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The Case of the Purloined Emerald

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The Case of the Purloined Emerald

I

Our story begins one dreadfully hot summer's day sometime about the year 18--, in Silchester.

One might ask, with reasonable concern, why doesn't our story begin in London, or Bath, at the very least, since it is a widely-known fact that all entertaining tales of mystery and suspense begin in the dark, sinister streets of London, and all wonderful tales of love, marriage, match-making, and scandal begin in Bath; and hence one might even begin to suspect that neither love nor mystery may occur in Silchester, and that one has been lured into reading this story under false pretences.

To this we may reply that, although London seems to be permanently wreathed in a thick, fearsome fog that makes the repulsive business of crooks and murderers so much easier, there's crime aplenty happening in the fresh air of the countryside as well; and despite the fact than many men blessed with good looks, good income, and good reputation have met the fate of hunted partridge in Bath, swarming as it is with accomplished and determined young ladies during the season, such is the way of life that love may be lurking in the strangest of places, and it may attack with surprising ingenuity and ruthlessness – without a moment's consideration for the eventual possibility of marriage, or even for common propriety – even in Silchester.

Of this, however, our hero was still blissfully unaware as he made his way through the vast field bathed in rich, honeyed afternoon light, and dutifully tried to convince himself that he was enjoying the scenery and the fine weather, when in truth he was sweating and gritting his teeth, inwardly cursing the horrid heat that made his limbs swell and sweat trickle in small, disgusting rivulets down his broad, muscled back, causing his shirt to stick to his skin in a most unfortunate manner. We believe he would have hardly ventured out of the house of his own volition, for he was one of those men inclined to cultivate their gloom ensconced in the cool and comfort of their private rooms, or to brood darkly on the edge of a moor or a swamp – both situations perfectly dignified and serene, and unlikely to leave a person breathless and red in the face, with the neck-tie askew. But it so happened that our hero had received orders from Dr Galarius, who had recommended long walks and fresh air to improve the condition of our hero's leg – an old injury that still inconvenienced and saddened him deeply – and those orders were reinforced with heartfelt encouragements of his uncle; and thus, being accustomed to obeying orders and trusting in the competence of those outranking him, our hero suffered the daily atrocity of sunshine, chirping birds, and fragrant flowers with the stoicism of a military man weary beyond his years, unaware that he was the victim of a conspiracy to provoke him into developing a sunny disposition: a conspiracy that had yet to yield any positive results, for if these walks were putting our hero in a good mood, he was doing an exceptionally good job of hiding it.

He was a tall man full of strength that was both quiet and obvious, and he moved with precision that suggested admirable command of both body and mind. Were one to judge by the warm olive hue of his skin, one might have thought him an Italian or perhaps a Spaniard, like Dr Galarius himself; and one would have been mistaken, for the blazing sun of Tuscany would have been even less welcome to him than the cheerful rays he was currently exposed to in Hampshire – the latter, at least, had some claim of familiarity upon him, for the man who was now walking back towards Aquila Manor was Captain Marcus Flavius, nephew of Lord Aquila.

As a boy, he had spent many an hour running in these very fields, playing games with the children of the tenants – and on the cusp of adulthood he had already been developing a penchant for sitting on the trunk of an upturned tree and watching the sly movements of the surface of the swamp, listening to its loaded silence – but the current Captain Flavius was very different from young master Marcus whose steps he was retracing now. Captain Flavius had very vivid memories of his childhood, and any comparison he drew from them seemed only to sour his spirits, for where the boy had been hopeful, he was now drained; where the boy had been whole, he was now wounded; where the boy had been sociable, he was now withdrawn. In short, Captain Flavius had taken to privately bemoaning his condition and his temperament, which, in his opinion, made him unfit for and unworthy of pleasant company.

Such was the vigour with which he reproached himself his failings, real and imaginary, that he completely overlooked the fact that, given that his uncle was childless and his father was dead, he was the heir to Lord Aquila's title, money, land, and manor, and as said heir was very desirable in the eyes of those who were generally considered 'pleasant company'. Still, Captain Flavius remained steadfastly oblivious to the attentions of people who might have sought his acquaintance, only remaining in contact with his old army friends; unknowingly, he had made a few new enemies this way, for some had mistaken his coy reluctance for arrogance, and fancied their implied offers of friendship rejected – like, for example, Lord Placidus. As regards the forward-thinking people who were strategically placing their unmarried daughters in Captain Flavius' way, they were similarly disappointed, for, depending on the time of day and the lady in question, he thought himself too old, too bitter, too much of a burden to bear, not handsome enough, not rich enough, or not cut for married life at all.

