|The Long Road to Reconciliation I: Notification
Author: Guede Mazaka
It started out as an ordinary enough day, Guinevere supposed. Lancelot snored till the last possible moment, yet managed to steal into the bathroom first, but that had allowed her to claim the first pot of coffee. Breakfast had seen enough sniping to spur Arthur into a rare exasperated reprimand, but he’d relaxed enough by the time they all were walking out the door to give Guinevere a long goodbye kiss in front of the neighborhood newspaper delivery boy. Work was both engaging and frustrating: Isolde had just broken up with her boyfriend and irritated the whole office by desperately flirting with every male in sight, Pellew popped in to demand progress reports, Lancelot snitched Guinevere’s files and she snitched his.
Absolutely nothing to signal that something was wrong. In fact, Guinevere didn’t even notice any difference till at least an hour afterward due to being in a long meeting. By the time she’d gotten out and went to Lancelot’s office for a word, he’d already left.
She stood in the doorway for a few moments, taking in the scene. Cup of espresso was full and sitting by the computer, not centered on its coaster so it looked as if Lancelot had casually put it down. It wasn’t steaming anymore so it’d been sitting there for a good while. The rest of Lancelot’s desk was in its usual state of teetering chaos, but his computer had been completely shut down: he only did that if he was going out of the building. His coat was gone but his briefcase was still by the desk, and most tellingly, he’d actually left a note posted to the side of his printer.
Went downtown—personal matter. Back in two hours at latest. Route emergency calls to cell phone--he’d scribbled the number here--otherwise see Guin.
Well, wasn’t that nice, was the first thought Guinevere had. Then she frowned and walked further into the office to pull the note off the printer. Lancelot did take the spirit of his job seriously, beneath all his posturing, but he had a pathologically cavalier attitude towards the letter of it. He didn’t leave notes about work-related business. If they were lucky, he left a vague voicemail, followed several hours later by spectacular messes that were only salvageable due to the miraculous victory he’d pulled out of it.
She lowered the scrap of paper and took a second survey of the desk. The desk phone caught her eye because the light signaling that Lancelot had stored messages was on; Guinevere picked up the earpiece and cradled it while she punched in his code. Technically no one was supposed to have anyone else’s, but she and Lancelot had privately agreed to share since a message from Arthur had an equal chance of showing up on either.
The machine actually had several messages, so Lancelot must have been in the middle of catching up. He had been pulling fieldwork for the past few days…but so far, none of them were unusual. The first two were calls from the labs saying that analyses were ready, the third was one from a contact in Queens, and the fourth…
…the fourth might be crisis-worthy, but wasn’t unusual. It was from the city morgue, and it merely informed Lancelot that a body had come into the morgue and would he come down because he might be needed to identify it. Gruesome and an unpleasant thing to have in the morning, but it was an occasional part of their work. Unless…Guinevere went back to her office, still holding onto the note.
Thirty minutes later, she’d more or less checked on all their field agents, major contacts and targets and none of them was dead or was unreasonably unaccounted for. She had about ten for whom she couldn’t get a current location, but right now that would fit into their schedule.
“Guinevere?” Pellew knocked on her doorframe. “I can’t seem to find Lancelot.”
“Oh. Oh, well, he’s out.” She got up from behind her desk and showed him the note.
The way Pellew squinted and frowned at it told her he had no idea either. He plucked it from her hand and read it another time, then gave it back to her. “Well, when he gets back, could you remind him that his report on the diamond-smuggling ring’s due in today? Also, I’d like it early if possible, as the local law’s getting a bit impatient with our pace and needs some reassuring that they don’t have to ‘step in.’”
“I’d be glad to, sir,” Guinevere said. And she would, because if the NYPD or U. S. Customs butted in now, they’d catch the men on the ground but the men pulling the strings would go free again. After so many months of patiently setting up a trap big enough for a tiger, she was in no mood to settle for a bunch of rabbits.
She’d give Lancelot…another forty minutes, she decided. It’d been about an hour and twenty already, and if he wasn’t back within the two hours he’d specified, she’d call.
Thirty-five minutes later, Lancelot appeared in the doorway to Guinevere’s office. “Guin—has Pellew been by?”
“Yes, and he wants his report.” She finished typing her entry before she glanced up. Then she took a good second look, leaning slowly back in her chair. “You could use some freshening up first, though. What on earth have you been doing?”
