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The Scramble

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Greg Lestrade decided that the tall bloke in the suit would be his last shot.

Feeling extremely conspicuous and more than a little silly, Greg palmed his drink and walked purposefully to the bar, where the man in his sights had his back to him.

Greg could tell at a glance that he probably wasn't his bloke. The hair wasn't right, for starters. It was dark with russet overtones, and fairly straight, though that could have been product-induced. The bloke Greg was after had blondish curls arranged in what looked to be something of a fuzzy halo, not these neatly tamed waves.

Also, the face shape was wrong – too oval. Or maybe it was too square. Or both. Or something. Greg couldn't be completely sure, of course – which was sort of the point.

But Greg was past giving a fuck about the point. Actually, he'd given up on finding any point or any person or anything whatsoever after getting nowhere with the first three men he'd approached.

He couldn't let it go, though. He was a bloody Scotland Yard detective sergeant and this was a bloody mystery. If he was worth his stripes at all, he'd get to the bottom of it.

When he was abreast of his target, the man turned his head slightly. Not enough to make eye contact, but enough to indicate that he'd sensed someone's approach and that he wanted that someone to know he'd sensed him coming.

Greg hesitated, uncertain of his next move. Maybe he should just finish the rest of his flavorless, overpriced drink and leave. He was sure this wasn't the man he was supposed to meet. His bloke had likely gotten cold feet and had decided not to show. Or maybe he had been there, strategically positioned near an exit just in case he wasn't keen on what he saw, and –

He nearly choked when the suited man suddenly turned on his stool to look directly at him. Greg's glass nearly slipped from his fingers as he was raked from top to toe by a gaze that had icicles in it.

The man appeared younger than his attire might have indicated. He had blueish-grey eyes and an unlined face that seemed to place him in his early 30s. He was handsome in a slightly fussy way. Aside from the tamed hair, there was the impeccable three-piece suit, the glint of a gold chain that no doubt attached to one of those old-fashioned watch fobs, and at his feet, a brolly with a highly polished wooden handle that Greg suspected might have been custom-made. It looked as if the man were drinking very good scotch.

Greg fancied that he wasn't the sort of patron the pub normally attracted. Perhaps he was just stopping in for a quick one before getting the train out to the suburbs. There was, of course, the possibility that he was in the market for something less pedestrian than a drink and a quiet conversation with the barkeep. The place wasn't exactly a gay pub, per se, but it did have something of a "reputation." Could be the suit was in the mood for a bit of rough to go with his neat single-malt beverage. This place likely saw plenty of that sort of thing.

Greg snapped out of his slight reverie when he noticed those cool eyes weren't letting up. This wasn't one of those glance-and-dismiss things. The man was waiting for him to say something. But what he had to say was moot – close up, he could just tell this was not the bloke.

Still, the words burst out of him before he could stop them.

“You're not Stephen, are you?”

There was a hint of a smile on the thin lips, but the eyes were guarded.

“No. I'm afraid I'm not Stephen.”

Greg's head jerked forward in acknowledgement. “Right. Right, well sorry to have disturbed you. I –”

“Moreover,” said the man, his smile growing by degrees, “you knew that even before you approached me, didn't you?”

Greg stared at him. There was a thaw coming into the eyes, rendering them more blue and less remote. The voice was upper-class, curious and casually amused, and Greg was suddenly reminded of his sixth-form English teacher. If Mr. Towne-Smyth had been as fit as the man in front of him, Greg reckoned he would've paid closer attention in class.

“Yeah, I figured you weren't, but I wanted to be sure.” He shrugged weakly. “This is a bit out of my way, and I didn't want to just leave if … anyway, sorry again for disturbing you.”

“Not at all,” the other man replied. “I'm sorry that you traveled so far out of your way for nothing. If there's any justice, your would-be 'date' will be caught out on his lies someday. I would suggest, however, that you expose him now so that others won't be caught up in his deceitful game.”

Greg gaped. “I … what?”

