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Damaged Goods

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Damaged Goods
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*
M.I.U. Bow Street, London, WC2E
Monday, 21 February 2011
1.21pm
*

“Don’t look now, Sunshine, but it looks like you’ve got a fan.”

“What?” My mind focussed solely on the thought of getting up to the office and wrapping my frozen fingers around a cup of tea, I pay little attention to Ronnie’s comment and don’t slow my stride as we make our way towards the stairs through the custody area.

“The nasty looking piece of work waiting over there for Sergeant Blake to book him in,” Ronnie continues, pushing on blithely in the face of my disinterest, “he’s staring at you like he’s never seen anything quite like it before.”

“Are you sure it’s me he’s looking at?” I query, glancing over my shoulder at Ronnie and putting on an act of shaking my head at what I see. “As I wasn’t the one who just inhaled two pasties in record time I know I’m not the one covered in pastry crumbs, so…”

Ronnie, just as I’d hoped, immediately brushes away the few stray crumbs left over from his lunch that were still clinging to his coat before meeting my gaze and giving an unbothered shrug. “I was hungry.”

“You’re always hungry,” I counter, “it’s one of those fact of life type things. You know, up there with grass being green and the Pope being Catholic, or… Or, I don’t know… West Ham always getting hammered?”

“And you having an unhealthy obsession with my eating habits.” Grinning, Ronnie closes his hand around my shoulder and feigns a serious expression. “Have you ever considered getting a hobby, something to perhaps take your mind off constantly charting what I put in my mouth?” Pausing, he smirks and gives my shoulder a squeeze. “I’ve heard Airfix is still popular.”

I groan and bat his hand away. “You have, have you?” I mutter, gesturing at the stairwell. “Tell you what, I’ll buy you a Spitfire kit for your next birthday. Now, come on. I’m dying of thirst here and can hear a teabag upstairs with my name on it calling out to me.”

“I’d get that checked out if I were you.”

“What?”

“The delusion that you can hear teabags calling out to you.”

“I had been going to offer to make you one too, but if you think I’m mad and want nothing to do with me…”

“Think?” Ronnie interrupts with a laugh. “There’s no… think… about it. I know you’re mad. Hell, I’ve known it for years.”

“With a partner like you, who needs enemies?” Rolling my eyes in a mock display of wounded feelings, I reach the stairs and am about to start up them when Ronnie grabs my arm to stop me from going any further.

“Actually, Matt,” he murmurs in a quiet voice completely devoid of the teasing good humour of only a few seconds ago, “just slow down for a moment and check out the bloke in custody. All jokes aside, I really don’t like the way he’s looking at you.”

Not liking the clear undercurrent of worry in Ronnie’s tone, I do as asked and casually glance over in the direction of the custody desk. The man waiting for Sergeant Blake to finish entering his details into the system before being shown to his cell stares back at me with an expression on his face that I realise has far more to do with outright contempt or dislike than it does simple curiosity. Easily over six foot and solidly built, the man has a shaven head, multiple earrings in each ear, a dodgy looking anarchy symbol tattooed on his neck and, clad in the street uniform of trainers, black jeans and a grey Nike hoodie, he basically looks like any number of the thugs I’ve both encountered and locked up over the years. Although there’s something about him, his sunken, drug-bright blue eyes perhaps, that makes me think I should be able to place him, I can’t off the top of my head and shrug. “Maybe I just remind him of someone.”

“Someone he’d hoped never to see again,” Ronnie mutters, frowning. “His charming mug isn’t ringing any bells? Maybe you nicked him a while back or something? Come on, Matty, think. There’s just something about him that isn’t sitting right with me.”

“I’m sure I just remind him of someone he’d rather not be reminded of,” I reply as, not seeing any need to share Ronnie’s obvious unease about the man, I begin to make my way up the stairs. “Come on. He can’t stare at me and upset your delicate equilibrium if we’re upstairs.”

*

“I knew I was right about him,” Ronnie announces with a self satisfied sigh as he pushes back in his chair and stretches. “He… is… a nasty piece of work.”

The report I’m trying to write not going well, I seize on the welcome diversion of Ronnie’s seemingly random comment and wheel my chair back from the desk in order to give him my full attention. “Who’s a nasty piece of work?”

“That lowlife in custody who was staring at you.” Swivelling around in his seat to face me, he pushes his glasses up to his forehead and adds, “Talk about a capital T toerag. He’s in on a bag-snatching charge which, for the grand total of a fiver, he put a ninety-three year old woman in hospital with both shock and a badly broken wrist.”

“Charming,” I agree sarcastically. “A truly upstanding member of society then. I still don’t know what it’s got to do with me though.” Shifting my chair closer to Ronnie’s, I gesture at his computer screen and the telltale custody record displayed on it. “Seeing as you’ve clearly got his record up, have you checked to see if I nicked him once or something?”

“Despite having one of the longest arrest records I’ve seen for a while, no, you’ve never had the honour of slapping the cuffs on him,” Ronnie replies as he slides his glasses back down onto his nose and returns his attention to the computer. “Breaking and entering, dealing, fencing, assault, twocking, drug offences, drunk and disorderly, solicitation… Add rape and murder to the list and he’d have the full set.”

“Give him time.” While my interest in the man is still a long way off what Ronnie’s clearly is, I’m now curious enough about him to want to know just what it is he thought he was seeing in me and, leaning forward, I gesture again at the screen. “As this isn’t getting us any closer to knowing why he was staring at me, what’s the toerag’s name? Maybe that’ll jog my memory.”

Nodding, Ronnie uses the mouse to scroll up to the top of the screen. “Thomas Clarke. Gives his address as the Pembury.”

I groan. “The Pembury, huh? That just about explains everything.” Frowning, I stand up and lean over Ronnie’s shoulder to get a closer look at the information up on his screen. “Thomas Clarke, Thomas Clarke,” I repeat, the name sounding just familiar enough to make me wonder why. “I feel as though I should know the name, but…” Trailing off, I tap the screen with my finger. “What’s his date of birth? Maybe that’ll do it for me.”

“Somehow, although with record like his I honestly don’t see how, the delightful granny-mugging Mr Clarke has made it to the ripe old age of thirty-six,” Ronnie responds. “Date of birth is the thirteenth of…”

Suddenly knowing what Ronnie’s going to say, I slump back down in my chair and, a curious sense of emptiness descending over me as all the pieces fall into an unexpected position, run my fingers through my hair. “Date of birth is the thirteenth of January nineteen-seventy-five,” I finish quietly, “and he’s always been known as Tommy, not Thomas. We…” I sigh and, tilting my head back, stare up at the ceiling. “We went to school together.”

*

“You’ve got five minutes,” Sergeant Blake states matter-of-factly as he places the key in the lock and slowly opens the cell door. His expression of disbelief tinged with annoyance – more, I like to think, at the fact I’m refusing to listen to reason than at having been roused from out behind his comfy desk – reminds me of the one on Ronnie’s face when I told him that there was just no help for it, that I felt as though I simply had to try talk to Tommy and, just as I did my partner’s, I ignore it and push on regardless.

“Thanks.” I smile and glance pointedly towards the door that leads out of the cells and into the custody area. “I really appreciate it.”

“Yeah. I’ll remember that when I have to pull the mad bastard off you because he’s suddenly decided you’ve looked at him funny or whatever,” Blake mutters. “You know where the panic button is, Devlin, other than that you’re on your own.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I reply, disguising the obvious tone of doubt in my voice with another, slightly more forced this time, smile. “We… We’re old friends.”

Blake shrugs and begins to walk off. “Don’t kid yourself, mate. Tommy’s only friends are whatever illicit substances he can get his grubby mitts on.” Snorting, he shakes his head. “And even they don’t seem to like him very much.”

His final disparaging piece said, Blake disappears into the custody area and, for pretty much no reason other than I feel as though I have to, that it’s both expected of me and the right thing to do, I push the door fully open and step into the cell. Although I know who it is I’m looking at now I still struggle to recognise the boy I once knew in the man before me and, all my good intentions deserting me without so much as a backwards glance, I quite literally don’t know what to say. Gone is the innocent boy who, with his dark blond curls and big blue eyes, used to have all the adults oohing and aahing over his angelic, cherubic appearance, and in his place sits, staring at me as though contempt only begins to cover what he’s thinking of my unwanted presence in his life, a common, estate-variety thug.

Twenty years may have passed since I last saw him, and his thoroughly spectacular fall from… the realm of common decency… may sadden as much as it disgusts me, but we share a history and I feel as though I owe it to him to help if I can.

That’s what I have to keep telling myself, anyway.

“Well I never,” Tommy drawls as he nonchalantly leans back against the wall from his position on the bed and slowly looks me up and down. “If it isn’t little Matty Devlin, all grown up and playing at being a copper.”

Not liking either the way he’s looking at me or the way my skin is trying not to crawl from coming under such invasive attention, I position myself just inside the doorway and make a point of looking him in the eye. “Tommy, I…”

“You’re not my brief,” Tommy interrupts, his expression changing to a truly menacing one, “so fuck off. I don’t have to talk to you.”

