As soon as he wakes in the morning, Robbie grabs his mobile. It's not too early to make this particular phone call. After the greetings and pleasantries, he asks his favour, mentally apologising for the necessary white lie that goes with it. The answer is what he expected. With a heartfelt 'thank you' and a few more pleasantries, he hangs up, gets dressed, and heads off to work in a much better mood than he's known for a week.
It's a hectic day. Lunch is a sodding egg mayo sandwich and a packet of ketchup-flavoured crisps at his desk, eating with one hand and typing with the other. He could draft another sergeant to do this for him, but it's a report that requires careful handling, and the only DS he'd trust to do it to his standards is currently moping about his flat.
That reminds him that he needs to make a second phone call. James answers after the first ring. "Hullo, sir."
"How are you doing?"
There's a pause. "Well enough. Bored. I'll survive."
"I'll be heading right over to yours after work. Wear something warm—we're going out to eat."
A longer pause. "Sir, I can't—"
"You can sit in the car while I fetch a takeaway, can't you? We'll eat in the car, then go for a drive. Do you good to get some fresh air."
There's that taken care of. If only the sodding report was as easy to sort. Sighing, he turns back to the laptop.
That evening, he enters the flat to find James reading on the sofa. "Hullo, James."
"Hullo, Robbie." There's only the briefest pause before the second word. James sets his book aside and rises. "Is this acceptable?" He's wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt under a pale blue sweatshirt that says 'Universitas Cantabrigiensis'. His usual trainers have been replaced by a pair of battered hiking boots. The grey cape from the charity shop is draped over the back of a chair.
"Should do. Let's be off—I'm starving."
"No lunch today?" James asks, as he throws the cape over his shoulders and fastens the buttons.
"Near enough," Robbie grumbles. "Sandwich and crisps from the canteen. Egg mayo."
"Ah..." James says sympathetically. He knows how much Robbie hates egg mayo.
In no time at all they're in the car and heading west along the Botley Road. James is silent until they pull into the car park of a small shopping centre. "You had a burning desire to try somewhere new?"
"It's on the way," Robbie replies, but he doesn't say where they're going, and James doesn't ask. He leaves the car running so James can have the heater on. Inside the chippy, he orders their usual: haddock and chips for himself (with mushy peas); plaice and chips for James, with coleslaw (heretic that he is).
Returning to the car, he hands the bags to James. "It's a twenty-minute drive to where we're going, and I'd just as soon eat while the food is hot." He settles himself behind the wheel and receives one of the bags back from James. "Ta. Sure you've got the right one? I warn you, I will not be a happy man, Hathaway, if you eat my haddock by mistake."
"Never fear, sir," James says with a smirk that belies the grave deference of his tone. "I wouldn't dream of it. I know my plaice."
Robbie raises his left hand and takes a mock swipe at his sergeant's head. "Enough of your cheek."
They chat while they eat. Robbie reports news and gossip from the station. James tells him some of the strange medieval beliefs about fish. One kind that supposedly loves music, and can be lured into nets by 'grete harmonye'. Another that swims to the depths during storms, because the touch of rainwater would make it blind. A female fish that pulls her babies out of her body to see if they're large enough to be born; if not, she tucks them back inside her.
"What, like taking scones out of the oven to see if they're done?" Robbie asks.
"Absolutely daft. Still, I suppose that in five or six hundred years, people will shake their heads over some of the nonsense we believed."
When they're finished eating, Robbie drives northwest along the Eynsham Road. They pass dark fields and hedges, punctuated by the occasional brightly-lit farmhouse.
"Nice evening for a drive in the country?" James says.
"Yeah, it is." As they approach Farmoor, Robbie tries to focus on the lights of the village to his left, and not the dark, looming presence of Wytham Woods to his right. It was a long time ago, he reminds himself, but a shiver goes up his spine. A man doesn't easily forget a place where he was nearly murdered, where he was forced at gunpoint to dig what would have been his own grave. If Morse hadn't come...
"You all right?"
Damn! Trust James to notice every little detail at the most inconvenient times. Robbie bites back an excuse about a draught from his window. He promised not to lie to James. "Fine," he says, because he is, really. It comes out more brusquely than he intended. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees James arching his brows in silent challenge. "An old memory. Nothing to fret over."
James gives him a reluctant nod. He won't push. Good.
Soon enough they're crossing the Thames on the Swinford Bridge, then passing through Eynsham. When they turn on to the A40, James says dryly, "I'm sure that Cardiff is lovely in February, but I would have appreciated an opportunity to pack a bag."
"We're nearly there," Robbie assures him, and James smirks.
The smirk becomes a frown when they leave the A40 and turn onto a narrow lane. "Erm... sir?"
