A/N: I know it took me a long, long time to get back to this story, but better late than never, eh? And let me tell you, I've learned more about British police than I've ever wanted to know. Do you have any idea how hard it is to write a proper confrontation between an insane criminal and the cops, when the cops in question are not armed?
"What's taking so long? I thought the whole point of spending a zillion pounds on those sodding toys was to get the results faster."
The tech looked as if Hammond offended his family, down to the fifth generation.
"That," ha said pointing at the blinking and blipping monstrosity on the table, "is not a toy. It's a GC-MS. A Gas Chromatograph - Mass Spectrometer." From the wounded reverence in his voice one might think he was presenting the Holy Grail.
Hammond shrugged. "And what does it do, exactly?" he asked, not really interested in an answer. He wanted the man to stop trying to look busy and important, while all he did was hover over the thing and wait. The soft looks he kept throwing the machine were creeping Hammond out.
"It identifies different substances using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry."
The tech turned around so fast, Hammond heard something click in his neck. "And what's that supposed to mean?" he snapped. It seemed that Hammond's lack of appreciation for his job was getting on his nerves. It would probably be a good idea to shrug and say nothing (at least if Hammond wanted to get the result any time this month), but yanking the man's chain sounded like more fun.
"You people have no imagination whatsoever."
The technician blinked. That clearly was not the answer he was expecting. "You think that scientists have no imagination?"
"You do realize that imagination is exactly what makes scientific discoveries possible?"
"Bollocks. All you need is knowledge, ability to connect facts, high resistance to boredom, lack of social life and a lot of luck."
"But if you can't imagine..."
"You don't need to imagine it, you need to find it. There's a difference."
The man was slowly turning purple and Hammond could see his knuckles turning white. Now, some messing with his mind was fine, but starting fights with gangly geeks in a lab full of strange equipment was not. For all Hammond knew, those things might explode if someone touched them at the wrong moment. He always did his best to avoid being anywhere near exploding things, and besides, he didn't have a zillion pounds to pay for the damage.
"Look, all I mean is that you people don't have a clue when it comes to naming things," he spread his hands, trying to calm the man. "I mean, Gas Spectrometer? It's not a name, it's a description of what the little bugger does."
The tech's fists unclenched. "And what would you name it? Any ideas?"
Hammond shrugged. "Hey, I never said I knew a better one. I'm just saying that yours sucks."
The technician huffed and turned his attention back to his beloved machine. The silence settled over the lab, and after few minutes Hammond felt the boredom creep back on him.
"Do you know what the world's largest radio astronomy observatory is called?" ha asked. The man glared at him. "Hey, I'm just making a conversation!" The second glare told him just how much the tech appreciated the subject.
"So? Do you?"
"No." The word was practically spat.
"Very Large Array," said Hammond with a satisfied smile. The man blinked. "See what I mean? If the scientists were naming everything, Mount Everest would be A Giant Pile Of Rocks and my name would be The Maths Teacher's Oldest Son."
The machine bipped and the printer spat out a sheet of paper. It was probably a good thing, as the poor tech was ready to have an aneurysm at that point. He snatched the paper and practically threw it at Hammond.
"More like The Bloody Annoying Wanker," he spat and quickly disappeared somewhere in the back of the lab.
"What have you got there, Merlin?"
Hammond looked up from the lab results sheet. "If you keep calling me that, I will stop harassing the boys when they call you King Arthur."
Liam's smile disappeared. "They call me what?"
"You heard me."
"Well, you're Merlin's favourite pupil, aren't you?"
Liam plopped down into a plastic chair in front of Hammond's desk. "Oh," he said. "Makes sense, I guess."
Hammond smiled and went back to work. Not for long.
"So, want to tell me what made you so cheerful today?"
Hammond closed the file and stretched in his chair. "I just closed my last case. The lab results came back, we have the fingerprints, the blood-work from the murder weapon and the fibres – all match my suspect, who's already in custody. Solved. I'm officially out of here in five days, and those will be spend on finishing up the paperwork, drinking coffee and reading books in the quiet and peace of my office."
Liam grinned at him. "Great job!"
"Why, thank you, my faithful apprentice."
They sat in silence for a while, Hammond searching for some papers in the mess that, as always, covered his desk and every flat surface near it, and Liam watching him with strangely sad smile.
"Aren't you going to miss it?"
Hammond stopped his search and shot his colleague a look over his reading glasses. "Miss what, exactly?"
Liam made a wide gesture with his right hand. "This. The job, working the cases, finding clues, catching bad guys."
