It is not love that is blind, but jealousy.
Lawrence Durrell, Justine
Robbie is about to enter Laura Hobson's office when her mobile rings. He hovers out of sight, just beyond the open door. If it's personal, he'll wander away for a few minutes; if it's work, he'll pop in and make himself comfortable in the visitor's chair.
"James!" she says, and he can hear the smile in her voice. "You got my email?"
Lewis frowns. It's a common enough name. No reason to think it's James Hathaway on the other end of the conversation. No reason at all. It's some friend named James that she's so pleased to talk to. He should go now.
"You can accompany me? Oh, that's brilliant. You are a lifesaver, Sergeant."
Now Robbie is frozen in place. There are only three sergeants named James on the Oxfordshire force. Sergeant Rees is currently on holiday in Tenerife, and Sergeant Heywood always goes by 'Jimmy'. It's work-related. Must be.
"I know it's very short notice... That's right... Dorchester. The Black Swan. Do you want to meet me there, or shall we drive together?"
He can't believe what he's hearing. The Black Swan is a little hotel on the High Street in Dorchester. It's not as posh as the Randolph, but it's fancy enough, and the menu in the restaurant is mostly written in French. He'd interviewed a couple of witnesses there two years ago—an American couple from Ohio or Omaha or one of those 'O' places. They'd wanted to celebrate their fifth anniversary in an English country inn. "It's so quaint and romantic and well, English," the wife had said. What the buggering hell is Laura doing, making plans to meet my sergeant at a romantic hotel?
She chuckles. "The one you wore the other day? Yes, you looked very debonair in that one."
There's got to be a reasonable explanation for this, because the most obvious one is... absurd. Laura and James?
"I am very grateful. Ethan will be too, when I tell him. He felt bad about having to cancel, and it's so ridiculous—chickenpox, of all things! He isn't even sure that he's caught it, but he's been exposed, and he doesn't want to take the chance of ruining Louise's wedding. I couldn't believe it when he phoned me..."
A wedding? She wants James to escort her to a wedding? Surely if her friend can't go—and who is this Ethan, anyway? Robbie's never heard the name before—she can find a more appropriate companion, even at the last minute? Laura's a lovely woman. A lovely woman who's complained of being lonely, he reminds himself. Says it's hard to find intelligent single men who are willing to put up with a doctor's hours. Police hours. But... James?
Can't be! He's much too young for her, he protests. Not that much younger, the other side of his mind retorts. Only fourteen years. He's mature for his age. And he saved her life back in October... pulled her out of that grave an' comforted her while I was chasing the twisted bastards that put her in there.
He shudders at the memory, then comes back to his surroundings, aware that he's missed part of the conversation.
"—we'll do what we can tonight," Laura says. "Your place or mine? Right. I understand. Better safe than sorry. You know the way. Say, sevenish? Or, hold on, how about half six and I'll pick up some takeaway... Don't be ridiculous, James. You're doing me a favour—providing samosas and lamb bhuna is a very small repayment." She laughs. "Flatterer. Well, there is that. I'm looking forward to it, too."
Dinner at Laura's house? Followed by what? Even if he thinks the unthinkable, Robbie can't imagine that either of these people he knows so well would casually schedule something like... that thing he's not thinking about. Then again, isn't this conversation proof that he doesn't know either of them as well as he thought?
"I'm sure you'll do just fine. It's always a bit awkward at first with a new partner... Yes... Yes... No, don't be silly! I really doubt I have more experience than you... Look, just keep me from making a fool of myself in public, and I'll be perfectly satisfied."
In public? What the— Oh. Thick as a brick, I am. Dancing. She's talking about dancing at the wedding. The lad probably doesn't know a fox-trot from a waltz. Even if he learned how at his posh school, he'll be out of practice. Somehow, this realisation doesn't comfort him as much as it ought to.
Robbie hears the change in voice that signals a conversation about to end. Silently, he retreats fifteen feet up the (thankfully empty) hallway, then comes tromping back at his usual brisk pace. "Afternoon, Laura."
"Hullo, Robbie." Laura smiles at him. She looks pleased to see him, and not at all flustered or guilty. "You're here about the McKenzie toxicology results, I imagine?"
"Right, got a question or two." By focusing on work and the information he really does need, Robbie manages to get through the conversation without betraying the lump in his gut.
