SUMMARY: Dick Francis books - Sid Halley 'I'd been held at gunpoint before, but it was one area that experience didn't make any less daunting.' Set after 'Under Orders' & contains spoilers.
NOTES: Written for Jane Carnall for Yuletide 2006.
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
I'd seen Sid Nestor on better days.
I knew him from way back. Sid and Sid, they'd used to joke about us in the changing rooms. The Two Sids. The joke was made by the visual. He was tall for a jockey, tall for anyone, and putting us next to each other provided quite the contrast. It was never terrifically funny, just one of the world's little quirks. Sid and Sid. Then after I'd risen to the lofty heights of Champion Jockey I was Sid, always, and he was Nestor, and nobody made the joke anymore, and I'd missed it, a bit.
His career in the saddle had been longer if less successful generally than my own - truncated even as my left arm had been - and it was another of the world's little quirks that I should have been the one to end it for him. I couldn't choose the repercussions my investigations threw out, however, or who was left implicated when the bigger fish went down, but he was still guilty, and it was his own fault he'd been warned off.
I was given to understand, facing down the wrong end of a shotgun, that Nestor didn't see it that way.
His constant struggles to keep his weight low had made him gaunt, and the effect had only worsened in the years since we'd raced together. His bones jutted beneath the pale skin, which was not usually so pale as today. He never could find clothes to fit him right, and the khaki jacket and grey slacks he wore sagged on him. He looked like he hadn't slept since he'd had the news, and that had been four days ago now. He looked like death. I'd faced down death before, but I still wasn't thrilled about the way the shotgun was shaking in his hands.
I didn't move.
I'd been held at gunpoint before, too, but it was one area that experience didn't make any less daunting. I'd even been shot before, an experience which had rather the opposite effect. I'd too many escapes behind me already to hope I'd survive another bullet. Luck ran out, always.
I wished he'd found me anywhere else. In the street. At the races.
Well, perhaps not. There were a lot less people to get caught in the crossfire and bleed out on the lawn at Aynsford. My own misfortune if they should happen to be all the people I most cared about.
I looked back down, away from the gun barrels. The pressure I was currently using it to apply was all that prevented my own single hand from shaking as badly as Nestor's two. My left hand, plastic and machinery, hung at my side, useless for this task. Blood oozed between my living fingers. Not fast, not arterial, but I was no doctor to look at a chest wound and predict what the bullet had hit. I didn't know what the chances of survival might be. Charles... my father in law, Charles Roland... wasn't a young man.
Anger was rising steadily in me to replace the numbing shock of what had all happened disorientingly fast. Charles shouldn't have taken that bullet. For myself, I had chosen dangerous vocations and lived with the prospect they might lead to horrifying injury or even death for the biggest part of my life. I was angry that lately, it seemed to be spilling over to everyone else I'd let close to me. Sid Nestor's bullet should have been mine.
I raised my head again to glare at Nestor, but the gun in itself did not contain enough horror to claim my attention, and I found my eyes were quickly drawn back to Charles.
My best friend was not, I thought, he was absolutely not going to die here today because of that pathetic, small-minded crook.
Because of me.
The first time I ever met my father in law I had six stitches in my scalp and horse-shoe shaped bruises all over my ribs, courtesy of being landed on by most of the fifth race at Doncaster. The pills I'd taken for the ribs were having a minor disagreement with my stomach. Needless to say, I wasn't feeling very bright. Needless to say. this probably didn't help.
To treat those as mitigating factors would be to discount the chasm of class and schooling that would, in any case, always have gaped between us as an obstacle to be bridged. It was undoubtedly true that Charles was predisposed to loathe me on sight that day because he disliked intensely the idea of racing and all who worked in the industry. He was also primed, perhaps, and understandably so, to distrust any man in the position of wishing to attach himself to Jenny, his attractive daughter and my first wife. But in the eventual days of our subsequent friendship it was occasionally a consolation to remember that it was hardly among my best moments, either.
He'd said to Jenny, "So this is your jockey." I'd heard the contempt in his voice and witnessed the curl of his lip, and I'd thought, All right, then, and sod you, too. And I'd grit my teeth and knuckled down to monosyllabic responses and unwilling, chill politeness.
