of a long-ago history lesson, "falling in love was considered an unpleasant sort of sickness, and all one had to do was get a competent surgeon to bleed it out of one. Shall we buy you some leeches, next time we go out? I hear they make excellent pets. All the rage, lately."

"Just because you don't want to hear sense--" said Winnie, sulkily, and flopped back on his bed in a fashion so thoroughly unladylike that it warmed St. George's heart.

"Someday, my little chicken," intoned St. George, vaguely recalling a nickname whose only merit was that she had utterly loathed it twelve years ago or so, "you will fall in love as well, and perhaps then you'll start to get the idea. And then I'll have to arrange to get the man an irresistibly lucrative job in Peru or somewhere," he added, remembering to stand fast by his fraternal duties. "But it'll be an education for you; I promise you that much."

She shook her head firmly. "I don't ever mean to fall in love with anyone. It seems like such a horrid mess."

"That's what I thought a few months ago." St. George scowled into his tea. "Speaking of things one cannot escape forever--if you're feeling a little better, we'd better go find Lee. I hope she isn't still hunting about for you--though I'm sure she's found her way past Dougal's at some point or another by now. Or you could stay here, if you'd rather, but one of us at least ought to let her know you're all right."

"I'm going," said Winnie firmly, sitting up again and smoothing her skirt.

"Right,then." St. George wiped his hands on the bedspread and nodded, glancing down and away from her. "I'd better say, though--while it's just the two of us, since Miss Thorpe doesn't approve of chivalry--"

His sister's expression softened. "I'm not worried. I have far more faith in your ability to look after me than to look after yourself."

"To judge by the evidence of the past few months, you aren't holding me to a very high standard." St. George grimaced as he went to join her near the door. "I will look after you," he promised, sounding far more confident than he felt, and slipped an arm around her waist. "After all, you are my favourite sister."

Winnie laughed. "I had better be, now you've put me through all this."

St. George planted a kiss on the top of her head. He was secretly, selfishly, a little glad to have her here; it was comforting to have someone around who was so very familiar and normal. He adored Hilary nearly to bursting point, but with Winnie at least one always knew where one stood. "Are you all right?" he asked again, carefully. "Would you rather stay up here a bit longer? You needn't come along."

"No." Winnie shook her head, though she didn't sound entirely sure. "I'd rather stay with you." She laughed again, much more quietly. "Did you know, you're turning into quite the mother hen?"

St. George glanced down as though expecting himself to be sprouting feathers. "Not in any way like our mother, I should hope. I don’t think my ‘flu story took hold with her either. She’s been sending me irritating letters about it for weeks."

"I'll give you warning if you come anywhere near resembling her," Winnie promised.

Chapter Text

"By peaceful or by forcible methods?"
George looked shocked.
"You will excuse me, sir," he said, "but a gentleman of the aristocracy would not behave like a Whitechapel coster. He would not do anything low."
"Would he not, Georges? I wonder now. Well, perhaps you are right."

Agatha Christie
--------------------

The sign hanging in the window at Dougal's read OPEN when Hilary arrived there, and the door was unlocked, but there were only one or two patrons inside and no one at all stood behind the till. She considered waiting politely, but if anything had happened to Winnie then now was most likely not the time for polite waiting. She gave it a minute at most before slipping around behind the counter and knocking at the door to the back room.

Gail answered fairly promptly, though she made a point of not opening the door any further than was necessary for conversation. "Oh, it's you," she said inexplicably, and nodded hastily back into the room. "For God's sake get back here; you may be some use."

Hilary followed her in, shutting the door firmly behind them, and was greeted with an astonishing and welcome sight: Kathryn was there, hunched over in an armchair and sobbing. Priya was crouching at her side, trying to offer the use of a handkerchief and being ignored. Her first instinct was to address Kathryn directly, but she immediately thought better of it and turned to Gail instead. "Is she hurt? How long has she been here?"

"Only for an hour or so--and no, I don't think she's badly hurt, but it seems she's had a hell of a rough couple of weeks. She came wobbling right in through the front door this morning and frightened away most of the customers--including Jerry's sister, I'm afraid. Was it she who told you something had happened?"

"No, actually, we were starting to worry about her and I was coming to ask if you'd seen her. Which you have, so I suppose that's a bit of a relief." Hilary bit her lip. "Do you know where she's gone? Winnie, I mean."

"Home to Jerry, I should think, but I wasn't paying very much attention." Gail gave her the briefest flicker of a smile. "Are you sure they're related? She's so terribly--" here she struggled for a moment and eventually resorted to a gesture suggestive of compressing something into a small box.

"Nearly certain." Hilary smiled, but her eyes darted irresistibly back towards Kathryn and Priya on the other side of the room. If Winnie was unharmed and on her way home to Jerry, surely there was no urgent need to go on looking for her; on the other hand, her friend was hurt and upset and needed company. Even if Winnie had been rattled, Hilary trusted the girl to have the presence of mind to find her way home to her brother. "Do you think I might be able to talk to her?"

"We haven't been able to get much sense out of her, but I expect she'd like the company." Gail handed Hilary an oversized teacup; it looked and smelled more or less like coffee, but Hilary caught a strong warm whiff of something alcoholic as well. "If you're going to be back here, bring this over for her, will you? I ought to get back out and mind the place. Dear God, I hope you can do her a bit of good," she added, more glumly. "She's calmer, but she's clearly had a beastly week or two of it somewhere."

"If I don't, I'm sure this will," Hilary observed, toasting Gail half-heartedly with the cup as the other woman turned to leave. "But I'll do my best by her."

As usual, there only seemed to be one usable chair in the room--though somehow it was never the same chair--and Kathryn was in it, and deserved it as much as anyone ever had, so Hilary took the cup of coffee and sat at her feet with it, next to Priya. "It's good to see you," she said softly. "How are you getting on?"

"Caroline," said Kathryn blankly, and then clutched at her all of a sudden; Hilary startled, but managed to save the coffee just in time. "Oh God, Caroline, it's been awful."

"So I hear," said Hilary, and immediately worried she'd sounded smart without meaning to. She patted Kathryn's shoulder, awkwardly one-handed. "Here, drink this; it's a little out of the way from Gail's usual menu, but I think it'll do your nerves good."

Kathryn nodded and took the cup, to Hilary's relief; she took a huge gulp, paused, and gave a little shudder that hopefully meant that the brandy was making its presence known. "Well!" she said, eyes wide. "It's certainly done something."

Priya laughed uncertainly, glancing over at Hilary, but she seemed relieved enough to relax a little bit, settling a bit more comfortably on the floor with a vague fruitless attempt at dusting off her skirt. "As long as it's something good."

There wasn't much floor space to maneuver in; her hands now free, Hilary settled on leaning back against the bookcase and hugging her knees. "We've been terribly worried," she admitted. "And if you'd rather not talk about it, that's all right, but--" she glanced at Priya, suddenly afraid she was pushing, but the other woman gave a faint shrug. "What happened?"

Kathryn stared into her cup for so long that Hilary began to seriously regret having asked to begin with, and then shook her head. "Nothing much. That was--it sounds ridiculous, I know, and it doesn't make any sense. "But they hardly touched me and I swear to God that was the worst of it. I hope you weren't all expecting any terrifically exciting stories, because I really haven't got one to tell."

"Something must have happened," murmured Priya, frustratingly reasonable. "Carmon--you do know, don't you? About Carmon?"

Kathryn nodded, taking another long swallow of coffee. For all its aid, she looked quite green for a moment. "I saw him," she admitted. "I went to wash up in the back, and when I came back--" another gulp-- "he was, well, you know how he was. And Merrick was there, in uniform and all. I suppose he hadn't realised there might be anyone in the back still. He got all annoyed to see me, anyway, 'it'd be such a pity, to have two deaths in one night,' he said, and had me come over to him at gunpoint and knocked me over the head when I got near. I had quite a nice lump I might have shown off," she said distractedly, very nearly smiling for a moment, "only it's had a good while to go down by now."

Priya and Hilary were both staring, fascinated; like fish, Hilary thought vaguely, and shut her mouth. "And then?"

"And then they kept me in a little bare room for a thousand years or so, and nothing happened," said Kathryn helplessly. "It sounds silly, I know; God knows I've had more than enough time to sit and think about how I'd explain things to you all if I ever got the chance. But it was honestly really rotten, sitting there and getting fed once a day and told something might happen but not a damn thing ever does. And then I woke up this morning--I think they doped me up with something, now I think about it--and found myself dropped in an alley around the corner. I don't even know what day it is."

Hilary, who hadn't had the most calming of mornings herself, took a few uncertain moments to work it out. "It’s September the tenth--I understand, though," she went on, thinking of having had Merrick do much the same to her only a few weeks ago, and of telling St. George that she would have preferred a beating. "You needn't justify yourself--it really does sound awful."

Someone knocked tentatively at the door behind them; Kathryn started. "I'll go see about it," Priya offered, and rose to navigate to the other end of the room.

"Caroline," Kathryn hissed. "Have you got my box?"

Hilary nodded quickly, taking the hint and lowering her voice to a murmur. "I did open it, with Jerry--I hope you don't mind. We got the point of it pretty quickly too, I think."

"No, I just wanted to be sure." Kathryn shook her head. "Just as long as you haven’t told anyone else. Oh, dear," she said, a tad more clearly, looking over Hilary's shoulder. "I didn't realise."

Hilary glanced around behind her and was immensely relieved to find that Priya had been joined by St. George and Winnie both. By St. George, at least, who had no qualms about staking a claim in this space; Winnie was hanging further back in the doorway. "I heard there was someone causing a disturbance over here," he said, and beamed at Kathryn. "I thought I'd better come and see what the fuss was all about."

"Roger." Kathryn managed a smile in response, though it appeared to be an all but exhausting effort. "I suppose that's your sister? I'm sorry," she added, more in Winnie's direction. "I was in such a state this morning--still am, honestly, except that now I've got some alcohol in me I'm pretending better. I just wanted to see someone, anyone, and this was the first place I thought to come."

"I can't say I don't know the feeling," St. George admitted, and then shut his mouth again, appearing to realise only belatedly that this might not be the form of sympathy that was currently called for.

"It's all right," said Winnie, though she didn't look entirely convinced of it herself. "I understand you've had quite a rough time of it." Hilary felt sorry for the girl; having St. George explain to her the situation they were in, and running into it headfirst by surprise the next morning, had to have been two very different animals indeed. And there really was no school-taught social grace that could possibly cover this kind of thing.

"I think," said Kathryn, with a care that might have come either of alcohol--doubtful, since she'd only had the few sips--or of making a tremendous effort not to subside back into hysteria. "I think I'd like to go home now."

"It's a good job we showed up just in time to escort you, then, isn't it?" St. George jangled his keys absently, one hand in his pocket. "And even Fleetston can't be quite so heartless as to refuse to let you back into your own room."

"I'm sure he could be, if he tried." Kathryn shook her head, but Hilary caught another flicker of something that nearly approached a smile. "But perhaps he'll take pity for once."

"One way or the other, I'm sure we can find a way to get you back in there." St. George offered an arm, and Kathryn rose from her chair--lurched, really, with an alarming wobble before finding her feet. In short order she had been shepherded out the door by both Wimseys, leaning on St. George's arm with Winnie still hovering along behind them, leaving Priya and Hilary behind with the dregs of the heavily-spiked coffee.

"Oh dear God," said Hilary, once the door was safely shut and there was no risk of the shop's customers hearing her. "I don't know how much more of this I can take. I honestly don't. If I were her I think I'd just sit in a corner and never tell anyone a damned thing--possibly ever again."

"I thought we'd never see her again," Priya confessed. "Of course I didn't say so, no one likes to admit a thing like that, but it was over a month."

Hilary slumped back, though the bookshelves behind her were far from making a comfortable headrest. "I honestly believe everyone thought that, and not one of us wanted to say it. What does one even do, though, after a thing like this? What are we supposed to do for her?"

Priya raised a baffled hand. "I wish I knew."

-------

Kathryn didn't talk much while St. George was guiding her home, though he tried to encourage her as gently he knew how. What he did get from her, however, left him sitting glumly on the steps outside Hilary's door without quite remembering to knock on her door to actually tell her about it. Winnie kept him company for a short while, but eventually she got fidgety--having not grasped an implication, perhaps, that St. George had--and left him to it. "I think I'll go for a walk," she said, getting to her feet. "I don't know what else to do."

"Be careful." St. George glanced up at her. "I don't think you're going to get any trouble, and I know I'm not being terribly amusing just now, but God knows what's likely to happen at this point."

"I won't go far," Winnie promised. "I thought I might just get an idea of the neighbourhood; after all I don't know how long I'm to be staying here with you."

"Not forever," said St. George absently. "Or so I hope. It'd be dreadfully awkward having to share a bedroom with you indefinitely."

Winnie pulled a face at him and left.

He sat there until Hilary happened to glance out her window and spot him, at which point she opened the door regardless and stood there a moment watching him. "Are you brooding again? I thought we'd had a talk about that."

"And effects thereof on my youthful good looks, yes, I remember." St. George shifted over against the railing, making room, and Hilary obligingly sat down on the small landing next to him. "Did Kathryn tell you much about what happened to her?"

"Not much at all, apparently; she said they threatened her occasionally but never hurt her much, and it was the fear of what might happen that was worst." Hilary folded her arms on her knees. "She might've said something more to Winnie--why?"

"Because she told us just now," said St. George glumly, "that while she was locked up Hargrave came to have a look at her in person."

"Oh no, but he--what?" Hilary spluttered, thoroughly taken aback, and that at least was a satisfying sight. "I thought you said he lived off on the Continent somewhere."

"I most likely said something of the sort," said St. George, who honestly could no longer remember exactly what he had said; it had been months ago, he had been joking at the time, and it seemed hard to believe now that Hargrave's name had ever gone without ominous implications. "And I expect I also said that no one knew, because no one ever sees him."

"But Kathryn has," said Hilary thoughtfully. "I wonder whether she could give a description of him?"

"She says she didn't see his face too well--and if you were Hargrave, would you let her go otherwise?"

Hilary sighed. "I don't like the thought that he's been in London all along. I suppose it doesn't really make things worse, but it makes me feel a little less safe all the same."

St. George risked nudging his knee lightly against hers; it was barely midafternoon, but already it felt as though the day had been enormously long. Only that morning she had told him she was 'getting a bit silly' over him; it could have meant any number of things, really, but--knowing by now how much stock she put into physical affection of even the most innocent kind--he felt it was at least worth making that small attempt to cheer her up a bit.

Hilary graced him with a quick smile in response, though she quickly grew solemn again. "Suppose it's someone living in this part of the city, Jerry. Suppose he's someone we know. It would make things so very easy for him. "

"That," said St. George heavily, "is precisely the thought that's left me adrift on your back stairs for the better part of an afternoon; God knows we know enough people in this neighbourhood. That, and--" He hesitated.

"Be careful, or you'll use up your year's capacity for thought in a single afternoon." Hilary leaned forward all the same, clearly interested.

St. George eyed her sidelong. "It's probably a very silly thought," he warned, "and you won't like it, for a multitude of reasons, and most likely I'm so rattled I'm simply imagining things. And I don't fancy having two rows with you in as many days."

Hilary shrugged. "Well, if you think we're going to have another row, we might as well get it over with. Please, do tell."

"It just seems terribly convenient--all this awful rot with Kathryn." St. George frowned--at Hilary at first, then down at his own hands. "She gave you that box with a little speech about how she was afraid something might happen to her, and lo and behold something promptly did happen. And yet she's barely a mark on her, and she says she saw Hargrave but luckily never saw his face. It's all so dramatic and neat. Like a film."

Just as he'd expected, Hilary looks less than impressed with his reasoning. "Merrick hardly left a mark on me, either, but I don't see you doubting my story."

"Well, no, of course not." He wanted to say that that was different, but upon reflection St. George couldn't quite see how. "It isn't as though I meant anything against Kathryn. Not that there's another station for that train of thought to end at, I suppose, but all the same it's as though she knew something was going to happen to her."

"Premonition," said Hilary, though she sounded doubtful. "Or intelligent guesswork. It was beastly when Merrick got me, but I wouldn't call it a surprise, exactly. And I simply can't suspect her of anything, Jerry; she really does seem like such a wreck over it, and we got in such a lot of trouble mistrusting our friends one time already."

"I told you it was a very silly and rather unpleasant thought." St. George squirmed guiltily. "I didn't really think you'd see it; you're too incurably honest."

Hilary eyed him doubtfully. "You're no great deceiver yourself, you know."

"But in your case it's by choice. I've simply resigned myself to being a damned awful liar," admitted St. George with good grace. "All the same, I tend to the view that most stories one tells can benefit from a little dramatic enhancement in places, and I get rather the same feeling from everything that's supposed to have happened to Kathryn, that's all. I suppose there could be a relatively innocent explanation--Hargrave might finally have found the proper lever to move her."