"No worries. Trust me." He slows the Vauxhall to a crawl as they enter the farmyard. "We're just passing through. I know the owner." As if on cue, a stocky figure in a heavy coat and battered tweed cap steps out of a small shed, carrying a pail. He raises his free hand in greeting. Robbie waves back, but keeps on going. "Jem Merryweather. Met him years ago during a case. His daughter, Ellen, was a suspect."
"And that somehow endeared you to him?"
Robbie grins, remembering. "He called me every name in the book, and then some. Jem served in the Royal Marines when he was young, and he has what you might call an extensive vocabulary. Changed his tune when we caught the real killer. I rang him up earlier, said I'd be coming over after dinner to go for a walk in the wood."
"In the wood," James echoes. "In winter. In the dark."
"I thought a bit of a stroll would sweeten your mood. Nothing wrong with your legs, after all. Trouble is, it's not easy finding a place with guaranteed privacy." He'd thought of the canal towpath, but it was too risky. Even on a winter night they might find people on the towpath. "The wood has well-cleared walking trails, and it's closed to the general public after dusk," he continues. "We're wearing warm coats, I've got a pocket torch, and the moon will be up soon."
"All right," James says slowly, "but just how did you explain your sudden zeal for nocturnal exercise to Mr. Merryweather?"
Robbie's grin widens. "You're a twitcher."
"It's a term for a bird-watcher who's—"
"I know what the word means."
"I told him that my mate James is a twitcher, and is very keen to spot a certain rare bird."
"In the middle of the night?"
"It's only half seven. And you're looking for an owl."
James blinks, looking rather like an owl himself. "Of course I am," he says obediently. "A lifelong goal of mine."
About 100 metres beyond the farmhouse, the lane opens into a wide gravelled circle. The A painted wooden sign says 'Welcome to Haydon Wood' above the oak-leaves logo of the Woodland Trust.
Torches in hand, they stride down the path and into the wood. It looks very different to the last time Robbie saw it. He'd followed a weeping Ellen Merryweather down this very path. On a May morning, it had been as lovely as fairyland, the ground carpeted with bluebells, and dappled sunlight shining through the green-gold canopy of leaves.
It's got a different, more subtle loveliness now. The tangled branches of the tall oaks sketch a graceful black filigree against the charcoal-grey sky. James was right: there are very few places in Britain where it gets completely dark, even on a moonless night.
This night isn't moonless. As they walk deeper into the wood, the full moon rises, looking huge and luminous as it clears the treetops. "Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon," James murmurs.
Robbie doesn't ask where the quotation is from. Sounds like Shakespeare. "Bomber's moon," he says. "That's what me dad always called it. He was only a lad during the war, but old enough not to be evacuated with the little kiddies. No fancy instruments in planes back then, so the crews had to target by sight. Easier to do by moonlight, in a night raid. Course, that helped the Germans, too. Tyneside was bombed half a dozen times that I know of."
"This would be a great night for flying," James says, with a faraway look that says he's not talking about the RAF or the Luftwaffe. "Not safe at all, but the view would be glorious."
Robbie nods. He doesn't want to interrupt—and he's not entirely sure that James is talking to him. They continue down the path at a comfortable pace. Between the exercise and his heavy coat, he feels quite warm.
In less than ten minutes, they reach a clearing, a rough oval about 30 yards at its widest point. The moon shines down brightly enough that Robbie doesn't need his torch to read the sign posted on the far side of the clearing. 'Skepper's Glade'. "Huh. Funny name, that."
"A skepper is someone who makes skeps," James says promptly. "Straw or wicker baskets used as beehives." Robbie half-expects him to go off on one of his rambling explanations, perhaps covering the history of basket making and the medicinal uses of honey, but he merely says, "Give me a moment?" and then crosses the glade, removes his cape, and drapes it neatly over the wooden signpost.
Robbie almost calls out to ask what the hell James thinks he is doing, but something inside him doesn't want to break the uncanny quiet. It's mild for February—maybe 6 or 7 degrees—and James is wearing several layers. He won't freeze in the next few minutes.
James returns to the centre of the glade. He stands at attention, and turns his face up to the silver moon, closing his eyes against her brightness. Slowly, carefully, like a ritual, he unfolds his wings, extending them to their full length. He holds that position for ten, fifteen, twenty long seconds. The moonlight frosts his pale gold wings with silver. Robbie can see individual feather tips fluttering in the slight breeze.
He feels as though he's looking at one of those old novelty postcards that flicker back and forth between two different images. One moment, he's looking at an unearthly vision, so magnificent that a poet might find himself tongue-tied trying to describe it; the next, he's looking at his bagman, casual and ordinary in boots and faded jeans and a Cambridge sweatshirt.