Getting through the afternoon, as with the many following Sunday afternoons, became a duty and a chore. Neither of us made any purposeful attempt to set things right or look below the surface after that. I was internally appalled when Jenny insisted upon making the weekly visits a ritual, endured them silently for her sake, and even after our whirlwind courtship led to marriage the frost endured through our visits to Aynsford. Over the following months our preconceptions continued to stretch a gulf between myself and the Admiral. The stone frontage of Jenny's beautiful and vast old childhood home, the sight of which brought her such joy, remained to me a glowering promise of hours' tedium and hostility to endure. Until, eventually, things had changed.
It had been one hell of an afternoon's chess.
After the second game, the one we had tied, he sat back in his chair sipping thoughtfully at a tumbler of whisky and I sat uneasily in mine, empty handed (all two of them, in those days), unsure where we now stood. We eyed each other in cagey re-evaluation. The combativeness of the chess games, while undoubtedly having changed his view of me, had not exactly drawn an obvious shift in the clash between us. That hung still almost tangibly in the air. But he did clear his throat, dubiously frame my name "Sid..." in opener to a sentence that went forever unfinished, toss back the remainder of his drink and offer me another whisky as he abdicated the awkward closeness of the chess table and got up to replenish his own. He also expressed brusque but fervent interest in engaging in a further match the following week.
I still thought him insufferably pompous, but it seemed he at least now considered me good for something after all - even if it was merely the occasional game of chess.
The rest, as with everything, took time to follow. By the time our relationship was well and truly cemented, of course, Jenny's and mine was just beginning to fall apart. One of life's ironies.
"Any time you feel like raising those hands," Nestor said, jerking the gun in a wobbly indicative gesture. His lips were bloodless and his voice a hoarse growl. The smell of alcohol was strong on his breath. "I could shoot you, you know, any time I wanted. You can see that I could shoot you, so do as you're damn well told. And keep that plastic thing away from me."
And perhaps my own reactions were askew for a man facing down the wrong end of a gun, but normal thought processes had been hijacked by disaster. I also thought he was going to shoot me anyway, whatever I did, and that he had little to lose and no reason to back off, after his first shot had already hit Charles.
I didn't began a near-suicidal lunge for his throat. For one thing, it was damned difficult to do whilst kneeling in damp grass with one hand trying to hold in my father-in-law's lifeblood and the other plastic. Instead, I said, with arctic calm, "If I take my hand from the wound, Charles could die." I used his name. Nestor had no knowledge of my family or my father in law personally; what friendship we'd once had had been a working one, and in those early days Charles still abhorred racing and me. Before now, the two men had never met. Yes, you silly bastard, I thought, looking up at his face and willing him to come back to his senses, don't you realise that you just shot a man? Not even the man you meant to shoot.
Not a flicker.
I said, "If Charles dies, you'll go to prison for a long time."
I could see that he'd been planning on it anyway.
"I don't care about the old man," Nestor said, and I did hear a faint quaver in his voice, almost drowned out by the fresh spike of my anger at his words, but not enough. He was sorry about Charles, barely, but it wouldn't stop him. "If you don't raise your hands, I'll shoot you now. If I shoot you while you're hunched over him like that," he added savagely, "I could just end up hitting him again. I'm no great shot with this thing. Do it, Halley. I'll let the girl see to the old man."
The 'girl' was my wife, whom I'd have preferred to keep out of the whole thing. My investigations had already endangered her enough. That ship had sailed before I could open my mouth to object, as she obeyed Nestor's brusque gun-filled gesture and hurried from her relative safety as a helpless background bystander to a foreground of bullets and life-threatening danger, which I'd thought she'd seen enough of to last a lifetime.
Marina took over with Charles, with her two whole hands. Probably no bad thing on balance, since in addition to the extra limb I supposed she knew more about such things than I did. Supposed, because our relationship was young, still at the stage where we were making new discoveries about each other every day. We managed to steal a desperate eye contact between the gunman's threats and urgency, and I hoped my returning gaze was more reassuring than I feared it probably was.
