Where was she? Gene looked at his watch. His missus was late… No, hang on. Alex was never going to be the missus. His better half, yes. His girl. Friend, partner, lover. His wife. Things lurched inside him at the thought. But the missus? Not her style. Not what she meant to him. Not a pigeonhole she'd ever fit. But whatever she was, she was keeping him waiting. He smiled to himself and took a long last drag of his ciggie before stubbing it out, then downed the rest of his ale. Ray hove into view. 'Oi, Carling!' Gene bellowed over the din created by his friends and colleagues crammed round Luigi's bar.
Ray shoved his way through the yammering crowd and fetched up at Gene's shoulder. 'All right, Guv? Ready for another?' He gestured his order to Luigi.
'Seen my bride on your travels?'
'Yeah. She's nipped upstairs. Saw a light on, or something. Said she'd be down in a couple of minutes.'
Luigi shimmered over to their side of the bar and put a hand on the Bass tap, ready to pull the first pint. 'Due birre, signori? Certo.'
'Make it two Stellas, muchacho.' Ray redirected him, to the astonishment of his Guv'nor.
'Flash, Raymondo. You picked a dog that can actually run, or what?'
'It'll be back to Bass tomorrow. Make the most of it.' Ray took the glass of Stella and pushed it along the bar to Gene. 'Hey, Luigi – you left a light on upstairs.'
The Italian's face creased into a puzzled frown. 'Upstairs, signore?'
'In Alex's old flat. She saw you'd left the light on.'
'No, assolutamente no. I have not been there all the week.'
'Then who…' Ray glanced at Gene, who was already off his bar stool and pushing through the packed room towards the stairs. Ray followed, and flicked Chris's shoulder as he passed, gesturing at the DC to follow. 'Could be trouble, come on.'
Brian Cruickshank, sitting with Carol and Womble, noticed the Fenchurch posse heading for the door; instinct pulled him to his feet and he followed them out. Racing upstairs, Brian pushed past Chris and grabbed Gene's arm, pulling him to a halt on the half-landing between first and second floors. 'Wait. We don't know what's in there. Can't go in like the Fifth Cavalry, Gene.'
'Wasting time, Brian.' Gene tried to shake him off. 'It's Layton. I know it's Layton.'
'If you're right, he could have a gun to her head. He'll want you. After what you did to him, he'll be waiting for you.'
'He can have me. Got to get Alex out –'
Cruickshank hit Gene's shoulder with the heel of his hand. 'Don't be a complete fuckwit. Walk in there and you're both dead: Alex first, then you. And who knows who else after that. Stay out here and he's got to wait for you. Hold your fire till you can make it count.' He shook Gene, trying to batter the sense into him.
'What, then?' Gene growled through his teeth.
'Layton doesn't know me. I'll go in as if I'm looking for Alex. Carling and Skelton can cover me. You stay out here and use your head. Wait, Gene. Wait for the moment. Do you hear me?'
Gene was glaring at him, but nodded. It was going to cost him dear, the waiting. Listening for disaster to happen without him. But he knew Cruickshank was right. He beckoned to Ray and Chris, whispered to them. 'Cruickshank's going in. You two cover him. Stay out of sight, and stay schtum. If Layton's in there with Alex, he's probably expecting me. I'm not here, understand? I'm still over the road. Get me?'
The pair nodded, but said nothing. Gene caught movement in the corner of his vision and turned to see Carol and Shaz sneaking up the stairs towards them, with Womble making his way up slowly, his leg still weak from Carteret's bullet. Gene held his palm out to stop them, then swiftly put his finger to his lips.
Brian brushed past him and spoke softly to the two women; they nodded and went back downstairs, taking Womble with them.
'Told them to get everyone out of the restaurant. Don't want to give Layton a room full of hostages, if he's armed,' Cruickshank murmured to Gene as he came back up the stairs.
Gene nodded approval of the senior man's thinking, and the four men made their way to the door of Alex's flat. Once they were in position, Cruickshank tapped on the door and called out as he pushed the door open and walked in slowly. 'Alex? You up here, sweetie?' He sounded cheerful, a bit pissed, off guard.
Man deserves an Oscar, Gene decided as he heard Cruickshank move into the kitchen, scuffing his feet and making the normal sort of noises you'd make if you weren't expecting a killer to be waiting. If they were all wrong and there was no-one in there but Alex having a kip or a shower, he'd be happy enough to take the flak for being paranoid. Please god, he was wrong and he'd get an earful from a wife irritated by his over-protective ways.
