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Chapter Text

“Come along, Charles,” said the Chief Superintendent’s brother-in-law; “don’t look like that. Gutta cavat lapidem.”

“Water may hollow a stone,” returned the Acting Commissioner unhappily, “but the powers that be would prefer this investigation to progress on a time scale not measured in eons.”

“So you’ve trotted along in hopes of borrowing my particular brand of dynamite, as it were.”

Charles Parker frowned at his old friend without interrupting his attentions to the quite excellent sausages on his plate. This conversation, though conducted over the breakfast table, was the sequel to several hours’ frenetic activity. Parker had been roused from his virtuous slumber in the dead of night, and promoted virtually on the spot. (“This was,” observed his brother-in-law brightly, “doubtless the prequel to demanding of you something particularly dangerous and disagreeable.”) Chief Superintendent — now Acting Commissioner — Parker was himself of the opinion that dangerous and disagreeable was a feat of masterful understatement, applied as it was to the task of dismantling the already-exposed apparatus of a Soho gangster who had been apprehended with a journalist’s blood on his shirtfront while a woman discussed, on live television, the fact that he’d paid her to sleep with politicians. And not just politicians. The long-suffering policeman’s promotion was the result of his predecessor’s dramatic and unambiguous suicide.

“Does Harriet ever tell you,” demanded Parker, “that your habit of hitting the nail on the head can be most disagreeable?”

“Frequently,” responded Lord Peter, with offensively undimmed good humor. “Particularly when it is made apparent that this habit has been passed on — whether by nature or nurture seems an academic question — to the children.”

“Mm.”

“Have some more toast, Charles, and tell me all about it. And don’t get butter on your cuffs.”

Parker glared at his host over his latest slice of toast. The fact that it was irreproachably hot and perfectly browned seemed something like an affront, in the face of the weeks of irregularly snatched meals he saw stretching before him.

“The outline,” he said sullenly, as the rack was removed for replenishment, “I have given you.”

“You have,” said his lordship, imperturbably sipping coffee.

“I,” said Acting Commissioner Parker, “am as a gadfly in the corridors of power.”

“A horsefly at least, Charles. Quite definitely capable of both stinging and drawing blood. While a gadfly may be any dipterous insect of the family Oestridae...”

“Such academic distinctions aside," interrupted his lordship's companion, "you’re even better known as a risk than you are as a nuisance.”

“Thank you.”

“What I mean to say is,” said Parker, applying a corner of fresh toast to the remainder of his eggs, “you’ll get more out of them by slinking softly around and making concerned or sympathetic noises than I ever could.”

“May I,” asked Lord Peter, “use an eye like Mars to threaten and command?”

“Do what you like. As long as it’s legal,” added Parker hastily.

“Oh, fear me not.”

Charles Parker sighed. “There is also,” he said, “the matter of the boy.”

“The boy?”

“Well, I say boy. The journalist.”

Lord Peter’s grey eyes flickered with unmistakable interest. “The prophet mauled in the lion’s den?”

“The same.”

“Harriet likes him. Or, I should say, she admires his work. But what makes you think, Charles, that a man half my age with more ideals than sense would find a scion of the degenerate aristocracy a sympathetic interlocutor?”

“More ideals than sense, you said.”

His lordship arched one eyebrow. “Very well. The reproof — if it is one — I accept. But the main point — ”

“The aristocracy,” said Parker, “may be less to be feared than the police, from his perspective.”

It was Lord Peter’s turn to sigh. “Would it be out of place,” he inquired plaintively, “to say noblesse oblige?”

Charles Parker grinned. “Say what you like. You know you’re simply panting to be part of the intrigue.”

“Do you know, Charles, I’m not sure that I am. But I will do it.”

Chapter Text

“Harriet,” said Lord Peter Wimsey, “I have committed an indiscretion.”

“Good heavens, Peter,” said Harriet mildly. She put a period to her sentence and the cap to her pen, and only then turned to meet the unaccustomed interruption. “I infer,” said she, “with my customary acumen, the arrival of a disturbing missive with the morning post, but what on earth — ? Surely not an indiscretion of the Viennese variety?”

His lordship blinked. “The what?”

