A Less Than Civil Service: Part III

Have I mentioned yet just how stubborn Adam Adamant can be? No? Well, I’ll probably have cause to mention it several more times in the course of this little story, so keep your eyes open. I can only put it down to his stubbornness that I wasn’t able to just laugh lightly at his arrogance and kick him out of the house, and that within a remarkably short period of time we were both to be found in the bowels of the Royal Academy on Piccadilly.

(The scoundrel hadn’t even let me change my shirt or find a fresh collar before tumbling me out into the street. I looked like the best-dressed vagrant in London. I take this as evidence that, contrary to every outward appearance, Adam Adamant is not a gentleman, but a vindictive bastard.)

(I suppose it’s possible he just wanted to admire my unrestricted neck a little longer, but I think that’s giving him too much credit, for both good-taste and self-awareness.)

He had shot me the most steely of glares as we got out of the cab, and the steel was further whetted when I led the way down the rather precipitous steps to the tradesman’s entrance. By the time I’d tapped in the right combination on the curious ship’s wheel lock, in a corridor lit by the baleful, shifting flames of gas-jets, I was starting to feel his gaze pricking between my shoulder-blades like a knife. I can place hand on heart and say that I had always held the gothic excesses of my place of work to be rather charming before, but Adamant didn’t quite seem to understand the joke, which somehow made the whole thing slightly embarrassing. And when the secret door had slid open to reveal the secret toilet, it felt rather like his eyes were spitting me to the wall.

“What – is the meaning of this, sir?” he gritted out.

I shrugged, as nonchalantly as I knew how. “Do you know, I’ve often wondered that myself? Still, ours not to reason why.”

I opened the door to my customary stall, and swept a low bow. Adamant had dignity enough to ignore it as he entered.

It would have taken a good deal more dignity than that to ignore me as I squeezed in after him and pulled the door closed, though.

“Do forgive me,” I purred, pressed up close against him in the close confines of the cubicle. “These places are so seldom designed for two.”

And oh! How I wish Adamant hadn’t been quite so sheltered in his outlook! The very idea of how uncomfortable I could have been making him with toilet-trader references, if it hadn’t been for the fact that they would all have flown harmlessly over his head, brings a tear to the eye!

Still, we must take our pleasures as we find them, and even an oblivious Adam Adamant was still a pleasure to press oneself against. And I could certainly fancy that his pupils had gone rather wide, though I suppose that could have been the dim light.

“If this is some sort of trick or joke, Box – “ he said in his icy voice.

“No, I assure you – I really do normally meet my superiors in this rather vaudevillian manner,” I said, pulling out my pocket-book and scribbling a few words.

Have brought a friend round for tea. Hope that’s all right.

I tore out the page, and knelt to slip it under the partition into the next stall. While I was down there, I took the opportunity to glance up the length of Adamant’s long body. He appeared to be gazing up at the ceiling, with his jaw clenched so tightly the tendons were standing out on his neck.

The piece of paper was pushed back under the wall.

You’re a bloody idiot, it said, in a solicitor’s spiky scrawl underneath my elegantly illegible copperplate.

I turned it over, and wrote on the back:

Oh, come on. It’s hardly my fault he’s stubborn as two dozen cats. In any case, it’s Adam Adamant. He may be less than subtle, but I’m sure his loyalty is beyond question. If that’s your idea of fun.

I pushed it back whence it came, and settled back on my heels, starting to whistle a jaunty chorus of ‘She Was Only A Gendarme’s Daughter’. Somehow, the sight of me with my lips pursed somewhere in the vicinity of his groin seemed to affect Adamant strangely. I can’t imagine why.

I had just got to the line about ‘she showed the English p’licemen what a truncheon’s really for’ when the reply came through. It was squashed at the bottom of the page in a rather disgruntled manner after my flourishes and loops.

You’re still a bloody idiot.

There was a clanking sound, and the dividing wall disappeared upwards.

“My dear Lucifer,” twinkled Sir Joshua Reynolds – no, not that one. That one, as one might expect, is looking slightly the worse for wear by the present day. This Sir Joshua Reynolds was approximately three feet tall, my family’s solicitor since time immemorial, and currently sitting in the toilet stall next to my own. He also happened to be my boss. “I think I may have mentioned before that when a service is secret, other people should not know about it...?”

“Any secret pertaining to national security is safe with me, sir,” said Adamant. I couldn’t really object to his butting into the conversation, because my pride was still smarting from that crack about my efficiency. I would be only too happy to have Adamant and Reynolds score points off one another instead of me for a while. “If I might introduce myself – “

“You are Adam Llewellyn de Vere Adamant, yes?” asked Sir Joshua. “Lucifer, you really must curb this childish habit of smirking in polite society. Mr Adamant, it is a pleasure to meet you, a real pleasure. I’ve heard so much about you. From so many sources.”