Hammond thought about it a lot lately. Would he miss it? Being a detective was pretty much all his life. He never married, he didn't have any close friends besides Liam, he didn't have a real hobby... He had his puzzles. What would he do now? He didn't know, but as long as it involved a lot of sleep and time to read, he was fine.
He told Liam as much and the younger man laughed. "I guess it's hard to imagine – you not being here, but sitting in a rocking chair, sipping whiskey and reading Arthur Conan-Doyle novels."
Hammond raised an eyebrow at the mention of a rocking chair. Liam noticed and his grin became mischievous. "Getting all grandfatherly and boring. Spoiling your nieces silly. Loosing the rest of your grey hair."
"Hey, watch it, kid."
From the other side of the room the young, harried looking cop shot him a strange look. To someone straight from the Academy, Detective Inspector Liam Cleary, forty two years old and sporting more than few grey hairs himself, certainly didn't look like kid. To Colin Hammond he was still the awe-struck, wet behind the ears recruit that called him 'Sir' and jumped every time he raised his voice.
Hammond caught himself staring into distance, smiling at nothing and he shook himself. "Stop making me look like a sentimental idiot, you little wanker and let me finish my job," he snapped at his friend. The young cop jumped, but Liam only smiled.
"Catch me on your way out, will you?" he asked getting up. "I think we should go for a pint or two and celebrate."
"I don't know. I have a rocking chair to sit in, back at home. Nieces to spoil..."
"At ten PM? They are six, remember?"
"Good point. But the rocking chair is still there, and Sir Conan-Doyle.."
"I will tell you about the retirement prank the guys from Narco are planning for you?"
Hammond laughed. "In that case I will be there in an hour or so."
"Knew I would convince you with this one. You scared they will get you? Want to cheat your way out of some well earned embarrassment?"
"You kidding me? This is Narco we're talking about, there's no telling what they'll put in my coffee. I'm trying to cheat my way out of a heart attack."
They both laughed. The kid two desks away looked a bit green around the edges and was probably reconsidering his career choice.
"And here I thought you'd want to solve one more puzzle and stun them with your brilliance when the plan backfires on them."
Hammond tapped the file in front of him. "My puzzle-solving days are over. I'm planning on limiting myself to Sunday paper crosswords from now on."
The sad smile was back. "This just doesn't sound right."
"Oh, shut up. And the part of my brilliance that will stun our merry pranksters is the knowledge when to play dirty. Hence the cheating. Sod off already, or we won't make it to the pub before the last call."
Liam got up and raised his hand in a mock salute. "Sodding off right away, sir."
Hammond shook his head in amusement and went back to his very last piece of police work.
As anyone who really knew Hammond expected, the prank backfired spectacularly. It took some setting up, but Hammond managed to distract the Narco detectives with a skilfully planted rumour about an upcoming Internal Affairs bullshit investigation into their department, and used their inattentiveness to switch the coffee pot from their break-room with the one they set up for him. Their expressions when they realized they weren't in danger of losing their jobs were priceless. Almost as good as what happened when the stuff in their coffee kicked in.
The entire third floor was in a jolly good mood after that. Later, when Hammond walked to his Captain's office and handed him the finished case file, he thought his last day as a real detective was damn near perfect.
He went home and settled down for a well deserved quiet evening with a glass of whiskey, a good book and the heavenly voice of Ella Fitzgerald. For a few hours everything was well with the world and the soon to be retired Detective Colin Hammond allowed himself to believe it was going to stay that way.
It took him almost a full minute to wake up enough to identify the source of insistent ringing next to his ear as his phone and another thirty seconds to figure out how to shut the blasted thing up. Reaching for the phone he glanced at his radio alarm clock. It was a birthday gift from his sister, a hellish invention that forgot the station it was tuned into the very instant he set it, which resulted in him being woken up by a truly bizarre selection of music, ranging from slightly hysterical gospel to something apparently called "grind-core". Hammond called it a sure sign of the world going batshit crazy. At that moment, however, the alarm was mercifully silent.
What caught his attention was the fact that, according to the blinking red display, it was almost three in the morning. In his experience a phone call at this time of night meant either something work-related, or a really, really bad family news. And since he was about to retire...
"Hammond," he barked into the receiver, suddenly wide awake.
"Merlin, listen, sorry for waking you up, old boy, but you really have to..."
The icy dread filling his gut was replaced by a rushing wave of relief. "Liam, you halfwit twat, what the hell is wrong with you?!" he yelled. "You just had me imagining my sister's car wrapped around a tree, did you know that, you piss-poor excuse for a friend?!"