“No, you don’t,” I agree with a shrug. “If it helps I’m not hear to talk to you about the charge against you and…”

“Stupid old biddy,” Tommy mutters, cutting me off again. “If she’d just let go of the fucking bag I wouldn’t even be here. I hope she dies. Then try fitting me up in a line-up.”

Appalled at his callousness but refusing to acknowledge it, I shrug again and pick up where I left off. “I’m sorry that I didn’t recognise you earlier and want you to know that I’m here for you if you’d like any help. I’m not involved in the case but if you’re interested I could pull some strings and get you checked into a rehab facility. The CPS would probably…”

Pushing away from the wall, Tommy sits up straight and silences me with a narrow eyed glare. “Fuck off, Matty. I don’t want your help and I don’t fucking need it either. I’m fine.”

“Fine?” I laugh drily and shake my head. “You broke an old woman’s wrist for five pounds. I’m sorry, Tommy, but that’s not fine. In fact, in my book it’s far from fine.”

“Yeah, but you and me haven’t been singing from the same hymn book for years now, Matty, and you’re off your fucking head if you’re standing there thinking we ever will again. Just… Fuck off back into your holier-than-thou world and leave me the fuck alone.”

“I can help.”

“No. You can’t.”

“Listen, Tommy, I’m still your friend and I want to…”

“I always knew you’d end up a copper,” Tommy murmurs apropos of nothing. “Even as a kid you fucking oozed righteousness. I don’t know if you remember, but whenever we played cops and robbers you always refused outright to be one of the robbers. One day we really pushed you on it and I honestly thought you were going to burst into tears.”

Although I’m taken aback by Tommy’s comment I’m not gullible enough to be lulled into a false sense of hope from it and smile cautiously. “Pete used to happily play the part of a robber though,” I reply, “and he went into the force too, so…”

“Garvey’s a copper too?” Tommy interjects with a dry, dismissive snort. “Now that I didn’t see coming.”

“Was,” I correct softly as, suddenly regretting having opened myself up for this, I sigh and, for the first time since entering the cell, take my eyes off Tommy for fear of him fixating on the pain I know he’d be able to see in them.

“Huh? What do you mean… was? Don’t tell me he came to his senses and…”

“He’s dead, Tommy,” I interrupt. As much as I don’t want to be having this conversation I know that I have to finish what I’ve started and choke back another sigh. “Pete killed himself last year. Nugent came back into…”

“Don’t… Don’t say that bastard’s name!”

Ignoring the breathless, possibly even warning tone to Tommy’s voice, and just wanting to get it out, I continue as though he’d never even opened his mouth. “It’s okay. We got him. We may not have been able to save Pete from reliving what he did to…”

“Drop it, Matty.”

“It’s alright, Tommy, we got the bastard. Nugent’s…”

“For fuck’s sake,” Tommy howls as, suddenly jumping to his feet, he rushes over and slams me hard up against the wall, “just stop saying the fucker’s name!”

*

“Here.”

“Thanks.” I take the cup of tea from Ronnie and wrap my hands around it. “Four sugars, yeah?”

“Of course,” he confirms, giving me an odd look. “Given that you felt compelled to ask, are you sure you don’t have concussion?”

I give what can be best described as a lacklustre shrug and dredge up a wan smile. “I’m fine. I don’t suppose though whether you’ve got any…”

“At the risk of opening myself up for Mystic Meg jokes, here,” Ronnie replies as he digs two Nurofen out of his pocket and holds them towards me. “When I heard Blake mention the dint in the cell wall from where your head hit it, I knew you’d be needing them.”

Nodding my thanks I quickly swallow the painkillers and wash them down with a welcome mouthful of overly sweet tea. “Blake’s exaggerating,” I murmur, relaxing back in my chair and gazing around the thankfully empty office. “I don’t know if you’ve seen the inside of the cells lately but they’re full of dints and dings and I’m confident that whatever dint in the plaster Blake gleefully pointed out to you was there long before I ever stepped foot in the place.”

“Maybe… But the decrepit state of the cell aside, there’s no brushing off the lovely red marks you’re now sporting on your neck,” Ronnie responds as he wheels his chair next to mine before taking a seat and lightly touching my knee to get my attention. “So, do all your old school chums try to kill you, or is it just the special ones?”

The look of obvious concern on Ronnie’s face making me feel even more wretched about things than I did when Sergeant Blake pulled Tommy away and shoved me out of the cell, I sigh and give another half-hearted shrug. “Just the special ones,” I reply. “Most of the others wouldn’t even recognise me as someone they went to school with. Not because I’ve changed so much or anything like that, more because… Well, more because I think I was just invisible.”

“Hmm…” Using my knee to steer by, Ronnie gently spins my chair around until I’m facing him. “Blake says that unless you press charges there’s not enough to keep Tommy here,” he states conversationally, as though we’re talking about any old suspect and he’s not being eaten alive with curiosity in respect to just what the hell it is I think I’m playing at. “CCTV didn’t catch him running down the street with the bag and his victim, just to make things that little bit worse, has Alzheimer’s and can’t even remember leaving the house this morning, let alone having her bag snatched.”

“I…” Unable to meet Ronnie’s gaze because I know what I’m about to say is going to disappoint him, I lower my head and stare down at my tea. “I’m not pressing charges. It was unintentional and God knows I should have known better, but I provoked him and… It’s my fault. Let’s just leave it at that.”

“Blake had to pull the mad bastard off of you,” Ronnie retorts bluntly. “For God’s sake, Matt, he had his hands around your throat. Now, I don’t know what you said to him to set him off like that but there’s no way you can sit there and justify his reaction as warranted.”

“It’s my fault,” I repeat, risking a fleeting glance at my partner before deliberately stalling for time by taking a slow sip of tea. “Please, just let it drop. I accept the blame for what happened, I’m not going to press charges and I don’t want to make an issue of it. I’m sorry if this disappoints you, but I’ve made my mind up.”

“Matty…”

“Look, I made the mistake of mentioning Nugent, okay?” Looking up, I watch as an expression of shocked recognition settles over Ronnie’s face and know instinctively that everything now makes almost as much sense to him as it does to me.

Sighing, Ronnie slumps back in his chair. “Nugent, he…”

“Yes.” Launching into an expletive laden rant about Nugent and how little I happen to think of him not going to achieve anything, I scowl and add quietly, “Just like with Harry and Pete, he couldn’t keep his slimy hands off him. So… Yeah. I never should have mentioned the bastard’s name and don’t want anything more made of it.”

“So, this Tommy,” Ronnie murmurs, cunningly changing the topic slightly to what he no doubt believes is the more pressing issue, “he’s not just someone you happened to go to school with then, is he?”

“No. He’s more than that.” I shake my head and smile wryly. “But you’d already worked that out for yourself.”

“Hey,” Ronnie grins, “I’ll have you know I didn’t make detective on my good looks alone.”

My mood lightening fractionally at his facetious response, I laugh and toast him with my cup of tea. “In that case I suppose you know everything already and that, really, there’s nothing more I need to say.”

“Nice try, Sunshine,” Ronnie mutters, stretching out his foot and giving my ankle a warning nudge, “but I think you’ve got a fair bit of explaining to do and I’m telling you now that I’m not going to get off your back until I know just what it is that’s going on here.”

Accepting that the time has come to offer Ronnie the explanation that I know I owe him, I nod and, with a final mouthful of sugary tea to fortify myself, make a start. “You’re right, of course, Tommy is more than just someone I went to school with. For ten years, from when he moved into the street when I was five until he ran off when I was fifteen, he was as much a part of my life as my parents were. Along with Pete and Harry we were pretty inseparable. School, sports, church. We were always together. Well, that is we were up until I was twelve. Then…” Pausing, I sigh and rub my temples, the headache I’d been hoping to stave off with the Nurofen beginning to throb with a vengeance.

“It’s all very well looking back with hindsight and all that,” I continue wearily, “but, and I’m sure you know what’s coming, we were just kids. You know, making the best of what we had and taking each day as it came. Harry hid in books, Pete buried it and pushed on as though nothing had ever happened, and Tommy, he… He threw himself wholeheartedly in to a rebellious stage that, by the look of things, he never moved on from. From wagging school to running with older, tougher kids and experimenting with booze and anything else he could get his hands on, he just went off the rails. Then, when I was fifteen he left home and we never saw him again. Now, I know twenty years have passed and that he’s not the boy I used to know, but I feel as though I have to help him. I just… Well, clearly I went about it the wrong way down in the cell, but I’ve still got to try.”

“You’re right, he’s not the boy you grew up with,” Ronnie replies cautiously as he picks up a sheaf of paper from his desk and holds them loosely in his hand. “I’m not saying you should take a look at these because they don’t make for pleasant reading, but his record speaks for itself. It’s only a matter of time before he goes down for a long stretch or, worse, ends up dead.”