And so it will not come as a surprise to our readers that when Captain Flavius finally made it back to the Manor, sweaty, tired, and with stray stalks of grass clinging to his breeches, he was hoping to further benefit his health with enough brandy to erase the unpleasant experience of the walk from his mind, and was therefore extremely annoyed, agitated, and even angry to find a thief going about his evil business in Captain Flavius' bedchamber – and having the audacity to go about it with a haughty, debonair look when Captain Flavius himself was decidedly indisposed to deal with the cumbersome and vulgar business of thief-catching.

II

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a good fortune which is in the possession of one man, must be the object of want of another. It is inevitable.

And so it is truly neither shocking nor extraordinary that the moment the exquisite emerald fashioned into a silver ring caught the eye of a certain gentleman – for he had his own reasons to consider himself a gentleman, even though 'gentleman crook' might have been more apt – he was immediately transfixed by its beauty, and quickly had his heart go through all stages of adoration, from rapturous surprise to frenzied greed to desirous bliss; the tiny flaw in the stone made the jewel even more perfect in its imperfection to his knowing eye, the bulk of the ring only highlighted the delicacy of the polished emerald – and the unbidden visitor of Captain Flavius' bedchamber was in the throes of something very akin to love, determined to liberate this rare darling from the stifling, boring confines of its current residence and never again be parted from its shining company. The idea of eloping with his new-found treasure to places unknown was already taking hold, half-formed though it was; not a moment was spared to ponder how ill-advised that step would be, for the intruder had sought out the bright green beauty at someone else's urging, and was supposed to secure its possession for another. The hazy reasoning behind this hasty decision amounted to the fact that, during their bargaining, the other party fervently insisted upon Captain Flavius no longer owning the precious ring – so surely the identity of the next owner was secondary to the actual fulfilment of that unscrupulous desire; besides, the surly, foppish man who had commissioned the retrieval had absolutely failed to inspire any fondness, loyalty, or respect in the seasoned professional currently mesmerised by the spark of green fire in the lovely ring, and, for all that the aforementioned professional thought himself a man of honour – of sorts – he was certainly not above revising his commitments to those whom he suspected to be lacking in principles, decency, or intention to pay for services rendered. Or, as in the case with the mysterious man whose business proposal had led to the crook's delightful encounter with the emerald signet ring, all of the above.

Therefore, overcome by a mix of recklessness, aesthetic appreciation, joy, and pride, the crook was about to put the ring on his finger and disappear with the same stealth and cleverness with which he had entered, with the inhabitants of the house none the wiser, when his plans were suddenly thwarted by the appearance of one of the said inhabitants – obviously the owner of the room and the previous owner of the ring, Captain Flavius.

It is rather hard to describe the thoughts which swiftly passed through the crook's remarkable mind at the sight of Captain Flavius frozen in the doorway; for all that he was a man of action, quick-witted and ruthless, he found himself rooted to the spot, taking in the breadth of Captain Flavius' shoulders and his notable height, the pleasantly dark tone of his skin and the fierce blush blooming on his cheeks – a sign of good health or rising temper, or perhaps both – as well as the lovely shape of Captain Flavius' large hands, curling into fists at his sides, and the way his glinting eyes narrowed before he stepped into the room. He had a slight limp – an imperfection which made the lush magnificence of his imposing body even more appealing, and the crook somehow found the menacing way in which Captain Flavius approached him to be graceful and endearing rather than actually frightening; in short, the crook, being something of a connoisseur in the matters of the flesh as well, fancied that he had found not one but two exquisite jewels in the heat and quiet of Silchester, and was so enraptured by Captain Flavius' unexpectedly voluptuous form that he met the man halfway across the room in two quick strides and, firmly gripping his bulging biceps with his own very capable hands, rose on tiptoes to capture the Captain's sweet mouth in a frantic and bruising kiss.

It was with no small triumph and pleasure that the crook licked into Captain Flavius' mouth, chasing a breathy whimper, as the other man stood unresisting in his tight embrace; indeed, the warm, woodsy scent of the Captain's skin, the attractive proportions of his figure – shocked into stillness by the absurdness of the situation, no doubt – and the way he responded to the kiss (shy but eager, hungry but hesitant, complete bliss) promptly caused the crook to develop a profound and sincere appreciation of our hero, and, would that his heart had not been so full of tenderness for the emerald already, he definitely would have been inclined to steal away the Captain himself for a prolonged enjoyment of his sweet charms and good looks, no matter how much cunning and cajoling that would require; but one infatuation could have hardly supplanted another in the space of a heartbeat so completely, and so, albeit with great reluctance, the crook released his hold on the Captain's delicious arms, slipped the ring on his finger, and, swiftly grabbing his hat, bid the Captain good-bye with a wink and a courteous bow before making a quick escape.