"What a depressing thought, if that's actually the most pleasant possible explanation." Hilary's chin sank back into the palm of her hand. "I wonder what it is he wants her to conceal--if we're right, I mean, and I say we because I'm afraid I do see a kind of sense in it."

"I can't imagine," St. George admitted. "I can't even imagine what he could be holding over her head."

"Perhaps that end of it's none of our business," said Hilary. "Think of that book Amita found--though really, I prefer not to. People aren't meant to know those kinds of things; that's the entire point."

"Well, we still might try to have a talk with her sometime--see if there's a chance she might risk giving us the entire truth." St. George smiled ruefully. "But by God, do I hope she hasn't any more truth to tell."

-------

"Have you seen the papers?" St. George demanded one morning, though he knew full well Hilary probably had not. "Secret Life of Peer's Young Daughter; Has Lady Winifred Eloped? A Passionate Correspondence Revealed." He turned the paper sideways, staring with all his might in hopes this would cause it to say something completely different. "There are excerpts, Lee. Grotesque excerpts. I refuse to believe Winnie even knows half of these words, let alone what they mean. And trust them to get the wind up about Winnie having been misplaced on top of all the other rot."

“Perhaps you ought not to read gossip rags before noon. It’ll spoil your digestion.” Hilary pulled a face at him over her teacup. “On the other, I’m beginning to have some doubts about my career choices.”

“Well, don’t; there’s got to be at least one decent human being on Fleet Street, so it might as well be you.” St. George sat down heavily. “And I’m really beginning to be quite sick of seeing this same blurry old picture of myself--oh good God, really?”

“Stop spluttering,” said Hilary patiently, “and tell me what it says.”

He rattled the newspaper, flattening it on the table. “It seems I’ve been so absent from the social scene because I knew about Winnie’s whatever-the-hell-it-isn’t and have gone off to try and drag her back home.” In fact this was probably exactly what he would have done under the circumstances, but for some reason the speculation was all the more irritating for it.

“What does Winnie make of all this?” Hilary propped her chin in her hands, leaning towards him to read it upside-down.

“I’m afraid to ask. It might mean admitting my own culpability in the matter.” He began to turn the article around for her ease of reading, being rather tired of looking at it himself, and then paused. “I say, Lee.”

“Nothing good ever seems to ensue when you say that.” She cocked her head. “What is it?”

“It seems,” said St. George, squinting further down the page, “that as of this past Saturday, Uncle Peter is back in the country and staying at Duke’s Denver. Whether he plans to take much time away from his intended to look for his missing niece and nephew is a matter for debate--though really, I suppose he can’t be blamed for that.”

“How uncommonly understanding of you.” Hilary turned the newspaper the rest of the way around and contemplated it.

“Yes, well, I’ve gained some new insight into the matter lately,” said St. George, mostly for the pleasure of seeing her cheeks flush. “What are we going to do about this, anyway? You were the one who wanted to get in touch with him once we had the chance.”

Hilary frowned. “I don’t know, offhand; I think it’s safest to assume at this point that if we try to wire or write, someone will notice. If I think of something, I’ll let you know.”

-------

"I," St. George announced later that day, "have an idea."

"God save us." Hilary looked up warily from her magazine; he had been sitting at her side working quietly away at something with paper and ink for an awfully long time, and she had found that--much as with a small child--St. George staying quietly occupied for any length of time usually boded ill. (On that principle, it wasn't even all that difficult to understand the concern that had brought Winnie there looking for them.) All the same, she held out her hand. "So what brilliant thought have you got hold of now?"

St. George handed over the fruits of his labor, and Hilary inspected them critically. They proved to be a caricature, of the sort he had been producing for the Sentinel over the past several weeks--but this one was of Lord Peter himself, long-nosed and bedecked in a rather complicated-looking dressing gown, ensconced in an armchair with a large unlabeled book. There was a slight tremor to the line, as there had been in all St. George's artwork lately, that hadn't been there a month or two ago, but she decided she'd better say nothing about it. His arm probably was troubling him, but pointing it out would accomplish nothing but hurting his pride.

Hilary laughed. "I've been wondering whether you meant to do one of him. It's quite good, you know. Terribly affectionate-looking."

"Is it really?" said St. George, looking startled. "I'm not sure whether I intended that. Not that it much matters regardless; it isn't as though I'll be able to put it in print anyway. Hargrave would catch on in an instant. I was thinking I might frame it and give it to Aunt Harriet as a wedding present."

"Well, I'm sure she'll enjoy it more than a crystal decanter or something." Hilary rolled onto her stomach, letting the cartoon in her hand dangle carelessly over the arm of the sofa. "Suppose Hargrave didn't catch on? After all, he's no real reason to believe this one's any more important than any of the others."

"Suppose he doesn't, then." St. George plucked it from her hand and flattened it out safely again on the board in his lap. "What are you thinking?"

"I was thinking," said Hilary slowly, "that it might be an excellent way to get your uncle's attention without Hargrave catching on--if you think Lord Peter would recognise that as your handiwork. The Sentinel's printed with a phone number and address, isn't it? So he'd be able to find us. Or Dougal's, anyway, which is about the next best thing."

"Now that is an idea." St. George frowned down at his masterpiece. "I don't know whether Uncle would recognise my hand in the likeness alone, but give me a moment; I think I can do a bit better."

After a moment's scribbling he handed the paper back up to her, and Hilary turned the drawing sideways to read the title newly bestowed upon the book's spine. "Caput Draconis? That isn't really a book, is it?"

"Hargrave might not realise that," said St. George optimistically. "And even if he does, that's just to let Uncle know it's me, and Hargrave can't possibly know what that's about. But trust me, Uncle will."

She smiled at the drawing once more and handed it back to him. "There is one significant hang-up, though; I don't think Lord Peter is in the habit of reading the Sentinel. Or anything of its species.”

"Quite likely not, although he might all the same, just to be contrary." He grinned at her-- and why, Hilary wondered, when she knew that grin almost always meant disaster, did the sight of it always make her more rather than less inclined to be agreeable? "But I'm willing to bet Aunt Mary is. And that she'll appreciate my work properly. Do you think perhaps Priya would be willing to send her a free promotional copy?"

-------

"No," Priya said immediately, when St. George had made his discreet way to her flat and offered one last contribution to the paper. "Would you like me and Gail to paint a target on our backs?"

He scowled. "If you didn't know the man was my own uncle, you'd love it."

Priya sighed and nodded. "It's a lovely bit of drawing, Jerry. But if you're up to something that's going to nettle Hargrave, which you pretty obviously are, I don't think I want any part in it."

St. George sat down on her sofa without being invited and put on his best well, Uncle face; he was hoping to need to use the real thing fairly soon. "As far as I know, Hargrave hasn't any idea who I am; he won't think anything more of this than of anything else I've drawn. Even if he does find out, which I pray to God he never does, he can't possibly know that you know--did I say that right?" The logic was, as usual, largely Hilary's doing, and he was only parroting it.

Priya looked as though she might be softening, but hadn't made it there yet. "In my experience, it doesn't do to assume too much about what Hargrave does and doesn't know."

"Priya," St. George pleaded. "Much as it pains me to admit it, we need my uncle's help. I'd back him in a fair fight--of brains or brawn--against Hargrave any day. Or an unfair fight, for that matter. If you want to be rid of him--"

"I want--" Priya swallowed visibly. "I want my family and friends to be able to live in peace and quiet. I'd like to manage that without having to be rescued by--oh never mind," she cut herself off, "you'd only take it personally."

St. George smiled ruefully. "And deserve it, I don't doubt. I know what you think of my family in general, and I don't care right now--just, please, Priya, I know you know what my uncle's like, too, and you've simply got to print it. We're completely out of ideas otherwise."

Priya was silent for an agonisingly long few seconds, eyes narrowed thoughtfully at him; then she nodded assent, and while St. George didn't whoop for joy and relief, it was an awfully close thing. "I'll print it," she said resignedly. "Next edition-- in three days. And I like you, mister--" the slight, while affectionate in tone, was quite clearly intentional-- "but I swear, if he ever learns I knew who you are when I printed it, if anything ever comes of it, I will make you so damned sorry."

He nodded. "And I won't blame you in the least."

-------

The note, when it came, should not have been a surprise--they had risked provoking Hargrave, after all, but St. George hadn't expected the provocation to be risen to with quite such surreal efficiency.

On the next Saturday, the caricature of Lord Peter had appeared as promised in the Sentinel, accompanied just for the hell of it by a rather pointed column of Hilary’s having to do with rich people’s ridiculous taste in hobbies. For two days there had been nerve-racking silence on all fronts, until the Monday afternoon post arrived. St. George was eating a late lunch with Winnie--at their lodgings for once, the only ones at table that day--and Hilary, in a determined effort to go on pretending things were normal for as long as she possibly could, had gone out somewhere to eat with Amita. There was only one letter for St. George, which was rather a relief; though he had arranged for his mail to be forwarded from his own flat, he had for the most part been allowing it to accumulate, unanswered and unlamented, in a pile on a chair in his room.

"Looks expensive," said Winnie absently; having finished her cold beef with an impressive lack of complaint, she was turning the envelope over in her hands. "Not personalised, though; no return ad--dress," she finished, hesitating.

St. George gulped down his own mouthful of food hastily. "What is it?"

"Just a little queer, that's all." She slid the envelope across the table to him, tapping the postmark. "Posted this morning--from the nearest post office, only a few streets from here."

"Seems awfully silly," St. George observed, mouth full, although he cut a wary glance towards the envelope between them. "Be a good sister and open it up, would you?" Winnie did so--and if the envelope hadn't immediately been recognisable, the single matching sheet of paper that emerged certainly was. She stared at it, silent, for a long minute until St. George demanded in rising alarm, "Well?"

"I don't understand," said Winnie unhelpfully. "It just says--We are deeply sorry for your loss. And signed with the letter H."

"For my what?" St. George nearly choked; for a few seconds his mind was entirely blank with confusion, and then the very worst of possibilities sprang to his mind and refused to leave it again. Even if he were wrong, it was most certainly the conclusion he was meant to leap to, and the thought lent an extra edge to the ensuing panic. "Winnie." He wasn't going to think the worst; he wasn't. "Did Hilary happen to tell you where she was going to lunch?"

"She didn't name it, no." Winnie twitched her nose, thinking about it with what seemed like agonising slowness. "She said something about a place where she was tremendously fond of the onion soup, I believe."

"I know exactly where that is." St. George bolted up out of his chair; his sister winced at the horrific screech of wood on wood as he shoved it violently back out of his way, but he was too distracted to care. "And we're going there, and with a bit of good fortune Lee will be tremendously irritated at me for interrupting her lunch and ruining her enjoyment of her soup, and we'll all go on about our lives just as usual."

Winnie hurried into the hall after him. "You think she's what they mean by your loss?"

"Either you or her," said St. George grimly, accidentally jamming a hat onto his head that didn't belong to him or fit quite right. "And you aren't leaving my sight until I can get you on the tube back to Uncle Charles, so don't start getting any ideas about it."

As he shoved out the front door and down the steps, St. George realised just what it was on top of fear (and cold beef) that had his stomach in revolt. He didn't care to think of himself as a man with a temper, rarely even got irritated about things; but even if Hargrave were bluffing, which he almost certainly wasn't, the thought of his affection for Hilary being twisted around and used against him made St. George furious.

It was a small comfort to think that Hilary probably wouldn't be terribly pleased with the idea either.

-------

At that moment, in fact, Hilary's attention was devoted largely to contemplation of the luggage space available in car boots; she certainly seemed to have plenty of opportunity ahead of her to consider the matter. She'd had only a brief look at the car before being bundled into it, but she thought it could safely be called a rather luxurious model: the sort with a bonnet about three miles long, advertised as having spacious rear storage.

The men who advertised and sold cars, Hilary decided irritably, had clearly never been tied up and stored in any of these cars themselves. If she ever got the opportunity, she would have to write someone a strongly worded letter on the subject.

-------

It was strange to think that they had lived in this part of the city long enough now for Hilary to have a favourite place for lunch--let alone a favourite table there. But they had, and she did, and when St. George arrived there his eyes went to it almost automatically. His last faint hopes were dashed; Hilary wasn't there. (Nor, almost as alarmingly, was Amita.) Smirt, of course, was--bowl of soup and all, napkin tucked neatly into his collar.

St. George took the seat opposite him without bothering to greet the other man, let alone wait for an invitation. "Where is she?"

"Where is who?" Smirt dabbed at his lips with almost exaggerated daintiness. "I hear there are many women in your life, Lord St. George." He glanced meaningfully over at Winnie, who was sweet-talking a waiter across the room, and St. George was utterly at a loss as to what part of this conversation ought to make him most nauseous. "I can't very well answer your questions about any of them if you don't give me a name, can I?"

"Caroline," said St. George shortly. "Miss Caroline Hood. I was told she would be here, and here you are instead, and I'm afraid the resemblance isn't nearly great enough for you to get away with." It was a faint hope at this point--even if Smirt didn't know Hilary's real name, it was a hundred to one he wouldn't still believe it was Caroline. But there was no reason why he should give away any more information than he had to, any sooner than he had to.

Smirt, of course, didn't fall for it. "I believe you're confused, sir; I've never met a Miss Hood. Nor have you, for that matter."

St. George froze up. It wasn't as if he'd planned this encounter at all, the way Smirt most likely had; he was running entirely on the blind hope that he might--as was by now quite clearly necessary--have some room in which to negotiate for Hilary's life. If there was an alternative to offering up her real name as a bargaining chip--well, even if there was, he wasn't going to have the time to look for it. "Thorpe," he said at last in resignation. "Miss Thorpe. Hilary."

"I see.” Smirt took another spoonful of soup, in the most self-satisfied way it was possible to do so. "Miss Thorpe, now--I do know where she is, but I'm afraid I'm not permitted to tell you. No matter; you'll get her back, soon enough."

It couldn't possibly be as easy as all that, but St. George's heart leapt anyway, just in case it was. "In what sort of condition?"

"Oh, intact, of course." Smirt sounded injured. "You ought to know, Lord St. George; a man of Lord Hargrave's social standing would never be so crass as to defile a dead body."

St. George didn't punch the man, but he was beginning to deeply resent an upbringing that had taught him it was rude to start fistfights in restaurants. "You told me once before that you'd killed her, and that was a lie." There was a good chance that he would never again be able to bear the smell of onion soup. "Why should I believe you now?"

Smirt shrugged. "Murder is messy. It takes careful planning and cleaning up after, and it tends to be provocative to others once they figure out who it was who killed their loved one. Merely giving someone a bad fright is so much easier, and so much more fun. But in your case--it didn't work. It was one thing, you running scared to your aunt and baby cousin." He sneered happily in response to St. George's gape. "Such a pity, really, his lordship wouldn't let us do anything about it. Wanted to see what came of it first, he did, and lucky for them nothing did. But now you've gone and lit the beacons--and I did tell you she would suffer if you made a nuisance of yourself. Even if his lordship will be forced to cease doing business here and move on, he feels it's the least he can do to remove any chance of satisfaction on your part for managing even that."

St. George was no longer certain whether by holding Smirt in conversation he was delaying the other man from doing something disastrous, or himself from preventing it--but if he wasn't good for anything but talk, then talk he damn well would. "What if I blamed her?" he said hopefully. "If I said the cartoon in the paper was all her idea, would you kill me instead and let her live?"

Smirt laughed--not that that was ever a good sign of anything. "An ingenious thought, but I don't think you understand; it's been done. She's been taken care of. And as gratifying as it would be to dispose of you as well, that isn't in his lordship’s plans just now; and if your family gives a damn about you they'll be on their way by now to come sort your mess out for you, just the same as they always seem to."

"Please," said St. George; while his pride was substantial, his grip on it in an emergency could be rather tenuous. "Please, if you're having me on, if there's still a chance--don't kill her. You know who I am; you must have some idea how much I'd be able to pay--and I will, too."

"Too late," said Smirt briefly, and set down his spoon and napkin. "Now, as much fun as it is watching you grovel--"

St. George did punch Smirt then, lunging across the table to catch him square on the jaw; the man yelped in surprise and overbalanced backwards, only barely managing to catch himself before his chair toppled. A waiter appeared at their table to object, but St. George was already getting to his feet. "I know," he said miserably to the waiter, who stared at him in astonishment. "I know, no fighting on the premises, I'm going," and made for the street, hands in his pockets and shoulders hunched. "She's not dead," he informed Winnie, without being asked; she had finished with whatever she had been up to with her own waiter and been waiting for him outside. "She isn't dead. I won't believe it."

"It doesn't seem to have gone very well on your end." Usually Winnie would have been laughing at him, at least a little; now she only looked small and subdued. "What happened?"

St. George told her, omitting as much as he could of Smirt's dancing about. "But she can't be dead," he concluded, redundantly; "she wouldn't leave me, she promised--" and then, realising how incredibly childish and petulant this sounded, shoved the heels of his hands into his eyes and went quiet.

Winnie smiled regretfully. "I'm afraid the waiter wasn't much help, either. He tried, but--" she shrugged. "It isn't as if he saw what happened to her."