The temperature of Adamant’s voice dropped to somewhere around arctic levels. “I have always believed, sir, that the service of the Crown was an honourable enough profession that one should not have to practice it in a cloak-and-dagger fashion.”

“Quite so! Quite so!” Sir Joshua beamed, his small dark eyes twinkling. “If only the servants of all the other crowns of Europe took the same attitude, we could disband the secret service entirely!”

“And your name, sir?” Adamant asked.

Reynolds’ beaming smile broadened. “Mr Adamant, you understand that for reasons of national security – “

“He’s called Sir Joshua Reynolds,” I put in.

Adamant’s eyebrow rose in an expression of polite disbelief which made the heart rejoice.

“’Sir Joshua’,” he began. I could hear the inverted commas of doubt slotting neatly into place. “I should firstly like to reassure you that Mr Box’s operation has been in no way compromised by my involvement. It was pure chance which led to my discovery of his role in this affair, and no carelessness on his part.”

Which I must confess made me blink a bit. I had hardly expected a commendation. Still, I did say that Adamant was infuriatingly honest, didn’t I?

“Well, I should hope not,” trilled Sir Joshua merrily. His jolliness always appeared to be inversely proportional to the jollity of a situation. “It would really be most unfortunate if anything were to go wrong with this operation. Most unfortunate for all concerned.”

“Which brings me to my second point,” said Adamant, more grimly. “Although Mr Box has been rather – elusive about the details of the operation, I have pieced together enough to know that matters of the highest national security are involved. I must therefore demand that you either allow me to assume joint-control over the successful completion of this mission, or that you remove it from Mr Box’s hands completely, and place it under the control of more experienced agents in His Majesty’s regular intelligence services.”

“Now, look here – “

“Such as yourself, I suppose?” queried Sir Joshua, cheerfully.

“My experience in the intelligence community is considerable, yes.”

“Just a minute – “

“Mr Adamant, I assure you that dear Lucifer here is more than equal to the task in hand,” said Reynolds, fluttering his hands expressively.

“Exactly! And – “

“I have already formed my own opinions on that score, Mr – Sir Joshua.”

“What’s that supposed – “

“And I’m sure you can appreciate that we couldn’t possibly compromise the safety of our operatives – not to mention that of this great empire – by placing a mission of such delicacy under the control of one who has had no involvement with it heretofore.”

Adamant smiled a very faint smile. “I could not agree more. As His Majesty King Edward remarked to me only a few days ago: there is nothing quite like a long period of preparation and practice to ready one for the exercise of power.”

Sir Joshua’s twinkling eyes glittered a touch more brightly. “What an honour you must find it to have such – easy intercourse with His Majesty.”

“It is, sir. Why, the merest whisper that certain arms of his government might not be serving his interests to the fullest – but I’m sure I need not go on.”

I have to admit, I felt a momentary tinge of respect for the man. I’ve seldom seen blackmail enacted with more aplomb. It just goes to show that if you dangle the carrot of National Security in front of even such a moral compass as Adamant, he’ll be only too eager to jump through the most immoral of hoops. (My apologies for the hopeless tangling of metaphors. It seems there is a reason my livelihood rests upon my paintbrush rather than my pen.)

The doughy whiteness of Reynolds’ face creased into a wide smile, with his eyes gleaming black specks lost somewhere in the middle. “Well, if you will insist, Mr Adamant, I’m sure dear Lucifer would be only too pleased to liaise with you in the final execution of this mission.”

“Don’t I get a say in this?” I expostulated. I rather felt I’d lost the initiative with this particular encounter, and that’s hardly a position I relish – as you could no doubt find out from barmaids, baronets and ballet dancers from Mayfair to the Mile End Road.

“Now, now, dear heart, it’s all for the good of the country,” said Sir Joshua, complacently.

“Like hell!” I snapped. “I’ve been working on this spy-ring for months, and I’m damned if I’ll let this – this great Honourable Discharge flounce in and imply that I’m incapable of carrying this off!”

Sir Joshua sighed softly, looking saddened and a touch disappointed. “Mr Box, I know I don’t have to remind you where your loyalty lies. Especially since your last mistake ended so – well, messily, for want of a better word. That little business on the Bow Road – “

“That – that was a completely different matter!” I snapped, unable to bite my tongue quite quickly enough. I saw Adamant’s eyes turn to me and narrow, assessingly. Well, let him wonder, damn him. Some things a gentlemen has every right to expect to be left private.

“Of course, my dear fellow, of course!” said Sir Joshua in his happy, piping voice. “I only wanted to make sure that you showed Mr Adamant the same – understanding – which we have shown you.”

I managed to keep quiet that time.

“Since this is an Academy operation, of course dear Lucifer will be the ranking agent. Mr Adamant, I trust that you will have no objections to following orders?”

Adamant bristled, visibly, like a Persian cat in a thunder storm. “I hardly feel that is appropriate, sir. I take my orders directly from Lord Salisbury – “

“But as you point out so rightly only a few minutes ago – it is all for King and country.” Reynolds smiled his bright, cheerful, slightly reptilian smile. “And in any case – my dear fellow, might I offer you some advice? Prime Ministers come and Prime Ministers go, but the national funding of the arts is unchanging.”