"Get up," Nestor said again, and I had no excuse now bar cowardice, though I was sure he intended to shoot me as soon as I did. I got up and backed off by several slow steps, taking myself as far as I could from Charles and Marina, right up until he told me to stop.
I'd thought he might do so with a bullet, but apparently I was to have a few moments longer.
I wondered how long it would take the police to arrive. Jenny, in the house, must surely have heard the shot already fired and called them. How long a time had passed since then? It felt like hours, but it could be minutes. She could still be on the telephone. I turned a bitter laugh into a wrenching cough. Damn.
The most likely scenario had to be that it would take too long for help to arrive for either of us.
"Sid," he'd said, that first time I saw him after, abrupt and to the point as always. "I'm damnably sorry. This is all such a thoroughly abominable thing to have happen."
He had heard, then, as I had in between all of the fencing around, that there would be no fixing the mess that a razor-sharp racing shoe and the weight of several hundred pounds of horse had collaborated to make of my left hand and wrist. I said with what felt to me like a disconsolate heaviness that did not in the least match the tone I was aiming for, "Cheer up, Charles. I had a good run for my money," and I watched as his carefully-prepared sympathy was replaced by faint bafflement.
"Certainly you did." He tried to catch up. Even in my current muddy state, I could see the calculation behind his eyes, as he shifted to take in the way the wind was blowing. "It's a bloody awful shame, all the same." He paused, then added, "I wish Jenny had shown up." Irritation coloured his voice. On the whole, I might've preferred that to the sympathy had it not been for the subject it brought with it.
I bit my tongue. His premeditated answer to the next question on it was final enough that I'd no excuse to ask now. Was my wife coming? No. I'd known the answer would be no and in spite of all, I had energy enough to be annoyed with myself for meaning to ask. It had been over between Jenny and me for months now, nearly three of them, and a vain hope that the ruin of my career would bring her back, when I'd refused to leave it as the condition of keeping her.
Charles saw it in my face, because he then said explosively, "Damn her." Which was a surprising thing for a man to say about his own much-doted-upon daughter. All such a bloody mess, I thought, not for the first time.
I averted my eyes again from the other, far less metaphorical bloody mess, the one on the end of my left arm. It was swathed in bandages, inside which it was splinted and pinned and sewn together and God knows what else. The odd red spot showed through the white of the bandaging. The state of my world, at that moment, I thought. A bloody mess.
Less fancifully, the state of my world was actually sitting up in a hospital bed feeling grey, having been transfused several units after spilling much of my own blood out of my stripped wrist all over the tended turf of Stratford-upon-Avon racecourse. I wasn't particularly in pain, because my hand was an absence, as numb as though they really had cut it off as they'd wanted to do. I couldn't feel it at all. I had a general awareness that I didn't know how long it had been since the fall, in between operations and needles and drifting in and out of chemical haze, and I could not move myself to care enough to ask. The deep-settled feeling that the best part of my life was over and the future a gaping, ominous chore didn't leave a lot of space for anything else.
"Sid," Charles said, a bit forcefully for a man talking to a patient still in fairly wobbly health, earning a glare from a hovering nurse. Deliberately calling me back from that place. "You don't have to say it," he added, in more considerate tones. "I do know that it's really not all right."
Since he'd handily absolved me of any need, I said nothing at all, though I would've said nothing at all in any case. I watched him sink down in the plastic visitor's chair beside my hospital bed. His face was grim. Jenny was a void between us.
Father in law is a relationship that traditionally ceases to have any meaning when marriage turns into disenchantment, recrimination, and final, unresolvable separation, which state we had by that time reached, even though we had not yet entertained the legal niceties of divorce. I supposed I was exceedingly lucky, then, that former Rear Admiral Charles Roland was also my friend.
He had been trying, so I'd thought, to place a little more distance between us since Jenny had left me and we'd sold the house where she and I had lived together. Our friendship died hard, resisting the indisputable duty of the father to support his daughter's corner, but he had been achieving some reluctant success, to the point where I hadn't seen him in some weeks. I hadn't really expected to see him any more than I had really expected to see Jenny.