"Well?" St. George drew her a little further down the street. "I take it he did see something."

"He said two girls came there for lunch all right, about an hour ago--Miss Thorpe, and a--well, Miss Kapoor, I assume, but he wasn't as tactful as that about describing her." Winnie twitched uncomfortably and went on. "Miss Thorpe went to powder her nose and he never saw her come back--shortly after that, the man you were talking to showed up and went to talk to Miss Kapoor."

"In a higher class of establishment," said St. George regretfully, "he would have been prevented. What else?"

"He thought they might have argued, though they were quiet about it--and then Miss Kapoor left." Winnie wrinkled her nose in thought. "That's all he told me; I'm sorry."

"Don't you be sorry. If there's one person whose fault this isn't, I expect it's you." St. George sat down heavily on the nearest bench. "We've got to find Lee. Even if--" He swallowed hard; to finish that sentence would have been to admit the possibility that it were true. "I suppose if they'd got me instead Lee would have rescued me by now, and she'd be having a good laugh at my expense for getting kidnapped twice in a row." He put his head in his hands. "Oh, God."

Winnie sat down next to him. "You've been investigating these people for weeks now, haven't you? Shouldn't you have some idea of where they might have taken her?"

"Investigating." He snorted. "Not well enough to have an idea, no; I assume Hargrave's got a headquarters somewhere, but we never could figure out where."

"Where they took Kathryn, maybe?"

St. George jerked up and stared at his sister. "You know where they were taken?"

Winnie fidgeted with all her might. "Kathryn said something to me--it didn't seem like much, but I thought she'd told you."

"If she did, I missed it--Winnie, come on."

"I can't tell you if you don't shut--look," she said determinedly, "a warehouse or a factory across the river, she thought it was."

"But that's Battersea. It's nothing but warehouses and factories. And a park," he added, though for once the reminiscence wasn't one bit cheering. "We've been there; nothing doing. At least not while we were there-- at least not anything to do with Hargrave."

"But it's something, isn't it?" The hopeful note in Winnie's voice was rather strained.

"It'll have to do," St. George agreed, and glanced over at her. "What do you think--shall we go straight there or try Kathryn on the 'phone first? Wait--" He worked his jaw. "If I tell you to go call Kathryn from the chemists' while I flag down a taxi for you, let me know what she says, and then go home, will you do it?"

Winnie cocked her head. "Home as in--?"

"As in Aunt Mary and Uncle Charles," he decided firmly. "And Uncle Peter, if he happens to be available. I'm not risking you all the way from here to the Underground, and I don't dare wait for them to happen upon that stupid damned cartoon I drew." Which was the reason they were in this hole now--but he wasn't going to dwell on that, damn it, the idea only made him feel ill and he didn't have time for that right now.

She laughed shakily. "And I wouldn't be much use if a fight happens, is that it?"

"Afraid not, unless they've been teaching you something at school Mother and I don't know about." St. George managed to give her a bit of a smile in return.

"No, though at this rate perhaps they should." Winnie nodded. "I'll do my bit and go, Jerry. Don't worry."

-------

After what seemed an eternity or so of jolting--Hilary, in the course of mentally composing a letter to the automobile industry about the sad lack of luggage room in whatever make this happened to be, had added another paragraph about perhaps improving the suspension as well--the car finally drew to a stop. The car door slammed and footsteps came round towards the back; Hilary had just enough time to note that the engine hadn't been stopped, and to wonder why, before the boot was slammed roughly open and Merrick was looking down at her. "Oh," she said dully; it was tempting to try and kick him, but she was too thoroughly tied up and her legs were cramping horribly. "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes."

Merrick beamed down at her, quite the happiest she'd ever seen him. It was a sight for sore eyes, all right--a sight to make them substantially sorer, and if Hilary weren't doing her damnedest to look for a way out of whatever this was she would have been tempted to close hers. "We've been such close friends," he said warmly. Or what passed for warmly, in his case. "It'd only be polite to say goodbye."

Perhaps, Hilary decided, now would be a good time to start squirming around just a little. She'd tried a healthy dose of it on the way there, trying to find a way to get the trunk lid open on her own or at least to loosen her bonds somewhat, and had been unsuccessful, but surely a bit more effort couldn't hurt anything. And anyway, last time this had happened she'd let Merrick distract her with talk until it was too late, and she had no intention of letting it happen again. "For a friend of mine," she observed, "you're awfully eager to make your farewells."

"Ah, well." Merrick braced his hands on the sides of the car, leaning down close to peer at her. His grin was an even more horrific sight up close. "They say absence makes the heart grow fonder; perhaps I'm just getting an early start."

Given that the car engine was still running and he didn't appear to have any intention of taking her out of the car, Hilary was beginning to suspect something very unpleasant indeed; she couldn't see much of where they were, but all the same it made her rather less inclined to even pretend to be polite while she tried to figure out what exactly he was up to. "Then perhaps you should let me out of here and into the driver's seat; I could get away all the quicker."

Merrick straightened up and laughed. "Can't get away from here much quicker than the way you're already going," he told her, and slammed the boot closed again, nearly catching Hilary's fingers in the process.

With him safely out of eyeshot, Hilary began to wriggle around in earnest, but feeling around the meagre interior of the boot revealed nothing she hadn't already found on the way there--certainly no miraculous form of escape from whatever was about to happen. The car jerked into motion again, but only briefly; there was another jolt, and then the uncanny sensation of being airborne; Hilary braced uselessly for impact, imagining wildly that the car had been sent over from some great height--but the blow came much more swiftly and more gently than she had expected, with a heavy splash followed by the rising gurgle of water.

Oh, she thought, tense and unhappy. So that's what it's going to be.

-------

Winnie re-emerged from the chemist's after far too short a time; if that hadn't been enough to sink St. George's spirits, the downcast expression on her face surely was. "Kathryn isn't home," she reported, once she'd crossed the street to meet him. "Or at least she isn't answering her phone, and your landlord said she'd gone out, and they haven't seen her at Dougal's. I didn't know where else to call."

"I don't, either." St. George leaned dangerously far out into the street and managed at last to flag down a taxi; this done, he bundled Winnie immediately into the back of it and shoved some money into the driver's hand. He didn't bother to count precisely how much, but he made sure it was substantially more than the necessary fare. "Take her home," he instructed firmly, giving the Parkers' address, "as quick as you possibly can--even if she complains."

"I won't," protested Winnie feebly, from the back seat. "I promise."

"Better not," said St. George darkly, and backed up to the pavement to let the taxi pull away again. He watched it vanish around the corner, anxiously, and then hurried off in the other direction. Chances of getting taxis in this neighbourhood were never all that good, but his chances of making good time to Battersea on foot were substantially worse; at least he could head in that direction and hope like hell for a taxi along the way.

But there was no taxi, not even a glimpse of one; St. George walked faster, and eventually jogged, not caring how strange he must have looked, but it wasn't a short journey by any means along the Embankment and then across the bridge, and once there he hadn't the faintest clue which way to go. All he knew was that it was somewhere along the river, which at least reduced his options to exploring east or west; he went east more or less arbitrarily, that being more factories and less park, and wandered for what felt like hours amongst an industrial maze of buildings in various states of use and repair. It was not yet five o'clock, though, and most of the machinery was still running--at least, he thought, there weren't many workers around to note how clearly out of place he was.

At last he spotted something faintly anomalous--an apparently abandoned building with its walls beginning to crumble, fenced off down one street and so literally on the river that its far wall nearly hung out over the water. And yet, though it appeared to be of no further use to anyone, there was a car parked just outside it--not new, but as St. George went closer to investigate he could tell it was well-kept and hadn't been left there all that long at all. It looked terribly familiar, too, but he couldn't quite place it and didn't want to spare the time.

Past it, the front door of the building was neither locked nor even latched.

He emerged into a long narrow space, high-ceilinged; the channel of water dividing the concrete floor ran nearly the whole length of the building, right to the far end, where instead of a wall it exited directly into the Thames. Apart from the faint lapping sound of water, the building was quite empty, apart from St. George and one other person huddled against the wall.

The building was large enough that his footsteps had echoed; they startled her into looking up, and even from several yards away he could see her begin to smile as she got to her feet. "My hero," said Hilary, sounding too shaky to be properly wry, though it was kind of her to make the effort. "I knew you'd come save me."

For it was Hilary; so much of the afternoon had been wasted, or so it felt, fruitlessly rushing around and searching for her that St. George's hopes of finding her still alive had dwindled to almost nothing. But here she was, alive and apparently well and not even in any kind of immediate peril as far as he could tell, and the rush of relief was so strong that for a moment he could neither move nor speak. "Hilary," he said then, in what might forgivingly have been called a croak, and hurried over to her. "Thank God. Are you all right?"

"I'm not hurt," she answered, with ominous care in her wording. "I feel as though I might never get warm again, that's all." She was soaked right through, hair and clothes and skin, though bundled up in a large drab blanket.

St. George offered her his jacket, forgetting in his concern that she hadn't appreciated the gesture last time he had made it; but thankfully Hilary didn't protest this time, only shrugged it on and tugged the blanket around her shoulders again over that. "We'd better go home," he said anxiously. "Get you a change of clothes--"

"Oh God, Winnie's right, you are turning into a mother hen, but no." Hilary shook her head. "There isn't time--oh, I'm sorry, why can't I explain this clearly?"

"It sounds like you've had a rough time of it," St. George suggested, by way both of an explanation and of prompting her to tell more. "What's happened, Lee?"

"Merrick sent me into the river." She pressed her hand to her mouth, making St. George fear for a moment that she was going to be ill. "In the boot of his car. But Kathryn--Kathryn, of all people, I don't know why, Jerry, I don't understand--she was here. She fished me out and got me a blanket from somewhere, and said--" Hilary took in a deep, shuddery breath and let it out again. "She said she wished she could take me home, but she had to go take care of something, and maybe I'd better sit quietly here until I warmed up a little. I should have gone after her," she concluded miserably. "I don't know what I was thinking. I was so turned around--one hell of a detective I've turned out to be, in a crisis--but it can't possibly be anything good, can it? She can't have just happened to be here."

St. George was still staring blankly at her; he grasped that something urgent had happened, but he couldn't seem to properly take in a single word she'd said after sent me into the river. "I thought I might never see you again," he said at last, sounding pathetically useless even to his own ears--as though he were still half ready to believe it. Which perhaps he was; if in sentimental but unexciting moments Hilary's mere existence had seemed to him like a miracle, then there was no word strong enough to describe his feelings about finding her alive against such high odds.

Hilary looked bewildered for all of half a second, and then she, too, crumpled a little in response; he must have really looked awful, to even come near enough to the state she appeared to be in that she felt sorry for him. "Oh," she said, staring up at him in surprise as if the thought of his giving a damn whether she lived or died was an entirely new one. "Oh, Jerry, no."

"If something had happened--" He shrugged and glanced away; when he spoke again, his voice broke slightly over her name despite his best efforts. "I don't know, Hilary. I never know what I ought to say to you."

Hilary shook her head slowly. St. George was already kicking himself; now of all times, when she'd had the worst conceivable scare and clearly wasn't even thinking straight, now, he told himself viciously, you decide to try and heap this on her head? "Jerry, I told you, I'm fine." She gathered the blanket more tightly around herself. "I only--I can't seem to think clearly, not when you look at me like that."

Like what? St. George didn't dare ask--especially when the astonishment dawning on her face made it seem horribly likely that she had just realised exactly how he had been looking at her for weeks now. In fact, he didn't dare speak at all, but he simply had to reach for her--and Hilary came into his arms in an instant.

Her clothes were alarmingly cold and clammy, river water seeping right through his waistcoat and shirt, and her shivering seemed even more violent now they were pressed up close like this. "I'm glad you're here. I'm so glad it's you, and somehow I never seem to be able to explain--oh, Jerry." Her shoulders heaved once or twice, in a manner that in St. George's experience was indicative of something other than cold, but then set more determinedly than ever under his hands. "And anyway, if I were gone, who would keep you out of trouble?"

"Who, indeed?" St. George managed a short laugh; he pressed his lips blindly to her forehead, her temple, and Hilary turned her face up and kissed him properly--or rather, in her haste, overshot the mark and kissed the side of his nose instead. He tipped his head to meet her, though, and for a few moments matters seemed far brighter than they had any right to. "I'm sorry, my sweet," he murmured at last. "I'm no use at all, I know, I'm so sorry--just tell me what you need done. Anything."

"We'd better be going--we've got to find her." Hilary took a deep breath and pressed a hand to his chest--like a promise, though St. George didn't dare wonder of what--before pulling away out of his arms. She took his hand and kept it, though; he kissed her knuckles gently, hoping to make her laugh, and was ridiculously relieved that she did. “I wish we could just go home,” she admitted, with a sidelong smile; for a moment a familiar light came back into her eyes. “You could help me warm back up. But we just--maybe it’s nothing, I hope it’s nothing, but I need to be sure she’s all right.”

“I’ll owe you,” St. George promised, and kissed her once more. “I still owe you a dance, anyway.”

“So you do.” Her fingers tightened around his.

"She can't have gone far," he blurted suddenly; it took his brain a second to catch up with his mouth and realise where the idea had even come from. "She's left her car parked outside."

Hilary let go of his hand in favour of holding the blanket and his jacket in place around her--St. George tried to focus on the problem at hand rather than missing her grip excessively--and peered out the door. "So she has. What's around here? I didn't have much of a chance to get an idea of the place coming in--I don't even know where we are.”

"We're in Battersea," he told her. "Nine Elms. I came east from Chelsea Bridge--not sure how far--but we're near the new electrical station, I think."

"Battersea Park," said Hilary thoughtfully. "We've been here before, or near here, not that we found anything--Jerry, I know you want to make a rude joke about that, so let's just take it as made and move on--but there's got to be a connection, hasn't there? I'm so damn sick of this," she went on, as smoothly as though she were continuing the same thought. "It isn't even the--the drugging me and tying me up and trying to drown me, it's that they only seem to be doing it to upset you."

"Well," said St. George glumly, "if that's what they want, they're succeeding."

"Which I do appreciate, but they've got things all twisted around, and I don't understand why." Hilary shrugged her shoulders and hastily grabbed at the blanket when it began to slide away. Her frock didn't seem to be getting any dryer; St. George caught himself worrying in complete seriousness that she would catch her death of cold, but the thought was too embarrassing to even keep in mind, and now didn't precisely seem like the best of times to speak it aloud. "They seem to think you're the one who's a real threat to them--no offence, Jerry--and I'm just, well, what Merrick said. Collateral. Something to dangle to keep you in line."

"Which is funny, really." He smiled at her, as best he was able. "You'd think they'd be smart enough to tell it's the other way round. It doesn't seem fair to you, really, to have to do all the thinking and take most of the death threats, while my only function is to stand around being handsomely decorative."

Hilary stared at him for a moment. "I can't tell whether you're being sarcastic," she concluded, "but if you are it doesn't become you, so let's just say I'll tie you to a chair sometime, you can get your turn being the damsel in distress, and we'll call it even."

"I look forward to it," said St. George, deliberately trying to provoke the dirty look she did in fact give him. "Now if you are in fact the brains of this operation, as you keep claiming, would you mind putting them to use? I believe you were trying to figure out where Kathryn might have gone."

He didn't expect the grateful smile Hilary gave him, but there it was nonetheless. "Oh, forget this," she grumbled, "it isn't really helping anything," and shed the blanket--though not, however, his coat, whose sleeves she was working her arms into as they went back outside. "That is her car--I expect that's where she got this blanket from in such a hurry."

St. George peered at the car, then back at her. "I thought that blanket looked familiar."

Hilary laughed, if feebly. "Her timing, though--I don't like to question my good luck, God knows we've had little enough of it lately, but it was a hell of a lucky thing that she should have happened to be at this particular abandoned warehouse just at the moment I needed her to be." She had kept on walking--not in any particular direction as far as St. George could tell, only for the sake of movement, hands tucked deep inside the oversized sleeves of his jacket. "What if she knew what they were going to do to me? Followed Merrick here on purpose?"

St. George kept pace with her. "How would she have known that?"

Hilary sighed. "Damned if I know."

"Lee," said St. George suddenly, guiltily remembering. "I think you ought to know something."

"There's more?" Her shoulders slumped again and he felt even worse, briefly, for having brought it up-- but she had to be told. "What more can possibly go wrong?"

"He knows who we are," St. George confessed unhappily. "Hargrave. I don't know how he found out, but Merrick knew my name and I had to--Lee, I'm sorry, I didn't know if they already knew your real name and I didn't dare lie when he asked me for it."

Hilary just stood there for a minute, eyes closed; she swayed slightly once or twice, and St. George reached to support her, but when her eyes opened he jerked his arm hastily away again without touching her. "It can't be helped now," she concluded dully. "You were right, I think, not to lie; maybe he'll be more careful of us, knowing what family you're from." She didn't sound all that sure of herself.

"Perhaps he will," St. George echoed, trying to sound bright and encouraging.

