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La Bella Donna

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“Involving a what?”

Jonathan Creek pulled the phone away from his ear, squinted at it, and then put it back to his ear again. “Involving a time machine? A trick involving a time machine?”

“Picture it, Jonathan,” said Adam Klaus, on the other end of the line. “At the end of the night, to a theatre packed with rapturous audience members, I declare that I am going to achieve the impossible: to be transported backwards in time before their very eyes. I enter my time machine - positioned in full view - and am whisked through the ether of time and space back to how - and when - I began the show.”

Jonathan frowned. It sounded like Adam was on the good drugs today - he’d certainly never heard the phrase “the ether of time and space” uttered with such earnest sincerity before - but there was a grain of potential in there.

“Well, I suppose with some elaborate and visible costume changes, we can create the illusion of - what do you mean, you’ve got it already? A time machine? Someone gave it to you?”

Jonathan frowned again. No, it wasn’t that he was hurt that Adam had gone to another illusionist behind his back; why would he be hurt about that? But he was prepared to bet that Jonathan didn’t know the first thing about this bloke who had given him a “fantastical time travelling device”. Honestly, it even sounded like New Age mumbo jumbo.

“All right, well - I’d still like to check it over, see how it’s done. Got to earn my keep somehow, haven’t I?” he attempted to joke, but it came out a little sour. “Yeah - I’m free today, so I’ll come down. See you about eleven? All right. Bye, Adam.”

Jonathan hung up the phone, and went to make some strong coffee. Honestly, after the nightmare that had been the past three weeks – with that bizarre Lenny Spearfish case, Maddy trying to pass him off as a gynaecologist, and being hauled into court to act as a character witness for Adam’s sex scandal - he’d been looking forward to a bit of a break. The show had gone down well in France, and Maddy was beavering away on her current manuscript and had promised to leave him alone for “at least the rest of the month”. Which wasn’t saying much considering it was the 25th, but still.

“No rest for the wicked, I suppose,” Jonathan muttered, downing the rest of his coffee and going to find his coat.

Jonathan frowned in contemplation as he walked around the contraption that Adam was showing him. It looked like a fairly standard magician’s prop, painted black with white-blue lightning decorating the sides. A bit out of step with Adam’s usual aesthetic, but maybe that would contribute to the element of surprise.

“And you’re saying that he just... Gave it to you?” Jonathan was still stuck on this point. Unless he was retiring and hanging up the cape, why would a magician gift another magician part of their act?

“Well, obviously he’s a huge fan of the show,” Adam said with satisfaction, and Jonathan turned away to roll his eyes. You could get away with murder by appealing to Adam’s ego. “He said it would take me places. Perhaps he saw our sold-out show in France and wanted to help me further break onto the international stage?”

“Maybe...” Jonathan mused, still giving the “time machine” a once-over. “All right, let’s open it up and see how it does its tricks.”

Jonathan opened the door and led the way into the narrow, boxy structure, which was barely large enough to fit two grown men. Presumably it was designed for a magician and his more slender assistant. Inside, the “time machine” resembled a sci-fi film prop from the 70s: a lot of very unconvincing buttons and levers. Jonathan ignored the console and began running his hands around the back panel, searching for a false back or hidden catch.

“Ah, it works by pulling this lever,” said Adam. Jonathan turned round in alarm.

“Adam! Don’t shut the door behind us! We’re going to get stuck in here if it isn’t properly secured!”

“Jonathan, it’s fine, the door re-opens right-” 

Adam pushed against the door and paled. Jonathan wanted to bash his head against the stupid cardboard console.

“It’s stuck, isn’t it. We’re stuck inside a fake time machine.”

“Look, it’s fine, one of the techs will be by in a minute and they can-”

Jonathan held up a hand, cutting Adam off. “Do you feel that?”

For once, Adam looked unnerved. The entire structure was vibrating. 

“Oh god,” Jonathan lamented. “This is it. This is how I go. It’s going to explode, and take us both with it, and my lasting legacy on this earth is going to be getting trapped inside a magician’s prop that blew up.”

Adam tried to force the door again, putting his entire weight into it, but it wouldn’t budge.

“You know, I always knew this was how I would die,” Jonathan continued. “It was always going to be hilariously stupid, one of your ridiculous tricks gone wrong-”

“JONATHAN!” Adam snarled, and Jonathan focused on him, startled. “Do you think for one second you could halt the ridiculous panic attack that you’re having and use your renowned brain to get us out of this mess?”

“Right,” said Jonathan weakly. He tried to focus around the panic, to assess the situation and all its variables with his usual clarity. They were inside a magician’s prop. Magician’s props, by definition, weren’t what they appeared. There was always a false back or side or something - the kind of thing he’d been examining it for before he realised they were completely stuck inside. “By rights, there should be part of this that comes off-”

The vibration stopped.

Jonathan turned, ever so slowly, to look at the door. As if on cue, it popped open slightly.

Jonathan narrowed his eyes.

“Well! All’s well that ends well, I say-” Adam declared, rubbing his hands together and pushing the door open wide-

Onto a view of the British countryside.

Neither of them said anything for several long minutes.

Jonathan slowly moved to stand next to Adam, as both stared blankly out at the expanse of green. No stage; no props. No stage hands or technicians. Just fields and trees as far as the eye could see.

Adam looked back at the time machine, and then out again at the countryside, as if their surroundings would change back on command. Jonathan stepped out of the doorway, frowning in bewilderment. The grass was soft under his shoes; he put a hand down and touched it. It felt real.

It was also extremely quiet. Wherever they were, it was somewhere very rural. But not five minutes earlier, they’d been standing inside a time machine prop in a theatre in the middle of London.

“This is some kind of shared hallucination, isn’t it?” Jonathan said slowly. The cognitive dissonance of suddenly being in the middle of the countryside was hitting him so hard that it felt like he was in a dream. “We must’ve… taken a pill, or hit our heads really hard…”

The only other alternative was that the vibration they’d felt was from the time machine being loaded into the back of a – vehicle of some kind, and driven goodness-how-many miles out here. But that possibility raised far too many unanswered questions. Who would have done something like that, and how? And where was the vehicle now? And how could that possibly have all happened in the time that he and Adam spent trapped inside the box?

He glanced at his watch, which read 20 minutes past 11. Jonathan was comforted for a moment before he realised that the second hand wasn’t moving at all. He frowned, shaking it and then putting it to his ear to listen. The battery couldn’t have run down – he’d only changed it a week ago.

“Well, don’t ask me,” Adam said irritably, following him onto the grass. “Isn’t explaining the inexplicable supposed to be your second job? Maybe you should call Madeleine, get her on the case.”