Lancelot’s tie was hanging half-done, which was normal for him. But his hair was a wreck, and not the artful sort of wreck into which he spent nearly a quarter hour every morning making it. It looked as if he’d been attacked by a pigeon who’d mistaken it for a good nesting site. The skin under his eyes was dark and puffy, and that wasn’t from lack of sleep because he’d slept quite soundly all sprawled over Arthur and her last night.
“I…nothing, just a mess that cropped up. It’s been taken care of—did Pellew say anything else?” He absently ruffled his hair as he spoke, which made matters up there worse. His eyes kept shifting around and he sounded about as interested in her reply as he was in cleaning the bathroom. “Do we have any important meetings this afternoon?”
“No, and no, but—” Guinevere started to rise, but by the time she got around her desk, Lancelot had retreated to his office and had shut the door. She thought about knocking, but she had her own share of work to finish up and in the end, she decided she’d catch him when he came out for lunch, which was only twenty minutes away.
Lancelot, however, apparently ate lunch in his office. If they weren’t going to meet Arthur somewhere, he usually ended up polishing off his dessert while sitting on the corner of Guinevere’s desk and going on about his ideas for their investigations. Odd.
In fact, Guinevere didn’t see him till two in the afternoon; she was in the middle of conferring with Pellew over details of her report when a door suddenly banged open.
Every head in the office turned towards Lancelot, who’d just emerged with coat and briefcase in hand. He flinched back, looking defensive, but a moment later he’d stiffened with chin high and was stalking towards Guinevere and Pellew.
“Sir, I need the rest of the day off, plus the next two days,” he said without preamble. He shifted his briefcase up so Guinevere could see the thick stack of folders he was holding against its side. Lancelot separated out several and handed them over to a startled Pellew. “I’m sorry, I know we’re entering a delicate stage, but I’ve done all my paperwork for the days I’ll miss. The first folder there’s got my recommendation for who should handle my fieldwork; I imagine Guin’ll have plenty of input there, too.”
“This is…very sudden,” Pellew stalled.
Guinevere would’ve added her own comment, but Lancelot handed her the rest of the folders before she could. “I know, sir, and I apologize,” he said to Pellew. “But a personal matter’s come up and—” he shot a strange look to Guinevere, then leaned forward and quickly whispered something to Pellew. “Once things are settled, I’ll work the weekend to make up for it.”
“I see.” The confusion in Pellew’s face cleared up and was replaced by…sympathy? No, it was more heartfelt than that. If Lancelot hadn’t been standing an awkward four feet away, Guinevere had the impression that Pellew would have tried to pat Lancelot on the shoulder. “Well, of course you’ll need a few days off. Go on ahead. I’ll clear things with payroll and so forth for you.”
Lancelot grimaced a smile, but his discomfort didn’t seem to be coming from mockery or anything like that. “Thank you, sir.”
He turned to go. After giving a quick nod to Pellew, Guinevere went after him and caught up with Lancelot at the elevator. “What’s going on? You’re just haring off?”
“No, I’ve got a problem,” Lancelot snapped. He raised his hand to push at his hair and nearly got a faceful of coat before he remembered his hand was full. He irritably jerked his arm down and jabbed at the elevator button again. “I just need to be out for a while—sorry to put you out, Guin, but I’ve got to. Tell Arthur, would you?”
“Tell him what? Are you even coming home tonight? Are you leaving town—” The elevator doors hadn’t opened yet, but she grabbed his sleeve anyway. “Goddamn it, Lancelot. At least give me something. For Arthur’s sake—you think with how he is, he’s going to like you disappearing without an explanation?”
The side of his lip curled. “Oh, yes, throw him in.”
“Because you’re sleeping with him, you thick bastard,” she hissed. She yanked at his arm so he had to half-turn to face her. “And if I’m remembering correctly, you love him.”
Lancelot winced. His eyes flared hotly and he pulled his arm from her grip as if he was going to turn around and take a swing at her, but he barely managed to control himself. “Look, it’s my family. All right? Are you happy now?”
That gave Guinevere pause, and long enough for the elevator to chime besides them. “But you don’t have any,” she said, confused.
“Exactly,” Lancelot retorted. He slipped into the elevator just as the doors were closing.
The urge to scream and kick at the stainless steel was incredible, and how Guinevere managed to fight it down was beyond her understanding. But she did it, and she kept herself in hand till she’d stormed back to her office.