Ray, Browning automatic in hand, peered round the door jamb and slid into the flat, followed by Chris. Which left Gene outside, waiting.
Every atom concentrated on listening, Gene heard Cruickshank's voice calling again for Alex. A second later, another voice. Quiet. Muffled by the walls of the flat. Male. Layton. Gene couldn't make out the words: they had to be in the sitting room. He didn't hear Alex's voice. Was she alive? Christ. Jesus. God. She must be alive. Unconscious? Gagged, maybe. Layton wouldn't have killed her. She was his bargaining chip, his ticket out. She's alive. She's still alive. Alex. The words ran through his head like a prayer.
It was agonising, this waiting. Thought he'd had his fair share of this down by the river, in the pouring rain. But he'd fucked it up then, nearly let her die because of his lack of control. This time he'd make the waiting count. Below the awareness of every tiny sound was the breath moving in and out of his lungs. Frying onions and tobacco smoke from the basement. Nicks and scrapes in the white gloss of the door frame. Gun heavy in his hand. Heart racing and nausea at the back of his throat.
Suddenly: angry voices from the flat. Scuffling of shoes on bare boards. Shouts. Gun shot: thud and crash. Gene was through the door and into the kitchen. No sign of anyone but Chris, flattened against the wall, the fridge between him and the sitting room doorway. At Gene's silent demand for information, Chris mouthed 'Alex' and mimed legs and arms tied, mouth gagged.
'Ray?' Gene mouthed at him.
'Okay. Disarmed,' Chris answered silently.
'Brian?' Gene knew, but asked anyway.
Chris shrugged ignorance, shaking his head.
Gene moved ten inches to the left, trying to glimpse a bit more of the sitting room. Saw Brian Cruickshank slumped awkwardly against the wall, legs splayed in front of him, blood seeping through the grey wool of his jersey just to the right of his breastbone; his eyes were closed, face screwed up in pain. Couldn't see Ray, Alex or Layton.
Then Layton's voice, low, menacing: 'Where's DCI Cunt?' Threatening Ray. There was the thump of shoe meeting ribs, and Ray's grunt of pain. 'Answer me, you poof.'
Ray mumbled something Gene couldn't catch; Layton snarled in frustration and Gene heard another thump.
If Layton was kicking Ray, he couldn't be holding a gun at Alex's head. This was it. Gene stepped into the room, raised his gun and fired, the deafening blast of the shot crashing round the room.
Chris rushed in and skidded to a halt, redundant; he went to look at Layton, unconscious on the floor beneath the glass table and bleeding from the gunshot wound in his right shoulder. 'Head's bleeding, Guv. He must have hit the table as he went down.'
'Boo hoo. Give the shit a kick.' Gene was concentrating on Cruickshank. Bullet in the chest. It wasn't going to be good. 'What can I do before the ambulance gets here, Brian?'
The wounded man smiled and shook his head. 'Not much.' His voice was a whisper. 'Help Alex.' He closed his eyes.
'Don't you bloody die on me, Brian Cruickshank. No swinging the lead. You hear me?' Gene let fury disguise his fear.
Alex, who'd been sitting in the black swivel chair, arms behind her back, duct tape over her mouth, was shouting against the gag and struggling to her feet to allow Gene rip the tape off her. He left Cruickshank and went to her, trying to get the tape off her wrists. 'He's wrapped you tight, Bolls. Hang on.'
Ray was on his feet and straight on the phone. 'Viv? Ambulance here, quick. Chief Superintendent Cruickshank's been shot. And get the bomb squad. Suspect device in DI Drake's flat.'
There was stuff littered over the floor and the coffee table: wires of various colours, pliers, screwdrivers, a digital watch, and bits of kit Gene didn't recognise. On the coffee table was half a metal beer keg packed with rectangular blocks of what looked like red plasticene wrapped in waxy paper.
Gene looked over at Ray. 'Know what it is?'
'Looks like Semtex, Guv. A lot of it. Reckon he was planning to bring the whole building down. Want me to get DI Wimbledon?'
'No. It's a bomb. That's all we need to know. All other questions can wait for the Bomb Squad. Stand still, Alex.' Gene finally wrenched the last of the tape from her wrists.
Free of her bindings, Alex pulled the tape off her mouth as she skidded across the room to Cruickshank; she took his face in both hands. 'Brian? Brian – open your eyes.' She was desperate to shake him awake but terrified of the blood spreading over his chest. She jumped up and ran to the kitchen, grabbing tea towels from a drawer and skidding back to Cruickshank's side; wadding up a towel she pressed it against his wound, making him hiss in pain. His eyes blinked open, and behind the pain was calm acceptance. That frightened Alex more than the blood. Cruickshank smiled at her, tried to speak, but the sound died in his throat. Alex felt her heart squeezed by a great vice, the terror flooding through her as she watched her friend fight for control. He made a visible effort to speak, his eyes never leaving hers. 'It's okay, Alex. Time to go back.'
