There was something about looking down the wrong end of the barrel of a gun that always focussed Holly's mind.
A whole city was going about its business around her, but she was oblivious to it. Horse-chestnut sellers cried their wares, smart coaches with handsome teams of horses rattled past and the hubbub of people shopping before the black of evening closed in... yet Holly heard none of it. She was aware only of the harshness of her breath and the jagged rasping of his. She could smell the metal of the gun's barrel and she watched with a lip caught in her teeth as the hands holding the gun shook, ever so slightly.
"You're not going to shoot me," she said. For a girl trapped in a shadowy alley with a man training a gun on her, she spoke with incredible confidence.
The gunman's laugh was hollow. "Again, yer mean?"
"You missed the first time." Holly's voice was as calm as she could make it. Despite herself, she could recall the amazing noise of the shot and the way the air seemed to hiss at her as the bullet had flown by her ear. "I know you did that on purpose."
The man sneered. "Oh did I?" he taunted. "Did I just, young miss?" He had all but conquered the shaking in his hands.
"You're going to put your gun down," Holly said. She'd dealt with five year olds that were more dangerous than this man. Really, this situation was nothing compared with the chaos young, sticky children could cause. "You're going to put that gun down and turn around," she continued. "And then you will walk away and I will walk away and nothing will ever…" She broke off as he started laughing.
"Anyone ever told yer you're nuts?" he asked between hacking laughs. "Why d'yer reckon I'm not going to finish yer off? Compassion?"
"Because you're not the person everyone thinks you are," Holly persisted, but she couldn't even convince herself of her own words. Something had gone wrong. This wasn't how it was supposed to go.
"Nah, I'm the person I think I am," said the man. "Which is lucky for me, bein' so entrepenerial and everythin'."
Holly shook her head. She had a firm belief that you should never become an entrepreneur unless you could first pronounce and then spell the word. She took a half-step towards the man and faltered when she saw the unrestrained menace in his eyes. The cold she could feel in her hands wasn't caused simply by the chill in the air. Everything was going wrong. She wasn't in control of this situation any more than she'd been in control of the mass mouse-breakout in the kitchen last month.
If she wasn't careful, she was going to end up dead.
Earlier that morning, Holly had been faced by the twin evils of Mrs. Jones and her father in a scarlet smoking jacket.
"Holly!" they both cried upon seeing her in the upstairs hallway, completely ignoring her Winter coat, her sturdy shoes and half a dozen other indications that she was about to depart the house.
Mrs. Jones, the housekeeper, deferred to her employer with an ill-concealed frown and a jerky curtsey.
"Holly, I've lost my ball!" Holly's father cried, patting at his pockets in agitation. He drew out several golf balls, which he discarded onto the hall carpet after a cursory examination.
Holly gave the small pile of golf balls a meaningful look. "Are you sure none of those will do?" she asked. "They look very much like golf balls to me."
Her father added a couple more balls to the pile before answering. "They're not lucky though, are they?" He shook another ball near her nose. "Does that look lucky to you?"
"It looks like a whitish blur to me," Holly admitted. "A lucky white blur!"
But her attempt at appeasing her father failed dismally and he took her hand to guide her into his study. "I last saw it in here," he said. "I'm sure of it. The little beggar must have rolled under a couch or a bookshelf or something." The three couches and four bookshelves in the room received a hearty scowl from her father. "You've got slim little hands," he said. "You can stick your arms in here and scrabble about."
Holly had almost been dragged through the door when Mrs. Jones intervened.
"But, Mr. Hughes! What of my message for Holly?" she cried.
"Oh, that can wait," he said, with a dismissive wave of his hand.
"Father!" Holly pulled her arm out of his grasp. "It could be important. It could be about Jacob."
"Who?" asked her father, blinking in confusion. Nothing seemed to matter to him beyond the lucky golf ball.
"Jacob," Holly said. "Mr. Watson. My friend."
This received another dismissive wave. "Oh, he'll wait. I have to be at the course in an hour!" He latched onto Holly's arm again, but Mrs. Jones had done likewise to her other arm and Holly found herself briefly caught in a tug of war between the two of them.
"My arms!" she protested weakly, fearing also for the seams in her new dress and coat.
"Miss Hughes, a man has called for you and he wanted to see you most urgently!" Mrs. Jones said. "He is waiting for you this minute in the parlour. You must go to him."
"No she mustn't!" Holly's father objected. "It would be most unseemly, a young lady meeting with a man in the parlour."
"Oh, he's quite old," Mrs. Jones countered. "There could be no harm in it."
"Quite old men," began Holly's father, who was almost completely grey himself, "are wont to have designs on lovely young ladies, just as young men do."
Holly felt a heat of embarrassment on her cheeks at her father's words and noticed that Mrs. Jones was likewise looking slightly outraged.
"Nevertheless," Mrs. Jones persisted, "I can hardly leave him waiting there, can I? Not when I've promised to fetch Holly to him."
"Oh, pah to him!" said Holly's father, seizing a sudden lapse in Mrs Jones's concentration and dragging Holly into the study once and for all. "My golf ball must be found!" he called to Mrs. Jones. "And Holly is the only one to do it! Tell this old man that he may wait his turn. Give him a scone or something, there's a good woman."
Holly spent the next quarter of an hour gingerly poking her hand under all manner of things, vainly searching for the allegedly lucky golf ball, all the while worrying that someone with vital information was waiting in the parlour, twiddling his thumbs and feasting on Mrs. Jones's scones. She gritted her teeth as she quested under a geriatric armchair. It was shame her tricks had never worked on her own father. "A damn shame," she muttered to the musty cushion of the armchair.