Snatching the papers out of Ronnie’s hand, I glare at him and throw the records on the desk without looking at them. “He just needs help, that’s all,” I mutter, sounding even to my own ears defensive. “Help that, damn it, he should have got years ago. I know he’s not a completely innocent party and that he’s done a lot of wrong, but it’s not all his fault. At the risk of sounding like a social worker or a counsellor, I think there still has to be a spark of good inside him somewhere and I owe it to him to do what I can to find it. I… I just owe it to him, okay?”

“Matt…”

Turning a deaf ear to Ronnie’s sighed use of my name and feeling as though, having made it this far, I have to get everything out, quickly talk over the top of him. “Not long before Tommy ran away the four of us were kicking a football around in the street when, showing off for some girls walking past, I kicked the ball too hard and sent it flying through Mrs Pankhurst’s front window. Knowing that my father was yet again… between jobs… and that he’d do his nut over the damage, Tommy took the blame without either a word to any of us or a second’s hesitation. He even accepted Mrs Pankhurst’s bollocking and, although I still don’t know where he got the money from, paid for the replacement window. It mightn’t sound like much but it saved me a belting and for that alone I feel as though I owe him…” Trailing off, I rub my temples again and shoot Ronnie a beseeching look. “While I was down in the cell, before I made the stupid mistake of mentioning Nugent, he’d started to reminisce about games we used to play and… call me deluded if you like, but I like to think that means there’s still some of the old Tommy in there somewhere. He might be a lost cause and, okay, I’ll admit that I’m not expecting a miracle or anything like that, but I still feel as though I’ve got to try.”

*

“Hey, Matt. Promise me something, will you?”

“What?” I finish doing up the last button on my coat and glance at Ronnie expectantly as he waits for me by the doorway.

“Don’t go looking for Tommy,” he states flatly, his expression as grave as I’ve seen it all day. “I mean it, Matty. Just be… sensible.”

Shooting Ronnie a sour look, I grab my scarf from the coat rack and wind it loosely around my still tender neck. “I thought we’d been through this already,” I mutter, stalking past him on my way into the corridor. “I’m not deluded enough to think I can save him or that I even have much of a chance of convincing him to go into rehab, but I owe it to him to give it a go. I know you probably think he’s a lost cause, but I couldn’t live with myself if he disappears again without me even trying to help, so… Just drop it, will you?”

“I said don’t go looking for him, not abandon him,” Ronnie retorts as, catching up to me, he closes his hand around my arm and exerts just enough pressure on it to get me to slow my pace. “Assuming he scurried straight from here back to the address he gave, that would put him on the Pembury, yeah?”

“Yeah. So?”

“So the Pembury isn’t somewhere you want to find yourself after dark.”

“Actually, I think you’ll find that the Pembury Estate isn’t somewhere I particularly want to find myself even in brilliant sunlight.”

“I’m being serious.”

“So am I.”

Coming to a stop at the top of the stairs, I pull my arm free of Ronnie’s grip and turn to face him. “Come on, spill. Whatever it is you’re wanting to say just come out and say it.”

“I just want you to give me your word that you won’t head to the Pembury looking for Tommy,” Ronnie responds, fixing me with his best no-nonsense look. “I mean it, Matt. I know you want to help him and I’m not getting into that, I just don’t want you straying on to the Pembury. Not without backup. The place is a powder keg at the moment and the fear is it could ignite at any time.”

“The place is a shit hole,” I correct, shrugging. “Given that you live near it you know that even better than I do.”

Ronnie echoes my shrug and begins to walk down the stairs. “And right now it’s even worse than normal. You know that hit and run on Clarence Road last week?”

“The one where the sixteen year old was mowed down by a Subaru Impreza?”

“That’s the one,” he confirms, glancing over his shoulder to make sure that I’m behind him. “The victim, Jamar Sibonda, died from his injuries yesterday and, wait for it, he was a member of the London Fields Boys.”

“Oh.” Ronnie’s fears now beginning to make a lot more sense to me, I groan. “Don’t tell me, let me guess… The driver of the Subaru was from a rival gang…”

“Not just any gang, the Pembury Boys, the current arch enemies of the LFB.”

“Shit.” I swear under my breath and get in step with Ronnie as we walk through the custody area. “So they’re likely to be revving up for a fight.”

“Oh, it’ll be on,” Ronnie sighs, opening the door into reception and gesturing me through it first. “That I can guarantee. It’s just that no one knows when. As thick as most of the gang members are they’re getting more cunning when it comes to mounting their attacks and this has just put the entire estate on knife’s edge. It could, as I’m sure you can well imagine, blow at any moment, and that’s why I don’t want you anywhere near it. Especially not on your own. I’m not saying you can’t handle yourself, more that… Well, I just know I’ll sleep better tonight knowing you’re nowhere near it.”

Suitably placated by Ronnie’s explanation as to why he doesn’t want me going after Tommy tonight, I smile and once again get in step with him as we make our way to the front door. “Thanks for the heads up,” I reply, “but given the reaction I’ve already had from him today I think I should probably just leave him be for a while anyway. Besides…” Opening the door and nearly being blown over by the gust of freezing wind that immediately blows in, I gesture out at the cold, wet evening and pull a face. “It’s cold and horrible enough during the day at the moment, so why on earth would I want to go out in it at night if I don’t have to?”

~*~

*
Pembury Estate, Hackney, Greater London E8 1
Monday, 21 February 2011
11.42pm
*

It’s a small thing, insignificant really, given what I’m in the process of doing, but I take a small degree of comfort from the fact that I never actually lied to Ronnie.

When we left the station together five hours ago the last thing on my mind was going out to look for Tommy. Despite knowing that I had to be able to find a way to help him, the incident in the cell had been enough of a warning sign to let sleeping dogs lie for the time being and, even before Ronnie had said anything about the lurking threat of gang warfare, the idea of hunting him down on the Pembury hadn’t appealed in the slightest anyway. If anything, still reeling both from Tommy’s unexpected reappearance in my life and the fact he’d nearly knocked me out, the best I thought I’d be able to come up with was sweet talking a social worker into finding him and doing all the – hard – work for me. I told myself that it was at least something.

Foolishly though, even though I tried telling myself not to, that it wasn’t going to achieve anything, I took the print out of Tommy’s arrest records home with me and, willpower clearly not being my friend today, read every word of them. Glossing over his actually incredibly long and somewhat repetitive list of charges, which admittedly in itself was hard, what I focussed most on from my reading was his apparent habit of simply up and disappearing every time he’d had a run in with the police that didn’t result in an automatic jail term. In the twenty years since I’d last seen him he’d been arrested in more towns and cities across the country than I’d even visited and most of them he’d left, usually with the police still wanting to question him further, without so much as a backwards glance, never to return again.

And it’s because of this, this practice of cutting and running whenever the heat was applied, that I’m now here – where I never actually promised Ronnie I wouldn’t be – on Pembury Road and am about to leave the relatively safe confines of my car and head into the estate proper. It would be a lie to say I want to be here, but what else can I do? I honestly don’t feel as though I have any other choice. If Tommy disappeared before I’d been able to at the very least make my attempt to get through to him, then…

Well, as bad as walking alone onto the Pembury during the middle of the night is, losing Tommy without getting to see him again would be worse. It might sound melodramatic, and I’m not for a second convinced of the fact I’m thinking with my head instead of my heart (I wasn’t able to do anything to save Pete, so now I’m fixating on Tommy instead?), but it really is just the way I see it. I have to see him again and I have to try to get him to see he’s better than that of the life he’s embraced.

Knowing that staying in the warmth of the car and relentlessly going over things in my head is only delaying the inevitable, I open the door and climb out. As expected the chilly night air goes straight through me and, after locking the car, I lift my hood up, jam my hands in my pockets and set off at a fast trot. While it won’t matter a damn if I find myself coming under any unwanted attention, I’m wearing a thick Adidas hoodie over jeans and trainers in the hope of better blending in but, instead of feeling carefully disguised though all I feel is cold, stupid, and as though I may as well just have a target painted on my back anyway. Stock standard, all but government-issue Mondeo, too clean clothes, obvious hint of nerves, eyes darting from left to right and back again – basically I’m sure I look as out of place as I feel.

I’m here now though and the reason behind it hasn’t changed, so…

My fingers brushing over my mobile, I contemplate, for all of a split second, phoning Ronnie and asking him to join me. He only lives five minutes away and I know, despite it being close to midnight and that he’d have to hit me with a lecture first, that he would, but not wanting to disturb him I push the thought out of my mind and simply concentrate on looking for the ground floor flat Tommy gave as his address. The estate is quiet, possibly even too quiet, and I can feel invisible – or perhaps that should be imaginary – eyes on me as I make my way along. Curtains don’t twitch because most of the flats don’t even have them and I don’t catch sight of so much as a shadow of life, but I still know they’re there, watching, monitoring and reporting to the created-by-fear hierarchy. Apart from a group of hot hatches and their owners loitering in the parking lot of the Kingsland Shopping Centre and blasting far too loud rap music though I’ve seen no sign of gang related activity or even for that matter, life. Fear and self preservation rule the Pembury Estate and the residents are in – hiding – lock down.

