It's clear that James wants company, but he doesn't seem inclined to say much, other than idle chatter. Robbie wonders if his sergeant needs to talk about the case, though their conversation in the street seemed to settle the lad's doubts about how he handled Silas. For now, he's not going to push. Dealing with his moody, unpredictable partner is a lot like conducting a suspect interview: you've got to know when to ask the hard questions and when to sit back and wait.
He remembers interviewing a don from Shrewsbury College in the attic-turned-conservatory of her small house. She was constantly in motion as she answered his questions, tending the flowerpots that lined the window ledges: pale yellow orchids on long, spiky stems. "This particular cultivar is rare, and it requires a careful hand to get it established, Inspector, but properly tended, it's quite hardy, and the blooms are magnificent." That was James: rare and temperamental, but well worth the effort.
James stares down into his coffee. "The arrows didn't kill him, you know."
Robbie blinks. "Erm... yeah. Doctor Hobson said the spikes were put into the body post mortem."
"No, not Silas. I mean the original Saint Sebastian." James's voice is quiet, earnest. This isn't him just going on about historical trivia, then. Robbie sets his cup down, curling his hands around its warmth. "He was the captain of the Praetorian Guard—the imperial bodyguard—under the Emperor Diocletian. Sebastian was a Christian, which was highly illegal at the time."
Didn't some of those Roman emperors set themselves up as gods? "I don't suppose the Emperor was too pleased about that."
James lets out an ironic snort. "Not pleased at all. Diocletian sentenced Sebastian to be executed by a firing squad of archers. According to the Legenda Sanctorum,'The archers shot at him till he was as full of arrows as a hedgehog is full of spines'."
Robbie grimaces. It's not a common happening, but he's seen archery fatalities, usually caused by drug-crazed students playing at Robin Hood or William Tell. "And he survived?" Robbie doesn't bother to hide his scepticism. James knows very well what he thinks of religious fairy tales. He won't insult the lad by pretending otherwise.
"So the legends say. Sebastian was left for dead, but a kindly widow decided to give him a decent burial. She discovered he was still alive, and nursed him back to health."
A kindly widow. Robbie has met more than his fair share of those. After Val's death, Oxford seemed to be swarming with husbandless women eager to tend his emotional wounds. One harpy had approached him on the day after the funeral. It wasn't just painful memories he was fleeing when he accepted the job attachment to the British Virgin Islands.
He drags his thoughts back to the here and now. "How did he die, if the arrows didn't do for him?"
"Sebastian accosted Diocletian in the streets of Rome and harangued him about his persecution of the Church."
"He gave a public bollocking to the Emperor who'd already tried to execute him?"
"He did. The Emperor was enraged. His guards clubbed Sebastian to death and threw his body into the sewers."
Robbie's first reaction is Stupid git, that Sebastian, but he's got more sense than to say it aloud. His first instinct was right: this has got nothing to do with the case. Massey didn't care about the religious significance of the pose when he copied it. It was all about ropes and naked bodies for him. And this isn't idle chatter. Something about this long-dead Roman soldier is important to James.
"Is he your whatsit? Patron saint?"
Hathaway shakes his head. "No, that was James the Apostle. Not James the Just," he adds crossly, as though correcting an error. "And for my confirmation I chose St Thomas Aquinas." He doesn't wait for Robbie to ask. "A great theologian—one of the greatest the Church has ever known. Patron saint of students and scholars."
Of course. "Still, you seem to know quite a lot about Saint Sebastian."
"In my first year at university, I wrote an essay about him. 'The Iconography of Saint Sebastian in Late Medieval Italy'," James says, his voice a perfect imitation of every stuffy Oxbridge academic Robbie has ever heard. "The lecturer thought I'd find the topic interesting, since Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes." The corners of his mouth quirk upwards. "And of soldiers and police officers, not that that mattered to me at the time." His fingers drum restlessly on the table.
Robbie decides to gamble. "Let's go outside. I could do with a bit of a walk to stretch me legs, and you need to indulge your favourite vice."
They wander with no particular destination in mind. Oxford is starting to come awake, but the few people they pass are hurrying off to an early work shift—or coming home from a late one. Two tired men in rumpled suits attract no more than a glance.
James is only a little less restless once he finishes smoking a fag. He walks with hands in pockets, eyes fixed on the ground. Yeah, something's festering inside him. Robbie may not be able to read Greek or Latin, but he's A-Level fluent in Hathaway. It's time to start poking.
"Y'know, I can see Sebastian being a patron saint for soldiers," Robbie says, his tone carefully casual. "Like the Royal Guard, or maybe Special Forces. But police? Nah. He'd have made a lousy copper."
"Sir?" There's a hint of reproach in James's voice.
Robbie shrugs. "A good copper doesn't go rushing into trouble—inciting trouble. Bit of a hothead, your Sebastian."
"Sir, with all due respect—" Yes, that's outright annoyance now. Better and better. This may go quicker than Robbie thought.
Robbie plunges on as if his sergeant hadn't spoken. "Or suicidal, maybe. Must've known he wouldn't survive this time. And for what? He couldn't have expected he'd get the Emperor to change his mind." Beside him, James's back is as stiff as a stone wall, and Robbie would bet a fiver that his hands are fisted inside his pockets. "Sorry," he says, and it's not really a lie, because he is sorry that he needs to do this. "I know he's someone you admire, but for the life of me, I can't see why."