Jonathan treated Adam to a flat, unimpressed stare. “Right. Can I borrow your mobile, then? Seem to have misplaced mine.”

Adam snorted and reached into his inside jacket pocket to pull out his phone. “Come on, Jonathan – it’s almost the 21st century. When are you going to get with the times? Even Kitty has a mobile these days.”

“Yes, and you complain endlessly about it,” Jonathan reminded him, “so don’t try and use that one on me.”

Adam rolled his eyes, looking at his phone screen. “Well, it’s no good anyway; I’ve got no reception. Where in the hell do you think we are?”

Jonathan shook his head. “I dunno; if I were to believe the evidence of my senses, I’d say somewhere right out in the sticks. There’s no sound of cars, no signs of civilisation as far as the eye can see.”

“Mmm, and no phone network coverage.”

 Jonathan turned back towards the innocuous-looking box that they’d stepped out of and began inspecting it again, looking for some kind of clue as to how they’d ended up here. “This bloke who gave you the time machine prop, you said he demoed it for you?”

Adam watched him with a sour expression on his face. “Yes, it was very impressive. Of course, I’m not applauding now.”

“And you said that demonstration involved him vanishing into thin air from one end of the theatre and reappearing at the other end, at which point you were so bowled over that you declined to ask any further questions about how it worked,” Jonathan summarised.

“He was very charismatic,” Adam said weakly, with a hunted look that Jonathan recognised from the many times that Adam had been caught cheating on his girlfriend of the moment. “He said he had to go, and well, I trusted that you’d be able to figure out how it worked.”

“Right. And now here we are, stranded in the middle of, I dunno, the Scottish Highlands or somewhere with no phone reception.”

“And I’m due back in London for a one o’clock lunch date with Sandra,” Adam said, expression darkening. “Look – we’re getting nowhere by just standing here, so why don’t we at least try to find the nearest town or village or lonely rural cottage, and get hold of a map, or God forbid, a working telephone.”

Jonathan sighed, looking at the contraption that had supposedly, somehow, transported them halfway across the country in the space of five minutes and which was their only real clue as to how they’d arrived. But he’d gleaned no new information from it so far, and knowing where they were would at least be another point on the graph. “All right.”

They’d picked a direction that looked promising and started walking, but the longer they walked for, the more concerned Jonathan became. His comment about being in the Scottish Highlands had been a joke, but surely even the Highlands had more infrastructure than this. They’d been walking for half an hour without seeing a single road, house or even a telephone pylon.

Adam’s bitching about his shoes giving him blisters had finally given way to a sullen silence. Jonathan had enjoyed the respite at first, but now he missed it; there was nothing to distract him from the increasingly strident voice in his head insisting that something was very wrong. Where was everyone?

They emerged from a copse, and with relief Jonathan spotted a wide, paved road a few yards in front of them, which led towards – and cut across – a river. Beyond it… He shaded his eyes and squinted. Was that a wooden fort?

“Don’t tell me we’ve run into some kind of mediaeval re-enactment tourist attraction,” he muttered.

“What’s that?” Adam asked. Jonathan pointed, and Adam sighed heavily.

“Well, maybe they’ll have an information centre.”

Jonathan’s stomach rumbled as they trudged towards the wooden gate that led inside the fortress. He checked his watch, before remembering that it had stopped, and looked up at the sky to see where the sun was. It took him a couple of seconds to locate it, because he found that he was looking in entirely the wrong place – the sun was far lower in the sky than he’d expected. That couldn’t be right…

He decided to deal with one thing at a time, and not mention it to Adam. Honestly, at this rate he was wondering if they’d somehow wound up at one of the Poles, where the days were incredibly short – except that the weather was more or less the same as it had been that morning when he’d set out for London. Which was just as well, because he'd left his duffel coat thrown over the back of a chair in the theatre. It felt like that had been days ago.

As they drew nearer to the gate, Jonathan became aware of an urgent clattering of hooves coming from somewhere behind them, and getting louder every second. He turned to see a man on horseback riding quickly up the path. Jonathan yanked on Adam’s arm, and the two of them moved out of the way of the rider just in time. Jonathan noticed that he was wearing a long brown cloak over what looked like mediaeval costume. His misgivings deepened.

“I pray you, open up the gate!” he shouted, and a few seconds later, it opened. The man urged his horse inside.

Jonathan looked meaningfully at Adam, and the two of them hurried through the gate before it could close. Jonathan barely had time to take in an array of buildings with thatched roofs before his attention was very rapidly drawn to the sword pointing at his face.

“Who be the pair of you, and what business have you here?” a man with a red face, dark curly hair and leather armour demanded.

“Erm…” Jonathan swallowed. “We… we were wondering if you could tell us…”

“What strange garments are these?” demanded another man, a bit more solidly-built than his friend. He reached out and ran the point of his sword down Adam’s jacket, making Adam flinch. “Who are you, and where have you come from?”

Jonathan was convinced by now that these two men had completely lost the plot. His theory about this settlement had gone past “mediaeval re-enactment centre” and was now approaching “bizarre religious cult”. The question was, how could they get out of this confrontation in one piece and then make a run for it?

“We’re travellers,” Adam supplied, sounding as panicked as Jonathan felt. “From – far away. We seek an audience with, um, with your leader.”

“Yes. Exactly,” said Jonathan, nodding.

“Travellers from where?” the first man asked, leaning menacingly into Jonathan’s face. He stank of some unholy combination of sweat, onions and alcohol, and Jonathan did his best not to inhale. “From France, perchance? Sent by the Empress Maude, perhaps, to infiltrate one of King Stephen’s rightful territories?”

This was not good. Jonathan racked his brains for anything that he could say that wouldn’t get them skewered with a sword. He was awful at the improvisational bit; he usually left that stuff to Maddy. Even with some of the scrapes they’d got into, it had never been quite so life and death before.

“Harrison! Bennett!” another voice suddenly called. A man with light brown hair in a bowl cut ran over, taking in the scene. He was noticeably better-dressed and better-kept than their two assailants, wearing a deep red, velvet tunic and leather gloves, with an ornamental sword hanging at his side. “Why do you harass these men so? What harm have they done to you?”

The one pointing a sword at Jonathan growled, but reluctantly withdrew his weapon. Jonathan’s knees nearly gave out in relief.

“They look suspicious,” he told the newcomer. “Could be spies, sent by Maude.”

“What, all the way from France?” The third man put his hands on his hips. “Where are their horses, then? Or their boats? Talk sense, man. Now, about your business. I will see to these men.”

Grumbling, the two men sheathed their swords, the red-faced one casting a dark look back at Jonathan as they left.

“Th- thank you,” Jonathan managed weakly, rubbing at his throat where the point of the sword had almost dug in.

