"I don't understand," Molly argued, her hands propped on her hips. "What do I need a bodyguard for? I'm a pathologist, I'm not - I mean, I'm not dangerous or anything."
Not Sherlock, was what she'd meant to say, but then who was? Who could be?
"That, Miss Hooper, is exactly the point." Mycroft Holmes's voice was dry, his eyes cold and dull as a fish's. He'd always weirded her right out; she couldn't entirely blame Sherlock for trying to avoid him all the time. Sherlock might be properly, properly weird but at least there was no doubting he was alive; Mycroft, on the rare occasions she'd met him, reminded her of her dead people, except at least they were kind enough to let her do all the talking. She felt a stab of irritation at his tone; so help her, she would get that PhD: maybe he wouldn't sound so condescending if he had to call her Doctor Hooper, although knowing the Holmes brothers he probably wouldn't even notice. "You are not remotely dangerous," Mycroft continued, "and you are a known associate of my dear departed baby brother. Therefore you are a target."
She thought about this, and found that it probably didn't scare her as much as it was meant to: it seemed far too unrealistic. Up to now, nobody had ever really paid anywhere near enough attention to her to want to kill her, and anyway Sherlock - who in spite of everything, including the fact that he was now internationally derided as a fraud, she still trusted implicitly - had assured her she would be safe. Well, he'd told, anyway - Sherlock wasn't very good at assurances. She'd still have helped him even if he hadn't told her that, though possible that made her pathetic or something. Anyway.
"Is John having one?" she asked suspiciously.
Mycroft tutted. "Not one that he's aware of. But Mrs Hudson is absolutely insisting that yours be rather more hands-on - I assume in the strictly metaphorical sense - and my boss concurs, so here I am like a good little lapdog."
Molly couldn't imagine him having a boss. And what had Mrs Hudson got to do with it, anyway? she wondered, but Mycroft was looking mulish and if he was anything like his brother, she suspected that nothing short of the actual outbreak of World War Three would win her this argument - and anyway she'd never liked fights, they just made her twitchy and awkward. Plus she had at least three reports to do today, one of which was on that double murder in Morecambe, so she really had to be getting on.
She sighed. "All right, if I have to. When do I meet him?"
Mycroft glanced at his mobile, apparently checking the messages. "She will be along presently with Miss Jones. I gather they're best friends or something."
"She?" Molly persisted, vague ideas of an Arnold Schwarzenegger type now rudely shaken up.
"Mmm, yes." Mycroft looked up and raised an eyebrow, still tapping out a message on his Blackberry. "It is the twenty-first century, Miss Hooper, after all. Miss Fritton comes extremely highly recommended by some very senior people, and will officially be here as your new intern."
"How long for?" she asked, doubtful. "Most interns are only here for a month or so. Won't it look weird if she has to stay for longer?"
Besides that, she was quite sceptical as to how a big butch ex-soldier or MI5 agent or whatever was going to pass herself off as one of St Barts's interns, who were nearly all young and studenty with a marked tendency to flutter. Still, presumably Mycroft knew what he was doing -- or at any rate, she devoutly hoped he did.
"I have people ensuring that that will not be an issue," Mycroft sighed, evidently already bored with this conversation, and with silly girls who thought he couldn't do his job.
"Is this all really just because I-"
"Because of your assistance of Sherlock, yes," Mycroft drawled. "And perhaps because you spent a few nights holding hands with a terrorist."
"Because I saved Sherlock's life, you mean," she snapped back - because she did do that, she did something Mycroft Bloody Holmes could not, damnit - and in repayment found herself fixed again with his dead-fish gaze.
"Fine. Well, I'll be in the lab when she gets here," Molly shrugged, and went to get on with her job.
Annabelle Fritton, when she finally arrived an hour or so later, turned out to be a far cry from the big butch woman Molly had been expecting: she was tall and slim as a model, with more lipstick than Molly had ever worn in her life and a tumble of brown curls worn unscientifically loose.
"Hi," she said, and offered her hand with an almost-disguised air of new-girl uncertainty which Molly primarily recognised because it was also her own default expression. "I'm Annabelle."
"Hi," Molly said, and shook her firm cool hand, feeling a slightly stronger-than-average grip and the slight callusing of (she suspected) too much hockey practice, although she had what looked like golf clubs slung over her shoulder. (Or maybe it was lots of jujitsu or something, whatever it was bodyguards normally did.) "I'm Molly - Molly Hooper."
"Pleased to meet you," Annabelle said politely, glancing about herself. "So, is this the only area you work in?"
She didn't seem at all freaked out by the two dead bodies Molly currently had laid out on the slabs, all but the feet and hands decorously covered by sheets but still obviously corpsey nonetheless. Molly didn't know if she was happy about that: it suggested far too much familiarity with dead bodies for her liking. On the other hand - well, bodyguard. Maybe it came with the territory.