There was a moment of stunned silence on the other end of the line. "Um..." said Liam.
"Yeah, that's what I thought."
"Sorry, I... I didn't..."
"No, you didn't, that's pretty obvious!"
It felt really good to vent and erase that unending minute of panic from his mind, and Hammond probably would have continued his ranting if Liam hadn't interrupted him.
"He's back, Colin," said Liam, his grave voice stopping Hammond mid-sentence, the cold fist squeezing his heart once more.
He didn't ask who "he" was, he didn't have to. In their line of work everyone had their ghosts, their personal nightmares, memories that drew them back to old, dusty files, blurry photographs, yellowed forms filled in slowly fading ink. Faces they could recall more clearly than their own – some long dead, some merely frozen in time, while real people who wore them grew older and changed, somewhere.
Twenty minutes later Hammond was standing at Liam's desk and, with a suffocating feeling of de ja vu, watching three masked men torture a homeless drunk to death.
"...Notting Hill, last night. You were already home when the tapes came, and I wouldn't even make a connection, but John made a joke about..." Liam was trying to explain something to him, but Hammond couldn't hear him.
A gloved hand rose slowly, holding a slender piece of wood...
"...examined the recording, it's the same thing, I'm telling you, they have no idea how..."
Hammond wore glasses now. Sixteen years ago he hadn't needed glasses. And the quality of the video was much better. The homeless man coughed and Hammond could see every little drop of red that fell on the piece of dirty-grey cardboard under his feet. Every drop.
And the thugs seemed younger this time. They were both shorter than the leader and their movements were nervous, less certain, lacking that deathly grace... Kids. Just kids.
Hammond realised that Liam had stopped talking and glanced at his friend. He looked worried, and anxious.
"Now," he said, hitting "pause". "You have to see this."
The victim was barely breathing, and all three of his assailants appeared to be laughing at his weak attempts to shield himself from the next attack. The leader took of his mask and shook his head, letting the hood of his cloak slid back.
He was older, too. His gestures more precise, performed with visible ease, without a slightest hint of hesitation. Angular lines of his face more prominent. He was more mature now, learned to control his impulses, to plan, to wait. Learned that the rewards of patience were much sweeter than anything a moment of blind fury had to offer. Infinitely more dangerous.
He spoke and Hammond's lips moved too, repeating the two words he had hoped never to hear or see spoken again.
His personal nightmare looked straight at the camera and smiled.
He didn't go back home that night. Instead, ignoring the worry on Liam's face, he watched the video over and over. Liam asked if he wanted him to pull the old tape from the records, but Hammond just reached into the lowest drawer of his desk, the one that got stuck all the time, so he almost never used it, and put a slightly dusty plastic box on his desk.
"I have my own copy, thanks," he said, and Liam returned to watching him without a word.
He spent almost six hours comparing the details. He couldn't be sure, but he thought he had recognized several patterns, specific movements, colours, connected to specific things happening to both victims. A slashing move and brilliant flash of red. Intricate weave of spiralling gestures and a shade of blue so dark that it was almost black.
The smell of fresh coffee broke his concentration. "You need a break, Merlin," said Liam, handing him a steaming mug. Hammond looked up and the morning light streaming through the windows startled him.
"Crap, I didn't realize it was morning already."
"It's almost noon," said Liam.
Hammond rubbed the bridge of his nose and closed his stinging eyes for a second.
"Got anything new?"
He let out a heavy sigh. "Nothing. Not a single, bloody thing."
He looked at his younger colleague and sighed again. "Out with it," he said.
Liam's eyes turned wide. "O... out with... what?" he stuttered.
Hammond could only smile. "Come on, Junior. By the way you've been fidgeting I'd say that either you want to tell me something, but are afraid that I'll bite your head off if you do, or you're sitting on an anthill."
They both chuckled, but Liam's expression quickly turned serious. "You don't have to do this," he said and, seeing Colin's reaction, rose his hand to interrupt anything he might want to say. "Wait, let me finish. I know how you feel about this, I was here the last time around, remember? It's just... Hell, Merlin, I remember what that case did to you, and I don't want to watch you go through this again. You're four days away from retirement, you don't need this..."
