A creature of habit, that’s me. Predictable, these days hopefully dependable, and still single-mindedly dedicated to the pursuit of avoiding that which, if given half a chance, I want nothing to do with. There was a time not so long ago when it was sobriety. The mere thought of facing my miserable day-to-day existence without first turning to the ever-present bottle for much needed, much relied upon assistance was just unfathomable to me. Now though, the steps having been successfully climbed and the alcohol induced veil having been lifted from my eyes, it’s being on my own that just doesn’t do all that much for me. It’s not because I fear the persuasive, entreating whisper of my old friend the bottle either, because, simply put, I don’t. Been there, done that and got both the pins and the forever damaged – liver – reputation to prove it.
No. It’s not succumbing to the demon drink I fear at all. What I fear, what I throw myself into steering clear of, is succumbing to the darkness that constantly lingers and which goes hand-in-hand with what I do. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. Hell, I live for my job and thank my lucky stars every day that I still have it, that I didn’t lose it as well. It quite literally means everything to me.
It’s just not for everyone though. I know that as well as I know the inevitability of both periods of self-doubt and, far worse, bouts of despair. Rape, murder, paedophiles, lippy toerags with too-smooth-by-far legal teams slipping through loopholes and sticking their fingers up at both the law and their victims alike, the too cold bodies of either infants still in their nappies or of young girls who – invariably make me think of my own daughters – sell their innocence to pay for their drug habit before falling prey to some scumbag and one day being fished out of the Thames… Seriously. What’s not to get depressed about in that lot?
I play my part. It’s what I do, what drives me and gets me out of bed in the morning. I help deliver justice where I can and I like to think the role I fulfil is an important one, that perhaps London would be just that little bit bleaker without me in it.
Some nights though, and it’s always the nights, the darkness creeps in. The unknown faces of those who got away, the high definition, crystal clear faces of the victims I feel as though I’ve betrayed by not catching their killer or rapist, the thought that no matter how hard I try, however hard we all try, it will never be enough, that we’re just treading water and that evil will always win out. I know, and this is without either the sage, carefully chosen – from a book – words of a counsellor or the numbing comfort of a fine scotch, that it’s just a knee-jerk reaction to the stress and pressure of the job, that I can do no more than I’m already doing. Knowing it and being able to simply brush the thoughts aside though? Every man and his dog knows that’s easier said than done. What most of them also know however is that prevention is better than the cure, so…
Why risk it? Why risk letting the darkness slither in when I can just hang around the station until the last train, a quick trip to the local takeaway and falling into bed will keep it at bay. It works. It works exceptionally well, actually, and I know I’m not the only one who prefers the comforting hustle and bustle of the station to the shadows of their so-called private life. I know I’ve only moved from one crutch to another, from booze to the job but, again, it works and I’m not complaining. God knows I’d rather the station gossip have me married to the job than glued to the bottle.
Satisfied with my lot even though there’s a lot who would probably find it severely lacking, I saunter along the cold and mostly silent corridor in the direction of my home away from home, the small nondescript office that doubles as both the very heart and soul of the M.I.U.. My evening routine following its usual unwritten schedule, I’ve just spent three quarters of an hour catching up with the goings on of uniform with Sergeant Harvey down on the front desk and am now heading back to the office in the hope of finding something to entertain me there. I’m not fussy. Phone. Computer. Annoying my partner or anyone else who just happens to be around. If worse comes to worse, there’s even the pile of much ignored paperwork to reluctantly turn to. It’s comforting to know however, that regardless of what I end up doing the hours are bound to fly and it’ll be time to pull on my coat and leave before I know it.
Which is just exactly how I want it to be.
Entering the office I note that although Matt’s nowhere in sight his coat hasn’t been removed from its customary peg on the rack and his computer is still on. Suffering, albeit silently, from the suicide of his long-time friend Pete Garvey, I’m pleased that he’s still around somewhere as it means I’ll be able to catch up with him before he leaves. Our partnership may be firmly based around the concept of leaving the obvious unsaid and I’m the first to admit that I’m nowhere near touchy-feely enough to want to try to get him to talk, but at the same time I want him to know that I’m, you know… around. That he can count of me being there if – heaven forbid – he ever wants to get anything off his chest, that sort of blokey, comrades in arms, I’m-there-for-you-without-being-anything-less-than-fully-masculine-about-it bonding that goes part and parcel with having a partner you rely on more than you ever really want to have to say.
