No infringement of copyrights or trademarks held by Avenger Mark 1 Productions or London Weekend Television is intended.
Copyright 1998, Bardicvoice
Doyle checked the magazine automatically, then rammed it back in place and worked the slide to put one bullet up the spout. Six rounds left, plus whatever Bodie still had, which couldn't be much. At least the desolate night horizon was empty for the moment, laid starkly bare by every flash of lightning, and the cold, steady rain would make hounds useless for trailing them. If only they could find some decent cover before dawn, or better yet, one reliable communications channel ... and if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.
He glanced over at his partner with concerned eyes. Bodie was leaning back against the slope of the culvert, knees bent and eyes closed, and Doyle could see the concentration he was exerting to slow and control his breathing, to make it calm and even as he banished pain and exhaustion. He still held his gun ready across his chest, but his left hand was pressed hard against the rude bandage at his waist, and his face was bleached pale. The knife he'd taken hadn't hit anything major — another inch or so to the left, and it would have missed him entirely — but he'd lost a lot of blood before they'd been able to stop long enough to improvise a bandage out of his shirt, and while the sodden dark and the black of his uniform jacket made it impossible to tell, Doyle guessed that the bloodstain on the cloth was still spreading, however slowly. The cold and the wet wouldn't be helping him any. They needed cover, needed rest, needed it badly. Even Bodie had limits.
Doyle returned his gun to the shoulder holster as he swept the empty black horizon again. Lightning strobed, and he saw what he had missed before; the hulking shape of a barn in the distance, with the smaller silhouette of a farmhouse beside it. Any port in a storm, he thought whimsically, and slid back down to touch Bodie lightly on the shoulder.
"Barn," he said shortly, "about a kilometre. Can you make it?"
Dark eyes opened, blinking in the rain, and Doyle smiled for the sardonic glitter in the sideways look they gave him.
"How the hell should I know? Never tried to build one."
Doyle grinned, acknowledging the shabby attempt at humour for the genuine effort it represented. "Coast looks clear, for the moment. Let's go." He offered a hand.
Bodie closed his eyes once more, marshalling his strength; then he holstered his own gun, took Doyle's extended hand, and used its leverage to help in rolling forward to his feet, a grimace and a sharply indrawn breath the only evidence of what the move cost him. He kept his left arm pressed tightly against his side, and nodded at Doyle to lead off.
Doyle tried to pick the easiest and shortest course, keeping constant tabs on his partner's progress. Bodie forged ahead steadily, but his customary scanning-radar alertness was missing; his eyes stayed on the ground ahead of his feet, and he most uncharacteristically left the roles of guide and guard entirely to Doyle. His locked focus said without words that he'd keep going until he dropped. Doyle picked up the pace a little; the sooner they were under cover, the better.
As they approached the isolated farm, Doyle could see a light on in the first floor of the house, but no movement, and the noise of the storm covered both any noise that they might make and any sound from the house. His biggest fears didn't materialise: no dog raised the alarm or dashed out to challenge them as he fumbled with the small entry to one side of the big double barn doors, and the human-sized door proved not to be locked. He got it open and hissed at Bodie to pass him, going in, and then took a last look to be certain that everything was quiet before shutting out the storm and turning to let his eyes adjust to the enclosed dark.
Bodie had recovered enough initiative to make his way through the nearly pitch-blackness to the ladder up to the hayloft, but he stood there motionless with his hands shoulder-high on the rungs, too spent to start climbing. Doyle rested a hand briefly on his shoulder, feeling his own heart starting to slow, and took a moment to extend his senses through the barn. He could hear and smell horses, more than a few of them, the animals a little restive with the storm but not significantly disturbed by either the lightning or the presence of strangers. He hoped they would stay that way.
Under his silent urging, Bodie started to climb, and Doyle crowded close behind him to provide support in case he slipped. Bodie didn't stand at the top, but stayed on hands and knees as he moved in, crawling through a thin scatter of loose hay to give Doyle room. He got maybe eight feet before he encountered a couple of stacked bales of hay, and then his arms gave out and he slumped, turning as he went down until he lay partly on his back and right side. Doyle stretched out next to him and reached over to tweak open the jacket and check the bandage. Both of them were shivering in the chill as the adrenalin of their sustained effort finally wore off.
"It's too dark," Doyle said finally, keeping his voice soft but not whispering. "I can't tell how bad it is."
"Had worse," Bodie answered laconically. "It'll keep. Where are we?"
"Damned if I know. Horse farm on the moors, somewhere northwest of Darrington's. Look, there's a farmhouse here, probably a phone. I'm going to try calling Cowley."
Bodie started to stir, but stopped with a hiss of pain and put his hand firmly against the wound in his side again.
"Don't know whose side they're on," he warned.
"I'm gonna try not to wake 'em up. In and out, that's all, with them none the wiser. You be okay while I'm gone?"
"Not goin' anywhere, sunshine."
"A few minutes, that's all." As lightning flashed outside, enough light entered the barn to show Doyle that Bodie's eyes were closed again. The glare faded too quickly to give him a decent look at the bandage. He gripped Bodie's wrist and as quickly released it, a silent promise, and then he climbed back down the ladder to the stable floor. The horses still paid him no mind.
Crossing to the farmhouse, he kept a sharp eye out for any movement in the house, on the road, or on the moor, but the world was still apart from the rain and him. His lip curled when he saw the now all-too-familiar Guardian Security angel sticker on the window in the back door, but the door itself was unlocked and let him into a mudroom, which in turn opened onto the kitchen. The dim light he'd seen from outside was some kind of night-light built into an emergency torch plugged into a wall charger. And hanging on the wall next to it was a telephone.
Doyle felt his spirits soar. Two minutes, no more, and he'd have Cowley on his way like an avenging angel, all the force of CI5 at his command. In a few hours, Darrington and his mob would be under lock and key, Bodie would be safe in hospital, and he'd be warm and dry at home with a scotch in hand and sleep beckoning. He cat-footed across the kitchen floor, his feet as suddenly light as his heart, and lifted the receiver.
And heard nothing. Silence. Rolling thunder outside on the moor taunted him with a vision of fallen poles and downed lines, electricity free in the air making mock of the poor stuff trapped in wires. He let his forehead rest against the wall and heard despair laugh at the way hope had tricked him.
Whether because of the storm or Darrington, the phone was dead. Even if they'd carried R/T's undercover, they were out of range of any station. And now they were stuck on foot in the middle of nowhere, in territory controlled by Darrington's bully-boys, with no one to trust, maybe fourteen shots between them, and Bodie in no shape to fight. Cowley'd be livid, if he knew. Whether they made it back or not, Cowley would have his suspicions of Darrington confirmed, but they needed to get back — and get back alive — if they were going to give him the proof. Even if he found the evidence they'd stashed at the start of the run, it wouldn't be enough to stand up in court without him and Bodie to testify to it.
He checked the phone one last time, and then resolutely hung it up. He'd just have to try again some hours later, hoping it was just the storm and that the damage would be fixed. And in the meantime, he had to get back to Bodie.
He'd barely shut the door of the house when he heard an engine and saw headlamps sweep the yard. He had no chance to make it back to the barn unseen; instead, he melted into the cover of the bushes beside the house, below the kitchen window, just in time to escape being pinned in the beams of the small, open-bed lorry that clattered to a stop beside the house and wheezed into silence as the engine and the headlamps cut off. He cursed himself mentally — why hadn't he noticed the absence of any farm motor when they'd arrived? Too damn tired, that's what you are — missin' the obvious. But the beat-up old lorry could be an opportunity, too; maybe he and Bodie could appropriate it for their getaway. If the phones stayed out, the owners would have no way to get word of the theft to Darrington's mob, and once he and his partner made it to the next county, they'd be home free.
The driver, a well-built, black-haired man in his mid-forties, came around through the rain to open the passenger door. Under the dome light in the lorry cab, Doyle could see that the passenger was a dark-haired woman about the same age, with something very bulky in her arms. Both of them were wearing boots, jeans, and work shirts, topped by serviceable jackets. The man took the burden from her, moving very carefully.
"Easy there — have you got him?" The woman's voice was a pleasant contralto, burred a bit with fatigue and concern.
"Got him." The man backed away, and as he cleared the door of the lorry, Doyle understood why no dog had challenged his and Bodie's arrival at the farm; a good-sized dog wrapped in a blanket was cradled in the man's arms, and the blanket gaped to reveal bandaging around the dog's ribs. "Get the door for me, would you?"
"Right. You get him settled; I'll look in on the ruddy beasts to make sure no one's thrown a fit while we were gone."
"Don't be long."
The woman laughed, sounding genuinely amused as she opened the mudroom door and held it for the man to carry his burden through.
"After the day we've had? Our bed is singing a siren song I'm in no shape to resist. I'll be up in a few."
Having seen the man and dog into the house, the woman crossed to the barn and opened the door Doyle had used. Not daring to move, Doyle tried desperately to project his thoughts to Bodie — don't move, mate; stay silent, stay still. He was relieved after a second to hear the woman's voice, coming faintly through the door; although he couldn't make out the words, the tone was nothing more than steady, cheerful reassurance, just calming noise clearly intended to put the horses at their ease. Only a few minutes passed before the woman came out again, pulling the door closed behind her and crossing to the house in no hurry despite the rain. The door banged shut behind her. The man's voice, a bit distorted, carried from the loose casement of the kitchen window above Doyle's head, and he strained to listen.
"How about a cuppa before bed?"
"You're a love. God, what a night."
"Only good thing about it is that Sammie'll be okay. I can do without panic runs to the vet very nicely, thank you. Dumb dog."
"Young dog," the woman corrected mildly. "He'll not get too close to a frightened horse's heels again, not after getting kicked like that. We all take some learning."
"Hell of a way to do it." There was a moment of silence, in which Doyle imagined the two of them arranging tea things, and then the man continued, sounding slightly puzzled. "Wonder what that roadblock was all about."
"You're the one talked to them; I had my hands full. What's to wonder?"
"They said it was for a couple of escaped prisoners. But around here ... well, escaped from what? It's not like we get prison transports through, and the local nick hasn't had anyone near as bad as what they made these two out to be. Doesn't make sense. And checking us coming and going — poking at the dog, for God's sake! — what're they up to?"
It wasn't just the rain and the cold that made Doyle shiver. He abandoned his half-formed plan to steal the lorry and kept listening.
"More of what we don't ask about," the woman answered. "God, that's good — really hits the spot. Now all I want is to strip off these wet things and get warm. The morning will come all too soon."
"Tell me about it."
"I already did," the woman teased, and the warmth of their banter faded with their voices as they left the kitchen and the light blinked out.
Doyle moved fast then, knowing he had a minute before either of them might look out a window and see him. He nipped through the door into the barn, waited for his eyes to adjust, and then climbed into the loft, being careful to hiss Bodie's name before his head came level with the loft floor. Faint reflected light gleamed dully along the barrel of Bodie's gun as he lowered it and sank back against the hay bales. Doyle sat down next to him.
"That was close."
"Thought you weren't planning on waking them," Bodie said pointedly.
"Didn't know they'd be out to the vet's now, did I?" Lightning flashed outside, and he used its brief flare to quickly assess his partner's condition. Bodie's face was drawn and pale, except for the bruises on his left cheekbone and jaw and the dark shadows under his eyes. He still held his left arm clamped to his side, covering the bandage. "Should've taken you there."
"Very funny. As your mule, I suppose."
"More appropriate than a dog," Doyle returned, grinning, and then let the humour fade. "Darrington's got roadblocks up. Doesn't sound like these two are any part of his operation, but I can't be sure; they've an Angel sticker on the door." He let another beat pass, and then dropped the worst of it. "Phone's out. I couldn't get through to Cowley." Bodie took that in without comment, but Doyle heard him inhale deeply once, hold it, and then exhale in one long controlled breath, accepting that they were on their own.
"I think we should lie up here through the day, if we can, and make a break for it tomorrow night. Maybe by then the phone'll be working and we can get to Cowley."
"Been thinking about that, since you left," Bodie said, and then hesitated before continuing, sounding apologetic. "Rural spot like this probably still has an old phone switching centre, EM-type. Pretty small. Stands to reason Darrington would have someone in the centre by this time, monitoring calls. They could block a call to London, or better yet, just listen in; then they'd get it all, the information and us, long before Cowley could get here."
"Damn." The logic was irrefutable, and the facts unknowable. Doyle wasn't privy to the schedule for upgrading the nation's telephone system, but cities always came first, so it was a good chance that Bodie's guess was right, given that they were in the back end of beyond. He suddenly felt absurdly grateful that the phone hadn't worked to betray them.
"I'll hold you up. Better plan on making your break without me." Bodie's voice was cool and dispassionate, just stating facts, but Doyle still flared in automatic reaction.
"Stands to reason, Doyle. Quicker to move, easier to hide — you've a better chance of getting through alone."
"We watch each other's backs," Doyle said stubbornly. Even in the dark, he could see Bodie shaking his head.
"Won't be up to that for long. Fever's setting in; I can feel it."
With a stifled oath, Doyle reached over to put a hand to Bodie's forehead. True to his word, Doyle could feel the heat, which contrasted oddly with the slight but steady shivering he could also sense through his partner's body.
"Been through this before, Doyle," Bodie said calmly. "This time tomorrow, doubt I'll be going anywhere. It's going to be up to you, mate."
"That about says it."
They were silent for a moment, and then Doyle roused himself.
"If we're lying in for a day, might as well see if we can do it in comfort. And if we can get you warm, we might get lucky, beat the fever. I'll be back."
He climbed back down the ladder and cast about to get his bearings. He didn't know much about horses beyond how to ride, but he'd learned a bit from one of his girlfriends during the disastrous weekend he and Bodie had spent on her family farm in Repley; he knew that somewhere in the stable would be blankets, and buckets, and probably water, and in a barn with this many horses he could probably find a few things that wouldn't be missed soon.
About twenty minutes later, he lugged his haul back up the ladder, taking two trips to get it all. A bucket of water, another bucket with a lid prudently chosen to handle wastes, three wool blankets smelling of horse, and an unexpected bonus: he'd stuffed his jacket with apples and carrots from two open barrels in the feed room. Not the greatest of fare, maybe, but enough to tide them over. He'd even found a telephone in the barn, in a makeshift office snugged into the tack room. He'd checked it just out of idle curiosity, but it was as dead as the one in the house.
Bodie had dozed off while he was gone, leaning against the hay bales. He looked all in, but Doyle steeled himself and shook his partner awake.
"Gotta get you out of those wet clothes, mate. You'll be warmer once you're dry."
"Yes, Mum," Bodie said obediently, and offered fumble-fingered help as Doyle pulled off his black Guardian Security uniform jacket, undid the shoulder holster, and started in on his shoes. Doyle left the bandage alone, afraid to tamper until he had light to see with and figuring that the pouring rain had washed the wound as well as anything could. When Bodie was wrapped in two of the blankets with most of his clothing spread out on hay bales to dry, his shivering finally stopped. Doyle patiently forced him to drink before allowing him to fall asleep again; he knew all too well that Bodie needed fluids to help replace the blood he'd lost, and a fever would just add to his dehydration. Once he had Bodie settled, he stripped as well, spread out his clothing, and rolled himself up in a blanket at Bodie's side, gun in hand, lying close not only for warmth, but also to let his free hand rest on Bodie's shoulder so that he might wake if Bodie got restless. Despite his exhaustion and Bodie's dead stillness, though, he couldn't seem to sleep; he couldn't set aside the sense of being hunted, or stop running through the events of the last week trying to figure out how he could have kept things from going wrong.
"Protection — that's the name of the game. A euphemistic name for a very dirty, very lucrative game." Cowley tossed the file onto the desk between them and Doyle retrieved it, sliding his chair a couple of inches so that Bodie could look at it with him.
"And all we have so far is suspicion. Strong suspicion, but just suspicion nonetheless; nothing good enough to bring to court. Patterns of behaviour, irregularities in corporate ownership, not quite random incidents of violence and arson — and suggestions that this is spread over an entire county."
Doyle whistled appreciatively.
"Hell of a territory for a 'pay-up-or-else' operation. If it's that big, why haven't we seen any sign of it before?"
"Two reasons. Part of the operation appears to be entirely legitimate: a security service that provides exactly what is paid for, guards, patrols, alarm systems."
"Guardian Security," Bodie said, scanning the file over Doyle's shoulder. "'Guardian Angels Who Watch Over You' — bloody awful ad copy, that is."
"They appear to be doing well by it; it's attracted a fair bit of business, even from two defence contractors in the area. The defence bid review process is what turned this up, although it didn't turn any heads until we got the file. It seems that several of the Guardian accounts suffered unexplained losses immediately before they signed on with the service. Arson, theft, assault on employees, that sort of thing."
"Could be coincidence," Doyle observed. "After all, that kind of experience is exactly what prompts a lot of companies to increase security."
"But that's where we come into your second reason," Bodie hazarded, with a sideways look at Cowley.
"Indeed. It would appear that the companies suffering losses were very carefully selected; they were steady but never really major firms, the timing always coincided with Guardian's expansion into new territory, at least eight companies were affected in every expansion area, and they all had some kind of licence — pubs, bottle shops, gun shops, that sort of thing."
"Implying that the local authorities are in on what Guardian was doing — that they might lose their licence if they made a stink," Doyle said, his tone showing his distaste for the idea. Cowley nodded.
