Tangible Schizophrenia


Vice II: Confidentiality

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: R. Violence and death.
Pairing: Arthur/Lancelot, Arthur/Guinevere, Lancelot/Guinevere
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, etc.
Disclaimer: Versions from the movie.
Notes: Film noir AU. Makes little attempt to be really historically accurate, and much effort to both be true to genre tropes and to riff on them. Supernatural stuff. Tea menu from here, and thanks to lolita_stardust.
Summary: Part of being a good detective is knowing which lie to listen to.


According to the travel agencies, Whitechapel had come a long, long way from its heyday as the grime on the bottom of the Victorian heel. But from where Lancelot was sitting, it still had a while to go before it was anything resembling welcoming—and he didn’t consider himself soft in the least. Since he wasn’t dumb, either, he was secretly reassured by the silent bulk beside him.

Dagonet was a good man. And a tall one, and a strong one, and a dedicated one. Other than those, Lancelot couldn’t come up with any defining characteristics. Though that wasn’t to say that the man didn’t have any; Bors, for one, staunchly insisted that Dag was an outright genius when it came to children, animals or engines, but then, Bors and Dag were family. Some kind of distant cousinhood, about which Lancelot had never bothered to get the details. Anyway, Dag functioned more like a faithful brother.

When Guin felt really bitchy, she hinted that Dag and Bors and Vanora had some kind of bedroom arrangement, but that, Lancelot doubted. Dag didn’t give off the slightest hint of impropriety towards Vanora, and besides, Guin could be damned jealous when she was feeling an itch. But even if it was true…well, he didn’t much care. It wouldn’t be the kinkiest relationship he’d ever seen.

“The object of this trip is to sound out where Merlin’s game happens to be at the moment. That’s all. I don’t want to meet Merlin, and I damned well don’t want him showing up on my doorstep later.” The street before them was pretty busy, so Lancelot decided to forget about the shotgun, just in case it gave off the wrong kind of message to the crowd. He adjusted his pistol so it hugged his side under his arm without making any suspicious bulges in his coat, then swung open the car door.

In the two seconds that Lancelot needed to round the front of the car, Dag had already managed to attract a scrawny orange mewing thing, which was probably stuffed to the gills with fleas. Suppressing his exasperation, Lancelot waved the other man towards the alley before them. He kept in step with Dag, but made certain to keep well away from the cat.

This particular alley was known locally as the Dragon’s Mouth because it was the main thoroughfare between Merlin’s territory proper and the rest of Whitechapel, which was nominally under other gangs. They all paid tribute to the crazy Welsh mystic, so the boundary was really more a sop for their remnants of pride than a real hard-and-fast delineation, but the distinction did have one nice feature: Merlin didn’t cross it unless he was personally taking care of someone outside. Since he was getting on in years, and had raised a hellish pack of insanely-devoted muscle-men, that didn’t happen too often anymore.

Consequently, it was Lancelot’s best bet for getting a good reading on the winds of the magician without actually having to wet his finger and stick it up in the air. Especially if he could find a certain…ah. Lancelot casually sidestepped the street hawkers and ducked into the alley, where he was promptly set upon by heavily-rouged harpies. A couple smiles got them back without him suffering too many catcalls; any more physical manifestations of disappointment, like slaps, were discouraged by the living monolith walking beside him.

He stopped about halfway in beside a rag-tag quilt of festival colors, which was topped off with long lank brown hair, a not unattractive face, and huge black staring eyes. “Vivien.”

“Knight of the land,” she returned, slowly rising from her crouch over a kerchief of random rubbish. Her hands went back to press against the wall, dirty nails curling and scratching at the bricks, and her chin tilted up to show a heavy scar necklace around her neck.

Merlin’s only living ex-lover, Vivien had a reputation for second sight, divination, or whatever one wanted to call it. She definitely had the act down, from the hollowed-out voice to the unblinking, unfocused eyes, but the reason she and Merlin had fallen out was another woman, so Lancelot had to doubt her so-called gift. In his line of thinking, a true psychic would’ve not only seen that coming, but would have seen Merlin’s outraged attempt to strangle her with a belt as well. But then, she’d taken one of Merlin’s eyes, and afterward Merlin had allowed her to live as a crazed vagrant, so in any case, she wasn’t quite normal.

“Stop calling me that. There haven’t been knights in centuries.” Lancelot shook out a cigarette and offered her one. After a second of staring, her hand blurred. The cigarette was in her mouth and her palm was back on the wall before he could even register it. “You bring a white horse here now, it’d be black and brown and dead within the hour.”

“You bring a closed book and want me to open it.” She craned forward so he could light them off the same flame, then drew back in a slow, sinuous manner, turning her head as if to look at him upside-down. “But the story’s coming undone. Bede knew that.”

Acid suddenly rushed up into the back of Lancelot’s mouth, wet and roiling and mixing badly with the gaseous bite of the nicotine. He pressed his lips together and forced himself to swallow. “Bede’s dead. Do me a favor, would you? Just give me a straight answer—is Merlin getting into the antique business again? Say, swords?”

“He didn’t kill me because I told him. I warned him, and he saw I knew, and he couldn’t bring himself to kill the truth.” Vivien produced a checkered smile of black and yellow, which made a lurid contrast with the white of the cigarette paper. She abruptly threw herself straight and slouched against the wall, narrow-eyed and languorous. Her voluminous rag-coat slipped and folded till instead of turning her shapeless, it somehow bloomed a shadow-beauty. “It’s not really the sword, you know. Though men are fools and think so.”

“Maybe, but they’ve got the money and we’re the ones left stuck with the hole,” sneered one girl, overhearing the conversation. Make-up caked on about three years, but her youth was screamingly clear in the inexpert way she clattered up on six-inch heels. “Hey, mister. You asking about Merlin and swords?”

Frankly, Lancelot had been hoping he could just weasel the information he needed out of Vivien, who might have been nuts but who still had ears and free passage in Whitechapel. Asking anyone else risked word getting back to Merlin—hell, just coming down to Whitechapel risked that, but he could come up with a lie for that, whereas he couldn’t for nosing around Excalibur. On the other hand, it seemed like today Vivien was going to be difficult and forget who had found her unconscious on the edges of the district after the strangling. Sometimes Lancelot really regretted listening to Gawain and driving that bloody lump to the nearest hospital.

In the end, he settled for half-turning towards the girl and giving a neutral answer. “Why?”