Satisfied that I haven’t missed Matt and confident that he’ll reappear – hopefully with two fresh cups of tea in hand – when he’s good and ready, I walk over to my desk and sink down in to the chair. Alerted to my presence by the groan of complaint my chair gives at having my weight lowered onto it, DC Dave Perkins casually drops his hand onto his keyboard and quickly uses the alt-tab function to banish the game of solitaire he’d been playing from his computer monitor. Unfortunately for poor Dave though he’s too busy attempting to be surreptitious to be paying attention to what he’s doing and instead of the report he’s meant to be finishing materialising on screen an instantly recognisable Ebay page fills it and I note with amusement that it appears he’s wanting to be the proud owner of his very own remote-control Dalek. I toy with the idea of telling him that I know of a shop in Camden that sells the things in all shapes and sizes and that I’m sure I could get a great deal on one if it’s what his heart truly desires but, not wanting to let on that I’ve caught him out, I simply remain silent and reach for the computer mouse.
The only other officer currently lurking around the office is PC Rachael Summers, this month’s lucky recipient of the ‘filing, photocopying and general dogs-bodying’ secondment to M.I.U. from uniform. Unlike most, who either sulk, pout and make their displeasure known at having to waste their valuable time on such mundane tasks – when they should, of course, be out on the street ‘nicking villains’ – at every opportunity or posture about as though they’re merely a DCI in waiting, Summers seems born to the role. Quiet, to the point of being one of those creatures who can actually move around silently and who appear to just materialise when you least expect them, and some might say drab, in the short time she’s been with us she’s already become part of the furniture and I pay her as much attention as she pays me - which is to say none.
Making myself comfortable, I bring the online version of The Telegraph up on screen and set about bringing myself up to speed with all the goings on in the world. While the solitaire playing and Dalek desiring DC Perkins is ostensibly covering the night shift I’m here – because it’s a well known fact I have no life – solely of my own free will. I’m not claiming overtime, yet if the phone rings I’ll answer it and if a job lands I’ll be on my way to the crime scene like a shot. Cost free coverage. It’s why the higher ups effectively turn a blind eye to the fact so many of us give every indication of not having a home to go to. Some nights the office is as crowded with bodies as it during the freshest, most media intensive of cases.
The Telegraph not holding my interest for long, I move on and work my way through the online sites of the country’s most prolific papers before finishing on the Daily Mail and losing myself in the lives of B-list celebrities who, to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t know if I fell over them in the street. Matt usually laughs or mutters the good old standby of ‘methinks he doth protest too much’ whenever I tell him the Mail is actually essential reading, but I honestly think that it is. The way I see it, given the demographic we generally find ourselves moving amongst there will always be a lot more to be said for feigning a bond with a possible witness with an amusing Cheryl Cole quote gleaned from the Mail than, say, asking their opinion on health reform in America.
Well that’s my story as to why I spend more time on the Daily Mail than any other site and I’m sticking to it.
All good things having to come to an end though, I realise that I’ve done the news sites to death and lean back in my chair to ask Matt if he’d fancy going to get a bite to eat. To my distinct surprise his seat is still empty and for the first time since noticing his absence an uncomfortable pang of uncertainty washes over me. Not sharing my love of having a good natter with uniform it’s unlikely he’d be downstairs, so… Where could he be? His computer’s still on, his mobile is on his desk and his coat is on the rack, so logic says he has to be in the station. Somewhere.
Sighing, I swivel around in time to watch Dave punch the air in delight at having been the successful bidder on the Dalek. “Sorry to interrupt the celebrations,” I call across the room as, knowing he’s been sprung, he spins around and shoots me a startled, sheepish look, “but have you seen Matt about?”
Dave shakes his head and, clearly only having one thing on his mind, quickly turns back to face the monitor as though seeking confirmation the piece of tat is really his. “Nope. Haven’t seen him,” he mutters with a shrug.
Reluctantly accepting that there’d be nothing to be achieved by chewing Dave out for his display of patent disinterest, I stand up and decide to try my luck with PC Summers. Sidling up to the desk she’s sitting, sorting through papers at, I smile and softly clear my throat. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen Matt around?”