"My dear," said her father, settling his slightly corpulent frame into another armchair. "Did I ever tell you about that time I sent a ball flying right through the window of Lord Witchley's brand-new conservatory?"
Holly rolled her eyes at the cushion in front of her. "Yes, father," she said, with admirable constraint (or so she thought). "Several times."
Her father gave a disappointed "ah" and searched for another topic of conversation. "So, er... How's your mother these days?"
Pausing in her search, Holly thumped her forehead against the armchair. She could hear hope lurking behind her father's words like an excited puppy on a leash. How was she going to explain the six unnecessarily attractive gardeners now working for her mother when her father was asking hopeful questions like that?
"Oh, fine," she said at last. "She's, er, having the rooms in the south wing painted green." It was an incredibly hideous green and Holly had been grateful that her rooms were safely out of reach in the east wing.
"Green, you say?" said her father, nodding. "And... when is she coming to town?"
"I really couldn't say," Holly said, returning to her vain search under the chair.
"You don't think there's a chance she might be visiting you here, then?" Again, Holly could hear the Puppy of Hope bounding up against her father's words.
"No, she's really quite busy."
"Well, an estate doesn't run itself, I suppose," her father said. Even though her back was to him, Holly could clearly picture the look of bewildered disappointment on his face. "And she's not interested in this... boy of yours?"
Holly bit back a sigh. "Father, he's not a boy and he's not 'of mine'. He's a friend and he's gone missing. I told you this when I came."
"Yes, but be fair, Holly," her father said. "I was trying to pick a new pair of golfing socks when you were telling me. A man can only concentrate on the important things, you know."
Holly stood up at last. "There's no ball there," she said.
"Oh well. Try under that dresser thingy over there." Her father pointed in the direction of a hideous piece of furniture whose actual use was uncertain. At present, it seemed as though her father was using it to store empty shoe-boxes and old breakfast plates. "So you think your boy's in the city, do you?"
"I really don't know," Holly said. She was growing more and more uncertain as the days went by that her friend was in the city. There was probably more hope of finding her father's golfball in a pot-plant than there was of uncovering Jacob Watson in one of the grimy streets of the city. "This is where he was last seen, so I suppose it's a better place to start than any."
They both turned at a rapping on the door. Mrs. Jones entered without preamble. She curstied briefly to Holly's father.
"I'm sorry, sir, but there's no jam fit to be served," she said.
"Jam?" asked Holly's father, bewilderment plastering his features.
"For the scones," Mrs. Jones explained, taking care to use slow and patient words. "You told me to give Miss Holly's visitor scones, despite the fact that he asked to see her most particularly and won't stop jigging about in the parlour and looking at his watch."
"Well, send a boy out to get some," Holly's father said. "Good grief, woman, you can't expect me to tell you these things."
"I was thinking of going myself," Mrs. Jones said. "And perhaps Holly would like to entertain the visitor while I'm gone."
"Don't be ridiculous," Holly's father said, putting a stop to Holly's hopeful step towards the door. "He'll wait. It sounds like it would do him good to learn some patience. Send a boy for the jam and stop bothering us with trivialities."
Mrs. Jones glowered at him, sent Holly an apologetic glance and left the room. Holly gritted her teeth and returned to her searching.
In the end, they found the golf ball in the pocket of her father's golfing jacket. Holly didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She settled for giving her father a look of anguished suffering before running downstairs to the parlour.
But the mysterious visitor was gone without leaving a trace of his presence. No card, no note.
"Not even a message?" Holly asked as she stood in a parlour completely devoid of any mysterious visitors.
Mrs. Jones shook her head, looking affronted. "I asked him most specifically if he wanted to leave you a note but he muttered some rubbish about not daring to put anything in words." She raised her eyes in eloquent disdain at the behaviour of this mystery man. "I'm sorry, Holly. I did my best to get you away from your father."
"Never mind, Mrs. Jones. My father can be most determined," Holly said. "Especially when it comes to golf." In fact, one year, he'd delayed Mirasmas dinner by four hours to complain at length about a missing golf club, which it later turned out he had donated to a charity auction in Englewood.
Mrs. Jones's only response to this statement was to look stoically at the front door.
"Did this man leave a name at least?" Holly asked, pulling her gloves on.
"I'm afraid not, miss."
Holly tugged a hat onto her head and smiled grimly in the hall mirror. "And has he been gone long?"
"Just left a few minutes ago, miss," Mrs. Jones said. She looked at Holly in sudden suspicion. "Why do you ask?"
"Because I intend to catch him," Holly said. She wasn't about to let a possible clue slip out of her hands simply because of propriety. "I don't want to alarm you, Mrs. Jones, but this may involve running." She gave Mrs. Jones a mischievous wink before finally stepping outside.
Mrs. Jones ran to the door before Holly could vanish into the foggy streets. "Wait!"
Holly turned in impatience. "What is it now?"
"You don't even know what he looks like, you silly girl," Mrs. Jones said.
"Oh yes." Holly was at a sudden loss. It probably wouldn't do her any good to chase after random strangers in the street, simply because they looked like they might have important information to divulge.
"He was wearing a dark blue coat," Mrs. Jones said. "With a silly grey cap. And he was about your father's height, although rather a bit slimmer."
Holly gave her a grateful smile. "Thanks." She looked up and down the street and finally pointed to the right, which led to a series of shops. "I think I'll try this way."
Mrs. Jones watched as Holly set off down the foggy street, walking a little too jauntily in her opinion. "In my day," she said to no-one in particular, "we didn't go haring off down the streets after strange men." She closed the door and adjusted her cap in the hall mirror. "No indeed. We waited politely at home until they came to visit."
Author's Note:I'd love to hear what you think about this story. Is something annoying you? Have I explained everything properly? What doesn't work? What do you like? Your feedback will help me improve!