I was glad he was there at the hospital for more reasons than the normal comfort of a visitor. I supposed, in light of that, I ought make the effort towards conversation, even if it did represent a great deal of effort at that moment.
"Thank you," I said, "For coming." There was more underneath those words than I could hope to express even without my brain a fog of drugs and blood-loss. He saw it, and he nodded the curt acceptance of the ex-military man. We both got along quite well that way, each preferring much of the time to keep our feelings veiled than not.
"I would always," he asserted fiercely. The alienation of the past months was dispelled in an instant, and he leaned forward slightly to tap the knuckles of a fisted hand to my right shoulder in a brusque, affectionate motion.
It might have looked startlingly dismissive to the eyes of the disapproving nurse, but it let me know there was one thing my disastrous marriage had brought me that I wasn't in danger of losing again with its collapse.
Both then, and when he later refused to give up my company for appearances' sake when Jenny and I divorced two years later, reinforced my view that I was very lucky indeed to have Charles Roland as a friend.
If perhaps inexplicably in the eyes of some, not the least my ex-wife for the longest time.
"It's all right for you," Sid Nestor said, with absolute resentment. Like other villains before him, apparently he desired that I should understand why he was killing me. "Done you all right, this detective business, hasn't it? Never mind that a few more careers fall along the way to keep you up there. The great and famous Sid bloody Halley, digging up the rest of our dirt."
I could see that, to him, it was like looking into a distorted mirror; harping back to that silly joke when we were both barely more than boys, Sid and Sid. The unsuccessful twin had come back for his revenge. If he even took only casual note of the news in the racing world, I thought, he was sugar-coating the facts of my own life rather to fit his preferred story. The business that had 'done me all right' had lost me my left hand, the facts of which events had been covered in a well-publicised trial, and had pasted photographs of me being shot, right in the moment as it were, all over the front page news. There'd also been an aggressive and nasty smear campaign in more than one national newspaper to attest I was truly no golden boy, my life no bed of roses.
It wouldn't help to tell him that he was incidental, a footnote in the scam I'd brought down; I thought it was probably this he knew already and so resented. I said, "You had a longer racing career than I did." I tried to let him see I envied him that. Hard to let any other emotion in at all, at the moment, past my anger. I wasn't sure that he picked up on it, which was a shame, because it was the truth. "It's not my fault you threw it away. And at your age, you really couldn't have gone on for much longer, anyway."
His age was the same as mine, give or take a year, and recently I'd had the odd experience of accepting that, had I continued racing, I should most likely be retired by now. It added a peculiar twang to that feeling I'd sometimes get, thinking that I ought be still in the saddle. I doubted the fact would make Nestor feel his own stark, new loss any less sharply.
I stood there, feeling vaguely ridiculous and vaguely grotesque with my hands in the air, the left fast creating an unpleasant ache in my recently-healed forearm, which wasn't used to bearing the artificial limb's weight in that position, the right still encased in a red glove of Charles' blood. I stood there reasoning with Sid Nestor, and trying to think up words of comfort that would ease his loss and desperation, and thinking, on a deeper level, that I'd like to bloody kill him.
Nestor sneered at my efforts. "You would say that, wouldn't you? I still want back the time I had left, that you took from me. I can't get it. I'll take your life as fair exchange, though." He steadied the gun and the preparatory 'click' was very loud in the crisp morning air.
"Please don't," said my new wife, with a controlled, dignified desperation. I wished she hadn't, but Nestor paid her not the slightest attention. I begged Marina with my eyes to keep silent and I tried to think of something, anything else to say that might stall the gunman.
He stalled himself, though. Not out of conscience, since his face was irritated as he relaxed the gun marginally in his hands. He said accusingly, with an air of deeply offended complaint, "Why aren't you afraid?"
I'd been asked as much before by men with guns and threats. A question which in the past had been based on a misguided assumption to start with was, I discovered, surprisingly pertinent here. I wasn't afraid. Too stunned, and too angry.
"Do you still think I won't do it? You don't take me seriously even now, do you? Just like when we were racing, you never took me as serious competition." He stepped forward, brandishing the gun, and I took an involuntary step back. That only made him advance further. He was practically standing over Charles and Marina now. I didn't like that much, and he saw it, and stayed where he was. Besides, if he moved any further they'd be behind him, and he'd be a fool to discount Marina like that.