Suddenly, to hell with good intentions I just want to be home in bed like any other sensible person, wanting this over and done with, I spot the number of the flat I’m looking for and march up to the front door. Hammering on it forcefully causing the door to swing open onto an empty, rubbish filled corridor, I step cautiously into the dimly lit flat and immediately wish that I hadn’t. The stench, think the filthiest public convenience you’ve ever encountered and then double the repulsion factor, is even worse than decomp and I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone could actually live with it. It’s so bad in fact that I’m in the process of reopening the front door in order to let some very much needed fresh air in when a man silently appears from out of the nearest room and stalks up to me.

Dressed, despite the interior of the flat being only marginally warmer than outside, in an unbuttoned black shirt and once white boxer shorts that are now the colour of long abandoned dishwashing water, the man slams the door shut and – clearly having no issues with personal space – positions himself directly in front of me. The only light in the place seemingly coming from candles in the room he’d materialised from, I can’t see the man clear enough to be certain of his age and put him at between twenty-five and thirty. With his dirty, obviously dyed black hair, hollow, far too bright eyes and wiry frame though he could easily be either younger or older and I tell myself that I’d be wise not to underestimate him. Street smart, high as a kite, and I’m an uninvited, unwelcome guest in his hovel.

Brilliant.

Hindsight being as much of a bitch as always, perhaps I should have put a little effort into seeing who else was known to be living at this address before blithely calling around.

“Who the fuck are you?” the man demands in a thick Northern accent as, just to reiterate his delusions of dominance, he jabs his finger into my chest.

Knowing that I have to get him to view me, if nothing else, as an equal if I’m to have a chance of getting any further, I smack his finger away and, standing up to my full height, look him impassively in the eye. “I’m here to see Tommy.”

“Tommo ain’t said nuthin’ about anyone comin’ around,” he retorts, taking half a step back but still glaring at me with both obvious suspicion and dislike.

I smile balefully and, making a point of giving him a shove as I pass, step further into the corridor. “I didn’t know I needed to make an appointment.”

“Fuck you,” the man sneers. Giving me an absolutely filthy look, he moves over to the doorway and calls out, “Hey, Tommo! There’s some wanker here to see you.”

Stepping out of the room as silently as the man did a moment ago, Tommy smirks as he looks me over and slowly shakes his head. “He’s not just any wanker, Chas,” he murmurs, pulling his friend close and, in what could be read as a proprietary display, draping his arm around his scrawny shoulders. Clad only in jeans and with his eyes as drug bright as Chas’, it’s suddenly only all to clear to me what I’ve interrupted and I mentally congratulate myself for my crap timing.

“What’s that supposed to mean, huh?” Chas queries before sniffing in a way that would do a three year old proud and wiping his nose on the sleeve of his shirt. “He sure don’t look like anythin’ special.”

His eyes gleaming with malicious intent, Tommy leans down and after – all for the benefit of his audience of one – languidly licking Chas’ ear, whispers loudly enough for me to hear, “He’s a copper.”

Chas, as Tommy had no doubt hoped, reacts to this unexpected snippet of information as though he’d just heard my true claim to fame was that of a blood thirsty serial killer and suddenly makes a run for the front door.

Stopping him, although I don’t really know why, by quickly shifting in front of him and placing my hand on his shoulder, I look over at Tommy and sigh. “Nice reveal,” I mutter. “Ever thought of a career in show business?”

“Fuckin’ copper! Lemme go!” Squirming free, Chas scurries back to Tommy and tugs agitatedly on his arm. “Tommo? What are we waitin’ for, huh? We gotta get out of here and...”

“I’m not here on police business,” I interrupt as, ignoring Chas’ increasingly plaintive lamentations, I keep my gaze focussed on Tommy. “I’m here as a friend.”

“Fuck you! Don’t listen to him, Tommo. He’s only here to stitch us up and…”

“It’s alright, Chas, I can handle him.” Meeting my eyes, Tommy gives a slight nod and tilts his head in the direction of the room they’d come out of earlier. “Why don’t you just go upstairs and get the bed warm for me, huh?”

“But…”

“Go on. Having done it already once today, I can handle him.”

Giving me a truly evil look as he reluctantly shifts away from Tommy, Chas mutters, “Just fuckin’ get rid of him as quick as you can,” before stomping up the stairs and disappearing.

“I know it’s nothing to do with me,” I murmur in an attempt to lighten the mood as I follow Tommy into the room, “but I can’t help but think you’ll be needing more than the lovely Chas to get the bed warm.”

Flopping down onto a dirty looking beanbag, the room’s only piece of furniture, Tommy leers and rubs his crotch. “You offering?”

Accepting that I well and truly walked into that one but refusing to rise to the bait, I slowly look around the room and don’t answer. Apart from the beanbag and a large plasma television sitting propped up against the wall on the floor, the only other items in the room are about twenty or so lit candles of various sizes and the effect is more eerie than anything else. It’s also cold and I don’t know how Tommy can just be lounging there as though there’s absolutely no reason he can think of to be anything but perfectly content with his lot.

“Oh well, your loss,” Tommy comments with a laugh as he laces his fingers behind his head and stretches. “So, Devlin, tell me when you developed a taste for it.”

“Developed a taste for what?”

“Masochism.”

“What?” I scowl at Tommy and, not knowing what else to do with them, fold my arms across my chest. Things aren’t going well and I’d be a fool to try to kid myself otherwise. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It’s just that you’ve already had one beating today, and here you are back for another one.” Tommy laughs again and shrugs. “I don’t know, I’d have thought after all the times your old man laid into you that…”

“I’m not afraid of you,” I snap, cutting Tommy off and, wanting to make my point, walking over to the beanbag and looking down at him, “so cut the act.”

Jumping to his feet, Tommy gives me a shove and goes over to lean against the wall by the window. “It’s not an act,” he retorts sullenly, “and if you think I’m going to thank you for not pressing charges you live in an even bigger fantasy world than I originally thought.”

“The world I live in is the real world,” I reply with a heavy sigh, “and I’m not here about this afternoon. That’s in the past and doesn’t ever have to be mentioned again.”

“Then why are you here, Matty?” Tommy queries, giving me a suspicious look. “Surely it’s not just to enjoy my hospitality.”

“I meant what I said earlier about wanting to help you,” I respond, biting back a sigh of relief at having finally being able to get out the real reason for my visit. “That’s all. I was afraid that you were going to leave the area before I got the chance to see you again, so… Here I am. Not as a cop, but as someone you were once friends with and who’s still your friend.”

“And again with the holier-than-thou bullshit,” Tommy scowls. “Fuck you, Matty. I don’t need your help.”

Shrugging, I gesture around the room and pull a face. “I beg to differ. Look around you, Tommy. You can do…”

“Fuck you.”

“Is that all you’ve really got to say? Fuck you, fuck you. It’s boring.”

“And so are you!” His levels of agitation and annoyance clearly increasing, Tommy shakes his head and begins to pace around the room. “For fuck’s sake, Matty, do I come into your boring life and try to change it? No. I don’t. So what makes you think you can interfere in mine, huh? It might not meet your lofty standards, but so fucking what? It’s my life, not yours and I’m fine with it.”

“You’re better than this,” I retort, the exasperation I’m feeling in respect to how badly this is going coming through in my voice and causing Tommy to both stop his pacing and glare at me through narrowed eyes.

“Fuck off back to the nick, Matty,” he hisses, both hands curling reflexively into fists as he fights to control his temper. “Just get it through your thick skull that I don’t want your fucking help. I’m happy being a lost cause and, news flash for you, I don’t want to be found. So… Just get out of here before we both regret it.”

Logic quite literally screams at me to listen to him, to quit while I’m still in one piece but, my reasons for being here in the first place not having changed, I take a deep breath and decide to make one last attempt to stand my ground. “Listen, Tommy, I know things went to shit when…”

“You don’t know any fucking thing!” Tommy shouts, slamming a balled fist into the palm of his other hand and, as though he doesn’t trust himself, backing further away from me. “Just drop it, Matty. You don’t want to be doing this.”

He’s right, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to listen to either sense or threat. I’m a police officer, I’m trained in situations like this, and I’m still firmly convinced I’ve got right on my side. “Tommy, please,” I murmur, holding my hands out in an open, placating gesture. “I know it didn’t happen to me, but…”

“Shut up! Just… Shut. The. Fuck. Up!” Something snapping in Tommy, he spins on his heels and, with a truly menacing look on his face, grabs me by the front of my top. “I warned you, Matty…”

Realising – far – too late that I’ve pushed too far and that I may now actually be in trouble, I break free of Tommy and, all the time keeping a careful watch on him, back towards the door. “I… I’m sorry, okay? I never meant…” Too focussed on watching Tommy, I’m not aware that Chas has returned to the room until I back into him and he grips his hands tightly around my shoulders. Trapped, and trying hard to fight mounting panic, I will myself not to struggle and – training, remember all the training – try to catch Tommy’s eyes. “Tommy… I made a mistake, okay? I can see that now and I’m sorry. Just… Let me go and I’ll leave.”