Being spoken to clearly being just about the last thing she’d been expecting, the piece of paper she’d been reading slips from her fingers and she jerks her head back to gaze up at me nervously. “S-sorry?” Summers stutters, her eyes almost comically wide behind her unflattering glasses. “I… I didn’t know you were talking to me.”
“Matt… Sorry, DS Devlin,” I hastily correct myself. Summers is so correct and by the book she probably hasn’t acknowledged that we even have given names let alone are so… common… as to refer to each other by them instead of by rank and surname. “I don’t suppose you happen to know where he is?”
PC Summers, her fingers groping blindly across the desk in search of the piece of paper she’d dropped, continues to stare wide-eyed at me as though I’d either taken to speaking Latin or asked if she’d like a quickie in the store room.
Even though impatience is threatening to get the better of me I continue to smile blandly and try again. “You know, DS Devlin. About so tall and so, for the want of a better description, wide.” I airily sketch Matt’s shape in the air with my hands and wait for a spark of recognition to appear in Summers’ eyes. When it doesn’t, I shake my head and sigh heavily. “For God’s sake, girl, you have to know who I’m talking about. My partner. The bloke who’s usually parked at the desk next to mine. Rumour even has it every female in the station thinks he’s a bit of alright and…”
Her eyes widening even further at my outburst, Summers leans back from me and nods tentatively. “Some old guy,” she whispers at long last, “about your age…” She trails off and I wait for her to realise her hopefully inadvertent insult and to apologise for it, but she doesn’t and, the invisible cat having finally given up its hold on her tongue, blithely pushes on. “He came in here needing a detective to sign his bail conditions. DS Devlin didn’t look very pleased to see him but he signed the paperwork and the man left.”
Old guy… Bail conditions… Not looking very happy…
I don’t like where this is going and forcefully swallow the expletive I suddenly feel like issuing forth with.
“Then?” I prompt, the urgency in my voice causing Summers to visibly twitch. “What happened then?”
“N-nothing happened then,” she replies, her gaze darting from me to Dave – a possible witness if what’s she’s clearly fully expecting to take place happens and I suddenly close my hands around her throat – and back again. “He, that is DS Devlin, he left too. Maybe a minute or so after the old guy, but he definitely left.” She pauses and hesitates before meekly adding, “He looked, I don’t know, agitated…”
All the pieces falling into place and making more sense than I ever wanted them to, I turn my back on Summers and stride over to my desk without replying. Nugent. It has to be. The bastard coolly cornered Matt on his own turf and, in the process, brought some of the darkness we’re all committed to avoiding into the one place we strive to keep untouched. The nuts and bolts of all our cases might take place in the office, but in a sense it’s all… inanimate. White boards full of crime scene photos and conjecture, scribbled notes and theories being bounced from desk to desk. We’re the only ones ever allowed inside though and it’s the lack of outside influence that ensures it’s kept to our liking. Suspects are relegated to interview rooms and there are even rooms devoted to meeting with grieving relatives or trying to talk a witness through the process of creating a facial sketch. Our office is just that. Ours, and ours alone. Nugent should never have been allowed into it and I wish I’d been there to back Matt up.
As is too often the case though, it’s no use crying over spilt milk and the very least I can now do is to both find him and make sure he’s okay.
Not caring that I know better and that one of the Geek Squad would probably have a heart attack if he saw me doing it, I switch both mine and Matt’s computers off directly at the wall and, after snatching up his phone and sticking it my pocket, hurry over to the coat rack. Pulling my coat on, I grab Matt’s and drape it over my arm before walking out of the office, down the stairs and outside into the cool night air.
Wanting to stay positive I err on the side of confidently knowing – him better than he’d probably like – where he’ll most likely be and set off intent only on reaching my destination. Despite it being close to seven-thirty in the evening London’s streets are, as always, crowded with people and I pay them no heed as I make my way from Bow Street down to the Victoria Embankment. Nor do I pay any notice to the truly numerous amount of pubs and bars I pass on my way. Be it in either deference to me or fear of straying onto my old path, Matt has never struck me as being one to resort to the bottle in times of stress and, once more with wanting to remain positive, I honestly don’t think he’d be likely to start now. If he’s not where I’m hoping to find him I’ll take a tour through them later but, for now, my fingers are very much crossed that I’m on the right track.