III

As fashionable vehicles went, the hansom was agreeable and quite fast, and the soothing sound the india-rubber tires made would not have interfered with the pleasure of conversation had Captain Flavius chosen to allow Lieutenant Hilarion to accompany him from the gentlemen's club to his current destination, as the other man had insisted, doubtless out of generosity of his good heart. However, the Captain was sure that he had inconvenienced his friend enough by seeking him out and giving him a very abridged version of his misadventure, and then haltingly inquiring whether any idea of a suitable course of action presented itself to Lieutenant's highly practical mind. And so when Lieutenant Hilarion had voiced his thoughts on the matter and had finally persuaded Captain Flavius, who was torn between reluctance and confusion, to employ a private detective in order to satisfy his keen desire to understand what had actually happened, Captain Flavius firmly refused to allow that the Lieutenant abandon the merry warmth and the spicy, cigar-laced air of the billiards-room at their Club. Instead, he ventured out on the streets of evening London alone.

Faint lights glimmered here and there; somewhere down the street a clock boomed forth the hour. Captain Flavius watched the streetlights and flaring torches create small pools of light in the crawling grey of the city filled with shapes and shadows the origins of which he could not begin to discern. They passed by respectable houses and darker, seedier quarters, which seemed equally gloomy to Captain Flavius in his distress. Once again, he had the feeling of being followed – the same uneasy feeling that had haunted him on the way from Silchester to London, when he had departed in haste, giving his uncle some flimsy excuse – and he did not know whether to attribute this feeling to instinct (something that had saved his life more than once during his military career, and therefore a sense to be trusted) or hysteria (an ungentlemanly, unreasonable, and unmanly fancy to be disregarded). The journey was torturous.

Much as Captain Flavius was upset by the theft of the ring, which had belonged to his father, and for that reason was very dear to his heart – in addition to being remarkably pleasing to look at, and said to bring out the colour of the Captain's eyes on more than one occasion – he was even more baffled by the circumstances that had led to it no longer being in his possession. For all that he had had no first-hand experience with burglars and purloined items of any kind, he rather thought that such incidents did not normally involve fervent kissing, even as a distraction tactic, however effective it had been in his own case; indeed, everything about the disappearance of the ring was shrouded in mystery, for he could not begin to fathom why someone who was, judging by his looks, definitely not a local, would trouble themselves with breaking into Aquila Manor for the sole purpose of stealing just one emerald ring.

Well, that and a kiss.

He flushed remembering the man's fingers pulling him close, hot through two layers of fabric, the bruising urgency of the kiss and the needy whimper he breathed into the stranger's mouth, the sensation of an iron grip on his arms lingering even as Captain Flavius stood in the bedchamber, dazed and utterly alone, blinking against the flood of yellow afternoon light.

Even the memory of the experience was overwhelming.

(It might bear mentioning that, for all his apparent disregard for dancing, balls, and other frivolous pursuits, Captain Flavius was no stranger to kissing in general, or the taste of men's lips in particular, for, having had his share of boys' school and garrison life, he had known the enjoyment of spooning just like any other man, and occasionally missed it perhaps more than many. There simply happened to be something about the mysterious thief who had broken into his bedchamber that disarmed him completely – an air of danger and vivacity, confidence and ferocious strength – and, truth be told, Captain Flavius was still reeling from the effect the stranger had had on him. He felt like an unwitting victim of a cruel mesmerist, or a docile bull that had practically begged a cunning wolf to maul him – for deep in his heart, he knew that he had already decided to give the stranger whatever he wanted even before he found himself branded by the searing heat of the man's clever mouth.)

Who was that man? Why did he break into Aquila Manor, unnoticed and unseen by everyone but Captain Flavius, and why did he only steal the signet ring, hardly the most valuable or most easily noticed thing at Lord Aquila's estate? (Why, upon being discovered, did he kiss Marcus, instead of doing any number of sensible things a regular criminal might have done, like stabbing him with a knife and vanishing, for instance?) Captain Flavius found himself unable to solve this fiendish puzzle; likewise, he dared hope to find his signet ring again, and perhaps gain an inkling of who the thief was, and what was the reason behind his strange actions. He was also desperate to keep the problem private, and had kept silent on the subject even with his uncle; but his desire for secrecy and the agitated state of his mind left Captain Flavius clueless regarding any opportunities for independent investigation. Could the services of a sleuth be the answer to his conundrum?

Although Captain Flavius did not appear to be entirely convinced of the soundness of Lieutenant Hilarion's advice, he let himself be guided by his friend's conviction and experience in this delicate matter; and so he was absently stroking the fine, thick paper of a calling card given to him by Lieutenant Hilarion, along with the promises of utmost competence and discretion, for the entirety of his thirty-minute drive to the address marked in small print under the larger inscription:

Miss Cottia Kaeso, lady-detective

IV

Miss Cottia Kaeso, a lady of many accomplishments and one of the decade's most formidable detectives, was angry. Very angry.