Lancelot glanced past her at Dag, who nodded and silently moved to block off the rest of the alley and thus formed a semi-private space for them. The girl shot Dag a contemptuous, considering look, then subjected Lancelot to a clumsily assessing one.

With a sigh, Lancelot reached into his pocket and peeled off a bill, which he flapped underhand at her. She reached for it, but he snatched it back. Didn’t give in to her two-year-old pout, either.

“Because Merlin’s been asking about swords,” she reluctantly muttered, once it was clear he wasn’t doing the pre-pay routine. “Maybe he’s opening a museum or something.”

“Maybe. I’m…” a newspaper headline drudged itself up from Lancelot’s memory “…from one. You know that dig nearby? Well, they found a sword there, but someone stole before it could be taken to the museum. I’m just asking around, trying to find it.” He ducked his head and half-hid his most charming embarrassed grin. “See, it doesn’t look too good if we can’t keep track of things. We just want to get that sword back before anyone finds out we lost it.”

Forty-year-old iron spinsters had fallen for that look with little effort on Lancelot’s part. The girl softened like butter on a hot radiator. “Oh. Well, Merlin doesn’t have it…not yet, I don’t think. But he’s looking for this German bastard who’s supposed to have it. A…A…starts with an…”

“Ambrose?” Blank look in response. “Aurelian?”

“Aurelian.” She gave an emphatic nod. “But no one’s ever heard of him. Or has a clue about where he is.”

Considering the usual level of cooperation he encountered, Lancelot figured she deserved a bit more. He got out another bill and handed both over, which she quickly took and folded away somewhere in her skimpy clothing. Then she tottered off, throwing him one last look over her shoulder. It was a sad attempt at seduction that pinched his gut. Life, however, had long since hardened that part of his body, so Lancelot went back to smoking and glowering at Vivien without a second’s thought.

“You might pull it off.” And now the woman was being lucid. It figured. When it came to the female sex, Lancelot seemed to be perpetually on the out. “You haven’t been around here in ages, and Merlin’s been doing some purging. No one here except me knows you for what you are.”

“Thanks, Vivien. Really.” Thoroughly disgusted with the rewards of the good Samaritan, Lancelot spun on his heel and started to walk out.

Maybe it was curiosity, maybe it was sheer perversity. But he paused for one last question. “So what am I?”

“Worth waiting for.” Then she laughed, loud and mocking, and blew a long stream of stinging smoke into his surprise. “Oh, not by me. I like mine big-breasted and wicked. Darling Morgan, who fell in the river and never rose again…damn him. Damn him.”

When Vivien’s eyes went from smudged to sharp, it was time to go. Lancelot put out his smoke on the wall and dropped the butt in the gutter, then headed for the alley’s entrance.

* * *

“That went well,” Lancelot commented, spinning the wheel. Once they’d gotten back in the car, Dag had remembered he’d wanted to pick up a package from Galahad. A glance at the clock had shown that Lancelot had a little time to burn, so he had obligingly headed that way. There was a decent sandwich shop near Galahad’s place that might do for lunch.

Dag murmured to the bundled-up coat in his arms, then turned to Lancelot. While he nearly always looked serious, his expression had degrees of sobriety, and currently, it was shaded to concern. “It didn’t feel right.”

“Too well,” Lancelot agreed. He slouched in the seat and drummed his fingers on the dash, thinking. “Merlin’s a careful man. And if his men took out German, then they saw me.”

And when they rounded that last corner, they saw Merlin. Or rather, they saw Merlin’s handiwork tumbling out of the door of the auction house, followed by an enraged Galahad. Lancelot slammed on the brakes and screeched to a stop just before he hit the fleeing man, who had the telltale blue tattoo on his left cheek and who was carrying something that smelled a hell of a lot like gasoline. That got thrown against the windshield—a bunch of soaked rags—and the man spun around so fast he almost fell over into Galahad’s hands. But at the last moment, the man regained his balance and dodged, running off toward a nearby bridge.

It didn’t take much arithmetic to add up to a bad answer, so Lancelot didn’t hesitate in jumping out and going after the other man. He easily caught up and grabbed the bastard’s elbow, then dug in his heels in an attempt to whirl the man backwards towards the others. It would have worked, except silver flashed and a red slash burned its way across the back of Lancelot’s hand. Cursing, he let go and yanked out his gun. “Fuck! Goddamn it, stop or I’ll—”

With a determined look, the other man stopped where he was and ripped his knife across his throat. He fell against the side of the bridge, then heaved himself over with a final effort. Lancelot got to the railing just in time to see the splash.

They really were fanatics. Lancelot swore some more and wished to God that people would stop dying on him before he could talk to them.

“The fucking son of a bitch,” Galahad panted, coming up beside Lancelot. The other man had a sizable bruise on his jaw, which he couldn’t seem to stop rubbing. “Great. Not only does he try to burn my place down, but now I’ve got to deal with the fucking police, too.”

“Suicide. Weird one, but they won’t be too hard on you.” A cursory inspection proved that the cut on Lancelot’s hand wasn’t disabling, but it was going to need stitches. Great. So much for lunch—whatever they were having with tea had better be something substantial, because between the frustration and the hunger pangs, Lancelot was rapidly losing the ability to be rational. “Don’t suppose he gave you a reason?”

Galahad rolled his eyes and spat over the side. “Yeah. A lousy one. Fucking Merlin thinks ruling one part of London gives him say-so over the whole black market—well, fuck him.”

His tone was understandably bitter, but the degree of sparking heat in it was a little worrying. “Try not to be an idiot,” Lancelot warned, digging out a handkerchief. He wrapped up his hand as best he could, then remembered something and looked behind him. “Where’s Dag?”

“Hmm? Oh, there—what the hell? That’s Gawain’s car he’s taking…” Frowning, Galahad pointed to at the curb. “Where is he going?”

“He didn’t even pick up his package…oh, hell. He’s worried about Bors and cubs, probably. Our trip into Whitechapel wasn’t too reassuring.” Lancelot watched the red soak through the handkerchief and gritted his teeth, resisting the urge to curse some more. As satisfying as it would be, he had more important things to do. Like calling Guin to see if they could get to Ambrose before Merlin did, and condensing the confusion incinerating his insides into some concrete questions for Arthur.

“Whitechapel?” The other man stopped watching Dag go off and looked at Lancelot in a way that let him know Galahad wasn’t going to stop nagging till he got an answer.

