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Knightsbridge was one of those places in London which had an indefinable feeling of uncomfortable exclusivity. The cars lining the streets were all expensive and well-maintained. The houses that the cars stood outside had clean frontages of red brick and white stucco.  It was a neighbourhood that oozed old money. The sort of place in which less well-off visitors felt instinctively out of place.

His uniform afforded him what amounted to invisibility, however. Twos were equivalent enough to a Savile Row suit that no one looked at him once, never mind twice. He was glad for that. He was already a little unnerved by being here, and in ordinary circumstances wouldn't be. But, one didn't exactly refuse an invitation from an influential government backbencher. 

Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart looked up at the gleaming stucco and almost-defiantly blue front door. There wasn't even a molecule of dirt on the front steps. They must be scrubbed daily. Crisp pale-cream curtains were visible in the road-facing windows and the park opposite was reflected flawlessly in the smear-free windows themselves. It was an outwardly neat, handsome residence, which undoubtedly was similarly neat and handsome on the inside.

It was therefore unfortunate, according to Phineas Hetherington, that the man who lived here was “one of the biggest snakes in a den of snakes”, as the engineer colonel had phrased it. Hetherington had in fact advised against accepting the invitation and argued with some feeling that even the most tenuous of connections to the politician in question could have unwelcome consequences. That Hetherington wasn't willing to provide details to support this argument went some way to deciding the matter in favour of acceptance. If there was something personal between these two, Lethbridge-Stewart wanted nothing to do with it.

Even if, in almost all other matters relating to Westminster, he was quite happy to trust his friend's judgment. 

'All square, sir?'

'Yes, Sergeant. Thank you.'

Sergeant Stirling nodded. 'Right-o, sir. Give us a bell when you're done.' The Scouser got back into the car, where he lit a Dunhill before pulling off from the kerb. 

His departure was sedate enough, Lethbridge-Stewart noted, but that could well change once Stirling was out of sight round the corner. But that was unfair. Stirling had calmed the worst of his bad habits since his promotion. When he was on duty, that was. He was reliably informed the RCT sergeant still invariably spent his weekends rallying.

He wasn't here to ponder the off-duty waywardness of his driver, however. He'd been delivered to the residence of Sir Lionel Dewe, at the baronet's invitation. Nothing good would come of failing to keep that invitation. So Lethbridge-Stewart approached the door and pressed the bell.

A trim young man in an immaculate morning suit answered the door. He sized Lethbridge-Stewart up with cool professional disinterest. 'Help you?'

'I'm here to see Sir Lionel.'

'Please wait in here.'

Lethbridge-Stewart entered the narrow front hall. The butler – at least, he assumed the man was the butler – pushed the door closed and withdrew to a room a couple steps away, which was accessed through a pair of narrow, polished oak doors. These were closed promptly behind him. 

This was no great surprise. Lethbridge-Stewart removed his cap and admired the gleaming marble floor, which was predominately white and edged with black. The front hall stretched on about four metres, where the passage split; there was a narrow set of quarter-turn stairs directly at the end of the hall, while the flawless marble floor carried on out of sight past the small landing.

The oak doors opened soundlessly. 'He'll see you now.'

'Thank you.'

Lethbridge-Stewart stepped past the butler and into small but elegant study. The floor was still that perfect white marble, protected in the centre by a blue Persian rug. Placed neatly on that rug was a Chippendale escritoire, as lovingly-polished as the doors through which he'd entered. A second set of doors were set in the wall directly to his right, and were closed. Two chairs, upholstered in velvet a shade of blue so dark it was nearly black, faced the escritoire.

The wall opposite the doors he'd come through were dominated by a pair of nearly floor-to-ceiling bookcases perhaps only half-filled with leatherbound books of varying thickness. These flanked a suspiciously-clean fireplace, which was faced with polished black marble. A single painting in a gold-leafed frame hung above the fireplace. Lethbridge-Stewart was no connoisseur of fine art but even he recognised the painting as being one of Constable's. Or it was a reproduction, anyway.

'Good afternoon, Brigadier.' The greeting came from the man seated at the escritoire. He stood up to offer his hand.

'Good afternoon, sir.' Lethbridge-Stewart returned the handshake and took the opportunity to size up his host. 