Harriet blushed. “Never mind. Nothing. It’s only I can’t imagine…” Peter Wimsey knelt at his wife’s feet. “An indiscretion,” she continued, “conventional or unconventional, which you would preface in this redundant manner rather than telling me at once.”

“Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima…”

“Peter, if you do not unhand me at once, this conversation never will get anywhere.”

Peter Wimsey coughed, as one knowing himself reprimanded, if not as one penitent. “Charles came round.”

“Ah.” One corner of Lady Peter Wimsey’s mouth became folded in on itself, in an expression that seemed to compromise between mirth and apprehension. “I begin, however dimly, to see light. He has inveigled you into detecting something.”

“Well,” protested Peter faintly, into his wife’s skirt, “not exactly detecting.”

“Do I detect a whiff of the Jesuitical?”

“Investigatin’.”

“Definitely Jesuitical.”

“It’s a noble cause, Harriet,” said Peter Wimsey unhappily, still without raising his head. “The trouble is that it’s likely to land us in the newspapers.”

“It’s what?” All trace of levity had vanished from her tone. With one inky finger she raised her husband’s chin. “All right, Peter; I know it must be serious; tell me.”

Without embroidery and without emphasis, he did. When he had done, Harriet sighed. Outside her window, the footsteps of London, and even its buses, were still distant. But like Lucie Darnay — a woman of otherwise limited imagination, Harriet had always thought — she seemed to hear fore-echoes of footsteps. There would be insistent reporters and still more insistent headlines, the latter of which could hardly be kept from the breakfast table, even if, by some providence, the former might be kept from the door. Harriet shivered slightly.

“I’ll tell him,” said Peter, firmly enough, “that I won’t do it.”

“You shall do nothing of the kind.” Harriet’s response was almost absent, but she tightened her grip on her husband’s shoulder. “Will they want to rake it up, do you think? All the old business?”

“Probably.” She found herself surprised by the bitterness in his tone. “Easier than digging up current scandal, and less dangerous.”

Silence surrounded them, close and dense. At last, Harriet said slowly: “We should probably warn the boys.” Peter’s gaze on her has become a tangible thing. “Bredon will be fine. He’s turned out far more level-headed than either of his parents, you may have noticed. Besides, he’ll be far too taken up with preparing for exams to worry about what sorts of trouble we’re getting ourselves into.”

“Sensible fellow,” said Peter with a sigh. “Shall I write to Roger and Paul?”

“Yes, do. It will give you something to do… and a penance.” That startled him into a slightly breathless laugh, and Harriet smiled down at him. “It’s all right, Peter. Stand up before you get cramp.” He obeyed, but still stood gentling her own hands in his, almost hesitantly.

“I do expect,” added Harriet, “that you will not be venturing into gangsters’ lairs, scandalous nightclubs, or dens of ill repute, various.”

“Oh, no. I am to rely on my well-known harmless eccentricity.”

Harriet chuckled. “Good. Far be it from me to tactlessly mention time’s wingèd chariot, but you know I never have particularly cared for you getting mixed up with the business end of revolvers.”

“A solicitude both rational and touching,” said Peter solemnly. “Let us roll all our strength and all our sweetness up into one ball…”

“And tear our pleasures,” said Harriet, standing up, “with rough strife through the iron gates of life.” She put her arms around her husband’s neck and kissed him. “I’ve always thought that a very peculiar poem.”

“An age at least,” responded Peter, “to every part, and the last age should show your heart.”

“Very flattering. But you mustn’t stand here chattering of vegetables and empires. Go.” She disengaged herself lightly. “Be as eccentric as you like, while I sit here and work these sentences into a shape suitable for editorial perusal.”

“As ever, yours — to command.”

“Out!” said Harriet. But when her husband had shut the door of her study behind him, she remained gazing at it for some minutes.

Chapter Text

“Miss Rowley?” She came to full consciousness suddenly, hearing her own sharp intake of breath.

“Yes?”

“He’s out of surgery, and we thought you…”

“Yes,” said Bel, getting to her feet. “Yes.”

The doctor’s litany — of damage treated, of damage guessed at, of what was predicted, suspected, hoped — went unheard. Vaguely and gradually Bel registered the thrum of pride in his voice, distant beyond her own anxiety. “…temporarily blind in the left eye, but as I said, there is still the possibility of a full recovery.” Bel shook herself and thanked the man, who moved away on surprisingly silent feet, leaving her to the orderly, a lanky, dark-skinned young man. His loping pace put him slightly ahead of her, freeing her from the need to face him.