Say what you like about Sir Joshua; he at least knows how to make an exit. The partition wall clanged down while Adamant still had his mouth open to complain.

“Odious little man,” commented Adamant, conversationally, as we emerged blinking into the light and fresh (ha!) air of Burlington Gardens.

“You seemed to handle him quite adroitly.”

Adamant smiled, faintly. “Mr Box, I have faced down Prussian anarchists and prowling tigers. I hardly feel that a civil servant with a pseudonym is likely to give me much cause for concern.”

“If I were allowed to treat Sir Joshua in the same way one would a prowling tiger, I probably wouldn’t have much difficulty with him either,” I muttered. The day was beautiful, the birds were singing, and I was forced into the company of perhaps the most irritating man in London. “Unfortunately, it’s usually considered unsporting to turn your elephant gun on your immediate superiors.”

“A pity that working for His Majesty’s secret service forces one into collaboration with such...characters.”

“Even an artist has to eat,” I replied, morosely. “We weren’t all raised on caviar and champagne.”

Oh, do be quiet. Personal remarks about my less-than-ideal relationship vis-à-vis HMG are apt to make me childish.

“And is that the only reason for your – choice of career? The hope of remuneration?”

I shrugged. “And having the certainty that there’ll always be someone to clean up the bodies.”

“And – that little incident on the Bow Road - ?”

“Is none of your business!” I growled. I could feel his eyes on me again. I usually adore being looked at, but I somehow suspected Adamant was not merely admiring my peerless cheekbones. “To be perfectly frank, Adamant, I can think of few people I would be less pleased to have at my side during an operation than you. A column of flesh-eating ants spring to mind, but at least I could trust them not to be as likely to shoot me as the enemy.”

“I never shoot anyone, Mr Box,” said Adamant, imperturbably. “It’s hardly a gentlemanly way of conducting one’s business. Shooting friends in the back seems to be rather more your forte.”

“This is precisely my point!” I said, rounding on him angrily. We were in the middle of Piccadilly, and the Albany porter was giving us what might loosely be called an old-fashioned look, but I’ve had far worse fights than that in far more public places. That little scuffle with a certain extraneous Crown-Prince outside Buckingham Palace at the Changing of the Guard springs to mind. “That louse Wittering went to school with you, and so for the sake of the old Alma Mater you have to regard him as a friend rather than as the petty-minded little traitor he was. Perhaps shooting him in the back wasn’t the act of a ‘gentleman’, but it was better than he deserved. The very notion of acting the gentleman in a business like this is worse than dangerous – it’s absurd. Danger may be a thrill to be welcomed, but absurdity is simply the mark of the amateur.”

“Mr Box, I might suggest that you lower your voice,” said Adamant, voice soft and eyes glittering. “This is hardly the place or time for discussion.”

He was, of course, right, but that is hardly the point. Still, one can only go so far arguing with a brick wall before it begins to pall. I would have relieved my feelings by kicking the curb, but it would undoubtedly have scuffed my patent leathers, and enough damage had been done to my wardrobe already that day. We reached the more tranquil surroundings of Duke’s Street in rather strained silence.

“It may come as a surprise to you, sir, to know that you would hardly be my first choice a partner for a matter of such high importance,” said Adamant, the click of his highly-polished shoes echoing in synchronisation with the tap of his sword-stick.”

“I’m pleased to hear it.”

“Indeed, I would have insisted that you be removed from the operation entirely, had it not been that your knowledge of artistic circles may prove valuable.”

“I would have looked forward with interest to reading of your death or permanent maiming in tomorrow’s Standard.”

“You seem to be to stand for everything low and degenerate in our fair age, and I can only pray that the values which you profess to despise will be those which form the moral heart of the century to come, not your code of permissiveness and moral relativism.” One might almost have felt respect for a man who could get his mouth round a sentence like that while keeping up a stiff walking pace, if one hadn’t wished quite so fondly that he might trip over a loose paving-slab and do himself a (preferable highly embarrassing) injury. “You claim to be acting for the good of your country; and yet what does your country stand for if not for those very values of decency and gentlemanly behaviour which you denigrate?”

“My dear fellow, decency and gentlemanly behaviour went out with the periwig and the gavotte,” I sneered. I sneer very well. “We live, as has been frequently remarked, in an age of surfaces. To appear the gentleman is the important thing.”

“So I have been informed,” said Adamant. “I am glad to say that there are at least some of us who do not subscribe to your fetishisation of the appearance over the essence. To pursue beauty, sir, is not to pursue truth. It is only to gaze into a mirror and gawp at what you find there.”

“The day I find a single man whose decent appearance conceals an equally decent essence will be the day I hang up my paint-brush.” Mixing my metaphors again, no doubt, but my emotions were running rather high.