Bulldog. In his way, Galahad was as bad as Guin when it came to information. Neither of them were happy with what they had, and they always wanted to know more, regardless of what it was about. Whereas Lancelot was curious—it came with the profession—but generally had a good sense of when knowing more would tip the odds against him. “Look, we just came from the Dragon’s Mouth. I wanted to know if Merlin was really interested in that sword, and why. Went to see Vivien, but she was being moody and so I had to talk to this girl instead. And your little joke apparently is real—he wants that thing. Badly.”

“Fucking grand. And I had a hard enough time convincing Gawain to beat it this morning,” Galahad snorted, pivoting and walking back toward the auction house. He threw Lancelot the same kind of accusing look all of Lancelot’s ex-girlfriends had used to wind up their relationship—with the exception of Guin, but they weren’t really dating in the first place. More like occasionally getting fed up to the point of fucking.

“This is not my fault,” Lancelot muttered, walking back with the other man. Since he needed to borrow Galahad’s phone, he kept the sarcasm as low as he could manage. But really, it wasn’t as if Galahad didn’t have his own messes on the side. None of them were innocents, and they all had been around too long to plead ignorance of the game. “Look, help me track down Ambrose and that damn sword, and then it’ll all be over.”

Shaking his head, Galahad swung himself over the broken glass and beer on the doorstep and carefully goosestepped his way inside. “Over? Bullshit. You piss off Merlin, it’s not over till someone’s dead.”

“Fine. It’s not over.” Last night was still a low raw grind on Lancelot’s nerves, and so far, the day wasn’t easing up on that any. He whacked his hand to get Galahad’s attention, then pointedly went to the phone and started dialing. “But you know something, Galahad? Pissing off Merlin doesn’t scare me. It just pisses me off.”

For a moment, there was only the chime in Lancelot’s ear and the soft cursing of Galahad as he dug out a mop from somewhere. Then Galahad paused, staring at the overturned chairs and spilled alcohol; it looked like it’d been a hell of a fight. “I’ve been wanting to see that bastard go down for ages. Pretty much everyone has. But…”

“But what? But can’t it be someone else? Well, I’m in no hurry, frankly. I’ve got a living to make, bills to pay.” The phone clicked in Lancelot’s ear, signaling that someone had picked up, but all he could hear after that was muffled conversation. One of the voices sounded like Guin, and after a bit of straining, he decided the other was Gawain. “If someone wants to take a shot at him, they’re free to. But if they don’t, and the son of a bitch comes at me, then I’d better shoot back, shouldn’t I?”

Slap, slap, slap. Galahad mopped like he’d been doing it his whole life. And come to think of it, Lancelot couldn’t remember seeing any regular employees around the place. Gawain came round everyday, but obviously, Gawain didn’t do it as a job. So either Galahad was incredibly cheap, or his prickliness wasn’t out of pure spite.

*Can you hang on a moment? Thanks,* Guin hurriedly said, then returned to chatting up Gawain. The growl in Lancelot’s throat inched up another fraction.

With a long, gusting sigh, Galahad stopped again and propped up his chin and hands on the top of the mop handle. He chewed on his lip, actually producing a credibly meditative expression as he stared at a fresh black scorch mark in the corner. “I didn’t say you shouldn’t.”

“And I didn’t ever make you drink all those beers I bought you, but you did, and you owe those. Plus some other things.” That burn on the floorboards resembled the taste in Lancelot’s mouth, charred and pitted and smudged. It wouldn’t go away no matter how much he swallowed, and in fact, it was starting to spread upward into his brain, smearing it dark and tired. “Christ, Galahad. I’m sorry this bounced in your door, but it’s not like I did it on purpose. And it’s not like you couldn’t see this kind of shit coming before you decided to help me.”

“Are you trying to guilt me, or blame me?” The other man turned around and narrowed his eyes in cynical amusement. Surprisingly enough, his mood seemed to be on the upswing; Galahad normally kept grudges for weeks. “Stop talking before you embarrass yourself, Lancelot. I get it.” His face shadowed a little in reluctant comprehension. “Anyway, I came in earlier than usual and surprised that shit. Merlin wasn’t trying to kill me, only to warn me—and you, I guess—off.”

That tidbit of information riled Lancelot some because damned if he couldn’t have used that a few moments sooner, instead of…actually worrying over the fluff-headed dick…but it relieved him even more. For the moment, he wasn’t the center of Merlin’s attention. Which, incidentally, implied that Merlin didn’t have any more clue than him about where Ambrose currently was.

*I apologize for the wait,* Guin breathlessly said, crackling back into Lancelot’s ear. *Dulac, private investigator. May I help you?*

“Yeah. For a start, you could stop fobbing me off,” Lancelot snapped. His peripheral vision caught Galahad snickering before the other man swashed the mop one last time across the spill. A faint grin played over Lancelot’s own face for the instant before Guin’s sharp retort took him back into business as usual.

* * *

He left Galahad finally getting round to phoning the police about the body in the river and did a quick detour into a doctor’s office before going to pick up Guin. Lancelot parked in front of the building and leaned back in the seat, staring at his nice taped-up hand and trying to pretend the bandages weren’t already itching like hell.

“On time twice in one day. Amazing.” The passenger door opened and Guin slipped in, lightly scented with musky perfume and gleaming like a new car. Her hair was perfectly molded into waves that begged to be stroked, her neck was draped in pearls, and her clothes were an elegant showcase of an excellent figure.

She was trying far too hard. In the face of her patent, if well-tempered, excitement, most people wouldn’t have had the heart. Of course, Lancelot was made of sterner stuff. “All tricked out, aren’t we.”

“Bastard—oh. What did you do, duck into a couple bare-knuckle matches along the way?” Guin pulled the door shut and stretched over to run a finger over the edge of Lancelot’s hand-wrap.

He tugged his hand away and started the car, feeling a laugh well up in his chest. Even though Guin had only needed two years to become better than most old hands at the detective business, she still had the rare moment where she betrayed some naïveté. They’d caught each other up on their respective investigations over the phone—like him, she had nothing meaty so far—and she couldn’t fill in that blank? “Actually, that was courtesy of Merlin’s man.”