The third man looked them up and down. His gaze wasn’t friendly, but was calculating, assessing and intelligent. Jonathan began to hope that they might have met the first sane person in this place.

“My name is Hugh Beringar, Undersheriff of Shropshire,” the man introduced himself. Jonathan’s eyebrows shot up. They were in Shropshire?

“And you are?”

“Er, my name is Jonathan Creek,” said Jonathan.

“And I’m Adam Klaus. The celebrated illusionist,” Adam introduced himself, reaching out a hand to shake Beringar’s. When the man didn’t take it, Adam lowered it slowly. “You might’ve heard of me.”

Jonathan resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Somehow, he doubted that a cult that dressed up like it was the Middle Ages and rode around on horses had heard of Adam Klaus.

“No, I have not,” said Beringar. “So, you are an entertainer? And a well-paid one at that, judging by the richness of the fabric that you wear. I’ve never seen such garments. Where do you come from?”

“Er, London,” said Jonathan, deciding that the truth would be easier than trying to come up with a convincing lie.

The man looked amazed, as if they’d said they came from Australia. “From London? You’ve travelled far to be here. But where are your horses?”

“One of them was taken lame on the road,” said Adam smoothly. Jonathan stared at him in surprise. “We had to continue our journey on foot. Er- you might have seen other members of our party passing through here?”

Jonathan had no idea what Adam was getting at, unless he was trying to find out whether other “real world” tourists had come to this weird encampment. To his surprise, Beringar nodded.

“You must be part of the Lord Chalcombe’s retinue,” he said. “I’m afraid you’ve missed them by several hours – they’ve already gone on to the castle. But it’s almost sunset – perhaps it would be best if you lodged here for the night.”

“Sunset?!” Adam exclaimed in disbelief, looking up at the sky. Now it was Jonathan’s turn to step in.

“Er – we didn’t realise that it was so late already. It’s very kind of you to offer, but we wouldn’t want to impose.”

Beringar shrugged. “It’s no imposition. One of the monks from the Abbey, Brother Cadfael, has a spare bed in his workshop. I’m sure he could easily make up a second. Though you might find yourselves called upon to check on some tinctures at dawn.”

He smiled, though Jonathan got the distinct impression that Hugh Beringar was, if not suspicious of them both, then wary – and intended to keep a close eye on them.

The mention of Shrewsbury Abbey had thrown Jonathan even further. On the one hand, it seemed to confirm that this was some kind of religious cult they were in. But he’d been to Shrewsbury Abbey – and he didn’t remember it housing any weird mediaeval cults.

He looked up at the sun again. The time of day, his stopped watch, the strange dress and speech of everyone around them… It all pointed to one almost painfully obvious conclusion – and one that was so mind-blowing that he didn’t want to accept it.

Brother Cadfael was a kindly, unassuming monk in his forties or fifties who seemed completely unfazed by suddenly being asked to house two oddly-dressed strangers, and even offered them food - bread and some kind of plain vegetable soup. He also showed them around his workshop, which was cluttered but clean and welcoming, with herbs hanging from the ceiling, and pots and bottles crowding every surface.

“I have one pallet over there on the floor,” he said, nodding towards a thin, narrow mattress with a pillow lying on the flagstones. “And I ought to have another tucked away somewhere in this storeroom…” He opened a narrow door at the back of the workshop, and edged through it.

Jonathan saw Adam look slightly revolted, and suppressed a smile as he thought of Adam’s luxurious house, with its swimming pool and expansive, soft beds. Well, it wouldn’t kill him to deal with austerity for one night.

That was, assuming it was only for one night, and they weren’t stuck here for the foreseeable future.

“It is as I had supposed!” Cadfael announced triumphantly, hauling a very dusty, thin mattress out of the stockroom. Jonathan went over to take the other end and help him to lay it out, next to the first mattress.

“I apologise that these lodgings are far humbler than what you must be used to in London,” Cadfael said as he stood back to inspect their handiwork. “Hugh Beringar told me that you are an entertainer to a wealthy patron, but – he didn’t say to whom?” he added, looking inquiringly at Adam.

“Ah – to no-one less than the Royal Family themselves,” Adam said grandly. Jonathan raised his eyebrows a little. Trust Adam to take the opportunity to reinvent himself. “I am the most celebrated illusionist in London – but, of course, I doubt even my fame will have reached you all the way up in Shropshire.”

“I have, in fact, travelled about London in my time,” said Cadfael, and Adam looked briefly panicked, sensing that his fabrication might be about to come crashing down around his ears. “But not for many years. I’m honoured to pay host to such a celebrated entertainer.”

Adam smiled with satisfaction, and actually gave a little bow. Jonathan barely managed to keep from rolling his eyes – again.

“And what do you do, Master Creek?” Cadfael asked him.

“Uh, I’m an assistant to... Sir Klaus,” Jonathan replied awkwardly.

“Yes, well, even a great illusionist needs an aide,” said Adam. “He’s useful, in his way.”

“Indeed?” Cadfael looked between Adam’s smug expression and Jonathan’s mutinous one, and seemed amused. “Well, I’m afraid I must be away to the Abbey for Vespers, but do make yourselves comfortable. I will be back at first light to retrieve some medicines that I dispense to the people of Shrewsbury, and we can make our way up to the castle and Lord Chalcombe afterwards.”

As soon as Cadfael had left, Jonathan rounded on Adam. “Illusionist to the royal family? My God, you don’t do anything by half, do you? I’m sure the Middle Ages would have suited you down to the ground.”

“When in Rome, Jonathan,” said Adam airily, shucking off his jacket and laying it on the cleaner of the two beds, before lowering himself down onto it. “They’re clearly all stark raving mad. We’ll have to make a break for it as soon as we can tomorrow.”

Then he frowned, obviously remembering the sudden and bizarre passage of time. “And what in the hell is going on here, Jonathan? How can it already be night time when we were in London before half past eleven?”

Jonathan sat down on the other bed and shook his head. “The best theory I have – the only one that fits all of the evidence – is impossible,” he said. “Because there’s no way that we could actually be in mediaeval Shrewsbury.”

Adam burst out laughing, and only stopped when he saw the complete seriousness on Jonathan’s face. “Oh come on, Jonathan, you’ve got to be joking. That wasn’t a real time machine we got into.”

“No, just a time machine that happened to transport us, in the space of a few minutes, to a strangely anachronistic Shrewsbury, with no signs of modern life for miles around, where everyone talks and dresses as if it were the Middle Ages.”

Adam shrugged, though he looked disconcerted. “There’s got to be some other explanation. We were knocked out, maybe, which explains the passage of time. And transported up here. Obviously, by a member of this bizarre cult.”