“It’s too late for that,” Tommy whispers, looking through me to Chas as though I’m not even there and giving an almost imperceptible nod. “You shouldn’t have come here, Matty. I could forget with Chas here but, you, you just keep bringing the memories to life.”

“That was never my intention,” I reply as, to my relief, Chas removes his left hand from my shoulder. “You’ve got to believe me. I wanted to help, not… reawaken bad memories.”

“You have no fucking idea what it’s like,” Tommy murmurs. “Just no fucking idea. I’m sorry, Matty, but…” Trailing off, he gives another nod to Chas who suddenly and without warning jabs a hypodermic syringe of God alone knows what through the fleece of my jacket and directly into my arm. Its effects being all but immediate, my knees buckle and, as a heaviness descends over me and I slump to floor, the last thing I hear before everything goes hazy is…

“… but I can show you.”

~*~

TBC...

Chapter Text

*
Homerton University Hospital, Homerton Row, London E9 6SR
Tuesday, 22 February 2011
8.32am
*

I know…

Quite a lot, actually. All things considered.

I know my name, my age, both what I do and where I live, and that I’m in hospital.

I don’t know what hospital, or how I got here or what even put me here in the first place, but…

I’m confident that’ll all come to me. It has to. You can’t just end up flat on your back in a hospital bed and feeling as though something very large and heavy is pressing down on you and keeping you immobile without having any recollection as to why. You just can’t. It makes no sense. My brain can’t be damaged, befuddled maybe, but nothing too serious, or otherwise I wouldn’t know as much as I do. I can even remember that yesterday was bitterly cold for late February and that, feeling as though winter was never going to end this year, I felt compelled to share this complaint with anyone who’d listen.

That is, of course, that the yesterday I can remember is in fact, well, yesterday.

Maybe I’ve been here longer than I think I have.

Maybe I’m not lying in a hospital bed listening to Ronnie pace the length of the small room as he waits impatiently for the doctor with hands as cold as her voice to put in an appearance and am simply dreaming?

I just don’t know.

Maybe I don’t know as much as I first thought.

Maybe I don’t want to.

I know that, physically at least, I don’t even feel as though I’m really here. Nothing hurts, nothing – from my eyelids to my fingers and toes – wants to obey my half-hearted commands to open, wriggle, do anything, and I feel… detached. Detached from a reality that I feel as though I have no tangible or immediate link to.

How did I get here? When did I get here? How long have I been here? When are the drugs or whatever going to wear off so I can ask these questions for myself?

Perhaps more to the point, do I want to know the answers?

Clinging to the assumption that this weird state of affairs is real and not a particularly boring and frustrating dream, the one thing I’m actually confident of is that the person in the room with me has to be Ronnie because – there’s no-one else it really could be – of the faint scent of this year’s aftershave that wafts over me every time his pacing brings him near the bed. Every Christmas without fail his daughters dutifully trot into Boots and purchase whatever the number one selling aftershave for the season is and he in turn, despite I’ve long suspected having no interest in the stuff, dutifully wears it. This Christmas was the latest offering from Armani and, even over the pervading antiseptic smell of the hospital I derive an odd degree of comfort from being able to both smell and recognise it so clearly.

“I understand you wish to see me.”

While I may not know my doctor’s name or even what she looks like, the one thing I do know about her from her brusquely efficient ministrations whenever I was last vaguely conscious is that if she was any colder she could turn the Thames into a glacier with a mere glance. I appreciate that she’s busy and, no, I wouldn’t want to work in the accident and emergency department of a hospital either, but at the same time I seriously doubt it would kill her to at the very least feign a reasonable bedside manner.

“Well, as I did ask the nurse to get you some fifteen minutes ago,” Ronnie replies in the tone of voice he usually saves for arrogant, pushy solicitors, “yes, I have been waiting to see you.”

“I have a lot of patients to tend to.”

I wouldn’t have thought it even possible, what with them not traditionally going together, but somehow the doctor manages to sound both bored and impatient at once and I actually feel sorry for Ronnie having to deal with her. If I was with it enough to speak I’d actually apologise for being the cause of inflicting her on him.

“I’m sure you do, but that’s my partner lying there and…”

“Partner?”

“Yes. Partner.” Ronnie gives a huff of obvious annoyance and I imagine his opinion of the doctor to be deteriorating at a great rate. “What? What are you looking at me like that for?”

“And you would be?”

Dear God. She now sounds even colder and less impressed than she did a second ago.

“Ronnie Brooks… DS Ronnie Brooks, and the decrepit looking creature taking up space on the bed there is DS Matt Devlin. We’re police officers.”

“Oh. Sorry,” she states, sounding anything but. “I thought you may have meant… partners, as in…”

“Well, we’re not.”

“Hmm…”

“As it wouldn’t matter if we were, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“As his doctor it’s my responsibility to be fully aware of any information that may be pertinent to his care.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not following.”

That makes two of us, actually.

“Is he gay?”

What? Where’d that come from and what’s it got to do with anything?

“Excuse me?”

“It was quite a simple question.” The doctor sighs, as though she feels she’s talking to an idiot. “Is he gay?”

“No. He’s not.” And Ronnie’s beginning to sound as though he’s reaching the end of his tether. “Now that we’re hopefully clear on that point, are you going to explain why you felt it was so important to know this?”

“While most of his injuries are consistent with having been beaten and most likely thrown from a moving vehicle, I also found a small degree of rectal tearing that would seem to indicate both recent and rough sexual activity.”

She… did? It not exactly being something you’d make up just for the sheer hell of it, I suspect she has to have a good reason for mentioning it, but…

No. Surely not.

Not that. Anything but that

I’d know. Wouldn’t I?

Releasing a deep, shaky breath, Ronnie sinks down in a chair to my right and sighs heavily. “Oh, Matty…”

*

“Guv! What are you doing here?” Ronnie queries with a note of surprised pleasure as he jumps up from the chair and hurries around the bed. “I thought the course had another day left to go.”

“As much as I was enjoying learning about the latest cyber crimes from some spotty pillock who I’m quite sure should still be in school,” DI Natalie Chandler replies drily, “I thought my time might be better spent here. So, tell me, how he is?”

“You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, looking at him, but he’ll live,” Ronnie responds in a solemn voice from where he’s now standing at the foot of the bed. “In fact, the Ice Queen he’s scored as a doctor is already muttering about only needing to keep him in for a couple of days.”

“Out of here, maybe, but not back to work.” Sighing, Natalie moves around the bed and, most likely after giving Ronnie’s arm a squeeze on her way past, sinks down in the chair he’d only just exited. “Christ, Ronnie, what the hell’s been going on, huh? First what happened in the cell yesterday, and now this.”

“Oh… You heard about what happened in the cell?”

“I did.”

“Oh…”

“Don’t look so surprised, or… should that be sheepish? Just because I wasn’t in the nick doesn’t mean I haven’t been across everything that’s been going on.”

“Sorry, Guv. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Yeah, well…” Her tone softening, the DI sighs again and rests her land lightly on the bed by my knee. “Given the shock you’ve had this morning I’m prepared to forgive you. Just this once though, mind you.”

Silence momentarily descending over the room, I contemplate opening my eyes and letting on that not only am I awake I also actually feel with it enough to give participating in the conscious world a go, but something stops me and I – continue playing dead – keep my eyes tightly closed. I just… I don’t know. If they know I’m awake they’ll ask questions of me that I don’t know the answers to and, even if it is only delaying the inevitable, I’m not entirely sure I’m currently up to it. Having to deal with the doctor however long ago it was now was bad enough. It’s cowardly of me, especially given the high regard I have for the two people in the room, I accept that, but… I’m not ready. I don’t even know if I’ll ever be ready, but what I do know is that I’m not now. The drugs having worn off, I ache all over and I just don’t want to move, think, do anything really other than simply lie here pretending to be invisible. Granted, it’s not going to achieve anything, and perhaps I’m being unfair to Ronnie and Nat, but I can’t do it. I just can’t. I can’t let on I’m awake because I don’t want to see the obvious concern in their eyes and because I just don’t know what to say to them.

So I’ll just lie here, listening and deriving a much needed comfort from knowing I’m not alone.

Who knows, hopefully I might even learn something.

“Come on then,” Natalie murmurs, “bring me up to speed on what I need to know.”

“He was found just after six this morning on the edge of Mabley Green, you know, just off of Homerton Road, by a woman walking her dog,” Ronnie replies. “Unconscious, wearing only jeans, a t shirt and, for the reasons of thoroughness in my reporting, one sock and looking worse than he does now because of the blood, she, not exactly surprisingly, thought he was dead.”

“He’d been dumped there?”

“It certainly looks that way. According to Dr Freeze most of his injuries are consistent with having been thrown out of a moving vehicle.”

“Most… of his injuries?”