Apparently, just mentioning that name would quench any kind of light in Guin. At first, that realization afforded Lancelot no small amusement, but as he drove on and she remained quiet and stiff beside him, he started to get a bit uneasy. As damnable as it could be sometimes, Guin’s toughness was also one of her most attractive—to the sensible man—qualities. Not to mention an integral part of her character. Seeing her vulnerable like this should have been an invitation to apply merciless pressure, yet Lancelot found himself loathe to do so, due to that reason. They teased and squabbled, but they didn’t try to break each other. That was what everyone else did, but not them—or at least, that was what it felt like to Lancelot.

In the end, the silence needled too deep under his fingernails, which he dug into the steering wheel. “Guin?”

“What?” She was staring out the window, and when he spoke, she didn’t turn to look at him. Just rolled out that one word in the flattest tone possible.

Originally, Lancelot had meant to ask her again about what Merlin had done to her, but at the last moment, he changed his mind. Spur of the moment generosity, maybe. Or he was still a bit ragged at the edges from Bede’s death, and knew too well what her state of mind probably was. “What’d the coroner’s reports say?”

“Hmm?” That clearly hadn’t been the question she’d been expecting, but her relief flashed loud a second before her composure reasserted itself. “Oh. Gawain had just come by to drop off those when you called, and I didn’t get a chance to look at them. When I told him about Galahad, he swore like a longshoreman and started grilling me on everything. He didn’t leave till about a minute before you pulled up.”

“The man worries far too much,” Lancelot chuckled, easing his car through the crowded road. They were in the posh pretty district now, and he couldn’t help but stare a few times at the unfamiliar surroundings. The rich needed dirt dug up just as much as the rest of the world, so it wasn’t as if Lancelot was coming in as a yokel, but it was still different enough from his usual routine for him to look long. And memorize as a reflex, on the off-hand that something went badly up here.

That ghost of gaunt pain flitted over Guin’s face again. She moved restlessly in her seat, then got out a smoke. Amusingly enough, she was now using a long ivory holder. “He might not be. We have to get to Ambrose and settle that fast, because we’ll need all we’ve got to handle Merlin afterward. He’s going to be very, very disappointed.”

“Good to hear that he’s going to be.” A spot before them suddenly opened it and Lancelot sent the car leaping in, then gracefully swung it around to the curb in front of the Ritz. If nothing else, he could drive with style.

The varlet opening the door, Lancelot could handle. But it took him a moment too long to realize the man’s upturned palm was for the car keys, and then it was Guin’s turn to smirk at him. He bit down on his lip to fight down the creeping flush and offered his arm, making certain to keep his head up and his gaze meeting everyone else’s head-on. They might notice every little misstep he made, but he was the one who hung out their filthy laundry for the newsprint eyes to transcribe.

Naturally, Guin took to the ostentatious glitter and gilt like she’d been born to it—and for all Lancelot knew, maybe she had been. She definitely lent him some high glamour that, he was irritated to find, he seemed to need. The fight earlier hadn’t left any obvious marks on his clothes, which were of decent-enough quality and cut, but he could feel the haughty sniff at his bandaged hand and his slightly-unruly hair. It made him want to knock the oiled maître’d to the ground and break a few joints, just to see whether they were mechanical or human.

“Relax,” Guin murmured, leaning in the exact fraction necessary to give all watchers the impression they were a lovely young couple.

As they followed the waiter to their table, Lancelot resisted the urge to tromp on the snooty bastard’s heels. “It’s the accent. Sounds like someone yanked up their noses an extra inch, which makes me want to pull it back down where it belongs.”

She dragged on her cigarette in a way that expressed extreme annoyance. “You’re hopeless.”

“But I know who I am and where I stand,” he hissed out of the side of his mouth. “Unlike some.”

“What do you want? A declaration that I’ll hold down Merlin for you while you cut his throat? I said on the phone that I’d see this through with you. And I will. I’ll see this done.” Her jaw hardened, which on any other woman would have been unattractively masculine. But on Guin, it only heightened the tangible air of dangerous determination around her. She looked like she was about to stab her high heels over the entire restaurant.

From the looks she was getting, most of the swanks frequenting the Ritz were just dying for someone to crack the whip over them. It really was funny how everyone always wanted the opposite of what they already had: the weak wanted to be strong, and the strong got so tired they wanted to be weak once in a while. Only no one was ever willing to pay the full cost to get what they wanted, so everyone stayed unhappy. Hell of a way to balance the world.

“I just want to know you’re not going to run from the fight. And that you’ll be around when the ruins stop smoking. That’s all.” Lancelot scanned the wide galleries they were passing through, absently observing what constituted the latest trends in clothes, meals, table-partners. It seemed that redheads were having a bit of a resurgence.

“You sound like you’re actually fond of me. Scared of losing the only girl that’ll put up with you?” Guin whispered, voice rich with mocking humor. She tightened her grip on his arm and stepped a little closer so he could smell the tingling mix of her perfume and the cigarette smoke.

It appeared they were heading for one of the window-side seats, which didn’t impress Lancelot too much. The sky had started filling with clouds around the time he’d left Galahad, and even uptown, bad weather was bad weather. “Don’t overstretch yourself, Guin. Getting snapped back hurts.”

But he’d spoken a bit too fast. Surprisingly enough, Guin didn’t pounce on that prime bit, but instead, merely smiled to herself in a manner that was slightly less cutting than usual. Then she tugged at him. “Come on, Lancelot. He’s already paid us; this isn’t an interview for a job.”

“What?” Startled, he tore his eyes away from the people passing outside and started to turn towards her. Halfway there, he got stuck.

“You keep trying to slow down…” Guin noticed his distraction and followed the direction of his gaze.

Though it was overcast outdoors, inside the lighting was bright and sparkling. It seemed good light could make all the difference in the world, because Arthur looked whole. Like a man instead of a hollow shape, as he’d seemed in Lancelot’s office. He was seated and staring blankly at the menu, one hand holding it up while the other one fidgeted with the end of his tie.

“Anxious.” Lancelot could feel his eyebrows wanting to go up. When he took his next step, he suddenly could understand what Guin had been talking about. For some reason, he was acting as if he was moving through molasses.

That irked him, for obvious reasons. So he covered the rest of the ground in reasonable time and freed his arm from Guin just as Arthur was standing up. His hat momentarily confused him, but then he realized he could just set it on the table if he didn’t want to crumple it by shoving it under an arm. “Arthur. Thanks for agreeing to see us.”