James raises his wings to their full, impressive height, as if trying to touch the moon. Again, he stays in position for twenty seconds. He lowers them, sweeps them to the back, then repeats the entire pattern ten times. It's like a dance or a tai chi routine. Robbie almost expects him to finish with a bow or some dramatic pose, like one of those Olympic figure skaters. Instead, James merely folds his wings and puts his cape back on.
Robbie struggles with curiosity, then surrenders. "What was that?"
"What was wha—oh, that. Physiotherapy. My stretching exercises. I hadn't done the evening session yet."
"Erm, right. More room here than in your flat, I suppose."
"True. And it's been a while since..." James's voice trails away, but Robbie suspects he can finish the sentence. Since he spread his wings outdoors and felt the wind.
"We'll come back," Robbie says quietly. "Haven't seen an owl yet, have we?" James nods. He's very quiet on the walk back to the car. Robbie thinks it's the good sort of quiet. Being out here helped him, but what he really needs is to fly again.
The next night the weather keeps them indoors. It's pissing down icy rain, and Robbie doesn't plan to walk any further than the distance from his car to the door of James's flat. He walks inside, where the blessedly warm air is scented with garlic and spices. James greets him with a smile. "I remembered I had some mince in the freezer, so I made chilli." He spreads his hands in apology. "No Mexican beer, I'm afraid."
"Give over, man. A bottle of Bridge will do well enough." Robbie peels off his wet coat. "Or two."
"Hard day, was it?"
"Not too bad," Robbie concedes. "Had a change of pace from the damned paperwork. Innocent called me in to consult on Ward's latest case."
"You remember the Rockwell murder last year?" He pauses just long enough for James to nod, because he knows his sergeant remembers every case they've worked, especially the unsolved ones. "Ward caught a case yesterday Not much similarity between the victims, except for the manner of death." Both had been garrotted with a length of chain. Amy Rockwell was a dentist in her fifties; Ian Scanlon, a thirty-something mechanic for a car hire firm. "They lived maybe a mile apart, but there's no evidence that either of them knew the other. Nothing in common, so far as we can tell. Unless the killer picked them out because they shopped at the same supermarket." He spreads his hands. "Which is as likely a theory as any, at this stage."
"But you think it's the same killer?"
Robbie rubs the back of his neck. "Strangulation is common enough, but using a chain? Not the exact same chain in both cases, Laura says, but a similar weight. My gut says they're related." Just at that moment his stomach lets out a loud rumble.
James's lips twitch. "I believe your gut has another message for you, sir."
"Smartarse." Robbie glares at him. "Let's eat. I'll show you the file afterwards."
He does, and they spend most of the rest of the evening talking about it. James confesses that his gut agrees with Robbie's: there is some connection between the two victims.
As he's gathering up the papers, Robbie notices the guitar leaning against the bookcase. "Have you been playing?"
James pulls a face. "Trying to. After a few minutes, my right hand gets tired, and I have trouble with the finger-picking."
The sort of music James plays requires a lot of fancy fingering, Robbie knows. He doesn't just strum a rhythm like old-style folk singers. The thought raises a question in his mind. "Do you sing?"
"Not voluntarily," James replies. "Not when sober, at any rate. Why?"
He shrugs. "Just wondering. You're a musician."
"So you're not a warbler?" Robbie asks.
James stares at him. For a split-second, Robbie is afraid that he's offended his partner, but it's surprise that he sees on the younger man's face, followed by a lopsided smile. Has anyone ever teased him about his wings? Not in the last twenty years or more, Robbie is willing to bet.
"Not a nightingale," James admits, "but not a crow either."
Robbie thinks he'll have to test that some day. Get James drunk enough and see what happens. He can't imagine going to one of those karaoke bars. A pub with a piano? He tucks the idea into the back of his mind.
The rain ends the next day, but temperatures drop below zero, turning puddles to ice. No 'bird-watching' tonight. Robbie isn't fussed. "We can watch the football match. Arsenal's playing Milan."
"A fact of which I was happily unaware until this moment."
"It's going to be a brilliant match. Walcott's been on fire lately."
"That name ne'er utter'd without tears in Milan." James correctly interprets Robbie's frown. "Never mind. Forget I said anything." He picks up the remote for the telly and offers it to Robbie with the solemn formality of a waiter offering champagne on a silver tray. "Do with it as you will." He picks up a book from the coffee table, leans back contentedly, and reads.
At half time, Robbie visits the loo, then the kitchen. "Making meself a cuppa," he calls out. "Want one?"
Almost immediately, James is at his side.