He hadn't, in all the back-and-forth, noticed that I'd dropped my hands to barely higher than waist-level. It eased the strain on my left arm. I wasn't sure I'd gained anything else. A little more distance. If I moved sharply now, first to one side, and then in a lunge forward, he might miss me. I'd try it before he shot. Not yet, though, while there was still time for outside intervention and a plan rather better than hoping Nestor might miss from just over ten feet.
"I do take you seriously," I said. "And I do, as it happens, believe you."
A small sound emerged from Charles, too brief fo be a groan, but nonetheless a sound of pain, and struggle, and things I recognised all too well. It sounded to me like a man dying. My insides went cold. My internal searching unearthed the developing nugget of hard, vengeful truth that if I was to be executed with my father in law lying bleeding, maybe dying, just yards away, I was going to do my damnedest to take Nestor with me. It wouldn't take much.
Chance and circumstance had never before contrived to directly involve the Admiral in any of my own battlegrounds. He had stepped in now, with all his strong, aging courage, to quite literally on this one occasion save my life, inadvertently taking my bullet. Nestor was looking to quickly reduce his gesture to ashes.
With that thought the anger in me only burned more deeply. I had never truly wanted to kill another human being before. Out of fear or desperation or to extract myself from a shockingly bad situation, I had been prepared to defend myself aggressively and with unrestrained force, but plain and age-old revenge was Nestor's game, and it was infectious. My living hand, sticky with Charles' blood, clenched at my side. The hand that was plastic and steel could crush a man's throat as easily as it decimated eggs. I had no outlet for the old nerve impulses that closed the fist of the absent hand, and the prosthetic remained still, as it would do until I made the deliberate effort of concentration with the muscles that once would've bent my living wrist.
No - if I could only reach him, it wouldn't take much at all.
"Then why aren't you afraid?" Nestor said. His voice was desperate. Something had been turned around between us, or perhaps he sensed the murderous intent in me and it was as disconcerting to him as to me, to be in spitting distance of your would-be killer, only I'd had more practice. The balance of power still inarguably hung upon the gun in his hand, but he only had one shot, and if it didn't put me down or out...
I didn't say anything.
"So you are planning to continue," Charles said. It was a statement, but he still said it as though there had been a question mark hovering over the issue somewhere. He'd said something very similar after my unceremonious split from Hunt Radnor Associates, when he'd come to my soulless new flat and found me cursing up a storm, surrounded by boxes of new files and office equipment that resisted manipulation by a pair of hands that included one new-minted myoelectric wonder that'd cost a pretty packet and since been the object of so much sweat and tears I was beginning to think I might as well not have bothered.
Like I had the last time, I said, "I suppose I've got used to the idea of it."
I was not, however, surrounded by the detritus of a new home office now, searching rather through the files of an office that should have been old and familiar after a few years' wear, but felt different all the same. Newly empty. Ridiculous, I knew, to feel the lack of my erstwhile sometime-partner in here, where he'd seldom worked except under protest. It was in the legwork I would miss him, and the guard duty, and the surveillance, and... damn it all.
I gave up my search and turned around. Charles had already seated himself in the big new armchair he tended to favour and helped himself to a glass of whisky, though he still had his coat on. Then again, it occurred to me I hadn't switched on any heating since I'd come in, and it was cold in the flat. I was distracted, I thought. Too distracted.
I grimaced at his silent raised eyebrow and went into the kitchen to put the central heating on and fetch another glass. When I came back I sat in the chair at my desk and sipped at a reasonably expensive scotch without tasting it at all.
"We tried," I said, pulling a face. To give him his due, Chico had put in a game few months since that evening at Peter Rammileese's farm. I could also quite understand the attractions of the girl, Alice, whom he had met and intended to marry. But we both of us knew that if the events at the farm had never occurred, he wouldn't have regarded settling down as necessarily involving a split from the detecting business.
"It would hardly be a loss of face," Charles said ponderously, "If you were to give it up now yourself, Sid."