"Well, mainly," Molly said, before before the silence could get too awkward. "But in the labs upstairs as well, although that's more She- more the senior students' territory than mine. I'd give you the tour now, but I've really got to get on - I have another case after these two, and my lunch, and I still can't work out what these burns are from!"
She pulled the sheeting away a little more from the taller of the two corpses (the one she'd dubbed 'Eric'; the other, of course, was 'Ernie'), just enough to show Annabelle the odd, mottle burn-marks on his hands. "I've been trying different compounds all week, trying to replicate the patterning."
"Oh, I saw those all the time at school - the twins used to turn up with hands like that if they'd been getting carried away in Chemistry," Annabelle remarked with off-hand nostalgia. "My auntie always used to say, there's nothing worse than rogue C4... It's Trinitrotoluene."
"What, the explosive?" Molly blinked, startled. "Your school must have been... kind of crazy."
Annabelle only laughed. "Oh, we were just one big, happy... if slightly dysfunctional... family. But also mad as a box of frogs, yes."
"Oh, right." She wasn't entirely certain what to say to that: it certainly sounded as far away as possible from the grey, cement-dull comprehensive where she'd always been at best a nonentity. "Was it... fun?"
"Oh, yes." Annabelle smiled. "Once you got used to it, anyway. It was a lot like living in a lunatic asylum crossed with a mafia safehouse - or possibly a speakeasy - but it was a lot of fun."
She had a really good smile, actually: bright and infectious, with a wickedly amused glint in her eye that made Molly want to smile too.
"Oh, er, good." Molly didn't immediately say anything else, vaguely preoccupied by her new acquaintance, so there was a brief but awkward pause.
"Didn't you say you were really busy?" And Annabelle had a soft, posh voice, too, the kind you tended to hear from women whose parents were loaded and who tended, in Molly's admittedly limited experience, to call said parents 'mummy' and 'daddy' well into adulthood.
"Oh! Yes." Molly mentally pulled herself together. "I mean - I'd better get on, yeah."
She bustled off, Annabelle trailing curiously in her wake like a very pretty duckling. She wondered if the girl had ever been in a lab before, much less a morgue, and decided that she probably had, and that she didn't really want to know the circumstances: Annabelle seemed self-contained to a level that she herself had never, ever managed.
It occurred to Molly much later, when she was two-thirds of the way through the dissection of a murder victim's left lung, that she'd actually spent most of her time that day thinking (or at least wondering) about the mysterious Annabelle Fritton. Well, she supposed, it wasn't every day that a girl got her very own bodyguard, so maybe it was only natural to be curious. Nevertheless, she couldn't help but feel that wherever Sherlock was these days, he was just itching right now to send her a text saying 'WRONG!'.
Well, sod Sherlock, anyway. What did he know?
"Do you want to go for dinner later?" she asked in a rush, before she could think better of it, and then it was suddenly Annabelle's turn to startle and go pink.
"Oh! Yes, okay." She smiled again, and Molly smiled back at her. "I have to keep close to you anyway. But that would be - fun."
She could still feel herself smiling back, which was not something she'd done much of lately. "Great."
Dinner with Annabelle took place in a very good restaurant on the edge of Soho, where Molly felt incredibly under-dressed and where Annabelle appeared to know the owner, a giggly blonde with Marilyn Monroe hair who descended on them as soon as they got through the door. Shrieks of delighted recognition later, the woman - who Annabelle kept calling 'Chloe darling' - personally ushered them both to a choice table by the window - and then, when Annabelle murmured into her ear, to a more discreet little alcove out of the way of the main thoroughfare.
"Oh, of course, darling, I completely understand," Chloe assured her, using discreet hand gestures to direct a waiter to bring fresher flowers. "We get this sort of affair all the time - and don't you dare even think about paying, Annabelle Fritton, your meals are on the house. Saints don't take money from Saints."
Annabelle laughed. "Not unless they're really dense, right?"
"And when did you ever meet a Saint who was that?" Chloe smirked. "Must zhuzsh, darlings - no rest for the fabulous, you know how it is. Give my love to Kelly?"
"I will," Annabelle said, as Chloe sashayed away in a cloud of excessively expensive perfume to issue orders to her staff with the sort of authority usually only displayed by Sergeant Majors in the SAS. Molly raised her eyebrows at Annabelle, faintly bemused.
"We went to school together," her bodyguard explained simply, and passed her the menu. "You have got to try the venison, it's glorious."
She was right, the venison was good; so was the wine (Annabelle said something about Chateau Marmonte) and her new friend was full of amusing stories and seemed, for a wonder, to find Molly just as interesting as Molly was beginning to find her. Annabelle was halfway through a complex but entertaining story about the heist and return of Vermeer's Girl With A Pearl Earring when the maitre d' appeared Batman-like at her side and whispered urgently into her ear.