“You’re very welcome…Mr. Dulac.” The other man put out a hand to meet Lancelot’s midway, but his eyes stayed on Lancelot’s face. In contrast to their first meeting, Arthur’s expression was tightly closed beneath its veneer of polite welcome—though the faint movements at the corners of his lips and his eyes said that was an extremely unnatural pose for him to take. He murmured some deprecating inanity, then smoothly gave Guin the same kind of greeting; interestingly, he didn’t bat an eye when Lancelot reintroduced her as his partner. Backstage to their little act, the waiter was busily pulling out chairs for Lancelot and Guin.

Once they were seated and had ordered—Guin Darjeeling, Lancelot the same because the waiter glowered at him like he had to pick one, and Arthur Earl Grey—Arthur opened up with the first real substantial bit of conversation. “I suppose the day afterward is too early to ask if you’ve any results yet, but…”

Lancelot slid a glance at Guin, but she gave him an infinitesimal shrug and moved back to make way for the food that was now arriving. Which apparently handed him the reins of this meeting. “Actually, we’ve already done some preliminary work, and some…interesting complications have come up. That’s why we asked for this meeting.”

Arthur nodded and straightened in his seat, quietly waiting for Lancelot to make the next move. Like Tristan, he didn’t blink often, but unlike Tristan, Arthur’s eyes didn’t seem to want to focus on a specific spot. Instead, they flicked about Lancelot’s face, with the occasional glance at Guin. After a moment of trying to ignore it, Lancelot decided it made him more uncomfortable than Tristan’s steady stare did. At least with Tristan, he could always pretend the other man was attempting to intimidate him—most likely the truth—but this was more like Arthur was searching Lancelot’s face for something.

Thankfully, lighting a cigarette gave Lancelot an excuse to avoid that strange scrutiny. He reflexively offered one to Arthur and somehow wasn’t surprised when he was refused, though Arthur took his time about resettling himself in his chair. “Two dealers in stolen antiques are dead. It appears that Ambrose was responsible for one of them. Odd behavior, that. Thieves generally don’t kill the men who can unload their goods for them, seeing as the reason they go to such dealers is because it’s hard to sell things on the black market if you don’t have one.”

“I see.” Very calmly, Arthur continued to look at Lancelot while he transferred some ridiculously tiny sandwiches from the gleaming display towers in the middle of the table to his plate. Then he gestured at the tidbits and at the teapots. “Help yourself, please. The tea should be done steeping by now.”

“Er…right.” Lancelot reached for the pot of Darjeeling, then suffered a sharp kick to his ankle. He glared at Guin, who glared back before looking pointedly at her cup.

As if she didn’t bitch him out for punching aggressive drunks before she could. But it was a fancy hotel and Arthur was watching them with a distantly amused look, so Lancelot bit down on his curse and poured her damn tea. Then he poured his own…and froze, not quite sure whether Arthur was supposed to pour his own. The man did have a separate pot.

In the end, Lancelot finessed the issue by taking the cigarette from his mouth and blowing the smoke away from them. Still looking as if he had some private joke turning over in his head, Arthur poured his own cup and delicately started eating the sandwiches. If he noticed that Lancelot was watching how he did so rather closely, he was gracious enough to not mention it. Whereas Guin stepped on Lancelot’s toe, the bitch. “So it doesn’t look like Ambrose’s motive is to sell the sword,” Lancelot added, struggling to control his temper. “He went, got an assessment, and then he killed the assessor.”

“Which leads to two questions,” Guin put in. She seemed to know exactly what to eat with what, damn her. “One: why would Ambrose doubt the sword’s identity enough to need an independent assessment? Two: if he doesn’t want to make money off the sword, then what is he planning to do with it?”

When Arthur looked at Guin, he gave her the same sort of treatment with the eyes as he had Lancelot. The only difference as far as Lancelot could see was that Arthur’s expression seemed to grow faintly pleased, like he was proud of her. But he still gave off an air of sadness, edginess and something else that Lancelot couldn’t quite identify.

“I did mention that Ambrose and I had a falling-out. Aside from any monetary value, he knows that sword means a good deal to me—” Arthur began.

Lancelot plucked a few starved-looking sandwiches from the platters and ate them as slowly as he could, given that he’d had to skip lunch for the doctor’s visit. “Have you had any word from him?”

Arthur blinked. “No…not since I found out that Excalibur was missing.”

“I’m asking because I’ve been around enough to know you can learn a lot about men from how they kill other people. The way Ambrose killed—” swallow back the name with a mouthful of watercress and bread “—that one dealer, I’d say he had one hell of a temper.” A beat later, the expected affirmation from the other man came, and Lancelot went on. “Men with hot tempers aren’t the kind for cold revenge. If this was only about that, he would’ve been calling you nonstop, or leaving some kind of message to taunt you. Has he?”

Before he answered, Arthur took a deep breath and a deep draft of tea. Stalling, obviously. He glanced past Lancelot’s shoulder at Guin, but his face told Lancelot that Guin wasn’t giving Arthur any hope of help. Good thing her amorous side didn’t have the tendency to soften her up, like it did in most women.

“No, he hasn’t.” The other man casually flicked his eyes about their surroundings, checking the relative distances of the other people in the room like a professional. It made for one hell of a contrast with his previous uncertain, faltering behavior; Lancelot suddenly recalled a detail from the first meeting and dropped his gaze to Arthur’s hands, which were more callused than he remembered. And now he could see little scars and discolored spots, like the man did hard labor in his spare time.

Arthur bent forward and folded his hands on the table, speaking in a very low voice. “I failed to mention this before because I hoped that quick cash was Ambrose’s motive. My family—I have extensive property, some of which have land claims dating back to before medieval times. Consequently, the deeds contain some rather archaic wording—they bestow ownership on the bearer of the sword that can be definitively proven to be Excalibur.”

“You could challenge it in court,” Guin said, catching on a bare second before Lancelot did.

“I could. My solicitors tell me that my claim would probably be upheld. But the cases would be long and expensive, and in the meantime…a few of these properties are ones my family has leased or lent to the government for certain purposes that couldn’t be conducted on government land. Due to the chances of public exposure.” Both regret and irritation briefly surfaced in Arthur’s eyes; he didn’t seem to be all that pleased with the position in which his ancestors had put him. Well, Lancelot couldn’t blame him. In these days and times, even the highest-placed noble could be made to bow to government and press, if enough pressure of scandal were applied. And Arthur probably wasn’t used to feeling that kind of threat breathing on the back of his neck.