Keeping my mind deliberately blank – because if there’s one thing I’ve learned during all my years in the job is that you’re always far better talking off the cuff than you are if you approach someone with a practised and polished script all worked out in your head to hit them with – I walk onto Victoria Embankment from Northumberland Avenue some fifteen minutes after leaving the station and, like the proverbial homing pigeon, make my way along it to the bench by the Battle of Britain Monument. I once asked Matt why, if we happened to be in the vicinity, we always ended up having lunch at this one particular bench by the monument, and he’d just looked at me blankly, as though until that very moment he hadn’t even been aware of his unconscious habit let alone the fact that such a thing as the monument existed. In a way, I liken it to the boat I’m walking past now. I think it’s a paddle steamer and that it’s used as a floating restaurant, but despite it having no doubt always been there I don’t know what its name is or anything of its history. It’s just, like the bench by the monument… there.
Having no other way to explain it, I just put it down to being… one of those things. Living in London you either take all the historic places and tourist attractions for granted, don’t even actually notice them at all, or, if you’ve been in the job for as long as I have, see things in them that you really wish you didn’t. To the tourists out here tonight, all rugged up as though they’re about to embark on a polar expedition and making excited sounds about the neon lights lighting up the Eye and the Aquarium, all they’re seeing is another London attraction, another highlight to add to the reel of memories they’re collecting of their holiday. When, or to be more to the point, if, I look at the Eye and actually take it in, what I see is the crime scene tape around the base and the bloodied, lifeless body of a homeless lad lying there. As for the Aquarium, well I was still a wet behind the ears PC when the young girl went missing never to be seen again from by its main entrance. She was only three and her mother had only turned her back on her for a second. It was still enough time for her to disappear into thin air though and to this day I can’t look at the Aquarium without wondering what happened to her.
The park bench finally coming into view, I note with a sigh of relief that the body sitting on it has a familiar mop of dark blond hair and offer a silent prayer of thanks to any deity that may be listening for my instincts having been proven right. I may not know what’s going to happen next, but I’ve found him and that, right now, is as good a start as any.
His gaze fixed unwaveringly on the Aquarium, Matt gives no indication of acknowledging my presence as I walk up the bench. Nor does he so much as even flinch when I drop his coat onto his lap.
“You daft bugger, you left your coat behind,” I comment lightly as I take a seat next to him. Just as I would have felt safe betting my pension on, he doesn’t reply and simply continues to stare out across the Thames as though he’s trapped in his own bleak little world. Too still… Too silent… Too controlled… I don’t particularly want to prod until I get a reaction but know that, really, I have to. “PC Summers said that some old guy…” I pause here and snort. “Actually, you’ll probably like this as I think her exact words were along the lines of some old guy… about my age… Did you get that? About my…”
“Don’t,” Matt interrupts with a degree of unmistakeable vehemence that both surprises me and renders me immediately silent. “Just… Don’t…” Exhaling deeply, he clutches his fingers around the fabric of his coat and shakes his head. “Don’t ever refer to yourself in the same sentence as that… fucker… again. You… You’re nothing like him and I won’t have you…” Trailing off, he shakes his head again before tilting it back and gazing up at the night sky.
“Nugent.” I don’t pose it as a question because there’s no point. It’ll either open the floodgates or it won’t. I’m not going to push him into a corner. My aim was to find him and I’ve achieved that. What happens next is up to Matt.
“Bastard!” Jerking his head around to stare at me through far too bright blue eyes, Matt scowls and jumps to his feet. “You wouldn’t believe the nerve of the bastard,” he continues with obvious agitation as, not paying attention to what he’s doing, he fumbles over pulling his coat on and gestures around expansively as though he thinks his audience is far greater than one. “He… He just strolled in like he had every right to be in the office and spun some bullshit about Tube delays so he could get me to sign off on his bail conditions. He… Bastard! Just… Goddamn fucking bastard!”
Not liking how worked up Matt is, I stand and place my hand lightly on his arm. “Hey… Don’t let the bastard get to you like this. It’s exactly what he would have wanted and you know it.”
“Don’t let the bastard get to me?” Matt repeats as, pulling his arm away, he gives me a disgusted, possibly even hurt look before stalking over to the guardrail and once again facing the Thames. “That’s easy for you to say, Ronnie. You weren’t there. You didn’t hear what he said.”