“Okay, so what’s the motive?” Jonathan probed. “Where were they, and how did they sneak up on us? Why do we both have a complete, unbroken recollection of everything that happened from the moment we got into that time machine to the moment we got out of it?”

Adam said nothing. Jonathan shook his head again, and lay back on the mattress.

“Try as I might to find an alternative explanation, it’s the only one I’ve got,” he said. “But the definitive test will be tomorrow – when we visit Shrewsbury Castle.”

“How so?”

“Everything within the walls of this compound is technically contained, and can be controlled,” Jonathan replied. “So maybe it’s all an elaborate illusion. But I’d like to see them try to fake a national historical monument.”

Really, for all that he preached opening up your mind to accept what was logical instead of what was likely, Jonathan was desperately searching for any explanation other than the one he’d arrived at. Anyway, time travel wasn’t logical or likely – it wasn’t even meant to be possible. How could he and Adam have done it by accident?

They set off for the castle not long after the sun had risen, after a mostly sleepless night for Jonathan and a night of solid, loud snoring for Adam. Cadfael offered to lend them a pair of cloaks, ostensibly to keep out the cold, but they also have the benefit of making Jonathan and Adam’s modern clothes less obvious.

Cadfael hadn’t commented on their unusual dress, but Jonathan was sure that he’d done it deliberately. Outwardly, the monk appeared mild and unobtrusive, but a keen intelligence shone behind his eyes, and Jonathan had a feeling that he didn’t miss much.

The Shrewsbury Castle that Cadfael brought them to was built from the same red sandstone that Jonathan remembered, but that was where the resemblance ended. There were no ornate glass windows – no glass at all, in fact; no well-kept lawn, or grounds of any kind. It was in every respect a mediaeval stronghold built for defence, constructed from thick, weathered sandstone bricks, and an enormous pair of fortified double doors made from reinforced oak and iron at the entrance. They looked dented, as if they’d recently been battered in.

“This castle was recently the site of a conflict between our King Stephen and the Empress Maude of France, as you may be aware,” Cadfael told them as he led them up to the castle. “However, its rooms have since been converted into very decadent quarters, for hosting the most noble of guests – or so I’m told.”

He took hold of one of the huge, wrought iron door knockers, and pounded it against the door with surprising strength. Jonathan raised his eyebrows at Adam, who had been looking increasingly sour as they got closer to the castle.

“Now, this is where I will leave you, as I trust that you’ll-” Cadfael broke off as the door was hauled open by two young men, one of whom exclaimed,

“Brother Cadfael! Thank goodness you’re here!”

“What is it, lad?” Cadfael asked the man sharply. He looked pale, and his throat worked silently for a few moments before his partner spoke up.

“It’s the Lord Chalcombe, Brother. He’s just been found dead.”

The two young men led them through the castle’s bleak stone hallways and up two flights of stairs to a large room that was just barely warmed by the large fire crackling in the fireplace. It was full of people. A man with long, scraggly fair hair was tussling with a dark-haired young man wearing rich, velvet clothing in the middle of the room, both shouting at each other. Hugh Beringar, the Undersheriff, was impatiently trying to referee the conflict. In a corner, a slight blonde girl stood sobbing, presided over by a broad, matronly woman.

“On my mother’s grave, I swear it! I did not kill my father,” the dark-haired young man roared.

“And yet you were the last person to see him alive, and stood to inherit his lands!” the blond man retorted. “A clearer motive we would be hard pushed to find.”

“Peace, Sergeant,” bit out Hugh Beringar, looking as though he had a serious headache coming on. He spotted Cadfael at the door, then, and looked incredibly relieved. “Cadfael. Perhaps you can bring some sense to this madness.”

“I shall endeavour to do so,” said Cadfael, looking solemn as he edged his way towards the large, four-poster bed, where the body of the dead man lay. Jonathan followed him across the room, and no-one stopped him.

A strong smell of bile hung around the man’s body. Cadfael crossed himself before beginning to examine it with a practiced, clinical air. He forced the man's mouth open and peered down his throat, and looked closely at the man’s eyes before respectfully closing his eyelids. He also pushed back the man’s heavy velvet sleeves and examined his skin. One of his arms was dotted with what looked like a rash, which Cadfael noted gravely.

Hugh Beringar came over to stand next to Jonathan as Cadfael worked, and gave Jonathan a sidelong glance, but said nothing.

Cadfael set down the man’s arm, and pushed the sleeve back down to cover it.

“It looks like a particularly nasty strain of poison,” he told Beringar. “He appears to have choked on his own vomit; he experienced convulsions, and his pupils were dilated. There is also a rash on his skin – if I’m not much mistaken, this is the work of La Bella Donna.”

Beringar looked blank. “Deadly Nightshade,” Jonathan supplied.

“Quite so,” agreed Cadfael, looking impressed. “But how does an entertainer’s assistant come to be familiar with poisonous plants?”

Jonathan shrugged awkwardly. “I… read a lot,” he offered.

Fortunately, Hugh Beringar was more focused on the implications of Cadfael’s discovery than Jonathan’s knowledge. “So, the poison must have been ingested,” he concluded. “And who was it that dined with your father last night, Master Chalcombe?”

They all turned to look at Lord Chalcombe’s son, who looked angry and defensive. “Yes, I took dinner with him,” he admitted. The Sergeant’s grip tightened on his arm, and he growled and tried to yank it free. “But my father was well when we retired to bed, I swear it! Surely the Holy Brother can vouch that he died but recently?”

Beringar looked inquiringly at Cadfael, who nodded. “Yes, I’d say he’s been dead barely more than an hour or two; the body is still cooling,” he said. “But belladonna poison can take some time to act on its victim. It could have been ingested any time within the last eight to ten hours.”

Beringar gave a curt nod to the Sergeant. “Take him to a holding cell.”

Lord Chalcombe’s son was hauled from the room, his shouts echoing down the corridor. Cadfael looked troubled as he watched them leave.

“I suppose you will tell me that because he protests his innocence, we should believe him, Cadfael?” asked Beringar sardonically. Cadfael shook his head.

“You know perfectly well, Hugh, that I never believe things to be so cut and dried as they often appear.”

“And yet surely the motive is obvious?”

Jonathan looked around for Adam, and then spotted him in the corner with the blond girl, who’d been crying when they came in. Adam smiled sleekly at her, and took her hands in his, saying something in a low voice. She smiled tremulously and nodded. The matronly woman watched this exchange with a sour expression.

Jonathan walked over to the group. “Ah, Jonathan,” said Adam jovially. “I was just reassuring the lovely Ada here that the world is not so dark and full of horrors as it might seem.”