"He won't." There was far less doubt in Hilary's voice, this time; she gave him a small, resigned smile and began walking again. "But it is a nice thought, isn't it?"

-------

In the end, until Hilary managed to come up with another brilliant leap of logic--which she was pressuring herself heavily to do, with very little success thus far--the best strategy seemed to be the one St. George had used to find her: wandering aimlessly between what seemed like endless streets of industrial buildings, many of them emitting deafening noises and revolting smells, until something of interest happened to come into view. Which really wasn't much of a strategy at all, but it was the only one they had--and unless Kathryn had thrown herself into the river after extracting Hilary from it, which didn't seem terribly likely, she had to have gone somewhere within walking distance.

Hilary wasn't feeling terribly talkative, or at least she felt that if she kept quiet perhaps she would be able to think more clearly. She didn't keep indecorously close to St. George's side, either, even though she was badly tempted; he was warm and familiar and welcome, and even though her clothes and hair were finally beginning to dry she couldn't seem to shake the cold of the river, no matter how hard she tried. Perhaps she was developing some kind of complex about water. It would be a pity if she did and could no longer stand to go swimming. Did people with complexes know they had complexes, she wondered, or did you need a doctor to help you figure it out?

St. George seemed to have the idea in mind, at any rate, or some other similarly distressing thought; he kept shooting worried looks at her when he thought she wouldn't notice. Hilary was trying not to think too hard about him, either, but it was extraordinarily difficult. She could have sworn her attraction to him had been a lot more manageable, once upon a time, but right now he was more of a distraction than she could recall anything having ever been before in her life.

She ought to have noticed far sooner, was the thing; the way his face had looked when he found her alive and (as far as she could tell) well had been frankly terrifying, the face of a man broken wide open. She had known he was fond of her, but there was only one word for that kind of look--and far from being suffocating, the idea that she might be that important to him was...comforting. It warmed her, somehow; it helped, despite being at the same time both completely insane and so sensible that she could have kicked herself for not realising. After days of avoiding his touch, being in St. George's arms again had warmed her more than a thousand blankets could have.

Hilary looked over at him, briefly, just to test the words out to see how they fit: He loves me, she thought, quite deliberately; as if on cue St. George looked back at her and gave a quick uncertain smile in response, and perhaps Hilary had gone quite around the bend, but she saw it in his every movement, now. Even when he appeared focused on their surroundings, as they were both meant to be, he seemed constantly on the verge of moving closer to her side. It ought to have been terrifying; hadn't they said to each other, not that long ago (though it seemed like a very long time ago, by now) that neither of them had any interest in romance? Hilary wasn't even sure she wanted it now, but she wanted very badly to clear the air of whatever was happening.

She had thought of him, when she had thought she was going to drown, and wasted one of her last moments feeling ridiculous for it--but it hadn't really been fair, Hilary had thought and still thought, to leave him not knowing whether they had been friends or lovers. She still wasn't sure herself what they were, but it was becoming clear what he was to her; out of all the things she had thought she was leaving unresolved, he was the first and most important, and what she wanted more than anything was to stop and take him by the shoulders and shake him into being honest with her. Tell me, she wanted desperately to say to him. Please, Jerry, tell me what's happening to us, what I've missed that you haven't--but they had a yet more urgent task to complete, no matter how much difficulty she was having in keeping that in mind.

All she could seem to think of was the way he had looked at her in bed--like he was completely amazed to be there with her, and since when had he he ever been surprised to find himself in a woman’s bed? It wasn’t that knowing for sure how he felt would have made the last two weeks any easier, but for some reason she felt guilty all the same; how the hell hadn’t she known?

Lord Peter, she was sure, never had this sort of problem. He never seemed to, at least, for all that she had the idea his romantic woes had been far worse and drawn out far longer than the ones Hilary had only just realised she was having.

Kathryn, she told herself miserably, pulling St. George's jacket still more tightly around herself (it smelled of his aftershave, she noted absently) and staring blankly at the seemingly endless forest of hulking ugly buildings around them. They had to find Kathryn; where the hell could she be?

"Jerry," said Hilary suddenly, so startled out of her incoherent daze that she stopped dead in her tracks. "Jerry, I've been an idiot."

"I very much doubt that." He not only stopped as well, but took a step backwards to be closer to her; Hilary wasn't sure whether he had done so deliberately, but was grateful nonetheless, sufficiently grateful that she hardly even had it in her to chide herself for taking so much comfort from having him near. "I don't think you'd be capable of idiocy if you tried."

Hilary smiled, but chose not to take the time to correct him just yet. "Remember that wild goose chase we went on, to Battersea Park? We were so sure there was something there, and we never saw anything."

St. George's brow creased. "Well, yes, what of it?"

Hilary took his arm briefly; why not, after all? "Jerry, I don't think we've been nearly as good at eavesdropping as we thought. It wasn't Battersea Park at all, see?" She pointed upwards with her free hand at the enormous wooden sign atop a factory a little ways off, heavily dilapidated but still readable as saying BATT RSEA P RT ERS LTD.

St. George stared a moment, uncomprehending; then he let out a short surprised laugh. "It's worth a try," he admitted.

"It's the only idea I've got," Hilary corrected him.

She hadn't meant to start off in that direction so abruptly that it jerked his arm free of hers, but she was startled by a sound that echoed suddenly and sharply through the maze of brick walls. Not a sound she had heard in person in a long time, but a terrifyingly recognisable one nonetheless, and it shocked her into a hurry again.

"That was a gun." St. George, as always, was right at her heels; trust him to know something like that, without any question whatsoever. "And from somewhere near that building, at that. Can you run?"

"Can I--what do I look like, Jerry, of course I can." Hilary set off without waiting for him, regretting the shoes she'd worn out to lunch with Amita; they not only made running awkward and made her ankles feel constantly on the verge of turning, but created a horrendous amount of noise on the battered pavement. She managed a decent speed once she found her footing, however, and the building wasn't as far off as it had looked; they arrived together, and when they reached the doorway she reached out to draw St. George to a stop.

"What the hell is going on in there?" he murmured, but Hilary hadn't any more of a clue than he did.

The building, like the one they'd come from, appeared derelict; most of the windows were broken, and the brick crumbling so badly in places that when Hilary absent-mindedly leaned a hand against the wall it simply fell to dust. She squeaked in surprise, hastily biting the noise back--oh hell, where had her nerves gone?--and stood upright again, brushing the greyish dust off the sleeve of St. George's jacket as best she could. (He had lent it to her in good faith; the least she could do was keep it clean.) "Shh," she said in belated response, but then hissed to him under her breath anyway: "Do you hear voices in there?"

St. George tilted his head--upwards, inexplicably, staring blankly up at the sky--and then nodded in agreement, keeping mercifully silent. There were undeniably voices somewhere inside--no one was visible from where they were, but the building was clearly divided into rooms, and God only knew what was going on in the ones Hilary couldn't see into. The voices were too far off or muffled or both for her to even recognise voices, let alone make out any words, but they certainly didn't sound friendly.

Hilary was sick of this whole damn business, she decided. She had quite had it with playing detective; she only wanted to go home and take a hot bath and sleep, but that wasn't going to stop people wanting to kill her. The only way to do that, at this point, was to keep trudging onward until this whole thing was over, and she was very near the point of no longer caring how it ended, as long as it did.

She took in a deep breath--hoping it would steady her, which it didn't particularly--let it out again, and wrapped her fingers around St. George's wrist, which was somehow infinitely more soothing. Whatever they had found here, it no longer seemed terrifyingly unknowable; it was more an annoyance than anything, an obstacle with the poor grace to have cropped up just when she and St. George were teetering on the verge of the most important thing there had ever been in the world.

"Awaiting your orders," he said into her ear, and Hilary snapped back to full awareness and smiled over at him before she could help it. She had brought St. George into this, after all, and somehow--inexplicably--stolen his heart in the process, and she was damn well going to get him out of it. He loves me, she remembered again, for the hundredth time in a tenth as many minutes, and the thought sent a fierce stab of joy and determination through her. If he thought, as he seemed to, that she was some sort of genius or hero--well, she couldn't very well let him down when he kept looking at her like that.

"Well, since I see you're just panting for excitement," she began, and won a smile from him in response, "I suppose we'd better go do a bit of adventuring."

She forgot at first, as they slipped in through the front door (rusted nearly off its hinges), to let go of St. George's wrist, so comforting was it to have a physical hold on him. But he tugged free, fingers trailing over her palm; the gesture seemed almost apologetic, but that at least, Hilary felt, was probably her own fatigue exaggerating matters.

The inside didn't look industrial at all, apart from the scale of it; the grime on the windows, the dusty air within and the lengthening shadows outside had made it difficult to distinguish from outside, but Battersea Partners Ltd. appeared in fact to be a long-abandoned office building. The walls were wood and plaster, at least, and there appeared to be some semblance of an architect's hand at work. "I've never heard of this company," said Hilary softly, wary of echoes; there were still voices audible somewhere over their heads, though they seemed to have calmed down somewhat.

"Nor I." St. George's long nose twitched alarmingly, as though he were about to sneeze; he stopped for a moment, pulled a very odd face, and after a moment the danger appeared to pass. "The sign out there was terribly old, wasn't it?"

"It's always so strange to me." Hilary hugged herself, stirring up dust clouds as she walked over to peer cautiously into the next room. "This building looks like it hasn't been used in decades--and the one where you found me, too. It never seems right that people should simply forget about an enormous place like this and leave it to rot away unused."

Padding after her, St. George nodded up towards the voices upstairs. "This particular place doesn't exactly sound unused right now."

"True enough." Hilary sucked her lips in, forcing herself to stay focused. "There've got to be stairs somewhere. And a back door; someone got up there somewhere without leaving footprints where we've just been."

He glanced around, and Hilary followed his meaning easily enough; the ground floor was enormous and poorly lit and they had no torches, and possibly not much time either. "Do we dare split up?"

Hilary didn't dare, as it happened, but if she was going to be heroic that had to not matter right now. "We'd better," she said instead. "Come find me if you see anything," she murmured. "We don't want to be calling out for each other."

This search, at least, didn't take long at all; St. George came back and found her a scant few minutes later. "Lee," he began quietly, "I've found a back door, and footprints and stairs, right past that door--good God, what have you got?"

Hilary handed it over to him, with a probably unnecessary degree of care. "You know how to use one of these, right? I learned once, but it was years ago, and I don’t know if I’d trust myself with it now."

St. George scowled. "I can shoot birds well enough, if that's what you mean. This certainly isn't something I'd use for it. Where the hell did you find it?"

"In that corner over there, kicked away out of sight." Hilary pointed the place out. "There were footprints in here before us, too. I'd really rather you kept hold of that, Jerry; even if you don't mean to use it, at least we'll know where it is."

"I doubt it's the only gun in this building right now, honestly." He was turning it over in his hands with a look of powerful distaste, but he nodded. "But it is loaded--only two rounds." The revolver went into his pocket, which despite Hilary's hopes wasn't the least bit reassuring. "Up the stairs we go, then?"

"Up we go." Hilary nearly reached for him, concluded early in the process that it might not be wise to do so when they were both this much on edge, and tucked her hands back into her sleeves instead. "Remember when we thought this was fun?"

"Unfortunately, yes--this way." St. George led her back into a room he had been through and she had not, where the dust was badly scuffled up and much of it still hung in the air- Hilary had to press a hand over her mouth to help suppress a sneeze of her own--and then through another door from which stretched upward a wooden flight of stairs. The voices were quite clearly audible from above, now, and despite his evident distaste for the thing Hilary saw his hand creep into the pocket where he had deposited the revolver. "I hope these don't creak," he breathed, hardly even audible by now; his eyes were wide and anxious, and it was becoming very difficult indeed not to touch him.

There was only one way to find out--anything, really, by now, so Hilary steeled herself and headed up the stairs. Considering their age, it was pleasantly surprising to find that the only complaint they voiced at bearing her weight--and then, a second later, St. George's as well--was a continued tendency to release dust from every crack.

Of course, the people upstairs turned out to be in the first room past the stairs, and the floor outside that squeaked terribly. The voices on the other side of the door stopped abruptly, only to be replaced by heavy footsteps; Hilary froze, hating herself for it, but as the door swung open St. George brought the revolver hastily up out of his pocket to point at--another gun, larger and held by a much steadier hand, protruding from the half-open doorway.

"Well,” said Merrick; slightly behind the door, and out of his sight for the moment, Hilary nonetheless flinched at the sound of his voice. "Aren't you the heroic one. We've got company," he added, calling back to whoever was within the room. "Young man lost his favourite toy and is here to complain."

It was nearly enough to goad Hilary into stepping forward, but she realised just in time that Merrick didn't know she was there--perhaps didn't even realise she was alive. Instead she bit back her anger and flattened herself as far back as possible behind the open door. It wasn't much of a hope--frankly, she couldn't even imagine what advantage she might have--but surely it was better than if they were both taken at gunpoint.

To St. George's credit and Hilary's relief, he barely even glanced towards her before grasping what she had in mind. "You drowned her," he said unhappily, the gun wavering in his hand more than ever. "I found the place, you know--where she went in."

"Oh, it must sting your pride, mustn't it?" Hilary couldn't see Merrick's face from the other side of the door, but she could imagine from his tone how pleased he must look. "Your uncle trusts you to be useful for once in your life, and look at the mess you've made of it. I reckon it's a good thing you won't be around long enough to worry about apologising to him."

St. George gaped at that, eyes flicking towards Hilary for a moment, but she couldn't very well blame him when she was equally stunned. In hindsight, it made sense that Hargrave might have assumed they were there with Lord Peter's knowledge; she only wished she'd thought of it sooner. "It doesn't matter," said St. George at last, with a visible gulp. "She was the whole world to me, and if she's gone--well, you can have my hide, or Uncle Peter can, whichever of you gets me first. I honestly just don't give a damn what happens to me any more."

Behind the door, Hilary dug her nails into her palms.

He hurled the revolver away down the corrider, shoulders slumping. "I expect they'd both be very disappointed in me right now, but it seems I just haven't the spine to be properly vengeful. Do your worst," he said, making a vague gesture towards raising his hands in surrender, and let Merrick's pistol prod him into the office.

Hilary hovered behind the door a few moments longer than she liked; she thought she knew which board had betrayed their presence, so that she could avoid treading on it again, but she didn't want to miss hearing anything that happened within.

She was freezing up again, she told herself. She'd wasted God knew how much of the afternoon dithering and accomplishing nothing, she felt frighteningly unlike herself, but she had to get St. George out of there. He had trusted her, and for all they knew Merrick meant to kill him on the spot.

Taking a deep breath, she crept out from behind the door, wobbling on tiptoe to keep her heels from clicking on the floor; it might have been simpler to take her shoes off, but she thought she would rather have her hands free. It took some feeling around to find just where the revolver had landed, but she tucked it up the sleeve of St. George's jacket and all but leapt back to her hiding place.

"Alive," St. George was saying behind the door, when she was able to hear again; Hilary froze. "But how can she be--I looked everywhere, I tell you."

He was selling it a bit too hard by now, Hilary thought, but it didn't matter. The chief thing, surely, was that Merrick shouldn't know that they had come here together--although she very much wanted to know how he knew of her survival at all.

"I promise you, she's alive." The voice wasn't Merrick's. A woman's, but low; Kathryn, Hilary guessed, and swallowed. Even swung wide open, there was a substantial gap between the door and its frame, but she didn't dare put her eye to the gap for fear that she might come within view of the wrong person. "I fished her out in time--I told these gentlemen so, and now I'm telling you, Roger. I don't know where she might have gone after that. How on Earth did you even work out what had happened?"

Gentlemen; the plural was quite distinct, if inaccurate. But she was going to have to get in there somehow, and how else if not by the door? There wasn't time to go back outside and scout for a window, let alone find a way to get up through it.

"You told my sister you'd been held prisoner in Nine Elms, so I came here. I didn't know what else to do. I don't know now." St. George groaned pitifully.

Someone laughed; the voice sounded familiar, but the tone was so extraordinarily unpleasant that Hilary couldn't at first place it. "Held prisoner? Is that the story she fed you?"

There was an ominous silence for a moment.

"Well now, children," said Dr. Fitzmorris; the sentence was punctuated by a creak which might have signified his lowering himself into a chair. "Now that we're all nice and comfortable, I suppose it's time to clear up a few things."

Hilary risked putting her eye to the crack at last and saw--as she had feared--that St. George and Kathryn had been bound to chairs with their backs to her. The room was unexpectedly luxurious in contrast to the rest of the building, and seemed to have been appointed as a very comfortable office. Between the door and the prisoners stood Merrick, hovering to one side behind Kathryn's shoulder, and behind the large wooden desk sat Dr. Fitzmorris; Lord Hargrave, that was to say, for it seemed they were one and the same.

It made a good deal of sense, she supposed: on the one hand entertaining the whole neighbourhood at his house, on the other killing people and stealing them away while all eyes were elsewhere. Spreading death and fear with one hand while offering comfort and healing with the other--Hilary thought of how she'd watched him patch up Jerry's injuries, all sympathetic concern, and couldn't help but shudder.