The tears welled up and spilled down her face. 'Brian…' Her voice cracked.
Cruickshank smiled into her eyes. 'Done my bit. Twenty-first century needs me back.'
'I need you…' Alex could only whisper. Her hand was trembling as she held it to his face, gently.
'No. Got him. Happy.' He smiled. 'Good…'
Gene was standing over them. 'We've got to get him out.'
'We can't move him.' Tears were streaming down Alex's face.
'Did Layton arm the bomb, Alex?'
'I don't know.'
'Exactly. I'm not going to take the risk. Ray!' He pulled Alex away. 'Sorry Brian, this is going to hurt.' Gene and Ray lifted the tall man and staggered to the door. 'Chris – go ahead of us. Take DI Drake with you. Go on, Alex. Go down and tell them what's up here.' He growled at them and staggered to the door in their wake.
'What about him, Guv?' Chris nodded at the unconscious Layton.
'Leave the bastard. Cuff him to something in case he wakes up and sets the bomb off.'
It took them a long ninety seconds to carry Cruickshank down two flights of stairs and out of the building, into a wall of flashing blue lights.
Alex was there, pulling his arm to guide them to an ambulance at the street corner where they laid Cruickshank gently on the stretcher waiting for him. The dying man's face was grey with pain, but his eyes opened at the touch of Alex's hand.
'I'll find Jaspan…' His voice was just a thread of sound.
Alex nodded, trying to keep control. 'Thank him for me. Tell him…'
Cruickshank smiled. Alex felt Gene's arm around her, saw him reach his hand to Cruickshank's shoulder; saw Brian look up at Gene for a moment of understanding. Gene squeezed his shoulder, then walked away, leaving him with Alex.
She bent her head to kiss him, the tears falling on his face. Whispered to him, her heart breaking. 'I do love you, Brian. Owe you so much. Thank you…'
The blue eyes blazed for an instant, and he opened his mouth to speak, but the effort was too much. No voice, just a gurgling sound and a spurt of bright blood from his mouth and nose. His eyes closed and his body went limp, his head falling heavy against her arm.
Alex turned her head, screaming at the medics as she clutched the unconscious body, trying to hang on to him. 'Help him! Please… do something…'
Gene pulled her away, holding her tight in his arms as the ambulance men loaded the unconscious man, then helped her into the ambulance to sit with him for his final chase, her hands clutching his, willing him to hang on. But at some stage she realised she was holding an empty body. Brian Cruickshank had gone. She prayed he was waking up to a future in 2005 and hadn't just… stopped. Despite the siren screaming and things rattling as the vehicle raced over the unforgiving roads, the silence of the absent life was a barrier she couldn't break.
Gene found her in Casualty. She had no idea what the time was, how long she'd been there. He said nothing, just pulled her into his arms, holding her tight, a hand on her head as she sobbed into his neck. Alex cried for Molly, for her parents, Jaspan, Cruickshank. For Firoz. She wept for her lost life, wept for the pain she'd caused. When the first storm of grief had left her exhausted, her husband put an arm round her waist and helped her walk out of the hospital.
Gene had automatically turned left out of the London's car park to take Alex home, but she insisted on going back to Scarborough Street, needing to see it through. 'Have to see it through, honey.'
'Okay, love.' Knowing she was right, he turned down Sidney Street to head back to Fenchurch East. 'It's all over bar the dry cleaning. Layton didn't have time to arm the bomb, thanks to you and Brian, and the explosives boys couldn't find anything else.'
'We're not going back to a pile of rubble, then.'
'Not so much as a dent in Luigi's paintwork.'
'Layton?' She knew he was alive. Had to be, to shoot her in 2008.
'Dragged out and thrown into an ambulance. Bastard's still not dead. But he'll have so many consecutive life sentences he'll still be knitting mailbags when everyone else is living on Mars.'
Not yet ten o'clock, but Gene was getting pissed: hair like a rat's nest, tie long gone, shirt sagging out of his trousers, roaring at some comment from Womble as the whole team, half of uniform, the Chief Super and a clutch of secretaries helped celebrate the release of DCI Gene Hunt into the chilly world outside the Met.