It was four in the afternoon and Miss Kaeso was rapidly losing hope of having tea and biscuits in her nicely furnished green sitting-room at the usual hour, reading a most fascinating monograph on the typology of dirt she had just received from a very special friend in Switzerland that morning.

Were one to begin looking for the reason for Miss Kaeso's current predicament, which involved sitting in a crowded beer-shop full of pungent smells and clouds of cheap smoke, with a dozen conversations, a game of dice, and a bawdy song mingling in a heinous cacophony of sound – to boot, sitting in the aforementioned beer-shop while masquerading as a one-eyed laundry maid, for one could never underestimate the importance of secrecy in this particular part of town or Miss Kaeso's ingenuity and dedication to the job – one would need to look no further than the previous evening, when she had received an anguished visitor just as her normal working hours had been drawing to a close while she had been amusing herself with a set of throwing knives and a bare library door that was powerless to object.

The visitor had happened to survive walking through the door, which was a point in his favour. He had also come recommended by a former client of Miss Kaeso, a certain Lieutenant Hilarion, who had once upon a time sought her assistance in a delicate matter involving several pretty girls who had all claimed he had fathered their children on leave. The case had been as challenging as it had been mundane, but Miss Kaeso remembered relishing the respite from all the gruesome murders and suspected poisonings which she usually dealt with, and Lieutenant Hilarion had paid in a more timely fashion than some Dukes in Miss Kaeso's experience; and so his word counted as a good recommendation in Miss Kaeso's books, even though the prospective client had looked like yet another brooding bigamist running out of cellars to accommodate his allegedly mad wives, or perhaps a harsh-faced heir to bloody Indian diamonds that were giving his family fainting fits and himself a severe indigestion.

'Call me Cottia,' she had said, taking a seat in an overstuffed armchair and inviting him to make himself comfortable on the striped sofa. The invitation to familiarity was a calculated move, serving both to surprise and to discomfort, thus putting the person off their guard, and to prompt an openness that was more suited to a trusting, intimate relationship with a dear family member. It was amazing – and amazingly tiresome – how many people stumbled and outright lied when employing a private detective.

The man had been surprised, and perhaps a touch discomfited, and so successfully had avoided accepting or refusing the invitation by calling Miss Kaeso 'Lady Detective' throughout (which had been amusing, and therefore another point in his favour); he had given Miss Kaeso his name – Captain Marcus Flavius – and then had proceeded to explain the nature of his difficulty.

The events he had described would not have been out of place in a Handel opera of the Italian period, and Miss Kaeso might have suspected some elaborate practical joke had Captain Flavius not been so painfully earnest; and finally, after a cup of well-steeped tea, Captain Flavius had managed to formulate his expectations of the investigation to Miss Kaeso's satisfaction: to find the stolen family heirloom (and have it returned to the original owner, if at all possible) and to find the man who had stolen the ring – and the kiss – from Captain Flavius (presumably for the purpose of stealing the kiss back, though Miss Kaeso discreetly hadn't asked), while providing the answers to this fascinating mystery.

It was due to this investigation that Miss Kaeso found herself posing as a one-eyed laundry maid, for she had judiciously compared the descriptions of known crooks, in London and beyond, to the one given by Captain Flavius, incomplete and skewed by romantic notions though it was, and had had quite specific suspicions take form; she had passed the night and the better part of the morning eliminating the alternatives, until it became apparent that the most obvious and outlandish answer was indeed the most probable one, and set out to find proof to her hypothesis, which, in the privacy of her own mind, she could no longer doubt, no matter how unlikely she had considered it originally.

And so it was while pursuing that particular line of investigation that Miss Kaeso had to disguise herself and lie in wait, nursing a pint of tolerable beer, until at a quarter to five her efforts were finally rewarded, for she noticed the secret door in the back open and the one she had been expecting entered the beer-shop followed by his men, like a hunter with hounds at his heel, and Miss Kaeso saw, with her one uncovered eye, through the smoke and beer vapours, the bright green spark of a flawed emerald adorning the finger of Esca MacCunoval, the Prince of Swindlers.

V

From Miss Cottia Kaeso, private detective,
to Captain Marcus Flavius

London, 11th August 18--

Captain Flavius –

This is to inform you that the investigation of your incident has yielded positive results, though not as abundant as one might have wished to expect; the latter is due to an insurmountable circumstance which presented itself as the word of honour, and I rather think you would not wish that word to be breached even for the purposes of an investigation in which you have a personal interest; besides, I dare believe that the speed with which I have been able to provide the answers you most desperately wished to receive outweighs the nuisance of a few missing bits of the puzzle.

