|Sleuth Prologue: Sherlock Holmes
Author: Guede Mazaka
"Will?" Cautiously descending into the gloom, Elizabeth held the flashlight out before her like a spear. "Will? Are you down-gyaaah!"
"Shit-hey, hey! It's me!" Frantically ducking, Will jumped back into the shadows. "Christ, Liz. You almost crushed my skull in."
"Sorr-wait," she caught herself, eyes narrowing suspiciously as Elizabeth pointed the light directly at Will. "What are you doing here, anyway? Everyone else's topside."
"Singing. And singing," Will muttered, slouching against the side of the staircase. "Yo ho ho hoohah. Pirates and eggnog don't mix very well. Especially not when Santa costumes are involved."
"Oh, come on." Rolling her eyes, Elizabeth leaned over the railing and grabbed Will's arm, swinging him around onto the steps. "It's a good song. And don't tell me you weren't staring at Jack in those pointy shoes."
Despite himself, Will grinned slightly. "Bells in entirely inappropriate places. I don't think James is ever going to recover."
"Nope," she smirked back. "Hasn't yet, at any rate. Bet you five he can't walk past one of those shopping mall elves without blushing." Tugging her companion upwards, Elizabeth added, "You don't look so bad yourself, you know. Nice legs-" glancing demurely down "-Very nice…tights."
Smile widening Cheshire-like, Will suddenly moved forward, trapping Elizabeth against the rail. He slid a warm hand up one beveled thigh, fingers leisurely feeling along the white fishnets. "I'm rather partial to your skirt," he murmured, voice deep, into her ear. Nuzzling along the shell, he let just the edge of his tongue touch the delicate skin, as gently as his fingertips were edging up between her legs. "Mrs. Claus never had it so good."
In response, Elizabeth twisted with the ship's roll and caught those teasing lips in a breathless kiss. They twined closer about each other, swaying with the Pearl's bobbing, hands slipping beneath frail cloth barriers.
"'lizabeth, have you-Good Lord."
Hastily breaking apart, the couple on the staircase just managed to snag the staggering, flush-faced Brit before he took a nasty tumble down into the hold. "Christ, he's heavy," Will grunted, trying to trap James' flailing arm. "And he reeks. Anamaria?"
"Don' be blamin' moi," came a defensive reply from above. "I only put half o' th'rum in th'punch, an' none o' th'bourbon in th'eggnog."
"Jaime, Jaime," Jack tutted as he came into view, peering through the entrance. "'pon m'honor, y're gettin' worse'n Will-"
"-Time was, you MI6 boys could hold y'liquor an' take it, too," Jack continued, reaching down a hand to help pull the sloshed Norrington back onto the deck. "An' Will, y'father would be rollin' in 'is grave, knowin' y're duckin' out o' a proper party like this. C'mon! A good victory like tonight's always got t'have its head wetted!"
"Wrong saya-saying," James replied blearily, blinking owlishly at the two people holding him. "Head-wettin's for Baptists-batting-births."
"So that's your idea of a 'victory'?" Will asked sardonically as he, Elizabeth and Norrington finally emerged from the hold. He shifted James' weight over to one arm so he could sweep the other towards the huge pile of crates by the main mast. "Jack, we sailed into a cartel wharf pretending to be a group of lost Christmas entertainers, asked the warehouse guards for directions, and then steamrolled the place for the rum and drugs when they laughed at us. And today's the 18th, not the 24th."
"You left out the Veracruz Cocaine Party," Elizabeth interjected, nudging James onto Will. "All that powder floating on the water…looked exactly like icing, didn't it?"
"Right. That too," Will acknowledged, setting James on his own feet and carefully letting go of the other man, as if balancing playing cards on top of each other. The other Brit promptly buckled and fell to the planks; giving up, Will shrugged and turned back to an innocent-faced Jack. "And I don't even want to know how we got working cannons alongside the rocket launchers. Those definitely weren't included in the plans I made."
"An' very, very fine plans they were. Fine chemist Lizzie is, too, with th'fireworks an' gunpowder an' all," Jack said cheerfully, waving about his rum bottle for extra emphasis. He clapped a hand on the other man's shoulder, suddenly serious. "Best gift I ever got, Will. Truly."
"Hey, now," Anamaria interrupted, tapping a foot as she crossed her arms over her chest. Whirling around, Jack sketched a quick bow. "An' you too, o' course," he amended hurriedly. "Anamaria, I do love y'dearly, but y'd throttle me wi' m'own hair if I ever thanked y'like so-" And he spun on one heel, his rum spilling out of the bottle as Jack seized Will about the waist and bent him back in a movie-star clinch.