Jonathan gave her an awkward smile. “Were you the one who… found the body?” he asked. Ada nodded.

“Yes, it was h-horrible,” she said shakily. “I came in early to tend the fire and to wake up his Lordship. When I couldn’t rouse him, I woke Master Chalcombe, and he tried, and then… h-he said-” She broke off, and put a hand to her mouth, eyes filling with tears again.

“There, there,” Adam said. “Don’t think about it any more.”

The older woman looked irritable, and had obviously decided that enough was enough. “Will that be all, sirs?” she asked them. “I need to take Ada back to the kitchens. She still has duties to attend to.”

Adam looked like he was about to object, and Jonathan gave him a look.

“Yes, of course; I think she has told us all she can,” said Cadfael from behind them - evidently, he had listened in on least part of the conversation. Hugh Beringar had disappeared, and it was just the five of them left in the room – and the body of Lord Chalcombe, which had been respectfully covered with a bedsheet. “Thank you for your help, Madame, Ada.”

Adam stared longingly after Ada as she left the room, and a few minutes later, followed after them.

“Adam!” Jonathan hissed – but then something on the floor by the bed caught his attention. Frowning, he moved over to examine it.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that was a bloodstain,” said Cadfael, who was watching him closely.

Jonathan moved the bedcovers aside that had almost covered the red stain, and touched his fingers to it lightly. “And yet, as we both know, the dead man wasn’t stabbed or wounded.” He sniffed his fingertips. “It’s wine.”

“So a wine goblet spilled next to the victim’s bed?” asked Cadfael. “They must have taken wine during dinner. And wine would do well to mask the taste of belladonna berries, which are sweet.”

“Mmm,” said Jonathan. “But it looks more like it was set down next to his bed – and then knocked over, maybe after Lord Chalcombe began convulsing from the poison.”

“So, it could have been brought to him during the night,” said Cadfael, the light of understanding in his eyes. “By someone from the kitchens, perhaps – who knew their way around herbs and plants?”

“But if the goblet was placed there overnight, it should have still been there this morning,” Jonathan concluded. He lay down, and peered under the bed to see if the goblet could have rolled under it, but as he’d expected, there was nothing.

“Another mystery, then,” said Cadfael, smiling slightly at Jonathan. “If I may say so, you have quite the analytical mind for an entertainer’s assistant. Are you sure-”

His words were drowned out by a shriek from downstairs.

“ROGUE!” a woman’s voice howled. “CAD! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”

“That’ll be Adam,” Jonathan muttered, bolting from the room. He ran down the stairs, and arrived at the kitchens just in time to see Adam being thrown unceremoniously out of them by the broad matron.

“Madame, I meant no offence – only to express appreciation,” Adam spluttered.

“How dare you make such insinuations against a lady?!” the matron shouted. “Get thee hence, and don’t let me see you darkening the doorway of my kitchen again!”

“Honestly, Adam, could you think with your brain for once instead of some other organ?” Jonathan complained. They were back in Cadfael’s workshop; the monk had let them carry on staying there for the time being because the castle was in complete uproar. “You had to have known that wasn’t going to go over well.”

“You didn’t see the way she looked at me, Jonathan,” Adam insisted. “My “insinuations” were nothing but welcome. Anyway, what does it matter in the long run? We’ll be gone before they know it.”

“I’d still rather not be chased out of this town by a horde of angry men on horseback waving swords at us,” Jonathan replied dryly. “Besides, I was hoping to look into this Lord Chalcombe business a bit first.”

“What for?” asked Adam in alarm. “They’ve already caught their suspect. You can’t tell me you’re dying to spend more time in this godforsaken place.”

Jonathan shrugged. He supposed it was the same fatal attraction that kept him getting sucked back into Maddy’s ridiculous cases. (No, not that kind of attraction. Well, okay, it was, but that was an entirely different kettle of fish). He could never resist a puzzle once it was presented to him.

“It’ll be easier for us to sneak away at night rather than in broad daylight,” Jonathan reasoned. “Besides, it’ll give me more of a chance to figure out exactly how we got here. Look, you just – lie low in here, okay, and I’ll let you know if I find anything. And try not to get into any more trouble?”

Adam sighed melodramatically and flopped back on the bed.

“The Abbot has given me leave to come here and pray for the boy’s soul,” Cadfael said, when Jonathan arrived at the town’s bare and dirty gaol. He didn’t look surprised to see Jonathan there. “And Undersheriff Beringar has allowed me to ask him a few pertinent questions.”

“Right – good,” said Jonathan, impressed. This was clearly not the monk’s first rodeo. He never thought he’d meet a monk who solved crimes in his spare time, but then, most would say the same about a magician’s assistant.

“No, we took no wine at dinner,” said Lord Chalcombe’s son, whose name was Geoffrey, shaking his head. His face had lit up when he realised that they were there to get his side of the story. “My father had wanted to have a clear head for the morrow.”

“Might he have sent for wine during the night?” Cadfael suggested. “To ease a headache, perhaps?”

Geoffrey shrugged. “It is possible, certainly. I was not woken by it, but then, I am a sound sleeper. I awoke only when Ada roused me to tell me that my father wouldn’t wake.”

Cadfael nodded. “Do you know of anyone who might have had cause to harm your father? Anyone who bore a grudge?”

Geoffrey shook his head slowly. “No, I can’t think,” he said. “My father is – was – a widow; my mother died of a fever when I was a boy. He has no other children, and no wife or mistress who might stand to gain from his death.” He looked downcast, realising this didn’t exactly help his case.

“Take courage,” said Cadfael reassuringly. “Hugh Beringar is a man of fair judgement who will not see you executed in haste. Though there is little to prove your innocence, there is little also to prove your guilt. Anyone in the kitchens could have tampered with your food or drink that night, and made sure that the plate or cup with the poison in it made its way to your father.”

“And what of the poison – Deadly Nightshade?” asked Geoffrey. “How easy is that to come by?”

Cadfael looked thoughtful. “It is native to more temperate climes, but grows quite readily in England in hedgerows and open woodland. It’s medicinal when used correctly – it relieves pain, and relaxes the muscles. None was taken from my stock – I’ve checked – but anyone who knew what it could do could easily have procured some.”

After about an hour – though it was impossible to be sure, with no working clocks or phone to pass the time – of twiddling his thumbs in the old monk’s hut, Adam got to his feet in irritation.

Surely there must be something better to do around here than sitting around. Sure, it was a dirty and depressing town full of nutjobs – but some of its members weren’t too unpleasant to look at. And they were so easy to win over with a few poetic words.