She sat down in her chair. Spun around once before she pulled herself out of it so savagely that it skidded back and banged into the desk, making her keyboard rattle. Guinevere started to go back and steady it, then shook herself and continued on and out till she was in Lancelot’s office and holding his phone.
He’d deleted all his messages. That cock-brained shit…of all the times he had to have a clever moment.
Well, she could guess it was the call from the morgue, and she remembered which morgue had called. She went back to her office and thought a bit; she didn’t want to call the place herself because in order to get them to release any information to her, she’d have to identify herself as an Interpol agent. Which could cause problems later with local law-Interpol relations, and those already were a bit touchy.
Guinevere sat down and called Tristan. She’d save Arthur for after she knew what the hell was going on.
* * *
“Hello? Oh, yeah, it’s me…no, he’s here…hang on a second.” Gawain put down his sandwich, wiped off his mouth, and handed the cell-phone to Tristan. He looked a bit puzzled. “It’s Guinevere. Wants to talk to you.”
She wasn’t one of Tristan’s usual callers. He put his soda down on the table—they were eating lunch late since both of them had had to work through the normal time—and took the phone. “Hello?”
*Tristan? This is Guinevere. I need a favor—do you know anyone at the city morgue?*
So far it’d been a relatively quiet day, aside from him having to return a few calls to the Baltimore PD forensics department. They’d wanted to schedule an interview, but it was getting increasingly difficult to fit those in between his preparations to graduate. “What department?”
*I…this is awkward.* Tristan had the impression Guinevere was dropping her head into her hand. *Lancelot got a call from them earlier, asking him to come down and identify someone. I think it’s family of some kind, but he left before I could find out.*
Awkward was an understatement. Right about now, Arthur would be in the middle of his afternoon lecture. Depending on how long this conversation took, Tristan could see Gawain off to his discussion group and still make it in time to catch Arthur at the door. “His?”
*Well, that’s the problem. As far as I know, Lancelot doesn’t have any…his mother’s dead and…he’s never explicitly said so, but I always thought his father was, too.* Guinevere sighed. *If it’s the father, it’ll be tricky. He was a pretty shiftless bastard, and Lancelot’s said a few times that he’s glad he took more after his mother’s side, since he doesn’t have to see the son of a bitch in the mirror every morning.*
“So name change, different appearance. I’ll call you back in a half-hour,” Tristan said. In the corner of his eye, he could see Gawain looking curiously at him.
*Wait—listen, please don’t tell Arthur yet. Not until we know who it is. Lancelot is very…reluctant when it comes to talking about his family. I need to fill Arthur in first, otherwise it’ll all go badly.*
Tristan pursed his lips and thought it over. He could see the sense in what she was saying, but it went against the grain to keep Arthur out of the loop. Not to mention if Lancelot’s disappearance turned nasty, Arthur would do considerably more than throw a fit. It didn’t sound like that sort of situation, but grief was a funny thing and made people act oddly, as Tristan well knew. “When are you getting off work today? Or are you calling him?”
*The problem is, that flash bastard just dropped everything on me and I can’t take off right away. Arthur’s late home today, right? I have it down that he’s in a departmental meeting till six.*
“He’s coordinating who handles his classes next year, since he’s taking a sabbatical to set up his subdepartment,” Tristan said. He picked up his soda and pitched it into the trashcan, since there wouldn’t be time for him to finish it.
Gawain turned to watch the cup fall into the trash. Then he quietly started picking up their napkins and paper straw covers. Tristan reached for him, but he lightly batted Tristan’s hand away and kept on cleaning.
*All right. I should be able to get down by then. I’ll pick him up from his office.* Guinevere’s voice faded out, then back in as she switched ears. *Thanks, Tristan.*
Tristan hung up and looked at his cell for a moment, then sighed. He thumbed up his contacts list and started scrolling through it. He heard Gawain walking over to the trashcan, the rustling and splattering as the other man dealt with the remains of their lunch, and then heard Gawain coming back.
“Something up?” Gawain asked.
“Guinevere called to ask if I can find out whether Lancelot had his father die on him. They apparently weren’t on good terms. She doesn’t want me to tell Arthur.” A former labmate had ended up in the city morgue, so Tristan decided he’d try him first. If that didn’t pan out, he’d move on to his more unorthodox information sources, but he had a feeling he wouldn’t need to. “Lancelot’s gone AWOL.”