I will now put you up to the circumstances of the case and all the progress I have made towards detecting the person by whom your precious possession has been stolen, as well as the reasons behind this dastardly scheme; you will see for yourself that it is impossible to settle the case at once according to the preferences you have voiced earlier, and further course of action is to be determined by you entirely, based on the report which I am now able to give.

The man whom you have had the occasion to encounter in your bedchamber at Aquila Manor, Silchester, is none other than Esca MacCunoval, also known as the Prince of Swindlers. He is famous among his kind as an accomplished crook and a thief, and, despite the fact that he has never been brought to trial – in the few instances when the authorities could actually begin to hope to accuse him of something, the charges had been mysteriously dropped, or witnesses and evidence conveniently evaporated – word of mouth has it that not only is he a man of many criminal talents, displaying admirable virtuosity in the art of theft, but also as much of a gentleman as his standing and situation in life can allow, scrupulously following his own code of honour and imposing the same obligation on those in the same trade who have sworn their loyalty to him, or seek his protection and patronage. This I may confirm not only based on idle gossip, but also referring to my own personal experience, for I found myself in a position to interact with MacCunoval previously; I must refrain from giving any details since it was related to an investigation, the nature of which I must keep in strictest confidence due to my obligation to my client, but I can attest that MacCunoval has, on more than one occasion, proven himself to be a man of certain principles, some of which can even be called noble in the right light.

Next, a word in your ear about the kind of man he happens to be.

MacCunoval is a proud man, wild in his passions when he chooses to be, and therefore dangerous. He takes great care of his appearance, but is not vain; the main source of his arrogance are his professional abilities: the flawless execution of a particular crime in person, the development of elaborate strategies, and the leadership over his gang, who all have absolute confidence in him. He is amazingly conceited in his opinion of himself – and if one is to judge by his documented exploits, with good reason (if one is to judge by the rumours of his near-legendary escapades, even more so). MacCunoval is not yet thirty, but although he is past the first blush of youth, he often passes for a much younger man. Rumours of his past suggest that, in his boyhood, he may have been Son of the Dog, the famed boy pickpocket who travelled all over England with a carnival; they also say that his father had been a gentleman and ended his days in a debtor's prison, but that is all mere conjecture. The hard facts are that, at present, MacCunoval is the most excellent crook in all of London, most likely in all of England.

Since MacCunoval is rich and as comfortable in life as he can expect to be, I was logically suspicious of the fact that he would perform any feats of trickery just for the sake of obtaining your signet ring, the sentimental value of which, as you yourself have stated repeatedly, is greater than its actual worth. And since no one would be able to answer that question but the Prince of Swindlers himself, I decided to call in a favour with him, and ask him to shed some light on the matter. (I must beg you to permit me to omit the details of the past affairs which enabled me to call in any favours in the first place: they bear no relation to the present case, and shall remain confidential for reasons that are not mine to disclose.)

It is as I have suspected: it was not the ring that was to be the ultimate prize, but rather your honour and happiness. MacCunoval was paid a handsome sum to rob you of the ring – and with it of the pleasant memories and your sense of self – by a man who considers himself your enemy, and would have you suffer. MacCunoval would not reveal the identity of that man, for his crook's honour prevents him from giving that kind of information to anyone but the parties immediately involved, and even then only under particular conditions; however, I have been given to understand that our mystery man is a gentleman and a noble, a person of your circle of acquaintance, who was eager to be entertained by your loss of the thing which, as it is well-known, you hold dear, and had not hesitated to seek out the most competent – and expensive – man for the job in order to ensure your grief and embarrassment. Apparently, the plan was that the evil mastermind would have the ring in the end, but MacCunoval double-crossed him – or, as he himself has put it, 'changed his mind' – and now considers himself the owner of your emerald ring, which I have seen him handle with great gentleness and care; indeed, I must conclude that it has never left his finger since the very day he so deftly appropriated it in Silchester.

It must be said that MacCunoval has quite decisively refused my suggestions to relinquish the ring, no matter how argumentative or forceful the manner in which I presented the aforementioned suggestions. He insists he has bonded with the ring, and is as adamant about keeping it as any common shepherd's boy clinging to a token of affection from his sweetheart. However, he has asked me to convey you the message that he might be willing to entertain the possibility of an exchange, should you decide to grace him with the pleasure of your company.

So much for the request that I am desired to communicate to you.

I would advise you against entering in any sort of mutually beneficial agreement with the Prince of Swindlers, but I must admit that it would be the only chance to bargain to get your ring back (even hiring someone to steal it from MacCunoval, should you be inclined to do so, would be no more than foolish squandering of time and money, since the awe the Prince of Swindlers puts in his fellows is so great that no one would actually dare to follow through and attempt to cross him, no matter what they promised you to get your money). I leave the decision to you; however, should you choose to meet his terms and arrange a rendez-vous, I would urge you to pick a neutral, safe place, for the peace of mind of all parties involved, and would even go as far as to offer my own house for that purpose.