Whooping and catcalling, the rest of the crew watched appreciatively as Will's struggles almost immediately ceased, his arms wrapping around Jack for balance as the kiss went on, and on, and-
Jingle. Jingle. Jinglejinglejingle.
Pulling away from each other, Will and Jack stared down to find a woozy-eyed James at their feet, batting at the strategically-placed bells on their costumes. Elizabeth stifled her giggles in Anamaria's breast, one hand sneaking down to caress a nicely-plump buttock.
"Ah, Captain?" Gibbs raised a hand. "I can see t'things out here, if you an' Anamaria'd be in the mood t'retire now. Swear on all that's holy, we'll treat th'Pearl rightly."
"Might be a good idea," Jack muttered in a considering tone, eyebrow arching as he watched James begin to crawl up a blushing Will's leg. He scanned over the assorted men and women scattered over the deck, gaze steely as a guillotine blade. "An' I'll be holdin' all o' you t'that promise. Savvy?" he warned, reluctantly starting in the direction of the captain's cabin. As the ship's timbers creaked in agreement, the rest of the crew nodded frantically while Jack, Will and James scooted off.
Snorting, Anamaria took a long draught of her eggnog, then favored Elizabeth with a thoughtful look. "You be joinin' or stayin', fille?"
"Staying, for now," the other woman answered, snatching a glass from a passing tray. "I don't feel like lying down yet." She met Anamaria's gaze squarely. "Though I think I'll wake up with Will tomorrow."
The older woman nodded. "'s fair enough. But seein' as I've got you now…" Anamaria tossed her empty glass to Cotton, then seized Elizabeth's hand and swirled the both of them into the riotous dancing.
"Oh, my God." Groaning, Elizabeth tried to burrow away from the nasty sunbeams that were playing canastas over her aching head. "What the hell did I-" she smacked into unidentifiable flesh. "-we do," she corrected, cracking an eye open.
The limbs in front of her face were still unclassifiable. Rubbing the crusts out of her eyes, Elizabeth put on a determined expression. Maybe it couldn't cure the common hangover, but the scientific method had to be good for something. She pushed blankets out of the way-hey, they'd made it to the bed for once-and took stock.
On closer inspection, the obstacle proved to be the proverbial arm and leg. Male. The arm was deeply tanned under its sprinkling of wiry black hair, with large snaking scars along the veins of the fore part. Occasionally interrupted with a curious tattoo-obviously Jack. The leg took a little longer to recognize, given that Elizabeth's bedmates included two baby-skinned hunks of manmeat. Really, it was ridiculous how much work she had to put into her skin care routine, when the guys didn't even bother with sunscreen. Though Will did have his fair share of marks from soldering burns and fighting. This particular leg only had a faint gunshot scar, and a few white lines that had probably been lacerations…Jaime, then.
"Good morning," sang out an entirely-too-pleasant voice from the cabin's entrance. Undaunted by the various projectiles that answered him, Will simply yanked the door shut, waited till the crashes stopped, and then positioned himself to one side of the entrance and cautiously prodded the door open with one foot. He edged the gently-steaming coffeepot he held into the cabin, letting the scent of its roasted goodness fill the room.
A split second later, the door was flung open and three hands hauled Will in. "William Turner, I absolutely, without a shade of a doubt, love you," Elizabeth tossed off absently, managing to get the first cup of black heaven. "You and Anamaria, for such wonderful, wonderful…"
"Indescribably good coffee," James added, snagging the pot next as he massaged one temple. Jack didn't bother talking, or trying for the java; he went for the source and shoved Will up against the wall, licking the traces of caffeine from the other man's mouth. Then a thought twisted his mind, and he backed off, eyeing Will suspiciously. "Now, why'd you be so lively? Y've got a worse head for rum'n the lot o' us."
"Which, logically, means that either one," the younger man lifted a finger, "I know a trick you don't, or two," another finger, "I didn't drink last night. As there seems to be only one reasonable conclusion-"
"Y've been keepin' secrets again," Jack accused, poking Will in the chest. "Knew it. 's always th'innocent an' th'honest y've got t'watch for." And then something thumped outside, and the older man reeled back, clutching his head.
A long-suffering expression settling onto his face, Will curled an arm around Jack's waist and dragged them both down onto a nearby chair. "No," the younger man muttered. "Every time someone handed me a glass, I gave it to you. And by the way, that would also explain why you for once are among the hung-over…though that does not explain why I always end up on your lap. Jack, I was holding you up. How did you-mmmm."
James really could kiss like the devil when he was riled enough, fluttered through Will's melting brain. When the warm, sly lips began to draw away, he whimpered and tried to follow, but was restrained by Jack's arms. Still keeping a hand in Turner's hair, James pinned the other Brit with an implacable look, now slightly less red-rimmed after two cups of java. "Will," he said steadily, "Stop speaking. It makes the headache throb."