I looked at him sharply. Did he want me to give it up? The recent threats and physical strains of my chosen profession had been enough of a deterrent for anyone, but I had thought that Charles would be a hundred percent in support of my forging on. In many ways Charles himself was responsible for the dangerous route my life had taken and for that I had been, to him, grateful beyond measure. He'd helped me find myself, once. His had been the support that kept me going time and again. His home had been my haven, his reserved company my comfort, and it had been he who first pushed me toward tackling dangerous and violent villains as a second career in the first place.
I looked at him and saw that he was testing me, in his fashion, and I sighed. "I thought about it," I admitted, draining the whisky, still barely tasting it. "It won't be as much fun, but..." I hesitated.
"But?" Charles prompted.
"I never did it because it was fun."
He looked back at me unreadably and I thought it was he who could probably come closer than anyone to understanding the incomprehensible compulsion I felt to solve people's problems and chase danger. To win, just like in my old life. I also said, "I don't feel like learning another career again."
He snorted. He knew that wasn't true. He knew that I wanted to keep this one. The career that, in a way, had been his great gift to me.
After a moment, he said, "I never imagined, when you started off in this detecting business, that it would lead to you getting shot and beaten up and, for God's sake, whipped." He sounded annoyed. He didn't sound sorry. He had never offered any trace of apology, ever, for the extremes of situations in which his fiercely-directioned push had, both inadvertently later and quite advertently right at the start, landed me. I hoped this wasn't headed that way.
"They're like racing falls," I told him. "This isn't any more dangerous." I did believe that to be true, although wherever I voiced the opinion it was greeted, always, by astonishment. And while there was undoubtedly a psychological difference in damage inflicted deliberately by a human hand, the end result itself was just the same.
I knew Charles didn't believe it either, but he chuckled at me. He was pleased with me, I deduced. Happy that I would continue.
I shrugged helplessly in the face of his arch amusement. "This is who I am now." And he had in part been responsible for making it so, steering me into a vocation that recaptured some of the fire my life had lost when crippling injury forced me to stop racing, and without which I would have, well, probably withered away by now, dead inside from the lack. "I don't think I can give it up."
I didn't think I'd recognise myself if I did. I didn't say that aloud, but Charles probably understood the truth of it.
I could see trepidation in the stolen glances Marina sent my way, the bulk of her attention necessarily upon Charles. She too could sense I intended something, I thought.
"Sid," Nestor began; Sid, not Halley. We'd never called each other by our identical given name. I did have him rattled. I waited, but he didn't appear to have anything to follow up the 'Sid'. I eyed him as he visibly attempted to recover his resolve. In retrospect, I could have used that moment to attempt again to talk him down and it might, at that moment, have worked. At the time, I had other things on my mind. "I came here to kill you," he said roughly, firmly levelling the gun again.
And he was going to. Yes, I understood that. I was gathering myself already, invisibly, when he cried out and wavered, struggling to keep hold of the weapon and his balance.
He'd been half-watching Marina, but had spared no attention at all for Charles and the sprawled arm lying inches from his foot. It had taken him completely by surprise when that arm curled about his ankle and pulled. He, like me, had thought Charles was out of the picture.
There wasn't a lot of strength in the tug. Enough to rock Nestor's balance, hardly enough to pull him over. I ducked instinctively, but his grasp on the gun had loosened rather than tightened in his surprise and no shot rang out. Too bad. The weapon was still pointed more or less my way, but there'd been a better chance of it missing me in that instant than while I sprang forward, internally cursing the wasted seconds, as he recovered himself.
Given I'd put myself at a range that wouldn't have allowed much room for doubt, it was lucky for me he was still fumbling with the gun when I reached him. My living, responsive right arm bought enough time, grappling with the weapon, for me to fasten the pincer grip of my slower-moving left around the end of the barrels. I twisted with my plastic-and-metal hand and employed some half-remembered judo with the rest of me. He yelped, letting go of the gun before it was ripped from his grasp and freeing his two real hands to fight me off.
I threw the shotgun away behind me, hard. Shooting him with it wasn't an option at close quarters even without a set of fingers fifty percent plastic. I didn't bother to try and see where it went. Marina would get it if it landed close.