The only sounds are the muted rumble of distant traffic and the steady rhythm of their footfalls on the pavement. Robbie is afraid that he's pushed too hard, too soon. Maybe he should have kept his gob shut.
"I admired him because he was brave," James says so softly that Robbie can barely hear him. Then again, the lad appears to be talking to his own shoes. "Sebastian wasn't just captain of the palace guard. He was the Emperor's friend. 'Well-beloved friend', according to the Legenda Sanctorum. He wasn't afraid of death—why would he be? He believed in Heaven. But to tell the truth about who he really was, knowing that his friend would see it as a terrible betrayal..."
Robbie responds, "A friend wouldn't react like that. A good friend, a proper mate—" He wishes he'd kept his gob shut after all, because it's the sodding Will McEwan thing all over again.
James stops abruptly—so abruptly that Robbie takes two steps past him before he realises and turns around. What he sees knocks the breath out of him. It's not the ghost of Will McEwan shadowing those blue-green eyes, but a longing so sharp and visceral that being shot through with arrows might hurt far less.
Robbie freezes, but his mind is racing at a million miles an hour. I can pretend I didn't see is his first thought. The lad may suspect but he won't know for sure. He'll be grateful, in the end. Second thought: That's the coward's way out. I've got to tell him, but let him down gently. Yeah, right. Even the gentlest rejection is still going to be as brutal as a clubbing.
The third thought makes Robbie wonder if someone's clobbered him over the head: Why do I have to let him down? It's utterly mad, and he's daft for thinking such a thing, but it won't go away.
He looks at James, his sergeant—no, his friend, his 'well-beloved friend'. Someone he trusts with his life. Someone who knows him better than anyone else has since Val died. His 'other half' Laura called him, not entirely in jest.
Precious milliseconds are ticking away. Robbie feels his throat tighten. "I don't know if I can be what you want," he blurts out. A terrible cold blankness begins to spread over James's face. "But I want to try," Robbie adds.
James stares at him. "You mean that," he says wonderingly. "You really mean that."
Robbie huffs out a sigh. "Have I ever lied to you?"
"No, sir, but I—" It would be almost comical if it wasn't heartbreaking: James Hathaway, Boy Wonder, at a loss for words. His mouth moves soundlessly, but at last he manages to whisper, "Why?"
There's the question—the sudden death question—and Robbie Lewis has no answer. None that he can put into words, any road. James is the clever one of the pair, the smartarse with a quip or a quote for every occasion. Robbie is a plain-speaking man. He doesn't make pretty speeches. So speak plainly, man, but speak. "My life's better for having you in it," he says. "As a partner, and as a friend. Never thought about anything else before now. I suppose I'm old-fashioned and set in my ways. You might decide I'm more trouble than I'm worth, but... I'm willing to try. If you want."
"If I want?" James's face is a war zone: hope and disbelief, fear and joy, battling for supremacy.
Robbie rubs the back of his hand across his mouth, stifling a yawn. He hasn't got the energy or the clearness of mind to get James sorted, but he can't send the lad home like this. "James, I'm knackered—and so are you, whether you're willing to admit it or not. Before we do anything else, we need to talk, and we're neither of us in a fit state to do that." He holds up a hand to forestall any argument. "Innocent wants us back at the station at half three to do the most urgent paperwork. The rest can wait until tomorrow. I want you to go home. Sleep, eat, take a shower, and put on some clean clothes."
"Is that an order, sir?" The snark in James's voice isn't quite up to his usual standard, but it's a good sign that he's making the effort.
"I'll make it one if I have to, Sergeant." Robbie fixes James with his firmest I'm-your-governor-and-I-know-what's-best-for-you stare.
James stares back, unabashed. "Will you be doing the same?"
"I will, yes." Robbie struggles to remember what he was going to say next. "After the paperwork is sorted, we'll go out for a bite and a pint. Then we'll go to my place and talk. And then... well, I suppose we'll see what happens next."
"Yes, sir," James says tonelessly. His face has gone blank again, and his gaze is fixed on a point just past Robbie's left shoulder.
Bloody buggering hell! I should've known. The lad's been let down too many times by the people he ought to have been able to trust—including me. "James," he says firmly. "James! Look at me." He waits until the lad's eyes meet his own. "Like I told you, I'm an old-fashioned bloke. I don't do 'public displays of affection'. I never did. And I'm too old to be snogging in dark alleyways, so this will have to do for now." He holds out his right hand.
James stares as if it's some kind of esoteric sign language that he can't quite decipher; as if it's an examination, and he's not sure he studied the correct chapter. Slowly, he extends his own right hand and clasps Robbie's tightly.
It's a good hand, Robbie thinks, slender but strong, and not at all soft. Callouses on the fingertips speak of hours spent coaxing music from guitar strings; on the palm, of oars slicing through the water with controlled grace and power. This hand has subdued criminals, supported the injured, comforted the dying, and pulled him out of harm's way more than once. Robbie starts to wonder what else that strong, talented hand might do, and resolutely pushes the thought away. Time enough for that later.
He looks up at James's face. Calmer now, on the surface, though he's sure that all sorts of gears are spinning inside that oh-so-clever brain. What are you getting yourself into, Robbie? Rumpy-pumpy with your bagman, and him nearly half your age and twice your IQ?
"Sir," James says. Just the one word, but it's strong, like his hand. It's a promise, a demand, an oath.
Robbie summons up a smile. It's a dozen kinds of madness, this thing that they're beginning, but they'll sort it out, as they always do—together.
- THE END -