"Yes, sir," Will answered meekly. "Right away, sir."
"Excellent." Releasing the other man, Norrington leaned back, his usual ramrod posture completely bent out of shape. He took a deep draft of coffee, then set his mug very slowly and carefully down on a side-table, so it wouldn't clatter. "As unfit as I currently am for anything resembling rational thought, I suppose I should ask. Who is steering? And whence would be our destination?"
"Anamaria," Jack and Elizabeth chorused. Finger-combing her tangled waves, Elizabeth clarified, "She cut herself off after the first seven rounds, when Gibbs started mumbling about pigs and passed out."
"New Orleans," Will interjected warily, watching Norrington for any more instances of self-assertion. "We're spending Christmas and Mardi Gras with Anamaria's people, since we did Thanksgiving in Barbados, and we're doing New Year's…somewhere else that Jack hasn't decided on yet."
"Ah." Staring idly at the floor, James spotted a familiar shape bumping up under a bedsheet. Clamping down on his moans, he bent over and retrieved his cell phone, then checked his messages. "Damn. A situation came up."
"I'll go get some aspirin and water," Will started to excuse himself, wriggling free of Jack's grip. However, James held up a palm and said, "Wait a moment." He pressed a few buttons on the cell. "Actually, it would seem that we may need to borrow your expertise, Will. Gillette crashed the office network." Belatedly, James' face grew apologetic and faintly pleading. "If it wouldn't be too much of an inconvenience for anyone…"
"Probably not," Will replied, then caught Elizabeth's disappointed face in the corner of his vision. He quickly elaborated, "Only took me a few days last time, and that's when I was still learning your system. I can't say for certain without knowing more details, but we'll still make the Christmas party."
"You'd better," Elizabeth warned, eyes dangerously stormy. Beside her, Jack nodded empathetically in agreement. Their combined pout would have brought stronger men to their knees. Not really understanding why, Will and James abruptly found themselves spouting rapid reassurances, nearly begging.
"Well, I s'pose," Jack said at last, tone still unenthusiastic. "But a late man's a dead man. Savvy?"
"Yes. Definitely." Will edged toward the door, and slipped his fingers over the knob. "I should go check on Anamaria. She was kind of grumpy earlier." Not daring to look back, he dodged out onto the deck.
Left without a similar escape, James had to settle for groping around on the floor for his clothing. "I'll have to call Groves and let him know…when would we be returning?"
Jack rocked a hand in the air, then did a few swirls with his fingers. "You an' Will can catch a plane t'Miami when we put th'Pearl into dock. A day and a half, mebbe." He nudged Elizabeth and pointed at the lovely ass waving in their direction. Slanting a look back, she nodded and got up, giving James a strategic kick as she squeezed by him to close the door. He stumbled backwards into Jack's waiting arms. "How fast do MI6 men have to be able to dress?" Elizabeth asked archly, dropping to her knees in front of James.
Whatever his answer would have been, it was lost to the kiss that came next.
Brow furrowing, Will tapped at the keyboard, then fell back into his chair, growling at the scrolling data. He flicked his fingers at the numbers. "You, and you, and you-not where I left you. Not even where the manufacturer left you, damn it."
Burdened with a stack of files and two mugs of coffee, James slowly wedged himself into the office, gingerly stepping about the various piles of documents that already littered the floor. He reached Will's desk five minutes later. Smiling sourly, the other man rose to help relieve him of his encumbrances. "You have no idea," Will muttered, taking half the files from James. "Are you sure you haven't been doing anything complex lately? Nothing that would require a lot of memory, a lot of programs running at the same time?"
"No. I told you-" James slotted the remaining papers into one of the few open spaces on the desk "-we recently wrapped up quite a few operations, so it's been a bit slow."
"Really sure?" Will pressed suspiciously. Swiping a hand across his forehead, James battened down his irritation, and replied rather coldly, "Yes."
Still disbelieving, the younger man sunk back down on the chair. "Look, I know you work for Britain and I'm technically classified as American and fuck all, but you don't have to give me any details. You just have to say yes or no. I can't fix this if I don't know at least the general outline of what was going on before everything crashed."
"And as I have said repeatedly," James almost hissed, "I am not deceiving you in any part of this problem." He took a deep breath. "I resent your unfounded implications, Turner."
"So it's Turner now?" Will snapped, kicking back from the desk. "That wasn't what you were screaming last night."
