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I have," said Melrose Plant, with an air of drama, "a proposition for you."

Jury settled himself against the kitchen wall with the phone tucked under his chin. "I'm listening."

"Three nights in a Swiss chalet," said Plant. "By which I mean a chalet in actual Switzerland."

"A holiday?" said Jury, wondering if this non-sequitur had something to do with Vivian Rivington.

"They do let you take holidays, don't they?"

"Occasionally," said Jury, dryly. "Usually they end up cut short by murder." It was supposed to be humorous, but he feared that it had come out quite flat.

Silence on the end of the line. Jury suspected Plant was reflecting on the same past holidays as he was. "We can only hope that little Swiss villages are less fraught with malice than their English equivalents," said Plant, after a moment.

Jury managed to summon a laugh from somewhere. "Tell me more about this Swiss chalet of yours."

"It's not mine," said Plant, irritably. "I entered a raffle for a lark, one of those fund-raisers to buy the pony club a golden bridle, that sort of thing, bought one ticket for five quid and ended up with second prize. Three nights for two people in a Swiss chalet, travel included. Agatha was horrified that I'd actually accepted the prize - or perhaps that I had accepted and not immediately given it to she who had bought ten tickets."

Jury could imagine. "How is your aunt doing, anyway?"

"Agatha is in revoltingly good health, which I put down to stubbornness alone, unless the experts are all completely wrong about the effects of sugar and cream on our longevity."

"I'm pleased to hear it," said Jury, insincerely. "So why are you asking me?"

"I thought to myself, 'who do I know that I could stand to spend an entire weekend in their company?', and I went through my address book and yours was the only suitable name I found."

Jury hesitated before deciding to accept the statement as a compliment. "I'll see what I can arrange." New Scotland Yard would probably be happy to give him the time off, being encouraged to reduce its leave debt in these troubled times, and Racer's replacement having no particular attachment to or vendetta against Jury.

They said their goodbyes, and Jury hung up the phone. He poked unenthusiastically at the congealed mess that remained of his dinner, then tipped it into the bin.

Somebody was running the shower in the flat above. Carole-anne had moved on to bigger (and better, she assured him when she telephoned, much better) things, and these days he barely knew the current residents above his own floor. At some point he'd crossed line from middle-aged and interesting to old and boring in the eyes of the younger generation and the new tenants responded with apathy to his greetings in the stairwell.

The hiss of the water came to an abrupt stop.

A holiday might be nice. A change of scene would clear the air.

--

Switzerland somehow managed to look exactly the way you imagined it would. The green hills were dotted with little wooden houses with brightly coloured petunias under the windowsills. Cows with cowbells grazed quietly on the lush grass. Summer was a month gone already and the trees had adopted a palette of reds, yellows and browns.

Their train rattled its way up the mountainside to their village, in which no cars were allowed (although there were electric vehicles available for charter, Melrose had read).

Jury was leaning against the window, gazing at the valley below and clearly lost in his own thoughts.

Melrose read the instructions for reaching their 'chalet' again. He felt an obligation to do their surroundings justice by not pulling out his novel and finally putting an end to the torture of Polly Praed's latest hero's journey of life, death and everything in between, although the train journey was really taking far too long.

He folded the scrap of paper back into his pocket and nudged Jury gently with his knee, managing to draw him into a discussion of the new development they were putting up five miles from Long Piddleton - or, more accurately, the protest movement being coordinated by none other than his exulted aunt. Jury's thoughts on the subject were more neutral.

The train pulled to a halt and they stumbled out, trailing suitcases behind them.

The chalet turned out to be at the top of a rather large hill, which Melrose's knees were not prepared for, and was less a chalet than the bottom floor of one of the little Swiss houses, made out in faux-beech floorboards, IKEA furniture and low-hanging beams. The tiny kitchenette had a stove, but no microwave or oven. It did have a coffee machine.

Melrose had been assured of the presence of twin beds, but it seemed there was only space for them to be placed right next to each other.

Jury narrowly avoided cracking his head on one of the beams while crossing the room to unpack his suitcase and broke into a self-conscious smile. "Not quite what I expected," he said.