“Online dating doubtless has its attractions – convenience being among them,” said the man gently. “But I've always believed that anything that requires so much trust to be put into a veritable stranger often becomes fraught with difficulties.”

Greg kept staring. The man was speaking English – painfully correct English, at that – and yet he couldn't fully grasp what he saying.

Well, no. That wasn't true. He could, but Greg couldn't understand how this strange man he'd never clapped eyes on could have any idea

“What makes you think I know anything about –” Greg trailed off with a sickly little smirk. “Oh. Oh. Right. I come up to you and ask you if you're so-and-so, which I wouldn't've done if we'd met before.”

The smile broadened even further. “Precisely. And as we're in a pub and not an office setting, I wouldn't think you were approaching a potential employer or business partner. But actually, I knew why you were here even before you opened your mouth.”

"Yeah?” Greg tipped an eyebrow at the man. “How?”

“Two things told me: Your mobile and your drink.”

“My mobile?” Greg's forehead wrinkled. “And my drink? But – wait, what about my drink?”

“It isn't what you usually have,” said the man with an offhanded shrug, taking a measured sip of his own. “And this is a pub in which you've never been.”

“How d'you ...”

But Greg stopped himself. He gave the bloke a once-over again. No, he'd never seen him before, not at the Yard or anywhere else. Greg reckoned he could've been someone he'd met knocking around uni, but the slightly priggish accent – to say nothing of the suit and all the trappings – said Oxbridge rather than Plymouth University.

Greg took a breath, squinted at the man, then grinned.

“All right. I do favor a pint of Guinness over this fancy bilge. How'd you know?”

“Quite simple,” said the man, putting down his glass. “The prices in this pub are rather steep, both for the location and the quality of its liquor. However, I suppose in an attempt to make patrons feel as if they are getting what they pay for, they put more alcohol into the mixed drinks than is usual.”

Greg's eyes darted to his glass. It was a quarter gone, if that. He remembered the first sip and how much he had been caught a bit off guard by the kick it'd had.

The man saw the movement of his eyes and smiled. “Yes. Quite potent, I'd imagine. If this were your local pub, you would have known that and ordered something different.”

“Well …” Greg thought it over. “All right. Maybe that tells you I've never been here before, but I still can't reckon out how you know this wasn't my usual and that maybe I just wasn't used to it being so strong. Or that I'm on a date – well, sort of – let alone an online one.”

“Oh, I see. Well, it would follow that after a sip of that, you would have gone to a drink more to your taste,” said the taller man. “That you didn't indicates that you ordered this drink precisely because it wasn't something you generally like, and therefore could toss back in a trice. You did not come here to get … pissed. You wanted to be sociable, and moreover, to make a good impression. So you purposely selected something at which you could just sip and, as such, would be in little danger of overindulging.”

Greg looked down into his glass and then back up at the man in mute astonishment. He got another grin and the laconic voice continued:

“But the drink was stronger than you anticipated and you allowed it to become watered down – rather a waste of money in ordinary circumstances, especially at these prices. But you wanted it to lose some of its potency, and as you only planned on buying one, I suppose it didn't matter. It seems logical, then, that the only reason you'd want to be lucid and charming in a pub is to … er, attract pleasant company. You'd likely be at the bar if you'd come in without the expectation of meeting someone.”

The icy gaze narrowed. “And that brings me to your mobile. Rather a more telling piece of evidence than your drink, I admit.”

“W-What about my mobile?” Greg felt the back of his neck prickle. It wasn't entirely an unpleasant sensation, but still …

“I have rather keen peripheral vision,” he said. “I noted you upon your approach. But before you reached me, you stopped, took out your mobile, glanced at it, then at me, and then back at your mobile.”

“That peripheral vision of yours must be damned keen.”

The man almost laughed. “It is. In my line of work it serves me well.”

“Yeah? You and I might be about in the same business.” Greg smiled a little.

The man gave him another searching glance, one a great deal more friendly than the first. So much so, that Greg found himself blushing slightly.