"Lord St. George," Hargrave went on, and Kathryn's chair rattled a little with her surprise. "Ah--it seems both of you have missed a few things."

"I always had the idea it was rather bad form for the villain to sit around comfortably explaining himself," said St. George, with strained brightness. Hilary could see his hands twisting against the ropes behind him, too aimless to indicate any real attempt at escape. She wondered what, if anything, he was expecting her to do; hell, she wished she knew it herself. It had not needed much time for her to conclude that one gun and the element of surprise would be little use against an armed policeman, but at least the interval was proving to be informative. "Gives us an opportunity to plot our escape, and all that. Couldn't we just get on to the interesting bits? And by we, I mean you and I, because I really can't understand what Miss Field has done to offend you besides rescuing a friend from drowning."

"Can't you?" said Kathryn, dully. Hilary angled her head, trying fruitlessly to see more of her expression, but the back of the chair interfered hopelessly.

“No,” said St. George. “I honestly can’t.”

"I killed his son," said Kathryn. There was no hesitation in her tone, but no anything else, either; something seemed to have simply gone out of her with the confession.

Hargrave grimaced, looking down at his desk; Hilary felt a pang of sympathy for a man she had thought to be her friend, and stomped it back down. William deserved her pity, but not his father, she told herself, not for one moment.

"You didn't," St. George said sharply, voicing a hope much like one that had occurred to Hilary. "He's making you say this, isn't he? And then--" he twisted towards Merrick-- "that chap gets to buzz off to his detective sergeant or some such and say he heard her confess to a murder, and that's her safely out of your way. I always did think something sounded fishy about that captivity story--" he sounded apologetic for a moment-- "but these really do seem like awfully great lengths for the cause, don't you think? Perhaps just a tad excessive."

Kathryn slumped a little in her chair, but seemed to have nothing to say to this--and it was that, more than anything else, which made a cold weight seem to settle in Hilary's gut.

"That's very clever," said Hargrave with approval. "Completely wrong, but quite ingenious. It seems the family brains haven't quite missed you after all, though it's a pity they seem to have made their appearance a bit too late to be of any use. In any case, no, I'm not quite so far gone as to have killed my own son, which is why Miss Field was so considerate as to do it for me and leave me with nothing of importance to lose. It's all to her own credit, though--that and her fishy captivity story, as you put it."

"Then what happened to Carmon?" St. George pressed. "That was your doing all the same, wasn't it?"

"He saw me the night William died." Kathryn's voice was still low, steady but utterly flat. "I was supposed to be home in bed, but he'd seen me only a street away and couldn't understand how I'd missed all the fuss. He wouldn't leave it alone, I had to--it would have got around, sooner or later. And I couldn't very well miss a chance to make him look still worse by comparison."

"Killing one of her own friends to spite me," Hargrave finished off complacently. It might have been a well-rehearsed act, if they didn't clearly loathe each other so very much. "You certainly choose your associates well, my boy."

St. George groaned, hands going slack behind him.

"You deserved it," said Kathryn. "All of it. I don't care--why should I? You left me nothing to care about."

"I don't believe that," said St. George, with a seeming effort. "You went to the trouble of fishing Lee out of the river, after all--unless you're going to say you invented that too," he added, hastily.

"Of course not," said Kathryn sullenly. She worked in a grocery, Hilary remembered, moving heavy parcels around; she was a big, strong woman, even if she rarely acted the part. Bigger and stronger than William, stronger certainly than fifty-odd-year-old Carmon with his weak heart, and no, no, she wasn’t going to think about that. "She's quite well--or was when I left her."

"It makes quite a story, doesn't it, St. George? Your uncle would be sorry to have missed it, I suppose, although that's what he deserves for thinking so little of me as to send a blithering idiot like you to handle the situation." Hargrave lit a cigarette. "If you're half the nuisance to him you've been to me, I doubt you'll be very much missed, although I should like to think he'd feel at least a pang or two. It isn't every day one gets the opportunity to put one in the eye of the great Lord Peter Wimsey. And seeing as you have somehow managed to bring him down on my head, despite your rather entertaining ineptitude, I feel I might as well get what satisfaction I can out of the situation."

Kathryn had jerked to attention again at the mention of the name Wimsey, but Hilary's mind had begun to churn helplessly when she thought too much about Kathryn. It was Hargrave who needed her attention now--if he had reached the limit of his patience she would have to act, wisely or otherwise.

Chapter Text

After a moment or two of silence he remarked suddenly:
"After all, I don't see why the place should burn as he says it will, and I know people do escape from burning houses because I've seen it on the pictures."

Margery Allingham
--------------------

Just as she was on the verge of dodging around the door and into the office, revolver brandished, Hilary heard a heavy tread upon the stairs, and flattened her back behind the door again with a gasp.

Fortunately the noise seemed to distract Hargrave as well; he glanced at the door and smiled. "Good news, I believe, children."

Hilary didn't recognise the man who came up the stairs and into the office, but he had a look about him rather like Merrick, and she wondered if this was the man who had beaten St. George--or another of their comrades.

"All done, Smirt?" said Hargrave; his manner was cheerful and easy, but his hand was sliding into the drawer of his desk to find Hilary didn't dare guess what.

"All done, my lord," said Smirt proudly. "And quite thoroughly. We'll want to be getting out of here right quick, I should say."

"So we shall." Hargrave's hand reappeared from within the drawer; Hilary had only a moment to register that--as she had feared--he had produced a gun, and then he fired two quick shots almost exactly in her direction.

She ducked, and when she dared look up again she saw first to her relief that St. George and Kathryn appeared unhurt, and then that Merrick and Smirt were dead on the floor.

"You needn't look like that," said Hargrave, rising to his feet and slipping the pistol into his trouser pocket. "They were only a couple of crooked little bobbies; I doubt either of you liked them any more than I did. Now if you'll excuse me, I hear burning to death is a tremendously unpleasant experience, and I'd prefer not to share it with the two of you."

Hilary's heart sank and then, upon further consideration, leapt again. There wasn't very much to be done, from her angle, about shooting, but fire--and she could smell smoke from downstairs--took time. They would have a chance.

Don't worry," Hargrave was saying, "this is quite an old building, and rather fragile. I'm sure you won't be waiting too much longer. Good day."

He swept out, quite coolly--jauntily, almost, in a manner that ill befit his age and appearance--and Hilary, with a lack of wisdom that would have made St. George proud, stepped out from behind the door and pointed her own gun at him.

"Well," said Hargrave, delighted and apparently unimpressed. "This is new."

"You've no idea," said Hilary. Her voice and hands were both shaking, she found to her dismay, but she had played her only card and she had to see the thing through. "But I think I'd rather you stayed here with us a little while longer."

Hargrave stepped back into the office without protest, although he looked far more amused than cowed. "It's all very well your playing with guns," he observed, "but should we not perhaps be looking for a way out of this building, rather than shutting ourselves in?"

"You think you're so clever,” said Hilary bitterly. "Have you got--no, that isn't right, I wouldn't trust a word out of you. Turn out your pockets."

“Hullo,” said Kathryn. “I see you’ve found my gun.”

"Lee," said St. George, low. "Have you any idea what you're doing?"

"I'll let you know when I figure it out." Hilary was beginning to feel quite warm; she didn't want to wonder whether it was due to the excitement or the fire downstairs. "Your pockets," she said again to Hargrave, and adjusted her grip on the revolver.

"I can't really believe you'd shoot me for the contents of my trouser pockets." Hargrave turned them out all the same; along with the pistol, a handful of coins and keys and the usual oddities clattered to the floor, but not the one thing Hilary needed just now. Still, she told herself, it was useful to know he hadn't got it.

"Jerry." She wasn't looking at St. George; she didn't trust Hargrave, for one thing, and for another she didn't quite trust her own self-control. "I don't suppose you've a knife on you?"

"Penknife." St. George wet his lips. "In my left hip pocket--no, right. I'd rather you got it from there than he did--if I get a choice in the matter."

Hilary glanced over at him as quick as she could and judged the thing to be possible--especially since she hadn't any intention of letting Hargrave near St. George ever again if she could possibly help it. "Hold still," she warned, edging towards his chair without taking her eyes or the gun off Hargrave. "And do try to save the rude jokes for a more opportune time."

"I did promise you the chance to see me tied to a chair," St. George murmured, when she had leaned in to fumble in his pocket, and Hilary snorted despite everything.

It was tricky opening the knife left-handed, but she managed well enough, and pressed it into St. George's cupped hand. "Hurry up with that, would you?"

"This would all go so much easier if you gave up on that gun," said Hargrave soothingly. "Don't you think so, Miss Thorpe? You've always struck me as such a nice girl."

"Well, perhaps I'm not," said Hilary, with a sudden surge of spite. "Perhaps I'm not--a nice girl, or a good girl, or a trophy on Jerry's mantelpiece or the goddamned elegant flower of English girlhood. Perhaps I nearly died today and you keep on trying to kill me and people I care about and I'm far too fed up to be reasonable--what then?" She steadied the gun in her hand again, as best she could with damp palms; her heart was pounding, and it was definitely far too hot in here. There was no window, and once the stairs caught fire--but she wasn't thinking about that. "I know how to shoot this thing and I don't much trust myself with it, given the day I've had, so you can be as level-headed and, and, and as calm as you like, since you haven't any feelings anyway, but do you really want to go on provoking a hysterical girl with a gun?"

Hargrave, to her very great pleasure, backed up a step; it might still have been a show, but she rather thought she'd made some kind of a point. "Perhaps not, when you put it that way."

Jerry let out a yelp of triumph and shot to his feet, hands free. "What now, Lee?"

"Look in his desk, Jerry," said Kathryn unexpectedly; she had been watching the progress of events with blank, almost detached astonishment. "He'll have records there--a book, I think--it's that he'll want gone still more than any of us."

"You'll do no such thing," said Hilary, though after a touch more hesitation than she would have liked to admit. "Get her--untie her, I mean, if you can, don't cut her loose. I don't think I want either of their hands free."

"I don't matter," said Kathryn, twisting unhelpfully in her chair as St. George fumbled with her wrists. "The book--look for the book."

"Be quiet," said St. George with unexpected sharpness, pulling her upright. "We mean to save your life whether you like it or not."

"I'm against it, myself," said Hargrave; the words were deceptively casual, but there was hatred in his eyes. Perhaps he had cared about William after all, though Hilary was far past feeling any sympathy for him. "We're both killers, she and I, but even I would never have gone so far as to stab my own friend in the back."

"I should think that's only because you haven't got any," observed Hilary. "Jerry--"

"She killed my son," spat Hargrave, transformed utterly by sudden rage, and lunged at Kathryn and St. George. Hilary shrieked and pulled the trigger, and he grunted and staggered back.

St. George froze, still tightly clutching one of Kathryn's wrists; Hargrave was groaning, clutching at his arm; Hilary lowered the gun slowly. Something crashed down the hallway; it sounded like something rather large, and probably necessary to keep the building standing up..

"I'll trade you," said St. George, ridiculously, but Hilary knew what he meant.

"Good," she said shakily, "good, I've--I've had it, I'm done," and handed him the revolver in exchange for taking charge of Kathryn and Hargrave. "Let's go."

"I'll be damned," said St. George, craning over the banister as they ran downstairs; the wood creaked alarmingly underfoot, and he pulled his head hastily back. "They really didn't mean us to last long, did they?"

Hilary peered around desperately through the smoke filling the ground floor; Kathryn took advantage of the pause to jerk half-heartedly at her bonds, back towards the stairs, but Hilary jerked her back much more viciously than was probably necessary. "That way." With no hands free, she simply chose a direction and went, glancing at St. George for confirmation. "Wasn't it?"

He nodded, moving close at her side. "Just through here--it wasn't far. I’ll be right behind you."

It certainly seemed like far, in practice, with no way to really see where they were going, and Hargrave moaning in pain and leaning on her, and Kathryn still insisting on going back upstairs. One moment it seemed the room would never end, and in the next the door had appeared and they were all staggering out into fresh air--or as fresh as the air got near the river.

"Over there," Hilary suggested, startled by the rasp of her own voice. "That lamppost."

There was no response for a moment, and then Hargrave said with strained scorn: “He didn’t come out with us. Didn’t you realise?”

Hilary went cold all over; but it was far too easy to guess why St. George hadn’t followed her out. “The silly ass,” she said, not with quite as much ease as she might have liked. “Hold still, both of you,” she added, and took a certain grim pleasure in binding Hargrave and Kathryn to the same lamppost and leaving them there together; it made a nice counterpoint to the nauseous mixture of panic and exasperation that filled her as she ran back across the street. It was a stupid thing to do, and she didn’t care one bit.

The smoke billowing from the door was by now very nearly too dense to breathe. Despite herself, she hesitated on the verge of plunging in--and just then St. George staggered into view, nearly knocking her over, and clutched at her in disbelief. "I thought you were going to get out of here,” he said hoarsely.

"I did, but apparently you couldn't leave well enough alone." Hilary latched onto his arm, but refused to look back at him until they had made it across the street. "I hate you," she informed him, throat painfully raspy from the smoke. At least one of them was shaking, but her arms were so tight around him that it was difficult to tell who it was.

"It's only fair, considering the stunt you already pulled this evening," he wheezed into her hair. "And anyway, the effort wasn't entirely worthless; look what I brought you." He nudged Hilary away, only by a few inches, and showed her his prize: a small brown leather book, singed around the edges but largely intact. Hilary recognised it, dimly, as the book Amita had found under Ames’s desk.

"No. No, Jerry, you don't--" Hilary laughed, brushing the edge of hysteria for a second. "That isn't worth risking your life. Nothing is, all right?"

"Am I to take it that you might miss me if I were gone?" St. George smiled feebly; he was clearly doing his best to look smug, but he only looked tired and frightened and hopeful. There were sirens wailing towards them now--probably the fire brigade, probably the police, with any luck one or another of St. George's relatives among them.

"Not a bit," said Hilary, out of habit. "Certainly not in this state. You smell like an ashtray."

"Says the girl who smells like a chimney flue." St. George clenched his fingers into the back of her dress. "I got the thing and came out again, didn't I? What's your objection?"

Hilary grabbed his face in both hands and kissed him, hard; she had meant it to be quick, but his lips parted in surprise under hers, and she ended up taking rather longer about it. She had no business carrying on like this in public, she knew, but she was exhausted far beyond the point of concern. It was too much all at once, to come so near to losing him and then have more of him returned to her than she'd known she had or knew what to do with, and she didn't think there was a better way to explain it even if she had had time to find words. "That," she said at last, all but gasping. "You selfish bastard. After all the effort I put in to keep you alive."

”Well,” said Kathryn flatly. “I’m glad that at least you two are happy.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Hilary, although in truth she had been seriously considering it for a moment. She removed herself reluctantly from St. George’s arms--though she refused to let go of his hand, and he was gripping hers tightly in return. “Kathryn, you can’t have--tell me you didn’t mean what you said.”

Kathryn shrugged; she seemed simply worn out. “Why should I? It seems you two weren’t who you claimed to be, either. Lord St. George, I think he called you?”

St. George swallowed. “Look, I can explain--”

“I’m sure you can, but I’m not especially interested.” Kathryn glanced up--first at Hilary, but it was on him that her eyes rested. “You’ve a sister, haven’t you? I’ve met her. Winifred.”

“She’s nothing to do with any of this,” said Hilary, a bit sharply, and even Hargrave, who was white with pain, said shakily: “Don’t tell me you still actually give a damn what this woman’s got to say.”

"He killed my brother," said Kathryn; her tone was still flat, but for the first time a hint of a plea entered her voice. "I thought, if he knew--if he knew how awful it is, to have the only person you've ever loved taken from you because he tried to do the right thing. Roger--St. George, Jerry, you'd have done the same. If it had been your sister--”

“So you left him a message,” said Hilary, suddenly, remembering the envelope she’d never got a look into. “In the attic of your brother’s old shop.”

Kathryn looked up at her, startled. “I let him know how much I knew about him. It kept me safe a little longer.”

St. George was shaking his head, slowly. "Oh no, I wouldn't have done the same. Him, maybe--" He jerked his head at Hargrave. "But not some boy who'd never done a thing to hurt anyone."

“You say that now,” said Kathryn bitterly. “My brother had never done a thing to hurt anyone, either. I expect neither of you has any idea what it’s like, losing someone like that.”

The strangled noise Hilary produced in response startled even her; she gripped St. George’s hand, but he was spluttering as well. “Don’t you dare--” he began.

“Stop,” said Hilary, no longer sure whom she was addressing. She was dimly aware of approaching sirens, but they were far from her primary concern for the moment. “Just please stop.”

For a moment everything did in fact go quiet, and Hilary thought she might have regained some control over the situation; then she followed St. George’s line of sight and realised that Inspector Parker was coming towards them, and he looked far from happy. "You two," he said darkly. "What do you think you've been doing?"