"And yet, somehow I am not surprised," said Melrose. He suspected that the view out over the valley from the two windows made the chalet's problems invisible to the average tourist. "Let's explore the town before I develop spontaneous claustrophobia."

The souvenir shops sold cuckoo clocks, watches and pocketknives and the supermarket stocked fine chocolate and coffee.

Jury charmed the ladies at the tourist bureau into divulging information while Melrose poked at the pamphlets advertising hiking trails and mountainous adventures. It seemed most of the large hotels and their restaurants were closed due to the season (too late for summer holidayers, too early for skiing) and they were a week too early for the yodelling festival.

When the sun slipped behind the facing mountain, biting cold set in and they retreated to a tiny restaurant where they ate some very expensive fondue, since it seemed to be expected of them. The expense was no real reflection of the quality of the fondue.

"Nostalgic," Melrose observed, watching cheese drip off his bread back into the pot. He had been to a few fondue parties, back in the day. Nostalgic was about the best he could say for the experience.

Jury hummed non-committally.

Melrose shoved his hands in his coat pockets as they trudged back to the chalet.

Their room (he refused to dignify the arrangement with the designation 'chalet' any longer) was cosier with the autumn chill settling around them. It sported an electric heater, which seemed effective enough and suited the style of the room perfectly.

They gave up on Swiss television fairly quickly and turned in for the night. Perhaps, Melrose reflected, he really was getting old. A frightening thought.

After all this time he was unaccustomed to sleeping so close to another person, even if they were in separate beds and there was no risk of blanket thievery. By the tone of Jury's breathing he was having the same trouble.

"I shall have to buy postcards tomorrow," Melrose said into the darkness. "I'm sure Agatha would love to know of our charming Swiss chalet, with its dark oak panelling, plush carpets and roaring fireplace."

Jury laughed warmly. "Perhaps you could mention the Swiss chocolate," he said.

"I saw a bakery in town," said Melrose. "We must examine their cake collection in her honour."

Jury laughed again.

Melrose relaxed back under the covers and finally let sleep overcome him.

--

Jury woke stiff and disoriented, unable to identify the snuffling breathing beside him or the unfamiliar shape of the bed.

He sat up in bed and rubbed a hand over his eyes tiredly. Plant slept on, oblivious.

It felt strangely intimate, watching his friend at rest. Lifeless, if it weren't for the rise and fall of the chest and occasional flicker of eyes behind eyelids.

For his own part, sleep didn't seem to be returning. Jury slipped out of bed as quietly as he could and dressed awkwardly in the tiny bathroom.

The entrance chamber was decidedly chilly and he ducked back to fetch his coat before venturing outside.

His breath steamed in the early morning air and the tops of the surrounding alps were still obscured by fog. He clapped his hands together to warm them.

Jury was greeted cheerily in German by a lady maybe ten years his junior, who he belatedly identified as the owner of the building.

He returned the greeting in kind, and she switched to English, asking where he was from in an accent he found quite charming. She apologised for her perfectly adequate English in the way that less talented speakers never did, and he quickly reassured her.

When he told her he was from London, she smiled and said she had, as a girl, done a stint as an au pair in London. "There I was, Swiss mountains born and bred, in the big city of London. It was... different."

"It must have been quite a shock," said Jury.

She smiled at him again. "What brings you here?"

He shrugged, not entirely sure himself. It had seemed reasonable at the time, but now he felt strange and out of place. "Just a holiday," he said. "My friend won the trip in a raffle."

"I remember," she said. "The little pony club."

He smiled. "So I was told." He wondered if she thought it strange, the two of them taking the holiday together. Shouldn't Plant have had a wife to bring along? Shouldn't Jury have had a wife to keep him behind?

He wanted to laugh at himself when he thought of all the time he had spent being envious of Plant when here they both were, equally unsuccessful in the quest for female companionship.

She recommended he try the bakery for breakfast before bustling back into the main house.

Jury saw no reason to argue with the recommendation of a local, and walked down the hill into town. He bought freshly ground coffee beans from the supermarket (which didn't appear to even stock instant) and a selection of pastries from the bakery.