Sir Lionel Dewe was a tall, neatly slender man of approximately middle age. His dark hair was combed and styled perfectly, and he lacked the sideburns that many others found fashionable. There was a faintly Gallic shape to his face, including his nose, which was neat and sharp. Rather like the man as a whole. Dewe's brown eyes had settled on his guest with courteous intent, and Lethbridge-Stewart guessed those eyes didn't miss much. 

Nor was he someone to dress carelessly. His navy blue suit was impeccably tailored, cut in the Italian style from what looked like superfine wool. A matching navy blue waistcoat and charcoal silk tie matched well with the crisp white shirt beneath them. Interestingly, he wore a pin collar. 

'I'm pleased you agreed to call,' Sir Lionel said. 'Please, sit. Would you care for a drink?'

'Tea, please.' Lethbridge-Stewart settled into one of the chairs and rested his hat on his lap. Whatever the reasons for his being invited here, he didn't expect to be here long.

'My usual, please, Claud.'

The butler inclined his head and withdrew, closing the doors smoothly almost before he'd cleared the doorway. 

'You'll have to forgive the setting,' his host told him. 'My ordinary receiving room is being renovated. These are, I'm afraid, hardly the correct surroundings in which to receive  the newest member of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George. May I offer my congratulations on your acceptance to that august order?'

'Thank you very much, sir,' Lethbridge-Stewart replied, and wondered how this room could reasonably be considered “hardly correct”.

'It is the second such honour in your family, as I understand it. No mean feat.'

Dewe was remarkably well-informed. 'It is indeed.'

The first family CMG had been earned by Duncan Lethbridge-Stewart, in part for his role in the annexation of Burma after the second Anglo-Burmese War. Admission as a knight companion to the Order of the Thistle and something of a personal fortune had followed. “The rewards of Empire” as he'd heard it described. He was glad his own CMG was free of that sort of taint. 

Sir Lionel smiled. 'Great families tend to be recognised, I find. Ah, excellent timing. Thank you, Claud.'

The butler, Claud, had re-entered, carrying a silver tea tray. He served Lethbridge-Stewart a delicate bone china teacup and saucer, then delivered a second, smaller, cup to Sir Lionel. Then without a word he departed, closing the doors soundlessly behind him.

'So,' said Sir Lionel as he sipped delicately at his drink. 'To business. I know of course about your intervention in Project Future Warrior. The full details of that affair have been made known to me. I confess, however, a measure of curiosity. This is not the first instance of your stepping in to “make things right”, shall we say. It is, however, the most recent and rather the most interesting.'

Lethbridge-Stewart set his tea cup down onto his knee. 'I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to discuss such things, sir,' he said. 

'I shouldn't attempt to hide behind the Official Secrets Act,' said Sir Lionel calmly. 'Indeed, I'd suggest the action taken in Southrop contravenes the Act.'

Alarm bells shrieked in the back of his head. 'I'm afraid I disagree on that point, sir.'

'You're aware, of course, that the information Harold Chorley delivered to you was obtained through espionage,' Sir Lionel told him. 'That activity violates Section One of the Principal Act. Southrop, you see, was declared a prohibited place. Were you not aware of that fact? Well, no matter. Chorley then conveyed his illegally-acquired intelligence to you, and you chose to violate Section Seven of the Principal Act by not directly turning Chorley over to the police. The “inspection team” you despatched acted in violation of Provision Two, Section One of the Nineteen-Twenty Act when they broke into and unlawfully searched Doctor Waldegrave's office, and later broke into and attempted to search the laboratories. They were rightly detained by camp authorities for the latter action.'

Sir Lionel sipped at his drink before continuing. He seemed glacially cool. 'Further, the force you sent to Southrop to forcibly take charge violated, foremost, Provision Three of Section Two of the Principal Act. There's also, of course, the utter failure to involve the police at any point. It is a stunning example of the dangerously free hand you've been given, I must say.'

Not making a curt, reflexive retort to that took a lot of effort. Lethbridge-Stewart gave himself a moment to consider a measured response by taking a long sip of tea. He was perfectly acquainted with the Official Secrets Act and its provisions. Nothing he or his people had done had, in any way, contravened the Act. Hamilton would never have greenlighted any response otherwise. That was simply not how the Fifth operated.