It was the last Friday in May; Womble had already taken his leave of the RUC, moved his kitchen sink to London and was settled with Carol and Scott. He and Gene had put the paperwork in to Companies House, and the new consultancy business was frighteningly official but already solvent, thanks to a generous legacy from Cruickshank. Apart from a slug of cash to several charities, Brian had left everything else to Alex, which had reduced her to helpless tears in the solicitor's office.
The day after the funeral, Gene, Carol, Womble and Shaz helped Alex plant three flowering cherry trees on the edge of Victoria Park, opposite the house. A white cherry each for Cruickshank and Jaspan, and a double pink for Molly. 'My beloved daughter, lost to me but, perhaps, sharing a world with Jim and Brian. That world is the better for the three of them. We all know that we're the poorer for their loss.'
She could watch the trees grow from the house, and imagine her daughter develop and blossom over the years. Maybe Brian would find her after July 2008, talk to her about her mother, be a friend, a mentor. They'd continue. Just not with her.
Now another ending. Gene Hunt, erstwhile sherriff of Manchester and scourge of London scum, was walking away from his past into a challenging future. But he was his own boss now. No more fighting internal battles, wasting time and grey hairs on politics, self-interest and corruption. And most important of all, he wasn't alone.
Alex watched him putting the last touches to the police legend that was Gene Hunt, leaving them with material for endless stories, lasting memories. They'd find it impossible to forget him, the maverick copper with a hard fist and a big heart. Her husband.
She stood up and headed for the ladies', bumping into Mrs Luigi by the kitchen door. The dark-eyed woman bounced off Alex, clutching her arms to steady her and muttering apologies. 'Scuzi, cara, scuzi. O, signora…' She looked intently into Alex's face, her own breaking into a joyful beaming grin and a stream of Italian which was well beyond Alex's linguistic limits, but she got the gist.
Overhearing his wife's excited comments, Luigi hurried over; after a brief consultation, he turned to Alex, grabbed her shoulders and kissed her twice, con brio. 'Bellissima Signora Alex... My wife, she is never wrong. She knows.' He tapped his nose and nodded. 'She always knows. Such happy days!'
The kerfuffle caught Gene's eye and he shambled over to them, throwing his arm round Alex's shoulders: he wasn't as drunk as he'd looked. 'What are you three plotting?'
Luigi grabbed Gene's free hand and shook it fiercely. 'So happy for you, my friend. Congratulations. I hope he take after his mama. You call him Luigi, eh?' His eyes sparkling with the news, the Italian chuckled, bundling his wife back to the kitchen and leaving Gene staring at Alex, wide-eyed. 'Did he… Are you…?'
She nodded, then shrugged, smiling into his eyes. 'I think so. Seeing the doctor on Monday. Didn't want to say anything before I was certain, but Mrs Luigi seems to be clairvoyant when it comes to pregnant women.'
'Christ…' The news had knocked Gene for six, and all he could do was stare at his wife, utterly bemused.
'Is it good news?' Alex felt anxious, suddenly unsure of him. They'd never talked about it: having a child of their own. Maybe…
'Good news?' He slung his arms round her and squeezed her in a hug so fierce she couldn't breathe. 'Bloody brilliant. It's bloody brilliant, Bolls.' He released her, but only so he could kiss her lips off.
Stroking his face, she couldn't look away from his eyes, glowing like wildfire. 'Keep it under your hat for now. Our secret for a bit longer, eh?'
Gene nodded, his eyelashes clumped damply together. 'Schtum. Just between us.'
Neither of them had reckoned on the gossip antennae bristling all around them. It took less than thirty seconds for the rumour to zap round the bar and a lusty cheer went up, making Alex blush. 'So much for our secret.'
Gene pulled her into the crowd through hands slapping him on the back or ruffling his hair. 'Fuck off, you bastards. Whatever you think you know, you don't. Nosey sods. I'm saying nothing…' He swatted away compliments and handshakes, but he couldn't stop grinning.
Close to midnight, and Gene was still in full flow. Alex watched him, every cell in her body bursting with love for him and for their unborn child. However long she had with him, whatever happened, whatever this whole world is about, she was going to live every moment of it, love every moment with him. With them. For in the end, what does it matter how, or where, or why? In the end, love is what matters; love is the best of us. And love is what survives.
- end –
That's it. Finito. Thanks so much for sticking with it. Huge thanks go to my priceless betas Wombledon – who was also my brilliant technical expert on all things forensic, medical and explosive – and Gene's Gilly who encouraged me at the start; to everyone who's answered queries, provided details and given me support in various ways; and to everyone who has reviewed – you'll never know what a difference you've made.