Halfway down the hall, the orderly half-turned to her. “Are you Moneypenny?” Bel slipped on the linoleum, righted herself, nodded. “It’s just that it’s what he said before going under… the anesthetist reads the books, and figured it out.” Bel forced a smile, grateful that he did not seem to expect an answer. He ushered her to a narrow room too full of machines. Bel’s hair stood on end, prickling with cold, with fear.

“It’s all right,” said the young man, gently. “Go in; talk to him. Someone will be there if needed.” The sound she made could be interpreted as thanks.

“Freddie,” she whispered, at the foot of the bed. “Freddie, I’m here,” as she moved to sit in the chair on the opposite side from the morphine drip and the oxygen tank. His body in the bed looked curiously shrunken. She could not bring herself to look steadily at his face. “I’m here, Freddie… and I will be.” Bel forced herself to swallow.

“I will be, Freddie, I swear, whatever that turns out to mean. Whatever it means…” The furious act of digging through her pockets and bag for a handkerchief calmed the sudden sting of tears. When she heard the shallow breaths change slightly, she got to her feet, watching the straining under the bruised eyelid, waiting for him to see her. But though he opened his non-bandaged eye, his gaze remained lost, wandering.

“Freddie.” She bent, kissed the place by the right corner of his mouth that appeared neither swollen nor bruised, straightened again. “James. What have you gotten yourself into this time?” The tremor of his mouth might almost have been a smile; the movement of his hand she covered quickly, circling the long fingers with her own. “It’s all right, Freddie. It’s all right.” If it is a lie, it's not the first I've told him. But the words still left the bitter taste of guilt in her mouth.

She roused only briefly when the nurse came in to make measurements, to mark charts; she woke in the pre-dawn cold, with bluish light throwing shadows into the pale electricity. Seeing him relaxed against the pillow, she rose. Gritting her teeth, gripping the chair, she waited in silence for the blood to return to her legs. She carried her shoes, as if by long habit, until on the other side of the threshold.

Once downstairs, Bel fed coins into a telephone with a shaking hand, listened to the ringing of the phone in the studios, fancying she heard its echo.

“Hello?”

“Lix!” Her teeth chattered against the receiver.

“Bel, darling.” The familiar voice on the other end was exhausted, but not sleep-fogged. “Tell me.”

“He’s…” Bel expelled a breath. “He’s going to live. They say he’s going to live. And he might… he might even be all right. Physically, that is. They don’t know… I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m crying now. It’s stupid…”

“Bel. Listen.” Bel found herself taking in air in gasps, trying in vain to muster a reply. “Listen. I’m going to give you some advice. Go to the first open café you see. Make them give you a cup of strong tea, and take it with at least three sugars. Then go home — no, listen to me. Go home. Have a wash, and then go to sleep, or go back and sit with him. I’ll tell Randall; we’ll handle things here.”

Bel exhaled shakily, wiped her own tears away with deliberate firmness. “Thanks. Thank you. Is… is everything all right?”

“We’ll manage,” said Lix at last. “We always do.”

“Yes… thank God for you, Lix.”

“Give Freddie my love.”

“I’ll do that.” She rang off quickly, before she could start crying again.

The waitress who gave her the tea brought her a second cup without asking, and politely pretended not to notice that Bel was shedding tears into it. Bel made herself another cup at home, pouring the rest of the kettle into the washbasin. As an afterthought, she choked down a boiled egg. Washed and changed, she set off on her return journey.

Chapter Text

Around the table they gathered for what Brown unsmilingly termed a council of war. Pristine and impassive he surveyed the pale faces, the empty chairs. Without preamble he began: “What we have on our hands is a scandal of as-yet-unknown proportions. We have, thanks to the work of Mr. Lyon and of you all, evidence of corruption in business and politics, scandals intertwined and far-reaching. We are hampered in our investigations by the fact that the Commissioner of Police has apparently blown his brains out. And in the midst of this perfect storm of news, we are deprived of our Home Affairs man. And of our producer, although I am assured that the latter is a temporary situation.” He straightened by a hair the blotter in front of him. “We must run the stories. The question is how.”