Glancing back to the slightly-ajar door, James visibly relaxed when he detected no one in earshot. Then he turned back to the seated man, leaning over and putting both hands on the chair's armrests so their faces were mere shadows apart. "I realize that it is not always easy to see the line between personal and business matters in our interactions, but I would have thought that you were wise enough to understand that there is such a demarcation. William."
"Well, I realize that I'm wet behind the ears when it comes to this intelligence shit, but I would have thought my worth needed no proving at this time," Will retorted sharply, suddenly twisting the chair so James was nearly slung into the wall. Slipping past the other man, Will was out of the room and halfway out of the offices before James could right himself.
Swearing under his breath, Norrington yanked himself upward and quickstepped after the younger man. He skidded into the hallway just in time to see the elevator doors shutting. "Will! Will-damn it," he snarled, hitting the steel once, open-palmed, before stepping back from the elevator.
"Sir?" came Groves' tentative voice. "Are you-is there anything I can attend to?"
"No," James said curtly, glaring at his reddening hand. Cutting off the sigh in his throat, he composed himself, then spun on one heel. "No. Mr. Turner's taking a short break," he explained. "Return to your duties."
"Yes, sir," Groves replied deferentially, but not firmly. Nonetheless, he and the other people in the office recommenced their activities, and so James chose to ignore the whispering. He forced himself to check up on a few matters, and then ducked back into his office and locked the door. Purposefully not looking at the still-beeping computer in one corner, he flipped out his cell and hit speeddial.
A small, pleased smile on her face, Elizabeth smoothed her hands over the age-worn metal, following every fanciful curve and twirl. She sniffed, delightedly smelling the rich bouquet of baking confectionaries and fresh-broken cypress and liquor. "My God. I think I've fallen in love."
"List o' that's gettin' a bit long, Lizzie," Jack rumbled from beside her. Slouching against the balcony's ironwork, he offered her a warm beignet, already munching on one of her own. "Though I'd be th'first to admit, she's a lovely fine lady o' a dwellin'."
"I'm never going understand how you and James and Anamaria end up with such great accessories," she replied, taking the bit of food and removing a generous portion of its golden-brown crust from it. "The private dock for the Pearl, the penthouses and gourmet restaurants, this house…and don't tell me. I'm sure I don't want to know."
Uttering a noise like an offended kitten, Jack swayed forward and grabbed her arm. "We're not all as bad as the movies, m'dear. You should know."
"Huh?" Elizabeth gazed back, puzzled, for some moments before she understood. "Oh-no, no no. I don't mean that you got it like…like Barbossa would've. Bloody and nasty and everything. I just meant, it's amazing that you manage to be so-so public and out there and come on, you've got entire bloody operas written about you, and yet, nobody quite seems to put everything together and figure out you're CIA."
"All a matter of perception, if I do say m'self," Jack answered, apparently mollified. "If one doesn' want t'see, then gen'rally, one doesn'. Even if it's a whole clown's weddin' goin' by. Reminds me-"
"And that's what I was really talking about," she interrupted. "Jack, you're good. Truly. You don't need to feed me the legend; I believe you because it's you."
Blinking, he began to speak, then shut his mouth, tilting his head in to peer at the whites of Elizabeth's eyes. "That's very kind of you. Very…kind."
"You'll believe me sooner or later," Elizabeth snorted, leaning onto the rail. After a second, Jack patted her awkwardly on the back. "Nobody wants t'hear th'stories," he said mournfully. "Ev'ry time I try, Will just hits me wi' th'nearest cushion. It's hard on a man, considerin' all th'time an' effort that goes into 'em."
Elizabeth didn't respond with anything except a shrewd, sardonic glance. Slowly, the corners of Jack's mouth inched upwards. She returned her gaze to the street, watching the tourists walking the French Quarter streets. "So…is there really any truth to any of the stories?"
Cloth rustled, and Jack's right forearm, bare to the elbow, inserted itself into Elizabeth's view. She took in the blue sun-and-sparrow tattoo and the burn-scar 'P' with a sigh. "I see."
"Operas?" Jack queried hopefully.
Shaking her head, she finished off the rest of her beignet, licking the powdered sugar from her fingers. "Okay, no operas. Maybe a musical." Elizabeth cocked a smile Jack's way, and got one in return. Then they both startled as a shrill ring cut the mood.
"'s mine," Jack mumbled, producing said cell. And then he got a good look at it, and his eyebrow jumped. "Or not. What's Will's phone doin' in m'pocket?"