"All clear now?"
"Yeah. Thanks for the help, Laura," he says, rising from the chair.
"All part of the service," she quips. Then, glancing at her watch, "Good Lord, half four already?"
"It is," he replies. "The weekend is almost here, and for once I think I can leave at a decent hour."
"Me, too, and thank God for that."
The lump in his gut doubles in size, but he asks casually, "Got some special plans?"
"As a matter of fact, yes." Laura smiles again. "An old school friend is getting married tomorrow."
"Big fancy do, is it?"
"They're not making too much of a fuss. It's the second time around for both of them. Louise spent seven years with an utter bastard before she came to her senses. I've only met Harry twice, but he seems very kind and very devoted to Louise." She smiles wistfully. "Lucky woman."
Robbie waits a moment, then two, but Laura doesn't say anything about Hathaway. Could be she's embarrassed. Or she thinks I'll disapprove. Maybe he does, a little, but he won't say a word to either of them. They're both adults, after all. He's Hathaway's governor, not his dad, and while he may think it's peculiar, there are no regs being broken here.
When he returns to their shared office, James is bent over his computer, typing with lightning speed.
"You're gonna burn your fingers if you don't slow down," Robbie observes.
James straightens, as abrupt as a Jack-in-the-box. "Sir! You're back."
"Very observant of you, Sergeant. Keep it up—we'll make a detective of you yet. What's the hurry? You hoping to type for Britain in the Olympics?"
"No, sir. As this—" James points at the computer. "—is part of my assigned duties, I fear that my status as an amateur might be called into question. I'm just trying to get the report finished."
So that you can leave in time for your... meetup with Laura. Robbie grunts. "I've been to see Dr. Hobson."
He should have known better than to expect a reaction. James, master of the poker face, gives him a look of mild inquiry. "The McKenzie case? Did she explain about the traces of bleach in the stomach contents?"
They spend a few minutes discussing Callum McKenzie's last meal, which makes Robbie think about his own next meal. "Time to knock off for the day, Sergeant. The report can wait 'til Monday morning." Without thinking, he adds, "Join me for a pint?"
James ducks his head and lifts his shoulders a fraction of an inch. "Sorry, sir, I have a prior engagement."
Thick, an' getting thicker all the time. He didn't mean to lay a trap for the lad. He issued the invitation automatically; a pint together after work has become a regular habit for them. He won't ask about the 'prior engagement'. If James is feeling awkward about this thing with Laura, Robbie doesn't want to make him choose between embarrassment and lying to his governor. They've had enough of that in the past.
"Well, erm... enjoy it. G'night, James."
"Good night, sir."
Instead of the pub he settles for a couple of bottles of beer at home. He tries to distract himself with the telly, but it's no use. Something about this situation doesn't make sense. He decides to tackle it as he would a case. ("For shame," his conscience whispers. "There's been no crime committed here.")
The basic facts: Laura Hobson discovers the day before her friend's wedding that her escort is (possibly) sick and has to cry off. Not wanting to go alone, she asks James Hathaway to accompany her. James agrees.
Why didn't she ask me instead? He supposes that's the least puzzling part of this puzzle. Laura is still a bit skittish around him. He didn't handle things well after the Corwin case, didn't really talk things out with her. Oh, she's been civil, even friendly, as she was today, but there's part of her that hasn't quite forgotten that he treated her like a suspect.
Why James instead of some other male friend? Again, not too much of a mystery. James is educated, well-mannered (when he chooses), and a witty conversationalist. Laura once called him 'dishy'. And though the age difference feels funny to Robbie, Laura will probably be the envy of her schoolmates, showing up with a handsome young man at her side. And she likely thinks of him as 'safe'.
No, the perplexing question is: why did James say yes? This can't be his idea of a pleasant Saturday. Making small talk with a bunch of strangers. Being stared at, whispered about. Robbie shakes his head. James would, without hesitation, jump in front of a bullet for a friend. Sacrificing his day off, wearing a suit and a polite smile to save that friend from minor social inconvenience? Not bloody likely. Unless the friend is someone that he really cares about.
Can it be that James fancies Laura, and has been too shy (awkward sod that he is) to ask her out? Maybe that's why I get sour looks when I suggest he needs to find someone. He's found her—or thinks he has—but doesn't know how to get her.