"Chloe's sent a message," she said briefly, and tugged Molly to her feet. "Sorry, but I think we'd better skip the dessert. This way, Jean-Paul?"
The waiter escorted them through an emergency exit door, along a corridor, down what looked like the staff locker rooms and through another corridor, where Chloe waited with their coats and a calm, thoroughly entertained expression on her lovely face.
"Isn't this just like old times?" she said with a giggle, handing first Molly, then Annabelle their jackets. "Although it's usually the police looking for people here... Straight out the doors, Annabelle, your ride's waiting. I'll buy you some time."
"Will you be okay?" Molly asked anxiously: for the first time this was all beginning to seem worryingly real, not a game.
Chloe was applying a fresh coat of lipstick in the reflection of a locker door; when she smiled, she suddenly didn't seem anything like a spoiled society-girl at all. "Believe me, sweetie, these people have no idea what they've just let themselves in for." She tossed Annabelle a hockey stick from behind a crate of fresh asparagus, which she caught and held like a soldier with a rifle. "Strength and honour, darling."
"Strength and honour." Annabelle grinned, suddenly both bizarre and a little frightening as she bumped her clenched fist against Chloe's. "C'mon, Molly, let's not keep our lift waiting."
Shouts and crashes rumbled behind them as she led Molly out of the building; Molly, definitely a little scared now, gave Annabelle's hockey stick a dubious look. "Haven't you got a - a gun, or something?"
Annabelle herself looked mildly stressed, but her voice was still perfectly calm. "Afraid not, no."
"You haven't got a gun?" Molly was aware she sounded slightly hysterical. "You're supposed to be my bodyguard but you haven't got a gun?"
"Mr Holmes thought an intern with a gun license would be far too noticeable," Annabelle snapped back, shoving open the doors at the end of the corridor. Outside, outlined by the alleyway's one murky street lamp, a blonde teenage girl with a pixie cut and a slightly terrifying expression waited for them beside a Land Rover helmed by her identical twin.
"Reporting for duty, Annabelle!" she piped in a voice that had once evidently been flutelike and which was now more clarinet, saluting scrappily as Annabelle urged Molly into the car.
"Evening, Tara," Annabelle nodded. "Have you and Tania been watching The Italian Job again?"
"We took notes and everything," chirped the driver, who was presumably Tania, and jumped as the alley behind them produced a crash as if someone had pushed over bins, one after another. Molly startled too, watching as Annabelle spun to peer without noticeable fear into the gloom, and cursed under her breath.
"Chloe's lot must have missed one," she said, as much to herself as to the others. "All right, twins, if I'm not back in two minutes or anything makes you think there's a problem, go for plan three-sixty and get out of here, okay?"
"You got it, Annabelle," chorused the twins, and Annabelle returned their salute before stepping out of the car to walk into the gloom of the alley with her hockey stick in her hand, whistling.
"Shouldn't she have back-up or something?" Molly asked nervously, watching her bodyguard's retreating back until it vanished into the dark. "She hasn't even got a gun..."
"She doesn't need a gun," said both twins at once, again in perfect harmony. "She's a St Trinian."
Neither twin seemed particularly concerned, but Molly had to admit to feeling a definite sense of relief when Annabelle emerged from the alleyway ruffled but unharmed and apparently chatting on her mobile phone.
"...You've got about twenty minutes before he starts coming round," she said as she wrenched open the Land Rover door. "Yes, I broke the stick again. Let me know whatever Taylor and Andrea get out of him, yeah?" She hopped inside, clearly oblivious to Molly's mumbled but frantic 'oh thank God!'. "Okay, gotta go - tell Peaches I said hi. Uh-huh. Thanks again!"
She shut the phone with a click and raised her eyebrows at Tara and Tania. "Twins, I'm pretty sure I said to go if I wasn't back in two minutes, and that was at least three minutes nine."
"We knew you'd be okay, Annabelle," Tania said, looking wounded.
"We'd never leave you behind!" added her twin.
Annabelle grinned. "Thanks, girls. Now might be the time to get moving, though, yeah?"
"Yessarge," piped the girls, leaving Molly to grab Annabelle's hand almost unnoticed as the Land Rover accelerated precariously.
"Are you okay?" she demanded, which was probably the most unnecessary question she'd asked in a while. "I mean, what happened? Who was that?"
"I'm fine - although I've broken yet another hockey stick." Annabelle laughed rather self-consciously. "As far as what happened goes - well. My games teacher was ex-SAS, so I suppose I... picked up a few tricks along the way. No idea who he was, but he was definitely professional - at a guess I'd say maybe gangland with some Yakuza training, but I won't know for certain until Taylor and Andrea get through with him, and that'll take about twenty-four hours."
Molly's head spun; this had all gone from a very surreal dream to unnervingly cold reality very quickly. "Okay," she said uncertainly, dimly aware that she was still clutching Annabelle's hand. "So what happens next?"