 “I shouldn't wonder,” the man said musingly. “At any rate, it was clear that you were comparing me to something you were viewing on your mobile. It couldn't be a text – that would have been nonsensical. It could only, then, be a photograph. You were looking at a picture and trying to see if there was a likeness. You subtly shook your head – maybe you weren't even aware of it – but it was a 'tell,' if you will. You knew I was not the man in the photograph. Yet, you approached me anyway. I do admit I was a bit surprised that you decided to act as if you didn't know I was not your … date. I might have been very concerned that someone was trying to pass themselves off as me, but then I recalled that there are no pictures of myself on the Internet.”

Greg grinned at that. “You sure about that? They say that everybody's got a picture on the Internet, whether they know it or not.”

“Not everyone. Believe me.” The man's voice was light. “Well then, am I correct? I know that I may have missed, or misinterpreted, some details, but –”

“Spot on,” said Greg, shaking his head. “You've pretty much gotten all of it. For first dates, I like a bit of something to take the edge off my nerves. I hate gin, but I didn't want to toss back pints until I couldn't stand up. This is shit, though. How's yours?”

“Tolerable. I've had much better.”

Greg grimaced. He sat his sweating glass on the counter and pushed it away.

“I was supposed to meet a bloke here named Stephen," Greg said. "I've been here nearly 45 minutes. I figured you were a long shot, but … I dunno, I thought maybe with a change of hair or … something, that maybe … I mean, I don't really have a great idea of what he looks like.”

The man looked confused. “What do you mean? You do have his picture, don't you? You were looking at it on your mobile.”

“Well … I was and I wasn't.”

A long crease appeared in the middle of the smooth forehead. "I don't understand. Do you or do you not have this man's photograph?"

Greg took out his mobile and after keying in the access code, scrolled through until he found what he was looking for.

This is what I have.”

He held out his mobile toward the man and watched elegant brows arch upward as his new friend took in the contents of the screen.

“I … see. Or perhaps, I don't see.”

“Yeah. That's sort of how it works.” Greg grimaced down at his phone, which was displaying a mass of jumbled tiles. “I'm, er, on a Crazy Blind Date.”

“A … Crazy Blind Date,” repeated the man in a slow, cautious voice that suggested he hoped Greg didn't make any sudden moves.

“That's what it's called. Really.” Greg raked a hand through his hair. “I am trying the online dating thing. A friend of work suggested it. She'd met a few nice blokes that way, and, well, nothing else was working too well for me … uh, I mean ...”

Right, Greg. Good job sounding like a complete loser.

He took a second to reset himself before going on. “Well, anyway, I have a profile on a dating site. Nothing fancy, and the site's a free one, so you get all sorts.”

“I can imagine. And it's not going as you've hoped?”

“Well, I've been on some dates, but nothing's clicked very well so far,” said Greg. “So when I heard about this –”

“– Crazy Blind Date?” The man's lips were trembling slightly.

“I swear to you, that's what it's called.” Greg shifted uneasily. “You can Google it. It's all in capital letters and everything. Must be trademarked.”

“Yes. Undoubtedly.” The man nodded once. “And this was a service offered by the site to which you have a membership?

“Yeah, but this uh, Crazy Blind Date thing was the newest trick. 'For the Adventurous,' it says. How it works is you download the app to your phone. Then you get to pick a photo from your profile, and the app puts it through something called The Scramble. It does that to the picture, you know, cuts it up and scrambles it about. If it looks too much like a dog's dinner, you can rearrange things a bit so that you're more recognizable.”

“But wouldn't that be somewhat beside the point?”

“In a manner of speaking, yeah,” said Greg. “I mean, if the point is to go on more or less a blind date. It's cheating in a way, I guess, but I suppose some people have limits to how 'adventurous' they want to be.”

“True. And so this person ...” he waved toward Greg's mobile “is your date? How did you come to pick him? Hadn't you seen his unadulterated picture before now?”

“It doesn't exactly work that way, where you just choose out someone of an identity parade and hope for the best,” said Greg with a small grin.

The man's eyes lit up briefly, and Greg thought he was going to say something, but he remained quiet and inclined his head at Greg as if to say continue.