The more he thinks about it, the more likely it seems. Bugger. This won't end well, he's sure of it. Robbie feels that he ought to have issued a warning... but to who? And how? Should he have marched back down to Laura's office and say, "Have a good time at the wedding—and try not to break my sergeant's heart"? Or should he have cornered James, who hides more than a little bit of insecurity under the smartarse attitude, and told him not to take Laura's interest too seriously?
Probably would've made things even worse, he concludes. And then he kicks himself for being overly imaginative. This isn't EastEnders. It's just two friends from work going to a social do together. He'll just have to wait for the weekend to be over and hope that his two best mates are still speaking to each other on Monday.
Saturday dawns bright and clear. Robbie does the washing up after breakfast, then tears the top sheet from a notepad on the counter. He can't put off the shopping any longer. Best to go early, before the family crowd comes in. He likes kids, but it's hard enough trying to navigate the supermarket aisles without having to avoid trolleys pushed by distracted parents. Or worse yet, by restless youngsters playing at dodgems. As with many other things, he takes a moment to wonder how Val had managed her daily routine so well with two young'uns in tow.
Outside it's a bit cold for April, but the sky is cloudless. Louise and whatsit will have a fine day for their wedding, he thinks, then brushes the thought away like an annoying fly. Nothing to do with him, is it?
Armed with his list, Robbie is in and out of Sainsbury's with the quick precision of the kind of military raid that happens only in films. Shopping sorted. What now? It's too early for lunch. He may as well take care of some of the other chores he's been putting off. He puts laundry into the washer, then hoovers the flat (to the great displeasure of Monty, who retreats under the bed).
He sits down at the kitchen table to sift through several days' accumulated post. There are a few bills to pay, so he gets out his chequebook. Hathaway keeps telling him to do it online, but Robbie doesn't trust computers with his money more than he has to. Can't go wrong with a good old-fashioned cheque entrusted to the Royal Mail. Advertisements for a pizzeria, a tennis club, and a chiropractor go into the bin, but he saves a flier with a coupon for Jade Palace Chinese Takeaway. James likes their Kung Pao chicken.
It's almost lunchtime. He reckons his morning's work entitles him to a proper pub lunch. On the way he stops by the dry cleaners and drops off the suit that's been sitting in the boot of his Vectra for much too long. What suit is James wearing today? Whichever one it is, Laura thought he looked 'debonaire' in it. Since when does she notice what he wears?
It's a woman thing, he tells himself. They pay attention to clothing and suchlike. When I came back from the BVI, the first thing Laura told me about Innocent was 'She dresses well.' It doesn't mean anything.
What with one thing and another, the day drags itself to an end. He has a late dinner of takeaway curry, then stretches out in front of the telly. There's not much on that appeals. A documentary on Afghanistan, celebrity gossip, and a report on the planning for the 2012 Olympics. A couple of fashion experts are making predictions about Prince William's wedding later this month, and ITV4 is showing the old Fred Astaire flick, 'Royal Wedding'. He flips quickly past all of these, and settles for a programme on the construction of some luxury skyscraper hotel in Dubai. Eventually, he forces himself to go to bed. Sleep is slow to come, and not especially restful when it finally claims him.
He's in Innocent's office, and she's droning on about some conference where he's expected to give a talk on 'Chicken Pox as a Bio-Terror Weapon' He tries to explain that he doesn't know anything about the subject, but the Chief Super won't let him get a word in edgewise. Her attention is focused on the couples dancing in the hallway outside her office. DC Hooper, oddly graceful despite his bulk, swirls by with PC Julie Lockhart in his arms. DI Alan Peterson and DI Tom Grainger appear next. Robbie can't tell which of them is leading; they don't seem certain of it, either.
He lets out a yelp when he spots James and Laura. They're dancing to a quick, brassy tune that sounds like something from his granda's day. "Excuse me, Ma'am," he tells Innocent. ""I've got to cut in."
She gives him one of her frostier stares. "Certainly not, Inspector Lewis. That's a fox-trot. Regulations clearly state that you can't dance a fox-trot unless you're a fox."
This makes perfect sense in the topsy-turvy logic of dreams. Robbie watches dejectedly as his two best mates fox-trot out of sight.