Lancelot started to slouch back, caught himself and unhappily did his mental reordering of the case details while the crick in his spine slowly spread to his shoulders. He sucked the last quarter of his cigarette to ash before stubbing it out next to Guin’s in the crystal tray. “And why did he have the assessment done?”

The other man shrugged and sipped more of his tea. “I have a large sword collection. Ambrose isn’t an expert; perhaps he thought I might have replaced the real one with a fake for display purposes.”

Once again, someone competent and intimidating was peeking out from under the façade. Studying that man was, paradoxically, like trying to hold still in order to lure a shy bird into coming down from a tree, but Lancelot did his best.

Though Arthur’s suit was of fine heavy stuff, when he shifted parts of it would pull tight enough to show irregular ridges over his shoulder and chest. If they were scars, then that must have been one hell of a fight. And gracefulness aside, he moved like someone that was often in that kind of situation. He’d taken the seat that had the best view of the room and the street outside, which put his back to the wall.

“I believe you mentioned a woman Ambrose killed,” Guin commented. She reached back Lancelot for a scone and started dolloping cream and jam on top of it.

After a moment, Lancelot figured his stomach’s demands superseded the potential for messy embarrassment and took one himself. If nothing else, he did have to say that the Ritz’s kitchen knew what it was doing with food.

“I did. She was a prostitute Ambrose took a fancy to. He believed he was in love with her for a while, but my uncle thought otherwise. From what I hear—I was out of the country when this happened—my uncle cut off Ambrose’s allowance in an attempt to convince him to drop her.” Arthur spoke in a neutral tone, which generally seemed to indicate his silent disapproval with the decisions he was relating. Taken with the other details, it added up to quite the unconventional aristocrat. “Eventually, he did. A year later, they somehow ran into each other again, and Ambrose became enraged enough to kill her.”

“Do you know what it was that specifically angered him that much?” As Guin questioned Arthur, she gradually inclined herself more and more forward, till her breast was brushing against Lancelot’s arm. Every so often, her hand would come up to adjust her pearls and flutter along her throat.

Rolling his eyes just wouldn’t have been a sufficient expression of his disgust, so Lancelot refrained from doing that and bit a little harder into his scone. Maybe Arthur was rich, young, and handsome, but that only made it even more obvious that he had to have a whole basketful of dirty laundry in his closet. And something about the way he looked at them was…not precisely shifty, since he was too much of a natural gentleman, but it was certainly disturbing Lancelot on a level that made him want to go for a long, fast, hard ride. That varlet had better be quick about bringing the car round.

“Not really. The few times I saw Ambrose afterward, we…weren’t civil enough to discuss the matter.” A trace of sardonic humor crinkled the skin around Arthur’s eyes. “I assume she was blackmailing him for something.”

“Did she have a name?” Guin pressed, sharpening her voice.

That made Lancelot glance back at her, wondering where the hell she was taking this conversational tangent. They weren’t investigating Ambrose’s past misdeeds, but his current ones.

Whatever tingle of intuition she was going on, it apparently was a good one. Arthur flinched—barely noticeable, except for the fact that he was still holding his tea and so the liquid rippled to almost wash over the rim. “Dufay. Elaine…Dufay, I think. My uncle never went into London, but he kept a house about twenty miles out of town. I think someone brought Elaine to a neighbor’s house party, and that was where Ambrose met her.”

“But he also never went into London proper, correct?” Lancelot had an inkling of where Guin might be heading, and he wanted a confirmation before the conversation completely excluded him.

Nodding short and curt, Arthur made it nonverbally clear he didn’t want to pursue this line of conversation any further. Since he’d given up enough to work with, they might as well drop it, Lancelot decided. He popped the last piece of his scone into his mouth and sat back, mildly surprised to find he’d unconsciously eaten quite the swath through the offerings.

“You enjoyed the tea, I take it,” Arthur murmured, draining the rest of his cup. His gaze drifted over the rim and eventually landed on Lancelot’s bandaged hand. “What happened?”

“Minor disagreement with some boiling water,” Lancelot lied. While the other man’s eyes didn’t buy it, Arthur didn’t challenge it, either.

What the other man did do was suddenly turn his gaze from hesitant to penetrating. “Who killed the other dealer?”

And Lancelot had forgotten he’d mentioned that. Damn. He didn’t really want to fill in Arthur about Merlin, since the man might decide Lancelot was stirring up too much attention and take his money elsewhere. On the other hand, if Arthur had managed to remember that lack of detail through the entire conversation, he wasn’t the kind of man who would let himself be sent off with a comforting lie.

Guin didn’t look happy about it, but she nodded at Lancelot when he checked with her. With an internal sigh, Lancelot folded his hands on the table and laid out that part of the cards. “I assume you’ve heard of Merlin. He’s taken an interest in your sword, but as far as I can tell, we’re still ahead of him. That’s why we need everything you know about Ambrose, or where he might be in London. So we can find him first.”

“Merlin.” High or low, the usual reaction to that name was some degree of fear—even Guin betrayed a hint of terror beneath all her hatred. Arthur, however, spat the name like he wanted to stomp on it. For some reason, that wasn’t a reaction he had wanted Lancelot to know about, because he immediately shot a wary glance at Lancelot and snapped down the shutters over his eyes. “I see. I…there might have been a child. Between Ambrose and Elaine. They’re only rumors, but…she seems to have been very strong-willed in her own right. A kind of modern-day Medea.”

“Thank you very much,” Guin said, pushing her chair back and looking imperiously at Lancelot.

That last little bit of information may have clicked together the puzzle in her head, but it hadn’t yet for Lancelot. He glowered at her, trying to bring her back to the table, but she didn’t budge. In the end, he got up and got his hat so they wouldn’t cause a scene. Guin’s specialty, goddamn her.

Arthur also stood, expression suddenly…bereft? At any rate, he seemed on the verge of asking them to stay all through the short farewells.

“He’s watching us, isn’t he?” Lancelot muttered as he escorted Guin toward the door.

“Shut up and don’t look back.” Her head was up, her back was straight, and she was transparently knotted over inside. “We’ve got work to do.”

* * *

Work turned out to be more record-pulling at a few slum hospitals, looking for an Elaine Dufay or an Ambrose Aurelian. Lancelot put up with it till they’d located a birth certificate that did indeed bear those two names for the parents, and then he backed Guin into a dusty, isolated corner of the filing room. “Guin. Why the hell are we wasting time with these? I want to look at those coroner’s reports.”