Annabelle herself glanced at a text on her phone. "I've got instructions to get you home," she said, frowning a little and seeming not to notice as she squeezed Molly's fingers - or maybe she did notice. The thought had crossed Molly's mind once or twice, filtering in shaky staccato through the haze of mental static thrown up by the realisation that - because of how she'd helped Sherlock, because of who he was and what she'd done - there really were people who wanted to kill her. And - which seemed even stranger; she couldn't think of many people important enough who'd want to bother - there were people whose business it now was to see to it by fair means or foul that she stayed alive. It would have been very gratifying, if not for all those people trying to kill her.
"And then what?" she asked Annabelle tentatively. "Same again tomorrow?"
"Actually, I rather think -" Annabelle began, but snapped off as the car's brakes screeched.
"Houston, we have a problem," said both twins at once.
"That car just tried to run us off the road!" Molly gasped, in what she was aware almost at once was another stunning display of obviousness.
"Can you take him, you two?" Annabelle demanded, leaning forward. Tara and Tania shared a look.
"If you can take care of the consequences," Tara said grimly, helping her sister to wrench the gear stick, "He's ours!"
Their car jerked frantically and Molly, genuinely frightened now, found herself thrown forcibly against Annabelle's side. Annabelle looked down, and her jaw tightened when she saw Molly's face. "It's all right," she said quietly, and Molly was faintly surprised to see she was smiling. "We've done far crazier things than this, honestly."
Unexpectedly reassured, Molly buried her head in Annabelle's shoulder, feeling her bodyguard wrap a reassuring arm around her.
"Take him, girls," she ordered the twins. "Kelly and I'll clean up." She stroked Molly's hair; Molly made herself breathe slowly, inhaling the discreetly expensive scent of Annabelle's perfume and the clean smell of her hair. "Close your eyes, if it helps," she suggested. "We'll take care of this."
"I haven't been able to look for about five minutes now," Molly retorted, aware she was almost completely muffled but with no intention of moving away, and heard Annabelle giggle in response.
In the end, that giggle turned out to be the last thing she would remember until about an hour later, when Annabelle gently shook her awake.
"Mrgh?" She'd always been at her most coherent when newly awake; Annabelle smiled.
"We're at your place," she told her. "Go and get enough stuff together for a few nights - I think you'd be better off staying at mine until this blows over."
"Oh." Molly blinked at her stupidly trying to will her brain into getting up to speed. "Okay."
"I'll help," Annabelle said, nudging open the car door so that night air flooded in, smoking and cool. "But we - probably shouldn't stick around."
Gallantly she helped Molly out of the car, making her laugh and the twins exchange a significant look. Still, Molly noticed that for all her laughter Annabelle remained on high alert, wide green-grey-brown eyes sweeping their surroundings for anything out of place as she accompanied Molly inside.
"Do you like it?" Annabelle asked as she brought in the last of the bags, sounding unexpectedly shy even to Molly's sleep-fuzzed brain. (She'd fallen asleep again in the car, Annabelle's arm draped around her protectively. She wondered if bodyguards were supposed to do things like that, at least outside of the movies.)
"It's gorgeous," Molly said fervently, then bit her lip as a thought occurred. "Um, the cats are probably going to make a mess - are you sure you -"
"It'll be fine," Annabelle told her sweepingly. "We had a cat when we first moved in, and yours are all litter-trained and everything, so..."
"Oh, yes." For the first time since she'd met her (...all of twenty-four hours ago, but shush) Annabelle looked properly awkward, fiddling with one curl of her hair. "I live with my best friend," she explained. "Her name's Kelly - Kelly Jones. She's your Mycroft Holmes's assistant."
"He's not my Mr. Holmes." Molly wasn't certain how she felt about this, and even more uncertain as to why she wasn't sure. She felt, vaguely, as if Annabelle having a flatmate spoiled things somehow. "Where is she?"
"Istanbul, by now." Annabelle went to one of the kitchen cupboards and lifted down two incongruously chipped mugs and a box of teabags. "She flew out this morning. Want a drink?"
She felt as if she'd said something wrong, but couldn't quite see how: Annabelle seemed suddenly awkward, and almost a little bit distant. She wondered where Sherlock was right now, and wondered why she was wondering.
"Tea'ld be amazing, thanks," she said hastily, realising the silence was in danger of becoming weird, and was rewarded by one of Annabelle's small bright smiles. "Two sugars, loads of milk, please."
"Okay." She filled the kettle and put it on, then fetched milk (full fat, noticed Molly, who'd expected skimmed - the pretty girls she knew always seemed to be dieting, and Annabelle was really, really pretty) from the fridge. "Did you want something to eat? We have, er -" she glanced in the fridge again, "Leftover Chinese, mainly. But I think there are some pizzas in the freezer."
"No, I'm fine," Molly disclaimed hastily: after that car journey, she didn't think she would ever want to eat again. "I, um, I ate enough at La Sainte."