"Taking an interest in the family business?" St. George suggested.

Inspector Parker didn't seem particularly impressed by this reasoning. “And these two?”

“They’re our friends,” blurted St. George, startling everyone--including, apparently, himself. “But,” he added, and hesitated.

“He tried to kill us.” Hilary tightened her hold on St. George’s hand still further, but if it was excessive he didn’t object. “He had the building set alight with us trapped inside--I heard him give the order. And she’s killed people, too.”

“I hadn’t any choice,” said Kathryn bitterly. Hilary wondered whether she didn’t realise whom she was addressing, or was simply past caring.

Inspector Parker grimaced, but at least he didn’t look like he immediately disbelieved their story. “Why don’t you tell me all about it, then?”

“She’ll be wanting to tell you all about this too, I expect,” said St. George, and handed the book to him.

As a kind of afterthought they were given blankets and bundled into the back seat of an otherwise unoccupied police car, where Hilary chose to neglect her own blanket in favour of huddling up with St. George under his. He still smelled like an ashtray, but she didn't really mind all that much; there was still a lot of commotion outside the car, police bustling about and the fire not yet put out, but she could no longer seem to make sense of any of it. She thought she could make out Kathryn shouting about something amidst the noise, though, and her stomach knotted up with guilt. "I thought it would feel better," she admitted at last. "We solved the case, didn't we? Isn't that the point? We had a nice little adventure and caught a killer--several killers, really. But I don't feel terribly proud of myself right now."

St. George considered the question, leg shifting restlessly against hers. "I feel a bit ill, actually."

Hilary looked up at him warily. "Perhaps you'd better get out of the car, then."

"Not that ill," he said hastily. "Not enough that anything's going to come of it. It's just been a hell of a day, that's all, and I feel all turned around. I think we've missed suppertime, anyway, but perhaps they'll feed us at the Yard."

"The Yard." Hilary echoed. She sat up briefly, twisting around to try and get a better idea of what was going on outside the car, but still found none of it informative. "Don't you sound like an old hand. Yes, that's right; we're going down to the Yard, where your uncle will either arrest us for something I'm sure we've done wrong that I can't think of just now, or serve us a four-course dinner with lobster in it somewhere."

St. George groaned. "I wouldn't even mind being arrested at this point, if they fed us."

"Of course you wouldn't. I'm not sure I would either." Having thus become uncomfortably aware that she had never had the chance to finish her lunch--which had been several hours ago, by now--Hilary subsided into quiet. "Now what happens?" she wondered aloud after a moment.

"Now we go to be harassed by detectives, I expect," said St. George, who didn't sound terribly enthused himself, "and if we're lucky Uncle Charles doesn't tell them to go extra hard on us because we're family."

Hilary smiled, rather to her own surprise. "That isn't precisely what I was referring to."

"I know." His fingers found hers, somewhere, and slid between them.

In her encroaching exhausted daze, Hilary found their interlaced hands one of the most fascinating things she'd ever seen, and gazed at them blankly for what felt like an age.

“I’m sorry,” said St. George eventually. “I know how you feel about chivalry and all that, but I’m sorry anyway--I seem to have effected just about the most useless rescue possible.”

“You did just fine,” Hilary grumbled. “And anyway, I was rescued, wasn’t I? Here I am.”

"But not by me." St. George closed his eyes. "Some assistant I turned out to be. The whole world was ending, and I couldn't do a damn thing about it."

"But--" Hilary began, momentarily stunned; she had had no chance yet to plumb the depths of his feeling for her, and it took a moment to grasp that she was being given a glimpse of them now. “You did, though,” she concluded, a little feebly, and felt immediately silly for applying the metaphor thus. “In a way, I mean.”

St. George huffed sceptically. "I very much doubt that. You seemed to be doing all right when I got there."

"Jerry," said Hilary, pained. "Do you know how long I had been sitting there, after deciding I'd wait just a moment and collect my wits?" It wasn’t that she particularly wanted to dwell on the matter any longer, but she was trying desperately to find a way to get a point across to him, and she did want to talk about it to someone. "Everything happened so fast; it seemed perfectly all right to just sit down for a moment and collect myself, and then I would go find Kathryn and see what was happening, except then I just couldn't seem to get up again."

St. George kissed her forehead. "How long?"

"I don't know. Hours. I might still be there, for all I know, if you hadn't shown up and knocked me back into motion." She curled in more tightly against his side, and St. George slumped lower in the seat to meet her, his head tipping against hers. Though he seemed as lazy and collected as ever, she slid an impulsive arm over his chest and found his heart hammering like mad under her hand. For her, Hilary thought, with no small amount of wonder--and oh, for all the insanity of the day they'd had, she was so glad to have ended up here with him.

St. George let out a long breath; it ruffled Hilary's hair for a moment, and she managed something that might almost have been a smile. "Lee, for a minute there--I really didn’t think I was going to find my way out. It would’ve rather ruined my romantic gesture, don’t you think?”

"Don't." Hilary's voice rattled in her throat. "I know, Jerry, and I don't want to think about it." But the thought had her trembling again; she wasn’t going to cry, she was absolutely sure of that, but only because she hadn’t cried in front of another living soul since her mother’s funeral and she had no intention of starting now.

For all that they'd wished desperately for the arrival of the police not so long ago, their collection by a bobby who got into the driver's seat a few minutes later was a thoroughly unwanted intrusion; he twisted around to look at them for a moment, eyes narrowed in clear disapproval of how closely entangled they were. St. George was half-dozing and didn't seem to notice; Hilary stared back at the man for a moment, at first uncomprehending, and then felt a spike of irritation such as she would have thought she was too tired for. "Please," was all she said, forcing herself to be polite; they couldn't very well have kept their privacy in the back of a police car forever, after all, but she didn’t remove herself from St. George’s lap. "It's been a long night--just take us wherever you've been told to take us?"

-------

When St. George dragged the sorry remains of himself out of Parker's office a few hours later, he was hoping against all hope to find Hilary there waiting for him.

Instead he found only his other uncle, who was contemplating his nephew with approximately the same expression he would have bestowed upon a necktie of less-than-advisable colour. "Is Miss Thorpe all right?" St. George inquired, by way of a hello, and deposited himself into the chair opposite.

"As well as anyone could ask of her, under the circumstances. I think she would rather have stayed and waited for you, but she was nearly asleep on her feet; Bunter is seeing her home, and Winifred after her." His uncle folded his hands patiently on his knee, corners of his mouth twitching; St. George chose to take that as a good sign. "She did leave explicit instructions that Charles and I were to leave you alive and in fit state to visit her tomorrow morning."

St. George slumped a little in his chair; he himself was so tired by this point that he couldn't imagine how he was remaining awake. He wished Hilary were there with him; he wished even more that he were with her, wherever she was by now that wasn't Scotland Yard. He had had the chance to wash his face and hands, but his clothing still reeked sickeningly of smoke. But if Uncle Peter wanted to make an issue of it now, the issue would be made now, and St. George didn't have an chance in hell of trying to worm free. "Well," he said at last. "I really have made a hash of things this time, haven't I?"

"A highly impressive one," agreed his uncle. "Though the two of you accomplished what you set out to accomplish; I'd say you can be credited for that much, at least, despite the painfully amateur nature of your methods."

"You must not be so fresh yourself, Uncle." St. George snorted before he could stop himself, though he forced himself to at least sit upright again. "Last I looked, you were an amateur too; I'm tempted to take that as a compliment."

Lord Peter shrugged. "I can't very well be held responsible for whatever absurd ways you choose to interpret what I say."

"And anyway," St. George went on, trying to feel his way back onto surer ground, "I suspect you're crediting me with far higher motives than I've any right to."

"Oh, I doubt that very much," said his uncle comfortably, and detective or no detective, St. George thought, it might be far more trouble than it was worth to have someone so irritatingly perceptive at hand, especially someone who had known one since birth. "I should say, at a guess, that you saw a chance to impress a pretty girl--which even I know Miss Thorpe to be--and were very much surprised to find yourself trying to do a good deed for its own sake. And you should know better than to fish for compliments, Gerald; or at least you should know to do it more subtly."

"I was only testing you." St. George tried to be flip, but it was difficult to be sufficiently casual when a check of his pockets showed that he didn't seem to have any cigarettes on him. He thought he remembered having last put them in the jacket he’d since lent to Hilary. "You are getting old, after all; it never hurts to know the limits of the people at your back."

"Now you're sounding more yourself." Lord Peter leaned forward to offer him cigarette and lighter. "Though I hope you don't intend to make a habit of these sorts of misadventures."

"I didn't intend to have the first one," St. George complained, and paused to light the cigarette and take a few soothing drags. "It never hurts to be prepared."

Lord Peter turned another cigarette over a few times between his fingers before lighting it for himself. "Speaking of which, it is--suggestive, shall we say--that, after we have both led such very successful bachelor careers, you should be taking such a serious interest in Miss Thorpe so soon after my own engagement to Miss Vane."

"Suggestive of what?" St. George demanded. "I wouldn't string her along just to ape you; you must know that. And I'm certain Miss Thorpe does as well."

"Your mother, on the other hand, can be relied on to press the point as far as possible, if not further." His uncle smiled thinly. "I thought, for all our sakes, I'd better raise it before she did."

St. George gave this reasoning the consideration it deserved. "Now I think of it, haven't you got any other criminal wasp's nests that need blundering into? I think I'd prefer it."

"Not just now." Lord Peter shook his head. "It'd be awfully inconvenient to have to find a new best man, after all--and Charles never has been terribly fond of black tie."

St. George laughed, a little uncomfortably--the past few hours spent with Parker had been acutely embarrassing for everyone concerned. It was somehow surreal to recall that he was meant to be marrying off his uncle in less than a fortnight’s time.

“It was rather a good likeness,” Lord Peter went on, after they had smoked in silence for a minute. “It got a good laugh out of your aunt.”

“Which aunt?” said St. George, half pleased and half mortified.

“Mary--although I’m sure Miss Vane will enjoy it as well.”

“She had better.” St. George slumped in his chair again. “It was meant to be a present for her.”

-------

Hilary had never had a problem with Bunter--they had always got on fine, really. But having to be chauffeured home by him in all his austerity, after having had to deal with what seemed to be half the men of Scotland Yard--and with Lord Peter as an authority figure rather than as a friend, which was more tiring still and not a thing she'd ever thought she'd have to do again--was really a little too much for her. It was more than just physical exhaustion that made her glad to bid him thanks and goodbye in front of Mrs. Bloom's house, where the sleek Daimler looked a painfully intrusive sight, and climb the stairs back home to her attic.

Once there, she stripped herself automatically of shoes and stockings-- she had taken a hat out to lunch too, very respectably, and a handbag, but both were long vanished and most likely at the bottom of the Thames somewhere. The handbag would take some work replacing, Hilary thought, overwhelmed for a moment at the thought of it; in another moment, the matter had flitted right out of her head again. It seemed too mundane to be real. Instead, she sat down on the sofa, still fully dressed except for her bare feet and legs, and resolved to have a nice long rational think about the fact that she seemed to be hopelessly in love with St. George.

You're marvellous, he'd been saying to her. You're perfect. I don't know what would become of me without you. After several hours Hilary was still trying miserably to work out how long St. George had been blatantly showing her his belly--and she so wrapped up in trying to restrain her own feelings for him that she'd simply refused to see it. She certainly wondered what impression she had given him in the process; it couldn't possibly have been a favourable one.

At that painful realisation, Hilary finally had to acknowledge that she was utterly exhausted in both body and spirit; that even if this was something important enough to be thought about, she didn't want to think about it. All she really needed at the moment was St. George's company: to curl up into his arms and hold him safe and tell him--and tell him--

The next thing Hilary knew, she woke up sprawled face-down on the sofa, still mostly dressed and huddled under St. George’s borrowed jacket. Long enough had passed that it was once again sunny outside, she still felt utterly worn out, but if she still wished for company as she dragged herself off the sofa and crawled properly into bed--and she did wish for it, so deeply and quietly it felt nearly instinctual--she forgot entirely to question that wish.

-------

She was awakened the next morning by a barrage of knocking--though it was nearly past lunchtime, Hilary chose to consider it morning by virtue of her having just woken up. She realised as she was opening the door that she was still wearing a frock that she had worn while being drowned, burnt, and interrogated by police in immediate succession, and that she had subsequently slept in for ten hours, but she rather thought that if it were St. George hammering at the door she shouldn't care in what state he saw her.

"Hilary!" Amita hurled herself over the threshold the moment the door opened, in what was perhaps the greatest loss of dignity Hilary had ever seen her display. "I'm so glad to see you. People have been saying all kinds of terrible things."

Hilary patted the other girl's back cautiously. "What things?"

"That you'd been killed, for one." Priya was there at the top of the stairs, too, and Gail, but no St. George; Hilary was disappointed for a second, and immediately afterwards guilty for having been disappointed. "Or Jerry, or Kathryn, or possibly that Jerry had gone entirely off his head and gone to take Hargrave out once and for all. The only thing anyone seems to know is that neither Kathryn nor your young man came home last night."

"It's quite fascinating, really, the conversations people have been having over breakfast," said Gail brightly. "I should have thought none of them were right, but to look at you--"

"Thanks," said Hilary bitterly, having just remembered about Kathryn. "Now get in here, the lot of you; I can promise, if nothing else, that none of us are dead."

"Then what happened?" Amita demanded. "I've been worried sick."

Hilary shut the door firmly behind them. "Jerry's at his uncle's, most likely, or at his own place--the one he has under his own name, I mean; I haven't seen him last night, but I'd be terribly surprised if he's gone into any homicidal rages since then. As for Kathryn--" she swallowed. "Look, can I take a few minutes to wash up and dress? I know it's not exactly the mark of a good hostess, but I desperately need a change, and then I'll tell you all about it and you can write all the newspaper stories you like. I'm just afraid you might not like me very much once I've told you. Our friends who didn't know I was using a false name certainly won't."

"I very much doubt that." Gail's eyes were wide, though, as she shooed Hilary back towards the bedroom. "Go on, though. I'll make you something to drink. Not that kind of drink," she finished, absently.

"I don't care," said Hilary, who despite ten hours' sleep still felt too tired to be anything but entirely honest. "I could do with something, but I don't think I've anything of the sort in except for beer."

What she wanted was a good long soak in a tub--and she meant to have one yet--but for the moment she settled for washing her hands and face and stuffing all her clothes from the day before in the wastebin. The combined reek of smoke and the Thames could probably have been washed out, but she frankly just didn't want to have to look at them any more. St. George’s jacket she folded over the back of a chair; for all she knew he wouldn’t want it back, but it seemed only polite to send it out for cleaning before returning it.

Despite Hilary's best efforts to be efficient, it took a few spare minutes for her to talk herself into reemerging from the bedroom. When she did, she found her friends still there waiting--along with a supply of tea and scones that she was nearly certain had not been available in her cupboards. "I went back round to the shop to get them," Gail explained, without prompting, "though none of it's alcoholic, I'm afraid."

"It's marvellous," said Hilary solemnly, and sat down heavily on the floor by the coffee table. She had eaten the night before, or at least been provided with sandwiches from the nearest source Bunter could locate, but the experience of cramming down a cold ham sandwich in an empty office at Scotland Yard had rather lacked something. "But you see--Kathryn's in prison, and it's rather our fault--mine and Jerry's, I mean, so if you'd rather not be giving me food you ought to be selling, I feel you might as well know now."

Priya jolted upright. "In prison? But--there has to be some mistake, hasn't there? Can't we bail her out?"

But Amita was watching Hilary narrowly. "It's not a mistake, is it?" she said quietly, and Hilary thanked God for having been spared the necessity of saying it herself.

"I wish it were," said Hilary unhappily. "I really wish it were. But she confessed, to me and Jerry and I expect by now to Scotland Yard as well. I don't think there's very much doubt about the matter. I did say you wouldn't like it much. I don't--" she hesitated, unsure whether she was being in any way encouraging; perhaps there was no way to be encouraging under the circumstances. "I'm not sure she's been entirely well since her brother died."

"Well, we knew that.” Gail's astonished expression was tinged now with horror. "I'd ask what she's confessed to, but I'm not entirely sure I want to know."

"I think I can guess." Priya's fingers crept over to brush Gail's knee.

"It had to be someone," Hilary went on; she was babbling slightly, she knew, but she wasn't sure how to stop. "But she was your friend, and I'm sorry, I'm really dreadfully sorry."

"But she can't have--I mean, she's always been a little bit remote and it got worse after Jeremy, but surely she'd never--Hilary, I'd known them both since I was four. I don't know," concluded Gail helplessly, "I don't think I blame you, exactly, and I suppose I should have expected something like this when I found out what you were up to, but I don't know what to do. I'm sorry." She got up, abruptly, hands twisting together. "Don't be silly, you can still have the tea. I just think I need some air."

The three girls remaining sat in silence for a moment, and then Priya rose to her feet as well, not quite looking at Hilary. "I think I'd better go after her."