“Bruises, abrasions, cracked rib, likely concussion from a bump on the head, sprained ankle and wrist… He was probably beaten, too…”

Well, that certainly explains why everything aches then.

“Before being dumped?”

“Yeah… Looks that way.”

“Ronnie?” the DI prompts softly. “What aren’t you saying?”

“You don’t think that’s enough? He was beaten, thrown from a car and left for dead. He… God, Nat! Do you have any idea how cold it was last night? As if everything else wasn’t bad enough he could have died from hypothermia.”

“I wasn’t making light of everything Matt’s been through, Ronnie, and you know it. I just know you well enough to know you’re not telling me everything.”

“You really don’t know?”

“I really don’t know… what?”

Sighing, Ronnie pushes the door closed before, with obvious reluctance, murmuring, “The doctor thinks… Hell, Nat, I can’t even say it.”

Come on, Ronnie, just say it. Giving voice to it isn’t going to change the cold hard facts. I thank you for trying to protect me but we’re both police officers first and foremost and facts, regardless of how unpleasant they might be, are facts.

“Ronnie…”

“The doctor thinks he was most likely raped.”

On second thoughts, hearing it like that… Out of my partner’s mouth and hearing the pain in it… Not good. So very, very not good.

“Oh no…”

“I know. I just don’t want to think about it.”

“Is… I suppose I’m clutching at straws here, but is she sure?”

“Once I got it through to her that he’s not gay, that, actually, we’re not gay…”

“Excuse me?” Nat queries a tad breathlessly as a nervous, startled laugh escapes her lips. “While I understand wanting to know about Matt, what’s your sexuality got to do with anything?”

Snorting, Ronnie mutters, “I introduced myself as his partner and she immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion.”

“As in… ?”

“Uh-huh. That he and I were… Well, you probably get the picture.”

The Guv chuckles again, her knee-jerk reaction to Ronnie’s bombshell being to hide her discomfort behind an all too brief moment of levity. It’s a trap everyone in the job falls into at one time or another. Laugh when you can, because you always know there’s a chance things can get worse.

“Guv!” Ronnie groans and, unable to help himself, laughs. “If you tell me you really are entertaining mental images along those lines then I’m putting in for a transfer! It… It’s just not right.”

“No… It’s not.” Nat takes a deep breath and gets herself under control. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. As disturbed as I might now be about how your mind possibly works, if we didn’t laugh we’d only go the other way and, well, I know which one I prefer.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I still shouldn’t have… Whatever. Never mind. Now, where were we?”

“You asked if the doctor was sure and, as much as I don’t want to be having to say this, yeah, she is. The tearing and abrasions are consistent with… Well, you know.”

“Shit! Just… Shit!”

“Tell me about it. Because of the tearing and the question mark over how it happened, the doctor is putting him on a course of P.E.P., you know, that Post Exposure Prophylaxis stuff, as an added precaution against possible HIV exposure. She says there’s no guarantee, and he’s got to be on the pills for a whole month, but studies so far have proven it worthwhile and, well, better safe than sorry and all that...”

“Oh, Ronnie…”

“It’s alright, Guv. He’s a tough little bugger and will be as right as rain in no time. You’ll see.”

“I just…” Nat takes a deep, shaky breath and regains her composure before continuing in her usual, controlled tone. “You’re right. Now, what else do we know?”

“Not as much as we’d like to,” Ronnie replies, sounding to my ears at least relieved to be back on neutral, factual territory. “He was found only with the clothes on his back. No wallet, no phone. Even his watch, and, I’m not sure I want to be the one to tell him this, medallion are missing. If a PC from the Hackney nick hadn’t been lurking around A and E waiting to interview an assault victim when Matty was brought in we probably wouldn’t even have been aware that he was here. Luckily the PC recognised him though and was able to call it in.”

“A bit of luck at last.”

“Yeah, you could say that. Thanks to PC Marshall being on the ball we knew where he was before we even knew he was missing, if you know what I mean.”

“Mmm… So the dog walker found him, called it in, and he was brought here to Homerton unconscious and injured…”

“Obviously tox reports aren’t back yet, but the doctor is leaning towards him having received a pretty heavy dose of Ketamine. There’s a needle mark on his arm that indicates something was injected directly into a vein. Now, according to the doc Ketamine, which is basically an anaesthetic anyway, can actually knock a person straight out if it’s injected directly into the blood stream, so… Well, with any luck he’ll have been out cold for all of it and wouldn’t even have known anything was happening.”

“Fingers crossed, huh?”

“Fingers. Toes. Anything and everything that can be crossed, actually.”

“Yeah. Definitely. Back to trying to make sense of things though, Ketamine was used to knock him out, he was… assaulted, driven to Mabley Green where he was dumped and found by the dog walker… What else do we know?”

“Uniform found his car.”

“So he could have driven to where he was attacked?”

“Could well have. It was found, both stripped and burnt out, in the grounds of the old Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children. You know the place. Off Goldsmith’s Row. Creepy as all get out, abandoned. The perfect haunt for anyone wanting to get up to no good. And, no. Before you ask, despite its popularity with toerags, security is next to non existent and, wait for it, all the CCTV cameras covering it have been waiting for months for repairs.”

“Great. This just keeps getting better. Do you think that’s where he went?”

“Doubt it. I mean, given that there’s still very little we do know he could have, I suppose, but… Nah. I’m just throwing ideas out here, but I think he went… somewhere… was drugged, attacked and robbed, and then his assailants took his car, dumped him and then trashed it.”

“I suppose it makes as much sense as any of it. We won’t really anything for sure though until we hear it from Matt.”

“Ah… On that…”

“I’m not going to like what you’re about to say, am I?”

“Probably not.”

“Go on, then. Hit me with it.”

“Ketamine is known to effect memory and the doc reckons, assuming she’s right about the dose he got, that there’s a reasonable chance his memory will be dodgy for the next few days.”

“Fabulous. Only for a few days though, yeah? The doctor didn’t mention anything about a more permanent impairment?”

“Well… No…”

“You know, I’d appreciate a little more certainty here.”

“She didn’t say anything about the likelihood of permanent memory loss, but…”

“But?”

“We’ve seen it before, Guv. Memory loss in victims who have experienced a traumatic event. Sometimes it’s even for the best.”

“As I want whoever did this to him,” Natalie retorts flatly, “I’m sorry, Ronnie, but not in this case it isn’t.”

“First we have to talk to him before we’re able to cross that bridge.”

“On that, he has regained consciousness, yeah?”

“Yep. The doctor managed to rouse him a couple of hours ago. She shooed me out of the room though, so I didn’t get to speak to him.” Pausing, Ronnie closes his hand around my foot and gives it a gentle squeeze. “He mightn’t look it, but he’s awake now.”

Damn. I suppose I should have known better than to even try to pull the wool over Ronnie’s eyes.

“He sure doesn’t look it.”

“Well, he is. He’s pretending not to be, but he’s been awake ever since you got here.”

“Hmm… I can’t see it myself. Sorry, but he looks dead to the world to me.”

“That’s okay. I know that I’m right,” Ronnie states confidently as he pats my leg. “Aren’t I, Matty?”

Although it’s the perfect opportunity to open my eyes and confirm that, yes, he’s right, I don’t and concentrate on remaining perfectly still. It’s not a response I’m proud of, but – having pretty much dug myself into this hole in the first place – not knowing what else to do, I do it anyway.

“See?” Natalie mutters. “You’re wrong. He’s still out of it.”

“No. He’s been playing dead for so long now that he just doesn’t know how best to… come out of it, that’s all.”

“If you say so,” she replies, still sounding far from convinced. “Now, as I think I’d better get back to the nick soon, is there anything else I should know?”

“Given that he would have had his house keys on him I had Barnett come by to pick up the spares to his flat from me so we could check to see if it had been done over.”

“And? Had it?”

“No, thankfully. Barnett said that he found no signs of there being anything missing. Not liking that his keys are still out there in unknown hands though I’ve arranged to have all the locks changed anyway.”

“Good.” Standing up, Natalie begins to walk over towards the door. “As much as I’d like to stay here I’d better be getting back. Do you want a lift or will you find your own way back when you’re ready?”

“I… I’d actually been planning on staying, but… Uh… If I’m needed I can come back with you.”

“No. You stay here and let me know when he’s decided to rejoin us in the land of the living.”

“Thanks. I’ll do that.”

“Oh, and Ronnie?”

“Guv?”

“Remember what you said earlier. Matt’s a survivor and will get through this.”

“Yeah… Of course he will. Come on, I’ll walk you out.”

“That’s okay, you stay here and I’ll see you later.”

“See you later then, Nat. Thanks for stopping by.”

“Like I’d have been anywhere else. Bye, Ronnie.”

After seeing the Guv out of the room, Ronnie pulls the chair up closer to the bed, settles himself in it and stares at me until, with extreme reluctance, I open my eyes and slowly blink him into focus. “How’d you know?” I croak, hating both how worn out he looks and how I’m the cause for it.