Annabelle gave her a perceptive look from under long dark lashes. "Still freaking out over earlier?"
She nodded uncomfortably, feeling herself going red. "Yeah, I suppose. A bit."
All of a sudden Annabelle was hugging her: she twitched, startled, but then relaxed into it before Annabelle could pull away, allowing the hug to become comfortable. She could smell Annabelle's perfume again, just as she had when she'd clung to her on the back seat of the Land Rover, and the clean sharp citrus tang her shampoo had left in her hair. She breathed in deeply, feeling the aftermath of her panic recede like a tide for the first time since they'd left the restaurant, and bit down sharply on the ridiculous urge to cry.
Annabelle was saying something, as if from very far away; Molly blinked up at her. "Hmm?"
"I said - better?" Annabelle repeated, and smiled. Molly smiled back, but clumsily disentangled herself.
"Um, yeah. Thanks."
She felt awkward again suddenly, as if caught doing something that wasn't exactly forbidden but certainly not condoned. Annabelle was about to say or do something - what, she didn't know - when her mobile rang, its insistent shrilling shattering through the awkwardness. Annabelle reached for the phone, fumbled it twice, and finally put it to her ear.
"Annabelle Fritton." The very soft, very posh voice was back again, making her seem distant and serene. Molly couldn't hear what the other speaker was saying, but Annabelle was frowning slightly, fiddling with her manicure as if doing complicated mathematics in her head. "Don't forget, this line's not secure," she reminded her caller, then, "Yes, I'll see to it. Can you call the others?"
"Mm-hmm. Yes, Thwaites will be fine. Can you get Ginny? Mm-hmm. Yes, okay. Yes, I'll do it now. Mm-hmm. Okay, Celia, see you tomorrow."
She closed the phone with a snap, and gave Molly an oddly apologetic smile. "Sorry, I'm going to have to pop out for a bit - something urgent's come up. Make yourself at home, I won't be long."
Molly trailed nervously behind as Annabelle went to get her coat. "Are you sure? Will it be okay?"
"Oh yes - you'll be perfectly safe, don't worry," Annabelle told her, although that wasn't what Molly had been asking. "The bed's all yours, by the way - mine's the bedroom that isn't locked. There's wine in the cabinet by the TV, help yourself."
She straightened her collar and glanced at Molly, who was valiantly trying to straighten out the woebegone look on her face. Evidently she'd been unsuccessful, however, because Annabelle leaned over and pressed a quick flutter of a kiss to her lips. "I'll see you later," she promised, and was gone.
Molly stayed where she was, stock still, with a hand pressed to her mouth, completely shell-shocked.
She eventually fell asleep on the sofa a little over an hour later, trying and failing to watch TV - which was clearly a futile effort, because the only thing she could do was replay the kiss from Annabelle, over and over. She'd never been kissed by a girl before - except for those weird, awkward muah-muahs you did at parties - but it wasn't like it freaked her out, or anything. It was just - weird, because Annabelle was pretty and posh and apparently good at beating up thugs with a hockey stick, so it was entirely beyond Molly as to why on earth she would want to kiss a self-confessed mouse and a wuss whose biggest achievement with a hockey stick was once scoring two goals in one Year Nine games lesson. Not that she didn't want her to want to - the kiss, brief as it was, had been interesting, and she'd always liked to learn things. And Annabelle was certainly prettier - and more interesting - than Jim from IT, even if he was apparently some sort of criminal mastermind or something...
Although, it occurred to her, it was entirely possible that Annabelle was, too.
Well, what the hell. Maybe she had a type.
The next thing she knew, Annabelle was gently shaking her awake on the sofa. She blinked, briefly trying to swat her away before a few more braincells kicked in and she sat up, blinking around herself in the bleary morning light, and pushed away the blanket she was sure she hadn't been covered by when she'd last closed her eyes.
"I didn't like to wake you up by moving you, sorry," Annabelle said, and smiled at her. "Tea's on, and I've let the cats out - they're shut in the kitchen for now. Did you want a shower?"
"Um, yes," Molly said uncertainly, and before her brain could kick in enough to stop her she leaned up and kissed Annabelle on the lips.
Annabelle made a highly undignified, giggly squeak which startled Molly almost as much as the kiss had apparently startled Annabelle; she felt herself blush hot pink and half pulled away, only for Annabelle to cup her face in the her hands and pull her close again. She could smell Annabelle's perfume again, and taste minty toothpaste and slick cherry lipgloss. Kissing Annabelle wasn't quite like kissing anyone else, in her (admittedly, seriously limited) experience: lipgloss aside, though, she suspected that that had less to do with the fact that she'd never kissed a girl before and more to do with the fact that no-one else she'd ever kissed had been half as good at it as Annabelle was.