"Everything was pretty mixed up when we were celebrating the raid-"
"-the liberation," Jack corrected. "Criminal, really, letting good rum just waste away in a dank prison like that." He clicked the phone open and put it to his ear. "'lo, Jaime. Why'd you be callin' Will?" Jack's mouth instantly twisted ironically, and he rolled his body, slumping against some of the latticework. "Oh. Well, seems th'cells got confused, what wi' th'rum an' all…what'd you say…and what'd he say…oh. Oh. Not good. An' did he say anythin' else? Ah. Give me a second, Jaime." He put his hand over the phone and asked Elizabeth, "Whose cell do you have?"
"Um…" she slid it out. "Mine. And Anamaria never came into the cabin, so she has to still have her own. So Will definitely has yours. Why? What happened?"
Jack lifted his other hand in a 'wait' gesture and uncovered his phone. "Jaime? 'kay, Will's got mine. Listen, would y'be wantin' me t'call, seein' as he's not too happy-you sure? Would be no problem at all; we're all just waitin' for you an' him t'get back so's we can get to th'present unwrappin'. Of th'presents that aren' m'presents, as I've got 'em already. Oh, well-all right, all right. And Jaime-merry Christmas. Yeah. I know."
Regarding the cell oddly, Jack shut it and secreted it somewhere in his clothing. He attempted to sashay off, but Elizabeth's eyes bored a response out of him. "Will's just a bit frustrated, an' Jaime's not too skillful at handlin' aggravation," Jack sighed. "They'll work it out."
"Good." She looked pensive. "You think it would help if we-"
"That'd be a no, Lizzie," Jack cautioned, swinging back. "Never helps. Trust me."
Shrugging, Elizabeth nodded. "Okay." Jack stared at her for quite a while before he finally went into the house.
Somewhere in the very farthest recesses of Will's mind, he was already planning his apology. But the majority of him was still absolutely furious as he ducked into the Tortuga.
Pasting a happy expression on his face, Will turned to meet Scarlet's enthusiastic embrace. "O'Hara! You look…" glance at the yards of red and green lace "…magnificent. Really."
"Oh, you. I told you not to call me that." Whapping him playfully, the proprietor of the popular Miami bar/nightclub held Will back at arms-length, her warm smile gradually fading as she studied him. "What's wrong, honey?"
Blank and innocent, Will thought hurriedly, blank and innocent. "Nothing."
"Problems with your lovely girl?" Scarlet questioned, searching his eyes. Her look turned canny. "Oh, dear. It's the boys, isn't it?"
"I-" A muffled slurring chime came from Will's pocket. "What-my cell doesn't have 'A Pirate's Life.' Why do I have Jack's?" he muttered, digging it out and flipping it open. "Ah, Scarlet, sorry to do this to you, but-"
"That's all right, darlin'," she replied forgivingly, twitching her skirts flirtatiously as she moved out of the room. "I understand completely. I'll be in the livin' quarters with some nice martinis, if you're at all int'rested."
"Thanks!" Will called after her, and then turned back to the phone. "Look, James-"
*It's Groves, actually,* a different voice interrupted. "We just located an operative who didn't check in this morning, and Commo--I mean, Mr. Norrington-is seeing him to the doctor's."
Will blinked, then plunked himself down on a barstool. "Okay. So why are you calling Jack's phone?"
*Mr. Norrington called me and asked me to ring you at this number,* answered Groves. *The problem is, the operative that's injured had recently sent us a rather large amount of encoded data, which hasn't been processed yet--*
"Because your computers are down," Will finished, rubbing his temples. "And you'd like to know when I'll be back."
*From your short break. Ah…yes.* The other man sounded distinctly ill at ease. Within Will's stomach, the knot of regret was beginning to complain. Loudly. "Sorry about that," he said to the cell. "Stare into the dark abyss of digital too long, and you go a little crazy. I'm at the Tortuga, and I'll be right back, as soon as I have a quick drink with Scarlet."
*Sounds fine,* Groves replied. *We're all breaking for lunch till one, anyway. See you then?*
"Yeah. See you." Will pressed 'End' and stuck the phone back into his pocket, already chewing on the computer anomalies as he climbed the backstairs. "Scarlet?" he called absentmindedly. "Just got a call. One short drink and a sandwich, and then I've got to go."
"Fille!" A wooden spoon followed the indignant cry, and Elizabeth jerked her hand away with a hiss. "Ow! That hurt," she protested.
Anamaria was having none of it. "Told Jack, an' I'm tellin' you. No sneaking o' th'cookie dough. An' that goes for th'rest o' you, too."
"Oui, Tante," sighed a mass of tousled brown and black heads. One of Anamaria's many sisters ushered the assorted boys and girls out of the packed, bubbling kitchen, while her others didn't even bother looking up, but instead placidly continued to stir, sprinkle, sauté…
Someone tugged at Elizabeth's shirt, and she looked down to find a horde of wide-eyed children staring up at her.