"Aye. And that is where this begins to look truly ugly. No one's ever made a complaint against Guardian, not in any of the towns they serve. I've never seen a company with so clean a bill of health, and I mean never. I arranged some very informal inquiries, and the answers were always the same: the Guardians are angels, the problems stopped the instant they came on duty, they cooperate with the local police, they're value for the money. But Susan and Murphy both came back saying that some of the people they talked to were scared, too scared to say anything off the party line, and too scared to say anything at all in front of the local police."
"So who's behind it?" Bodie asked, pursuing his usual straight-line approach.
"That's interesting, too. Computers are still trying to sort through the corporate covers; the ownership chain is very tangled. Guardian Security is run by a holding company, which in turn is part of a conglomerate, and so on to more layers than you want to contemplate. But my money is on Lord Peter Darrington, Earl Felsham's youngest son. His name has come up in several connections, and his estate is in the heart of Guardian's territory. Several of the key Guardian personnel came from Darrington's personal security force, and there are some interesting blanks in Lord Peter's financial records, hints that he has rather more funds than grew on the family tree."
Doyle wrinkled his nose.
"Which, of course, we can't possibly even suggest without proof. I take it we'll be doing this investigation undercover, not to imply that CI5 are taking an unhealthy interest in the peerage?"
"You're learning, Doyle," Cowley said approvingly. Reaching into his desk drawer, he drew out two small folders of papers, secured with rubber bands, and tossed them across the desk to land in front of his agents. "Given that you like asking questions, you'll be a reporter. Do try to be a bit circumspect, at least. Bodie, your application to Guardian has already been accepted; you've an interview tomorrow morning at ten, as David Bentley. We deleted your service with CI5 — according to your papers, you've spent the last few years abroad — but the rest of your cover history matches your own. Judging from their quick response, you've exactly the kind of background Guardian is looking for in its Angels."
"Yeah — fallen," Doyle said wickedly. Bodie pulled a face at him as he snagged his packet and started to look through it.
"Your contact with CI5 will be through a number ostensibly at your syndication office, Doyle. Anyone calling that number will be told that you're a writer on staff. Call in daily to report on the progress of your story. Your best chance to make contact with each other is a pub called the Red Horse; it's the local for the main Guardian office. Any questions?"
The partners exchanged looks, and then shook their heads.
"You'll leave your IDs with me, then. Get to the bottom of this, gentlemen; I don't like knowing that someone has found the wherewithal to subvert the local police to a protection racket in over a dozen towns across an entire county. This has to stop."
Doyle woke with a jerk when a thunderous bang exploded right below him. He was grabbing for his gun before he realised that the noise came from a horse kicking a wall, and that a contralto voice familiar from the previous night was mixed in with the thumping.
"Aye, lay off, you ruddy sod! And when are you bloody well going to learn manners, you flea-bitten excuse for an equine?" Despite the words, the tone was amused, not angry.
"He didn't catch you, did he?" The man's voice held an edge of concern, but the woman laughed.
"I'm not Sammie, love. I know when to get out of the way — don't I, you ruddy great stomping idiot?"
"I trust that latter wasn't meant for me."
"Never, my dear. Ruddy, great, and sometimes stomping, but never an idiot."
"That's a relief."
Moving as little as possible, Doyle rolled onto his belly and took a quick look around. The previous night's pouring rain had given way to a fine day. It was early — only seven by his watch — but the light was already clear and bright. The big stable doors stood wide open on the yard, giving him a good view of the house, the road, and the moors. There was a highway in the distance. The man, leading a saddled big grey horse through the doors, had paused to look back, and now took a moment to check the girth. Doyle kept low, afraid to attract attention, and glanced at his partner. Bodie lay profoundly still, seeming deeply unconscious rather than simply asleep, and when Doyle rested the back of his hand against his partner's cheek, the fever heat was obvious. Doyle grimaced.
The sound of a car engine drew his attention to the road, and he saw the man looking that way too, tightening his grip on the horse's reins. A police car was coming up the driveway.
"Oy — the local constabulary," the man said. "We're getting a visit from Jamie, looks like."
"Hold it — there." Doyle couldn't see what the woman was doing, but after a second she walked out from beneath the loft to join the man, wiping her hands on a rag.
The car crunched to a stop on the gravel drive and two young men got out, one in a constable's uniform and the other in a black Guardian Security jacket, twin to the one Bodie had been wearing. The cop nodded to the waiting couple in a friendly fashion.
"Lizi, El. Looks to be a good day for riding, eh?"
"Only for mudders," the man responded. "Ground's too wet for safe jumping." The horse he was holding shook its head, and he scratched its jaw and ears to settle it down. "Stormy here's the only one of the lot who'll enjoy romping in the slop."
"What can we do for you, Jamie?" the woman asked, but it was the Guardian Security man who responded, cutting the policeman off before he could speak.
"We don't mean to worry you folks, but we're looking for two men who escaped from one of our holding facilities. They're armed and they're dangerous — they killed three people during their escape. We think that one of them may be hurt, but we can't be sure. Seen any strangers about?"
"Not a one," the man said. "What do these blokes look like?"
"Both tall, late thirties. One's slender, curly brown hair, the other's built like a weightlifter, with dark hair cut short. If they're still wearing the same clothes, the curly-top's in jeans, brown leather jacket, while the dark one's all in black. He may have stolen a Guardian jacket, too."
"We'll keep a watch out, but not seen anyone like that."
"What were you holding them for?" the woman asked.
"They'd broken into Lord Peter's estate. Who knows what they were after?"
Whilst the three had been talking, after his first irritated glance at his Guardian partner, the young constable had been looking around. Doyle unconsciously tensed; the young cop had a very familiar air, an observant watchfulness that Doyle recognized from seeing it in himself. His question was almost too casual.
"Where's your dog, then? I'd've thought young Sammie'd been all over us by now."
The woman had seen the same quality in him that Doyle had noticed; he couldn't see her face, but he could hear her smile in her voice.
"He's not run afoul of armed villains, if that's what you're thinking, Jamie MacDougal. Tantivy kicked him fair. We were to the vet's last night — what with the phones out from the storm, we had to drive to the surgery." She cocked her head to the side, looking at the Guardian Security man, and Doyle could swear that he heard her voice cool. "I'm surprised your lot didn't tell you. We crossed your roadblock, coming and going."
"We've every man out looking for these two," the Guardian said easily. "It's no wonder some of the routine reports haven't circulated everywhere yet." He caught the constable's eyes, and inclined his head back toward the car. The cop gave the smallest of nods, but held back for a moment as the Guardian man walked to the car.
"We're just visiting everyone hereabouts," Jamie said. "Better to be safe than sorry, eh?" He walked to the car, but turned back as he opened the driver's door. "Oh — the company's got most of the lines back up. You'll have the phone again by nine or so."
"Ta," the man said. "Drive careful now, Jamie."
The cop gave a little wave, then slammed the door, put the car in reverse, and backed far enough to turn around and head back down the drive. The couple and the horse stood in the stable doorway, watching them go, and as the car turned onto the road, the woman finally spoke.
"Why do I always think we've not heard all there was to say, every time some Guardian man speaks? He never even gave his name, y'note."
"Aye — an' Jamie didn't, either. Our good laddie doesn't like him, that's clear enough." He gave himself a little shake. "Ah, it's none of ours, and there's too much else as is — starting with this fellow." He tugged on the reins, and the horse butted its forehead against his shoulder. "He'll go without me, if I'm not up soon."
The woman turned, smiling at him, and then reached up to touch his cheek and give him a quick kiss. Doyle could see concern on her face, despite the smile.
"Stay the usual course today, El. I don't know from desperate men, but the Angels are more than dangerous enough. And if they're as hot on this as they seem, they may be willing to make mistakes." She tugged playfully at his short black hair. "You could almost answer one of those descriptions."
The man swung into the saddle, and then bent down to run his fingers along her cheek, curbing the horse's attempt to dance aside with careless ease.
"The highwayman on his great grey steed — I promise, I'll stay away from coaches and inns and the law. I'll do just enough to take the edge off him, then I'll be back."
"Yah — because I'll not do your share of the mucking!" The woman stepped back and slapped the horse on the flank. "Get on with you."
He chirruped to the horse and the animal moved out with enthusiasm. The woman waved once, then turned and walked back into the barn, beneath the loft and out of Doyle's line of sight. He could track her movements even though he couldn't see her because she kept up a quiet stream of sound, talking to the horses and slipping into song as she worked around them, doing tasks he didn't understand well enough to be able to picture. Doyle let his ears follow her around, and turned the rest of his attention to Bodie.
He tugged the blankets free and checked the makeshift bandage around Bodie's waist. The bloodstain had spread even further than he'd thought, but it was dry and browned; at least the bleeding had stopped sometime during the night. Moving as silently as he could, he scooped water into his hand and dribbled it onto the bandage to soak it loose, wanting not to start the bleeding again when he lifted the cloth. He peeled it back slowly, with infinite care, peering beneath. The wound didn't look like much, but he remembered the length of the slender blade and went cold all over again, especially when he noticed the puffy redness of the skin around the puncture. That plus the fever spoke of infection. The sooner he got to hospital, the better.
He did what he could to clean around the wound again, and this time sacrificed his own dry shirt for bandage material. When he finished and looked up, he found himself meeting Bodie's open eyes. Fleetingly, he wondered when Bodie had woken up — he hadn't moved or made a sound despite the pain that Doyle's ministrations must have caused — but then he dismissed the question as irrelevant and hazarded a smile. The woman's singing provided some cover, but he still kept his voice no louder than a breath, pitched to carry to Bodie's ears alone.
Bodie's shoulders shifted in what would have been a shrug, and his noncommittal voice was as nonexistent as Doyle's.
"Been better. Been worse."
"Real decisive, that's what you are."
Bodie cocked his head toward the sound of the woman's voice.
"How secure are we?"
"Fine, unless they want more hay. Husband and wife. Man's off with a horse. Cops and Angels been and gone already; we're still clear. Don't think they like the Angels much. Don't think the cop did, either."
"Wonderful. With that and a pound, we could buy a pot of tea." He closed his eyes again, and Doyle got the impression that he was taking stock, running some internal calibration. Staying low, Doyle silently began to pull on the rest of his clothes. The jeans were still a bit clammy and cold, but he put them on anyway, figuring they were dry enough. Shirtless, he debated over the shoulder holster for a moment, but then decided that leather on bare skin was a bit too masochistic. Instead, he pulled the Browning free and tucked it into the back waistband of his jeans, and left the holster lying beside his still-damp jacket.
Bodie had summoned his strength and pulled himself into a half-sitting position, leaning his shoulders and back against the baled hay. Even that slight movement had taxed him, though, and he dropped his head back against the hay whilst he worked to control his breathing. When he opened his eyes again, Doyle was watching him worriedly, and Bodie managed a smile.
"I'm not checking out on you, Doyle. Not going anywhere, either."
Wordlessly, Doyle set the water bucket at Bodie's side, and his partner nodded thanks, then adjusted his position with a grunt to dip a cupped hand into the bucket and use it to bring up mouthfuls of water. He was trembling a bit, but was steadier than Doyle had thought he would be, and when he settled back against the hay again, he seemed stronger. He reached out and snagged his holster, pulling it toward him until the gun rested beside his right hand.
"Still on for tonight?"
"Got a look out the door, saw the highway. Figure we're only ten, fifteen kay from the next county. If we stay on the moor but keep sight of the road, we should be fine."
Bodie arched an eloquent eyebrow, and Doyle knew that it was his sardonic comment on Doyle's choice of 'we,' but he said nothing aloud.
"You may as well get as much rest as you can," Doyle said eventually, and Bodie smiled as he let his head slip back onto the bale.
"You too, sunshine."
"Want breakfast first? You've got your choice — apples or carrots."
Bodie didn't bother opening his eyes.
"That's more in your line. I'll pass. Maybe lunch."
Doyle settled in at his partner's side, sitting upright with his back to the hay, his right shoulder companionably against Bodie's left. After a while, Bodie's breathing slowed and deepened, and Doyle felt a bit more pressure on his arm as Bodie relaxed into sleep. There was something comforting in the weight, so Doyle didn't try to move. Instead, he simply sat and let the momentary peace soak into him, borne on the soft sound of a woman's quiet singing. He didn't notice when his reverie passed into sleep.
He remembered vividly the moment that everything had started to go wrong. It was the evening of their fifth day undercover, the third time he'd managed to connect with Bodie at the Red Horse.
All of his poking around had reinforced the information Murphy and Susan had gotten. He'd had no success getting anyone to come out openly against the Guardians, but he'd been given a lot of 'if you take my meaning.' More than a few who had Angel stickers on their doors said that the investment hadn't cost much, least of all when you thought about what they'd heard about someone else who hadn't signed on from the start. None of them said flat out that they'd been threatened, nor did anyone ever say that they knew first-hand of businesses smashed up by Angels, although they could name real companies injured and implied the source of the damage more than once. Most also said that the people they dealt with from the moment they signed on had been polite, responsive, and accommodating — and many of them expressed their surprise at the difference between what they'd felt beforehand and what they experienced afterwards. One publican had jokingly called the company schizophrenic.
The second time Bodie had 'casually' encountered Doyle at the pub's bar, four days into his undercover stint, he'd been able to shed some light on the apparent schizophrenia, reporting that he'd been told that he was being considered for assignment to something called the recruitment division.
"Real elite mob," he'd said, putting on the apparent enthusiasm of a new-hire who's been offered a plum assignment. "First in to a new market, laying the groundwork for the sales staff. Out before it gets routine. Sounds like a great opportunity."
"Guess you'll be doing okay, then," Doyle had answered. Just in case anyone was watching, Bodie had staged their first meeting on the day of his successful interview, standing at the bar beside Doyle and buying a round for everyone in the pub to celebrate his good fortune and new job. It would have seemed perfectly natural that he'd have fallen to chatting with one of the beneficiaries of his largesse, and their other encounters had seen Doyle cheerfully asking him how the new job was coming. All very casual, all very open.
"Yeah. Seems I had just the background they were looking for, all the right experience. I'm looking forward to right exciting times, mate; lots of action, lots of movement." His hard eyes said a lot more than his light tone of voice about just what kind of background, action, and movement he meant, and there was no innocence in them. "Said I'd be wasted on the usual working crew, wouldn't be a real test of me talents. Too much routine, no challenge. Nah, this R/D, sounds right up me line." Doyle didn't need Bodie's little slip back into his usually buried Liverpool mug's accent to get the point.
"Wish you luck, then," he'd said. "You'll have to let me know if it's all that you think it will be."
"Oh, I will. Just needs meeting with the boss, then they'll decide if I'm in. Chap named Masters. Been out in the field somewhere, due back tomorrow or the day after. He likes what he sees, I move up the line."
"Hope it works for you." Doyle had eyed a pretty redhead, given Bodie a wink, and started to head off in the girl's direction. "Care to wish me some luck of my own?"
"You'll need it, mate," Bodie had predicted, and turned away to chat up a girl for himself. Later, Doyle had asked his phone contact for information on Masters, making it sound as if he were just looking for background on a likely executive he might want to interview. Nothing in particular had turned up, so he'd thought no more about it.
Until Bodie, the next night, had gone stone-still looking into the mirror above the bar, and raised his glass to conceal his mouth while he spoke softly through nearly motionless lips.
"Bloody hell. Tell Cowley, right now: black my real name like the devil. I need a damn good reason to be calling myself something else."
Doyle turned casually around and hooked his elbows on the bar and his foot on the rail, seemingly scanning the action as he sipped his beer, eyes passing idly across the door of the pub. The newest arrival was a big man, taller than Bodie and broader in the shoulders, a few years older with close-cropped blond hair going grey and a thin scar along one weathered cheek. Doyle covered his speech the same way Bodie had, and let his eyes keep wandering on.
"Who's the goon?"
"Cullen Doheny. Ex-Army, ex-merc, right bastard. And probably calling himself Masters. They said he'd a scar."
Bodie drained his beer and pushed away from the bar without the slightest glance either at his partner or toward the door. He joined the darts players, and had already made himself part of the group when Doyle saw Doheny/Masters notice him. The man stiffened like a dog going on point, and then flowed toward his quarry like a stalking panther, approaching carefully from behind. He waited until Bodie had a dart in hand, and then spoke.
The tiny flinch and smooth recovery were perfect — a well-controlled man apparently caught totally by surprise, but covering well — and then Bodie completed his toss and turned around with deliberate casualness, eyes taking Doheny in from top to bottom.
"Bentley, these days." At the man's raised eyebrow, he shrugged. "What's in a name?"
"You never smelled much like a rose to me — " Doheny paused just long enough to make it obvious — "Bentley."
"Yeah, but I'm as sweet."
The dry rejoinder passed some kind of muster; Doheny held out his hand, and after the briefest of hesitations, Bodie took it.
It was Bodie's turn to cant an eyebrow, and he didn't disappoint.
"Still retaining dear perfection without the title, I see."
"When in Rome," Doheny shrugged, and Bodie shifted to allow him room to join the darts players. No incipient mayhem seemed apparent, so Doyle left them to it, finishing his beer and abandoning the pub to head for the phone box on the corner. Asking for the managing editor got him Cowley without delay, and he immediately abandoned the pretence of his cover, although he kept careful watch to ensure that he was unobserved.
"Trouble," he said shortly. "Masters is really Cullen Doheny, ex-Army, ex-merc, and he knows Bodie. Bodie's implied that his own name is too hot to use; better make it that way, fast. He'll probably assume GBH."