"I hope," Hilary began, not quite sure exactly what it was she hoped, but it didn't matter; Priya had slipped out the door, leaving her and Amita by themselves with a supply of tea and baked goods that had been excessive even for four people.

Amita patted her shoulder. "I don't think Priya's angry, if that helps. And trust me, I know when she's angry."

"But Gail is." Hilary drew her knees up. "I'd like to say I'm sorry you ever got me into this, but I'm not. I've just gone and met all these perfectly decent people and got fond of them and I'm going to have to explain that I was lying to everyone all along."

Amita was silent for a moment. "If it's any consolation, you did do what I asked you to do; Ames’ office was all boarded up this morning, and I somehow doubt I’m likely to see much more of him."

"Ruined your only chance at getting work this summer, more like," said Hilary, but she laughed anyway.

"Oh, I don't know," said Amita encouragingly. "I have this friend who's been seeing an aristocrat lately; I thought it might be time I swallowed my pride and asked if the man knew anywhere he could put in a word for me."

"I'm not," protested Hilary automatically. "At least, I don't think I am. Yet. I'm not sure what it is we're doing, honestly." She knew she had no intention of pushing St. George back out of her life, but the reflexive twinge persisted at the back of her mind that she didn't want a serious relationship; that she just wasn't that kind of girl, that she had more important things to be doing with her time.

"Someone had better drink this before it gets cold," said Amita absently, pouring a cup of tea for herself. "And I mean to ask him for advice no matter what you do, so you might as well sort it out sooner or later."

Hilary nodded. "I know, I know. I'll see him today, probably, and then it'll get sorted out for good and you'll have to find someone else's love life to interfere with."

"I certainly hope so, for both your sakes." Amita stretched out her legs in front of her, looking a little too pleased with herself under the circumstances.

“You,” said Hilary, and scowled at her. “This was what you wanted all along, wasn’t it? You were hoping to get me and Jerry closer so you’d have an excuse to ask him for help.”

“I may have had a hope or two,” said Amita. “But you’ll never prove my motives were anything less than entirely altruistic.”

Hilary groaned, dropping her head between her knees. "So many people," she said dully. "I suppose I'd better tell people sooner rather than later--if Gail doesn't do it for me. This is going to be a rotten day, isn't it?"

"Quite possibly," said Amita sadly. "But once it's been done, it'll be done, for better or worse."

-------

"I can't for the life of me understand how you manage to keep any friends," Hilary told Lord Peter several hours later, stabbing moodily at a filet of sole until it disintegrated into flakes too small to be eaten.

"Some days I wonder myself how anyone has the patience to put up with me," agreed Wimsey cheerfully. "But I had the idea you counted yourself among their number--or at least you've made a good enough pretence to merit my buying you that dinner you're currently using as an outlet for your frustrations--so I suppose I must have at least one redeeming quality."

Hilary took a guilty mouthful of food.

"That was different," she objected. "No one killed Deacon; well, not exactly, certainly no one that could possibly be jailed for it. It was a rotten mess for Mr. and Mrs. Thoday, of course, but that wasn't your doing. But most of your cases haven't been like that--have they? Certainly not when it's people you already know."

"Looked at it that way," Wimsey agreed, "it is a necessary evil, rather--but necessary all the same. The woman murdered two people, Hilary, and from what Charles says of her it appears she feels at least one of those deaths was morally defensible. I imagine matters would have disintegrated further from there."

"She was also my friend," Hilary reminded him. "And she saved my life; that's the thing I really can't get around. She saved me, and I've turned around and put her in prison. I hardly know which of us ought to feel more betrayed."

"I think you'll find, with the passage of time, that the answer is undoubtedly you." Wimsey neatly polished off the last of his chicken. "Although you may be interested to know just what she was doing in that warehouse."

The question couldn't possibly be an entirely safe one, so Hilary sucked her cheeks in for a moment, but of course now she couldn't not ask. "All right, why was she there?"

"She told Charles she went there because she wasn't thinking straight--because she was too angry that Hargrave had tried to kill one of her friends." Wimsey shrugged ever so faintly. "She also maintains that one of Hargrave's motives in abducting you was to goad her into making exactly that sort of move--so really you saved her life in return, and you could consider that obligation absolved if you cared to do so."

"You're right," said Hilary, responding to the obvious sentiment rather than the words. "It doesn't really make me feel much better."

"Honestly, in your shoes, I'd be more concerned about the people you've befriended in the course of your investigations who weren't murderers."

"It isn't as if I pretended to be an entirely different person," said Hilary, with wan hope. "I lied about my name, but I was really just myself, for the most part. People might understand--mightn't they?"

”Some people are more understanding than others--as a general rule,” said Wimsey, completely unhelpfully. “Though thou with clouds of anger did disguise thy face--no, that doesn’t quite suit. There may have been clouds involved, for all I know, but I hope they weren’t angry ones.”

For some reason, Hilary found this digression somewhat less comforting than usual; rather than play along she waited it out, fork twitching restlessly between her fingers. “There may have been some anger involved at some points,” she admitted. “Just a little. But not at them, of course, and I don’t--” she grimaced and cut herself off. She had just remembered a later line that began O, if thou car’st not whom I love, and thought of Priya for a moment, but she certainly wasn’t going to mention it.

Wimsey sobered at last and met her eyes again, for which she was thankful. "You can certainly make your feelings as clear to them as you can--but if your friends feel you betrayed them, I’m sure you realise you haven't much control over whether they forgive you or not." He paused minutely. "I'll grant my nephew a certain talent for coaxing forgiveness; what does he make of the problem?"

Discerning that this question represented nothing more nor less than curiosity about her personal affairs, and recognising further that she could sympathise perfectly well with that curiosity, Hilary chose all the same not to be baited into expounding on her feelings any more than necessary. They were her business first and foremost, and St. George’s business second, and only then would she worry about the rest of his family. "I only spoke to him briefly today," she admitted, trying to keep from showing even her regret over that. "He only phoned this evening to ask after me and apologise for not coming round in person; I rather think he's steeling himself to deal with people.”

“Somehow I think he’ll manage it all right,” said Lord Peter; he sounded more resigned than anything.

Hilary bit her lip, prodding the remains of her fish into a small neat pile. “Would you--well, I suppose not; you’ve so many better things to do right now. I had better say, do you know anyone who might teach me to shoot?”

He glanced at her a bit sharply, but Hilary couldn’t really imagine he didn’t guess exactly what she was thinking. “I hope you don’t mean to say you’ve acquired a taste for it.”

“Of course not,” said Hilary, and grimaced. “Which is exactly why. I had an afternoon’s instruction in shooting beer bottles when I was twelve, and it was just enough to scare the hell out of me yesterday. I’d rather learn properly than not at all, and I can’t very well unlearn.”

“That’s quite reasonable,” said Lord Peter, without hesitation; she hadn’t really expected him to say otherwise, but it was a relief all the same. “I think I know a man or two who could help you there.”

-------

After only a day and two nights out of Foxgrove, St. George found upon his return that the place already felt unsettling in some way in which it never had before. The place had been his home for an entire summer, but for no particular reason that he could discern felt not only unhomelike but faintly hostile. Perhaps, he reflected, resisting the urge to dodge down an alley to avoid passing the Stag and Swan, it was because he no longer carried even the thin guise of being Roger Christianson. This had been Christianson's turf, for the short while that that person had existed, but it was by no means Viscount St. George's.

Mr. Fleetston received the return of his latchkey, and relinquished St. George's belongings in return, with something that in any other man might almost have been characterised as warmth. "If you ever again need a place in this part of the city, my lord, please be sure to let me know; I'd be more than happy to make the necessary arrangements for you."

"I don't doubt it," said St. George, truthful enough but rather discomfited, and retreated as quickly and tactfully as he could manage. The suitcase he relegated for the moment to his left hand; his right shoulder had given him pain in varying degrees for weeks now, and he had every intention of looking after it properly before it deteriorated further, but today of all days he wanted to look his best.

The next familiar face he encountered happened to be Gail, approaching him on the same side of the street with Aphra trailing behind her on her lead. St. George opened his mouth to greet her, thanking God that he’d met someone genuinely friendly; Gail hesitated visibly upon seeing him, turned in the other direction, turned back, and appeared to make up her mind to confront him just as he was coming abreast of her in any case. "I ought to have known," she said bitterly. "Priya had the right idea about your sort after all."

The greeting died on St. George's lips; he glanced down at the dog for help, but Aphra seemed equally unimpressed with him. "My sort?" he echoed doubtfully. "I hope you don't mean men with titles--you did already know who I was, after all. And what I'd come here for."

Gail folded her arms. "I thought you'd come here to get off with Hilary--no matter what family you happened to be from. But no, you had to go and interfere, and look where it got Kathryn."

"But she confessed," said St. George, and realised too late that he had hit the precise point that really stuck in Gail's throat and that she was in no mood to discuss it.

"I don't care,” said Gail hotly. "I don't know that I even believe she did; people will say anything if it makes for good gossip. But I know Kathryn; I've known her almost since I was born. And I can't believe it. It's all a load of rot. You came in wanting to make trouble and you've made it; can't you go away again?"

St. George forced his shoulders not to slump. "As it happens, I am going, so you needn't fear on that account; I only came round to have my things collected from Fleetston's. But if you insist that we part ways for good, I would rather we at least part on amicable terms."

Gail eyed him doubtfully. "You put up a good show of condescending to be our friend. I'll give you that much."

"It wasn't a show," said St. George feebly. "if it had been, I shouldn't give a damn whether you were angry at me or not. But I'd honestly be no good at that kind of thing even if I'd tried, and I feel thoroughly rotten about the way the whole thing turned out, I can promise you."

"Well, it's nice to know you've got a conscience, at least." Gail grimaced and softened visibly--though it might perhaps have been more accurate to say only that she looked marginally less displeased. "Look--I'm not really that angry with you; you really do want to steer clear of Priya for the foreseeable future, because she's still pretty upset, and she knows it isn't really your fault, but that's only making her feel worse yet. As for me--" She wet her lips. "You're right, it's ghastly, and I feel like utter hell about all of it and I don't know what to do. I don't think I can cope with you or Hilary for the next while yet."

"That's--" St. George began, and paused, unsure whether he actually felt it was fair or not. These people’s opinions really did matter to him--which meant, he concluded regretfully, he was obliged to be honest. "I can't say I blame you," he said instead. "You're not wrong, at least. I did come into this looking to turn up stones for a lark."

Gail fidgeted with the dog lead in her hands; Aphra, who had gone snuffling off into a flowerbed, mistook this for a signal and wandered back to her accustomed place atop St. George’s feet. "And did you have one?"

This question, so startlingly obvious once presented, was not one he had previously thought to consider. "I got some good bits of adventure out of it," he concluded at last, "and a few other things a damn sight better still--knowing you lot, for example." Gail appeared to almost smile before catching herself, and St. George was relieved. "But on balance--no, I'd hold to my diagnosis of 'thoroughly unfortunate.' I don't suppose," he added, in absentminded hopes of pressing his advantage, "you'd care to keep me on as a caricaturist? I enjoyed the work--found it rather cathartic--and I think I’d like to go on doing it regardless. No one need know who I am, if you're ashamed of keeping a man with a title about."

It was too much; she cooled again, visibly. "That might be pushing your luck more than a bit," said Gail, and frowned, glancing aimlessly around the street. "I'll--well, you'll be wanting to see Hilary, I expect, so I suppose I'll still see you around here regardless."

St. George shrugged. "I don't know; I think she might be looking for a new place. Awkward for her, don't you know, having to stay around here. Under the circumstances."

"Naturally." Gail fidgeted some more. "Look, I'd better--I only popped out of the shop to pick up lunch. I really don't trust it on its own for more than a few minutes."

"Life goes on, I suppose," said St. George idiotically; he was, admittedly, distracted for the moment by the need to wake Aphra up and coax her back off his feet. At least someone in the neighbourhood was inclined to keep him around. "Give Priya and Thomas my love, will you? If they'll have it."

"I’m not sure they will just yet, but I'll keep it in trust for them." Gail bobbed her head uncertainly and sidled away, and this time St. George let her go, feeling he'd done what little was possible to ameliorate the situation.

He made it nearly to Mrs. Bloom's unaccosted, but found Amita coming out the back gate. Drawing the obvious conclusion, St. George found himself assailed by a bizarre mixture of relief that Hilary was home and now most likely alone, and terror at the realisation that there was now no excuse for him to postpone his mission.

He gave her a distracted half-smile of greeting and set his shoulders half-consciously, staring up what suddenly seemed a forbiddingly high flight of stairs to the attic.

It was a surprise, therefore, when Amita touched his arm uncertainly. "I say--Jerry?"

"Oh!" St. George startled, and immediately felt guilty for it; he'd taken for granted that she had continued on her way back towards the street. "Yes, sorry, hello."

Amita offered an apologetic smile. "Could I have a moment of your time? I'm sure you'd very much like to see Hilary, and I promise it'll only be a minute, but if you'd rather talk later that's quite all right."

St. George couldn't quite help a wistful glance up the stairs, but he collected his wits in another second and devoted his attention to Amita. He was genuinely curious, at least; unless it was something to do with Hilary, it was difficult to imagine what the girl might want of him. "No, that's all right. Go ahead."

"It's rather--" Amita took in a breath and let it out, quite slowly, jaw visibly tense. "I’d like to apologise about the other day. Or something. Apologise doesn’t seem quite the right word.”

St. George tried his very best to recall whether they’d argued recently; nothing sprang to mind. “Whatever for?”

“Smirt,” said Amita, with a shiver. “He and his friend showed up--I rather suspect he was trying to distract me. I don’t know what I could have done if I’d known. I mean, I came to find you straight away, but they said you’d already gone looking. But I wish I’d done something.”

“If I thought you’d anything to apologise for--which you don’t,” St. George interjected quickly, “I should think you’d want to tell Lee if anyone. Not that I was much use in the matter myself. It was a rotten day for everyone.”

Amita smiled. “That’s just about what Hilary said, so I suppose I’d better leave it alone.”

“She lied,” said St. George confidentially. “About the ‘being much use’ bit, that is. She was more use than all the rest of us put together.”

“I suspected as much.” Amita hesitated. “That isn’t even what I really wanted to ask. As much as I hate to say so, I could use a favour, if you're able and willing? Please."

"Always willing," St. George promised, "and I'll do my damnedest to be able, but I'm afraid seats in Commons are going rather dear this year."

Amita narrowed her eyes, looking inexplicably alarmed for half a second. "Nothing quite so ambitious as that, but something rather like it. You see, I don't know if Hilary's told you, but I had a hell of a time finding a place to work for the summer, and I know you know where it got me. And now I've lost even that. Not that I can say I'm all too sorry to see the back of Ames, but it's left me rather lost. And I thought, if you knew a good solicitor, or if you know someone who knows one--"

"I'll happily put a word in," said St. George, since she was so clearly putting off having to actually say the words. "Or wheedle some unfortunate aunt or uncle into it."

"Thanks," said Amita, though she still looked not quite pleased. "I almost didn't ask--it's rotten that it's even necessary--but one does what one must, and I expect there are an awful lot of people who are more likely to believe my merits on the word of someone like you than on my own."

"I see," said St. George, who in fact had not quite seen until just now, and suddenly felt unaccountably embarrassed about the whole matter. "Your sister won't like it," he said absently. "She's not at all pleased with me right now--I'm sure you know why."

"I don't give a damn what my sister thinks," said Amita; presented in just the same soft polite tones as everything else she'd said, the sentiment came out particularly jarring. "I'm not at Oxford for the fun of it. I need a job. This summer’s been a waste, but I’ll most certainly need it when I come down next year."

"You know," St. George suggested, hoping to cheer her up at least slightly, "parts of my family are rather well in with Sir Impey Biggs--in fact, I don't know why I bother asking, because I happen to know perfectly well that you know that."

"Then it's no use my denying it, is there?" Amita laughed. "Though it seems rather too much, on top of asking a favour like this, to specify who I'd like you to put a word in with."

St. George stuffed both hands in his pockets and grinned, feeling suddenly far too pleased with himself. At least something was going to come right out of all this--well, two things. "Not that I know him terribly well personally. Only met the man a few times, and most of those under less than pleasant circumstances. But he's a decent old bird, Sir Impey, if rather old-fashioned. Was he one of the ones you wrote to, originally?"

She nodded. "He was, though I never heard back. I expect he gets quite a lot of that kind of thing."

"Yes, but listen--being rather old and set in his ways, I shouldn't be surprised if he'd seen the name at the end of your letter and discarded the idea pretty quick for some less than comfortable reasons. But having once got the bug put in his ear by someone he'd be more likely to listen to--just about any one of my aunts or uncles, really--I do believe he'd be more likely than most to give you a fair shake once he'd actually got you in his office. A really fair shake, I mean, no matter your ancestry or whose friend you are."

Amita gulped. "Well, I can't say that's ideal, but I gave up on ideal ages back, so it's comforting all the same. Thank you," she added hastily. "I'm not sure if I've said that already, so, really, thanks so much."