"Y've got pretty hair, mam'selle. Is it really blonde?"
"Can we play wi' it, s'il vous plait?"
Swallowing hard as she regarded the veritable sea of cuteness, Elizabeth stalled. "Ah…"
"Lizzie?" Like manna from heaven, Jack walked through the doorway. Elizabeth beamed and started pushing kids his way. "Say hello to uncle Jack," she cooed.
Not that they needed much encouragement in that direction, considering his headscarf and beaded braids and overall resemblance to a sloshed Christmas tree. Winking as Jack's outraged face disappeared under the engulfing wave of children, Elizabeth made a quick escape down a side hall.
When she finally dared stop, she found herself outside a small, dusty bedroom. "Odd," Elizabeth mumbled to herself as she stooped through the time-warped entrance. "Thought Anamaria said the house was completely full."
And it really was a charming little chamber, in spite of the cobwebs and poor lighting. Yellowing curtains of antique lace shadowed the windows and formed the canopy of the bed, which was made up perfectly with embroidered pillows and comforter of silk and fine linen. The floors creaked as Elizabeth made her way further inside, exclaiming gleefully over the various small details: a tiny red bird painted into the exuberant wallpaper foliage, a pearl-handled comb, a cameo-topped snuff box. She slowly made her way around the bed, and had almost reached the other side when something flickered on the edge of her vision.
Frowning, Elizabeth eased back towards the door. She shifted so she could look directly at the bed, craning her head to try and make out what lay beyond the curtaining.
Candle flames? But it was odd that they were so close together, like they'd been paired…and why on earth would there be candles on the mattress?
A cold gust suddenly rattled the windowpanes and rustled the curtains-only that wasn't-"Oh my God!"
Literally leaping backward, Elizabeth tumbled out of the room and skidded into the opposite wall, wide-eyed stare locked to the bed inside. That--it--raised a hand-
"Ahhhhh!" she screamed, twisting to scrabble frantically away. "Will! God, Jack-Ana-anyone-" something grabbed her "--gyaah! No, no, let go-let-"
"Calm, girl. 's okay, she can't come out. Sssh…breathe in, breathe out. That's good; just like that." The voice was deep and rich and faintly recognizable, and it somehow persuaded Elizabeth to go limp. "Oh, Christ," she gasped.
"Fille? What's wrong-oh, merde. Jean, y'got her?"
"Oui. 's all right; I don't think she was in more'n a few minutes," replied a man Elizabeth now recalled was married to one of Anamaria's sisters. Chantal, perhaps. Or it might have been Terèse. Lifting her head from his shoulder, Elizabeth saw Jack and Anamaria coming up the corridor, looking worried as anything. She blushed, abruptly embarrassed, and eased herself out of Jean's grip, shakily standing. "Yeah, I'm fine. Was probably just the tree branches casting a shadow, or something."
"Liz? The sun's almost set. And there's no tree on that side of the house," Jack said hesitantly, fluttering his hands over her. "Sure you're unhurt? Will would turn the whole team into eunuchs if he came back to find a hair on your head out of place."
"Very sure," she replied, though she still allowed Anamaria to draw her into a close embrace. "Just…what the hell was that?"
Over Elizabeth's head, Jean slanted a look at Anamaria, who glowered at Jack, who in his turn shrugged and glanced back at Jean. Who then turned toward-
"Oh, honestly. Out with it," Elizabeth demanded, pivoting in the older woman's arms to snuggle her back to Anamaria's chest. "If I didn't know better, I'd say I'd just seen a very pissed-off ghost. But they don't exist, so-" she caught Anamaria's sudden hitch, and looked over incredulously. "You are not saying that. You are not."
"It's a long story, fille," the other woman finally replied in a resigned tone. "But first, we need t'know how'd you get into that room in th'first place. It's always s'posed t'be locked."
"It was," Jean mumbled, casting a dark look down the hallway. A little swirl of dust whirled out of the open doorway, almost mockingly. "I checked this morning, 'fore ev'ryone started comin'."
Seeing the mule creeping into Elizabeth, Jack held up a hand and flopped it around. "Mebbe we should move this downstairs," he suggested. "Get Lizzie warmed up wi' a bit o' mulled wine, tell her th'story an' let her decide."
Brother and sister did a little more wordless communication, and then nodded. "I'd best be seein' to th'lock," Jean said, moving off. "Be waitin' for dinner, chaton."
"Con," Anamaria retorted jokingly. "Just for that, you ain't gettin' seconds. The loa an' God knows, y'eat like there's no bottom to y'stomach." Slipping an arm down to the younger woman's waist, she and Jack ushered an increasingly curious Elizabeth towards the first floor.