"We'll take care of it," Cowley said without hesitation. "Do you think he's blown?"
"No — not yet, anyway. If Doheny buys the alias, may even work to our advantage; he may be more inclined to let Bodie in, not play so cagey, since he knows him already. Bodie's playing it that way."
"We'll have the file on Doheny ready for your next call. Keep close watch, four-five."
"Count on it," Doyle said grimly, and rang off. Torn between wanting to return to the pub and being concerned about possibly attracting attention by returning so soon after having walked out, he picked a reasonably well-covered vantage point with a view of the pub door and settled in to wait. Masters left an hour and a half later, accompanied by two other black-jacketed Angels; Bodie didn't emerge for another twenty minutes. Knowing that Bodie would be walking toward the rooming house where he was staying, Doyle watched his backtrail until he was certain that Bodie wasn't being followed; then he picked up his own pace to intercept Bodie at the dark mouth of the alley beside the rooming house. They slipped into the shadows together.
"By now, Cowley's made you persona non grata in England," Doyle said. "I'm not supposed to be hanging about with felons, you know."
"Push off, then," Bodie tossed back. The edge in his voice matched the tension Doyle could see in the line of his shoulders.
"Nah — Father wouldn't approve. Are you in?"
"Maybe. Doheny's a canny bastard; he doesn't like the smell of coincidence, but this one may not stink too much. Old acquaintances are bound to turn up. Not much job variety at home for peacetime soldiers."
"Just what kind of acquaintance is he, anyway? On a scale of enemy to drinking buddy."
"Neither extreme. He was around, that was all. Biafra, mostly. Met a few times, never worked together, not in the same company. Just another British face where there weren't many." Bodie shrugged. "Had a rep for being reliable, good in a fight, and not fussy about the jobs he took. Never heard that he'd turned anything down, so long as the money was right."
Doyle wondered for an instant at the very careful neutrality of Bodie's voice, but he knew better than to ask what jobs Doheny had taken that Bodie had passed up. It was enough to know that Bodie had drawn some lines even in his mercenary days; he might not feel that those particular lines would bear Doyle's close scrutiny now, but at least they had been there. Still ...
"And how would he feel about you, with your rep?"
Bodie hesitated, then shrugged again, but he didn't meet his partner's eyes.
"People change. And you're less fussy when you're hungry. That's always been true."
The almost toneless words left bleakness behind and Doyle let the subject drop, returning briskly to the present.
"So what's on for you tomorrow, since he met you tonight? Change the interview plans any?"
"Maybe. He'll check me out, Doyle — he'll not rely on old memories any more than I would — but he's hinted that there may be an assignment on. Won't tell me where or what until he's sure of me, no way I'll be able to pass it to you. Just have to play it by ear. You?"
"I finally got an afternoon appointment for an interview with Lord Peter himself. Told his secretary I was doing a story on the success of Guardian and knew that Benson and Masters both used to work for him, wanted his perspective on what made them so successful. That kind of thing." He snorted. "The only funny part so far has been that no one's leaned on me, even with all the questions I've been asking. I can't imagine that word hasn't gotten around that a nosey reporter's in town, but I haven't seen hide nor hair of any objecting Angels."
"Wings and haloes, mate, not hide or hair. Looking for the wrong things."
"Feathers and robes, then. Whatever. I'm starting to feel lonesome."
"Poor Ray," Bodie grinned. "Maybe they're smart enough to figure that you might get bored and go away if they don't give you the action you seem to expect."
"Maybe. But there's enough smoke around here to tell me that the fire has to be somewhere close. We'll see what I pick up at Darrington's estate."
Bodie had given him a nod, checked to be certain the coast was clear, and gone on to the rooming house. Doyle had given him a fifteen minute head start, just to be on the safe side, before heading to his own hotel.
He hadn't realised that the trap had already been sprung.
The sharp snapping noise brought Doyle's eyes instantly open and he froze in the act of reaching toward his gun, his green eyes locked with the woman's shocked and startled brown ones. She had been climbing to the loft and had jerked back even as her hand had closed on the pitchfork, conveniently laid beside the ladder, when she saw them. She crouched half on the ladder, half in the loft, and stared in sudden breathlessness. For his own part, Doyle was caught between conflicting imperatives to pull the gun for defence and not to frighten or hurt an innocent. Momentarily stymied, his muscles locked on incomplete action.
Bodie was the only one of the three who acted without thought: his gun was drawn and aimed even before Doyle and the woman had stopped moving. His stillness was the steadiness of purpose, a distinct contrast to the heart-stopped immobility of Doyle and the woman.
The tableau held for a long count, and then something in the woman's face unlocked Doyle's tongue.
"Bodie," he said softly, just the one word, and his partner, with deliberate care, safetied his weapon and slid it back into the holster on the floor at his side. His hand was beginning to shake as he finished, and he winced as he gradually leaned back against the hay again. Doyle took his own gun out from behind his back, flat-palmed, keeping all his movements slow and open, making it plain that his fingers were nowhere near the safety or the trigger, and set it on the hay bale a long arm's reach away. He spread his open hands. "Don't be afraid. We won't hurt you."
Some of the shock faded from the woman's eyes, but she was breathing fast and still poised for flight.
"You're the ones they're looking for," she said, and her voice caught.
"Yes, we are. But we're no danger to you, I promise. We won't do anything to hurt you."
"We might have already, Doyle," Bodie interjected quietly. "We're here. This bunch operates on guilt by association."
"We'll do our best not to hurt you," Doyle amended, and to his surprise, the woman actually smiled. It was the smallest of curves, but it was unmistakably humour. Moving with obvious slow caution of her own, she took the last step up into the loft, leaving the ladder and settling to her knees in the hay, lifting her hand away from the pitchfork.
"So — what do we do now?" she asked, her voice trembling slightly with her effort at control and lightness. Doyle gave her full marks for courage.
"Introductions?" he hazarded. "I'm Ray Doyle, this is Bodie. And while we can't prove it at the moment, we're CI5."
"Elizabeth Stoner. Lizi." Looking at Bodie, still wrapped in his blankets, she raised an eyebrow. "Bodie?"
He ghosted a smile of his own.
"Long story. Short name. Bodie."
She smiled back slightly, but her eyes were still wary.
"So why are the Guardians after you?"
"In part, for what they said," Doyle admitted candidly. "We found out things they didn't like, they caught us, we got away."
"And killed people in the process."
"It was them or us," Bodie said, shifting a bit in growing discomfort. "At that, might still be us. Depends on you, now."
"Why? What are you doing in my barn?"
"Couldn't go any farther last night. Bodie's hurt, we needed to stop. We planned to be gone again tonight without disturbing you."
She looked from one of them to the other, weighing them, still tense with doubt.
"So — if you're CI5, why not just go to the police, or call for backup, or something?"
Doyle exchanged a wry look with his partner.
"We can't tell the good coppers from the bent ones — some of 'em at least are in on Guardian's deals. We're here undercover, so they don't know about us. And as for calling —" he had the grace to look a little sheepish. "I tried last night, but your phone was out. And we think they've probably got the phone centre tapped by now. A call could kill us."
It sounded lame, even to him, like some story off the telly. He had to admit that he wouldn't buy the tale if someone were trying to sell it to him. He clung to the memory of her distaste for the Guardian agent who had come by earlier, hoping that there was enough distrust there to lend at least some credence to the idea that the Guardians might be under investigation.
The long minute while she watched and thought only increased Doyle's worry. He could see that his partner was feeling the effects of the knife wound now that the surge of adrenaline caused by his startled waking had worn off; Bodie was sweating, swallowing against the nausea that came with deep pain, and the flush of fever was creeping up his pale cheeks. The woman noticed it too, and that seemed to prompt her decision. Carefully skirting the gun at Bodie's side, she slowly shuffled forward on her knees and reached out cautiously to touch his face.
"You can't stay here, and no mistake; you need a bed. My God, you're burning." She met Doyle's eyes, and he saw resolve in hers. "Come to the house. Whatever the truth is, the barn's not the place for it."
"I know it all sounds far-fetched ..."
She cut him off, but her abruptness held no anger.
"We've had our own doubts of the Guardians, though I'll not go so far as to accuse them of anything. But I'll not forget either that you had guns, and didn't use them. Come. Can you manage the ladder?"
Bodie smiled wanly.
"Not in a blanket. Doyle?" He held out a hand, and Doyle collected his spread-out clothes and handed them to him. The woman took in the situation with a raised eyebrow, and then backed toward the ladder.
"I'll meet you downstairs, shall I?"
Doyle tensed; the telephone was downstairs, just across the way, and if he was occupied with helping Bodie, he couldn't keep her away from it. And he didn't know where her husband was, either; he might be only a shout away, and a man on horseback could move a lot faster than he'd be able to. And a horse could be a weapon, too.
She saw the indecision plain on his face and smiled ever so slightly.
"Trust has to start somewhere," she said, and nodded toward his gun. "You still have that." Without waiting further, she started down the ladder, and he let her go. Trust was a bitch, but she was trusting them more than he would have believed. She stopped at the base of the ladder and looked back up, waiting.
He could hear Bodie getting dressed behind him, and finally forced himself to turn around. He caught up his holster and put the gun into it, then slung the harness loosely across one shoulder, as Bodie had also done. He gave Bodie a hand up from the hay bale to his feet, and had to grip both of his upper arms to keep him upright as the other man hissed in pain and swayed alarmingly before finding his own unsteady balance.
"You with me, sunshine?" Doyle asked, and Bodie nodded.
"Jus' gimme a minute."
He could see the change as Bodie imposed his will, forcing his breathing to slow and even out, using the breath to focus his mind to compensate for the weakness of his body. When his eyes opened again, they were calm, and he cocked his head toward the ladder.
"You'd better go first, just in case."
"Same way we came up," Doyle agreed. He draped Bodie's jacket across his arm and started down the ladder, watching with care how Bodie placed his feet. The woman was still waiting for them, and when they reached the ground, she slid under Bodie's right arm to lend him support, whilst Doyle did the same on his left. Between them, they got Bodie out of the stable and into the yard. Doyle could sense that he was carrying more of Bodie's weight with almost every minute; his partner's brief waking strength was waning fast.
Once out in the sunshine, Doyle realised that hours had passed since he'd woken the first time, and that a lot had gone on beneath the loft that he'd never noticed. Without looking at his watch, he knew from the height of the sun that it was close to noon. A dozen or more horses were out in a paddock off to the side, and the farm's elderly lorry was nowhere to be seen. Unconsciously, he halted, looking at the empty place where it had been parked. Bodie barely lifted his head, only foggily wondering why they had stopped, but the woman correctly guessed his concern.
"El — my husband, Ellery — took out the spreader. He's just down the lane to the timothy field." She smiled. "Twenty horses make a lot of fertilizer in a week." Gently, she started moving again toward the house, and Doyle went along. Scanning the road, the fields, and the moor, he saw nothing to indicate that they were being watched, but he still felt better once they were inside the house.
The woman guided them to a plain but pleasant room on the second floor, and left Doyle to support Bodie whilst she turned down the bed. Doyle felt Bodie starting to tremble with the effort to remain in control, and he eased him down to sit on the bed as smoothly as he could. The woman knelt to work on getting Bodie's shoes off, and then Doyle slid the holster off his shoulder, tipped him gently back against the pillows, and swung his legs up. Bodie's relief in lying down and holding still was palpable; he released his tension and rigid control in one long shuddering breath.
"Ta, mate. Be better in a while."
"You'll be better when you've some tea in you, not to mention food." Lizi nodded at his bandaged waist. "Will you let me take a look at that? Our medicine chest is pretty well-stocked for cleaning and bandaging — has to be, what with the horses — but we've nothing stronger than Panadol for pain, I'm afraid."
"That'll do fine."
"Then I'll borrow your friend for a moment. Just rest." She turned to Doyle, her eyes catching on the guns dangling from his hands. "May I ask you to leave those here? You won't need them in the kitchen, and I don't want to give El the same kind of fright you gave me. He'll be back any minute."
Doyle debated just long enough for his hesitation to be noticeable, then set the weapons down on the bed at Bodie's side. His partner nodded fractionally, and Doyle knew that Bodie wouldn't relax until he had returned. He silently promised to make it quick, and followed Lizi out of the room and down the stairs.
In the kitchen, she moved with smooth economy to put on the kettle and warm the pot, cocking her head back over her shoulder toward the door to an adjoining room as she picked up the tin of tea.
"The kit's on the shelf in the loo; the Panadol's in the cabinet. If you'd be easier looking after your friend yourself, I'll not insist — but I'm a dab hand at treating the odd cut and scrape."
"How are you with stab wounds?"
She betrayed her shock only by missing a beat in what she was doing, but then kept on steadily with the routine, assembling two mugs, spoons, milk, and sugar on a tray, then adding a plate.
"That I wouldn't know. Worst I've handled was a nail puncture. Will you — tell me what happened?"
"Told you already. We were undercover. They twigged to us and laid a trap. We fought our way out, but along the way, one o' the blokes tried to stick me in the back. Bodie took him down, but he took the knife, too. Don't think it hit anything critical, but he's lost a lot of blood, and I'll lay odds the wound's infected. He needs a doctor, and we need backup."
He didn't miss her shiver, but when she turned to face him her eyes were calm.
"I think that's why I believe you," she said slowly, considering each word. "You admit what you've done and that you need help, but you don't threaten to get it."
"I would," Doyle answered levelly, " — if I had to. For him."
The silence between them was broken by the whistling of the kettle and the asthmatic rattling of the farm lorry's old engine. Whilst she reached for the kettle, Lizi nodded again back at the door to the loo.
"Get the kit. I'll deal with El. It'll be okay."
Trust still came hard, but — in for a penny, in for a pound. Doyle kept his ears tuned behind him as he half-closed the loo door in order to get at the sizeable first aid kit on the back shelf, and then rummaged in the medicine cabinet for the painkiller and anything else useful he might find.
Doyle heard the door open, and then a grunt of effort followed immediately by a doggy whine. He could picture the man setting the dog down on the floor, and the clicking of the dog's claws on the lino bore out the image.
"I'll be happy when he can get himself up and down again," the man said. "He's no puppy any more."
"It won't be long. He's doing well already."
There was a tiny pause broken only by the sounds of the refrigerator door, pans, and dishes, and then Doyle could hear the bemused curiosity in the man's voice.
"Eggs for lunch?"
"It's what one of our guests needs."
Doyle shrugged; that sounded like his cue. He swung the door back open and stepped out from the loo to find himself the cynosure of two sets of penetrating eyes. The man's were a startlingly clear light grey, while the dog's were a liquid brown. The dog, looking like some mix of Alsatian and border collie with its pointed nose and silky black fur, tensed and started to growl in the same instant that the man came up on the balls of his feet.
"Friend," Lizi said instantly, not missing a beat. "Friend, Sammie. It's all right." That last was clearly addressed as much to the man as to the dog, but Doyle didn't see that it made much difference to him, although the dog relaxed instantly and came forward with a somewhat uneven gait, hampered by bandaged ribs, to sniff at his legs. Doyle juggled the kit and the bottle of medicine to free up a hand for the dog's inspection, and then to rub the soft ears and submit to a licking.
"Ray Doyle," he said, and then looked wryly down at his now-damp hand. Despite himself, the other man smiled just a bit at his predicament in etiquette, but he ignored the hand and did not offer to shake.
"Ellery Stoner." He glanced at his wife. "Are you sure you know what you're doing, Lizi?"
"No. But I think it's right. Hebrews thirteen-two, remember?" She never hesitated in her movements, calmly proceeding with the task of pouring whipped eggs into a skillet and setting bread to toast. "I feel better about Ray and his friend Bodie than I did about the Guardian man who came by with Jamie earlier; there's more truth in this room than there was out in the free air before."
"We're CI5, Mister Stoner," Doyle said evenly. "I can't prove it — we've been under cover, investigating Guardian Security — but I can promise that we mean no harm to you or your wife."
"That's worth the paper it's written on," he answered, but his wife looked at him chidingly.
"More than you think," she said. "Their guns are upstairs. Do you see a single threat in here?"
Ellery glanced at her, then back at Doyle, and those pale eyes assessed him as shrewdly as Cowley's ever had.
"And whose idea was that, I wonder?" he said, but the inflection in his voice made it clear both that there was no question in his mind and that he would accept the situation as a given. Lizi simply smiled, and went on with setting up a tray to carry up to Bodie. She dished out some of the eggs, buttered toast, and poured tea for two, and then nodded at the things in Doyle's hands as she added cubed cheese to the plate.
"Put those on the tray, why don't you, and then you and El can dish out your own lunch. I'll take care of Bodie. We've an hour before the first of our students is due." She picked up the now laden tray, and paused in the doorway, her eyes fixed on her husband's and her voice very soft. "I don't think I'm wrong, love. And I think we need to help." She smiled briefly at Doyle, and then slipped past him to head up the stairs. The dog looked at the two men, then started to follow the woman, attacking the stairs gamely despite the awkwardness of its hampered gait. Silence reigned until the two were both out of sight, and then Ellery shrugged heavily and moved to pick up the pan and portion out the remainder of the eggs onto two plates on the counter.
"There's no shifting her once she's made up her mind," he observed.
"Got that impression," Doyle agreed cautiously.
"So — what's the help you're wanting, that Lizi's decided to give?" Stoner set the plates down on the table, and nodded his head to Doyle to sit and eat.