Adamant smiled, thin-lipped and superior. “That would be a blessing both for truth and for beauty, and would thus satisfy us both.

“Do you see that rather unremarkable house, Mr Adamant?” I queried sweetly, pointing out a discreet green doorway with my cane, adorned with a discreet brass plaque.

“My eyesight is perfect, Mr Box.”

“But do you have any idea what it is, beneath its respectable and – dare I say gentlemanly? – facade?”

I noted the faint touch of tightening in the delicate skin around his eyes, and smiled inwardly. “I do not.”

“It’s a brothel,” I said, in a pleasantly matter-of-face voice. There was a slight mistiming between footstep and cane-tap, as if Adamant had stumbled half a pace. “Oh, it’s a highly select brothel, certainly. I’ve only been invited to it a few times myself. It’s so conveniently placed for Whitehall, you know, that it accepts only the most – trustworthy of members.”

As we passed the door and turned down towards Pall Mall, it opened to reveal – no, I probably shouldn’t name him. I’m the last person in the world to judge someone for what they get up to behind closed doors. Suffice it to say that he was instantly recognisable from his caricatures in the illustrated newspapers, and his job description began with ‘Secretary of State For – ‘

“I wouldn’t advise greeting him for the moment,” I murmured into Adamant’s ear. “I know you’re - friends - but it’s possible he won’t want to engage in any old Etonian reminiscences at the moment. Or perhaps he will. The bondage of the old school tie, the smack of willow on – “

“You try me too far, Box,” said Adamant, teeth gritted. “I would thank you to keep your filthy slanders to yourself.”

I spread my hands in an engaging gesture of wounded innocence.

“I told you, it’s a highly respectable establishment,” I protested. “They’d even be able to put ‘By Royal Appointment’ over the door, if that sticky business over in Cleveland Street a few years back hadn’t soured the political climate – “

I have, on occasion, been knocked down by men for outraging the honour of their wives or daughters. (An utterly groundless accusation, incidentally – I have never outraged an honourable woman. As doubtless their husbands or fathers would realise if they ever took the trouble to actually talk to them.) I have even been knocked down by men for insulting the honour of their nation. However, this was – as I reflected shortly after the first bounce off the cobblestones – the first time I had been knocked down by a man for impugning the honour of their King’s deceased eldest son.

By the time we came to the second bounce, however, I’d had time to notice that if Adamant had intended to knock some respect for the monarchy into me, he’d chosen a jolly strange way of doing it. The strangeness lay in the way he’d put his hand to the back of my head, cradling it so I didn’t brain myself in the pavement, and the way that on each bounce and roll he seemed to contrive to put some part of his anatomy – back, knee, elbow – between me and the worst realities of the street.

It was, in fact, a manoeuvre which I had executed myself on occasion, to rescue damsels from runaway cabs, thereby attaining their eternal and palpitating gratitude. (On occasion, the cabs might even have been close enough to them to actually be dangerous.) The fact that I’d now been cast in the role of the distressed damsel explained why I didn’t identify it sooner.

We rolled to a halt in a cloud of dust and small pebbles, as the wheels of the hansom cab thundered past approximately six inches from my ear. I coughed, eyes streaming, and attempted to peer through the murk.

“Did you get the number of that hansom?” asked Adamant, craning his head backwards to look up the road.

“It wasn’t a hansom,” I managed between wheezes. “A smart little gig – black picked out in red – pulled by a very fine chestnut.”

“Did you see anything of the driver?”

“Nothing distinctive. Hat and cape completely beyond the pale of fashion, but I suppose would-be murderers can’t pay much attention to couture. The passenger, however – “

“You could identify them?”

I smirked a little. “I hate to say I told you so, but – well, no, that’s not entirely true. I told you so.”

His grey-green eyes glittered up at me balefully. And it only goes to show just how an attempt on one’s life focuses the mind wonderfully, as that was the first moment that I realised I was sprawled rather liberally over Mr Adam Adamant. I was pushed up on my forearms – all the better for looking after murderous cabbies – but we were still tangled together from waist to toes. My heart was still pounding a little from our narrow squeak of an escape, but he still looked as calm and collected as an Attic sculpture of the Severe school.

Until I gave him my most charmingly rakish smile and most jauntily raised eyebrow, and crossed my hands across his chest.

“Mr Box,” he gritted. “Would you kindly get off me.”

I could feel his heart-rate rise fractionally through two layers of cotton, and was gratified to discover that I was apparently more disquieting than a few hundred pounds of horse-drawn vehicle being aimed at one at extreme speed.

Very shortly after this discovery, I found myself flat on my back in the gutter, and gazing at the stars, as the old saying goes. Oh, all right, gazing at the afternoon clouds. Actually, mainly gazing at Mr Adamant, who had my arms pinned above my head and was glaring down at me.

Have I mentioned lately that he is really quite remarkably attractive when he puts his mind to it?

“The passenger, Mr Box?” he enquired pleasantly.