After all, what was the point of being Sir Adam Klaus, celebrated illusionist to the royal court, if he couldn’t make the most of it? Maybe he’d go for a wander around the town. He’d be back before Jonathan knew it.

And if his route happened to take him near the castle where Ada worked in the kitchen, well, that would just be a happy coincidence.

“I am wanted back at the Abbey, but with any luck I can find some pretext to pay a visit to the castle kitchens, and follow up on the clue of our mysterious vanishing goblet,” said Cadfael as they walked back towards his workshop. “I doubt you’ll be welcome in there after the, er, incident this morning.”

Jonathan grimaced. “No, I don’t think I will.”

Cadfael nodded. “I must admit, I would have expected an entertainer to the royal court to have more… genteel manners,” he said delicately.

Jonathan racked his brains for a good response to that, and decided a half-truth wouldn’t hurt. “Adam might have inflated his reputation a little,” he admitted. “He is from London, and he has performed for royalty-” if that disastrous incident with the Queen and those doves counted as performing- “but he’s not quite as famous as he claims to be. You should take the things he says with a pinch of salt.”

Cadfael looked at him blankly. “With salt?”

“Oh, er-” Jonathan mentally kicked himself for the slip. “It’s a London expression. Because salt makes something easier to swallow, even if it might not – necessarily be true.”

Understanding dawned in Cadfael’s eyes, and he chuckled. “I like that phrase. I may use it.”

Jonathan hoped to God he hadn’t somehow drastically altered the space-time continuum by teaching a mediaeval monk a modern (ish) phrase. He might get back to the present and find that he’d ceased to exist.

Adam smiled to himself as he spotted Ada, wearing a fetching green cloak, making her way across the town. In two strides, he was next to her.

“We meet again, fair Ada.”

“Oh – hello, Sir Klaus,” said Ada, seeming surprised, but pleased.

“Please, call me Adam. Are you running an errand?”

“Yes, Sybil has bidden me to fetch more flour, to make bread for supper this evening,” said Ada. “Will you be joining us?” She looked at Adam from under her lashes.

“Well,” said Adam, enchanted. “If it gives me but another chance to see you, how could I refuse?”

Ada smiled shyly. “Sir- I mean, Adam?” she said after they’d walked for a bit longer. “How did you come to join Lord Chalcombe’s retinue? I don’t remember seeing you when we set off.”

Adam stopped, his blood running cold. “What do you mean? I thought you worked in the castle kitchens.”

Ada smiled at him. “No, I’m Lord Chalcot’s personal maidservant. Or- I was…” she added, forlornly. “Now I suppose I serve Master Geoffrey, if he is by some miracle spared from the hangman’s noose.”

“Ah,” said Adam dumbly, trying to think. Ada looked at him inquiringly. He decided to turn up the charm, and caught her hands in his.

“Dearest Ada, I pray you will not give me away. The truth is that I am but a wanderer, moving from town to town, plying my trade. I had hoped only for a chance to show off my talents to your master, who would surely have been amazed at what I can do.”

Ada bit her lip, and looked downcast. “Perhaps it is for the best... For I fear that you would have been disappointed. Lord Chalcombe was not a pleasant man, nor prone to giving a chance to those whom fortune has cast aside. I have been in service to him for half my life, to settle a debt that my father owed. Though I more than laboured enough to pay it off, still he refused to release me.”

“But now that he is no more - surely you can go back to your family?”

Ada shook her head, slowly. “What family have I left? A pox took my father, years ago; my mother, for all her skills as an apothecary, could not save him. And she died in childbirth some months afterward.”

She looked up at Adam, her eyes glistening. “I am alone in the world.”

Moved, Adam caught up her hands again. “Not as alone as you think. Though I’ve known you but a few hours… once I heard your name – Ada – I knew it was meant to be. Ada and Adam.”

He drew her behind a building out of sight. Ada smiled up at him, and Adam slowly leaned down towards her.

Their lips met, and Adam instantly moved to deepen the kiss - and then froze. The taste and the smell that met his mouth and nose – pungent would be too generous a term. Reality came crashing down around him with a painful suddenness. My God, he’d never realised what a wonder modern hygiene was until he kissed a woman who had clearly never met a toothbrush in her life.

Ada broke away and smiled shyly at him. Adam tried to force an answering smile.

“I must return to my errand, or Sybil will be suspicious,” she said. “But I hope I’ll see you again at tonight’s supper.”

“With certainty,” Adam managed, and then fled.

Jonathan cursed when he got back to Cadfael’s workshop and found it completely empty.

“Damn it, Adam – where the hell have you gone?” he muttered. Fortunately, before he could start devising a plan to search the town end-to-end, the magician himself came barrelling through the door.

“Don’t start, Jonathan,” he said, at the look on Jonathan’s face. “Trust me, if I’d known what horrors awaited me outside, I would have stayed within the safety of these walls.”

Jonathan raised his eyebrows. “Bit melodramatic, but I’ll bite. What happened? Did Ada reject you? Is she ‘spoken for’? Did you meet her jealous husband?”

“Oh, if only I had,” said Adam, darkly. “The word ‘foul mouthed’, if used in this situation, would apply not in the literal sense, but the metaphorical.”

Jonathan winced. “Ah. Mediaeval hygiene. Or lack thereof.”

“Precisely, Jonathan,” said Adam. “You’d think that the daughter of an apothecary could find some better-tasting herbs to chew on.”

Jonathan looked sharply at him. “What did you just say?”

“When I enquired in the kitchens, they had no knowledge of any wine being sent up during the night,” said Cadfael, slightly frustrated. “There were some fine metal dishes and vessels, including several goblets, but none appeared to have gone missing. The cook was most indignant when I asked her whether she had recently counted them.” He was gathering herbs from the garden next to his workshop, and Jonathan was helping him as best he could while they talked. “For that one, you’ll want to pick just the leaves. I dry them to make a tea.”

Jonathan did as instructed. “But the wine could have been taken up to him in secret by someone who worked in the kitchen,” he pointed out. “Was the maid, Ada, there when you asked about it?”

Cadfael frowned in thought. “No, I do not think she was. Sybil, the head cook, said that she had been sent out on an errand.” He looked at Jonathan, considering. “You suspect Ada? She was the first person to find the body…”

“And would have been in a good position to hide any evidence before she woke up Geoffrey Chalcombe,” Jonathan finished. “And Adam told me that her mother was an apothecary.” He nodded towards the workshop, where Adam was sitting sullenly inside. “So she would know perfectly well what Deadly Nightshade looked like, and what it could do.”

Cadfael raised his eyebrows. “Well, that does indeed sound plausible – but what of her motive? Lord Chalcombe was her master – without him, she would lose her livelihood.”