"All we want is to lie up during the day. We'll leave come dark. We just need to get out of Darrington's territory before we can call for help."
The man wasn't challenging, just asking, but Doyle could sense something below the surface. Remembering the conversations he'd overheard, he decided that he had nothing to lose by being totally open.
"Because Darrington's running the biggest protection racket in English history. Guardian Security got their market share through 'pay-up-or-else,' and they're doing it with the connivance of local authorities in a dozen towns at least. We got the goods on them, but we can't testify if we're dead. Darrington's got the money, the men, and the connections, and he wants us dead. For all we know, he owns the cops, he owns the roads, and he owns the phones. Our only chance is to avoid his lot long enough to put our mob on alert."
Stoner listened without betraying what he was thinking, but when Doyle stopped he regarded the agent for a long moment, and then nodded.
"I might not be inclined to believe you, if I hadn't heard some of this before. We've never been strong-armed, but I've heard it rumoured. Guardian's gotten stronger and stronger. Going through the roadblocks last night was like, I don't know, crossing occupied France, or something."
"We don't want to cause you any trouble, just stay low 'til we can chance crossing the moors. That's all."
"I get the idea Lizi has more than that in mind," Stoner mused, and then his look sharpened. "How badly hurt is your friend?"
"He'll make it," Doyle said too defensively, and then backed down a bit. "Took a knife in the side. Nothing major, but he lost a lot of blood and he's running a fever. He'll be good to go, with a bit of rest."
Stoner shook his head slightly, but offered no verbal opinion. With his plate empty, he pushed his chair back from the table, but still sat cradling his mug of tea.
"We board horses and train eventers here. We'll have four students by this afternoon, but they'll keep to the stable and paddocks. You should be all right in the house, especially if you stay upstairs." He smiled slightly. "You're lucky — we don't get a lot of classes scheduled for the middle of the week, and our boarders are mostly in town. Friday to Sunday's a right madhouse around here, never know who's coming when, horses going every which way."
"Eventers?" Doyle hazarded, and the man nodded.
"Three day eventing — combination of dressage, show jumping, and cross-country obstacle course. We train horses and teach riders — or is it the other way around?" He grinned, and Doyle found himself responding to his easy good humour. "Sold a horse to the Olympic team last year; best we've ever done. We're getting a rep, but it takes time."
"You both ride?"
"And teach, and muck, and groom, and feed, and exercise, and compete, and complain. We couldn't maintain a stable this size without extra hands if we both didn't work at it, and work hard." He drained his mug, and got up to put it and his plate in the sink. "Speaking of which, I'd better get outside and start setting up." He met Doyle's eyes squarely.
"I trust Lizi's intuition, Mister Doyle. Because of her, and things I've heard about Guardian, I'm prepared to trust you almost as far as she evidently does. You can stay, and I'll keep your secret. But if anything happens to her, CI5 or no, I'll find a way to make you regret walking through this door."
"Fair enough," Doyle said evenly. "It's more than I would have expected, probably more than I'd have done, under the circumstances. Thank you."
Stoner simply nodded, and headed out the door. Doyle watched for a moment and saw that he demonstrated the same economy of movement as his wife, casually planning his course toward the stable to let him pick up gear from the lorry along the way. Doyle turned away and headed up the stairs.
He found Bodie, fed and freshly bandaged, grimly fighting a delaying action against sleep with all the charm still remaining at his exhausted command. Lizi was laughing at something he had said as she resettled him against the pillows, but there was a desperation in his eyes at variance with the smile on his face. His relief at sight of his partner — his permission, finally, to let down his silently promised guard — was obvious enough to bring a grin to Doyle's face.
"Eaten them out of house and home yet?" Doyle teased.
"Saving that for dinner," Bodie managed.
"My money says, you'll sleep right through it," Lizi said.
"You don't know Bodie and food!"
The unforced humour felt good. Despite his obvious exhaustion, Bodie looked better. Doyle used his eyes and his smile to pass the message of safety, and felt satisfied when he saw Bodie truly relax at last, surrendering his brittle iron control in his rarest gift: complete trust. Lizi saw the change, the moment when Bodie stopped fighting to stay awake, and smiled.
"Sleep well," she said softly, and gave the duvet a last tweak. She wasn't at all sure that he was still awake enough to have heard even that. She joined Doyle at the foot of the bed.
"You could do with some rest yourself. Why not grab a shower and kip? No one will come up here for the next few hours; the kitchen's fair game, and the loo, but nothing up here. You can give Sammie a good example." She grinned, nodding at the dog, which had curled up on the bedside rug and watched them all with lazy but unblinking eyes.
"The shower sounds good," Doyle admitted.
"Down the hall, then. Towels in the linen chest." She collected the tray with its load of dirty dishes and the first aid kit, and took a quick assessing look around for anything left undone, smiling as her eyes ran across Bodie's peacefully sleeping face. Then she headed for the door.
For a moment, as she turned to him with a mildly quizzical expression, Doyle had no idea why he had called her back. Then the enormity of it came back to him, and with a helpless gesture that somehow took in the room, the emptied tray, his sleeping partner, and the situation at large, he asked the only question that would come to him.
She weighed him with calm and gentle eyes, and then smiled.
"Hebrews thirteen-two. 'Be mindful always to give welcome to strangers, for some have thus entertained angels unaware,'" she quoted, and then the sparkle of mischief took over and she grinned as she nodded at the black jacket tossed casually over the bedside chair with the guns and the rest of Bodie's things. The Guardian Security angel logo stood out on its back in bright silver embroidery. "Or maybe not so unaware, hey?"
A smile tugged at his mouth — he could just imagine Cowley's reaction to someone calling his two ace operatives 'angels' — but he wasn't ready to accept the facile answer.
"We could just as well be devils," he said. "For all you know."
She rested the tray on her hip and met his look evenly.
"Aye, you could. But you're not. 'Handsome is as handsome does,' my grandmother always said, and you've done handsomely from the moment we met. You might well be deceitful rogues and villains, but everything you've done so far says not, from the moment you put your guns aside. I put more store by what people do than by how they look or what they say. And it may kill me someday, but I trust in what's best in folk. I couldn't live any other way."
Her generous serenity was worlds away from the guarded watchfulness in which he'd lived his whole life, and from the cynical suspicion that seemed to rule Bodie's; there was something unreal about her, something unearthly. In that moment, he'd not have been surprised to see wings and light surrounding her.
"I hope you never have to," he said softly. She just smiled and headed out the door, but paused at the jamb to glance back.
"By the way — do you ride?"
"A little." Doyle felt himself unaccountably blushing. "Girlfriend taught me once."
"Good." And then she was gone. Her tread was so light he didn't even hear her on the stairs.
He gave Bodie a good long look, but his partner was sleeping soundly and his breathing was easy. He pulled back the duvet and saw a clean, neat job of bandaging, the wrapping snug and flat, and he drew the covers back up over Bodie's chest. Keeping well back from the window, he took a look out, and saw a world too peacefully normal to be the same one in which he'd lived the past night's terrors. He shook his head; a shower was definitely what he'd need to clear out the cobwebs and stay alert, and he knew he couldn't let his guard all the way down no matter how calm things seemed.
And no matter that he found fresh clothing laid out for him when he emerged from the shower, jeans and a shirt that clearly belonged to Ellery and would have fit better on Bodie's bigger frame. Through the window, he heard Lizi's voice carried on the breeze as she called cadence for a rider circling the ring, a steady count that somehow meshed with Bodie's quiet breathing and wove a spell of peace. For antidote, he slipped Bodie's gun beneath his pillow and kept his own gun in his lap as he pulled the chair close so he could stretch out his legs, resting his stockinged feet on the bed. But the peace stole over him nonetheless, and he dozed like a cat in the warm pool of sunlight in the chair.
"Would you mind waiting while I handle this, Mister Doyle? It will just take a moment."
Staring politely aside at the darkening afternoon and the rain pouring down beyond the french doors whilst really watching from the corner of his eye, Doyle hadn't been able to make out any of the secretary's urgently whispered message. Darrington's urbane features hadn't shifted one iota from the smooth mask he'd worn ever since Doyle had been admitted. Only the secretary displayed tension in the way his eyes shifted between Doyle and his boss. Doyle opened his hand in languid acceptance.
"You've been most kind, Lord Peter," he said. "I wouldn't want to impose."
Darrington nodded politely — all the forms scrupulously observed — and rose from his chair to accompany the secretary to the door. Their low-voiced colloquy resumed a safe distance from Doyle's pricked ears, and then they both stepped outside the office.
He wouldn't have a better moment, and he couldn't count on even this one being of any length. Doyle was instantly out of his chair and leaning over Darrington's desk. The leather-bound folder that the secretary had shown him lay closed on the blotter; Doyle flicked it open just long enough for two names and the design at the top of the cover page to register, and then froze in place.
Bodie's real name, and his, and the letters 'CI5.' On Home Office letterhead.
He heard the door behind him open, but he already knew that it was too late to dissemble in any case. He turned to see Darrington flanked by Masters/Doheny, and he was not at all surprised to see the ugly muzzle of the automatic in Masters' hand trained on the exact center of his chest.
"Well, well, well, Mister Doyle; so my friend was right about you. Undercover CI5. What a disappointment." Darrington was careful not to get between Masters and Doyle as he shifted his attention to the man beside him. "You got the other one?"
"Safely under wraps." Another armed goon in an angel jacket stepped around at a signal from Masters to cross warily to Doyle, gesturing with the gun in his hand that Doyle should turn around and put his hands flat on the desk. Fuming but careful, Doyle complied — and used the opportunity to get a good look at the signature on his death warrant. He felt his spine ice over even as ungentle fingers patted him down and lifted the Browning from his holster, then yanked his arms unceremoniously behind him and handcuffed his wrists. "Put him with the other one."
Even though he was expecting it, Doyle stumbled at the heavy sideways shove. He planted his feet as they approached Darrington, though, and met the aristocrat's eyes with challenge in his own.
"Whatever you're planning won't work," he said. "Cowley knows about you."
Darrington was unfazed.
"Whatever George Cowley thinks he knows, we'll soon pull his teeth. Take him out."
Masters prudently stayed back out of reach, gun in hand, whilst his henchman manhandled Doyle into motion again. They gave him no chance to play for freedom on the walk from the study to the cellar door, and the guard already on duty there snapped erect to cover him whilst Masters opened the door. Then a fist connected solidly with his kidney and his feet were kicked out from under him to plunge him willy-nilly down the unlit stairs. Risers caught his knees, his chin, his elbow, his hip, and the back of his head in quick and brutal succession, and he ended in a dazed heap at the foot of the stairs, only vaguely aware of the door slamming shut somewhere far above him. The light cut out, except for what little filtered down from the cracks between the door and the jamb.
"Doyle? Doyle!" The familiar voice was almost as thorough a wake-up call as getting a glass of water in the face. Doyle's head started to clear and he rolled over, craning for a look around. He recognized the vague shape humping towards him through the dimness as his partner, evidently tied hand and foot and doing his best imitation of a snake to get across the floor to reach him. Doyle groaned as his movement set off fireworks inside his skull.
"Remind me again why we let Cowley get us into these things," he groused, and the frantic human snake slowed down at the normal sound of his voice.
"So we can examine the cellars of the rich and famous?" Bodie suggested. "I'll bet there are some decent vintages on these shelves."
"And me without my corkscrew." Moving with exaggerated caution, Doyle levered himself to a sitting position. As his eyes got accustomed to the near-pitch darkness, he could make out a little more of his surroundings, although none of their details. There were massive wooden storage shelves for oddments and canned goods as well as bottles, and vague hulking shapes of unnameable things piled in storage. "How did they get you?"
"Wasn't anything I said," Bodie answered. "Passed their screening just fine. They'd just briefed me in on my first strong-arm job — discouraging some racehorse trainer — when Masters got called out. Next thing I knew, half of his goons jumped me, and I woke up here. Can't have been all that long ago — half an hour, maybe?"
"Then Masters got the word first and took you out before passing it on to Darrington. Had to take you, I guess, since he'd given you hard evidence by briefing you for an assignment, and if they took you, they'd have to take me as well. Darrington's secretary came in with a folder a few minutes ago. There was a special delivery letter in it warning Darrington about us, and I mean by name and mentioning CI5. We've been shopped, partner, and it came from the very top; the letter was signed by Richard Addie."
"The Home Secretary's PA?"
"One and the same. Bodie, we need that letter. Cowley's got to know that Darrington's hooks are in all the way to the top."
"Great." Bodie grunted as he rolled over twice, until he fetched up at Doyle's side. "They've got me tied so I can't even stand. Have a go at the knots?"
"It's better than waiting for them to come up with some plausible accident for us," Doyle agreed, and squirmed around until his fingers found Bodie's arm and followed it to the clump of rope at his wrists. He closed his eyes and tried to make sense out of the tangle, and then started to pick away at the bits. They were both silent for a few minutes, Doyle in concentration on the ropes and Bodie mulling through ideas. One kept coming back.
"How would Addie know? About us?"
Doyle didn't even hesitate in his tugging and twisting.
"Cowley must've briefed the Home Secretary. He'd've had to, if any hint came out that we were sniffing after a peer. Addie'd have been in on that meeting."
"Yeah, well, I can think of another reason," Bodie said sourly. When Doyle stayed silent, his irritation flared. "Well, wouldn't be the first time he's dropped us in it, now, would it? Using us as bait in a mantrap without telling us first?"
"And if he did — if he'd gotten suspicious of Addie and set us up for him — what could we do about it?" Doyle was too tired suddenly to feel the anger he'd run through too many times before when Cowley had manipulated them.
"Nothing." The hurt defensiveness in Bodie's tone was all too familiar. "I just wish he'd tell us, sometimes."
Doyle had to smile.
"In your dreams, sunshine." He felt something give under his probing fingers. "Hey — I think I'm getting somewhere. Got anything on you to use as a lockpick? I'm cuffed."
"We'll find something. Just get me out of these ropes."
Diligent effort was rewarded after about ten more minutes. The rope around Bodie's wrists slid free, taking all the tension off the line between his wrists and ankles, and he was able to pull his feet up and attack the ankle ropes without distraction. Without wasting words or time, he rolled to his feet and padded off into the darkness, on the prowl for tools and escape. His black clothes and dark hair blended into the shadows, and his commando-silent movement meant that Doyle lost track of him almost as soon as he slipped away. He forced himself to wait.
Bodie's abrupt reappearance behind him was heart-attack material, but since Doyle — knowing his partner's warped sense of humour — was mostly expecting it, he controlled his start of surprise. The slightly disappointed tone of Bodie's voice cheered him with the knowledge that his cover had succeeded.
"Got some stiff wire. Give us some room, hey?"
Doyle shifted further away from the stairs and felt Bodie's hands busy at the trapped wrists behind his back. The click of the lock giving way was surprisingly loud, and then he was rubbing his abused wrists and rolling his shoulders to undo the kinks.
"Didn't spot any other ways out, but didn't have to go far, either," Bodie said. "I'll go right, you go left, meet back here unless we find something?"
"It's a plan," Doyle agreed, and headed off cautiously in the dark, using every sense at his command to augment the vague shapes his eyes could make out. The cellar was big and old and lined with stone, and fully underground, so far as he could tell; no windows gave on the outside, or if they did, they were up high and so filthy as to be indistinguishable from the wall. His nose led him to the coal room, but the store was full, blocking any access to the coal chute.
Bodie's hiss from across the way snapped his head around, and he picked his way across the floor to find his partner in the midst of the wine stores.
"Lazy steward's dream," Bodie said softly. "There's a dumbwaiter here, must go up to the kitchen or the butler's pantry. Looks to be as old as the house; rope pulley job." It was too dark for Doyle to see his face, but he could hear the grin in Bodie's voice. "Cage is dustier than your flat, must not have been used in years, but they must have thrown one hell of a party in the old days: this thing's big enough to hold a man."
"Ha, ha," Doyle said drily. "Which of us gets to test the ropes — and find out whether they've locked the doors at the top?"
"Flip you for it?" Bodie offered, but Doyle poked him.
"Flip what? Besides — you'd only cheat. Any road, I'm lighter than you: I've got a better chance to make it." He smiled sweetly, aware that Bodie would pick up the tone even if he couldn't see the expression. "You just give me a smooth ride. Think of me as a very fine wine you don't want to bruise."
"More like plonk," Bodie said, but he gave Doyle a lift and a bracing arm for help as Doyle folded himself into the little wooden box waist-high in the wall, and his other hand was already occupied among the ropes, feeling for any hint that the old hemp might be straining under Doyle's unexpected weight.
Doyle wound up curled into a ball, his legs tight against his chest and his nose buried in his knees, but he managed to fit.
"Aye, aye, matey. Mind yer elbows," Bodie advised with an atrocious pirate leer, and he patted Doyle's near hip almost lasciviously before he started to put weight smoothly on the lift rope. He had to exert more force than he expected, and the cage stayed stubbornly still for a long minute before starting to move with a sudden sharp jerk and a snapping creak. Once he had it moving he concentrated on keeping the pull smooth and steady to put as little stress as possible on the ancient rope.
The open side of the dumbwaiter was enclosed by the wood of the wall as it rose, and Doyle, though not normally claustrophobic, still had to fight a brief flash of panic as his world went totally black and the sounds of his breathing and his heart became louder than anything else. He let one hand trail lightly along the open wall, using his fingertips to sense any change that would mark a door instead of a wall. It seemed an inordinately long time before he saw a crack of light sliding down alongside him. He debated risking a noise to somehow alert Bodie, but the cage stopped seemingly of its own accord once it lined up with the cupboard-style door. He twisted as much as he could to bring his eye in line with the crack.