"I can do it, soft lad. Not much work getting another mug from the cupboard." He demonstrates by reaching for James's favourite mug, a large red and white one decorated with the Cambridge coat of arms.
"Ah, but you don't know what sort of tea I want. I'm in the mood for... Lapsang Souchong," James announces, and takes a black and gold tin from the back of the cupboard, then unearths a small wire mesh ball from a drawer.
Robbie snorts. "Builder's tea suits me just fine." He grabs a tea bag from the box of Tetley that James keeps on hand as a concession to his governor.
Back in the living room, the halftime commentators are still delivering their analysis of the match. Robbie ignores them. He doesn't care what the talking heads have to say about the match. Discussing it with a mate is a different matter, but James has never shown any interest in football—or any other sort of sport. "What did you play at that posh school of yours? Cricket? Polo?"
"Polo was not on offer," James replies with a grimace. "Besides, I'm only fond of horses at a distance." Belatedly, Robbie remembers the farm at Crevecoeur. If James wasn't horse-mad, as Briony Grahame was, horses would only have meant a lot of hard, dirty work for him. "I wasn't very good at cricket. Didn't have the eye for it. I was a rower."
That's right. Their first case together, James had been very knowledgeable about the oars in Danny Griffin's boat. At the time, he thought it was just a useful bit of trivia. "You enjoyed it?"
"Very much. It was almost like—it was exhilarating."
"How did you manage?' He doesn't have to explain what he means.
"Easier than you might think. The Headmaster knew about me. He put it about that I had mild scoliosis and needed to wear a corrective back brace. The rowing coach let me wear a school sweatshirt instead of the team uniform t-shirt."
"Did you row at Cambridge, too?"
James has been chatting freely, so it comes as a surprise when he suddenly retreats into himself. "No. It wasn't really feasible. My studies kept me busy."
Even a genius like James would need to do a lot of work to achieve a starred First at Cambridge, but he seems to have made time for other things that mattered to him. Music, for example. Why not rowing? Mentally he replays what James said about his rowing at school: "The rowing coach let me wear a school sweatshirt..."
Maybe they'd been less accommodating at Cambridge. He's seen Oxford rowers on the river often enough. They seem to wear snug-fitting spandex t-shirts, short-sleeved or even sleeveless. If James had used the back brace excuse, they might want their own doctor to look him over. And if he'd got onto the crew for the annual Boat Race... that gets a lot of publicity. There are newspaper articles and television interviews. Exactly the sort of public attention that James would dread.
It's just one more thing that James has been forced to give up in order to protect his bloody secret. To protect himself.
Laura visits his office the next day and sets a folder on his desk. "Hullo, Robbie. I was in the neighbourhood, so here's the Scanlon report."
"Thanks, Laura." He gives her a rueful smile. "Seem to be saying that a lot lately."
Her smile is mischievous. "Better 'thanks' than 'sorry'... and you're quite welcome. How's James doing?"
He glances around. "Feeling much cheerier. We... talked."
"Something you two should do more often," she chides. "I'm off. Give my love to the dishy sergeant, won't you?"
Mid-afternoon, and he's conferring with Ward when his mobile rings. The display says 'Hathaway'. He's surprised. James normally sends him texts, so as not to interrupt his work day. He gestures an apology at Ward and takes the call.
"Sir, I had a thought about those two cases... if you have a moment?"
"Sure, go ahead. We're just spinning our wheels here."
"I see from PC Leahy's report that Scanlon owned a dog. Rockwell had a dog, too."
"One in three British households has a dog."
"Yes, sir, but both of the victims were living alone in flats without gardens. They might have gone to the same park to let the dogs exercise, and met the killer there. Or employed a dog-walker. Or something."
"Or something," Robbie echoes. It's hardly a solid lead, but it's a new idea, and those have been very scarce. Worth looking into. "Anything else?"
"I was thinking about where our murderer—if there is just one—might get metal chains of varying weights and sizes."
"Any DIY shop, for starters. You can get 'em cut to order."
"Very true, sir, except that chain is an awkward material for a garrotte. Hard to hold onto."
Oh, how he's missed this give and take lately, sparking ideas against each other. "You could attach handles. Like that bloke in Brighton who fancied himself a ninja, and nearly decapitated the milkman with piano wire. He used the handles from his daughter's skipping rope."
"Yeah, but I was thinking of a chain that's already designed to go round a throat. A choke chain."
"A dog collar? Interesting. I'll ask Dr Hobson if that would fit the forensic evidence. Thanks." He ends the call.
Ward looks up from the interview transcripts he's been re-reading. "Got something?"
"Hathaway suggested a possibility." Robbie summarises what his sergeant said.