“Satchel first,” said Lix, exhaling smoke towards the ceiling. “It’s a journalist’s dream, all those politicians buzzing around like a swarm of wasps. Let Isaac go poke them with a stick.”

Isaac sat up straighter, and broke a pencil on his note block.

“Police for me, then?” suggested Hector.

“I think so.” Lix leant over to let him light her second cigarette. “You can sound very serious and pained.”

“Caution required there, I think.” Brown’s face, drained of color, was as though carved from rock; his voice was as steady. “Mr. Madden’s own connection with the earlier phases of the scandal may yet be a liability, although it is to be hoped that yesterday’s program will have silenced much of the tabloids’ criticism.”

“I might be able to test the waters through some personal connections,” said Hector quietly.

“Even after Stone’s death, I think there are some men whom I could convince that it would be better to give us their stories than to leave us to ferret them out for ourselves.”

“With caution, then, Mr. Madden.”

“Drop names like hell,” murmured Lix.

“What about Cilenti?” asked Isaac, and looks slightly startled by the echo of his own voice.

Brown pinched the bridge of his nose briefly between finger and thumb. “Here we tread on uncertain ground. The extent of his operations is still unknown… what have we given Miss Delaine to say?”

“That she’ll gladly cooperate with whatever commission is created to investigate these very grave matters,” said Lix.

“Good. The sensationalism is, of course, compounded by what he did — or had done — to Mr. Lyon.” This was followed by a shifting in chairs, a swift exchange of looks.

“Why?” Brown’s quiet question cracked like a whip in the silence. “What did he possibly stand to gain? Was this—this—was this some sort of challenge, or the defiance of a man who knew he had nothing to lose? I want to know these things before we decide how to handle him, how to handle the story.”

“And Mr. Lyon is the only one who will — might — be able to tell us.” It was Hector who spoke it aloud.

“Bel rang up this morning.” Lix stabbed her cigarette out in the nearest ashtray. “He’s sure to live, but that seems to be all they're sure of.”

“God.” Hector’s voice was almost reverent.

“I don’t know how much they told her, or how much she took in… She sounded a bit shell-shocked, to be honest.”

Brown ran a hand over his hair. “Then we wait. But we watch Cilenti and his contacts. And we don’t wait long. Foreign affairs?”

“European integration,” said Lix instantly. “Counterpoint to domestic confusion, or just one more godawful mess to cope with?”

***

Departing his townhouse, Lord Peter Wimsey went neither to St. Mary’s Hospital, nor to the offices of the BBC in Lime Grove. He went to the Bellona Club. On arrival, he consigned hat, stick, and coat to Minks, who murmured gratified phrases. Judging it still too early for the first cocktail, even in the cause of investigation, he proceeded to the smoking room, and established himself. He positioned a newspaper over his knee, jotted down the answers to a few obvious crossword clues — obsequious, Plantagenets, wheedling — and sank into an ostentatious reverie.

“Ah, Wimsey,” said the over-loud voice of Captain Carruthers. “Been a long time since you’ve darkened the door.”

Captain Carruthers, in Lord Peter’s opinion, was the worst kind of bore, both self-important and over-familiar. He was, in other words, ideal for his purposes.

“Yes, well,” said Lord Peter vaguely. “Have a constitutional aversion to becoming one of those doddering old fixtures, don’t you know.”

Captain Carruthers gave a short bark of laughter, and then, perhaps perceiving this as susceptible to an unflattering interpretation, coughed abruptly.

Lord Peter gestured to the chair next to him. “Of course,” he said, “I suppose it’s inevitable. But it must be a great worry for them — the servants, I mean — always wondering if one of the members is going to drop dead.”

Captain Carruthers laughed again, albeit uncertainly. “Heard a rumor about something like that happening here once. An old bird dropping dead in an armchair.”

“A little more than rumor.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes.”

“ ‘Straordinary thing.” Lord Peter began to feel that he suffered much in a righteous cause. He turned half his attention back to the crossword. “Lost another of our members recently,” said Captain Carruthers, pressing his social advantage.

Lord Peter looked up, all wide-eyed sympathy. Carruthers unfolded his own paper with an air of triumph. “Stop presses,” he said. Lord Peter, eyeing the wedding ring on the man’s fleshy hand, wondered what the poor woman did to amuse herself. “Commander Stern.”