As regards the minor complication of someone following your movements, as you have been given reason to suspect on several occasions both on the way from Silchester and in London proper, I can inform you that it has been established that the man following you is Stephanos, employed in the household of your uncle, Lord Aquila, in Silchester; you are, without doubt, familiar with the man and his character, and therefore will hardly disagree with my conclusion (reinforced by evidence in the form of an actual intercepted note, a copy of which I enclose to this report) that he was tasked with following you by Lord Aquila, whom your abrupt departure has made concerned for your well-being and state of mind.

Until further notice I remain, accordingly, your obedient servant,

C O T T I A K A E S O

VI

It was about half-past two o'clock, on a warm and lovely day, that Miss Kaeso's green sitting-room was destined to become the meeting-place for Captain Marcus Flavius, quite overexcited due to several sleepless nights brought on by suspense and anticipation, and one Esca MacCunoval, brilliant gentleman crook going by the name 'the Prince of Swindlers' among his fellows on the other side of the law.

Captain Flavius' emotions were in great turmoil even before he stepped over the threshold and was able to lay his eyes on the man who had occupied his daytime thoughts and nighttimes' visions so completely ever since he had discovered his audacious penetration of Captain Flavius' bedchamber and his impudent actions therein.

He was well-proportioned, shorter than the Captain in height, and displayed elegance and economy of movement that spoke of natural agility and fighting experience. He was of fair complexion, his hair an attractive shade between blond and copper, and his clear, piercing eyes and well-formed mouth successfully distracted from a minor deformity – a clipped ear, likely a token from a past altercation; however, Captain Flavius discovered, with a flutter in his stomach, that he found even this anomaly fetching rather than repulsive, and dazedly stared at MacCunoval who, dressed in sensible but fashionable clothes in muted, earthy colours, reclined against Miss Kaeso's round marble-topped table and busied himself with adjusting his bright blue silk neck-tie.

Fortunately, the moment Captain Flavius caught sight of his own signet ring on MacCunoval's hand, he was able to shake off the spell sufficiently to remember the business that had brought him there, and murmur a greeting; to which MacCunoval replied in a most civil tone, and the cultured accents of his speech, as well as the delightful huskiness of his melodious baritone, thoroughly convinced Captain Flavius that he was indeed in the company of a gentleman. Of sorts.

And even though the question that burned brightest in the Captain's mind was why had the Prince of Swindlers kissed him so feverishly and unexpectedly, thus thoroughly rousing the Captain's desire and imagination (in the same way one might have stirred a Sleeping Beauty from her prolonged slumber), he was far too mindful of decorum to begin with such an impertinent line of inquiry; therefore he thanked MacCunoval for his amiable suggestion of a meeting and his willingness to present himself at a time and place of the Captain's choosing, and was about to ask MacCunoval whether it was at all possible that he communicate the name of the man who wished the Captain ill, perhaps for a reward of an appropriate amount of pounds.

However, he was prevented from speaking by a frown marring MacCunoval's handsome features; and then Captain Flavius remained quite speechless as MacCunoval proceeded to gently scold him for being quite so careless of his precious person as to make enemies among petty people with far too much time and money on their hands. Flushing at the reprimand, Captain Flavius struggled to recall who those people might be, but no one but Lord Placidus, whom he had encountered during a hunting party with his uncle and his friends, came to mind; and when he ventured to mention the name, MacCunoval confirmed, quite readily and without reimbursement, that the viscount was indeed the man who had paid for the ring, which Captain Flavius had shown such an appreciation for on numerous occasions, to be heartlessly stolen beyond a chance of recovery.

Naturally, having had Lord Placidus' vindictive and ungentlemanly character revealed to him in such a way, our hero was inclined to succumb to feelings of sadness and disgust; but then he realised, listening to both MacCunoval's words and his silences, that, taking into account the viscount's temper and flights of fancy, he was quite fortunate to not have had his murder, or some accident of grievous harm, commissioned instead; moreover, it appeared to be a true stroke of luck that of all criminal agents, Lord Placidus had chosen MacCunoval, who had performed his job in a bloodless and precise manner, and was so kind as to provide a satisfying explanation to this incident which had fanned the flames of Captain Flavius' curiosity; in short, the Captain chose to dwell on the positive developments surrounding the disappearance of the ring. We cannot help but remark that the abrupt turn from the morose to the cheery that the Captain's mood experienced was doubtless related to the fact that everything suggested that MacCunoval had performed the kiss of his own volition, which seemed like a good omen for things which the Captain had not yet begun to formulate in his overstimulated brain.