"Worth a looksee," Ward concedes. "I'll have Llewellyn and Singh do the rounds of the parks."
"I'll get some of mine onto vets and dog-walkers." Robbie rises, feeling much more energetic than he was just a few minutes before. It'll mean a lot of phone calls and slogging through old records, but 90% of police work is like that. They've got a new direction, and for now, that's enough.
By the end of the day his back is aching and his brain is fuzzy. "Sorry, lad, but I don't think I'm up for a tramp through the woods."
"No worries. The woods have been there for a few centuries; I expect they'll still be there a few days hence. I will possess my soul in patience."
The next day, Robbie rings James in the late afternoon. "I've got good news and bad news."
"Give me the bad news first," James says.
"You're on your own tonight. I won't be out of here before ten at the earliest."
"The cupboard isn't exactly bare, sir. I won't starve, and I promise not to pine away in your absence. What's keeping you so busy?"
"That's the good news. We got him," Robbie says with satisfaction. "You were on the right track with the dog business. Rockwell and Scanlon used the same pet grooming shop. One of the assistants—look, I've got to go. Ward is ready to get the interview started. Just wanted to let you know not to expect me. Good work, Sergeant."
The following evening Robbie fills in details of the case as they drive to Haydon Wood. "Matt Coupland, age 29. Assistant groomer at Canine Elegance Doggy Day Spa." Out of the corner of his eye he sees James wince.
"You're joking. Please tell me it's not called that."
"Sorry, but it is. Painted in gold in fancy foot-high letters on their front window."
"Turns out that Coupland's got a long history of angry confrontations with people he suspected of mistreating dogs," Robbie continues. "Broke the nose of a man who left his Cocker Spaniel tied in an alley for ten minutes on a July afternoon while he went into Panda Palace to get a takeaway." Both of the murder victims had adopted their dogs from animal rescue shelters. "Coupland claims he saw scars on the dogs."
"Maybe he did," James offers. "Could be that the dogs had been abused by their original owners."
"Could be. A reasonable person would have reported them to the RSPCA, made an anonymous call if he was afraid of getting into trouble at work." Coupland had not been a reasonable person. He'd stalked his victims, knocked them out, and throttled them to death with a choke collar. "It's all over but the paperwork, which Ward's bagman is taking care of, you'll be pleased to know. Oh, and Ward sends his compliments. Says you're an exemplary detective, and a real credit to your old governor."
"He never said that." DI Ward is well-known throughout the force for being a man of few words—usually blunt ones.
"It's what he meant." Ward's actual remark was, "Not a complete idiot. I think you'll be able to make something of that one."
As if by silent consent, they stop talking about the case as they pull into the drive of the Merryweather farm. There's no one in sight. As before, the small parking area for Haydon Wood is deserted. "Got your torch?" The moon is waning, and it's a cloudy night.
In response, James clicks his on. They walk side by side into the wood, the lights of their torches sweeping along the path a few metres ahead of them. Now and then the beams cross, merging to form a single pool of brightness. When they reach Skepper's Glade, Robbie pauses. "You want to do your physio?"
"On the way back?" James suggests. "I'd like to do some more walking first."
They choose a path on the far side of the glade, heading northwards. Faint traffic sounds from the motorway fade to nothing as they head deeper into the wood. It's quiet, but not silent. Dry leaves, twigs, and patches of gravel crunch under their feet, and the wind whispers in the upper branches. Rustling sounds announce the presence of unseen small animals. It's peaceful here, Robbie thinks. If it were only a bit warmer...
A harsh scream slashes through the night. "Jesus!" Robbie nearly drops his torch. "What the hell was that?"
He can't see the smirk on James's face, but he can hear it in his voice. "That was a male barn owl. Tyto alba."
"You can tell just by hearing it?"
"The territorial call of the male is rather distinctive. No other British owl sounds anything like it."
"You know a lot about birds. That by way of personal research?" Even as he asks the question, he knows the answer.
James hesitates, then jerks a thumb over his shoulder. "These didn't come with an instruction manual. Flying was instinctual, though just like walking, it took time to get the hang of it. Everything else I had to learn as best I could. As I imagine you discovered, it's very difficult to find information that isn't..."
"Completely daft?" Robbie suggests.
"That's more polite than what I was thinking, but the point is the same." He stops, turns, and begins walking back towards the glade. "Do you remember last week when you asked if I could take a shower?"
"Yeah. You mistook my meaning." He'd meant: could James shower despite his wound? James had thought he was asking if he could get his wings wet.