He couldn't see much, but it looked like a butler's pantry, and he couldn't see or hear anything to indicate that anyone was around. As carefully and quietly as he could, he pressed against the door, having to shift around until more by accident than design he found that the door was intended to slide down, rather than swing open. Something at the top held it in place, though, and he finally held his breath and shoved out and down with all the might he could muster from his awkward position. Abused wood groaned and shrieked, and then something snapped and the door rumbled down and he spilled out of the cage onto the floor, his training automatically turning the drop into a roll back to his feet. He flattened himself immediately beside the pantry door, but even after a couple of minutes had passed, no one came to investigate the sound, and he let himself breathe normally again. He did a quick recce for weapons, and came up with a long, thin, wicked-looking carving knife; then he eased open the door, checked to see that the coast was clear, and padded into the dining room.
Using his mental map of the house, he plotted a course back to the cellar stairs, moving with all the stealth at his command. A bored guard shifted his feet outside the cellar door, but the man was facing away from him; he had barely begun to turn when Doyle struck him hard just behind the ear with the solid wood haft of the knife and grabbed his falling body to lower him silently to the floor. Doyle tried the knob, but the heavy door was locked. He searched the unconscious guard rapidly, relieving him of his gun in the process, but was frustrated in his ultimate goal: there were no keys in his pockets. Poised on one knee, stymied, Doyle swore viciously, for all he did it silently: the door was ancient oak and well over an inch thick, and forcing it open would be bound to attract attention. He cast about for some alternative, and then remembered Bodie slyly patting his hip before the dumbwaiter started moving. He slid his hand into his hip pocket, and found the short length of stiff wire that Bodie had used to pick the handcuff lock.
"Sneaky bastard," he breathed, grinning, and bent to the lock. "Going to outsmart yourself one of these days."
After nearly two minutes of effort, the lock thunked and he swung the door open. Bodie was standing on the steps, arms crossed over his chest, managing to look down his nose even though he was looking up. His superior air wasn't even damaged by the bruises darkening his left cheek and jaw, souvenirs from his capture that Doyle hadn't been able to see in the cellar's dark.
"Took you long enough. Waiting for an invitation?"
"Get up here," Doyle hissed, and Bodie moved with an alacrity that still implied languid feline grace. He took in the prone guard at Doyle's feet, thoughtfully pulled the handcuffs Doyle had worn out of his jacket pocket, and knelt to tug the unconscious man's arms behind his back and snap the cuffs around his wrists. He glanced up once at Doyle's face, and then smiled, pushed the guard through the door, and tumbled him down the stairs with the same disregard for safety that Doyle had been shown. He brushed off his hands and stood up.
"Where to?" he breathed, as Doyle shut and relocked the door.
"Darrington's study. I'll lay odds the letter's still there, along with enough else to hang him. This way." Doyle handed Bodie the guard's gun, keeping the knife for himself, and led off with Bodie a silent but solid ghost at his back. They separated once, diving into different alcoves when footsteps announced someone moving along a cross corridor, but whoever it was didn't turn down past them, and they reached the study without further incident. Doyle exhaled a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding once the door was closed behind them.
The leather folder still sat on Darrington's desk, and Doyle set down his knife and snatched the letter out of it, stuffing it into his jacket pocket even as he turned his attention to the desk drawers. Bodie had been heading toward a file cabinet, but detoured suddenly toward a glass-fronted wooden case. He snapped his fingers at Doyle.
"Keys?" Doyle tossed him the wire lockpick, and Bodie attacked the cabinet lock. When the door opened, he clicked his tongue to attract Doyle's attention, then reached in and produced their guns.
"Tidy mind," he observed. "Guns in the gun cabinet."
"Let's hope he's as tidy about his files," Doyle answered, and returned to his drawer rummage whilst Bodie dropped his gun on the desk in passing. Doyle stopped just long enough to automatically check the gun's clip before sliding it home into the empty holster under his arm. When he glanced up, Bodie was working on the file cabinet, his own gun already back in its accustomed place, the guard's gun near to hand on top of the cabinet.
They searched quickly, grabbing whatever they found that looked promising, but as the minutes passed Doyle felt a growing sense of unease. He found a large manila envelope among supplies in one drawer and stuffed all of his finds into it, including the letter from his pocket, and had just tossed it to Bodie when the door opened without warning and all hell broke loose.
"You!" Masters said, and launched himself straight over the desk at Doyle without hesitation, closing too fast to allow a weapon to be drawn. The two men behind him, more startled than Masters, nonetheless moved with the precision of hard training, one jumping for Bodie and the other joining Masters against Doyle. Doyle's spinning kick caught Masters' jaw and swept him stumbling off balance to one side, but the second man landed on Doyle's back like a cat and dragged him to the floor, where they rolled until Doyle was on top, trying for a stranglehold. Bodie flowed aside from his attacker, caught the man's arm, and used his own momentum to propel him headfirst into the file cabinet with brutal force, then slashed a stiffened ridge hand down against his neck in a chop that could have shattered concrete. The man dropped like a felled ox. Bodie spun in time to see Masters shake off the effect of Doyle's kick and move in on Doyle from behind, scooping up the carving knife from the desktop and targeting Doyle's unprotected back.
Bodie dove sideways past the desk as Masters thrust, his lunge carrying him into the path of the knife even as the heel of his upflung hand smashed up and back against Masters' nose, driving the bone up into the brain. Both men cried out, Bodie falling against Doyle's back and then sliding to the floor with the knife protruding from his side, Masters staggering back with blood pouring down from his nose, and then dropping heavily to his knees before falling forward onto his face. Bodie's unexpected weight crashing into him flung Doyle forward and sideways, and without ever intending it, he felt the man's neck between his choking hands twist and snap. Sickened, Doyle rounded on Bodie, but every harsh word died unspoken when he saw his partner's white face twisted in pain and his bloodied hands on the hilt of the knife in his side.
"Pull it out," Bodie grated between thinned lips, and when Doyle hesitated, he shifted his grip with the clear intent of doing it himself. Doyle caught his hands.
"You'll bleed to death!"
"It'll slice me to — ribbons when I move," Bodie countered. "No time, Ray: just do it!"
Distant and questioning sounds of alarm in the house made the decision for him. Doyle took a deep breath, set his left hand against Bodie's side, and withdrew the knife in one quick, straight move. Bodie arched against his hand, a cry caught behind his clenched teeth, and then fell back, panting hard and brokenly, but clearly determined to keep shock and unconsciousness at bay. He cupped his left hand against the wound, bunching his shirt and vest together and squeezing them hard against his side to slow the bleeding, and raised his trembling right arm.
"Get me up."
Doyle levered him to his feet, taking most of his weight as he groaned and staggered, and then he braced his partner against the desk and reached to grab the manila envelope that suddenly seemed both incredibly expensive and stupidly unimportant. But all the little things assumed a sort of sharp-edged clarity, and without even thinking he shoved the envelope into a bigger overnight shipping service one, the waterproof kind, and tucked it inside his jacket, zipping it up. The french doors onto the terrace were locked, but with the house clearly roused by the commotion he didn't waste time with niceties like lockpicking; all of his anger and rage powered the kick that smashed the lock open, and then he dragged Bodie's right arm across his shoulder and hauled his stumbling partner out into the rain.
The storm was both a blessing and a curse; the cloudy dark and the rain obscured vision even though it wasn't night yet, but while it helped hide them from the guards, it also made the guards themselves harder to spot. Figuring the front gate for a dead loss, Doyle struck off sideways across the gardens toward the moors. He practically fell over a pair of guards before he even knew they were there, and the only thing that saved him was that they were as startled as he was. He dropped Bodie and went for his gun as the two guards split, and though his first couple of shots were merely for effect, to rattle them as they dove for their own weapons, he clipped one with the third shot. He heard another gun thundering beside his own and saw the other guard stagger and go down, and turned to see Bodie spread full-length on the grass, his gun gripped in both hands sinking back toward the earth as his head drooped.
Doyle didn't bother to check on their handiwork, but holstered his gun, prised the heavy Browning from Bodie's hands, and dragged his partner back up to his feet. Bodie sagged in his grip, shock catching him up, and Doyle shook him hard.
"Hold on, damn you!"
Bodie said nothing, but his right hand gripped feebly at Doyle's shoulder, and he nodded. His left arm pressed against the wound in his side again. Doyle shoved the gun into the waistband of his jeans and drew Bodie's right arm across his shoulder, this time throwing his left arm around Bodie's waist and covering Bodie's left hand with his own, adding his strength to the pressure on the wound. Bodie's head lolled against his chest, but his feet kept moving.
The gunfire would draw guards like flies to a carcass. Thinking furiously, Doyle set off northeast, pushing the pace as fast as he dared with Bodie's ragged breathing harsh in his ear. Let them think his ultimate direction chosen, and then he'd find a place to zig. The town was northeast of Darrington's estate and would seem a logical goal; the open moors lay northwest and would be his real target.
If Bodie could hang on that long.
The sky opened up and the cold rain turned into a torrent, plastering his hair down into his eyes and blinding him to anything more than six feet away. He staggered on with no real sense even of whether he was travelling in circles or a straight line, and when he finally came to a fence he simply stopped and stared at it stupidly for a moment before he realised what it was. He coaxed Bodie through the bars and hauled him through to the other side, and found they were standing in an ancient churchyard, the gravestones sunken and canted with age, the little chapel itself long abandoned and in ruins. Lured by the promise of cover for a least a moment, he angled them inside, through the missing door. Although the chapel was mostly roofless, the sanctuary was still somewhat protected, and he lowered Bodie gratefully to the dry floor, leaning him against the altar. He saw Bodie's jaw clench.
"Easy, mate. Just stay still." He lifted Bodie's hand away and laid the wound bare, and hissed to find it still welling blood. The water dripping from Bodie's sodden clothing was stained pink, and Doyle could only guess how much of the wetness in the black cloth was blood. Working quickly, he tore the shirt apart where the knife had already ripped it, pulling the tails free from the waistband of Bodie's trousers. He pulled up the vest as well, and folded it over several times so that the bottom few inches formed a layered pad. Rinsing the wide strip of shirt cloth out in the rain, he wrung it hard, doubled it over, and used it as a wrapping to bind the vest pad against the cut, tying it tightly in place so the knot itself would add more pressure. He finished by pulling Bodie's gun from the waistband of his own jeans and tucking it back into place in the holster under his partner's arm. Bodie flinched at his rough ministrations, and for distraction, let his eyes rove over their surroundings.
"Trying to — tell me something, Doyle?" At his partner's raised eyebrow, Bodie nodded toward the altar with a ghost of his teasing grin. "Long time since I've — made Sunday services."
"Yeah, well, thought you could use the help." Doyle took stock for a moment himself, and felt an idea hatch. "In case we're caught, we should stash the papers where Cowley might find them. With the way he thumps the Bible, could you see the old man passing up a church, especially one right on the edge of Darrington's demesne?"
"He'd never figure it for one of our haunts," Bodie said, but offered no other real objection. The momentary rest seemed to be gaining him his second wind. Doyle squeezed his shoulder and then scrambled to his feet, searching around. Something about the design of the place made him certain that it had once been Roman Catholic; that was perhaps reason enough for its ancient disrepair. A battered, age-dark oak lectern carved with cherubim and seraphim lay partially shattered against the wall by the altar, but it was out of the wind and the weather, and when he investigated it, he found a shelf still intact beneath the slanted top, its opening facing toward the wall and therefore protected and hidden from view. He pulled the fat waterproof overnight envelope from out of his jacket and stuffed it into the lectern shelf.
"Here endeth the lesson," he breathed, and then he rocked the ruined lectern back against the wall and kicked around the accumulated leaf-litter of years of neglect to hide any evidence that it had ever been moved. He gave his handiwork a critical look, and decided it would pass muster as apparently undisturbed. He went back and crouched at Bodie's side. His partner's eyes were closed.
"Time to go," Doyle said reluctantly, and Bodie took a long breath before opening his eyes. He said nothing, just nodded and held out his right hand to clasp Doyle's forearm for help in getting to his feet.
The stormy afternoon had darkened further into twilight, and Doyle paused for a long minute to take his bearings as best he could before stepping out into the downpour to strike out for the moors. Bodie was leaning heavily across his shoulder, and as Doyle hesitated, reluctant to take the first step back into the rain, Bodie's head came up. He did nothing more than meet Doyle's eyes, cock his head toward the rain, and give a crooked smile, but that was encouragement enough. Doyle shrugged his arm more comfortably into place, and struck out with him into the gathering night and the rain, his uneven breathing almost the only focus in a world made suddenly vague by darkness and the storm.
An uneasy mutter woke him, and Doyle dropped his feet off the bed with a dull thump. Bodie was asleep, but sweating and restless with fever, his head rolling occasionally from side to side and small noises of discomfort rumbling far back in his throat as he constantly shifted position. The duvet was rumpled and pushed back from his chest; Doyle reached over to pull it up again.
He spared a glance toward the window, and saw the afternoon's shadows lengthening into evening. In an hour or two, it would be full dark, time to go — but Bodie was clearly in no shape to travel, and another hour or two wouldn't make any difference. He could hear Bodie's laconic voice from the previous night: Been through this before, Doyle — this time tomorrow, doubt I'll be going anywhere.
"Why the hell do you have to be right?" Doyle muttered. For an instant, he found himself wondering just how many times Bodie had been badly hurt, that he could judge his response well enough to predict his condition twenty-four hours in advance; then he shrugged. Bodie would never tell.
Noises, delectable aromas, and muted conversation from downstairs conjured up images of Lizi cooking whilst Ellery laid the table. Doyle shoved his feet into his trainers — dry at last! — and laced them up, and then headed downstairs with a last look at his partner. The dog got up when he did and followed him down.
In the kitchen, he found that part of his image was wrong: Ellery was doing the cooking, not his wife. Their conversation broke off when Doyle appeared, but he felt no sense of tension from them; Lizi just smiled and proffered a cup of tea.
"Sleeping beauty wakes," she said, and he smiled back. "How's Bodie?"
"Restless. The fever's worse, I think."
Her brow furrowed in obvious concern, and she got up from the table to take down yet another cup, fill it from the pot, and set it on the tray along with the milk and the sugar bowl.
"I'll go up and check. It's time for another dose of Panadol anyway, and if we can get more food into him, he'll be the better for it." She gave him an abstracted smile, caught up the tray, and left before he even had a chance to respond.
Ellery half-turned from his culinary duties at the stove to catch Doyle's eye.
"He's not going to be able to move, is he? Not tonight."
"No. Not tonight." He was reluctant to make the admission, but he couldn't avoid the truth. Oh, Bodie would get up and walk, all right, fever and all, but he'd walk right into his grave, and Doyle wasn't ready to allow that. None of the other alternatives his mind kept chasing were acceptable either, but that one thought he rejected utterly, out of hand.
Ellery laid down the wooden spoon he'd been using to stir the pot and pulled up a chair, straddling it with his arms across the back and locking eyes with Doyle.
"Lizi and I were talking about that. No way he could move, no way you'd want to leave him, and with Guardian stirred up the way they are, likely no way you could get across the moor alone even if you did. Had one lot stop by in mid-afternoon asking questions again, and saw another out on the moor with dogs; they'd be on you in no time. They must figure you'd be avoiding the roads."
Doyle resented every word, hearing the echo of his own fruitless thought.
"Care to tell me something I don't know?" he asked sourly, and Ellery cocked his head slightly to one side, considering him.
"Guardian has no reason to stop either of us," he pointed out. "We could drive almost anywhere, even to London, and they wouldn't think it strange. We could certainly drive to a phone outside of whatever territory you think Darrington holds and call the authorities." He gave it a moment to sink in, and then continued. "I agreed to put it to you. We figured I could drive to, oh, Newmarket, say — I've a cousin there, it would make sense, if they ask — and make the call for you, if you'd give me the number and what to say. Lizi could stay with you here, just in case anyone called." He met Doyle's eyes squarely. "And having her here, you'd know I wouldn't do anything to endanger you. Lizi said you'd be afraid to trust me, otherwise."
Doyle just stared for a moment, and then he shook his head and grinned ruefully.
"Rescued by Joe Public — we'll never live this one down. You do realise that Cowley will send us back to basic training after this?"
Ellery grinned back, and then stood up to tend to his cooking again. Doyle simply watched him.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked eventually. "I don't think I'd believe someone giving me the story I gave you."
"We talked about that, too. We've had our doubts of Guardian for a long time; you hear things, you know, rumours come around. I know that our local PC, young Jamie MacDougal, has no fondness for the Angels, and I'd trust Jamie with my life, even with Lizi's. He's a good-hearted soul, but a good nose too for what's rotten, and it's twitched every time he's with an Angel. And Lizi told me what happened when she first found you. Makes me believe you're telling the truth, wild as it may seem." He gave an appreciative sniff over the pot, and then turned to the cabinets and brought out soup bowls and bread plates. "Beef stew, if you're hungry. It's the one thing I really do know how to cook."
"Thank you," Doyle said quietly, and he didn't mean just for the food. He thought of trust, and of the long afternoon and the telephone that they obviously hadn't used whilst both he and Bodie had slept. Ellery nodded at him, then ladled thick stew into a bowl and set it in front of him along with a basket of bread. He dished out more stew for himself, and set the rest to simmer whilst he sat opposite from Doyle.