"It's no trouble," St. George assured her, "and really, of all the things I've fouled up, it's nice to be able to put something right. Though I've really got to--" he glanced up the stairs again, guiltily. "How is she?"

"She'll be pleased to see you," said Amita, with a degree of care that was mildly alarming. "I think she's still pretty rattled; I only left because Dad's seen the papers and is all in a fuss, so I've got to go meet him for tea."

St. George tried his very best not to fret. Fretting, he was sure, did not become him. "I'll do my best."

-------

Someone, for some reason, was talking to himself outside Hilary's back door; someone the sound of whose voice made her heart clench in her chest. "Never mind," he was saying aloud, "it was idiotic anyway, perhaps I'd better just--"

Hilary yanked the door open firmly before anything irredeemably drastic could occur, and St. George--who appeared to have been leaning fairly heavily on it--all but toppled in on top of her. His suit was almost obscenely well tailored, his shoes shined, his face clean-shaven and his hair newly cut; Hilary suspected that, if she could get a look at his hands, they would be freshly manicured. It was an astonishing change from the exhausted, bedraggled, soot-covered man from whom she'd been parted at Scotland Yard two days ago--and yet she found that he was not a whit less unbearably dear to her. Which was--disastrous, Hilary would have thought a month or two ago; now she wasn't sure how she felt about it besides entirely overwhelmed. "Jerry," she observed, with an entirely unfeigned brightness. "How kind of you to drop in."

"There's no need to resort to punning, Lee." Having caught his balance with a hand on her shoulder, St. George grinned at her, and surely, Hilary thought, this couldn't go on indefinitely; she couldn't imagine that any person could go on for weeks and months and years feeling like this about another person and survive. She would have to ask Gail or Priya, sometime, how in God's name they managed it. If she were ever again on speaking terms with them.

"You're looking very well-groomed," she observed, extricating herself neatly and wandering away into the kitchen in an attempt to be casual.

"I thought it'd help me feel a little more like myself again." St. George shrugged at the edge of her vision, dropping a suitcase by the door and removing his hat to run a self-conscious hand back over his hair. "But it really feels rather strange, come to think of it."

"I won't lie; it looks a little strange to my eye, too." Hilary came to the rather embarrassing conclusion that there was nothing in her kitchen that she actually wanted at this moment, and returned to the sitting room empty-handed. "Have you been awfully busy since yesterday? I've hardly done anything but sleep and take meals at all the wrong hours."

St. George removed his hat and went to stare a little blankly out the window at the wall of the house next door. "Well, Uncle gave me the usual thorough talking-to, only five times more so--I think secretly he's rather impressed with us," he interjected optimistically, "though of course he'd never admit as much for fear of encouraging me. He might to you, if you went about it delicately enough."

"And a lot of good I am at going about anything delicately," Hilary pointed out. "Anyway, he’s been quite polite to me about it without any prompting, so if you want to believe he's impressed with you, you might as well just go on and believe it."

"I'm certain of it," said St. George loftily, twirling his hat idly between his fingers as he leaned back against the window-frame.

Hilary shrugged resignedly; the prospect of having genuinely impressed Lord Peter, while vastly improbable, possessed a certain undeniable appeal. "What did he say to you?"

"He said we'd made a devil of a mess for ourselves and everyone around us," St. George repeated, not without a continued faint note of pride. "And that he and Uncle Charles were going to do their best to keep us out of court and out of the papers, but he couldn't make any promises, and my mother is going to have all our hides regardless. Probably even Peterkin's, if she can swing it. Uncle is hauling me and poor old Winnie back there this afternoon for judgement."

"Oh," said Hilary, trying to conceal her disappointment without being entirely sure why. "I was hoping we would get some time--I mean I wanted to, the other night, and we didn't really get the chance."

St. George half-smiled and reached for her hand. "I've missed you too--quite terribly, really. And speaking to you last night only made it worse; I suppose that sounds very silly."

"If it does, then we're both very silly and I don't give a damn." Hilary forwent taking his hand, but only so she could slip both arms tight around him. "I missed you more than anything," she confessed, muffled in his collar. "I ought to have asked you to come sooner. I wish I had. You look worn out, new haircut or no.”

“I haven’t been sleeping so well,” St. George confessed. “How’ve you been making out?”

“I’m sleeping,” said Hilary optimistically. “But not well. I keep dreaming that I'm awake and that I can hear water trickling into my bedroom from somewhere.”

St. George pressed his face into her hair. “Anything I can do?”

“I needed you here,” said Hilary, frightening herself with her own candour. “And here you are.”

He swallowed. "We'll make as much time together as you like, just as soon as all this rot with my parents is over. I’ll be back here by evening, most likely, tomorrow at worst--I’ve got to stick around anyway, and make sure sufficient alcohol is laid in for the wedding. Assuming--" he wavered unexpectedly. "That is what you meant, isn't it? More of an indefinite kind of offer?"

Hilary disengaged and perched on the arm of the sofa, digging her fingers more tightly into the fabric than was strictly necessary to keep her balance, and did her absolute best to appear levelheaded. "All right--all right, I'm sure you've got a speech prepared and everything, and far be it from me to deprive you of a chance to deliver it."

"I did, as a matter of fact." St. George smiled over at her--just a quick lopsided flicker that Hilary returned without thinking--and then went back to frowning down at his hat for a moment before setting it aside on the windowsill behind him. "But then I thought--well, I think I know you at least a little by now; I should hope I do, anyway, and I think, whatever your feelings about me personally, the idea of committing to anyone still scares you silly. And I could get down on my knees and tell you you're the most beautiful brilliant woman who ever lived and you mean the world to me--because you are, you know, and you do--" His voice went very wobbly for a moment; Hilary, who was looking determinedly at the floor between their feet, swallowed hard in sympathy. "But I'd only be begging you to do something that might make you tremendously unhappy. So what I'm saying is--if you want to have a go at it, that would be fantastic. Nigh on miraculous. But if you don't want to be tied down, I'll leave you in peace, all right? I promise not to chase you or browbeat you or take you on any more terrible dates. And it isn't as if I had the faintest idea how to be nearly as good to you as you deserve--but I'd like to have one more chance at it. If you're willing."

Hilary laughed before she could catch herself. "I thought you weren't going to make a speech."

"It did rather get away from me--but Hilary, darling, don't laugh." St. George looked faintly alarmed. "I'm perfectly serious."

"I know. I do know." She collected herself with an effort; she'd spent far too long already hurting him by mistake. "I wasn't laughing at you; it's only that I already have an answer, and I've been trying to work up my courage all morning to go find you and tell you, and--I'm glad, that's all, that you came here first."

"All right, then." He set his shoulders, as might a man awaiting judgement. "You might as well let me have it."

Hilary swallowed and did her best to remember just what she'd meant to tell him. "I don't understand the sort of world you live in, is the thing," she began tentatively. "I don't know how to be a part of it." St. George fidgeted unhappily at this, and showed signs of protesting. "No, wait," Hilary went on hastily, "I'm not finished--and don't do that, you'll wrinkle your trousers or something," and reached hastily to catch his hands in hers before he could follow through on what looked like an inclination to go to his knees. "I can't seem to say anything right today; you make me so terribly distracted and ordinary."

St. George shook his head. "No one could ever make you ordinary." He made it sound like the most basic truth in the world. “I mean it, Lee--it’s a funny rarefied sort of place I come from, even I know that, but I don’t think it could make you into anything other than yourself.”

Hilary smiled helplessly down at their joined hands: his fingers long and elegant, her nails painted but perpetually chipped. She felt, holding on to St. George, a little as Antaeus must have every time his feet touched ground, and in her sudden delight at the mere fact of his existence she forgot entirely how she had meant to say what needed to be said. "Oh, the hell with words," she said at last in desperation. "I only want to write for a living; what do I want with them anyway?" and stretched up to kiss him, quick and fierce, while he was still on his way to looking startled.

St. George's face began tentatively to light up; it was an odd process indeed to witness in slow motion. "Hilary," he began, and seemed not to know how to continue. It was a faint and guilty comfort, Hilary thought, that even his usual ready eloquence seemed to be failing him as badly as her words were failing her.

She squeezed his hands, still all but lost for words. Whatever he had done to her, it was too astonishing and new a discovery to yet put words to; all Hilary knew was the bright joy that bubbled up at the thought of entrusting him with herself like this, and that it was tremendously important that St. George know about it, too. "You absurd marvellous person," she said thickly, near incoherent with the urgency of communication, "do you know what--do you have any idea--"

"I'm beginning to have an inkling, I think," said St. George, but he had the awed look of a man who had seen not an inkling of something but a full-on miracle, and there was really nothing to be done about it but for Hilary to gather him into her arms and kiss him again, giddily and at great length. "Thank you," he went on at last, when she gave him the opportunity to, "oh, thank you," and kissed her once more with such enthusiasm that Hilary yelped in pleased surprise and nearly toppled backwards onto the sofa.

She grabbed St. George for support, and he caught her in return; Hilary squirmed briefly, both to find her balance again and in response to his hands on her hips. "Don't go," she suggested, recovering her powers of speech at last, and slid her arms more securely around his waist. "Stay here. Surely your parents can live without you for one more day? Or even a few hours?" She allowed one of her hands to creep under his jacket, feeling out the line of his waist through his shirt; his form was not only warm but familiar, reassuringly so.

"I don't doubt they could." He touched his nose to hers, making Hilary laugh. "But I've got to ride home with Uncle Peter this afternoon, and if anyone could guess what we'd been up to--"

"--he could," Hilary finished, and grimaced. "You certainly know how to get a girl out of the mood."

"It's got to be done, anyway," said St. George with resignation. "Now that I've said I'm going home to face the music, I might as well get it over with."

"Like ripping off a bandage." Hilary sighed. "Perhaps I've been too good an influence on you."

"I can spare a few more minutes, at least?" St. George buried his face in her neck.

Hilary slid her fingers into his hair and nodded. "I expect it'll keep for a few minutes longer."

-------

Hilary had planned to spend the day comfortably at home, alone or otherwise. Instead, a few hours later, she found she had hastily washed up and put on her best suit and had somehow found herself sitting in a hallway outside the drawing-room at Bredon Hall. Presumably some other things had happened in the interim--logically speaking, she was fairly certain Lord Peter had driven her down here along with St. George and Winnie--but her head was spinning, and the only thing she was really conscious of was the grim determination that the Wimsey family was not going to be discussing her future without her present. He had convinced her to let him at least introduce the idea on his own, first; Hilary suspected ulterior chivalric motives, but the idea also had genuine merit, so here she was--and she loathed waiting.

Hilary was frowning into a compact mirror when she remembered that this was exactly what she didn’t want to happen. She wasn’t going to worry about her makeup, or about understanding cocktails or remembering which fork was which, just for the sake of impressing St. George’s parents. She didn’t even expect to like his parents; this was just an ordeal they had to get through. For good measure she undid her hair--which she had done in a hurry anyway, and which had turned out both lopsided and painfully pinned--and combed out her curls with her fingers. It felt at least a little better, which was something.

“I thought you said all you wanted was to keep him safe,” said Winnie. “Nothing more going on whatsoever.”

Hilary startled, and then smiled up at her. “I’m not a terribly good liar, am I?”

“I’m a good judge of people,” said Winnie, almost apologetically. “It helps, in this family.”

“I imagine so.” Hilary patted the empty half of her bench, but Winnie shook her head. “Are you doing all right? We’ve all had a strange few weeks. And you had that trouble with the papers before that--which I’m afraid was our fault.”

“It was Jerry’s fault,” Winnie corrected her. “Or so he’s told me.”

“All right, yes, it was Jerry’s fault, but he was doing me a favour at the time.” Hilary managed a laugh. “It’ll blow over, won’t it? I’ve the idea these things generally do.”

Winnie shrugged. “Oh, I’m sure Mother won’t waste any time letting the press know they’ve got me back and safely in hand. And I don’t think failed elopements are nearly as interesting--not with a real wedding coming up in the family. Or is it two now?”

“Good God, no, and I hope no one’s been telling you otherwise.” Hilary frowned, unbuttoning and rebuttoning a glove. Should she have worn cream instead of white? Should she have worn the wrong pair on purpose to irritate the Duchess? “I wouldn’t be here if Jerry didn’t matter tremendously to me--but I can’t do it, Winnie, I’m sorry. I’ve hardly even had the chance to make a life of my own yet.”

-------

"Doesn't believe in marriage?" The Duchess's voice went distinctly shrill on the last word, her face darkening. St. George flinched; he had made a rather successful career out of horrifying his mother in every way possible, but until now he had never once feared genuinely for her health as a result. "Don't be ridiculous, Jerry."

"Oh, she believes in it all right, for people who aren't her." St. George leaned back into the corner of the sofa with pointed ease, resting his ankle on his knee and taking especial care not to look over at his uncle for help--though he was acutely aware all the same that the older man was there, leaning in a doorway and looking about as carefully blank as St. George had ever seen him. "Do you really think I'd invent a girl like that just to inconvenience you?"

"I don't believe you've any need to invent more women to surround yourself with," said his mother stiffly. "But that you'd invent one in particular to inconvenience me? That, I'd believe in a heartbeat."

"He hasn't," Lord Peter intruded; he was, by all appearances, far more interested in the engraving on his own cigarette-case than in anything else going on in the room around him. "The young woman is a friend and business partner of mine; I can assure you she's quite nonfictional."

"Business partner?" The Duchess's lip curled. "I do wish you'd keep out of this, Peter; I'm sure the whole matter is your doing somehow or other."

He shrugged idly. "I only wish it were. You ought to get a little excitement once in a while, Helen; it does you good."

"Now see here," the Duke objected. "If Miss Thorpe feels as strongly about the matter as you say she does--"

"Of course she does," said St. George, nettled.

His father frowned back at him. "Surely she could be convinced to change her mind on the question of marriage."

The Duchess' eyes were hard. "Don't encourage the boy, Gerald. There's no question of Jerry maintaining an association with the girl. You see what she's done to this family already. She kept him away from his own party in July--a situation we’ve yet to resolve. And imagine the sort of influence she could have on Winifred."

St. George uncrossed his legs and sat up straighter; he was feeling less and less inclined to negotiate on matters. "She might change her mind about marriage--indeed, I hope she will, eventually. But I wish you the best of luck in changing it for her. Speaking of which, if you'll excuse me a moment?"

"I don't think I will," his mother began frostily, but St. George was already on his feet and heading for the door.

Hilary was in the hall, very nearly where he'd left her: perched on the edge of a wooden bench, brow creased, showing astonishing dedication to fidgeting with one of her gloves. Something in St. George's chest tightened; he thought he understood what it was she was giving him along with her heart, and he hoped desperately he was worthy of it. "Lee," he said quietly, and sat down at her side.

She looked up and smiled at the sight of him, expression easing--and even that was enough to make St. George feel a little more hopeful about things. "My darling," she began, and then stopped, looking comically astonished that the word had come out of her mouth with such ease. She'd been looking at him rather the same way all day: like she'd never seen him before, like he was something so amazing she couldn't quite believe he was true. He thought he could get used to that, if only he could be entirely sure that she wasn't too good to be true. "I feel like I'm back at school," Hilary went on, still looking faintly embarrassed. "Waiting outside the Head's office. I was afraid you hadn't survived."

"It is rather like that, isn't it?" St. George grinned back at her encouragingly. "I've tried to soften up your audience for you, but I'm afraid I haven't had much success. There's still time for us to make our escape and go visit Aunt Mary instead, if you'd rather; you'd like her."

"I'd love to. But not right now." Hilary smiled more widely and touched her bare knuckles to his cheek. "You've gone all doe-eyed at me again."

St. George blinked. "I do not go doe-eyed." It was a half-hearted protest at most.

"You do. I think I quite like it, really." Hilary sighed and rose to her feet, drawing her glove back on and smoothing her skirt. "Best to get it over with, I think you said?"

"Like ripping off a bandage, was what you said when you suggested it." St. George stood as well, and tried to resign himself to his fate. "I hope you'll at least be polite to her," he said anxiously. "It probably won't help anything, but surely it can't hurt."

"Oh, I mean to be polite," Hilary promised, though her mouth curved into a dry smile. "I'll be so polite your mother will never even know what hit her."

"Perhaps I'd better just keep out of the way until it's all over," St. George suggested.

"I wish you wouldn't," Hilary said, sounding plaintive for a moment, and leaned up to kiss him briefly.

"Lee," said St. George suddenly, having remembered something much more urgent than his mother, and caught her hand as she reached to open the door. "The next time I take you out to dinner, would you rather go somewhere comfortable or somewhere fancy?"

"The next time you--what?" If Hilary had an opinion, it was lost in her sudden burst of laughter.

"What?" said St. George desperately. "What did I say?"

“I’d rather breakfast in bed,” said Hilary, eyes bright. “Tomorrow, if we can manage it.” She pushed the door open before he could find a response; for better or for worse, she was still laughing and clinging to his hand when they went back in.

END