"And was rather rude about it. I am sorry." James inhales deeply. "The truth is that the other wouldn't have been an unreasonable question. And when I was young, I couldn't have answered it. As a child, I only ever took baths, and kept my wings clear of the water. I knew nothing dreadful would happen if they got wet—I'd been caught in the rain more than once—but my mother said it was a bad idea, and might cause problems in the long run." He walks faster, long legs eating up the path. "At school there were only showers to be had. I was allowed to use a private one near the infirmary because of my 'scoliosis'. It wasn't very large. Maybe if I'd been a contortionist, I could have kept my wings dry. After my first week at school, I found two feathers on the floor of the bathroom. I was convinced that showering had given me... incurable feather rot."
"Is there such a thing?" He knows nothing about the ailments of birds. Lyn's pet budgie had lived a healthy, uneventful life until the day it was found cold and stiff at the bottom of the cage and was given a state funeral, buried in a biscuit tin in the back garden.
"No, but I didn't know that. I was a 13-year-old boy and I panicked."
Robbie remembers being that age and having incomprehensible things happening to his body. Fortunately, he'd had mates he could ask the questions he'd never have dared to ask his parents. James had had no one. "What did you do?"
"Went to the school chapel to pray. I think I had some notion of appealing to St Michael."
St Michael? He's supposed to be the patron saint of policemen. Back in Newcastle, Robbie knew some coppers who wore St Michael medallions tucked under their uniforms. But at 13, James had no thought of becoming a policeman, so why—? Oh. Right. St Michael the Archangel. Wings. "What happened?"
"I never actually got there. In the corridor outside the chapel was a portrait of one of the school's founders, in full 17th century regalia with a ruffle at his throat and a wig that came down to here." James indicates a point some eight inches below his shoulder. "And he was holding a book inscribed Gnothi seauton."
"Greek. 'Know thyself'. So I headed for the library."
"Course you did."
"And after I'd looked at the ornithology books in the school library and the bird care books in the village bookshop, I concluded that I didn't have to worry about showers one way or the other."
"But the feathers that fell out?"
Some of the clouds have parted, and there's enough moonlight to see James's rueful look. "Stress moulting. Perfectly normal, under the circumstances. Change of locale and so forth." He shakes his head. "Sorry, don't know why I'm boring you with this old stuff."
Because you've never had someone you dared talk to before. "When you start boring me, Sergeant, you'll know it."
They reach the glade a moment later. As on their previous visit, James removes his cape to do his stretching exercises. His movements are smoother this time, and he adds a bit of a spin at the end.
"You're looking good," Robbie comments. "Which reminds me. It's coming up on two weeks. You'll need a doctor's note to come back to work."
"Already sorted. Sir Andrew sent me the name of a doctor in Oxford who he highly recommends."
"Sounds good. A specialist?"
"Well... not my sort of specialist, but an orthopaedist, which is good enough for a post-operative check-up."
"And you trust him?"
"Sir Andrew does. Says Dr Inglethorpe is utterly discreet." James twitches his wings in a way that betrays mild tension. "I've got an after-hours appointment at his surgery on Wednesday."
"I'll drive you," Robbie says in a tone that allows no contradiction. "You'll bring your binder along, and if the doctor give you the go-ahead to wear it, we'll celebrate with a dinner out. A proper sit-down—no takeaway."
By Thursday morning, Pad Thai and Ginger Onion Chicken at Bangkok House are only pleasant memories. Robbie sits at his desk, washing down a bite of stale croissant with a mouthful of lukewarm coffee. It's a nasty, cold, drizzly day outside; two constables have called in sick with the flu, and Innocent is in a proper strop about some newspaper column criticising police spending. Nevertheless, when he glances across the office, he can't help but smile. James Hathaway is at his desk, and all is right with Robbie Lewis's world.
He studies his sergeant, back hunched over his computer, fingers tapping rapidly on the keyboard. Less than a month ago, if anyone had told him what lay beneath the smooth contours of that dark grey suit and lavender shirt, he would have laughed until his belly ached—or called for the men in white coats.
He's not the only one who is pleased. Seems like half the force has been over to greet Hathaway. Even the Chief Super takes a short break from her strop to say "Welcome back, Sergeant". He finally sends James down to Records to get some files on one of their older cases, and emphasises that it's no rush. Let people accost James in the corridors instead of barging into their office every two minutes.
Robbie glances down at his coffee, which has passed 'tepid' and is now approaching 'cold'. He'll go and see if the canteen has brewed a new pot yet. He strides down the hallway, and is about to round a corner, when he hears familiar voices.
"I see his lordship's finally back from holiday."
"Must be nice, skiving off work for two weeks."
Robbie steps forward, and sees the faces he expected. "Hooper. Ripley."
"That wouldn't be Detective Sergeant Hathaway you two were chattering about, would it?"