And so Captain Flavius took a deep calming breath and struggled to compose himself – being so focussed on this task, he completely overlooked the way MacCunoval's sharp eyes followed the rise and fall of his mighty chest – and spoke of the exchange which, in Miss Kaeso's words, MacCunoval might be willing to consider. Since MacCunoval had kept the ring instead of placing it in Lord Placidus' treacherous hands, and thus failed to receive the final portion of his payment, Captain Flavius dared to assume that a generous reward would prompt MacCunoval to give the ring back. (It is interesting that the thought of bringing the police into this matter or of forcing MacCunoval's hand hadn't even crossed dear Captain's mind.)

Watching Captain Flavius with an expression that reminded one of the assurance of a hungry wolf a heartbeat away from his dinner, MacCunoval said, 'The ring is a very fine one, Captain. Such lively beauty, yet there is nothing vulgar or showy about it. It speaks its heart to those who are able to appreciate its true merits.' MacCunoval pressed his emerald-adorned hand to his heart in an exaggerated gesture and spoke, a playful smile tugging at his lips, 'It is in my heart that I would sorrow greatly to be parted from it.'

Captain Flavius felt his mouth go dry, for the room was suddenly hot for no apparent reason, reminiscent of a certain stifling afternoon in Silchester. 'It sorrows me to be parted from it as well,' he said at last, seemingly unaware that he was stepping forth.

'How strange it is, that the happiness of one depends so thoroughly on the unhappiness of another,' MacCunoval drawled, giving the gem an idle stroke. 'I fear I would never wish to simply give it away. But, perhaps, a satisfying exchange could be proposed?'

At first, Captain Flavius was not sure how to decipher MacCunoval's meaning, for he had already suggested a reward, but as he made another somnambular step in the man's direction, and took in the inviting tilt of his head, which bared a sliver of MacCunoval's throat to the Captain's gaze, and the merry gleam in his eye, the pieces of the puzzle suddenly arranged themselves in his mind, and, overcome by ardour he had not yet learned to expect from himself, he walked the rest of the distance with the kind of speed that a man with two healthy legs would have envied, stood between MacCunoval's thighs, which had fallen open in a most licentious display, and kissed him with utmost fervour for several long minutes.

As they broke apart for breath and became aware of their roving hands having brought each other's clothing and hair in a state of disarray, Captain Flavius, finding himself too agitated to speak, clasped their hands and pressed his face in MacCunoval's bared neck, unwilling to face anything in the world but the tendrils of blue ink which peeked from under MacCunoval's open collar.

'Surely it is worth more than that,' MacCunoval said in a low murmur.

Realisation set Captain Flavius ablaze like a strike of lightning: were he to bargain for the ring with his caresses, he would inevitably render them cheap and vulgar, no matter how sincere they were, and there would never be any way to ascertain the genuineness of the passion the promise of which he had felt in the sweet headiness of their very first kiss; and so, reckless and emboldened by the warm press of MacCunoval's hand on the small of his back, he pulled back slightly and whispered in MacCunoval's ear:

'Keep the ring.'

Surprise, incredulity, and indignation flitted across MacCunoval's face in the split second before Captain Flavius reclaimed his mouth, and the vigour with which MacCunoval proceeded to mark the Captain's lips with his own teeth and tongue spoke as much of his willingness to enjoy the Captain's bountiful body as the strength of his grip on the Captain's arms and the speed with which MacCunoval's nimble fingers proceeded to divest the Captain of his clothes right there in the middle of Miss Kaeso's sitting-room; and so it was to the great satisfaction of both that they half-dragged, half-carried each other to the big rosewood armchair upholstered with green silk in order to map out each other's bodies with mouths and hands.

Afterwards, when they gathered their wits enough to suffer slight pangs of remorse for defiling the detective's furniture, Captain Flavius was still quite transported by blissful sensations even as MacCunoval twisted in his tight embrace and reached to pull out a long knife from his boot.

At this, the Captain's face expressed the liveliest emotions of astonishment and alarm; MacCunoval smirked and handed him the knife, handle-first, allowing the Captain to appreciate the intricate design of bulging curves, like flowing water, and the supreme quality of the blade. It was impossible to overlook the subtle intimacy of the gesture, particularly when MacCunoval said that the knife had been his father's, and that he would like it if the Captain accepted it, since MacCunoval himself was to keep the Captain's ring. Captain Flavius struggled to keep from letting his tongue wet his lips as he reached for the knife, and MacCunoval's mouth stretched into a handsome, open smile that warmed Captain Flavius' heart better than the most joyous rays of sunshine.

And so it was with this unlikely exchange of tokens that the Captain and the Prince of Swindlers considered themselves bonded as surely as if they had eloped to Gretna Green on the spur of the moment, and henceforth continued to relish every minute of discovering each other's character and inclinations, growing more and more fond of each other with each passing day.