“Once you send a picture of your own through The Scramble, you then put in your age, gender, er, and your sexual orientation. Then you put in when and where you can meet – the more flexible you are, the better chance of finding someone who's looking for what you're looking for and can meet at the time and place you picked out,” Greg said. “Once you get a match and accept, you get a message confirming the place and time. Then about 40 or so minutes before the start of the date, you get an anonymous chat window opened on your mobile so that you can communicate with the person you're meeting.”

“And so you picked this evening and this place, and a match was found. You were sent that ... image, and I suppose he was sent a comparable one of you.”

"Exactly. And we were supposed to meet here at 7 sharp."

The man looked thoughtful and he glanced briefly around the quiet pub. “Yet, you can't seem to find him?”

“No.” Greg sounded rueful. “There was a bit of a situation at work. I thought I might be late, so when the chat window popped up, I told the bloke I might be held up, but that it shouldn't be more than a few minutes. He said it was fine; he'd just grab a table and to let him know if I'd be longer. I got a bit lucky and was able to grab a cab straight from the Lambeth Bridge roundabout and got here about the time we'd agreed on. I looked round and saw a few blokes I thought might fit the picture if it were unscrambled, but none of them was him. So I thought maybe he was held up on the Tube or something and I settled in to wait. Got a drink, saw another couple of blokes come in, but they were joined by women a few minutes after they got here. So I thought maybe something else was going on with this guy ...”

“Stephen, correct?”

“Right. Stephen,” Greg muttered. “Anyway, I sent a few messages to him through the chat window. Didn't hear back. I asked one other bloke, and he looked like he wanted to chin me for even speaking to him. I reckoned at that point that I'd been stood up, but I decided to give it one last go.”

“And that was the point at which I entered the narrative.” The suited man was still looking thoughtful. “But even with this picture tossed about as it is, you had to realize fairly quickly that I looked nothing like this man.”

“Yeah, well … I've been on a few dates where the person I met could've been Jeremy bleeding Kyle for all they looked like the pictures on the profile.”

“Bringing me back to my point about having to having to put a good deal of unwarranted trust in a stranger.”

“I suppose, but you have to take a chance sometimes." Greg shrugged. "Otherwise, you don't get very far – in life or anywhere else.”

“I suppose there is something to be said for that,” murmured the other man, rubbing his chin. “Tell me … you are single?”

“Of course.” Greg was mildly surprised at the question. “Why else would I be doing this?”

“Hmm.” The man seemed to gloss over that statement. “And you're … I would guess … mid-30s? Perhaps a little younger?”

“I'll be thirty-five in July.” Greg got that prickly feeling at the nape of his neck again. “But what does that –”

“I would have guessed younger, but for your hair.”

“ – Oh.”

A bit self-consciously, Greg combed his fingers through his hair, knowing that the silver strands interwoven among the dark ones were becoming more numerous by the year.

“Yeah. I get that a lot.”

“Have you ever considered coloring it?

“Nah.” Greg shook his head. “Wouldn't do much good. It's how it goes for the blokes in my family, and it beats going bald, I suppose.”

“I'm glad.”

“– Sorry?” Greg tilted his head. “Glad about …?”

“That you won't color your hair.” The man's eyes drifted upward and he smiled. “I think it makes you look even more striking.”

Greg's mind went unaccountably blank. Er … what?

He swallowed hard. Was this man … flirting with him? There didn't seem any other way to parse that statement. After a few more seconds of thought, Greg was conscious that if it was flirting, he didn't mind very much. At all.

But then again, he didn't want to be someone's charity case. If this one was chatting him up to make him feel better about having wasted his time, well thanks but no thanks …

“You know, this … Crazy Blind Date program seems to be one that would appeal to a very certain demographic,” the man said in a very changed tone of voice.

Greg looked at him again. The tall man's eyes had narrowed into slashes of cool steel and he was looking again out into the milling crowd.

“How's that?”