Torn between cursing and groaning, Will settled for banging his head a few times against the desk top. His vision was beginning to waver when someone coughed politely in the background. Returning himself to a sitting position, Will fought down the flush in his cheeks and attempted to exude professionalism as he asked Groves, "Yes?"
"Most of the office staff is going home now, and I was just wondering how matters were progressing," the other man said uncertainly, clearly wondering if Turner was swan-diving off the deep end.
"Wonderful," Will answered irately, sending a glare towards the computer in front of him. "I've just found the problem."
"Really?" Groves was briefly ecstatic. "Shouldn't you be happy, then?" he queried, noting Will's annoyance.
"What? Yeah, I'm thrilled-now that I know what's broken, I can probably get it fixed in a day, day and a half, so everyone can take off for the holidays on time." Will flicked off the glowing monitor. "It's just…so incredibly, blindingly obvious. Bloody elementary, really. And it took me, the expert, the whole damned day to figure that out."
"Yes, well…I suppose it's best to leave you to work in peace." Groves shuffled in place for a moment, and then turned to leave. Will glanced over, then looked again. "Hey, Theodore?"
"Hm?" The other man paused in the doorway.
"When's James coming back?"
Groves thought, then checked his handful of papers. "He called fifteen minutes ago to let us know the operative is recovering, and then mentioned something about…ah...having a dinner date. Several dates, actually." Apparently the tasteful tie around his neck was strangling the other man. "Only they're less like dates and more of a-"
"Business-related thing?" Will finished. "Yeah, I get it. Thanks."
"No, thank you." From somewhere deep inside him, Groves mustered a sincere grin. "I was afraid I wouldn't make my flight to London. For the third year running."
Will winced in sympathy. "Know what you mean. Anamaria's going to gut us like catfish if we miss her Christmas dinner."
"I didn't know she was so passionate about cooking," Groves said, bemused.
"Neither did I." Shifting back to the computer, Will waved over one shoulder. "Luck to you, Groves. See you in the morning."
"Likewise, Will," the other man replied, carefully shutting the office door behind him as he departed.
"Tale goes like so," Anamaria said, sipping her spiced cider. "M'famille's descended from Jean Lafitte an' one o' his mulatto mistresses. Y'know his story?"
"Great Louisianan pirate, fought like hell, had the usual treasure trove, helped Andrew Jackson defeat the Brits at New Orleans during the War of 1812," Elizabeth recited, like an earnest schoolboy.
"Think she knows more'n us 'bout th'man," Jack observed, impressed. Looking at the younger woman with a little more respect, Anamaria went on, "This house used t'be one o' his favorite haunts, an' later, its title came into the…whiter side o' th'famille. That room you were in; it's done in th'old style, just like its last owner liked it. Her name was Margaret Baskerville, but ev'ryone called her Countess, 'cause her mother claimed some 'ristocrat blood from England."
"And she's the ghost?" Elizabeth asked skeptically, more sure of herself now that they were down in the warmth and bustle of the house's main part.
"I'm gettin' there, fille. Attendez." Anamaria leaned over the back of the sofa to bark out some order at the kitchen, then pressed up against Elizabeth again. "Anyways, th'Countess by all accounts was beautiful, but had her nose higher in th'air than a church steeple. She turned down ev'ry suitor-and there was some money backin' her, so you'd best believe the men dogged her feet-till she got t'her late thirties, an' by then, she wasn' lookin' so good. But she met this artist."
"Poorer than dirt, but not half-bad," Jack added. "Some o' his stuff's hangin' in a bar nearby."
"Now he just saw the gold," the older woman muttered disapprovingly. "But she-Margaret fell in love. All th'way down to th'cellar, fille. They had a grand time o' it, and then like usual, th'salaud dropped her. Went after fresher prey."
"Jerk," Elizabeth sniffed, and both women unconsciously scowled at Jack, who raised protesting hands. "Hey, now," he objected. "Y'know I'm faithful to m'own. Just ask th'Pearl. Or Will and Jaime."
Ducking her head, Elizabeth blushed. "Sorry, Jack. Not really in a position to criticize, am I?"
Anamaria just rolled her eyes, and ran a finger over Elizabeth's shoulder. "Countess didn' take matters too well," the older woman continued. "She wrote a long letter to th'artist, then hung herself in that very bedroom upstairs. An' wi' all th'racket th'next mornin', when they found her, th'letter somehow got lost, so no one knows just what it said. Rumor says th'artist actually did send flowers to th'funeral, but he went right on wi' his new dove. An' then, a year to th'day after Margaret's suicide, neighbors o' th'artist heard weird noises an' broke into his apartment. Found him an' his girl dead. Suffocated; they had t'pull half th'bedsheets out o' th'bodies' throats."