"So — whom do I call, and what do I say?"
"I'll give you a number. It'll be the CI5 switchboard, so you'll know we really are what we say we are. Insist on speaking only to George Cowley. Say that three-seven is down and you have an emergency message from four-five. That'll get Cowley on for sure." Seeing Ellery opening his mouth to ask the inevitable question, Doyle grinned and forestalled it. "You'll know when you've got him; he's Scottish as bagpipes. Just tell him where we are, that Darrington's on to us, and that we need help. He'll take care of it. Oh — and tell him Addie is in his package in the old church north of Darrington's estate."
"Church? What — oh, you mean that old ruin, what was it, Archangel Chapel. Let's see, George Cowley, three-seven down, four-five — that's Bodie and you, right? And Addie in a package in Archangel Chapel."
"Easy enough to remember." He shook his head, looking up. "Not that I can believe in any of this yet, not really."
"Believe it. And for all our lives, don't make that call until you're in a city, well away from here."
"Don't worry. I saw that dog patrol, mind — and they weren't after fox."
"We can't thank you enough, you and your wife." Doyle felt suddenly awkward, but Ellery's smile smoothed things over.
"Just thank my wife. She gets odd notions, Lizi does, but she's always been right."
They heard the footsteps at the same time, and turned to find Bodie and Lizi on the stairs. Bodie was shirtless and in his stockinged feet, leaning on Lizi on one side and using the bannister for support on the other, but his head was determinedly up and his grimace meant to pass for a smile. Doyle was on his feet and moving to his partner's side without even thinking, taking over support where the bannister left off.
"Ya daft fool, what're you about, oy?" he demanded.
"He insisted on coming down for dinner," Lizi said, "and he's bigger than I am. Even if he is a fool."
"I'm not — a fool," Bodie managed, even though he had to breathe between the words. "I know — what I'm doing."
"Killing yourself, you idiot," Doyle exploded, and Bodie cocked an eyebrow at him.
"Not — hardly. Smelled — food."
"Aye — and I'd have brought it to you, if you'd had the patience of a gnat," Lizi answered with spirit.
"Peace!" Ellery called, laughing. "Sit him down, since he's here, and have done." He frankly grinned, taking stock of his second guest, and rose to start ladling out more stew into bowls for his wife and Bodie. Between them, Lizi and Doyle got Bodie to a chair. He settled in with ill-disguised relief, but kept himself erect. Ellery planted a full bowl in front of him.
"You're Bodie, I presume? Ellery Stoner."
"Congratulations," Bodie said. "You have — a wife — worth keeping."
"I've always thought so."
"Stop hovering — Doyle. All I'm — going to do — is eat."
Doyle sat abruptly. His partner's cheeks still burned with more colour than usual, clear indication of a fever, and his forehead was sheened with sweat, but he was also stronger than he'd been. His hand barely trembled on the spoon as he dug into the stew, and although he ate slowly, his customary dedication to food was clearly present. Despite himself, Doyle started to relax. He glanced across at Lizi.
"You've lost your bet," he said, and when she looked momentarily blank, he grinned. "I said he'd eat you out of house and home, and you figured him to sleep through dinner." He nodded at the stew. "Better start mortgaging the house."
"I think I'll just check on the bread supply," she answered, falling into the spirit of the thing, and she politely offered the entire loaf to Bodie. Despite being seated, he managed to produce the effect of a bow, and graciously waved the bread away.
"A slice or three will be sufficient, milady," he said in his best upper-crust accent, his breath control restored by the rest, and the resulting laughter dissolved the last of the constraints amongst them.
The easy mood lasted through dinner. Whilst Bodie slowly but diligently worked his way through two full bowls of stew, Lizi and El traded stories of their more inept students and idiosyncratic horses. Doyle contributed one of the more printable tales of an interminable stakeout with Anson, the human chimney, and Bodie mopped up the last savoury drops of stew with a shortened rendition of the weekend he and Doyle spent in Repley with two girlfriends, one family, and three failed supermarket robbers. The pain caused by laughter finally forced him to stop, and Doyle wrapped up the tale. Ellery was shaking his head as he collected the bowls and conveyed them to the sink.
"They were fools," he said. "The two of you, civil servants? Clerks in some nameless bureaucratic department? They must've been blind!"
"Oh, I don't know," Lizi contributed wickedly. " It all depends on the light, doesn't it?"
They had a good laugh, until Ellery looked at the clock and sobered.
"If I'm to 'visit m'cousin,' I'd best leave now. Give us a kiss, love."
Lizi flowed into his arms and squeezed him hard, then gave him a kiss, backed up, and let him go.
"Be safe. And lie like a rug, dearheart."
"No bumps," he promised. He looked past her at Doyle. "Write that number for me, would you? I can remember the rest, but I'd hate to get the first part wrong."
Lizi busied herself bustling about for paper and pen, but Bodie and Doyle were both aware of the tears she swept from her eyes in the process, and Doyle was gentle taking the implements she offered. He scrawled the CI5 telephone number, and tore the page so that the scrap would fit in a wallet. When Ellery would have taken it, he held onto it just long enough to prompt the man to meet his eyes.
"We owe you our lives," Doyle said simply. "Thank you. Both of you."
Ellery smiled fleetingly.
"I always wanted a shot at being James Bond," he said, half-sheepishly.
"Your accent's wrong," Lizi said tartly. "Don't trust the damn gauge, remember; stop for petrol somewhere on the way."
"Yes, mum." He bent to kiss her again, quickly, and then headed out the door into the early night. The three left behind stayed caught in the moment until the tired old lorry engine tried once and then turned over, and they heard the gears change and the tyres crunch on the gravel. Then Lizi shook herself and turned too quickly to the sink, starting to run the water whilst reaching for the dish soap.
"Bring the cups," she said shortly, and Doyle was wise enough to comply in silence. Midway through the chore of cleaning up, Lizi recovered her smile, joking at Doyle's inability to remember where anything went. Once the kitchen was put back to rights, however, she began to look lost.
"What would you usually do of an evening?" Bodie asked quietly, still sitting where he'd spent the meal. Doyle looked at him narrowly, trying to evaluate how much of his stillness reflected his hunter's nature and how much was due to pain and fatigue still holding court. Bodie caught him at it and raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
"Not much, when El is out," she admitted. "Read a bit, maybe, but go to bed early. We rise before the sun, here."
"Then we'll turn the lights out when you usually would," he said. "Anyone passing the house should see nothing out of the ordinary."
"I won't sleep!"
"We wouldn't ask you to." His voice was steady and soothing, but his smile made it clear that he wasn't being patronizing. "Sitting in the dark will give us an edge, keeping guard."
She smiled at last and headed for the stairs, scratching the dog's ears in passing. He looked at her, then back at the two men, but when they didn't move he gave a doggy sigh, lurched to his feet, and padded unevenly after her. The kitchen felt odd, being silent.
"How are you?" Doyle asked, when he felt the silence had run too long. Bodie shrugged.
"'Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door —'" he began quoting, and Doyle cut him off with a savage gesture.
"For God's sake, don't joke! Not that way."
Caught by surprise at his vehemence, Bodie looked at him, taking in the tension in his shoulders and around his mouth. Finally his own lips quirked, and he twisted the quotation back on itself.
"'Tisn't enough, and 'twon't serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you will find me — well, certainly not a grave man." There was apology in his dark eyes as he regarded his partner, and the tone of his voice was more promise than jocularity. "I'll be fine, Doyle. At least until Cowley skins the both of us for dragging civilians into a war zone."
"I forgot to ask if there's scotch about to soften the blow," Doyle said.
"Not enough," Bodie said morosely. "How long do you figure?"
"Say it takes him an hour to drive, maybe an hour and a half with the roadblocks. If Cowley's out, may take thirty minutes to get him on. After that, what — three hours, from town to here? Call it four to five hours from now until the cavalry arrives."
"Thrilling." He concentrated for a moment and then carefully pushed himself to his feet, one hand flat on the table and the other gripping the chair back. Doyle would have helped him, but one sharp flashing sideways glance warned him to hold back, and he forced himself to stand fast and simply watch as Bodie tested his limits. He managed standing on his own and walking a few steps as long as he could use the furniture for support, but he stopped short of trying to walk unaided and just stood clutching the back of the chair, white-knuckled, sweating, and breathing hard. His left arm pressed against his injured side.
A sound on the steps made them both turn to see Lizi coming down, still followed by the dog. She had both of their jackets and the rest of Doyle's clothes draped over one arm, along with an extra shirt. Their holstered guns were slung from her left shoulder, and Bodie's shoes dangled from her right hand. She took in their little tableau and paused, then nodded slightly with faint amusement.
"About what I expected," she said. "Somehow I knew it was time for your shoes." She looked Bodie up and down and raised an eyebrow. "Do you plan on sitting down or falling down to put them on?"
"Sitting will do. Doyle?"
Finally freed to help, Doyle snorted, but handed Bodie safely back into the chair. Lizi dumped the clothes on the table and set the guns carefully on top of them, and then knelt at Bodie's feet, reaching up to push him back even before he could start leaning forward to assist.
"Trying to bend in the middle when you have a hole there is a really dumb idea," she observed acidly, and proceeded to imitate a shoe salesman, balancing the first shoe on her knee and producing a shoehorn from her back pocket. Bodie obediently stuck his toes in, and submitted to her valeting.
"Spoil him, you will," Doyle said drily, as she repeated the process for his other foot. Bodie leaned his head back to catch his partner's eye.
"Jealousy ill becomes you, Raymond," he said airily, and Doyle aimed a swat at the back of his head which Bodie obligingly ducked, even though it did no more than riffle his hair. Lizi dropped his foot rather faster then necessary, but she was smiling as she stood up.
"Put on the shirt before you catch your death," she said.
"On top of everything else, we owe you for the wardrobe," Doyle observed, passing Bodie the shirt and picking up his own holster to buckle it on. Lizi eyed him critically.
"Since it doesn't really fit you, I'm not sure what you'd owe. Just bring the clothes back someday with the whole story and no hunting parties, hey?"
"It's a deal."
Bodie finished buttoning the shirt and reached for his holster. He winced, getting into the straps, but he felt undeniably better once the rig was on again. Watching him, Lizi shook her head. The guns seemed to cast a pall on the easy relationship they had developed, a reminder of danger and of her husband's absence. She turned abruptly toward the back door.
"I'm not cut out for this," she confessed. "I'll be dotty in another ten minutes. Look, I need to check on the horses. Care to come, or stay here?"
Doyle raised an eyebrow at Bodie, but his partner was already struggling to pull himself erect, and Doyle smiled.
"Come, I guess," he said, and gave Bodie a hand up. "I'd like to see your horses. We didn't exactly get introduced last night." He pulled on his own jacket as Bodie tucked in his shirttails, and then helped his partner shrug on the Guardian jacket.
Lizi collected her jacket from the mudroom on the way, and then went out the door alone with the dog, scanning to be certain the coast was clear. When she signalled, the two agents followed. Bodie still leaned on Doyle, but most of his weight was on his own feet. The evening was clear and bright with stars and a nearly full moon, a sharp contrast to the previous night's storm. The sounds of engines and tyres from the distant highway carried with an odd clarity. Enough light penetrated even into the barn that Lizi didn't bother with a torch or with the main lighting system as they moved slowly down the centre aisle. Bodie stopped at the first convenient hay bale and used the nearest stall for support as he carefully lowered himself to sit, leaning back against the stall. He waved them on.
"Go ahead — don't mind me." Seeing him sit, the dog sat too, and then laid down with a contented sigh, resting its head across Bodie's feet. Surprised, Bodie glanced down, and then smiled. "We invalids will just wait here."
"Two bandaged black dogs," Doyle teased. "You're well matched."
Bodie made a face and jerked his head toward the horses down the row.
"Go talk to the animals, Doctor Doyle-little." He leaned his head back against the stall and closed his eyes, and Doyle fisted him gently in the shoulder before turning to walk with Lizi.
"You said, twenty horses?"
"Six of them are ours," she explained. "Nine more train with us, and the other five are just boarders, thank God — not the same amount of work." Curious heads were poking over stall doors, ears pricked toward the familiar voice, and she fished in her pockets to pull out carrots. She glanced up to see Doyle's eyes on her, eyebrows raised, and even in the bland washed-out light he could see her sudden blush. "Gets to be habit, carrots in the pockets." She caught his hand and dropped a few hunks of carrot on his palm. "Here; introduce yourself. This is Stormy, Ellery's pride. He's a one-man horse. Oh, sweet enough and a good ride for anyone, but with El up, he'd jump through fire. Don't think we'll ever sell him; can't transfer loyalty like that, not when it's so strong."
Doyle offered a carrot to the big grey. Soft lips nuzzled his palm and a dark eye regarded him calmly. Doyle found himself murmuring nonsense and scratching behind the animal's ear, and Lizi chuckled.
"He's cast his spell on you too, I see. Wish some of that would rub off on my challenge. This is Tantivy." The blaze-marked bay head that thrust abruptly out of the next stall and snaked toward his arm with bared teeth made Doyle step back inadvertently, and Lizi chuckled as she stepped up into the place he'd vacated and slid her arm under the horse's neck to scratch at the hinge of his jaw from a position he couldn't dislodge. "His manners are atrocious — someone spoiled him badly before we got him — but he could be the best thing we've ever seen. He's as fast as his name and thinks he can fly. If he ever finds something he can't go over, he'll go through it, I'm sure of it. He badly needs charm school, though, and he could do with a strong dose of patience."
"Sounds familiar," Doyle said slyly, with a glance back toward Bodie, and Lizi laughed.
"Yours shows his good breeding more often, I think. I've found him quite charming."
"You don't have to live with him." His sour tone triggered her laugh again, and she shook her head. Surrounded by horses and normality, her ease had returned.
"You wouldn't change him," she said confidently, knowingly, and then drew him to the next horse along the way. The tour continued in comfortable camaraderie for a good thirty minutes, and Doyle didn't realise how much he had relaxed until Bodie's voice and a simultaneous growl from the dog banished the mood entirely.
Bodie was standing in the shadows beside the small entry door, which they'd left open on the yard, looking out with gun in hand. Doyle found a moment to chide himself; he hadn't even seen his partner move. He and Lizi half-ran to Bodie's side, aware now of the sound of a car in the drive, and Lizi dropped one restraining hand to the dog's neck as they came to a halt and could see out the door.
"It's Jamie MacDougal, our local constable," Lizi said, and then her free hand tightened unconsciously on Doyle's arm and her voice sharpened with a sudden bite of fear as a second car pulled up behind the marked patrol car. "And a squad of Angels with him. Ellery, dear God, be safe!"
"He's not with them," Bodie said calmly. "It's probably nothing."
"Can you go talk to him? Are you up to that, Lizi?" Doyle shook her, very gently, and she snapped free of her abstraction to look at his face. He saw her push the fear down and take a couple of calming breaths.
"Have to be, don't I?" She managed a shaky smile. "I'll be all right."
"You'll be great," Doyle encouraged, and squeezed her shoulders before letting her go. She took a better grip of the fur on the dog's neck, turned toward the door, and then took a deep breath and set her shoulders back as she stepped through the door into the yard. Except for MacDougal, who was looking toward the dark blot of the open stable door, the men getting out of the cars had been more focussed on the house, and spun at the clear, carrying sound of Lizi's voice.
"Jamie! What brings you out at this hour?" The four men from the second Guardian car had an Alsatian dog with them on a leash, and Lizi tightened her grip on her own dog as both animals started to growl. "Sammie, heel," she warned. "Get your dog back in the car, gentlemen. Now — if you please?" Her voice slipped back and forth across the register between request and command, tension and dislike vying with her usual polite manner. When they curbed the dog but didn't otherwise move, her voice snapped. "I said now, gentlemen. My dog is hurt, I won't have him upset."
They were slow to move, but one of them ultimately took the dog to the far side of the Guardian car, although he didn't put the animal inside. Lizi bit her lip and rounded on MacDougal, who stood uncertainly beside his patrol car, watched over the vehicle's roof by the same Guardian man who'd been with him in the morning.
"You've not answered me, Jamie. And you've not explained why these men are here. Poor manners may be all they can manage, but I expect better from you."
"I'm sorry, Lizi. But I heard — well, when a roadblock called in that Ellery was going to Newmarket, I thought ..." he floundered a bit, and then shook his head and firmed his voice. "Well, I just thought it strange that El would leave you alone with two killers on the loose. I thought maybe it hadn't been his idea — that maybe they were here, holding you, to force him to do something."
"He thinks like someone else I know," Bodie breathed into Doyle's ear with the barest hint of a laugh. "Another nosey copper ..."
"No one forces us, Jamie. I'm quite free, and so is El." Her voice was sharp. The dog at her side, pressed hard against her leg, was trembling slightly with an excess of alertness, eyes still fixed on the spot where it knew the other dog to be, and a low growl still rumbling occasionally in the back of its throat. "Sammie," she said, admonishingly, and the dog quieted a little, but still trembled. Lizi met MacDougal's eyes.
"As you can see, Jamie, I'm fine, and well protected. I didn't feel threatened at all, until two cars of armed men drove up to my house." She looked past him at the five Angels. "I'll thank you to take yourselves off my property. There's nothing for you here."
"I'm afraid we can't do that," the Guardian man with MacDougal said smoothly, blocking the young constable when he would have turned back to his car. "For all we know, there could be a gun on you now. They could have told you to get rid of us."