“Dear me.” Lord Peter sat up straighter. “Assassination, do you think? One of these gangs?”

“Oh, no.” Carruthers, doubtless seeking to be impressive, leaned in. “Bet you anything it’s suicide. They don’t say so, of course. But I mean to say — mysterious circumstances, in with a paragraph about an exposed blackmail racket? I mean to say!”

“Quite.”

“Mind you, I was surprised. Fellow played a decent hand of whist. And all above board. No hint that… well.”

“Like a canker in the fragrant rose,” sighed Wimsey, shaking his head. “Sad business.”

“Very.” Wimsey wondered whether to press his advantage, or whether to do so might be too unsubtle even for Carruthers. A few minutes lapsed in silence, while Wimsey filled in the word ‘arcana’ and wondered how The Times was spelling Kairouan these days.

“I say,” said Carruthers suddenly, “you wouldn’t be willing to make up a fourth this evening, would you? No obligation, that is — more than gratified but — just while we — ”

A cat-like gleam came into Lord Peter Wimsey’s eyes. “I’d be glad to.” It was only in part a meretricious statement.

Chapter Text

Returning, Bel counted two more marks on the chart, powerless to interpret them. She tucked herself neatly into the chair by the bedside. Having his voice in her head seemed like a cruelty; it was so easy to imagine him teasing her for her undergraduate casualness — Shoes off already, Moneypenny? Making yourself at home? — and so difficult to imagine that light, laughing tone ever coming from those lips again. Bel shivered.

By the end of the day, she had learned when the shifts change. Bel congratulated herself grimly on being sure that none of the nurses who make measurements, take Freddie’s pulse, check the oxygen and the saline drip, have found her holding his hand.

“Nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals / the power of your intense fragility: whose texture / compels me with the colour of its countries / rendering death and forever with each breathing.”

Bel shut her book sharply. Unable to bring herself to look at Freddie’s face, she gazed fixedly at the handrail of the hospital bed, unchipped, unsmudged, resolutely pristine despite disasters.

She was woken, the book still in her hands, by the entrance of the doctor, or by his presence; sleep-fogged she straightened herself, and stood, dismayed to find herself not quite steady on her feet. As her gaze cleared, she found the doctor’s hand on her elbow. “May I give you some medical advice, Miss Rowley?”

“Yes.” Mentally she shook herself. Now it will come out. Now they will tell me. Now I will know the worst. “Yes.”
“Go home. There is little we can know, now, and nothing you can do. Go home; eat, and sleep, and return tomorrow if you wish.” He released her, smiled a little to soften the words. “It won’t do anyone any good if you exhaust yourself.”

Bel nodded, forcing her teeth not to chatter, forcing resentment out of her voice. “No; you’re right, of course. Yes.” Shivering, she gathered her coat, her purse, the book. Deliberately turning her back on the doctor, she gripped the handrail with her free hand, leant over until her lips brushed Freddie’s ear. “I love you.” Coward, reproached a rather nasty little voice in her head. Ignoring it, Bel marched out of the room, forcing herself not to look back.

Coming home, she was forced to fumble with the key, long enough that Freddie’s complaints about it echoed in her head. Bel found herself too tired to fight the tears that came as she latched the door finally behind her. With still-shaking hands she cut herself a slab of bread and butter. She got herself undressed before she had finished it; she was asleep before she turned down the bed or turned off the lamp. Outside, the city of London roared in the night, vast and unknowable as the sea.

***

Bel woke in the half-dark to the clangor of her alarm clock, startled to find that she had been deeply asleep. In vain she attempted to keep her mind from wildly racing around the stories she will have to run, worrying at potential headlines, potential scripts, potential interviews. And then, she reflected (toweling her hair and waiting for the kettle) there is Freddie. Freddie, taken from them; Freddie, surviving; Freddie, the martyr—no, the witness. Freddie, their witness: to corruption, to violence, to fear. Usually adept at handling tea and powder puff simultaneously, Bel found her hands shaking. She tried to clear her mind of everything but what she will need. This is what she has trained to do, longed to do, worked to do. And together, she reminded herself, we have done it; we are doing it; we will do it.