“Maybe he was cruel to her,” suggested Jonathan. “She killed him to have his son take over the household – no, that wouldn’t work given that he’s been accused of the murder. It seems more likely that she was trying to frame Geoffrey.”

“In any event,” said Cadfael, holding out his wooden bowl for Jonathan to deposit the leaves he’d picked into, “the moment that she returns to the kitchen, she’ll doubtless learn that we were enquiring about the wine. And she may be compelled to retrieve the evidence that she hid.”

“Probably in the room itself; could be under a loose flagstone or a secret cubby-hole,” Jonathan theorised.

Cadfael straightened up, clearly thinking hard. “If only we could find some way of catching her in the act… perhaps we could confront her with what we know.”

Jonathan looked towards the workshop. “I might have an idea as to how we can do it.”

Adam slipped into the castle via a side entrance that Cadfael had told them about, and stole towards the kitchens. He was a little resentful about his role in this whole charade – if he had his way, he wouldn’t go within a hundred miles of that harpy in the kitchen ever again, never mind re-initiating relations with Ada Foul-Breath.

At least if this went as planned, Jonathan would finally be satisfied, and maybe they could get out of this backwater town at long last.

Ada was kneading dough at a wooden table in the middle of the kitchen, while a boy chopped vegetables next to her, and another girl stirred a metal pot over the fire. Sybil watched over it all with a hawk-like gaze, but when she turned away to direct the girl by the fireplace, Adam seized his chance and stepped into the doorway, directly into Ada’s line of sight.

Ada noticed the movement on the edge of her vision and looked up. Adam smiled meaningfully at her, and then disappeared from view. He heard Ada say something to Sybil, probably a request to go to the lavatory, and Sybil replied with a curt, “Make it quick.”

“Adam!” whispered Ada, ducking out of the kitchen. “What are you doing here? I thought not to see you again until supper.”

“My assistant, Jonathan, and Brother Cadfael are on their way here to ask you some more questions about Lord Chalcombe,” said Adam, giving her a guileless smile. “I made an excuse to come ahead of them, so that we could spend a few moments together first.”

Ada backed away a step. “Coming here, to ask me questions? But what about?”

Adam shrugged, feigning confusion. “I didn’t ask. I was too eager to see you again. What does it matter, my dearest?”

“How far from the castle are they?” Ada demanded, still speaking low so as not to be overheard.

“A few minutes at least. Should I have secured us more time?”

Ada’s face was pale. “I – I really must use the outhouse. Adam, my dear, if you truly feel for me? Keep your assistant and the Holy Brother in conversation for a short while when they arrive. I promise you will understand why later.”

Adam nodded, and Ada picked up her skirts and ran away down the corridor.

Cadfael motioned to Jonathan for silence as they crept along the corridor. As they drew level with the room where the Lord Chalcombe had been murdered, he peered around the doorway, and then nodded to Jonathan.

“Good day, Ada,” said Cadfael, kindly, entering the room. Ada looked up in fright from where she knelt next to the fireplace, and the charred metal goblet that she’d uncovered from the ashes slipped from her fingers and hit the floor with a clang.

Ada’s eyes darted to the doorway as she clearly considered making a run for it, but Jonathan appeared in the doorway next to Cadfael, effectively blocking it. “Ah. The fireplace, of course – the perfect hiding-place.”

“Would you like to enlighten us as to why you murdered Lord Chalcombe?” asked Cadfael. “You might be the daughter of an apothecary, but I doubt such uses for medicinal herbs would come naturally to you.”

“I know not what you mean, sir,” Ada said, obviously opting to play dumb. “I was just- cleaning here, and I found this…”

“Really?” said Cadfael sternly. “Is that why you looked like you’d seen a ghost when we walked in here? Of course, you would know nothing of what caused the wine stain next to the bed in which Lord Chalcombe lay – nor of who it was that brought wine up to him during the night, concealing the taste of Deadly Nightshade within it which caused the fatal seizures that ended his life.”

Ada looked defiantly between the two of them, and then her shoulders slumped. “I am sure you think me a murderer,” she said, quietly and with dignity. “But I dealt only justice. Why should he live, and keep me in bondage, and my mother and father should not?” She looked at Cadfael. “Is that God's will? Or simply the cruelty of man?”

Cadfael looked extremely troubled. “You are not the Lord God, my child – it is not down to you to determine who should live and who should die. To say nothing of the fact that you near sent an innocent man to the noose in your place.”

Ada bit her lip. “Truly, I did not wish Geoffrey dead. He suffered at the hands of his father nigh as much as I did. But...” She laid a hand on her stomach. “I did what I had to do to protect my child. Were it not for his life, I would gladly have paid the punishment for my crime.”

Cadfael's eyes widened, and Jonathan winced. “A child? And the father...”

“Was Lord Chalcombe, yes. Though he did not deign to acknowledge his parentage of this bastard child.”

Ada pressed her lips together, and a few angry tears fell. But her face was resolute as she looked back up at Cadfael.

“Would you condemn us both to die, Brother, by revealing my crime?”

Cadfael shook his head slowly. “Not if I can prevent it. But the facts of this matter must be known, to prove Geoffrey’s innocence.”

Silence fell between them, which was eventually broken by Jonathan awkwardly clearing his throat. Adam was going to kill him for this, but… “I might have an idea.”

“Explain to me again,” said Adam through gritted teeth, “why she is with us.”

Jonathan couldn’t say that he’d expected to ride a horse for the very first time across the Shropshire countryside in the twelfth century, but fortunately, it wasn’t proving too difficult. He mostly held the reins steady, and the horse seemed to know how to do the rest, clopping along at a steady pace. Of course, it would have been more tolerable without Adam bellyaching behind him the whole way, but the same could be said for a lot of things. Ada rode a second horse side-saddle, keeping pace with them.

“Be-cause,” said Jonathan slowly, “Cadfael is going to tell Undersheriff Beringar that regrettably, after giving her sworn confession to the murder of Lord Chalcombe, Ada ran away with her newfound lover, Sir Adam Klaus of London. And if all goes well with our return journey, they’ll comb the countryside for us and never find a trace.”

Of course, Cadfael didn’t know that they were time travellers from the future – Jonathan doubted that even a mind as sharp as Cadfael’s would be able to grasp that possibility – but a simple comment from the monk had made him realise how obvious the solution was to getting them home.

“We aren’t stranded here, exactly,” Jonathan had tried to explain. “But we can here via a particular… vessel, and now we can’t get back.”

The monk had frowned. “Is it broken?” he asked. “Or lost?”

“Well, I hope not,” said Jonathan. “But even if it’s still intact, I don’t know how we’re going to get back in it.”

“Exactly the way you came, I should imagine,” the monk said, frowning at him. “Is that not an option?”