“So tell me,” I offer gently, joining him by the stone barrier but carefully keeping enough distance between us so as not to appear as though I’m crowding him.
All the fight apparently leaving him as quickly as it arrived, Matt’s shoulders slump and, sighing, he makes a point of not looking at me. “I never touched you,” he whispers, hugging his arms around himself, “why do you believe I touched them? That… That’s all he said. That’s all he… had… to say.”
Groaning, Matt runs his fingers through his hair and turns around so that his back is pressing up against the guardrail. “The thing is, Ronnie, I… I can’t help wondering… why,” he states in a raw, breathless tone of voice I’ve never heard him use before and which goes straight through me, chilling me to my very core. It’s not a voice you want to hear coming out of anyone, let alone your partner. “Why didn’t he touch me, huh? I know this is stupid, sick even, but why the others and not me? Was…” Blinking back the tears that suddenly appear in his eyes, he folds his arms across his chest and won’t look at me “Was there something wrong with me? My father seemed to think so, so maybe Nugent thought it too. It didn’t stop him looking though. He was always bloody looking. Eyes… You could always feel his eyes on you. At first I wondered why, as a man of God, he never asked about the bruises. I kept waiting for him to say something but… but he never did. He just… watched and kept his hands to himself. He ruined my friends’ lives but he never touched me. Why? I…” He slowly turns his head to face me, his eyes beseeching and his expression pained. “I just don’t get it…”
I know, if I felt like gifting Nugent with a semblance of conscience, that I could murmur something along the lines of perhaps he wasn’t a complete tosser and actually thought the bruising was enough of a burden to bear and that’s all there really was to it. I don’t though – feel like attributing a sense of decency, however small, to the slimy prick, that is – and decide, even though I know it’s a risk that could possibly blow up in my face and make a bad situation even worse, to travel down a different track entirely. Why throw about theories that you’re never likely to know the real answer to when you can go where no one in their right mind would expect you to?
“If it helps,” I start conversationally as I return my hand to Matt’s arm and give it a gentle squeeze, “going on the picture of the three of you in Lucas’ flat, if I happened to be a sick, perverted kiddie fiddler I’d have done you in a heartbeat.”
Making a spluttering sound that could either indicate amused shock or utter revulsion, I can’t quite tell which, Matt stares at me with the welcome beginnings of a smirk tugging on his lips. “Oh, you would have, would you?”
I nod. “Absolutely. Equal opportunity pervert, that’d be me. You just had the misfortune to run into the wrong sort of creep, that’s all.”
Matt’s smirk gives way to a genuine, relaxed smile. “Anyone ever tell you that you have a way with words?”
“It’s a gift, what can I say.” I plaster what I hope is my best interpretation of a humble smile across my face and mentally cross my fingers that my risk has indeed paid off.
“I suppose that’s one way of putting it,” Matt replies with both a grin and a dry laugh. “I’m not saying it’s the… best… way but, hey, if it works for you.”
“Jealousy’s a curse, sunshine,” I retort. A counsellor would no doubt have a fit with how I’ve gone about things but, going on Matty’s reaction I personally think I’ve done a pretty bang up job of it and know that he’d appreciate the peculiar route I’ve taken over the ‘come on mate, you can talk to me’ one any day.
“Mmm… So, however, is insanity,” Matt counters, his grin broadening. “And, I’ve told you before, I hate it when you call me sunshine.”
“Don’t even go there.”
“I’m warning you…”
“Old timer! There! I said it. Are you happy now?”
Laughing, I tilt my head towards Northumberland Avenue. “Even though you’ve just managed to hurt my feelings… Chips? My treat.”
“Sounds good,” Matt replies, his good humour fading slightly as he closes his hand around my shoulder and smiles grimly. “Ronnie…”
“Thanks.” Keeping his hand on my shoulder, Matt meets my gaze for a second before looking away.
“Don’t mention it.” Placing my hand on his I give it a little pat before beginning to walk along the Embankment. “Come on then, I’m starving.”
I’ve barely counted to five before Matt’s by my side and sharing his predictable response with me.
“You’re always starving.”
It doesn’t need to be said as simply knowing it is good enough, but… Having a partnership you can rely on means everything in this job. There’s just no two ways about it.
~ end ~