"No, sir," they reply in unison.
"I didn't think so," Robbie says mildly, "since Sergeant Hathaway is back from medical leaveafter being shot in the line of duty. Either of you gentlemen ever been shot?" He knows the answer of, course, but he waits for the head shakes. "I have—more than once, as it happens—and I can tell you that it's not a pleasant experience. Furthermore, Sergeant Hathaway helped solve two murder cases while he was on medical leave. Unless either of you two jokers can make the same claim, I suggest you learn to keep your gobs shut. Is that clear?"
"Yessir," Hooper says. Ripley nods, too cowed to speak.
"Then be off with you," Robbie growls. As they scuttle away, he turns on his heel and nearly walks into James. It's the absence of expression that tells him that the other man overheard everything.
"Sir, I've got the financial records on Lyford senior." James offers a small bundle of A4 paper.
"Good. Anything I ought to know?"
"Nothing unusual at first glance. I was about to go over them more carefully."
Robbie shakes his head. "Later. You're with me. Time to talk to the son's girlfriend."
James is quiet in the car, but there's something in the set of his shoulders that tells Robbie he's working up his courage to say something.
Bugger. If they're going to deal with this now, Robbie wants to take the lead. "I didn't do it for you."
James cocks his head, listening.
"When I was a very young and very green PC, and still in uniform, it was made clear that insulting a superior officer could be a firing offense, depending on who said what to who. My supervising sergeant—this was up in Newcastle—told us, 'If you're going to slag me off, lads, you either do it off-duty and in private to your mates, or you do it to my face and take the consequences.' That's a lesson some coppers never learn. I've got some leeway. I can pretend not to hear some things, but if it's shoved right in front of me, I've got to act or discipline goes to hell."
"Yes, sir." James says.
"You'd do it to my face." Robbie says.
"Sir, I wouldn't—never—"
"Wouldn't do what? Slag me off? Likely not, but if you did, you'd have the balls to tell me direct, not whisper in the corners."
James ponders this for a long moment. "Thank you?"
Trevor Lyford's girlfriend Andrea ("call me Andi") Brown is a lecturer in English at New College, specialising in Victorian literature. She's polite, even cooperative, and she seems genuinely unhappy about the murder of her boyfriend's father, but Robbie's gut tells him something isn't quite right. "I wish she'd let us go upstairs," he grumbles to James as they leave. "I don't suppose you could peek in her bedroom window and see if there's any sign of the stolen painting?"
James glances up at the second-floor window, then back at his governor. "Sir, I'm not a hummingbird. I can't hover. Also, I believe that would constitute an illegal search."
"We'll have to do it the old-fashioned way, then."
"Just so, sir."
The old-fashioned way takes a few cubic metres of paperwork, but eventually they get a warrant to search Ms Brown's house. On the wall of her bedroom is a small oil painting. It's the portrait of Charles Dickens by Augustus Egg which was presumed stolen by the as-yet-unidentified burglar who murdered her boyfriend's father.
They've played good cop/bad cop many times before, assigning the roles as seems best. It's just a matter of drawing on different parts of your personality. Robbie can be the easy-going, friendly bloke next door; Hathaway can be cold, relentless, acid-tongued. Today, he's the hard-arsed, cynical old copper, and James is every inch the urbane Oxbridge graduate, offering sympathetic smiles and quotations from Tennyson.
Andi Brown doesn't hold out for very long. Forty minutes after they begin questioning she confesses. In a quavering voice she names the undergraduate she'd blackmailed into stealing the Dickens portrait. She didn't think anyone would get hurt. Lyford Senior wasn't supposed to be home that night. It's not her fault that her accomplice panicked when the old man came home early. Besides, he shouldn't have refused to sell the painting to her in the first place. He couldn't appreciate it properly. He was a building contractor—scarcely more than a jumped-up bricklayer.
As the uniforms lead her away, Robbie and James exchange satisfied nods. The rest will be in the hands of CPS, other than the paperwork, which can bloody well wait until the morning.
"Dickens was no toff," Robbie comments. "I thought he liked bricklayers and other honest working men."
"That he did, sir."
"And how did he feel about beer?"
"He was generally in favour of it."
"Sensible man. How do you feel about hoisting a pint in his honour at the Trout?"
They sit and talk over a couple of well-deserved pints, then go their separate ways. The unusual closeness of the past two weeks can't continue. Best mates, yeah, but even an old married couple needs time apart. He remembers going with Val to the civil wedding ceremony of one of her school friends. The couple wrote their own vows (which Val thought was romantic and Robbie thought was daft) and read lots of poetry. Most of it made no sense to him, but there was one line he liked: let there be spaces in your togetherness. The trick is to figure out how much space they need.