“Well, you download this app to your mobile: a device to which only one person – the owner, usually – has access. You are allowed to conceal your identity to a degree that it is an even chance that you'll be spotted unless you own up to who you are,” the man said, turning his head slowly. “You don't exchange names or phone numbers and your communications are completely anonymous.”

“Well, yeah, that's how it works. What's your point?”

The cool eyes found Greg's. “It's a fine tool for adulterers, don't you think?”

Greg opened his mouth, then shut it so quickly, his teeth rattled. He felt a sudden chill at the base of his spine.

“Oh … shit … you don't think –”

“Tell me – are any of the men you approached earlier in your search for Stephen still here?”

“Uh ...” Greg blinked, wishing he had a drink – a real one. But he got himself together, and glanced around.

“Yeah. A few of them are. The first one I went to is the bloke at the table in the middle. The one on his laptop. I went up to him and asked him if he were Stephen,” said Greg, indicating a nondescript gentleman who looked to be around 40, dressed casually with his attention riveted to the computer screen.

“He was friendly enough. Told me he wasn't, and asked if I had the right pub.”

“Hmm. And the others?”

“Bloke over there by himself looking at his mobile,” said Greg. “In the black jumper.”

They both glanced at a weedy man with a mop of blondish-brown hair who was nursing a pint while scrolling through his phone with a pained expression.

“He just said 'No' when I asked him, and I went about my business.”

“Interesting. Anyone else?”

“Just the bloke who seemed keen for a punch-up,” Greg said sourly. “He's at that table near the men's bog.”

Said individual, an attractive man with hair of an indeterminate color wearing part of a Tottenham kit, was talking loudly with a few other men who were similarly unremarkable.

“His mates weren't there when I talked to him. He's in a better mood, looks like. But then, Tottenham's been on a run lately.”

Greg turned interested eyes to his companion. “So you reckon this Stephen bloke is married, wanted a bit of fun, but thought better of it and just decided not to show?”

“That he's married is almost a certainty,” said the man. “But he did show. And moreover, he's still here.”

What?” Greg started. “You mean all this time, I went round to the wrong blokes and he –”

“Not at all. You went to the right one. The first time.”

“I … him?” Greg didn't look round, but he could see the suited man's gaze fixed firmly on the center of the room. “The bloke with the laptop?”

 “Unquestionably. I only glanced at the scrambled photo for a few moments, but there are certain physical features that this man has in common. He made it almost laughably easy by choosing a picture that displays him from the shoulders up that was taken at very close range. He has the same complexion as the man in this picture. The same slightly twisted lip – a scar, I would suppose, from a burn he suffered as a child. His hair is shorter now than it is the picture, so the curls are less apparent, but it is the same color. And it appears he's wearing the same shirt as in that photograph.”

Greg looked at the “picture” on his mobile, and then as casually as he could manage, took a look around the pub as if he were just checking out the crowd. But his eyes rested for more than a moment on the bloke in the middle of the pub.

The tall man was right – the purple polo was at least the same color and basic shape as what was in the picture. The man had been wearing his jacket when Greg had first approached him, but it was off now, and so Greg had a better basis for comparison. The hair that seemed dark in the shadowy pub did have a significant blond tint to it when viewed under the track lighting that had been turned on overhead, and longer strands around the man's ears curled in on themselves. Greg remembered thinking that there was something off about the man's face, and he realized now it was the scarred lip, which manifested itself as a dark smear on one of the scrambled tiles.

“Bloody hell. I knew it,” Greg said softly. “I knew it. I thought that his hair was about the same, and he looked as if he'd been waiting there awhile. In one of his messages, he said not to be fussed about being later because he'd be coming from work, too. I thought maybe he brought his computer along to catch up on assignments. Says he writes articles about race cars.”

Greg's shoulders sagged. “So he didn't fancy me, then, and tried to get out of it by saying he wasn't the man I was looking for. Or he grew a conscience at the last minute ...”

Or it was his misfortune to choose a pub for his liaison at which acquaintances of his wife were meeting.”

Greg lifted his head. “Sorry?”

“Take a look at the group at the table directly adjacent his – toward the windows.”

