He was Will long before he was a William Clark, constable, and to his friends he was still Will when off-duty, which wasn't much these days. He roomed at a respectable house run by a retired army sergeant and his wife, and he sent home part of his pay every month to his old dad who was out in Weymouth.
Will didn't mind the country—it had been a good part of his past—but the city was his life now. London he loved with all its history and beauty and bustle. It was a place and a job that kept him endlessly, happily busy through every day and quite a few of the nights.
He hadn't been born here though, and when vexed or angry the rolling tones of the west counties would show up in his speech at times. That was all right though—most of the force seemed to have come from somewhere else as well. Even the consulting detective had traces of Sussex in his words at times, Will knew.
Nevertheless, when the selfsame Mr. Holmes beckoned him on the directive to "Talk to the girl and get her story," it took Will a moment to focus.
Part of it was that the girl was so damned pretty. Will knew that as a policeman he was supposed to rise above noticing that sort of thing, and that first and foremost came the case. Still, it was hard to miss the girl's big blue eyes, clear and bright like a summer sky. She had pale face dappled with thousands of light golden freckles, and straight black hair under her chambermaid's cap.
"Begging pardon, Mr. Holmes, but . . ." Will began uncertainly. "Shouldn't she—"
The girl murmured then, and the husky tone of her voice made him turn to look at her again. "I did see'm clear enough; I could drawr him …"
Sweet Dorset in every syllable, Will noted.
He dug for his notebook and pencil, handing them over to the girl without thinking about it. She took them with a murmur of thanks and began sketching quickly. Will noted Mr. Holmes was circling the room looking about, but his ear was out to the conversation right enough.
"Had a squint, he did, and hair like a turrier," she murmured to Will, who nodded.
"As in grey, or just wire-like, Miss?" he prompted.
"Both. Grizzled, but not owld. Mean looking one. Sort that's give you tin for brass," the girl replied, her drawing fleshing out under her moving hand. "He was in the passage and I sawr him when I come out of number fourteen and then . . . and then . . . ." The girl faltered and started to shake; Will set a steadying hand on her upper arm just as Mr. Holmes took the notepad. The girl dropped the pencil; Will wasn't aware of her slipping into the protective circle of his arm until she was against his chest, muffling her crying on his uniform jacket.
Mr. Holmes didn't seem to notice since he was engrossed in the drawing. Lestrade looked slightly embarrassed and rolled his eyes, but Will let the girl draw what comfort she could from him, and ever so gently patted her back.
She was warm, and fit against him nicely, in fact. Will thought she smelled good too; like clean cloth and lavender mostly, with some leather in there somewhere.
"Miss Mitchell, this is a remarkably good likeness," Mr. Holmes told her. "You have not a little talent."
"Thankyesir," came the muffled acknowledgement from somewhere along Will's jacket.
"More than just talent, too—you've studied art?"
"Grandfather," she finally raised her face, not quite stepping back from Will. He didn't mind.
"Taught you well, then. Lestrade, I'd suggest you get this around to your men and find out if anyone recognizes him or has seen him. Clarky, take Miss Mitchell home and make sure she's safe, will you?"
It was as good as an order, and cheeky as hell, even for Holmes, but when Will looked to Lestrade, his superior merely nodded, and that was all right then. He turned his gaze to the girl, giving her a quick smile.
"Shall we, Miss?"
She returned his smile timidly, and the sight of it warmed him right through, head to toes. He tucked his helmet under his arm and offered the other one to her, escorting her out of the hotel room and down the hall, letting her lead the way. They moved through the hotel and out along the kitchens; the girl knew her way and passed easily through spaces that took him a bit more time because of his size.
She stopped at a small worker's alcove to collect a thick, shapeless jacket, and finally they stepped out of a back door into a wide alley, where the sun was just touching the rooftops.
"Arre you really to see me home?" she asked, turning to look up at Will, who was putting his helmet on.
"You heard the order yourself, Miss," he agreed lightly. "We can't have good Dorset girls unprotected around here."
That made her laugh, and the husky giggles broke whatever ice was left between them. She pulled her coat more tightly around her and spoke up. "And what makes you think I'm good, Mr. Clarky?"
"It's Will, Miss, and I know you're good because you did the right thing back there," he assured her kindly. "Shall we?"
"I'm Charity, then. Hope your boots arre good because we've got a bit of a ways to step," she informed him ruefully. "Two miles."
"Who's afear'd?" Will replied gently, earning another sweet peal of giggles.
*** *** ***
Charity wasn't sure what to make of the ginger-haired copper who listened to her prattle on as they made their way down the streets. He was quiet, but he did listen, and nodded in all the right places. She noted too, that even as he listened, Will looked around careful-like, and kept her to the left, away from the curb.
That was the act of a gentleman for sure; she knew that because Big Bob would have said so, and being a cabby, he'd know.