Gawain scooped up his bookbag from the floor and swung it onto his shoulder. “Okay. He’s…did he seem like the kind who’d get drunk and barcrawl, or the kind that’d go around making funeral arrangements before he blew up?”
Actually, that was a useful thought. Once Tristan knew who was in the morgue, he probably could track Lancelot down within a few hours if he didn’t go home. That would keep Arthur from going out and doing the same thing, and then there’d be a chance that they could all go home and have it out there, as opposed to on the street where things could get complicated. Clayton had been quiet lately, but that couldn’t last; Arthur also had begun discussing—obliquely—what options he and Tristan had in regards to that man.
“I think he’d make arrangements, then bar-crawl. When do you see Galahad?” Tristan said. He found the number, pressed ‘call’ and held the cell up to his ear.
“After discussion. I’ll make sure he takes Mariette out or something so they’ll be out of the way.” Gawain leaned against Tristan’s chair and checked his watch. “So are we off for tonight, or do you still want to meet up by the Conservatory?”
“I—” Tristan paused. Someone had answered the phone, but he’d stopped because Gawain had bent over to brush his lips over Tristan’s. He reached up just in time to stall the other man from leaving. “This is Tristan Cornwell,” he said to the phone. “Is Danny in?”
Whoever had answered said yeah, wait a second, and put Tristan on hold. As soon as they had, he slid his fingers deeper into Gawain’s hair, then let them flow through and out.
“No, we’re still on. But meet me at my apartment,” Tristan said.
“Okay.” Gawain’s stubbly cheek rasped over Tristan’s. Then he leaned back and reshouldered his bag. He turned back once to wave at Tristan as he walked away.
Danny came on the line. *Hey, man. Haven’t heard from you in ages—actually, never figured you for the casual phone-call type.*
“I’m not. Remember when I tutored you the night before the parasite exam?”
*Okay, that sounds more like you. But yeah, I do, and as long as you’re not asking me to slip you corpses, I owe you major payback for that. Shoot.*
* * *
Arthur was just wrapping up his lecture when his cell vibrated, making the side of his briefcase quiver. He quickly moved the briefcase to the floor behind the podium and nodded at the nearest of the waiting students.
It always took him a ridiculous amount of time to finish answering students’ questions at the end of class, and he often had a trail of them following him back to his office. Today was no different, and so he didn’t manage to check his phone till nearly a half-hour after the call.
The ID said Lancelot’s cell, but Lancelot hadn’t left any messages. A quick check said he hadn’t sent any emails either, which was odd; usually he delighted in cramming up Arthur’s voicemail and then making Arthur blush at his inbox. Then again, he might have been in a hurry. Arthur shrugged, made a note to ask about it at dinner, and put it out of his head.
He was in a meeting with Kitty when his phone went off again. They were fairly deep into discussion, so Arthur reached into his pocket and set his cell on ‘silent’ without checking to see who it was. He did that when he was walking back to his office, and was surprised to see Lancelot’s number pop up again without any accompanying message.
It was only three-thirty, but he had a long meeting with Merlin later. Arthur mentally checked his schedule, made room for a fifteen-minute phone call, and shut himself in his office. Then he rung up Lancelot.
He got several rings, so Lancelot’s phone was on, but no one answered. When the voicemail message came on, Arthur sighed and wondered if he should bother Guinevere. This was odd behavior on Lancelot’s part, but it didn’t seem too serious.
“Lancelot,” Arthur said, startling to attention. “Hello. I’m returning your earlier calls…you didn’t leave any messages, so I assume you’re busy right now. Is everything all right? Did you need me to do something?”
He paused for a moment, trying to think of what else to say. The slight white noise on the other end made him hunch awkwardly and stare around the room, reminding him that no one was actually there and that he was being recorded, which always made him nervous.
“I’ll be home about seven,” he finally continued. “If it’s something you’d prefer to say face-to-face, I’ll be happy to talk about it then. I hope your day’s going well, and I’m looking forward to seeing you tonight.”
At that point, he hung up and briefly considered banging himself in the forehead with the phone. It was a toss-up whether he sounded more like a stiff-necked Victorian or like a timid little girl trying to sound coy. Lancelot was going to tease him mercilessly later.
Arthur checked the time again. He pulled up Guinevere’s number and put his thumb on the ‘call’ button, but hesitated. If it really was nothing, he’d hate to disturb them. He’d also prefer to avoid giving them any more evidence of his paranoia, since they were already…well, paranoid enough over it.