"Then you'd be endangering me by keeping on with this, wouldn't you?"
The man shrugged, smiling very faintly.
"I would be sorry about that. But firmness is the only way to deal with terrorists." He nodded toward his men. "Search the place, house and barn."
"I forbid it!" Her voice rang with command, and actually made them hesitate for a moment. Sammie surged against her grip, responding to her fury, and she had to use both hands to hold him back. She locked eyes with the Guardian leader.
"You're trespassing, Angel." Sarcasm dripped off the word. "This is private property. Constable MacDougal can search, if he has a warrant, but you have no rights here beyond what I grant, and I grant you none."
"You signed a contract with Guardian Security —" the man began, but she cut him off.
"Aye, and I read it before I signed it, too. Every bloody word. Nothing in it lets you enter my property without my consent, and Jamie, I call you to witness that I deny that consent."
"And I say that I suspect you're under duress, and you'll thank me for this later. Search!"
"Shit," Doyle muttered, casting about for alternatives and finding precious few. He met Bodie's eyes, and his partner shrugged and thumbed the safety off his gun. Doyle worked the slide on his own carefully and slowly to be absolutely silent.
"Stop!" It was MacDougal, this time. His face showed his indecision, his eyes flicking between Lizi and the Guardian commander, but his voice was firm. "You don't have legal authority to conduct a search without permission, Mister Benson. If you continue, I will be obliged to arrest you."
"You could try," Benson said pleasantly, and drew his gun. The other four Guardian men followed suit. MacDougal froze, seeing the situation taken totally out of his control in a way he clearly hadn't expected. "But as we're armed and you're not, and as you're rather seriously outnumbered, you might have some difficulty in effecting an arrest. Davis, Gaines, take the house. Michaels, Fredericks, the barn. I'll keep Mrs Stoner and PC MacDougal company."
Bodie was suddenly gone from Doyle's side, moving with a silent speed that gave the lie to his apparent weakness. He was unlatching the nearest stall door before Doyle even realised what he was about, but as he went on to a second and a third, Doyle grasped his intent and sprinted over to the main door. They'd never be able to hide, not with a dog's nose in the search, and if they just started shooting, Lizi and MacDougal would immediately become hostages for their surrender. The other Guardian agents might believe they were hunting criminals, but Benson, as Masters' partner, had to know that the two of them were CI5, and he'd use that against them the moment he was certain they were there. Loose horses might provide enough of a distraction to get Lizi and MacDougal out of the line of fire.
The horses were startled and uneasy in the darkness, shifting about uncertainly from stalls into the main aisle as more of them found freedom. Doyle got a solid grip on half of the big stable door and locked his eyes on his partner, half-obscured between moving horse bodies halfway down the aisle. Bodie's attention was fixed on the small side door that Lizi had left open. The moment that a human figure appeared in the door, he smacked the nearest horse hard on the rump and shouted, and Doyle threw his weight against the big door and hauled it sliding open. The rumbling noise and the glimpse of open space were enough; the horses surged forward, bolting for the door in a confusion of neighs and clattering hooves. Bodie's gun thundered, adding to the equine panic, but the Guardian agent in the small doorway dropped low and scuttled into the barn for cover. Doyle dove aside from the stampede, rolling in the straw and fetching up hard against a stall as he drew his gun. He had a momentary advantage over the Guardian agent, whose eyes hadn't adjusted to the relative dark of the barn. Doyle fired from his prone position even as the man realised he was there, and took him square in the chest. Then he was up on one knee and changing vantage to get a glimpse through the door.
The yard was confusion. Sammie had torn free of Lizi's grasp and launched himself at the other dog; the two of them rolled and fought in the dust, snarling, snapping, and oblivious to everything around them. Bursting from the barn, the frightened horses had broken around the cars in their way, dodging between people who flung themselves aside in desperate attempts not to be trampled as the big animals milled about. Lizi and MacDougal were rolling in the dirt, the young constable curled protectively around the woman, and Doyle saw a shying horse, trying to avoid stepping on them, collide with Benson, shouldering him back against the car.
"Lizi!" Doyle shouted. "Here!" He snapped off a shot at the other Guardian man close to the small door, driving him to seek cover. He heard Bodie's gun fire from somewhere behind him, near the big doors, and knew that his partner was keeping the Angels from getting in the way the horses had gotten out. Further panicked by the sharp reports, the horses broke for whatever open space they could find, one awkwardly jumping the nearest paddock fence and another, kicking wildly at the air, suddenly charging down the empty driveway.
Lizi turned toward the sound of his voice, tugging on MacDougal's arm and calling something, and then she was up and running for the barn. The young cop hesitated for only the barest instant before scrambling to his feet and lurching after her. Doyle sighted past them to wing a shot at Benson as the horse that had blocked him stumbled aside and the Guardian brought his own gun to bear. Doyle's shot missed, but prompted Benson to roll across the boot to put the car between them. It bought enough time for Lizi and MacDougal to gain the door and plunge past Doyle, who squeezed off one more shot at the nearest Guardian to force him to keep his head down. The last of the horses escaped from the yard, removing most of the chaos with them.
"Having a wonderful time." His partner's voice was quiet and steady, if a bit strained, pitched not to carry past Doyle's position. From the sound — he couldn't take his eyes away from the yard long enough to look — Doyle placed him flat on the ground against the still-closed half of the big doors, where he could see through the opened half. "I make three of them."
"You got one, I got one. Leaves Benson, Gaines, and Fredericks. Hate to mention it, but that's all I could handle, even with a perfect score."
So, Bodie was down to three bullets. Doyle grimaced.
"You'd better my score by one." He himself was down to two. He stole a quick glance at Lizi and the young policeman. "You okay, Lizi?"
She was shaking badly, but managed to nod. He saw tears on her cheeks as she looked past him, and when he looked out again, he realised that both dogs lay still and silent in the yard. He had lost track of the horses entirely.
Well, nothing he could do about any of that now.
"They're going to figure it out in about a second," he said. "Constable MacDougal, if you'd like to live long enough to arrest somebody, would you mind looking for the gun this bloke dropped?" He indicated the dead Guardian agent behind him with a jerk of his head. "And check if he had any extra ammo."
MacDougal was commendably cautious in his movements, being careful not to jostle Doyle as he passed him and started searching.
"I'm sorry," MacDougal said, looking at Lizi whilst his hands were busy feeling through the straw. "I didn't think until too late that you might help for reasons other than fear." He glanced at Doyle, and past him at the darkness that hid Bodie. "So what's really going on here?" He came up with a gun and turned it over in his hands. "Nine millimetre Beretta." He worked the slide, then turned to the body slumped against the stall.
"Damn." The bullets wouldn't match either of the CI5 weapons. "I'm Doyle, he's Bodie, we're CI5. Can you use that thing?"
"Yeah. Full load, spare clip in his jacket pocket."
"There is a God," Doyle said piously, and squeezed off one of his two remaining shots as the nearest Guardian stuck his head up. Bodie's gun spoke again, the bullet spanging against a car, and Doyle realised that Benson, on the far side of the car, had opened the car door nearest to him and reached in for something.
"There is a radio," Bodie said laconically, "and Benson's got it. He's going to have an army of Angels around our ears any minute."
"We need an army of our own." Something sparked in the back of Doyle's mind, and he straightened. "An army of witnesses! Lizi, the phone!" She looked at him blankly. "The phone, back in the tack room — does it work?"
"Yes, of course," she said, half bewildered.
"Cowley will kill us," Bodie observed.
"Better Cowley than Benson and company. MacDougal, get on the phone and get everyone you can think of here — fire brigade, ambulance, newspaper, local vicar, vet, the lot! We'll surrender to you in front of all of them, if we have to."
"Get enough witnesses, and Benson will have to back down." MacDougal was catching on.
"Just get them here before we run out of ammo or they decide to rush us. Move, man! And leave me that gun!"
"Before they notice there's a phone line strung to the barn," Bodie added, but MacDougal was already moving, setting the gun and the extra clip beside Doyle's knee.
"Lizi, where —?"
The woman shook off her shock and grief and caught his hand, leading him back down the aisle toward the tack room.
"This way." She had the presence of mind to cling close to the stalls, avoiding the path that moonlight laid down through the open half of the main stable door. They vanished into the blackness at the rear of the barn.
"Hey, you in there!" Benson shouted. He kept to the safety of the car, not even lifting his head. "Why not give it up? You're not shooting much — low on ammo, are you?"
"Why not bet your life on that?" Doyle shouted back. "You very kindly supplied us with more!"
"Really bright, Doyle," Bodie muttered.
"Anything that buys time," he snapped back. "We don't want him to rush us now, remember?"
"Reinforcements are on the way," Benson shouted. "Why not make it easy on yourselves?"
"Dead is dead, Benson," Bodie called. "Dead later beats the hell out of dead now." He dropped his voice so only Doyle would hear, but his sardonic grin was obvious from his tone. "Damn, Doyle — now you've got me doin' it."
"Time is on my side," Benson shouted.
"Then have a good time with her!" Doyle yelled.
"No, no, Raymond — the idea is not to piss him off," Bodie chided.
"Then you take the next line and do better!"
Perhaps fortunately for both of them, Benson stopped trying to needle them. He also seemed content to wait in a standoff until the rest of his troops arrived, although he and his men prompted one more shot each from Bodie and Doyle, testing their resolve and their ammunition supply with a couple of aborted feints toward the open doors. Doyle dropped his own empty gun and picked up the one MacDougal had taken off the dead security man. Time slowed to a cold molasses crawl, a waiting game.
"Doyle." Bodie's voice startled him, the silence had gone on for so long. His partner's voice was ragged, with a shaky edge to it.
"We gotta get this door closed. I've only got one shot left. An' I'm losin' it."
"Hold on," Doyle said fiercely. "Hold on. It can't be long, not now." Even as he spoke, he heard the ghosts of sirens, carrying far on the clear night air. "Hear that? Those are for us, not for Benson. Those are for us." The red twinkle of emergency lights flashed in the distance, hope riding a fire engine.
And they were still in the distance when two dark unmarked sedans swung into the driveway and came barrelling toward the parked cars. Doyle felt his heart sink. With more troops to back him, Benson would take the chance of losses to rush them, and he'd do it quickly to avoid witnesses with awkward questions. He might even have tear gas he could lob in to force them out to him. And once they all were dead, who could ever say what had happened? Desperate men met with desperate measures, and a civilian and a constable caught in the cross-fire would be unfortunate casualties. They really were CI5? How unfortunate — but how was anyone to know? Undercover, and all that ...
A rustle at his back announced the return of Lizi and MacDougal.
"Called everyone I could think of," the constable said. "They're on their ..." He took in the cars, and his voice ran down. "Bloody hell."
And then the car doors opened and familiar faces erupted from them: Murphy, and Susan, and Anson without a cigarette for once. And from the second car, Cowley himself, grim as night.
There wasn't a firefight; there wasn't even resistance. It happened too fast, and the surprise was total. Benson and his two henchmen were disarmed and being cuffed before Doyle managed to get to his feet, and Cowley was striding toward the barn without a second look around.
"Here, sir," Doyle called, and then Bodie's silence registered. "Bodie?" He bolted for the double doors, and slid to a stop on his knees. Bodie was lying prone in the shadow of the closed door, panting unevenly and with his gun drooping in his outstretched hands. He cocked an eyebrow at Doyle.
"Lucky," he said. "You get to explain ..." The crooked smile slid off his face as he slumped, unconscious.
"Bodie!" Doyle dropped the gun and rolled Bodie onto his back, searching his partner's neck for a pulse. He sat back on his heels in relief when he found it — way too fast but still strong — and looked up to meet Cowley's concerned and disapproving gaze. Lights bobbed crazily in the yard as the other vehicles began arriving: an ambulance, a fire engine, even a horse trailer. Doyle abandoned even thinking about them, leaving the mess for MacDougal to untangle, and felt his adrenaline high fade into a profound fatigue.
"We started up when we heard there were three men dead at Darrington's estate," Cowley said without preamble. "How's Bodie?"
"Knife wound, blood loss, fever. How do you think?" His voice was almost savage in his concern. He swept Bodie's jacket open, checking his injured side, but no fresh blood showed on his borrowed shirt, and his breathing was easy. Doyle felt his momentary fear at Bodie's collapse begin to fade, and most of the bitterness in his tone had muted when he looked up. "He pushed himself too hard, just passed out, I think. He'll be okay if he gets to hospital soon."
Cowley didn't comment on his sharpness, understanding its source, and turned to summon the ambulance attendants. The two white-uniformed paramedics, a man and a woman, politely hustled Doyle aside and went to work on Bodie, making reassuring noises. Doyle got slowly to his feet and looked around.
Lizi was kneeling in the yard beside Sammie, taking her own desolate stock. Doyle knew from her simple stillness that the dog was dead. MacDougal left off talking with another of the new arrivals and headed toward her with a heavy, reluctant step. Doyle saw her face change, reading more bad news in the very way he walked, and he felt a sudden need to support her against whatever was coming.
"Excuse me, sir." Eyes fixed on Lizi, he was brushing past Cowley before he even realised what he was doing. His back tensed for an instant against the expected reprimand, and he knew a moment's astonishment when it didn't come. Then he was close enough to hear MacDougal's words, and dull guilt replaced surprise.
"I'm sorry, Lizi. He bolted right onto the highway. He hadn't a chance." Seeing Doyle's questioning look, MacDougal met his eyes over Lizi's bent head. "Tantivy," he said quietly. "Some of the others stopped in the field, but he went straight for the road. Hit a lorry."
Lizi reached out a trembling hand and stroked the dead dog's soft black fur, her fingers coming to rest beside one limp ear. Her lips shaped the animal's name without sound, and tears began to run down her face. Then she forced a deep sniffling breath and looked up at Doyle.
He crouched down next to her and put a hand on her shoulder.
"He's okay, Lizi. Just pushed himself clean over the edge; passed out when the cavalry came. He'll be all right."
"Thank God." She looked at the dog again, tears still rolling down her cheeks, and then glanced down the driveway toward the road, but it was mercifully too dark and too far for there to be any chance of seeing the dead horse. Gently but firmly, he took her arms under the elbows and lifted her to her feet.
"I'm sorry, Lizi," he said softly. "I'm sorry. God, if we hadn't come ... If there were a way I could change ..."
"No!" Her vehemence took him by surprise. She tossed her head back and looked him in the eyes. "No." Her voice was quieter, and she fought to draw some deeper, shaky, but calming breaths, then dashed the tears off her cheeks and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "We're alive, and if there was a price, it's paid."
"You saved our lives. This is all our fault. We should be paying for it, not you."
She shook her head, but didn't try to argue.
Even amidst the hubbub and confusion, the asthmatic wheezing of the old farm lorry was unmistakable as it gunned between the other vehicles lining the driveway and crunched to a halt. Ellery was out the door before it stopped rolling, sprinting for his wife.
She turned from Doyle to throw her arms around her husband as he caught her up in a fierce embrace. They were lost in each other and momentarily oblivious to the world around them. Doyle drew away, forgotten, and turned back to his partner and his boss.
Cowley was watching him with an unreadable expression on his face, taking in the entire scene and drawing his own unfathomable conclusions. Beside him, Bodie, vaguely stirring back to consciousness and half-propped up against the barn door, struggled weakly to reach out and clumsily dragged the oxygen mask down off his nose.
Doyle crossed the distance in three long strides and went down on one knee, catching Bodie's hand in one of his own and putting the mask back in place with the other. The male paramedic, who had been trying unsuccessfully to do the same thing, tossed him a glance of mingled irritation and gratitude, and then let him be whilst he and his colleague returned to the ambulance for a stretcher.
"It's okay, Bodie. It's over. Everything's fine."
"She's fine. MacDougal's okay, and Ellery's back. They're all fine." Doyle managed a fleeting smile. "Cowley brought the cavalry."
"Knew I heard him." Bodie's grin was faint, and quickly gone. "Something's — not ..."
Doyle knew from long experience that Bodie wouldn't let it rest.
"Sammie. The dog. And one of the horses was killed."
"Tantivy," Bodie breathed, and Doyle started and looked at him more closely.
"How did you — no, I don't want to know." He readjusted the mask again. "Look, just take it easy, okay? Don't want you passing out again. Took a year off me life, you did."
Bodie snorted, but let his eyes close. Doyle squeezed his shoulder and stood up, meeting Cowley's suspiciously mild regard.
"Report, four-five?" Cowley's voice lacked its usual bite, and Doyle briefly wondered when the other shoe would drop.
"Darrington was warned about us yesterday, by name, in a letter from Robert Addie. He captured us. We escaped, got the letter and some other documents, and ran for it. Bodie took a knife Masters was trying to stick in my back. We stashed the documents along the way in an old ruined chapel. We got this far last night and had to stop. Lizi Stoner," he jerked his chin toward Lizi and Ellery, standing motionless with their foreheads together, "— found us in her barn loft this morning and took us in. She and her husband decided to help us escape, but young PC MacDougal over there figured something wasn't right here and unfortunately brought Benson along. The rest, you know." He found a crooked smile. "You might want to look into MacDougal, sir. He's got good instincts and a brain."
"I'll remember that."
Doyle braced himself; Cowley being mild was usually the calm before the storm.