So she spoke of little things, glad to take her mind off of finding the body in room twelve, and tried not to sound silly, even though she worried about being turned out. Them in charge didn't like fuss, especially at a nice hotel like the Grand, but Charity was sure if it came to it, she could find another job. She was a good worker, she knew, and girls helped each other out when they could.
"You're from west too, arren't you?" she asked Will as they crossed a street together. He gave her another smile, which she liked.
"Weymouth. Got a dad down that way."
"I'm from Chiswell," she told him happily. "We're practically neighbors, then!"
"Down the beach side?" Will asked her, and they were off, comparing places and sharing a hundred little memories in a friendly way. It had been a long time since Charity had enjoyed the long walk home, and as they drew near to the livery, she sighed pleasurably.
"And we're here," she murmured, and then raising her voice called out, "Oy! I'm to home!"
"'Retty girl, you're off early. What happened?" came a gruff voice as a spry little man came out of the open door of the livery and up to her. He was bandy-legged and smelt of horse. His rolling gate would have been comical if his face didn't look so worried. Charity reached for his hands.
"Murder at the Grand," she murmured in a low voice. "I found the body, so this ever so nice constable walked me home. Big Bob, this is Constable Will Clarky, and constable, this is my uncle, Big Bob Mitchell."
"It's just Clark, actually," Will murmured, touching the brim of his helmet. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir."
The small man gave a sort of grumbling sound that could mean anything, and then looked again at Charity. "You're not in trouble then, girl?"
Charity shook her head. "No, not unless the place lets me go, but I don't see why. I'm good and quiet and gets it done, so it should be all right." She turned to Will and smiled at him. "Cuppa, before you set off again? It's the least we can offer for that nice walk."
She saw him hesitate, and added impishly, "Real clotted, on scones."
He smiled at that, and Charity loved the dimple on his cheek when he did. Will Clark was a fine-looking man, and although he hadn't spoken too much of himself, she sensed he was a bachelor, which was a nice thing too.
"Haven't had that in two years or more," he murmured wistfully, and Big Bob flashed him a look.
"Weymouth, sir. Around Preston, exact."
Charity thought it was funny to see her uncle's face relax a bit, and she let the two men chat for a moment as she slipped inside the building next to the livery, pulling her coat off and darting through the hallway towards the kitchen. "Auntie Nell! We've got comp'ny for tea; help me set."
The little round woman with the thick rope of braid on her crown bustled up, apron damp, clothespins in her mouth. She pulled them out and stared at Charity in astonishment. "What are you home early for? No trouble is it?"
"I'm fine. Murder at the Grand, and we have the constable who walked me home for tea. Any scones?"
"Fresh, in the larder under the cloth," Auntie Nell murmured, peeling off her apron and tucking away the pins. "Murder!"
"Mmm," Charity agreed frowning, moving to set out dishes and checking on the kettle. "It's a bad business. Lucky t'was me that found the man and not Eliza. She'd have screamed her head off and then some. Where's the jam?"
"Second cupboard. Lord! Was it bad?"
"Stabbing," Charity replied tersely, moving the jam out to the table and peering out the window. "We'll talk of it later, please?"
Curious, her aunt joined her, peeking out. She began to smile broadly at the sight of Will out in the livery yard. "Ooooh. I'd best get the good biscuits too."
*** *** ***
By the time Will finished, made his goodbyes and walked the two miles back to the Grande he was feeling very good. The distance was nothing, really; he was used to putting in a few miles each day anyway, and the added pleasure of a full tea was definitely a capper.
They were, he decided, good people. Clearly Miss Charity Mitchell was being looked after properly, judging by the careful eyes of her aunt and uncle. It had been an unexpected comfort to sit and eat familiar treats and share a few stories from back home. He'd tried not to tarry too long; happy times were few for a copper, but when Will had thanked them and went to leave, all of them saw him to the door.
"Thank'ee again for bringing our Charity home," the aunt had murmured.
"My pleasure," he'd assured them sincerely.
It had been, too. Not just the food or the company, as unexpectedly nice as those were. The girl herself was a sweet one, and a man could get lost in eyes that dear a blue.
A long time since he'd let himself admire a pair of eyes. Or anything else, if Will was being privately honest. He'd put the heartache of Jenny aside when he joined the force, and most of the time he was too busy to think of women. The memory of Charity Mitchell however, was putting a pleasant and not so polite tingle through him at the moment, so he picked up his pace and fought a grin, making his way back to the Grand in good time.
No-one was there, so Will sighed and debated where to go next. His superiors might be anywhere at this point, and the closest option was Baker Street, so he set off again. It was just after sunset by the time he made his way up the stairs to Mr. Holmes' rooms, removed his helmet and knocked.