“That you were awake?” Ronnie replies with a somewhat smug smile that disappears from his face as quickly as it appeared. “You’re my partner and my friend, Sunshine, and I know you well enough to know when you’re faking.” Sighing, he rests his elbows on his knees and leans forward. “I also, despite having explicitly asked you not to, have a good idea of where you might have gone last night…”

~*~

*
Homerton University Hospital, Homerton Row, London E9 6SR
Wednesday, 23 February 2011
12.45pm
*

Spitting the water out, I turn the tap off and, wiping the back of my hand across my mouth, walk out of the bathroom. Focussed solely on collapsing back into bed and feeling like death barely warmed up, I’m not paying any attention to my surroundings and very nearly walk directly into Ronnie as he hovers just inside the doorway. Startled by his presence, although, really, I don’t know why, I stumble and am only saved from losing my balance by Ronnie placing his hands on my shoulders and steadying me.

“I had been going to say it’s good to see you on your feet already,” Ronnie comments wryly as he helps me onto the bed, “but, sorry, Matty. I hate to say this but you look even more like something a not overly discerning cat dragged in than you did yesterday.”

Swinging my legs up onto the mattress, I wince and slowly pull the bedding over me. “Feel it too,” I reply, gingerly relaxing against the mound of pillows at my back. Painkillers might be being doing a good job of keeping the pain from all my injuries at bay, but the cocktail of drugs that make up the P.E.P. course have their own less-than-delightful collection of side-effects and I honestly can’t recall ever having felt so constantly nauseous. If only I could I’d like nothing more than pulling the blankets over my head and hibernating until the month was up and the side-effects nothing but an unpleasant memory. Dr Freeze, otherwise known as Dr Morrison to her – assuming she even has any – nearest and dearest, has told me that P.E.P. effects everyone differently and that I’ll probably cope better once my body has adapted to the drug mix being pumped into, but right now I’m not sure I believe her. Granted this is only day two, and the drugs are having to fight not only the residue of Ketamine in my body but also the painkillers and antibiotics, but… Just call me naïve, but I always thought medicine was supposed to make you feel better, not worse.

“You want me to call the doc?” Ronnie queries, already moving back towards the door. “As much as I hoped never to have the pleasure of her company again, for you I’m willing to put myself through the horror.”

“As she’s basically the cause, there’s nothing she can do,” I respond, gesturing him over to take a seat in the chair. “It’s okay. I’m not in pain and just feel sick from the P.E.P. drugs. In other words, while I may not look it… and I definitely don’t feel it… I’ll live.”

“Yeah, well, I’m going to hold you to that,” Ronnie retorts in a serious tone of voice that’s only matched by the expression on his face. “I mean it, Sunshine. You’ve already given me enough of a scare and I’m here to tell you now I’m not up for any more.” His piece said, he smiles to lighten the moment and, sinking down in the chair, pulls a Mars Bar out of his pocket. “I’d have got you some grapes, but have you seen the price of them recently?” he adds, placing the chocolate on the table over the foot of the bed. “So, not wanting to come empty handed, I got you a Mars Bar instead.”

Although the thought of putting anything into my mouth at the moment strikes me as an unappealing one, I don’t particularly want to tell Ronnie this and settle on travelling down the tried and true route of sarcasm-tinged-banter. “You’re all heart.”

“Makes a change from being told I’m all stomach,” he replies in kind.

“Mmm… On that…” I point down at the table and the untouched lunch tray sitting on it. “Help yourself.”

Frowning, Ronnie nonetheless rolls the table further along the bed and stands up to get a better look at what’s contained on the tray. “You need to eat,” he states, removing the lid covering the main course and, to my considerable amusement, visibly recoiling. “Just maybe not that, however.”

“It must be bad if Mr Cast Iron Constitution doesn’t want it,” I reply, hurriedly waving the plate away as Ronnie holds it out for me to have a look at its your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine contents. “Unless you want first hand experience of what I was just doing in the bathroom, I’d get that out of my face if I were you.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Oh, you have no idea.” And long may that continue to be the case too. “If I’m not throwing up I’m thinking about wanting to throw up.”

“Charming.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Even now?”

“Even now.”

Sighing, Ronnie picks up the dessert bowl and, apparently finding whatever’s in it to be acceptable, scoops up the spoon from the tray before sitting back down and looking at me expectantly. “Are you feeling up for a chat then, or should I come back later?”

“It has to be done,” I reply, shrugging, “so it may as well be now. Barring a miracle I’ll probably feel the same later so… Make the most of the fact I’m in bed as opposed to the bathroom and go for it, I say.”

“You sure?”

I nod. “I’m sure. This is the official statement, yeah?”

“It has to be done,” Ronnie replies as, having already finished the dessert, he returns the bowl to the tray and pushes the table back. Smiling grimly, he settles back in the chair and adds both quietly and gently, “You know how we react when something’s happened to one of our own, Matt. Everyone wants answers and to get the scumbags that did this to you. I am doing, and this incidentally is currently with the Guv’s blessing, what I can to keep the… uh… full story… out of reports and the like though.”

Tilting my head back, I blink up at the ceiling and will the nausea I can feel rolling around in my stomach down. “Thanks,” I whisper, knowing that I don’t have to say anything else, that Ronnie already knows just how heartfelt the one simple word is.

“So, is your memory any better than it was yesterday?” Retrieving a small notepad and a pen from the inside pocket of his coat, Ronnie makes it abundantly clear that nothing else needs to be said on the… other… matter and that we’re just to move on.

Looking across at Ronnie, I shake my head and, feeling the nausea shift up a notch, immediately wish that I hadn’t. “Nope, sorry,” I murmur. “I still remember how bloody cold the day was and that’s pretty much it. Everything else is just a blank. Tell me again what you think may have happened though and I’ll see if it prompts any memories.”

“Assuming the Ice Queen doesn’t interrupt and shoo me out of the room again,” Ronnie mutters, slipping his glasses on and opening the notepad to a fresh page. “Talk about having immaculate timing yesterday. If I was one for paranoia I’d think she did it intentionally.”

“Good job you’re not one for paranoia then,” I reply, gesturing limply at his notepad as it rests on his knee. “Speaking of timing though, if the morning’s timetable has been anything to go by you’ve probably got another twenty minutes before I have to love you and leave you and rush back to the bathroom, so… I’d get on with it if I were you.”

“I was reading up on the P.E.P. stuff last night,” he responds, leaning forward and giving my leg a quick pat. “The side-effects are nasty, yeah, but hopefully short lived, and if it helps…”

“I’m throwing my guts up at every opportunity, not complaining,” I interrupt, the reason such a thing as P.E.P. exists not being, like the reason I’m on it, something I care to think about. “Come on, let’s get on with collecting my statement.”

Ronnie gives me a knowing look and nods. “You don’t remember anything about your run in with Tommy at the nick on Tuesday?”

“Tommy?” I frown, wondering what someone from my childhood has to do with anything. “What’s Tommy Clarke got to do with what happened? We… We went to school together, that’s all.”

“You did more than just go to school together,” Ronnie replies matter-of-factly, “and the reason I know this is because you told me yourself after he attacked you in the cells. You… You really don’t remember any of this though?”

“No.” I sigh and wearily rub my hands over my face. “Sorry, Ronnie, but I don’t. I want to, but I don’t.”

“Your friend Tommy was brought in on a charge of bag theft and when you worked out who he was you went down to the cell to talk to him,” Ronnie explains, choosing to go for facts over questions at the moment. “Now, and this I only know because of what you told me, Tommy reacted badly when you mentioned that bastard Nugent’s name and that’s why he attacked you.” Pausing, he glances up at me. “Ringing any bells yet?”

Avoiding Ronnie’s gaze, I look down the bed and focus without really seeing anything on the table. “Sorry,” I whisper. “I believe you, but I just can’t remember any of it. So… I don’t know, how about we skip forward from that and you just tell me what you think might have happened next?”

“What I think happened is that, wanting to help your old friend and no doubt being firmly convinced that you could get through to him, you ignored that I specifically asked you not to and trundled off to the Pembury Estate in the middle of the night to look for him,” Ronnie responds. “What happened when you got there is currently anyone’s guess. You met with foul play, that much we know, but as for at whose hands and why… That’s still a big fat unknown. Tommy does have a long record of violent assaults though, and he… did… assault you earlier, so perhaps, and I suspect you don’t want to hear this, we don’t need to look any further.”

“No…” I groan and rub my temples as what Ronnie is telling me manages to achieve what I would have hoped to be impossible and makes me feel even sicker than I did a moment ago. I may not remember seeing Tommy at the nick but I remember him as someone who once lied to protect me and think that Ronnie has to have it wrong, that there’s no way he would have done this to me. “I… I can believe what happened in the cells, and I can even believe that I would have been stupid enough to head onto the Pembury armed with the belief that I could… save him or whatever, but… Other than that? No. I’m sorry, Ronnie, but I think you have to be wrong. Tommy wouldn’t have done this.”