He took his thumb off the button and dropped his cell back into his pocket.
* * *
Guinevere picked up her phone without looking, as she was busy trying to make sense of the spreadsheet Isolde had sent her. “Hello?”
*Tristan. I called the morgue.*
She sat up straight and pushed away from her computer to get at a pad of paper and a pen. “It’s been nearly two hours.”
*I know. I had to do some double-checking, and then I thought it might be good to try and track down Lancelot,* Tristan calmly said. He didn’t sound like he was apologizing so much as explaining basic technique to a rookie.
Well, Guinevere knew he was on that high of a level, so she let it pass for the moment. She clicked out the tip of her pen. “Did you find him?”
*Where he’s been. I’m still on-campus and he’d been moving too fast for phone calls. He’s visited a funeral parlor, the 106th Precinct--*
“Queens?” Guinevere asked, blinking. “What on earth was he doing there?”
Tristan joggled the phone. In the background, happy girlish chatter faded in and out, which told her he was walking outside. *Also stopped by the local Anglican church. That was about ten minutes ago, and I don’t know where he is right now.*
“Damn.” Both because that more or less confirmed Guinevere’s guess and because that meant they couldn’t knock Lancelot over the head, toss him into a taxi and bring him home before he did anything stupid. Guinevere pinched the phone between her ear and shoulder so she could scribble notes and check out the rest of her day’s schedule at the same time. “All right, what about the morgue?”
*Last night an apartment building landlord in Queens called them, said one of his residents had been found dead in bed. Man signed his lease as a Mike Dowdy, but IDs found on him were for a Michael Brady, a Jack London and a Ben Lake. He was carrying an old phone number for Lancelot, plus a few photos, so that’s why they called him.*
Guinevere let out her breath slowly and rubbed at her nose. “Ben Lake.”
*Minor figure in London organized crime, circa 1980s, according to his rap sheet. His last name sounds like an Anglicization.*
“It is an Anglicization. Lancelot changed it back to the original French version: DuLac. That would be his father…but he was reported as killed in 1995, right after he’d gotten out of jail. Of course, that was based on witness testimony and no actual body, but still…all right. Thanks, Tristan,” Guinevere said. She was going to have some words with Lancelot, but she hardly knew where to begin. Had he known his father had been alive?
He’d certainly never acted like it, and had kept his distance from any part of his childhood to the point of refusing assignments that’d take him back to London. As low an opinion as Guinevere could have of him, she didn’t think he was a secret spy for the British gangland scene. She could, however, see him helping his father hide out one last time and then walking out on the bastard. Family ties were peculiar like that. Though of course she knew barely anything of Lancelot’s…
Tristan hadn’t hung up yet. *I probably see Arthur before you do.*
“It’s very kind of you to offer, but I’d like to tell him myself,” Guinevere immediately said. She clicked her pen shut and dropped it back in its cup, then started pulling work to take home. It wasn’t even five, and Arthur would be in his meeting, but she still thought she’d best get out of the office. At the very least, she needed to plan out what to say and how to say it.
*Are you sure he hasn’t called Arthur?*
Guinevere paused, then shook her head. “No, that’s not Lancelot’s style. He’ll have retraced his father’s steps for the past few days, made arrangements, and then sacked down somewhere with a nice big bottle of Scotch. Speaking of, do you know what Ben Lake was doing here?”
*Nothing out of the ordinary. Preliminary coroner’s report has it ruled as death due to alcohol-related liver damage. Natural causes, basically. Nothing’s been going on in that area, either.*
“Thank you, Tristan,” Guinevere repeated. She hung up before he could ask about Arthur again.
She took out her cell phone and went down her speed-dial till she found Arthur’s number. Then she stared at it. She didn’t think Tristan was going to let that go, but on the other hand, she didn’t think this sort of thing should be done over the phone. Or possibly she was stalling because she really did not know a good deal about Lancelot’s familial background and Arthur would have questions that she wouldn’t be able to answer. And she hated not being able to answer questions.
Of course, she also hated being pre-empted. Guinevere pressed the ‘call’ button.
A few minutes, she was irritably glaring at the phone and wondering whether the five seconds of satisfaction would be worth the paperwork necessary for getting a replacement phone. She could always ask Lancelot how he managed—except he wasn’t in, and that was the source of the whole problem.