"Come in, constable," came the familiar voice as he stepped inside. "I see you had a nice country tea with Miss Mitchell and family."
"There is a hint of clotted cream on one corner of your mustache, and your fourth jacket button is undone where you thoughtfully tucked your napkin in to avoid spilling on your uniform."
Blushing slightly, Will used his free hand to do up the button, then brushed his thumb along his mustache. Mr. Holmes was looking out the window, and holding what appeared to be a dagger.
"Lestrade is off circulating Miss Mitchell's sketch and I am examining this. Do you recognize it?"
"The murder weapon?" Will ventured carefully.
Holmes turned and held it out, nodding just once. "It is, and not a very common one at that. This blade is a seventeenth century German hunting dagger, well-used by the condition of the blade and handle. I shall know more when my chemical analysis is done."
"And the victim?" Will asked. Usually Mr. Holmes was good about looking to those first. Never raising his eyes from the knife, the other man nodded.
"According to the hotel registry, he was Wilhelm Achen, an Austrian businessman visiting London this past week. Munitions, I gather, with connections all through the city, which makes narrowing our field of suspects difficult, but not impossible."
As Mr. Holmes rattled on, Will felt a pang of sympathetic admiration; it was hard on Mr. Holmes now that Doctor Watson was gone. The man wasn't showing off—indeed, he was working the way he usually did best: with an audience. Given how uncannily good Mr. Holmes was, Will didn't mind listening respectfully.
" . . . and then there is the matter of Miss Mitchell," Holmes finally wound down. Will blinked a little, and as he looked at the other man, he saw that the same concern on his face.
"If she's seen our killer . . ." Will began in a worried voice.
"Then most assuredly our killer has seen her, yes," Holmes finished. "Her sketch will make his escape that much more difficult, and he will probably want her . . . neutralized."
"Murdered too, you mean," Will corrected him, his expression darkening. The thought was horrible, and Mr. Holmes's euphemistic term made it worse.
Holmes gave him a steady look. "Yes. He'll return to where he saw Miss Mitchell, and ask around for her, or watch the doors. She mustn't come to work tomorrow, Clarky. Can you convince her to stay away?"
"I'm sure I can," he responded quickly, without thinking about it. "Char—Miss Mitchell is a sensible girl; she'll understand."
"Sensible yes; understanding may take some effort," Mr. Holmes sighed. "I will personally make sure the Grand doesn't sack her, and until this matter is sorted out, it would be best if she was kept out of the way. When is your next day off?"
"Day after tomorrow, sir."
"How would you feel about having it moved up a day?" Holmes murmured, staring again at the dagger. "I'm sure Lestrade will see the sense of having you watch over the girl. She knows and trusts you already, and it would permit us to set up men around the Grand."
"Inspector Lestrade . . . *could* be made to see your reasoning, sir," Will ventured carefully. "If you think it's the best course of action."
Mr. Holmes was now . . . sniffing . . . the dagger, and looked up absently. Will admired the man's luck in not cutting his nose. "Certainly. About how tall would you say Miss Mitchell is, Clarky?"
"Five five, approximately, sir, give or take the odd inch."
"I shall have to stoop a bit then. Off you go; I'll arrange matters with Lestrade, so you'll be getting the nod by dinner tonight. Maybe Miss Mitchell would like a nice day at out at Hyde Park, or a boat on the Serpentine."
It was only after Will was halfway down the stairs that he realized what Mr. Holmes was going to do, and grinning, he wished he could see the man in skirts.
*** *** ***
Charity was . . . nonplussed. That didn't happen often to her, but in fairness she'd had a rough night, full of uneasy dreams and little sleep. The images of the murderer and his victim kept coming into her thoughts, and although she tried to tell Auntie and Big Bob she was fine, she knew she wasn't.
She didn't want to voice the fear that had come to her in the darkness of the night, that cold realization that somewhere out in the city was a man whose face she knew well enough to draw, and who had every reason to hunt her down now.
So just after dawn, the sight of Will Clark down in the kitchen sitting at the table and having a cuppa with Auntie Nell was both bewildering and reassuring at the same time. Charity blushed and drew a hand to her hair, which was down and unbrushed. "What are *you* doing here?"
Will looked different in regular clothes; he wore a clean but faded shirt with a fawn waistcoat, with his jacket hanging off the back of his chair, and Chastity liked his easy smile more each time she saw it.
"Morning, Miss Charity. I'm here to keep an eye on you today, courtesy of the Met."
"He's got a paper and everything," Auntie Nell broke in excitedly. "You're to stay away from the Grand today."
"I'll get sacked!" Charity cried, aghast.
"No you won't," Will assured her quietly. "Mr. Holmes and the inspector will see to that. Your aunt here tells me it might be a good day to do some shopping, so I'm to escort the both of you to market and back."
"Market?" Charity echoed, feeling slightly lost, but also cheered by this prospect. "Midweek?"