There are others things to be worked out. Being best mates with your bagman is a tricky balancing act. Slowly, over the weeks that follow, they fumble their way to space and balance.
'Fumble' is the right word. Some things come easier than others. James gets used to switching back and forth between 'Sir' and 'Robbie', smoothly as an experienced driver shifting gears. Then the day comes that James makes a rare, stupid mistake on the job, and Robbie has to pull him aside and give him a bollocking. He takes it well enough, apologises, and seems to regret his error, but at day's end when Robbie says, "A pint?", James shakes his head.
"No thank you, sir," he says with cool courtesy, and makes a beeline for his own car.
The next day, things are still a bit stiff between them. Laura Hobson comes into the office, smiling. "Here I am, like Father Christmas, with gifts for all." She lays one file folder on Robbie's desk and hands the other to James.
"Surely April is rather late for Father Christmas, Dr Hobson?" James replies, just a hint of sharpness in his voice.
She arches her brows at James. "Who's ruffled your feathers, Sergeant?" There's a second of silence... two... three, and Laura's face goes pink. "Oh! Oh, I am so sorry, James." James's face is mostly blank, but there's a muscle twitching in his jaw. "I'm sorry," Laura repeats. "I just wasn't thinking."
"I know," James gasps. The twitch intensifies, and he lets out a half-choked snort. "That's why—oh!" His self-control slips completely. His shoulders shake. He buries his face in his hands, but it doesn't do much to muffle the spurts of laughter.
Robbie has been holding back, but the sound of his usually poised bagman chortling like a schoolboy is too much. "Don't get yourself into a flap, Hathaway," he sputters, and gives up the fight, letting out a deep belly laugh.
Laura throws up her hands. "The two of you are a well-matched set of lunatics. I'm off to the morgue, where the men are quiet, and a woman can hear herself think. Phone me if you have any questions."
May brings warm breezes, an increase in street crime, and Lyn's birthday. Her partner Tim has kindly given him some useful suggestions about gifts, but what does an old fart like him know about digital thingummies? James comes to the rescue with a promise of online research and a printout of the top recommended models.
They're having dinner at James's flat tonight. More often than not they go to Robbie's, but the lad wants to cook, and he's got all the proper equipment and tools.
"Did you get me that list? I need to place the order soon if it's to get to Lyn on time."
James is studying the interior of the fridge with the same careful attention he gives to evidence at a crime scene. "The information is on my desk," he calls back in a distracted tone.
The printout from the website is on top of a stack of paper. As Robbie picks it up, his eye falls on the paper that was beneath it. It's a sheet of heavy, cream-coloured stationary embossed with the initials AEM, dated 17 February. Right. The letter from Sir Andrew that he sent with the new binder. Robbie wouldn't snoop into James's private affairs uninvited, but he can't help seeing what's right in front of his nose. A few words jump out at him.
'...consider summer holiday... island. Cottage has two bedrooms... bring a friend, or if you wish to meet others..."
The island. Sir Andrew mentioned it the morning that James was released from hospital. Somewhere in the Hebrides. Private and isolated, and available as a holiday retreat for "the right sort of people". James's sort of people. Robbie can imagine, oh so clearly, James soaring over cliffs and shingle and sea in mock pursuit of another young man—dark hair and dark wings like a hawk—the two of them laughing with shared delight. It's what he needs... what he deserves. And Robbie is going to see that he gets it. He's going to do what's right for his best mate, even if it means losing him.
Oh, James won't suddenly turn a cold shoulder to his old governor. He's not that petty or cruel. Realistically, though, what does Robbie have to offer? He's an ordinary man. A common man, in every sense of the word. He can't share the sky with James, can't join him in a game of tag fifty metres above the crashing surf. How can Chinese takeaway in front of the telly compete?
He waits until after dinner. "Y'know, Innocent has been encouraging everyone to get their holiday leaves sorted in advance. Makes it easier for scheduling. Remember when Sir Andrew was talking to you about that island? I was wondering if you'd given any thought to that. Might be good for you. He said it was private, and a lovely spot for flying. You haven't said much about it, but I know you've missed flying."
James's face brightens. "Funny you should bring that up today. I'd been thinking about it, too. I was wondering about mid-July—if it's convenient for you, sir?"
July? Why not? Maybe he'll take a few days leave himself, visit Lyn in Manchester. Or not. Doesn't really matter. "Yeah, July is convenient. Fill out the form, and I'll sign off on it." He doesn't have to feign a smile. He's happy for James, he truly is. And if his old heart aches just a little over the changes to come, that's just selfishness, and can be suppressed. Will be suppressed, for his friend's sake.