"You think this is about what I need?" growled Hammond, and immediately regretted it. This was not Liam's fault, he was trying to do the right thing, and venting his frustration on his pupil turned best friend would not help matters any. "Sorry, kid, didn't mean to snap like that," he muttered. Liam smiled and shrugged. He knew Hammond's mean moods all too well. "This is not about what I need, it's about those people, slaughtered like animals by some psychopath. About finding some way to get the bastards before any more bodies with burns, cuts, bruises and boils all over them turn up. About this whole thing finally making some sense, because this is driving me barking mad, and..."
He stopped and took a deep breath. "Hell, maybe it is about what I need," he muttered. "I need to catch that son of a bitch, Liam. I have to get him," he said, looking Liam straight in the eye.
"I know," he said and stood up. "Come on, we should get going."
"Go where?" asked Hammond.
Liam looked at the computer screen, showing a freeze-frame of a dark corner at the back of a small book store, only one figure left, curled up on wet concrete, unmoving. He nodded.
They didn't talk much on the way to the scene. Liam was concentrated on dodging insane taxi-drivers and Colin was too tired to start a conversation. Anyway, the only thing on his mind right now was the tape, the blonde man, the dead body. No room for small talk.
It took them almost half an hour to get there, and by that time Colin's coffee kicked in, leaving him tense and unable to sit still. As soon as the car was parked, he opened the door – almost hitting some old lady with it – and almost ran towards the alley.
Of course, there wasn't all that much to look at. The only difference between the images he remembered from the tape and what he was seeing now, was daylight and two pieces of police tape hanging limply from the fence on his left. Not a single hint that anything remotely unusual ever happened there.
"Avada Kedavra," he whispered, staring at the place where the body used to lay.
Liam caught up to him a minute later. "Weird, isn't it?" he asked.
Hammond looked at him questioningly.
"That you can never tell," explained his friend. "Those places always look so... ordinary. If I told you it was the next alley over you'd believe me, because there's nothing special about this one. No signs, no strange feelings, no aura of evil."
Hammond could only nod.
"You know," continued Liam, "I once knew that girl, and she told me about the day she first fell in love. She told me how she and that kid were sitting on a park bench and he kissed her and how it was a perfect day, in every single way. How she always smiled when she passed that bench after that day. And I had no heart to tell her that six years earlier a mother of three was mugged and stabbed to death two feet from that bench."
"There's no way to know," said Hammond.
The harsh voice behind them startled both. "Actually, there is."
They spun around, Hammond's hand automatically reaching for his radio to call for backup. It only took three seconds, but it felt like three minutes. He registered the owner of the voice, a strangest looking character he had ever seen, with mis-matched eyes and deep scars crossing his face. In the next heartbeat he noticed a slender piece of wood in the stranger's hand, aimed directly at Liam, and his blood froze. Half a second later, as his fingers were searching for the rectangular object in his pocket, he realized he'd be too late.
"Stupefy," said the man and a jet of red hit Liam. In a second it took Colin to take the radio out, and Liam to crumble to the ground, the man made another gesture, accompanied by two strange words, and suddenly the solid piece of metal and plastic in his hands turned into a handful of sand, harmlessly trickling between his fingers.
For a moment Colin just stared, his shocked gaze moving from his empty hands to Liam, sprawled on the ground. "What..." he whispered, unable to form a single, coherent sentence. In the back of his head he wondered if the camera over the back door covered the place where he was standing. If it would record his death too. If someone at the station would sit down and compare the scene of his murder to the one of the nameless drifter.
"There is a way to tell," said the strange man suddenly, startling him out of those thoughts. "Ya just have to know wha'ch ya lookin' for."
Hammond pulled himself together and was ready to say something, but at that very moment Liam groaned softly. He dropped to his knees by his friend's side, relief wiping his mind blank. Alive, he thought, you're alive, kid. We both are.
For how long? Asked that quiet voice at the edge of his thoughts.
"I'm not going to kill ya," said the man, as if he could hear his thoughts. Maybe he could. "I just want to ask ya a question."
"What question?" asked Hammond and the steadiness of his voice surprised him.
The man walked few steps in his direction, limping heavily, with his weapon pointed directly between his eyes. Hammond resisted the urge to flinch back, instead he reached for Liam's hand, preparing to dive in front of him.
The man chuckled. "That won't be necessary."
"Excuse me if I don't feel inclined to trust you," said Hammond in a tight voice. "What question?" he repeated.
Alastor Moody leaned down and his weird, bright blue eye swivelled in an impossible, chaotic dance before centring straight on Colin.
"Avada Kedavra," he whispered and Colin half-expected a jet of poison-green to follow the words. "I'd very much like to know where did'ya hear that."