Greg did. There was a small gathering of people, mainly women, who were chatting and having drinks. A bit tame for a hen's night, Greg thought, and they were all dressed as if they'd just come from the office. Coworkers enjoying the pub's extended happy hour, probably.

“Okay, what am I supposed to be seeing?”

“Trouble,” said the man lightly. “At least for Stephen – if that is his real name. Though it likely is. He doesn't seem bright enough to think up a pseudonym. I noticed one of the women – the dark-blonde in the blue – looking over at him repeatedly. Not out of any romantic interest. She's clearly trying to remember where she's seen him before. He, on the other hand,recognized the woman straight off. Likely she's a former coworker of his wife's – one he met at a boring picnic or at the annual Christmas 'do.”

"I still don't get how you work out he's married."

The man gave him a sharp look. "He's worrying the ring finger of his left hand. He's used to having something there, obviously. Possibly he fiddles with his wedding band when he is nervous and his subconscious has not made the connection of its absence. He also may be reminding himself that he will have to put it back on when he leaves here."

Greg considered that a moment. “Couldn't it just be that in seeing me, he decided he wasn't keen and wanted to ease out of it?”

“Not at all. Quite the opposite, actually. If he weren't keen, why stay here? There's every chance that you would put it together and realize that he was the man you sought and perhaps start a row,” was the response. “Also, you said the other two men that you approached that are still here were rather brusque with you?”

“Yeah ...”

“That would stand to reason,” he said. “They did not know you, they were not the man you were looking for, and they wanted no further discourse. The third man probably does know a Stephen and dislikes him utterly, hence his belligerence when you asked if he were him.”

The man took another sip of his drink, pulled a distressed face, and set it aside.

“But the first man … you said he was 'friendly enough' and that he even enquired as to whether you had the right place.” The man's eyes pinned Greg to the spot. “Why would he be so friendly? For what cause? All you asked him was if he were a man named Stephen. For all he knew, you might have been told that he was the man who attacked your sister or robbed your mother or pushed your cousin into the Thames. You could have been there to serve him with a lawsuit or to argue about gambling debts, or pull out a revolver and blow his brains out.”

Greg shuddered. He'd been at the scene of a murder-suicide the day before. Not a pretty sight.

“His response to you was rather inappropriate to the question,” the tall bloke said. “And it was because he quite liked what he saw rather than the reverse. He wanted to be kind in order to lay the groundwork for what would come later.”

“But … I mean … what would've been the harm of me just sitting down? How would that have been suspicious?” Greg looked bewildered. “We're two blokes. Things've gotten better for queer couples lately, but it's not gotten to the point where folks see two people of the same sex and assume they're a couple. To the lady at the other table and anyone else, we might've just been mates from work come down for a swift half before getting the Tube home.”

“Yes … and that would have been the problem. Stephen wasn't worried about what she would think. He was worried about what you might discover. If the woman had put two and two together and recognized him, the next step would have been to come over and say hello. Imagine it: 'Oh, hello Stephen! I thought that was you! My goodness, did you change your hair? It's been awhile, hasn't it? How are Cecilia and the children –'”

“What, he's got a kid, too?”

Kids. I don't suppose that Bear Behaving Badly sticker on the corner of his laptop is standard-issue. Nor is that Jedward banner. They suggest at least two children of vastly different ages and tastes.” The man studied him. “Of course you see Stephen's 'problem.' You would know immediately that he had lied to you, and was a married man prowling for a bit of … playtime. He couldn't risk that you'd keep your mouth shut around this woman and not tell her exactly why you were there with him. So instead he tells you that you have the wrong man and sends you on your way.”

“Bloody hell ...” Greg groaned. “Worst almost-date ever.”

“Yes. My guess is that it's not over yet.”

“Like fuck it isn't!” Greg's eyes flashed. “I've a mind to go over there and give him a fist of five and tell that bird in blue what he's been up to so that she can let his wife know.”

“I only meant that it isn't over as far as he is concerned.” The man waved off the barkeep who had been skulking round looking disgruntled. “I think he'd hoped you leave rather quickly after getting so many negative answers. Is that 'anonymous' chat window still open?”