I smiled. “It was your delicate flower, Miss Laetitia Allenson.”

He froze in place, frowning and seeming to forget my presence – and I, to my credit, didn’t wriggle once to remind him. “You must be mistaken.”

“I’d know that Titian-inspired hair anywhere.”

He shook his head, ever so slightly, as if trying to dislodge a bee from his fringe. Then he let go of my wrists, sat back on his heels, and looked thoughtful.

“That poor girl,” he murmured. “What terrible hold must those dastardly swine have over her?”

“I beg your pardon?” I spluttered, sitting up fast enough that we were brought almost nose to nose.

“To make her co-operate in this deadly scheme – even to the extent of putting her own life in danger?”

“The only thing that surprises me about her ‘co-operation’ is that she wasn’t driving the damn gig herself!”

He unfolded himself from the pavement and looked down at me, lip curled. Once again, the scoundrel didn’t offer me a hand up. “I would hardly expect a man of your notorious proclivities to know innocence when he saw it.”

“My proclivities?” I purred, insinuating myself to my feet. I suspect Adamant may have recognised my tone of voice, as he began to walk with more than usual speed and determination in the direction of Horse Guards. I fell cheerfully into step beside him. “My dear fellow, my ‘proclivities’ are precisely what give me leave to speak. Because, you see, over the years I have come to realise that once you strip away the frock-coats, waistcoats, corsets and crinolines – not usually on the same person, I’ll grant you, but there have been occasions – there is really remarkably little difference between men and women.” I smiled, sweetly. “Apart from the obvious, you know. Or possibly you don’t. In any case, I have never yet bedded an innocent flower of virtue without rather quickly discovering she was nothing of the kind. Letty Allenson is a force to be reckoned with, and if you don’t learn to look outside the confines of your admittedly very attractive head, you’re liable one day to lose it. My God, have you ever actually got to know a woman?”

“My knowledge of women, sir, extends over many nations and three separate continents,” said Adamant, serenely, though there was a touch of colour in his cheeks for a change.

“I do mean more than knowledge in the biblical sense,” I said, patiently. “Though to be honest I’m a little suspicious of the idea that you’ve even got that far. I mean actually knowing anything about one as a human being.”

“Do not presume to judge me by your standards,” Adamant snapped.

“And yet you regularly presume to judge me by yours.”

We were getting back towards Downing Street now. Not that I was in the least certain about what I was going to do with him when I got him home, but I could burn that bridge when I came to it.

“My standards are at least legal.”

“Aside from the duelling, the violence, and the aforementioned tendency to stab first and ask questions later?” I queried. “But really, that’s hardly the point. My standards dictate that we clout Letty Allenson over the head with a blunt object at the first opportunity. Yours will probably lead to her doing as much to you. Your blinkered world view will almost certainly get you killed one of these days. I’d really rather it didn’t do as much for me.” I was getting into my flow now, and really rather beginning to enjoy myself. “If there is a blot on the escutcheon of our fair age, Mr Adamant, I would say it lay in you and your kind rather than in me. You shackle and censor works of art and literature, and put ghastly frills around the legs of pianos. You put the purity of womankind on a pedestal, but I’m prepared to bet that if you’d ever troubled to ask your lovely Louisa her opinions on the matter, she’d say she wanted a little less purity and a little more – “

“How dare you!”

“It is the hypocrisy of the whole business I especially object to,” I continued, blithely, unlocking my front door and holding it open for Adamant with a slight bow. He entered, looking rather pinched. “A woman may run a household but cannot help run a country. A lady who will quite happily chortle through The Importance of Being Earnest will be scandalised by Salome, and won’t notice that the one can hardly exist without the other. A gentleman may cheerfully indulge in activities at the Pomegranate Rooms, the mere mention of which on the street outside could get him arrested. And at our public schools, the best and brightest of the British Empire are buggered on a semi-regular basis – “

“Enough, sir!”

I smiled, charmingly, at Adamant’s bark. “Ah, of course – you were an Eton boy yourself, were you not?”

I’m not usually a violent man. Well, no, I’ll confess, there are some circumstances under which I’m really quite a violent man. But the bedroom isn’t normally one of them. I’ve always found that seduction is the second most enjoyable part of the game – the most enjoyable being, of course, varied in species and entirely obvious in genus. But I have to admit – there’s something about being hoisted bodily off the floor and pinned against a wall by arms like steel bars wrapped in the finest Egyptian cotton that provokes my baser instincts.

I wriggled my fingers, experimentally, and decided that the fact of my still having sensation in them boded well for Adamant’s softening feelings towards me.

I smiled at him, and continued. “What you are pleased to call my ‘proclivities’, Mr Adamant, are simply the result of my refusing to feel shame over those things about which I feel no guilt. I believe that to be the only honest way to live. I wonder if you can say as much?”

“You try me too far, sir,” he said, in a voice like a crypt.