It was all getting really interesting (Annabelle had eased herself down onto the sofa so that she was straddling Molly's hips; hands were wandering) and Molly was beginning to wonder exactly how far this was going to go (and deciding she didn't particularly mind) when it happened again: Annabelle's mobile rang, loud and insistent. Annabelle herself didn't seem too happy about it, either, but although she made a highly irritated noise as she pulled away, she still went to get it.
"Annabelle Fritton?" she said, and Molly was pleased and surprised to note that she sounded out of breath - which, apparently, her caller had also noticed. "No, no, just been for a jog. What's your ETA?"
A moment or two later, she snapped the phone shut, giving Molly a rueful look. "That was our lift to work, I'm afraid. She'll be here in about thirty minutes, so if you want a shower first, it's going to be now or never."
Molly managed a smile, and wondered if she was blushing as hotly as she felt she was. "I'm really beginning to hate that ringtone, honestly."
"As if anybody could ever hate Spiceworld," Annabelle said dismissively, but she still giggled. "Scoot, anyway, I'll tidy up."
"Nah, 's all fair in love'n'war, innit?" said Bianca cheerfully. "'Sides, I owe you for all that stuff with the Tuskeegee job. Am I all right to skive off for a couple of hours this afternoon, though? I got appointments."
"Talk to Polly," Annabelle advised. "She's running point on this one - she should be able to find you cover."
The helpful Bianca grinned and gave Molly a thumbs-up. "No worries. Strength'n'honour, yeah?"
"Honour amongst thieves, anyway," Annabelle laughed back, and bumped her fist against Bianca's. "Tell Zoe I said hi?"
"Tell 'er yourself, if you're here - she's got next watch. And mind the turn to your left when you get outta here - we haven't been able to lock down the area it leads to yet."
"Will do," Annabelle nodded, and slid her arm protectively around Molly's waist. "We'd better go or we won't make our window."
Bianca's mobile buzzed and she waved them off as she took the call; the last Molly heard, she appeared to be setting up either a drugs bust or a gang war.
"Has she really been there all night?" she asked; Annabelle shook her head.
"Oh, no, only since 4am. Before that, it was Anoushka, and right now Lucy and Gwen are on the main doors - we were getting some slightly hairy rumours, so I called in a couple of favours from people I went to school with, just in case."
Molly shook her head, still more than a little boggled at the idea of all these people who were apparently making it their collective business to see to it that she stayed alive. "Is there actually anyone you didn't go to school with?"
Annabelle smiled, mischievous as the schoolgirl she must have once been. "Only the girls. But it does tend to open doors..."
Outside, the open doors in question belonged to a gleaming black Bentley driven by a chauffeur and whose sole other occupant was an incredibly glamorous blonde wearing designer glasses, a perfectly-tailored suit and more lipstick than Molly had ever seen in her life. She was also very familiar, although it took Molly a few seconds to realise why.
"Oh my God, you're Chelsea Parker!" It came out as slightly more - okay, a lot more - of a squeak than she would have liked. She turned to Annabelle, now sliding in beside her and slamming the car door shut. "You went to school with the Minister for Education?"
Unexpectedly the woman giggled. "Home Secretary, actually - but you didn't hear that from me. The reshuffle's not for days yet, it's all hideously tedious." She extended the most exquisitely manicured hand in the known world. "But please, darling, call me Chelsea."
"I thought it made sense to cadge a ride with someone who already had her own bodyguards," Annabelle explained with a grin as Molly shook hands. "Morning, Chels - by the way, Chloe and Kelly say hi."
"Oh, God, it's been eons," murmured the woman the papers were already calling a future prime minister. "We really must have a proper catch-up -- Whitehall is really so disgustingly grey and masculine, how Harriet puts up with it I've no idea."
"What, you've been there how long and you still haven't organised a makeover?" Annabelle teased. "You used to be a faster worker than that when we were in school."
Chelsea winked lazily. "My first week as Home Sec, I'm getting the twins' firm in to sort it all out for me - but again, you didn't hear that, darlings. Get it done now and shmooze the press later, that's my motto. Now."
She pressed Starbucks takeout cups into both their hands. "Double-shot skinny creme caramel lattes - can't rule the British Empire without them. We're both being dreadfully cliqueish, Molly, I'm so sorry. You must give me the whole story: Harriet and your Martha Hudson were disgustingly stingy with their information and I'm just dying to know the all gory details. What on earth is going on to have Kelly and Annabelle mobilising the St Trinian's mafia like this? Because if we're going to war, as a member of Her Majesty's Cabinet I really must insist on at least getting advanced warning - it will do dreadful things to the economy."
"--Wait, wait." Molly blinked at her, head swimming. "Harriet, like Harriet Jones? As in the Prime Minister, Harriet Jones? How does she know Mrs Hudson?"
Annabelle waved a careless hand. "Oh, they went to school with my Aunty Camilla - that's how we all come into this, didn't you know? And honestly Chelsea, it's not a war - just a global crime network being dismantled rather messily. Kelly would be back in the country by now if it was a war."