"Did you get a chocolate eclair?"

Jury raised his head to smile at the small girl, whose gaze was firmly fixed on Jury's purchases. "I'm afraid not," he said, making a show of re-examining his pastries in case one of them had spontaneously morphed into a new shape.

"I wanted chocolate eclairs," she said. "But mummy says we can't because Andy is lac- allergic to milk."

"That's unfortunate," said Jury. "But it's nice to be able to share with your brother."

She shook her head wildly. "He's my step-brother. This is the first holiday we've taken as a 'family'," she added, in the tones of one repeating something they'd been told many times. "Mummy doesn't want Andy to feel left out."

Jury deduced that Mummy hadn't realised yet that Andy's new sister didn't want to feel left out either. "It's hard," he said, remembering his own childhood. "Trying to fit in in a new place."

The girl shivered and sniffed loudly, rubbing her nose with the back of her hand.

"Is that your family in the bakery?" he said, pointing.

She nodded.

"You should go back inside," he said. "It's cold out here." He watched until she walked back inside, a feeling of unease creeping between his shoulderblades to settle somewhere in his gut.

On the steep uphill return he realised that the sinister air he detected in the town was just his own automatic reaction to sleepy little towns. There was a term for this, wasn't there? Some kind of psychological conditioning.

Plant was still asleep when he closed the door behind him and dropped his purchases on the dining table, but Jury fancied his sleep was a little less deep.

Jury coaxed the little coffee machine into life.

"What devilry is this?" came Plant's hoarse voice, as the coffee machine bubbled away and the rich aroma filled the air.

"I believe they call it coffee," said Jury.

"I call it 'too early to be awake on holiday'," said Plant.

"I have danishes," said Jury. "And cinnamon scrolls, and a berliner, which is apparently a jam doughnut." The conversation felt almost uncomfortably domestic.

"Ich bin ein Berliner," muttered Plant. "Give me the coffee."

--

Off season, the major tourist activity appeared to be the mini-golf course in the middle of town. It was a mess of unkempt lawn and hard concrete obstructions.

In the grip of some impulse he couldn't even begin to explain, Melrose insisted they try it out.

The cows in the paddock next to them watched on and clanged ominously as Melrose sunk the ball in the second hole after six strokes. Jury navigated it in three, equal with par.

On the next hole, Melrose managed four strokes to Jury's five.

A family with two small children joined them on the course, paying a great deal of attention to the younger boy but letting the girl run wild.

"You're not very good at this," said the girl, sitting on the bench at the fifth hole and swinging her legs. "You're doing it wrong."

Melrose straightened himself with false dignity. The golf clubs were not made for one of his height. "I'm out of practice," he said, shortly.

She laughed at him as his ball skilfully circumlocuted the hole.

Jury smiled at the girl. "Perhaps you can show me how it should be done."

The girl jumped down. "OK," she said. "You hold the club like this."

With the girl's expert instructions Jury got the next three holes under par. Melrose was not so fortunate.

"I'm sorry, was Carrie bothering you?" said the girl's mother, finally noticing the absence of her daughter.

They both stiffened at the name.

"Your daughter is quite the mini-golf prodigy," said Jury, with a weak smile.

The mother dismissed the statement without acknowledgement, choosing instead to smile at Jury. "Children will wander off," she said, helplessly. "I don't know what's come over her recently."

"She was used to it just being the two of you, and she doesn't like having to share your attention," said Jury, seriously.

Carrie's mother stared at him. Carrie gave Jury a look of betrayal and turned her back on them, kicking at the rocks on the side of the golf course.

"You should be more careful," said Jury.

The woman gave him a dubious look and led her daughter away. "You shouldn't talk to strangers, Carrie," she scolded.

"Surely you didn't get all that from her mini-golf lessons," said Melrose.

Jury shook his head. "She likes chocolate eclairs," he said.

Melrose thought it was a sign of how long he'd known Jury that the explanation almost made sense.

--

They found a cafe further up the mountain and ordered hot chocolate from the disaffected middle-aged waiter.