Nestor might have been thinking he'd have the advantage, but the anger and desperation engendered in me by the last ten minutes outweighed his extra height and extra limb, and in fact a couple of fierce whacks with the built-in club on the end of my left arm had him down and almost out, muzzily staring up at me in blank astonishment. Fear overtook the astonishment as I set the pincer grip of my artificial hand to his throat.
"Sid," Marina's voice intruded, sharply.
"Sid," Charles' deeper voice rumbled, with unusual hoarse timbre.
I looked up. Marina had the gun. Charles was half sitting up, but looking like it cost him in pain.
I stood, stepping back from Nestor. Marina held the gun on him, and he faded from my thoughts absolutely. There wasn't anything I could say. I couldn't claim that I hadn't been going to do what they had plainly been able to see that I had. But it didn't seem to matter now.
"I thought you were dead," I said to Charles; aghast, relieved, delighted.
His difficult smile and the flippant remark I could see rising to his tongue disappeared beneath a weak cough followed by pained breaths that came out as wheezes. "If you don't get an ambulance here soon," he said shortly, with evident difficulty, "I suspect I presently might be."
I could see that his effort to save me had been a combination of adrenaline and bloody-minded determination, and no sign that he was any less seriously hurt than I had feared. A heroic effort. He lay back and appeared to concentrate on breathing.
I looked towards the house and saw Jenny, running, and told him, "They're already on their way."
After that was a tense waiting until the arrival of the emergency services an eternity of probably two minutes later. With Jenny and I clinging like limpets, Charles was loaded up onto the ambulance, still grumbling haltingly that, after all the occasions he'd had to witness me lying half-dead in hospital beds, it was about bloody time I should get a taste of things from the other side, and couldn't I stop damn well fussing so?
It isn't every day that the father of a first and now ex wife stands happily in attendance at his one-time son in law's second wedding. Or, indeed, that the ex wife is present and just as happily giggling over the champagne, hanging off the arm of the bemused Anthony Wingham. Jenny's presence at the side of her own second, more successful, match had been stranger; although I was happy to have her there, I wasn't yet accustomed to our newly amicable-again relationship. But it would have been unthinkable that Charles not be there.
And that, I supposed, was probably in the scheme of things the greatest oddity of all.
Ex-father in laws didn't watch ex-son in laws marry other women. But then they didn't reinvigorate estranged son in laws' careers, either, or run around waiting on them and helping them to dress after they'd been shot (twice) or otherwise battered to the point of temporary disability (we'd both lost count), or provide the endless, unwavering support without which such ex-son in laws might not, if truth be told, have made it through the past decade in any mental state approaching intact, and alive.
Our spirits spoke to each other, in their reserved ways, with all the complexities, subtleties, and underlying logic of a game of chess. He the ex-Admiral, I the detective I'd become. And it was a rare enough form of connection to have survived the rest.
I met Charles' eyes across the happy bustle of the Aynsford reception following that hastily arranged ceremony that should, by rights, be the final severing of ties losing him from my life for good. He beamed back at me, all pride, as though it was his daughter, here, who was getting married again. Or, perhaps, his son.
I reflected again upon the bond between us, which should have been transient, dissolved with my marriage to Jenny. Instead it was, indeed, as close as blood. Though I, who had never had a father, had never really looked on him as one, and I doubted he, who had never had a son, had really regarded me that way in return.
I smiled back at him and squeezed Marina's warm hand in mine. She caught the direction of my gaze, and she returned the smile, too.
Family, I thought. I'd never had much experience of one in my early life; my father dead before I was born, my mother before I reached adulthood. Well, I made up for it now.
"Sid!" Charles called ebulliently across the room, and raised his glass to us. I suspected he was a bit drunk. A few well-wishers aped him as though it was a toast.
I boringly lacked a drink in either hand, on account of not wanting to let go of Marina long enough to hold one in my right, and my left arm being still handless in a sling consequence of the ill-advised exercise of bopping a killer with one's stump, but I raised my hand in a heartfelt salute to the Admiral.
And if the rest of the guests missed the more profound significances under the banality of that exchange, I thought, then let them.