'I think, sir, that  you are grasping at straws,' he said presently, his voice carefully measured. 'None of my people have acted or behaved unlawfully. I vouch for all of them.'

The smile on Sir Lionel's face was difficult to read. 'That does not surprise me. You must know, it is not my habit to make such statements without believing them to be correct. I know of course that Bellamy's board of enquiry did not raise these points. It was made known to them that they should not.'

His tiny cup clinked just audibly as he set it down onto its saucer. 'However. I shouldn't like to be mistaken for being needlessly adversarial. The activities of you and your people are reasonably well-known in certain select circles. The view of events I have just outlined is perfectly plausible, you must admit, and is a view which more than one person holds. I have no wish to make trouble, but consider it only gentlemanly to tip you the wink that Bellamy's enquiry mayn't be the only official danger your corps faces in the near or distant future.'

He held up a hand to forestall Lethbridge-Stewart's retort. 'I know as well of the difficulties with Peyton Bryden, which have been building for some time. It is worth pointing out that Bryden Industries is not the only company which may be of benefit to your corps, or indeed to you individually. I am personally acquainted with one or two that will be happy to do business with that corps, and you, of course. With those one or two companies comes the additional perk, shall we say, of shielding from any consequences that might arise from corps activities. Consequences which may arise from interpretations of events similar to the one I presented a moment ago. You need only say the word and I will be quite happy to arrange introductions to the correct people.'

So this was the game? Lethbridge-Stewart supposed he should have expected it. Laying out his interpretation of events at Southrop, then claiming that interpretation was widespread was only a ploy so he could then offer 'protection' in the form of a competing company to Bryden Industries. There could be no doubt that the as-yet unnamed company was one Sir Lionel had links to. No whiff of genuine altruism existed here. Far from it. There was instead a very strong stench of danger.

'I have no power to make any such arrangements, sir,' he replied. 'Those decisions are made well above my paygrade.'

'Oh quite, but I daresay you have influence on the process. It may be beneficial to know that Bryden Industries is not as in favour with the MOD as in previous years. I cannot of course divulge any details but parting ways with them is likely to prevent some considerable headaches in coming months.'

'Any decisions about contracts aren't mine to make, sir. You'll have to address any offers to Major-general Hamilton.'

'Yes, of course.'

It was time to go, Lethbridge-Stewart decided. Before he felt any more filthy for having sat here. He reached out to put his half-finished tea on top of the escritoire. 'Thank you for the tea, sir,' he said, rising to his feet. 'I'm afraid I cannot stay any longer. There are appointments this afternoon which I must keep.'

'Of course, of course.' Sir Lionel stood up to offer his hand. He didn't seem in the least surprised or perturbed at this abrupt declaration. 'Meeting you at last has been a pleasure, Brigadier. Do consider my offer. Here is my card should you decide to accept it. Ah. May I also invite you to White's tomorrow evening? No obligations attached, of course. There is a gathering of varied distinguished gentlemen occurring, which I believe you may find worthwhile.'

'Thank you, but I have a prior engagement.' He saw no reason to provide further details, and in fact had been advised to be as sparing with details as possible.

Something in Sir Lionel's expression slipped for a millisecond. 'Yes, of course. Well, do not let me keep you from your duties. Do you require a chauffeur?'

'No, thank you. Good afternoon, sir.'

Claud the butler appeared with unsettling timeliness to open the door before Lethbridge-Stewart reached it. He then preceded the brigadier to the front door. There was an element of the theatrical about this whole visit which unsettled Lethbridge-Stewart. There could be no doubt that Sir Lionel was not someone to be trusted. Hetherington had been correct. It wasn't possible to be surprised.

The front door shut with a decided thump behind him. Lethbridge-Stewart fitted his cap on and decided he'd walk for a bit before using the nearest phone box to call Sergeant Stirling. Hetherington ought to be home by the time Lethbridge-Stewart returned to the colonel's house. The details of this meeting needed sharing. Further, the engineer's counsel would be needed; Lethbridge-Stewart was well aware of his limited experience in matters of this sort. He grimaced, briefly. His was to be an effective baptism of fire into the politics of a general officer's life. Just what he wanted...