She turned off the phone and did about fifteen minutes of work. Then she tried again, but only got the same busy signal. Guinevere tried his office phone: he wasn’t in, but then, he should have just walked into his meeting with the Dean. She called Vanora, who confirmed that and took Guinevere’s message about picking up Arthur, but couldn’t give any advice about contacting Arthur sooner.
Finally Guinevere tried Lancelot’s phone on the off-chance that that might go through, but he had it turned off. She heard a grating sound, and only several seconds later did she realize that she was grinding her teeth.
She stopped and turned back to her computer. There was another fifteen minutes till the official end of the workday, and she was a professional. Work had to be done despite personal difficulties and so forth…if the traffic kept her from getting to Avalon’s campus in less than thirty minutes, she might have to commandeer something. Helicopters, perhaps. God knew those damned traffic choppers were always buzzing overhead.
Guinevere reached for her cell and tried Arthur again. Nothing.
She leaned forward to rest her forehead against her computer screen. “Damn it.”
* * *
The third call came while Arthur was just finalizing things with Merlin, its ring startling him so much that he knocked a folder off the desk. He dove for it while also trying to flip his phone out of his pocket. “Sorry about that, I—”
A great knob of heart of oak shot out and thumped on the desk, pinning down the folder’s corner just before it would have slid completely off. Merlin pushed it back on and waved Arthur off. “Take the call, take the call. I’ve got to sign all this anyway.”
“Thanks,” Arthur said, flicking up the top of the cell. He saw Lancelot’s number and immediately pushed ‘answer,’ putting the phone up to his ear with a haste he hoped wasn’t too apparent. “Lancelot?”
Whoever was on the other end of the line was holding their breath. Arthur had counted to fifteen before he heard anything, and then it was a very low, very harsh chuckle. Then the line went dead.
“Arthur?” When Arthur looked up, Merlin was watching him with a curiously concerned expression. The other man normally let his walking stick lean against the side of his desk, but he was still holding it in his hands parallel to the desk, as if he were…
It was a shame there was no mirror behind Merlin, or else Arthur would’ve caught on sooner. He immediately smoothed out his face and mustered up a weak smile. “Sorry about that. Now, what did we have left…right.”
They got through the remaining paperwork in less than half the time for which they’d scheduled. Once or twice Merlin raised his hand and began to say something, but he always let the matter go when Arthur paused. He obviously thought Arthur’s briskness was unusual, but apparently he didn’t feel like pressing the matter. Hopefully he was chalking it up to a desire to wrap up this meeting early so they could both go home.
Arthur had left some of his things in his office, so he made a quick stop there to pick them up. No one was in the front when he went in, but as he was coming out, Vanora walked in from the hallway. She took in a breath and stepped forward, but he quickly swerved around her and kept going. “Sorry, but I’m running very late, Vanora. Can you forward the message to my home machine?”
She called after him. Then he heard her heels clattering in the hall, but fortunately for him, a group of grad students came barreling out of a door between him and Vanora. That bought him enough time to get out and duck into one of the lesser-used trails on campus.
Once he’d gotten to a fairly isolated area, he stopped and propped up his briefcase on a squat concrete post. He popped it open, retrieved a few accessories for his cell, and plugged them in. Then he called Lancelot.
Lancelot briefly clicked the phone on, but ended the call before Arthur could say a word. He also must have turned off the cell afterward because Arthur couldn’t get a direct fix on his position, but Arthur had a neighborhood. He converted his phone back to an ordinary cell, shut his briefcase, and walked to where he could hail a cab. When he’d gotten one, he slid into the backseat and called Tristan.
Tristan’s number was busy. Arthur called Guinevere, and her number was also busy. He eyed his phone for a second. Then he temporarily gave up on them and turned off his phone before sliding it into his briefcase. He fumbled around till his fingers grazed the case of his other phone, pulled that out and started calling around to make sure nothing from his past had popped out to muddy things. By the time he was done with that, they’d arrived.
After paying the driver, Arthur headed for the nearest main road, as the side-streets were far too narrow to accommodate Lancelot’s car. The neighborhood tended towards the very low rungs of middle-class so he attracted some odd looks, but that should end up working in his favor. If he stood out, then Lancelot would be the most exciting thing to hit the place in years.
He made it all the way down the first street without spotting the car and was turning to cross over and continue down to the next major road when his eye caught something. He turned back around to look at a small Irish-style pub behind and slightly to his right. It was just beginning to fill up with people, and through its large glass windows he could see tall laughing girls with towels tucked into their aprons moving easily between the tables. It looked like a popular local spot.