"Oh well, a girl can dream." Chelsea looked utterly innocent, which if Molly's experience of her and Annabelle's former co-alumni was anything to go by, meant particular trouble afoot. "But still, you must both give me all the details, I'm so gossip-deprived."
"In Whitehall?" Molly said before she could stop herself. "It doesn't run on gossip?"
Chelsea laughed. "Oooh, I like you, you can stick around," she said cheerfully. "But it's all such dull gossip, honestly - who's having their duckpond French-manicured, who's having an affair, who's drinking, as if they aren't all lying and cheating and drinking. I miss all the juicy bits."
"Well, it's all supposed to be absolutely hush-hush," advised Annabelle, but she leant forward and told her anyway. But she did it in a whisper, so that probably made it okay.
They finally arrived at Barts nearly three-quarters of an hour later, London's morning rush-hour being what it always was, and Molly was more than a little surprised by how much she enjoyed the journey: Chelsea was friendly, gossipy and took sharing a car with a girl under death warrant perfectly in her stride - apparently this was all business-as-usual for an ex-St Trinian. ("There are no ex-St Trinian's," Annabelle explained gently. "We're like the marines." "Or the mob," added Chelsea, and giggled.) She was also quite clearly whip-smart under the fluffy party-girl exterior, and at least twice Molly had the distinct feeling she knew exactly what the pair of them had been up to before the car had arrived - no particular surprise, as Molly realised when she caught sight of her reflection in the car window and saw how oddly her hair was sticking up; and besides, she was probably still blushing horribly - she always did.
At Barts Chelsea insisted on pressing powdery perfumed kisses on their cheeks before waving them off in a cloud of exquisitely-scented 'darlings' and promises of a really good girly night out in the near future, in which Molly was surprised and slightly startled to find herself included. She felt, a bit, as if she was being adopted - but then again, Annabelle had described her school as a family, hadn't she?
As they pulled up to the entrance, one of Chelsea's bodyguards opened the door; nevertheless, Annabelle checked her mobile before shepherding Molly out past a redheaded, freckled girl who looked so like a student (she even had what appeared to be a paintbrush sticking the wrong way up out of her coat pocket) that it was actually a little unexpected when she and Annabelle exchanged nods.
"Was that another of your schoolfriends?" she asked, half-running to keep up as they headed for the lifts at Annabelle's brisk, high-heeled stride. "That red-haired girl, I mean."
"Actually, no - although she'd have fitted in perfectly." Annabelle chuckled, hitting the call button. "Gin's a friend of a friend, sort of. Good girl, though - and her mum's a force of nature, you would not believe."
The lift doors opened to show someone already inside: a slight, very pretty black woman wearing a labcoat and the unspeakable air of someone who belonged there, even though Molly - who had a pretty good memory for faces, at least the ones she saw regularly - was certain she'd never seen her before in her life.
"Morning, Doctor Jones," Annabelle said cheerfully as the doors closed, which at least answered that question. "How's business?"
"Busy, as per," the other woman said, hiding a small yawn with her hand. "But Ginny and I have been, er, improving the basement levels, so you should have a quiet day." She gave Molly a nod and a wink. "I have way too much experience with obnoxious geniuses like your Mr Holmes. Give him hell when he gets back, yeah?"
"Oh," Molly said, startled but just about returning the stranger's grin. "If he gets back, I'll try."
"Oh, he'll turn up - they always do," she assured her, sounding unexpectedly like a hardened but amused veteran - like Doctor Watson used to sound, when a case was long but nearly done, and he had a mug of tea. "They're like bad pennies, men like him."
The lift halted a floor early and Doctor Jones stepped out with a wave and the reminder to call if either of them needed anything, the implication of which was not lost on Molly.
"You know," she remarked shyly, as the lift doors closed on the woman's self-assured shadow, "It's really weird - all these people, turning up just to keep me alive? Like I'm - I don't know."
Annabelle raised perfectly-plucked eyebrows. "Like you're important?" she suggested. "But you are important, silly. And if there's one thing none of my friends and I can stand, it's bullies." The lift opened: in the cold light of the labs, her smile was slow and sharklike, dangerous. "We do tend to bully back."
Her beautiful hazel eyes flickered along the full length of the corridor, ceiling to floor. Finding no-one there, she pulled Molly into a kiss against the wall, her hands slipping under Molly's coat to find her hips. Feeling startled - though noticeably less so than the last time Annabelle had done this; she really could stand to get used to it - Molly kissed her back, tasting cherry lipgloss again and letting her hands trickle up Annabelle's sides to cup her jaw, thumbs stroking over face-powdery-soft cheeks. Annabelle was a girl with an apparently bullet-proof sense of self-respect, but when Molly kissed her she seemed almost fragile again, as if she found it as hard to believe that she was kissing Molly as Molly found it hard to believe she was kissing her. Which was pathetic, maybe - it wouldn't be the first time, if it were - but still seemed right. But then, she wouldn't have chosen this job if she minded the occasional mystery...