Greg nodded, and the other man smirked.

“Right. So you leave here, and within seconds, you would have received a message. He would have been very contrite and self-deprecating. He would have admitted to deceiving you – but only about his identity. He would have spun some tale about being intimidated by your good looks and fearing that you'd be disappointed that he was so plain … so he opted to say he was not the man you were looking for. He would have pleaded for another chance … in another pub – one that didn't contain acquaintances of his wife.”

Greg frowned. “And what if I'd told him to piss off?”

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” The man said with a wave of his hand. “He would have continued to use this service, which, as I said, is admirably suited to those who want to play around behind their partners' backs, and hope for better luck the next time.”

Greg sighed softly, feeling very tired suddenly. It had been a long day. The only thing that had kept him from wanting to tear his hair out was the idea that he might be meeting someone special later that night. And now that had been rubbished.

“Well, sod this for a lark. Guess I'll go home.” He grinned wearily at his newfound, insightful friend. “That's pretty incredible how you ferreted him out. Is that part of your job, too?”

“Not at all. Just a … hobby.”

“Well it's impressive, I'll tell you that. I would've gone on all this time thinking he never showed and I went around making a bloody arse of myself. So I guess I should thank you, er … God. I've been talking your ear off and I don't even know your name. I'm Greg.”

“Very nice to meet you, Greg.” He held out a hand. “I'm Mycroft.”

Mycroft. One of those old-fashioned names that somehow managed to not sound ridiculous when said in such a sinuous voice.

Greg tried it out as a silent echo in his head. Mycroft. He rather liked it.

“Mycroft, good talking to you.” He shook the proffered hand firmly. “Sorry to have taken up so much of your time with this –”

“Not at all. It was a very intriguing puzzle.”

“Well, I don't know if I'd say all that, but … well ...” Greg cleared his throat. “Er, can I buy you a drink maybe? A good one? Somewhere else?”

The words surprised Greg as much as they had Mycroft, if the man's suddenly wide eyes were any indication. The whole debacle had taken some of the wind out of his sails, though Greg did find Mycroft attractive and interesting. But he felt a drink was something he could manage, and maybe he could even salvage the night with a bit more conversation with a decidedly dishy bloke, even if it wasn't a proper date.

Mycroft started to respond, but then began to snigger softly.

“Er … I say something funny?” Greg found himself on the defensive. Maybe I should just sod the bloody lot and stick to birds … blokes are too much fucking work.

“No, I'm sorry. I was not laughing at you,” said Mycroft, getting hold of himself. “It's just that over the course of our conversation, I've noticed your friend Stephen looking over at us periodically. He had expected you to be gone by now and saw that we were in conversation. He apparently believed that we had been acquainted before since we'd been chatting for so long. But he saw us shake hands just now, and he's reconsidering that supposition. You should see the scowl he has on his face!”

Greg smiled in spite of himself. “Serves the little liar right. Well, he said he wasn't Stephen. For all I know, maybe I did find him, and he's you.”

Mycroft regarded Greg with a small grin.

“What an interesting thought! Tell me, Greg, how are you at playacting?”

Greg was somewhat taken aback. “Uh … well … I was a tulip in a school play once.”

“Good enough. Do you care for another turn on the stage - in a vastly different role, of course.”

Mycroft was leaning close to him now. Greg could see a saddle of freckles across his nose and more dotting his cheeks. It made an interesting contrast with the sculpted face and the serious eyes. An interesting contrast … and, Greg had to admit, a rather sexy one.

“What did you have in mind?”

“A bit of lesson for our dear Stephen,” Mycroft murmured. “I will take you up on the offer of that drink – provided we have it here. And provided that you ...

The rest of the conversation was held at a level below the din of the pub. Greg had to lean even closer to hear him until Mycroft's mouth was almost touching his ear. The soft breath tickled his lobe, and he grinned slightly and tried not to squirm.

And as Greg listened to Mycroft's whispered instructions, his smile grew with every word.