"Freshest catch," Auntie Nell beamed. "We'll do Billingsgate for treat; won't your uncle be thrilled with oysters tonight!"
"But . . . but . . ." Charity spluttered a bit, and then brightened. "We could get that ribbon I've had my eye on too, couldn't we?"
Will let them chatter on and concentrated on his tea, feeling amused at the plans going on around him. He'd never been much of a talker himself, and the sound of feminine voices was a pleasant change from the monosyllabic sounds of his boarding house.
Within twenty minutes, matters had been firmed up, and Charity was back, hair neatly pinned up, her Sunday shawl over her shoulders. She waited in the kitchen as Auntie Nell stepped out to the livery yard to have a word with Bob, and poured more tea for the quiet man at the table.
"It's because of him, isn't it?" she asked softly, knowing the answer already. Will looked up at her, gaze steady.
"'Tis," he nodded, "But Mr. Holmes has a plan, and when it all works out, you'll be back at the Grand tomorrow with your week's shopping all behind you."
"What about your shopping, Will Clark?" she asked, suddenly aware that he was probably losing his only free day to her, and feeling guilty about it.
He smiled, and that dimple of his showed again. "A bit of ironing, and polishing m' boots can wait till Sunday."
"Ironing!" she murmured, surprised that a man would know anything about the process.
Will gave her a steady look. "My mother taught me, ages ago. Knitting now, never got that hang of that one."
She laughed. "It isn't easy, I grant you, but handy." Pausing, Charity added, "Are you *sure,* Will?"
"Yes," he murmured as the sound of her aunt returning grew louder.
The sun shone, and although summer was coming soon, there was still enough briskness in the spring air to make an extra shawl a comfort. Charity was glad of a warm arm to cling to, and on the other side of Will, her aunt was chattering away, speaking of everything and nothing in a bright tone of voice.
Around them the flow of foot traffic towards the wharf was getting thicker, and didn't do much to block the breeze coming off the water. Charity kept her basket from bumping people and glanced up at Will.
He had a nice profile, she thought—a good face, kind and there were those dimples. A few scars too, but given what he did for a living, she wasn't surprised. A copper's life had to be hard, especially in a city this big, and he'd probably seen more of the bad parts than anyone.
Then he turned and caught her expression. "Are you all right, Miss Charity?" Will asked her softly.
"Fine. A bit . . . brisk, this morning," she covered her thoughts smoothly and gave his arm a squeeze. "Think they'll have whelks?"
His eyes twinkled. "Now that is a Chiswell treat. We'll see."
"Nearly there," Auntie Nell sang out, looking far too cheerful as she handed her basket to Will. "Let's have a look round—"
It was fun, moving from stall to stall, looking at the fish laid out so neatly, along with oysters and crabs and eels and all sorts of clams and mussels. The sweet briny scent mingled nicely with hints of tar and salt all around them. Auntie Nell bickered and bargained, never settling once for the stated price of a single item, and the basket on Will's arm filled up with various prizes very quickly.
Will proved to be very adept at keeping an eye out, Charity realized. He kept them from bumping into people, and steered them through the crowded stall aisles smoothly, doing it without drawing attention to himself. She imagined him as a sort of tall ginger sheepdog, guiding round fluffy Auntie Nell to and fro, and the image was so comically accurate that in the middle of the street she burst into giggles.
This made both of them look at her, and THAT made it worse. Charity fought to regain her composure, accepting Will's handkerchief to cover her face for a moment.
"Well! What's gotten into you, girl? She's not like this at home, you know," Auntie Nell assured Will quickly. "Ourr 'Retty is a good industrious sober girl!"
"Of course she is," Will nodded. "I'm sure she's fine." He gave her a quick wink, and Charity was grateful that he seemed to understand. Later, when Auntie Nell stepped off to consider a stall full of coarse washcloths, Charity confessed to him in a low voice what had made her laugh.
His grin flashed out then sweet and vastly amused. "Oh Miss; as if anyone could steer your aunt where she doesn't want to go!" Will whispered back, conspiratorially.
For the rest of the afternoon, if she caught Will's eye for too long at any point, they would both begin to grin and look away; it was great giddy fun to share a laugh that way, and Charity savored it.
The three of them returned from the market in good spirits, and Will was more than willing to help clean the fish out in the yard. Charity liked the look of him with his sleeves rolled up and his jacket off. He seemed younger, and the muscles of his arms showed through in a very attractive way.
She bit her lip as she considered him from the window, seeing the lines of his shoulders and easy strength. A fleeting, naughty thought passed through her that she'd like to see much *more* of him, and Charity tried to push that out of her mind.
He was here doing a job, and even if the day had been lovely, it wouldn't do to expect more; the man was here to guard her, not . . . court her, she regretfully acknowledged to herself.