Plant stirred the foam into his chocolate and tapped the spoon against the side of the mug. "Have you thought about retiring?" he asked Jury.

He should. Hints had certainly been levelled his way. But he had a tendency to the morose enough when he returned to his apartment in the evenings; the thought of that being his entire day filled him with muted horror. He shook his head. "Not yet."

Plant looked deeply into his mug. "You could stay at Ardry End. Whenever you wanted. For however long you wanted."

Jury looked at him in surprise.

"You needn't look so shocked," said Plant. "It's not like you've never stayed before."

"It sounded like you meant something a little more permanent than that," said Jury.

Plant blinked slowly at him over his gold-rimmed spectacles. "It's a very large house," he said.

Jury wasn't quite sure if that was supposed to mean that they could keep out of each other's way or if it was meant to indicate loneliness.

He found that deep in his heart he liked the thought. It was easy to be around Plant. His demands were simple: intelligent conversation, good food, good humour. He was neither overburdened with angst nor good cheer. Jury was all too aware of his own tendency towards moroseness.

"Perhaps I will," said Jury, aware that he'd been silent for some time.

He felt like he was on the edge of the solution to a mystery and missing one important factor, meaning the shape of the solution was all wrong.

"I don't think I cope very well with being idle," he said.

"Whenever I talk to a stranger, I have to fight the urge to ply them with leading questions to ferret out their secrets," said Plant. "You realise, of course, that I hold you personally responsible for this."

Jury laughed. "I always preferred to think that I was just encouraging your inner talents," he said.

"You're good at that," agreed Plant.

Was it even wrong that the single most fulfilling relationship in his life was with his best friend? It seemed like that would be logical situation for any bachelor. But even discounting the spectacular end of most of his relationships, none of them had ever been so consistently enjoyable.

--

The little girl, Carrie, hung off her mother's hand and waved a grubby hand at them from across the square, grinning with a mouth streaked with chocolate.

"See?" Melrose murmured. "You do make a difference."

Jury waved back until the family disappeared around the side of the hill.

They made their own way back to the chalet more sedately, carrying fresh bagels and coffee.

Melrose cleared his throat. "Back home tomorrow," he said, spreading cream cheese on his bagel.

Jury made a non-committal noise.

"Not quite the idyllic Swiss mountain retreat I was envisioning," Melrose continued. "For which I apologise."

Jury lifted a finger into the air. "Nobody died, and I wasn't called back to work," he said. "This is the most idyllic holiday I've had in years."

"You were only off work for three days," Melrose pointed out. "Next time we should try for a week."

Jury laughed softly. "Perhaps. Thank you for asking me."

Melrose started slowly tearing his second bagel into tiny pieces. "I meant what I said about the address book," said Melrose. He could have asked a woman. There were many to choose from: women he'd loved, women he'd wanted to love, women he thought had loved him. "I went through it front to back and you were the only one I could picture taking it with."

'Good-looking', he'd thought when he first met Richard Jury. Now he found himself revisiting that thought, turning it around and wondering if it meant more now than it had then. It was all very well to discover you were more in love with your best friend than with any of the women you'd ever dated, but if there was no physical attraction there, then why rock the boat?

"I'm touched," said Jury. He looked pleased; it wasn't just polite words, then.

There was risk involved, of course, but why not take it? Confirmed bachelor was a euphemism for a reason. And he didn't think Jury would say no.

"Do you ever wonder if old Trueblood has the right way of it?" said Melrose.

Jury paused, clearly taken aback.

"I don't mean with the mincing and the flirting and all that. But if women are supposed to be the 'safe' option, why is it that it's only you and I have managed to maintain a reliable friendship through everything, death and jealousy and all included."

"I suppose that we want different things from each other," said Jury. He glanced away.

"But what if it's just like this, only with sex?"

Grey eyes slowly rose to meet his. "It does sound appealing, doesn't it?" Jury laughed a little self-consciously.

Melrose sat back, relief unknotting previously unnoticed tension in his shoulders. "So you agree that it's something worth investigating."

Jury nodded, eyes dancing.

Melrose let the subject drop, but when he pulled Jury into a kiss later that day, Jury didn't object.