Though the room was well-heated, and Elizabeth had had two mugs of hot mulled wine poured into her, she suddenly shivered.
"Margaret's père hushed things up, so we don' know when exactly it all happened," Anamaria said, "But it was 'round Christmas. An' ever since then, no one's ever managed t'spend a night in that bedroom. Usually, it's pretty quiet, so we just keep it locked an' warn th'children t'stay away, but near th'holidays, things get-int'resting. It's actually worse if th'house is empty then, so we always throw our Christmas parties here, t'ward off anythin'."
"You haven't tried to figure out how to stop it?" Elizabeth asked, forehead wrinkling. "Maybe there's lead in the walls from old paint, or something else that's leaking out and causing hallucinations?"
"Yeah, we have," the other woman shrugged. "An' priests, an' other things. No scientific explanation-well, none that's not less farfetched than spirits. Anger's a powerful thing, fille." And with that line, Anamaria kissed Elizabeth's cheek and got up, striding off toward the kitchen.
Looking over the sofa after her, the younger woman hmphed. "You believe in ghosts?" she asked Jack.
"Can' say either way," he replied. "Never good t'dismiss somethin'. Y'never know when y'might be needin' it."
"I spent two hours of a Christmas Eve in that room," he said abruptly, tone somber. "Just long enough t'win th'bet, an' then I was out. An' I haven't been back in since."
"Well, now's as good a time as any," Elizabeth declared, grabbing Jack's arm and dragging them both in the direction of their appointed rooms. "Come on. We've got nothing else to do, and I did bring some of my equipment."
"Hey-wait." Jack dug his heels into the floor and yanked them to a stop. "Lizzie. There's some things that y'can work wi', and some y'can't."
"And there's some things you can lay to rest, with a little ingenuity," she snapped back. "Look, I need help. And I know you're more into Will than me. But…" Elizabeth let out a breath. "I've just got enough fears I have to deal with, all right? I don't need another one."
"You're still ashamed of the junkyard?" Jack inquired astutely. "Elizabeth, no one's blamin' you."
She glanced past Jack, fixing her gaze on a nearby lamp. "Not just then, damn it," she muttered. "Have a hard time sewing, because of the needle. And Will's always getting it 'cause the moment somebody flashes a syringe, I freeze up. He can't babysit me forever, and the needles aren't going to go away. Not with what we do." A thought popped into her head, and Elizabeth brightened. "Besides, this is annoying Anamaria, and I know you haven't gotten her gift yet."
"Will," Jack groaned. "Can' keep his mouth shut, can he."
"He didn't have to tell me," she smirked. "The limping was enough. Plus the sudden shopping-phobia. What did you and Jaime do to him?"
"Nothin'." Jack looked innocent. "So what's th'plan?"
Elizabeth stared for a moment. "You're agreeing already? I haven't even gotten to the sexual favors part."
Slinging an arm around her shoulders, Jack began walking the two of them into the hallway. "Lizzie, m'dear, no use resistin' th'inevitable. 'specially when it's female." He cocked his head thoughtfully. "An' by th'by, we don' keep you 'bout just for Will's sake. Whelp's good wi'wires an' such, but he doesn' know a damn thing 'bout explosives. Or pirates. Lovely singing voice, though. Pity he's taken a disliking to th'song."
"Hah! Do I or do I not have you beat?" Will triumphantly told the flickering screen. "Just a few details to wrap up, then, and…oh, fuck. I have to talk to James, don't I." Dropping his head into his hands, he hunched over the keyboard, massaging sore eyes. "Very fucking merry Christmas, Will."
As he probably should have expected, his-Jack's-cell phone rang, its sound echoing loudly in the almost empty office. Not bothering to check the CallerID™, Will brought it up to his ear and grunted, "Hello?"
"Run the…data…from Martinez," gasped a choked voice, barely identifiable as Norrington's. Gunfire crackled in the background, along with the tinkling of shattering glass. "Groves…hound…tell him…"
"James!" Will half-shouted. "Are you hurt? Where are you?"
"Goddamn it!" Will yelled, almost throwing the cell into the wall before he remembered whose it was. He typed a few last keystrokes, then kicked the chair away and strode over to the door, flinging it wide open to the bleary jolt of the few remaining staff. "James-Norrington called," Will said, just barely reining himself in enough to be comprehensible. "He's injured. Start getting everyone back here."
"But…you don't work here-" began one idiot. Will growled. "I meant-right away," the woman said, whipping the nearest phone off its hook and dialing.
~*~ ~*~ ~*~
Sleuth Outtake: Nero Wolfe