Something had hit the floor, further off in the labs, and Annabelle pulled away so quickly it was if she had never kissed Molly at all.
"That," she observed softly, "was definitely not an interruption from my phone..."
She took Molly's hand, linking their fingers together tightly as she led them down the corridor with a quiet, predatory tread that Molly could only partially succeed in emulating. She thought she should be afraid, nervy as she had been last night, but with Annabelle's warm, callused fingers tight through hers she only felt excited as an action-movie star waiting for her scene. As if she could walk through anything and win, the way the St Trinian's girls could, and suddenly she couldn't bring herself to worry too much about what Sherlock was up to now. (He was kind of a dick anyway - and so was his brother. She still didn't want him to die, of course, but he could probably take care of himself now.)
"Stay here," Annabelle said, indicating a closet just inside the door of the morgue, from which she hastily yanked yet another hockey stick before handing Molly her mobile phone. "Text Martha or Ginny, they're in the address book. Whatever happens to me, keep your mouth shut and run for it if you have to. Okay?"
Molly shook her head fiercely, already fiddling with the phone, writing the demanded text. "No, I want to help."
Annabelle gave her a grin and the briefest of kisses. "I made my choices, and this is my job. I'll be fine."
"So why the back-up plan?" Molly demanded, but she didn't stop Annabelle from very quietly but very firmly shutting the door on her - and, she noticed, locking it again. She did, at least, take the key with her, allowing Molly to carefully push forward in the musty, chemical-scented gloom (not that there were really any chemicals in there, only lab coats, but enough accidental explosions and some things would inevitably persist) and glue her eye to the keyhole.
Annabelle found the first man before he knew what was happening, tossing a home-made smoke bomb to the floor and yanking him out from his hiding place under a corpse's trolley with the kind of strength you didn't really expect from a slim, mini-skirted twenty-something in designer boots. He'd already taken a knee to the groin and a hockey stick to the head before back-up reached him, but there were two of them and they were both twice Annabelle's height and weight: she knew she shouldn't have let Annabelle lock her in here...
She fumbled with the lock, trying to force the mechanism in from the inside and feeling the metal catch and scrape against her fingers. Come on, come on, they had to have built something into these things to stop people from getting themselves locked in by accident... They hadn't, but the cupboard was typical cheap university junk and one frustrated thump of the metal was enough to send the door bouncing open and send herself flying to the floor in time to see Annabelle, half-shrouded in smoke, knock out the first of the two back-up goons but take a smacking blow to the face from the second. Molly picked herself up, praying she could actually do something and ignoring the way her hands were already throbbing from the assault on the door. Annabelle was still fighting back, but the slap to her face had clearly dazed her and she'd lost her grip on the hockey-stick. Molly clenched her fists; she'd never hit anyone before in her life, not even in the one and only fight she'd ever got into with Sophie Dunst in Year 9, but she'd seen very nearly every Jackie Chan movie and that had to count for something, right? At the very least, maybe she'd be a distraction; either way, it was far too late to stop now...
She tapped the man on the shoulder, and as he spun round she punched him as hard as she could in the jaw.
The sound he made as he hit the floor seemed to echo forever, and then she was looking at all three men, flat out and still as one of her laboratory bodies as Annabelle cautiously picked herself up with the aid of her hockey stick, rubbing her face.
"Wow," she said unsteadily, and put her arm around Molly's shoulders. "Remind me to never, ever piss you off..."
Her hand was screamingly painful; she wondered dazedly if that was normal or if she'd broken something, and fought the urge to cling to Annabelle pathetically. If she was really going to be a St Trinian, she decided, all trace of patheticness was going to stop right now; all the same, when she tried to laugh, it came out as a slightly strangled sob. "Is that it? Is it over?"
There was a shout and another crash; they both snapped round just in time to see the red-headed Ginny send a fourth man crashing to the floor in a shatter of glass as Dr Jones, now carrying a gun so massive it looked like something from a Terminator movie, rocketed into the lab just behind her.
"Bloody hell," Martha said, surveying the mess with a look that Molly couldn't help but feel wasn't as awed as it deserved to have been. "What happened?"
"Oh, you know," Molly said weakly, and this time did let herself lean against Annabelle, who still seemed to be equal to her weight. "Just another quiet day in the labs..."
Annabelle started to giggle uncontrollably, and - even if it was a crime scene, sort of - a second or two later Molly had to let herself join in until they both collapsed in a slightly hysterical heap on the floor under the bemused eyes of their would-be rescuers.
"Mycroft Holmes is going to have a fit," Ginny observed, although she sounded as if she was quite looking forward to seeing it; Molly, on the other hand, couldn't bring herself to care. Sod Mycroft anyway, she decided. What did he know about anything?