“But there lies your trouble, you see,” I commented in my most off-hand tone. “I have insulted you, I have cast aspersions against your moral rectitude and your sexual habits, and – worst of all! – I have bandied around the name of the woman you love in the most sordid manner. And yet, having pinned me so neatly against the wall, you have no idea what you want to do with me. Whereas I....” I shifted, slightly, and insinuated my thigh between his legs. “I know precisely what I want.”

All right, so it was a rather bold move. But I felt fairly confident that his concern for defending our country meant he wouldn’t kill, maim, or otherwise incapacitate me until my little spy-ring was safely installed at His Majesty’s pleasure. And I tend to pride myself on the fact that, while I am an appalling judge of character, I am an excellent judge of the odds of getting laid.

I am glad to report that the old skill had not atrophied.

Adamant’s eyes went rather wide, and the expression of cod-like surprise almost made an unwanted reappearance; but then they fluttered closed as his lips fell slightly open, which created a much more aesthetically appealing effect. His grip on my wrists loosened, and I slipped my hands free adroitly, before slipping aforementioned hands over Adamant’s immaculate (and delightfully close-fitting) waistcoat. I’d got about as far as fiddling with the first button, however, when his hands descended with the speed of a striking cobra and arrested the action.

I raised one eyebrow. His eyes were still quite closed.

I leaned in to kiss the strained expression off his lips, but he felt me in the movement of the air, and jerked his head to the side.

I rolled my eyes, and muttered, “Oh, have it your way then,” before attacking his neck with lips and teeth and tongue.

Personally, I’ve always thought that kissing was one of the more enjoyable activities that one could do with one’s mouth, but I’ve fucked enough people over the years who seemed to have moral objections to it that I didn’t exactly take his refusal as discouragement. Though that didn’t stop me taking my revenge on his cravat, hastily untied and left to hang forlornly, or his stiff collar, which shed its front stud onto the floor with a distinct pop-jingle-jingle sound, and thereafter flapped around his neck in a faintly apologetic manner.

I worked away at the vulnerable place where white skin met brown in a line so straight it might have been painted on, worrying it with my teeth and sucking pressure, soothing it with my tongue and cool breaths, until I heard a faint, shaky inhalation somewhere over my head which I thought was probably the closest to a show of appreciation I was ever going to get.

The best approach, I decided, would probably be the direct one. I dropped to my knees in a single graceful movement that Adamant, still having his eyes closed, didn’t appreciate at all, unbuckled his belt and unbuttoned his flies – and, on a side-note, I might add my name to that list of people who are calling for Dress Reforms, as I would be the first to agree that we’re all wearing entirely too many ridiculously fiddly clothes these days – and encountered –

I judged this would probably not be the best time to laugh, or offer a cutting remark, so I bit my tongue until the urge to do both had gone away, and got on with the job of extricating Adamant from his long woollen underwear. The fact that I had to resort to a bit of careful work with the throwing knife from the sheath strapped to my calf is neither here nor there, and Adamant didn’t seem in any state to notice or object. Poor lamb.

Having extricated at least the relevant portion of Adamant’s anatomy from the damned ugly underwear, I set to work with a will. Adamant was exactly what I’d expected – an elegant sufficiency, enticing without being intimidating, while also being clean, a rather fetching shade of puce (which put me oddly in mind of certain Turner sunsets, but that’s largely irrelevant), and already everything which its owner’s name rather suggested.

It was, however, something of a surprise when, after a few moments of conscientious (and not unenjoyable – I’ve mentioned that I think kissing is one of the more pleasant things to do with one’s mouth, but there are others) effort on my part, I felt one of his hands come to rest rather tentatively on my shoulder, and the other slipped gently into my hair. I took this as an invitation, and slid my own hands up the backs of his deliciously muscled thighs (damning the deliciously concealing trousers as I did so) to cup his deliciously firm bottom.

That won me something that was rather like a sigh, and the faintest jerk of his hips as his hand massaged my collarbone. I pulled back enough to smile, before starting work on him again.

But for all that – for all that he tasted positively sweet, and his size stretched both my lips and my abilities in just the right way, and for all that my mouth was watering like a starving man sent to Gatty’s with a blank cheque from his millionaire uncle – I thought it probably wasn’t the time to get too involved in the job. I suspected that Adamant, despite his status as gentleman, might not be the type to offer a friendly reciprocal hand-job once the flush of passion had worn off.

I pulled away with a somewhat regretful and rather liquid noise, and sat back on my heels, leaning against the wall.

“Perhaps we should take this into my bedroom?” I inquired. Adamant’s eyes snapped open with a look of suspicion, and I smiled up at him winsomely. “My manservant would receive rather a shock if he were to bring us some tea at this point.”

It might have been entirely my imagination, but I could have sworn I saw the faintest single particle of a blush on his cheek.

(It was true about my manservant, by the way. He knows all about my habits, of course, but he’d kick up the very devil of a row if he discovered I was fucking somebody else behind his back again. He’s terribly pretty, but there are times when I find him a little demanding.)