Nothing relevant, but Arthur looked a few moments longer out of habit. His eyes drifted towards the back, where a good-looking redhead with a sour expression was stalking down the aisle. She turned to catch one of the other waitresses by the shoulder, nodding towards a back booth. Her friend made a face, then leaned in to whisper.
Arthur hesitated a bit longer before he finally went inside. He could hear fans whining in the ceiling, but they weren’t making much headway against the thick smoke so he had to squint to see.
“Hi! How can I help you?” chirped someone. A waitress with a perky blonde ponytail and an odd habit of blinking very rapidly beamed up at Arthur. “You’re new here—I definitely would have remembered you before.”
“Ah…yes, I’m…meeting someone, so that’s all right. But thank you,” Arthur hastily said, pressing by her. He dodged another waitress carrying a full tray of frothy beer mugs, then made his way towards the figure slouched in the very last booth.
“’lo, Arthur.” Lancelot gave him a limp wave. His tie was unknotted and straggling down his shirt, which was badly wrinkled. His eyes were a little red and he had a small collection of shotglasses in front of him, plus a half-bottle of whiskey. “Guin sent you?”
Arthur put his briefcase on the seat across from Lancelot, then looked around the place again. He spotted five children below the age of ten, and at least one pregnant woman. “No, you called, and since you didn’t leave any messages, I was concerned. It’s a bit stuffy in here—do you mind if we take a walk?”
“I am not,” Lancelot said with great deliberation, “That sloshed yet, Arthur. You want me out where I won’t scare the children. You always are so concerned about their tender little minds, of course.”
The redheaded waitress Arthur had seen in the window was watching them. Actually, their corner seemed to fascinate most of the women and a few of the men in the place; he supposed it must look like a build-up to a spectacular drama. “Why would Guinevere send me?”
“Oh, because she’s worried. Worried because I told a few lies, probably—she always was a stickler for precise information. I doubt she’d appreciate the explanation that someone can be dead to you and still be walking…somewhere…” Lancelot vaguely flapped his hand around. Then he dug into his inner jacket and pulled out his wallet. He dropped some bills on the table before swaying to his feet.
Arthur did some mental estimating, then decided what Lancelot had dropped included a generous enough tip to forestall any later protests. He picked up his briefcase again and got one hand beneath Lancelot’s elbow.
The other man threw him off to lurch forward a few feet; his usual grace had been distorted by the alcohol, but enough of it was in evidence to still make him more than the usual drunkard. That worked against them here, since it only ensured that they had an avid audience all the way out the door.
Lancelot didn’t speak again till they were outside, and Arthur didn’t attempt to start a conversation or to grab hold of the other man again, though he stayed near enough to catch Lancelot should he take a serious fall. He walked slightly behind as Lancelot unsteadily led them towards his car, which was parked about a block away.
“So how was your day, Arthur?” Lancelot said as he fumbled with his keys. He dropped them twice but the first time, he caught them.
The second time, Arthur managed to snatch them away before Lancelot could get at them. He pushed the other man aside and opened the driver’s side so he could toss his briefcase into the backseat. “It was fine. It—”
He turned around and got Lancelot by the waist just as the other man attempted to slip away. An elbow cracked Arthur on the chin and Lancelot nearly managed to drop out of Arthur’s arms, but Arthur ignored his sudden dizziness and held on. The next time Lancelot twisted, Arthur let his hands slide with it till they were under Lancelot’s arms. Then he jerked the other man completely inside.
He had to fall on his back, which wasn’t the most ideal position for keeping anyone on the street from noticing Lancelot’s flailing, but he wanted to get as much of Lancelot’s body inside as possible. The other man was cursing and snarling, but so far he wasn’t raising his voice too much; Arthur wrenched himself around and on top, then got the driver’s door shut.
“You’d make a wonderful kidnapper,” Lancelot said, breathless but not without viciousness. He stopped fighting and pushed himself to the other end of the car to sprawl much as he had been in the pub.
“I was a wonderful kidnapper, on occasion,” Arthur bit back. He sat back in the driver’s seat and put his hands on the wheel, squeezing till its leather cover squeaked. Then he sighed and looked at Lancelot again. “The door’s not locked on your side.”
Lancelot smiled without humor, and turned his profile to Arthur. “All right, fine. Let’s go somewhere you think is more suitable for a discussion and have it out, since you’re so eager.”