She forced herself to focus on externals during the tube ride. What newspapers are people reading? What are the headlines? What are people saying to each other? A businessman frowned over Satchel Shaken by Corruption Allegations. A couple of young men in untidy suits conferred in whispers over Death of Chief Commissioner: Investigation launched. Copies of Showgirl Scandal! Blood-soaked Businessman Arrested! dotted the carriage, most of their readers already avidly devouring the interior pages. Freddie Freddie Freddie, chanted Bel’s unruly mind to the rhythm of the train, and then she jerked back to consciousness at Bank, changing to the Central Line. From here on she saw more of the big papers, and fewer tabloids; but their burden was the same. Where, Bel asked herself, trying desperately to keep a grasp on essentials, is the place of The Hour in all this? Beyond sensationalism, whose voices need to be heard?

Outside the studio, there were uniformed policemen on the lawn. Bel marched past them, resolute and hoping she looked it.

“Morning, miss.”

“Morning.” The doorman’s greeting was the first of a chorus that surrounded her, besieged and buoyed her as she ascended to their offices. The sounds of work there were uncharacteristically serious, with no laughter, no chat rising above the thrum and click of machines.

“Morning, Sissy.”

“Morning, Miss Rowley.”

Neatly stacked in the center of her desk was a small sheaf of memoranda. “Come see me,” said the top note, in Lix’s characteristic scrawl. But when she had finished sorting and annotating the memos, it was not to Lix’s office that she went first.

“Miss Rowley, there are phone messages—”

“In ten minutes, Sissy.”

“Come,” said the voice answering her knock. Gratefully she ducked around the door.

“Bel.” Hector was up and around his desk before she’s two paces inside. “How are you—or shouldn’t I ask?”

“Definitely the latter.” She expelled a breath. “Thanks. You’re covering the police, I gather.”

“I am, but it’s off to a slow start. I’m rather relying on finding them in their offices, which some of them seem to be avoiding. But Isaac has a piece in hand on the government shake-up, and I think McCain’s working to get us a line on the inevitable commissions.”

“Good,” said Bel; “good.”

“What are you thinking of for the police story?”

"Depending on whom you get… a sort of quis custodet piece… what are the challenges of police-work in a changing city? How does corruption make itself felt? What are the differences between baksheesh and something like this Cilenti business? Or aren’t there any? Sorry, I’m babbling…”

“Not at all,” said Hector. “I’ll put it in my notes.”

Bel nodded. “Good… thank you… I’ll just, er…”

"Have you had breakfast?”

Bel blinked at him. “I—I’ll have toast or something—”

“I’ll get the toast. It’ll give my men 20 minutes more to get behind their desks. If they prove elusive, I’ll try the clubs later.” Gently he ushered her out of the office ahead of him; she touched his sleeve lightly as they part ways.

She entered Lix’s office without even knocking on the doorframe.

“Bel.” Lix did not look up for a moment, both hands busy on the typewriter. Then she shot across the carriage, lighted a cigarette, and looked up at the younger woman. “It’s damnable, I know. Memos on your desk.”

“I got them, thanks. Lix, what do you think? Do we use him?”

“Freddie’s story, you mean? Randall’s for it. We’ll have to get what he knows, anyway. And then… can you imagine us being able to stop Freddie from trying to use every last scrap of information and speculation he’s managed to pick up? I don’t mean to be flippant. But honestly, can you?”

Bel paced in a tight line from desk to door. “I don’t know. I’m being as impartial as I can, Lix. For whatever that’s worth. And I agree, we need to run the story. But I don’t think—I don’t think we should count on him. I don’t think we can.” She paused, tried to keep her voice from shaking. “I don’t know how much he’ll remember or—or how much he’ll be able to talk about it. Whatever ‘it’ was,” she added.

“Well.” Lix tapped the ash off the end of her cigarette. “We’ll do what we can. I’m doing European integration at the moment. Keeping an eye on Kenya. Can’t be seen to rest on our laurels, bloodied though they may be.”

Bel half-laughed. “No. That’s good. We’ll need to find something for Home Affairs outside London, as well. I’m going mad, just looking at this and—”

“I know. I know,” said Lix, and Bel found herself believing her. “And you’re going to do your job anyway, and you’re going to be brilliant at it, because there’s no alternative.”