“Are you telling me,” said Adam, slowly, “that we could have avoided this whole charade if we’d just got back into the time machine the second we’d arrived?”

Jonathan shrugged at him, grinning. “You have to admit, it’s the one thing that neither of us thought to try.”

Adam ran a hand over his face so hard that it looked almost painful. “Nevertheless,” he bit out, lowering his voice so that Ada couldn’t overhear them. “You’re forgetting that Ada is, at best, a very confused cult member, and at worst, a twelfth century woman. I doubt that she would take to a new life in 1999 like a duck to water. Are you proposing to be her guardian? Because I can tell you now, Jonathan, it’s not going to be me.”

Jonathan looked at him in surprise. “Oh, no, she’s not coming back with us,” he said. “Cadfael knows someone in a convent at Godric’s Ford, and they’ll take Ada in until the baby is born. She’ll get a chance at a new life. I promised that we’d drop her off on our way – it was the least we could do, really.”

Adam huffed, clearly torn between relief and irritation at the way Jonathan had strung him along. Jonathan couldn’t resist poking fun at him a bit more. “What, did you think we were going to bring the horses, too?”

“Watch it, Jonathan – I could still throw you off this horse and carry on without you.”

“Oh, do you know the way to Godric’s Ford? In that case, you can take the reins.”

Cadfael’s friend, Sister Magdalen, met them at the entrance to the Godric’s Ford nunnery. Jonathan and Ada both dismounted, but Adam stayed on his horse, leaving Jonathan to say an awkward goodbye.

“Um… So, good luck, Ada,” he said. He didn’t normally get friendly with the murderer in a case he’d been working on after it was solved, but it was hard not to feel sympathy for Ada’s situation. As a lower-class woman in the 12th century, she had next to no control over her own life. He couldn’t really imagine what he would have done in her place.

“Thank you, Jonathan Creek,” said Ada quietly. “You and Brother Cadfael have been… better to me than I could ever hope to deserve.”

A bit embarrassed, Jonathan smiled at her. He didn’t really want to point out that, if it weren’t for himself and Cadfael, she might have got away with what she’d done. Undersheriff Beringar wasn’t an idiot, though – he probably would have tumbled to the real course of events one way or the other.

“Just try not to run amok with any more Deadly Nightshade,” he joked. Ada looked at him quizzically, and he tried to remember whether "run amok" was a modern phrase or not. “Er… Never mind. Do you want to say goodbye to…?” He gestured at Adam, still scowling from on top of his horse. Ada had maintained a frosty silence towards him ever since they’d left the castle, so he had a feeling he knew what the answer would be.

“No, I do not wish to,” said Ada, confirming his suspicions. “Sir Klaus is simply another in the long list of men who have treated me ill. I will not expend any more of my time on him.” She smiled and went up on tiptoe to kiss Jonathan’s cheek. “Farewell, Master Creek. Perhaps if you find yourself once again in Shrewsbury, we may cross paths.”

“Yes, perhaps,” agreed Jonathan, while privately hoping he would never be unlucky enough to find himself back here.

Secretly, Jonathan had been afraid that he wouldn’t be able to find the way back to the time machine when it came to it – or that someone stumbling across it in the woods might have tampered with or destroyed it while they were gone.

Fortunately, both fears turned out to be unfounded. Godric’s Ford was about ten minutes on horseback from the field where the time machine had landed them, which made it about a twenty minute walk back.

(Of course, Adam complained the entire way. “Couldn’t we have kept one of the horses, Jonathan?”)

There it was, looking completely incongruous in its black, lightning-painted glory in the middle of the open field. Jonathan opened the door for Adam, his heart beating faster with nerves. If this didn’t work… “After you.”

“What if it needs you to enter first, like you did before?” Adam asked, and Jonathan could detect a nervous tremor in his voice as well. “You go in, and I’ll close the door after us.”

“Well, if it doesn’t work, we can always try it the other way around,” Jonathan said, more cheerfully than he felt, but he did as Adam suggested and entered the time machine first. The sense of déjà vu was sudden and surreal.

Adam followed behind him, and pulled the door shut. There was a brief pause.

“Didn’t you do something with a lever?” Jonathan reminded him.

“Right – I didn’t actually pull it, but just reached out to touch it, and then-”

Not a second after Adam laid his hand on the lever, the time machine began vibrating. Jonathan’s knees almost gave way with relief. He braced his hands against the sides of the structure, wondering what the hell was going on outside it. He decided he didn’t want to know, but it was a good thing they hadn’t been able to open the door when they tried.

Adam continued to look tense and wary until the time machine had stopped vibrating. Both of them turned to look at the door, but neither moved to open it.

“After you,” said Adam.

“What happens if… we open the door and we’re in the middle of the First World War or something?” Jonathan tried to joke, but the possibility seemed all too real.

“Then we get back in,” said Adam grimly, “and we keep trying until we make it back to 1999.” He pushed open the door – to reveal the familiar interior of the theatre. The sight was so welcome that Jonathan almost wanted to cry.

“Oh, my god,” he exclaimed in relief, sinking to his knees on the stage. “I’m taking the rest of the week off, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

“Fine,” said Adam, who was gazing out at the seating like he’d never seen it before. “So am I.”

“…Adam?” asked Judith, their props manager, uncertainly. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, Judith, we’re safe – you can call off the search party. I’m sure Sandra is worried sick,” said Adam.

Judith glanced uncertainly at Noel, one of the stage hands. “What do you mean, Adam? You were gone for five minutes.”

“Five minutes?” repeated Adam in disbelief. “It’s been-” He pulled out his phone, and looked at the time and date. “It’s been five minutes,” he realised.

Jonathan looked at his watch to confirm, and sure enough, it was 20 past 11 – and the second hand had started ticking again. Lovely. All was well that ended well.

He tuned out Adam’s conversation with Judith as he made excuses for why they were cutting the rehearsal short all of a sudden. His beloved duffel coat was lying over a chair in the front row, and he grabbed it and made his way towards the door.

“Jonathan!” Adam hailed him, and Jonathan reluctantly turned. He supposed they needed to say something to put this whole business to rest – make a pact, perhaps, never to mention it again. Or figure out what to do with the time machine.

“Yes, Adam?” he asked as Adam ran over.

“I’m not going to stop you from taking the rest of the week off,” Adam began, and Jonathan raised his eyebrows.

“Good, because there’s no point trying.”

“-but when you get back, I was thinking…”

“Yes?” Jonathan prompted him.

“Well – a time machine trick might be quite a good idea, still, if we can get the details right. Why don’t we-”

“Not on your life, Adam,” Jonathan said loudly, as he turned and walked away.