A Question of Holmes (Charlotte Holmes #4)(8)

I wanted to improve on that—politeness—as I disliked being bad at things. So I stuck a smile on my face and hoped it would soften into a real one.

Rupert, bless him, was still talking. “Yes, well, this is my second year here! And my first year I met this boy Theo on the train and he wound up in my stairwell. And Anwen—oh, you’ll love Anwen. Ended up with her by mistake. Someone thought she was a boy by her name, stuck her with us, but no matter. We stayed up all night talking about music and Wales—we were all thick as thieves, the three of us, before you could snap your fingers.” For effect, he snapped his.

This was too much information. I had to stall while I sorted it out.

“I love a fast friendship,” I said, pulling Rupert’s umbrella off the chair so I could sit. “Tell me more about Theo. Is he originally from Wales as well?”

What are you doing? Watson mouthed to me. Stop what you’re doing.

“America,” Rupert said happily. I imagined he would still be thrilled if Theo came straight from the bowels of hell. “Boston, maybe? Providence?”

“I love Boston,” I said. “And Providence.”

Watson eyed me, then the seat with the shoe on it. “Is it okay if—”

“Oh, yes, of course,” Rupert said, and set it on the floor beside his socked foot. “You know, Anwen and Theo—”

And at that point, the program director mercifully took the stage.

As for Anwen and Theo, they didn’t arrive until orientation was under way. In fact, quite a few people slipped in late, and from the confident way they found their seats, I decided they were largely returners. None of this information would be new to them; might as well linger outside.

On our end, there was quite a bit to learn. Watson paged through his folder as the program director ran through the regulations. All meals off-campus or in one’s kitchen; a long, disturbingly specific list of things not allowed in the dorms or flats—fireworks, cigarettes, goats, houseplants. (“We had an incident with a Venus flytrap last year,” the director said darkly.) There was a brief session about the Oxford tutorial system, as well. In addition to twice-weekly lectures we’d attend as a class, we’d meet in small groups with our tutor to discuss the material in depth.

“You can’t fake your way through a tutorial,” the director said. “Don’t even try.”

So much for the two of us lying around, watching television. Watson looked a bit pale. He was here to study fiction writing, but I think he had imagined this would be the same sort of classroom-workshop setting as at Sherringford. It was something altogether different to sit in a small room while a decorated writer paged through your story mere inches from your face.

Then again, perhaps it wouldn’t be anything like that. Perhaps, after everything, we’d finally found ourselves in a healthy learning environment.

“They’re going to eat us all alive,” Theo said, flinging himself down next to me. At least I assumed this blond, broad-shouldered boy was Theo. The flap of his messenger bag was open—three brand-new Pilot V4 Very Fine pens, a dog-eared copy of Hamlet, an apple in a plastic bag.

“Oh. Sure. Well, that’s fine.” Watson went pale. “Totally fine.”

At that, Theo smiled. “I’m making it sound pretty bad, aren’t I? Sorry. We like to bait the new blood.”

They appeared to want to continue talking, so I kicked Watson in the shins. Just in time—the director had turned a gimlet eye on us. After a moment, he continued monologuing (proper comportment amongst older students, program reputation, etc.), and Theo relaxed his shoulders, and a redheaded girl slipped into the seat between him and Rupert. She didn’t have an orientation folder, or even a bag. She had, in fact, nothing with her, and she sat there in her dark dress and boots as though that was all she needed to bring to the first meeting of a prestigious credit-bearing university program.

I had always admired that sort of insouciance in a girl, as I am nothing if not prepared. If I don’t have my orientation folder (or similar) it is because I have a primary goal (sleuthing) that negates my secondary one (everything else).

For a slightly delusional half second, I checked Anwen over for any signs that she was a detective. Nothing from her fingers, smoothing her dress; nothing from her unfocused eyes, her relaxed mouth—

Watson poked me. “Stop staring,” he whispered.

“I’m not staring.”

“You’re staring at her like you’re carving her up.”

Really, he was so unbearably dramatic. “I have no plans to quarter her.”

“Like you’re thinking about making pork chops, or something—”

The director clapped his hands twice. “All that said, welcome to the Oxford Precollege Program! We’ll see you all at the welcome dinner tonight.”

“I hardly ever eat pork chops,” I told him, putting my folder into my rucksack. “I don’t eat human pork chops at all.”

Next to me, Theo laughed, a sound that tunneled into a snort, and Anwen shook her head, and Rupert said, “You two are bizarre. Where should we go to eat?”

Watson looked down at his schedule. “The JCR, it says? The Junior Common Room, in an hour?”

“That’s where they’re eating,” Anwen said. “We’ll go for a pint later, but for dinner, we can do better. Where are we going, Rup? D’you want to book us in at that Italian place over by Trinity College? Next to the used bookshop, the good one. The food was terrific last year.”

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