"We've been combing the area for you since nine this morning," Cowley said. "Even with Darrington's connections, they couldn't very well keep the matter of three dead bodies at the estate quiet. Not to mention two others in hospital. Without proof of what happened, we kept a low profile to see what developed, but it was soon evident that they had no more sense of your whereabouts than we did." He cast a significant look around at the carnage in the stable yard — a dead man lying blanket-covered near the house, the second body being carried out of the barn by two ambulance attendants, two dead dogs in the dust, and Bodie, white-faced and limp against the big stable door — and pinned his attention back onto Doyle. "Had you thought to simply check in, we would have been here before noon, and all of this could have been averted."
His words flayed the guilt that Doyle already felt, but anger surged up with it.
"For all we knew, Darrington held all the cards," he snapped, his words clipped and short. "Everything pointed to him owning the territory, including the cops and the phones. He knew who we were — Addie'd seen to that — and he knew we had the goods, and we figured he'd be on the watch for a call to London. A call would have brought him down on our heads, and on everyone we were with." His eyes tracked to Lizi and Ellery, standing forlorn in the havoc that Bodie and Doyle had made of their quiet lives, and the hot anger ran down and away into weary resignation and defeat. "We didn't dare call, not until we were well away from here. And even at that, we failed."
"Aye, laddie." Cowley's tone was quietly understanding, but the sense of a lecture prevailed. "He had a man in the phone centre, true enough — but so did we. So did we. We'd have been here first."
Doyle stared at him, feeling sick. The entire day, all of the worry and pain and loss — meaningless. Unnecessary.
"You should have a wee bit of faith in us, Doyle." Cowley arched one eyebrow, watching his lesson hit home. "The circumstances were extreme, I'll admit — but you should trust the rest of us to do our jobs at least as well as you do yours. If you want to keep yours." The sarcasm was surprisingly gentle, but it was there, and made Doyle flush uncomfortably. Murphy, approaching cautiously with a local official in tow, threw him a glance of commiseration, and Cowley turned away from him to deal with the business of cleaning up the mess his operatives had made.
"Did he mean it?" The voice behind Doyle belonged to MacDougal. Doyle was too ashamed to meet his eyes.
"He never says anything he doesn't mean." He glanced up quickly, one swift sidelong look tinged with reluctant humour, and then his eyes sought out his invalid partner. "You'd better learn that now; save you no end of trouble later. He'll save the full lecture for when Bodie can appreciate it, too. We broke his cardinal rule, committed his original sin: we let innocents get hurt. We made innocents get hurt."
"What do you mean — save me trouble? And if anyone was to blame for what happened here," the young constable blushed to his ears, a colour change visible even in the bleaching moonlight, " — it was mostly my fault. I should never have let Benson come along, no matter what the Inspector said. If I'd come out here alone, there wouldn't have been any violence."
"God save me, two of you." The hoarse, plaintive voice belonged to Bodie. He'd dragged the oxygen mask off again, and looked up at them with fatigue-bruised eyes. "I'll never survive two of you on the squad."
MacDougal looked bewildered, and Doyle felt unaccountably cheered.
"Don't mind him; he doesn't have a conscience."
"Do too," Bodie protested weakly. "Just don't go in for hairshirts. They're more your fashion. Go with the tight ratty jeans."
Lizi and Ellery walked up before Doyle could think of an appropriate response. Lizi had recovered most of her equilibrium, although her eyes were puffy and her hands and voice still trembled. Ellery seemed to be doing his best impression of a rock, yielding nothing whilst supporting everything, his jaw set against whatever words or emotions might try to escape. Lizi knelt beside Bodie and reached out, stroking his hair and then resting her palm against his cheek. The gesture made Doyle shiver even before he understood why; she had touched the dead dog just exactly that same way.
"Are you all right?"
"Bit worse for wear. Nothing new." Bodie shifted in a discomfort more of spirit than body. "About Sammie, and Tantivy ..."
She stopped his words by swiftly laying her fingers across his lips.
"No. It wasn't your fault." She looked up, catching both of the partners with her eyes, but Doyle's mouth was still free to form bitter words.
"You have to admit, if we'd never come here, they'd both still be alive."
"And if you hadn't stopped here last night, Bodie would probably be dead now. I'll accept that trade." She gave a quick glance up at her silent husband, and her tone was admonitory, if a bit brittle. "We both will."
The paramedics and Cowley returned together, interrupting any further chance for private speech. Lizi stood and backed away to give them room. Bodie glared at the stretcher, but Cowley simply snapped his name sharply once, and the younger man submitted with ill grace to being transferred to the stretcher to be carried to the waiting ambulance. Doyle shot a harried look at him, and then turned to the Stoners with a helpless shrug.
She stepped forward and gave him a quick soundless hug, then set him back. Even in that brief contact, however, he had felt her trembling slightly, her body betraying the conflicting emotions of mingled anger, fear, loss, and grief which she had banished from her face.
"Thank you isn't enough to say," he said softly. He glanced past her at Ellery's rigidly impassive face. "We owe you our lives. We cost you more than we could ever repay, and you probably wish you'd never laid eyes on us, but — if there's anything I can do, anything at all, just tell me."
"Leave," Ellery said shortly.
Even though he had invited and more than halfway expected it, the cold curtness hurt. He pulled back with a short quick nod, but before he could withdraw, Ellery reached out and caught his arm.
"But come back someday. After all this — settles." He looked at his wife, and put his arm around her waist. "I can't accept or forgive as fast as Lizi. But I wouldn't have had you die, either. Not for a horse and a dog. Maybe I'll make some kind of sense of this after a while, but for now — just go." He managed a half-hearted smile. "Not for always, maybe, but for now."
Doyle nodded, and after a second's hesitation, offered his hand. Ellery looked at it for a moment, and then reached out to shake it. Doyle glanced down at his borrowed clothing.
"I'll bring the clothes back, shall I? Or would you rather I put them in the post?"
"Bring them," Lizi said. "Whenever it is you come. You promised before, remember: you, Bodie, the clothes, and the whole story, with no hunters behind you."
"So I did." The smile was fleeting, but it felt good, even though shame still struck deep. He met Lizi's eyes. "I'm sorry you weren't entertaining angels."
"Don't be so certain," she said softly. "As I recall my Bible, angels often brought tests of faith before they conferred blessings. We'll find the blessings someday, I'm sure. Don't blame yourselves for the tests."
He shook his head. He couldn't understand her, how she thought, why she wasn't screaming at him in rage and loss for dead dreams or showing at least Ellery's ambivalence. But he couldn't think of anything else to say, either, and finally shrugged helplessly.
Lizi smiled gently.
"Never that. Just — fare well."
He heard the clear separation of the words and the strength of meaning behind them.
"You, too," he said, and then he turned away to meet Cowley's eyes. Cowley gestured him not toward the ambulance carrying Bodie, but toward his car instead. When Doyle silently baulked, Cowley raised an eyebrow.
"We have some papers to collect, I believe. And as Bodie appears in no immediate danger...?"
Doyle accepted the thinly veiled command and turned reluctantly aside. Trust Bodie to escape the lecture he knew was coming.
The stable yard looked different in the late afternoon sun when the silver Capri rolled to a semi-decorous stop. Nothing remained of the chaos of ten weeks earlier. The big doors were open on the yard, letting the sun into the centre aisle. Horses grazed in the field off to one side. There was no sign of Lizi or Ellery, but as Bodie and Doyle got out of the car they could hear thudding hoofbeats from the ring on the far side of the barn, and with a shared glance they walked over to the rail.
Two matched chestnut horses were jumping together, side by side. Ridden with consummate skill, they were matching stride for stride, staying almost precisely abreast. It was a showy display even for someone who wouldn't know how difficult it was to do, and the partners both applauded as the horses finished the round and, still pacing each other, slowed to a stop. Lizi grinned, and Ellery managed a smile after one flashing, frozen instant.
"Bodie! Ray!" Lizi kicked free of the stirrups, swung her right leg over the horse's back, and dropped lightly down the animal's left side. Reins draped over her arm, she strode to the fence and reached over to bestow quick hugs. Ellery followed more slowly.
"That was beautiful," Doyle said sincerely.
"We hope the owners think so, too," she laughed. "Took us forever to keep them from trying to beat each other all the time. Come on, walk with us — we've got to cool them down, can't leave them standing."
Bodie obligingly opened the gate for them, and they all fell in step, bobbing horse heads interspersed with the human ones as they walked a cooling path toward and halfway around the barn.
"Wondered if you'd drop by," Ellery said eventually, when the silence began to wear thin, and Doyle nodded.
"Trial starts tomorrow. I — we — wanted to see you before then. No so formal as court." He smiled sheepishly. "Would look strange there, handing back your clothes."
The humour seemed to relax Ellery, and his answering smile was genuine.
"Probably think you were trying to bribe a witness."
"With your rattiest old jeans and two work shirts? Not hardly." Lizi's playfully arched eyebrow found its match in Bodie's.
"Actually, there is something else," Bodie said. "And we wouldn't want to take that to court, either."
"You'd better not be talking about the true story," Ellery said, a bit of a chill in his voice.
"You and the court both get that," Doyle said easily. "In full. This is just for you."
"And for us," Bodie added. He looked suddenly hesitant. "Mostly for us."
"You've got me intrigued." Lizi led her horse into the stable. Ellery's horse went into the next stall down. Moving in unconscious teamwork, they untacked the animals and started to brush them down with efficient speed.
"Do we get any clues?"
The partners exchanged a look, and then Doyle shook his head.
"I think we'd better just wait."
"But not too long," Bodie hinted. "We came in my car, Doyle — I don't want anything to happen to it."
"All right, then." Ellery gave his horse's ears a quick final scratch and let himself out of the stall, bolting it behind him as Lizi did the same. "Shall we get to it, whatever it is?"
Bodie rubbed his hands, suddenly a gleeful small boy. Doyle smiled at him.
"Go ahead, Bodie."
Bodie practically skipped out of the barn, getting a good lead on the others. Lizi and Ellery followed, bemused, and Doyle kept them company, smiling. Bodie opened the driver's door of the Capri, slid the seat forward, and reached into the back. They were only a few feet away when he lifted his burden out of the car, suddenly complaining good naturedly.
"Hey! Cut it out!" He turned, straightening up, and they saw the big black puppy in his arms enthusiastically licking his face.
"Bodie?" Lizi's delighted questioning call made both heads turn her way, the man's and the dog's. Doyle laughed.
"Looks like he thinks he shares your name, Bodie."
"Yeah, right," Bodie grumbled, setting down the squirming bundle of silky black fur and over-sized paws. He kept hold of the leash, and nearly got yanked off his feet when the puppy charged toward Lizi and Ellery before Bodie even had time to straighten up. Lizi went to her knees to welcome the animal.
"Hello, little laddie! Bodie, Ray, he's adorable!"
"How did you know we hadn't bought a dog yet?" Ellery asked quietly, catching Doyle's arm.
"We asked MacDougal," he said. He was smiling, looking down at his partner and the woman playing with the dog, but when he glanced up at Ellery, his eyes were sad. "We can't restore what you lost, but we had to do something. Most times, we don't get any chance at all. Even when we don't mean to, we turn things upside down, we ruin, we destroy — and then we're gone, onto the next case, the next mission, no looking back." His gaze was open and steady, undemanding of any response, even acceptance. "This was a rare chance to try putting something right. It's not enough — it can never be enough — but it's all we have to offer. Please, don't say no. Believe me, we're not trying to buy our way out; we know this doesn't come close to cancelling the debt. But we'll never be able to clear it all."
"The insurance wouldn't pay on Tantivy, you know," Ellery said, too casually. "A horse deliberately let to run loose isn't covered by policy."
Doyle closed his eyes. The look on his face suddenly reminded Ellery of Bodie weeks before, hurt and unsteady, keeping his feet only by an effort of will.
"Funny thing, though," Ellery continued. "Couple weeks later, we got a request to train a new horse, a top-flight animal, a real gold medal prospect." Ellery waited until Doyle opened his eyes and looked at him, and then he smiled, very faintly. "He belongs to the Queen. Any idea what that means to a stable like ours, to be able to put 'by Royal appointment, trainers to the Queen' under our name? We're good, but we're still years away from getting recognition like that on our own."
"Cowley," Doyle said, and Ellery saw a weight fall from his shoulders. "Has to be. Cleaning up after us again."
"I suspected." Ellery looked down at his wife, on her back in the dust laughing breathlessly as Bodie lifted the wriggling dog off her shoulders, and smiled in genuine enjoyment. "Lizi knew. 'What you give away comes back tenfold,' she said, and she was right." Ellery reached out and gripped Doyle's shoulder, willing the other man to meet his eyes. "She was right."
It was absolution of a sort, to see no reservations in Stoner's face, and Doyle's answering smile turned into an outright laugh as the escaping puppy tangled in Bodie's legs and dumped him into the dust beside Lizi. Doyle pounced on the trailing leash and promptly wound up on his face, and Lizi completed the upset by tripping her husband to add him to the pile. The puppy barked his triumph, his over-large paws trampling all of them equally with bounding enthusiasm until Lizi managed to catch him in an all-embracing hug and submitted to an eager face-washing. Only when she forced him to hold still did he even begin to calm down, but his tail beat like a metronome nonetheless.
"He's no shy one, that's for certain!" she laughed.
"Like I said, he thinks his name is Bodie," Doyle offered, and Bodie mimed a punch at him, grinning.
"Naming him for just one of you wouldn't do justice to the pair," Ellery observed virtuously.
"Chaos," Bodie suggested. "That would fit."
"Bedlam," Doyle countered.
"Nah — too long. Anarchy."
"Angel," Lizi said decisively. They all stopped and looked at her, and she looked back challengingly, her arms still full of excited puppy. "Angel," she said again, and planted a kiss on the dog's head. "That captures the both of you nicely, I think."
"Angel," Ellery agreed, reaching over to scratch one twitching ear. "Short and memorable. Think we'll put 'Guardian Angel' on the collar, though — wha'd'ya say, love?"
"In silver on black leather, of course."
Bodie and Doyle found themselves staring at each other as the other two got to their feet, Lizi firmly in control of the puppy's leash.
"What did I just miss?" Doyle protested weakly.
"I think they got us," Bodie answered. He rolled to his feet and offered his partner a hand up. "And I think we'd better make sure that the rest of the squad never hears about this." He started slapping the dust fastidiously from his trousers and jacket.
"Worried about your reputations?" Lizi inquired sweetly. She exchanged a grin with her husband. "We'll never tell, I promise. And neither will Angel." The puppy barked once, sharply, looking from one face to the next.
"But only if you tell us the full story, right now, over dinner. And give my clothes back. You promised," Ellery reminded them.
"You did promise," Bodie said, tapping Doyle on the shoulder to catch his attention. "I was a little foggy at the time, but I do remember that."
"Yeah, well, I won't do it alone," Doyle grumbled.
"Oh, I'll help. After all, we have to get our stories straight before MacDougal joins the squad, don't we? Otherwise, he'll tag us with the dog's name."
"And then I think you could help with evening stables," Ellery said.
"And of course you'll stay with us during the trial. With no excursions and alarms at night this time," Lizi added.
"Do you get the feeling we're being railroaded?" Doyle asked.
"You're the one for feelings, mate — I just know the truth when I see it, and they've got the advantage of us. We'd never live this down if it got out," Bodie answered. He turned and gave Lizi and Ellery his best lay-'em-in-the-aisles smile. "Your wish is our command, fair lady, gentle sir. Just — don't tell anyone."
"Especially not our boss," Doyle added.
"I've a fair idea he knows well what he's got in you," Lizi said. "Takes one to know one, don't they say?" She winked, linked her free arm through her husband's, and bent down to catch hold of the dog's collar. "Come on, Angels — time for dinner."
"Wanna bet Cowley already knows about the dog? He didn't kick about letting us come out here a day early," Bodie said softly, just for Doyle's benefit, and then he raised his voice to a deliberately penetrating stage whisper. "Don't shed any feathers on the floor," he hissed loudly in Doyle's ear, brushing dust off his shoulders.
"Takes one to know one, harp-player," Doyle growled back. "Don't break any strings."
Listening to the banter behind them as they headed toward the house, Ellery leaned over to whisper in Lizi's ear.
She laughed softly and let her head rest against his shoulder.
"Michael and Uriel, perhaps, angels with swords, but angels nonetheless. Do you regret giving them shelter?"
He looked down into her warm and smiling eyes and remembered a night of fear and exhilaration, a night of uncertainty and terror and loss and sweet complete relief, and caught up in it all, resentfulness mingled with an unexplainable sense of rightness and completion. He shook his head, bemused. How could such a confusion of emotions leave him feeling so obscurely satisfied? He'd been worried, suspicious, and frightened, then made reluctantly sympathetic by courage and humour in the face of pain. He'd even been titillated by the thrill of danger, drawn into heroic fantasies that turned into nothing more than a nighttime drive and a simple phone call. And then it had all turned to horror, dead men and dead animals in the stable yard, but Lizi miraculously alive. He no longer knew what to feel, what to think, but out of it all had come a future brighter than he could have seen, and the agents of that change looked different now, clowning in the sunlight. He could still spot the bulges of holsters under their jackets, but they didn't seem so frightening any more, and he could see beneath their laughter the pain that his rejection would bring. That brought a heady sense of power, but one he felt no need to use, and it left contented happiness in its wake.
"Not any more," he admitted, and then gave a quiet laugh. "But I'm not sure we'll survive another visitation. Angels. God help us. How long is this trial supposed to take?"
"As long as it does," she grinned. And she pushed the door open and led the way inside.