“You were at both murder scenes; I’d think you would’ve seen everything first-hand,” she shot back. But when he made it obvious that he wasn’t going to budge, no matter how much she beat on his shoulders, she huffed and gave it up. “Doesn’t Medea mean anything to you?”

Lancelot let his expression do the talking.

Guin rolled her eyes and looked brightly condescending. “It’s a myth. She was an ancient queen whose king cheated on her. When she found out, she killed her sons and ran off.”

“And Arthur called Dufay that…okay, apparently there was a kid, and she killed him. So?” It wasn’t a nice story, but then, Lancelot hadn’t been listening to nice bedtime fairytales for a long, long time. He’d heard and seen people doing far worse.

“So that’s why Ambrose killed her. Men don’t give a damn about their women, but they care a hell of a lot for their sons.” Lip curling, Guin held up a yellowed sheet of paper. “She dumped the body on the doorstep of the hospital, just to make sure someone would tell Ambrose. According to this, representatives of the Pendragons collected it. They must have a family plot in the city; I can’t believe they’d go to the trouble of carting it to one of their big country ones.”

Whistling low beneath his breath, Lancelot took the sheet and scanned its lines of cramped handwriting till he found the telltale name. He had to say that he was impressed, considering he wouldn’t have connected the dots like that. “Funny family. They’ll kick out Ambrose, but give the kid a gravestone. It’s not a bad part of town, either.”

She stared at him. “You…know where he is?”

“I know where he would be. Highgate. There was a big flap about three years ago…some woman collapsed in front of the Pendragon mausoleum and said she had a vision of the king returning. It was in the tabloids for ages and ages, though I don’t think it ever made the regular papers.” Lancelot handed the paper back to Guin and stuffed his hands in his pockets, already feeling the cold night wind blasting his back. He gave her a resigned look. “I suppose I get to check out the graveyard, ask around and see if Ambrose visits his kid.”

Guin indulgently patted his cheek—she could, since she wasn’t going to be spending the night staking out a freezing cemetery. When they emerged from the hospital, Lancelot could already feel the last flare of summer dying, and winter sinking its claws into autumn’s back.

“I’ll go over those reports and start checking places within walking distance of Highgate,” she told him on the way back to the office. “Maybe we’ve been looking too low. He probably has enough money still to afford a fancy hotel.”

“Well, enjoy yourself,” Lancelot muttered, slouching down behind the wheel. Yet another night of no sleep…nails were tapping on the window. Frowning, he rolled it down for Guin.

She stuck in a cloth-wrapped bundle, which smelled of scones. Come to think of it, the cloth looked pretty familiar, too. “I lifted it from that last table we passed on the way out.” Smug as a cat in cream, Guin was. “If you’re an idiot and forget to get dinner, you’ve got that at least.”

“Thanks.” For a moment, Lancelot was tempted to spoil everything and ask what she was up to now, to be trying to soften him up ahead of time. But then he remembered the shit he had to get done and figured he could just as well tackle her in the morning. Guin always took her time setting up a side-game, so it wasn’t as if he needed to hurry with that.

* * *

Highgate was currently closed for some kind of deal the next day, but Lancelot forced himself to discuss cricket for a mind-numbingly long time with the groundskeeper who came to tell him off. The end result was that he got to go in to “see his dear grandda’s grave before he had to fly to America for years and years,” but damned if it almost wasn’t worth the trouble. Next time, he might just find a secluded stretch of fence and climb over.

The Pendragon vault was a massive plain one in a corner far off the popular paths. It had somehow remained untouched by the fashionable waves of Egyptian, Classical and Gothic styles that had sown a plentiful crop throughout the rest of the graveyard. Instead, the vault was rather monolithic, bringing to mind vast oak forests and menacingly obscure stone rings. If Lancelot strained his hearing, he could almost hear drums.

Or he was just being a superstitious jackass who’d forgotten his umbrella. Swearing at the sky, Lancelot flipped up the lapels of his coat and ducked against the side of the vault. It had eaves that were just wide enough to shelter Lancelot from the rain, and winglike projections off the entrance’s sides that made a perfect observation spot. From behind them, he could see the approach to the tomb, but people coming down the path couldn’t see him.

According to the groundskeeper, a big bluff blond man with a foreign accent came by every evening between seven and eight. Since it was currently a quarter till seven by Lancelot’s watch, he figured he might as well hang around.

The scones were nothing more than crumbs on the ground when he heard soft, rhythmic splashing coming near. He hurriedly stuffed the Ritz’s napkin into his pocket and slid out his gun, which for the time being he kept pressed against his hip. Then he slowly twisted to peer out from behind the stone.

It was Ambrose, all right. He’d grown the beard Arthur had mentioned, but a few inches of spiky yellow wasn’t enough to disguise the face. The man was as tall and broad as Lancelot had expected, but he was much gaunter than he’d appeared in the photo; life in the dark didn’t seem to agree with him. A long, oilskin-wrapped bundle protruded from under his arm, and a brown sack dangled from his other hand.

Once he’d reached the vault, he detoured left and went around the other side of it, which momentarily confused Lancelot. But then it made sense: the Pendragons may have taken care of the kid’s burial in order to keep things quiet and under their control, but they weren’t going to put the poor boy in with the rest of their esteemed corpses. There probably was a separate grave, and when Lancelot cautiously followed Ambrose, a little gray marker half-hidden by a rosebush confirmed his suspicions. The other man stopped before it and knelt down, laying the long bundle to one side. From the bag he produced two candles and what looked like a bunch of dried herbs, like the useless shit the Whitechapel layabouts sold each other under the pretense that it’d magically resolve all their problems from impotency to murder.

The wind was blowing the rain to one side, towards Lancelot. So Ambrose propped up the candles against the tombstone and then cupped his hand over them to light them. That way, the marker blocked enough of the water coming down to keep them burning. Then the other man picked up the long package and stood, carefully unwrapping it to show flashing sharp steel.

Something blew into Lancelot’s eye. He barely stopped himself from cursing and briefly slumped against the vault’s wall, rubbing out the damned thing. Made himself take a few deep breaths, too, since apparently he hadn’t been doing that enough to keep from feeling lightheaded.