(You didn’t think I’d put up with a valet who let the dirty dishes pile up around the studio unless he had some pretty impressive skills in areas other than housekeeping, did you?)

Adamant’s hazel eyes had gone very green where they weren’t entirely engulfed in huge black pupils, and frankly it didn’t look like rational thought would probably be his forte for a while. Still, he managed to grasp the idea with tolerable swiftness, and stepped backwards enough that I could pry myself off the floor.

I took the business-like route again, and walked briskly into my adjoining bedroom. (No, the briskness wasn’t at all to do with my inability to overcome my impatience. Shame on you for suggesting it. It was all to do with making Adamant feel like he was in a comfortably public-school chap’s-chap sort of environment, where men were men and what they did with other men was only their own business. Honestly.) He followed me like one of those awkward ocean-going liners trailing the smart little tug-boat into harbour.

I did, incidentally, consider trying to encourage Adamant to disrobe at this stage; but he seemed a little vague about the technicalities of the whole procedure, and, as noted above, the intricacies of male costume at the present time are such that one seldom has the time to coerce an unwilling gentleman out of the full soup-and-fish.

“If you feel like making yourself comfortable...” I murmured, ever the gracious host, indicating my (thankfully freshly-made) bed. He looked at me, warily, but went and propped himself up on a couple of pillows against the headboard in a commendably obedient manner.

He kept one foot on the ground, though.

I, meanwhile, pottered around the room, undressing as I went and folding each item neatly as I stacked them up on a chair. No, I’m not usually the world’s neatest undresser. But Adamant seemed the sort of person who would hate mess, and secretly rather enjoy the view if I lingered a bit. Frock-coat, waistcoat, cuff-links, braces, spats and patent-leathers all came off pretty fast – well, fast in the relative sense, anyway. You try taking off spats fast in the absolute sense and see how far it gets you. I slowed down more than a little bit when I got round to actually removing my shirt, taking a little time over each button. It could perhaps have been said that I shrugged it off my shoulders with a little too much movement, and that when I removed my undershirt too I showed off the curve of my spine in a positively indecent manner as I bent to add it to the pile.

There might have been an element of showmanship in the proceedings. I couldn’t possibly comment.

The proceedings had to be judged to a nicety, of course, or the poor sap would either bolt or get bored. But I could hear the very faintest of indrawn breaths as I bent over the heap of discarded clothing, so I felt fairly confident of my reception. And why shouldn’t I have been confident? A rajah of my acquaintance once offered me a diamond the size of a hen’s egg to add my bottom to his harem, so I know full well the effect it’s had on stronger men than Adam Adamant.

I’ll admit though, when I looked back over my shoulder and caught his burning gaze, I wasn’t left entirely unmoved either.

I removed socks, belt, trousers and underwear a little more speedily after that, and wandered back to the bed. I have to say, it was more than a little gratifying when Adamant couldn’t seem to take his eyes off...well. I’m sure you can picture the scene.

I sat down on the edge of the bed next to him. The poor fish couldn’t seem to decide whether to run away or jump on me, and so had opted for the safe middle ground of paralysis. I prodded his foot with my bare toe.

“Shoes?”

His eyes narrowed. “I don’t – “

“Good Lord, man – I don’t believe your modestly will be any worse compromised with shoes off than with shoes on, and shoes on will make a damn sight more of a mess of my sheets.”

The man has the stubbornness of a cat. And if you’ve ever tried to herd a cat, you’ll know what I mean by that.

I sighed, knelt at his feet, and removed his shoes myself. A blow to my pride, perhaps, but needs must, and I didn’t want to have to explain sheets full of muddy boot-prints to my valet. And, since I happened to be in such a convenient position for it, I took the opportunity to have another go at his member with my mouth. Evidently my little strip-tease had had some impact, as he wasn’t noticeably calmer than when I’d left off, and his hands were in my hair again almost instantly.

Still, I’m a single-minded man. I didn’t get distracted for more than thirty seconds or so before I pulled away with a reproving glare, and lifted his trouser-clad legs firmly up onto the bed.

He didn’t put up much resistance, admittedly.

I took the opportunity to retrieve the little pot of Vaseline from my bedside cabinet – wonderful stuff, it’s amazing what these Americans can come up with. I don’t know too much about its vaunted curative power over burns and skin irritations, but I do know that since I started buying it, my lips have been unchapped, my hair impeccably groomed, and my exploits with certain members of my own sex infinitely more comfortable – and clambered back up onto the bed, starting to feel as though I was really doing too much of the work around here.

I also wanted to kiss Adamant rather badly, which was bloody irritating. His lips had that slightly-parted slightly-reddened look, as if he’d been biting them rather hard a moment ago, and that’s a look that’s always rather fetching.