VII

Our story now comes to an end, and we must spare a few words on the further developments in the lives of our hero, the sleight-of-hand trickster who so thoroughly captured his heart, only to relinquish his own in return, as well as the other persons of their acquaintance who have been mentioned in this account.

To the glee of Lord Aquila, Stephanos was able to report that young master Marcus was spending his time in London in excellent spirits, and had even taken to whistling songs on the way between the Club and the lodgings of a new gentleman friend he seemed to have acquired. Indeed, Captain Flavius and MacCunoval wasted no time in discovering that there was a great deal of things for which they shared an interest, from hunting to farming to travelling to military strategy, and they even conversed about these things whenever they could bear to not have their mouths otherwise occupied for a brief moment. Eventually, mutual concessions were made, for Captain Flavius worried – exceedingly, in MacCunoval's opinion – about the dangers his beloved's brazen unlawful activity exposed him to, and MacCunoval worried – in perfect unison with Lord Aquila, who found this to be yet another admirable trait in his nephew's insightful, if somewhat eccentric companion – about the Captain's penchant for unhealthy reclusiveness; and so the two came to wind their lives so tightly around each other that one would hardly find two hearts so well-suited and steadfast, and two minds so ardent and alike, in all of England.

For a while, Lord Placidus kept holding onto his grudge and refused to let go of the idea of causing Captain Flavius some kind of unpleasantness, even going as far as to seek the assistance of other people of ill repute in order to sniff out something scandalous. He had no way of knowing, however, that MacCunoval had issued a firm order that no man might assist Lord Placidus in his nefarious endeavours, and, having had his offers of crisp bank notes in exchange for some nasty gossip or an unfortunate accident befalling Captain Flavius repeatedly rejected, he eventually abandoned this pursuit. One might say that MacCunoval had performed a great act of kindness, because for all his apparent viciousness and dark moods, Lord Placidus was hardly more than a spoiled child starved for attention, and any ties to the criminal world he might have established would have surely caused him more harm than good, incapable of sound judgement as he was. When some time later, at MacCunoval's urging, Captain Flavius saw fit to renew his acquaintance with Lord Placidus, the viscount was quite beside himself with joy; and though he had no way of knowing how instrumental he had been in the Captain's eventual happiness, he prided himself in being on friendly terms with such a distinguished man, the enmity completely erased from his fickle mind by a few pleasant conversations. Lord Placidus married, and from time to time even remembered his duty to the Parliament and his wife; he led a remarkably boring life interspersed with an occasional boar hunt, and was quite happy.

Miss Kaeso continued to excel as a sleuth; her network of clients kept growing, and she unravelled the knot of many a mysterious affair. It was one such affair that caused her services to be recommended to a man who went by the name of Guern, and happened to be an erstwhile acquaintance of Captain Flavius' father. They discovered a great affinity for each other, despite the difference in age and place of residence, for Guern lived in the Scottish countryside, and Miss Kaeso in London; and although the two chose to maintain an independent lifestyle and income, their mutually satisfying relationship lasted for quite some time after the case was closed.

As regards Lieutenant Hilarion, or rather, Captain Hilarion, for he soon succeeded in advancing his career, he dutifully continued to support the children whom he was proven to have fathered in Dorchester; however, a suitable number of years having passed, the two children whom he hadn't sired conveniently married the two he had, and so he ended up supporting all of them eventually: a circumstance which amused the four mothers greatly, as they never tired of reminding him.

When his uncle passed away, peacefully and in very old age, Captain Flavius – or rather, Lord Aquila, as we shall call him now – finally heeded the gentle reminders of MacCunoval concerning the business of an heir; and when Miss Kaeso found the next Flavius in line, who happened to be a boy of five, Lord Aquila took him as his ward and gave his widowed mother a charming cottage nearby. It quickly became apparent that although his tender companionship with MacCunoval had completely supplanted whatever vague desire for a wife the new Lord Aquila might have had, his parental instincts were not similarly affected, and indeed had taken a turn for the extreme, for he immediately proceeded to spoil the child rotten with a determination and single-mindedness worthy of an ox; luckily, MacCunoval was always there to exercise his dreadful influence on the boy, both with a friendly lecture and personal example, so that he grew up to be quick-witted and perhaps exceedingly sharp-tongued, indifferent to gambling despite having a natural talent honed by practice, well-versed in the subtleties of etiquette and political intrigue, with a keen mind and capable hands (which he applied, with equal success, to keeping the accounts of the estate, fixing hedges of elderly tenants, and coming up with ingenious explosives in his private laboratory), and as humble and affectionate as a son blessed not with one but with two caring fathers should be – all in all, a most worthy young gentleman.