I'll be judge, I'll be jury

The door swung open with a steady, terrifying inevitability. It thudded into the doorstop, and boomed quietly, as though a hand had been set against it to stop it quivering. Light flooded harshly into the shadowy room, cutting into it like a blade, and the gust of air that came in made all the motes of dust leap up and dance.

"Your lawyer, my lord," Riff announced. "Herr von Karma. With his secretary and assistant."

Riff's master rose from where he had been sitting, next to an orchid that was failing to thrive, and walked across to greet the newcomers. Von Karma himself was a bull of a man, somehow throbbing with a vitality that was more than a little threatening. His white hair was swept back from his high brows, and he did not walk, he strode menacingly, advancing into the room like an invading division. His assistant was a smaller, younger man in dark red, with white ruffles at his throat and a lean and hungry look: the secretary was a young woman, as pale and eager as cut glass, with thin twitching fingers and cool hair of ice-blue-grey.

"Herr von Karma," Riff's master said softly. "How very kind of you to come so promptly. I hope that my message did not inconvenience you."

"A small matter," von Karma rumbled. He made no move to extend his hand. Nor had Riff's master. "A simple enough trial, a straightforward conviction. I am always ready to attend on the Hargreaves family, if they have any request to make."

"I have had little need to call on you in the last few years," Riff's master said, with a delicate half-smile. "You will understand that I had nothing worthy of your attention."

"True," von Karma said. He took another pace into the room, looking around with a gaze as sharp and cold as a scalpel. Riff could feel it against his skin for a moment. "I expect something more of a case from your lordship. Anyone can deal with fools. I am an expert instrument."

The young man in crimson coughed. "If your lordship would be kind enough to give us the particulars of the case in which he requires defense -"

"Dolt!" von Karma snapped. The young man flinched at the force of the word, his shoulders drawing together as though someone had laid a cane across his back. "Forgive my student, your lordship." His words were not a request. "He has not been involved in the Hargreaves business before. He fails to understand that we do not act in your defense. Instead, we prosecute at your request."

"Quite," Riff's master said, waving a hand in loose dismissal. "Pray excuse your assistant. I am sure that he had no notion of what he was suggesting."

The woman kept her lips pressed firmly together as she drew a small notebook from one glove. She flipped it open, and traced quick lines across the stark pages with a small pearl-handled pen.

"Hrm," von Karma rumbled. "Let us turn to the offense. You have the details?"

Riff's master turned to Riff, raising an eyebrow, and Riff stepped forward, proffering the document case which he had been holding under one arm. "Sir," he said, bringing his heels together. "The information on the gentleman in question."

Again, for a moment, von Karma's gaze rested on him like a physical thing, all presence and weight, something flickering in the man's eyes like electric current. Then von Karma turned back to Riff's master, plucking the document case idly from Riff's fingers as he did so. "Adequate," he said, not even troubling to look at the papers inside it. "It will do."

"The usual payment will be deposited in your account at the Bank of England," Riff's master said. "I believe I need not wait on the outcome of the trial."

von Karma's shoulders rose and fell. "What need is there to wait? You assure me that the man is guilty. I shall assemble the evidence, construct my case, and prosecute. He will be convicted. Such an outcome is inescapable."

"Cunning old Fury," Riff's master murmured. "I know that I can leave it in your capable hands."

"Just as I leave other matters in yours," von Karma snapped. "Our families have had an understanding for a while, Count. You deal with matters in your way, and cultivate your own garden, while the von Karma heritage is to prosecute in court. Murderers do not escape."

"Indeed," Riff's master replied. "And between us, we take great care that our paths do not . . . cross. Is that not so?"

von Karma shot another glance at Riff. "You speak freely, Count," he said.

"As we have stated," Riff's master said, "I have had little need to call on you in the last few years. I am a young man, and new to my position. I would not wish the understanding between our families to be in any way weakened by that, or for the Hargreaves family to be . . . underestimated. I am the head of my house and the current master of my line."

von Karma was silent for a long moment. "Indeed you are," he said, in slow deep tones as inexorable as a glacier. "And in keeping with the understanding between our families, Count, I will say that I have no desire to see you before me in court. I will hope that the discretion of your house and your line prevent this from being the case."

Riff's master nodded. "Even so. Thank you for your response to my request, von Karma. Riff will see you out."

Riff moved to hold the door open. With a single sharp inclination of his head to Riff's master, von Karma strode through, followed by his two assistants.

von Karma needed no assistance in finding his way to the front door. He had clearly visited the house before: he knew his way through it, past the long velvet-draped windows and the fragile furniture, the dark wallpaper and the thick soft carpets.

He paused at the doorway, glaring at Riff one more time. "As a courtesy to your master, boy," he said, "stay out of my way. I know what I see, and I know the look in a man's eye. I have no agreement to shield you, and I would see you suffer the death penalty without a single moment's hesitation."

Riff blinked. "Sir, for that, I would need to have committed some crime. I assure you that I am innocent."

von Karma snorted. For a moment a dark and hideous amusement flared in his eyes, like the laughter of the devil in hell: and then he was gone, and the door shut behind him.