I had to settle for just looking him in the eye, sitting back on my heels with my knees spread, and putting the Vaseline and my aforementioned long and elegant fingers to proper use. And now, best beloved, you know why I talk so much about my fingers in my memoirs. At times like this, pushing two of them slick with lubricant up inside myself and being able to mess about with my prostate just so, I bless my long fingers most fervently.

Adamant’s eyes certainly didn’t stay on mine for long, but were drawn inevitably down to the more interesting part of the proceedings. His eyelids veiled everything but a heated hazel glitter, and he licked his lips unconsciously as he watched me preparing myself.

I may have moaned rather a lot too. Anything to add verisimilitude to an etc. etc. I was starting to get a little bit vague on the details by this point anyway.

When I decided I’d probably struck the fine line that separates finger-fucking as practical preparation and finger-fucking as an end in itself, I crept a little way up the bed, and grasped his member in my slippery hand, slicking it up and guiding myself into place above it, before seating myself with a shivery sort of groan.

I was most pleased to discover that Mr Adamant lived up to his name quite admirably.

Still, his eyes had closed firmly now, even when I lifted myself up a couple of inches and lowered myself more firmly back down again, settling myself into place with a gentle rocking motion that usually gets the attention of the most absent-minded of partners.

“Would you....be so good as to look at me when I’m fucking myself on you, sir?” I gasped, feeling his length press within me in all the right places. “I do...rather prefer it...when the person whose cock is in my arse doesn’t appear to be trying to fathom the longitude at the same time...”

He still didn’t open his eyes. But I felt his hips twitch every time I let fall a profanity – bless him! – and at the end of my little speech, I was very pleased to feel his hands creep up my thighs, smearing the slight beading of sweat there, and settle on my hips so tightly I began to wonder if they’d bruise.

(Which was rather a relief, to be honest. Adamant was obviously a ditherer in the bedroom, and I was quite happy to force the pace a little, but I didn’t want to actually feel like I was making him fuck me.)

I bit my lip, and probably whined a little more, feeling his hands pushing me down onto his swollen member, and his hips hitching upwards to drive it deeper. Adamantine self-control or not, I thought he was probably getting quite close to his limits, and I reached down to touch myself so I wouldn’t be left in that awkward position of still trying desperately to get myself off when my partner was already attempting to roll over and get some sleep while avoiding the damp patch.

Pragmatism aside, though, the feeling of him coming inside me was quite incredible. Though perhaps not as incredible as the tight, sharp unspooling of release that I got a few seconds later, or the sight of white spatters against his impeccable grey waistcoat.

After that usual few shaky seconds of mental realignment, I careful disengaged and collapsed onto the bed next to him. I think I may even have kissed the couple of inches of bare skin between his untucked shirt and his slightly ravaged trousers, though what on earth could have prompted that sort of nonsense I don’t know.

Approximately forty-seven peaceful seconds later, Adamant got up, and disappeared in the direction of my bathroom.

All right. So I should have known better than to expect anything else from a man whose main experiences of sex seemed to have stopped after he got away from short-trousers and compulsory cold baths. Nevertheless, after staring at the ceiling for another two minutes, I came to the rueful conclusion that he hadn’t left me in the correct state of mind for my customary half-hour nap. So I sighed, and hoisted myself out from the inviting sheets. A wash would probably be pleasant, after all.

There’s something very wrong with a man who won’t let you take off his waistcoat when you’re having sex with him, but is entirely happy to strip down to the skin when it comes to dowsing himself with cold water from the basin afterwards. Adamant’s shirt, undershirt, cravat and collar were draped neatly over the towel-rail, his cuff-links and collar-studs safely stowed in the soap dish, and his waistcoat had already had the incriminating marks sponged off. He stood in his trousers and socks, washing his back and the nape of his neck, and the muscles moved under his skin as they might under the pelt of a panther.

He didn’t mention what he thought of my incised inroads on his long-underwear, so I didn’t ask him how he’d managed to improvise them back into a wearable state.

I began to run myself a hot bath, and sat down on the edge of the porcelain tub as it filled to enjoy the view.

“What are you doing?” he asked. I curbed the near overwhelming desire to congratulate him on having recovered the power of speech so quickly.

“Drawing a bath.”

“In the middle of the day?”

“We did just have sex in the middle of the day,” I pointed out, reasonably. “I don’t think a bath is much more decadent.”

He didn’t say anything to that, but began to scrub the back of his neck with unwonted viciousness. I watched, with interest.

When the bath was full, I located the soap, and hopped in with that feeling of blessed relief that always comes with bucketfuls of hot water after strenuous exercise.

“We must begin to make our plans for the apprehension of this spy ring.”

I lost track of the soap entirely in my surprise. No more complaints about the amateurishness of my operations? No more demands to run the operation himself?

If ever a manual is produced on how successfully to handle Adam Adamant, I shall have some very interesting suggestions.

“Well,” I said. “It’s funny you should mention that.”

And, soaping myself nonchalantly, with Adamant leaning against the sink and pointedly looking out of the window, I explained the plan.

* * *

Part IV