By the time Lancelot looked up again, Ambrose had what had to be Excalibur raised above his head, pointing at the sky like he was trying to become a human lightning rod. The man was shouting something in a deep low growl, but Lancelot couldn’t even make out if it was English or not, due to the sudden rise in the wind. It was whipping around everything, slashing the rain into his face and rattling the tree branches nearby, and then thunder cracked it apart. White streaks arced through the sky while Ambrose abruptly unleashed the most unearthly scream.

“Christ,” Lancelot hissed to himself, pressing into the vault. The man was insane.

And after a moment, the man was clearly disappointed when nothing happened. He glared down at the sword he held and swore in distinctly English words, mixed in with something Lancelot presumed was German.

“Ambrose?” Arthur’s voice?

Lancelot whipped his head around to see that yes, Arthur was coming up the path, then turned back just in time to meet Ambrose’s gaze. He swore and lifted his pistol. “Put down the sword.”

Ambrose did no such thing, and Lancelot hadn’t expected him to. On the other hand, the other man didn’t look scared or even startled, which was worrying. Even worse, Arthur didn’t seem to have noticed Lancelot and was still walking towards Ambrose.

“Ambrose! What are you…oh, God, don’t tell me.” The man certainly had undergone a striking transformation from the retiring, wary, faintly tragic figure Lancelot had had tea with mere hours ago. Now, chin up and eyes hard, Arthur exuded a palpable air of command…though he still had that lingering undertone of regret. “Ambrose. It doesn’t work. I told you.”

“But it has to,” the other man snarled, voice graveled with the roughness of extreme disappointment. He kept Excalibur half-raised in one hand—that sword had to be damned heavy, but his arm wasn’t shaking at all. “It has to. Otherwise how could—”

Arthur passed a hand over his face, wiping off the rain and wiping on an intensely old weariness. “I should have guessed earlier that this was why you wanted it.”

“You thought I wanted the money? Or the damn property. You fucking—” Shaking his head started to shake the rest of Ambrose’s body, like he was about to explode.

Right. Time to get pointy sharp thing away from madman. “Ambrose. Drop the sword,” Lancelot called again, stepping out.

There was a hissing gasp behind him, and the scrunching of soaked grass as Arthur moved. “Lancelot? What are you—”

* * *

The first rule of a good client-detective relationship was that first names weren’t used. Arthur had already gotten Lancelot to break that, but that made sense, given the confusion that would have otherwise arisen. And at tea, Arthur had—somewhat hesitantly—addressed Lancelot as Mr. Dulac, which also made sense because they were in a business relationship, after all. Getting close enough for familiarity also meant getting close enough to get hurt, and they both seemed to understand that pretty well. So Arthur calling Lancelot Lancelot in the graveyard skewed everything.

Lancelot took his eyes off Ambrose for one second. A second. He hadn’t even turned all the way to glance at Arthur when the gun fired.

“Fuck!” Snapping back, Lancelot shot, but Ambrose was in the act of flinging his gun at Lancelot, so the bullet caught the other man high in the shoulder. He stumbled, but didn’t even drop the sword.

The pistol soared over Lancelot’s shoulder as he ducked down and back just long enough to press his fingers against Arthur’s neck. Nothing.

Fuck.” First Lancelot had gotten to Bede too late, and his friend had gotten a ripped throat. Then he’d watched German run over, seen Merlin’s henchman suicide, and now that fucking bastard had killed Art—his client.

The world suddenly was red.

He didn’t had a very clear memory of what happened next. There was running involved, because they somehow ended up near the fence with Lancelot taking another shot at Ambrose, and the son of a bitch knocking his gun away with the sword like they’d dropped into a swashbuckler film. And there was fighting after that, because he remembered the crushing squash of his knuckles connecting with the bullethole in Ambrose’s shoulder. Then the other man didn’t have the strength to effectively swing the sword, so he tossed it over the fence and went after it. Lancelot grabbed at Ambrose’s ankles and tried to drag the other man back, but a shoe-heel cracked under his chin, and then another one hit his temple, sending the curtains down.

According to his watch, he woke up bubbling in a puddle about five minutes later. Lancelot heaved himself out of the mud and desultorily ran through every swear word he knew. He stared at the dirt splashes on his hands, and how they made his fingers look old and gnarled and pathetic.

Something squished mud a few yards from him. Though he wasn’t curious in the least, old habits died hard. Lancelot looked up.


Pale, bloody, stunned-looking, Arthur waved weakly at the fence. “Did he…”

“You didn’t have a pulse.” Inanely enough, it came out sounding like Lancelot was accusing the man for still being alive. Well, maybe he should be. Because Arthur had been dead, and dead people didn’t come back. If that weren’t true, then Merlin would’ve been ripped apart by all his victims years back, and Lancelot’s nightmares would’ve been a lot more complicated.

Arthur blinked. Realized something and swallowed hard, eyes slightly panicky. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.” With a groan, Lancelot lurched to his feet. He took a moment to kill off the residual dizziness from the head-blow, then carefully put one foot before the other until he was standing right in front of Arthur. Instinct reminded him to retrieve his gun along the way, which he then absently tucked away. “You were dead.”

Just to make sure he wasn’t dreaming, Lancelot risked touching Arthur’s throat again. Warm, and there was definitely a pulse now. He pressed a little harder and felt it jump, then backed up a bit. “I think we need to have a long conversation.”

Some impressive calculations were going through Arthur’s eyes, flickering past so fast Lancelot couldn’t even begin to guess at them. Then the other man let out a sigh and pulled at his coat, trying to cover up the bloodstains. “We should get out of the rain first. My hotel’s not far away, and the cleaning staff don’t open their mouths about odd stains.”

“This happens a lot?” Lancelot asked, nearly laughing because he was still stuck in shock. His hair was plastered in his eyes, so he raked it out. Almost let out an unmanly scream when his fingertips brushed the huge bruise swelling up the side of his head.

Arthur didn’t answer, but instead half-turned toward the trail. He was still yanking at his clothes in an attempt to cover up the wide scarlet streak down his front, but it wasn’t working very well due to the light color of the fabric. After a long pause, Lancelot shrugged off his coat, which was dark gray, and handed it over. “Wad it up in front of you like you’re carrying something. If anyone asks, we picked up a sick kitten.”

“This happens a lot?” Arthur echoed, irony briefly tilting his lips upward. But he sobered almost immediately, and they walked to his car in strained silence.


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