“He’s a druggie, Matt,” Ronnie states gently. “He’s also not the boy you grew up with and, well, you had already set him off once that day. I’m not saying this because I want it to be Tommy but because everything points to him being the main suspect.”

“No,” I repeat stubbornly, not wanting to have a bar of Ronnie’s – admittedly quite reasonable – logic. “We were friends and I refuse to believe he’d do anything like this to me.”

“Come on, Matty. I’m not saying this just because I’ve got some agenda against you’re friend, I’m saying it because…”

“No!” I interrupt, the agitation I’m feeling coming through loud and clear in my voice as I jerk my head around to glare at Ronnie. “Just… Leave Tommy out of it for a moment, yeah? Let’s say you’re right and I did go to the Pembury looking for Tommy. What’s to say I actually found him, huh? I could have strayed across anyone’s path. A gang who recognised me as a copper or were just out looking for a laugh, for example. Maybe I walked into something I shouldn’t have and that set it off. Maybe… Maybe it didn’t even happen on the Pembury!”

“Maybe it didn’t,” Ronnie agrees with a sigh as he closes his notepad and, pushing his glasses up to his forehead, leans back in the chair. “Listen, Matt, I just don’t want you to think you have to protect him. If he did this…”

Having heard just about all I can currently take, I cut Ronnie off with a huff of annoyance. “I’m a copper, Ronnie. First and foremost, that’s what I am,” I state coldly, lashing out at my friend because I’m feeling hurt and confused by what he’s suggesting may have happened. “For God’s sake, I once told you that I nicked a mate who lit up in front of me, so… Shit! Don’t you think I’d be up for putting Tommy in the frame if I actually remembered anything? Just because we used to be friends doesn’t mean I’d protect him if I knew beyond all reasonable doubt that he’s responsible for putting me here. I just… You’ve got to believe me when I say that I don’t remember anything. I want to because I hate it, the not knowing and the fear that my lack of memory might leave my assailant free to do it to someone else, but I… I don’t. I just don’t…” Trailing off, I choke back a sob of raw frustration and shoot Ronnie a pleading look to just let it drop. The conversation needs to be had, and I know it will have to be had again, but now just isn’t the time.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Ronnie murmurs, giving me an unbothered smile that I translate to mean he’s had his say for the time being and is just going to leave it at that. “I have to say I hadn’t thought about it that way but, of course, you’re right. We’ll just have to wait until some evidence pops up or your memory comes back.”

~*~

*
Homerton University Hospital, Homerton Row, London E9 6SR
Thursday, 24 February 2011
10.26am
*

Too lethargic to even indulge in the age old practice of leg swinging to indicate my increasing impatience, I sit on the bed and watch the second hand tick on the clock with an intensity bordering on obsessive. I know I should be thankful for my lot and that, having given his word, Ronnie will get here as soon as he can, but, Goddamn it, I just wish he’d hurry up already. Having had to endure one ‘Now, you may have been sexually assaulted but, and you’ve got to listen to me here, it’s nothing to be ashamed of and with the help of counselling you… will… get there’ chat from the earnest young counsellor was bad enough without the threat of knowing Round Two is only ten minutes away if I don’t get out of here quick enough. She meant well, of course, and I’ve even shunted victims in the direction of such chats myself, but…

Being on the receiving end of one though, that’s just something else entirely.

Something I have no wish to ever repeat.

Drumming my fingers on the mattress, I try not to dwell too much on the fact that the countdown is now only nine minutes and wish I knew where Ronnie was likely to have parked so I could have simply met him by the closest entrance.

She was early last time, and if she catches me again and I have to listen to her cold bloody comfort words or how I might benefit from hypnosis again, I…

“Okay, Sunshine, you all set?”

Ronnie’s voice striking me as just about the greatest thing I have ever heard in my entire life, I jerk my head around to look at him as he stands in the doorway and nod adamantly. “Thank God you’re here,” I mutter, wincing as, reaching around behind me for my quite alarmingly full bag of various drugs, a sharp spark of pain emanates from my ribs. “Shit,” I hiss, closing my hand around the bag and quickly waving Ronnie back with the other as, frowning, he moves closer. “I’m fine. Let’s just get out of here. If I’m still sitting here like a lame duck in five minutes or so the counsellor is going to swing by for another go. Another go that, really, I’m well and truly not up for.”

His frown deepening, Ronnie takes the bag from my hand and peers at me closely. “Are you sure that you don’t want to stay and talk? I can always wait, and perhaps it might be…”

“I’m positive,” I interrupt flatly, meeting Ronnie’s gaze for all of a split second before looking away and sighing. “Look… This mightn’t be the best result, but… By not remembering anything I feel as though I’ve dodged a bullet, if… if you know what I mean. There’s no denying the facts and I’m not, contrary to what everyone might think, clinging desperately to denial, but I don’t recall any of it and, if it’s cowardly of me so be it, I don’t want to. It happened, I accept that because it’s what the facts tell me, but I don’t remember any of it and that’s how I want it to stay.”

I’m offended, repulsed and indignant over it. Hell, just the mere thought of it having happened is enough to make my skin crawl, but the fact that I currently don’t remember anything about it is the truth. I don’t. Be it through being unconscious or my subconscious electing to keep any memories of the actual event firmly quashed – either way, my mind is quite literally a total blank on the matter.

And, taking positives where I can get them, I for one take this as a Godsend.

“It’s not cowardly,” Ronnie murmurs, giving my arm a squeeze and effectively grounding me back in the here and now. “If I were in your shoes I know I’d feel exactly the same way.” Pausing, he releases my arm and moves to stand directly in front of me. “You sure you’re good to be discharged?” he queries, cocking his head to one side as, his expression making it clear he’s not liking what he’s seeing, he looks me over. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Matty, but you still kind of look…”

“Like something a cat with no taste dragged in,” I finish, rolling my eyes. “Yeah, yeah. I know already. You should try being on this side of the fence though. Knowing you look like you feel isn’t exactly life affirming, you know.”

“Still throwing up then?”

“No.” Reaching up, I tap my finger lightly against Ronnie’s temple. “Touch wood. I haven’t thrown up since late last night which, and I don’t know if you’ve ever had to throw up with a cracked rib before, is a very good thing. Now though…” I shrug. “Now I’m just lucky enough to feel constantly sick without actually, well, you know, being sick.”

“That all?” Ronnie prompts, giving me a suspicious – ‘not that I expect you’ll tell me anyway’ – look.

I shrug again and shuffle along the bed until my feet are touching the ground and I can jump immediately to life should the counsellor put in a sudden appearance. “I feel as though I’ve been hit with the worst flu known to mankind,” I reply. “My head aches like you wouldn’t believe and if we don’t get a move on soon there’s a good chance I might doze off before your very eyes. The doc says it’s to be expected though so, hey, I’ve just got to live with it.”

“More side-effects, yeah?”

“Uh-huh. Who said prevention was better than the cure, huh?”

“In this case,” Ronnie states solemnly as he places his hand on my shoulder and gently presses down on it, “as there is no cure for what it’s trying to prevent… Me. I said it.”

Looking up, I meet Ronnie’s eyes and nod. “Yeah,” I murmur quietly. “When you put it that way…”

“And I do put it that way,” he responds, removing his hand and holding it out for me to take it. “Come on then. Let’s get on our way before I have to find a wheelchair and wheel your arse out of here.”

“Sounds good.” Taking Ronnie’s hand, I let him help me off the bed. “You’ve got my keys though, yeah?”

Letting go of my hand, Ronnie gives me a strange, possibly even cunning look and pulls a set of keys from his pocket. “Mmm-hmm… Here you go.”

Taking the keys from him, I turn them over in my hand and raise an eyebrow at the shiny new West Ham keyring they’re hanging from. “Don’t tell me, let me guess,” I smirk, holding the set of keys up by the keyring and dangling them in front of Ronnie’s face. “You’ve been shopping in Poundland again.”

“I’ll have you know that that keyring is from my own personal collection,” Ronnie mutters, affecting a hurt expression as he snatches the keys out of my hand and shoves them back into his pocket. “As you’re neither appreciative of such a kind and generous gift nor going to have any use for them any time soon, I suppose I may as well just hold on to them.”

“Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re staying with me,” Ronnie announces in a voice that dares me to so much as attempt to argue. “And that, Sunshine, unless you’ve decided you want to stay here, is all there is to it.”

~*~

*
Powerscroft Road, Hackney, Greater London E5 0
Thursday, 24 February 2011
10.45am
*

“Huh? What?” Startled awake by a hand prodding my shoulder, I open my eyes and somehow manage to deduce that my head’s resting on a car door window. More confused by this than anything else, I jerk into a vaguely more upright position and, looking around, try to get my bearings. Car. Seatbelt. Familiar suburban street. Familiar face gazing at me from the driver’s seat with an increasingly all too familiar look of doubt tinged concern etched across it.

“You alright there, Matt?” Ronnie queries, clearly hesitating over removing the key from the ignition and no doubt toying quite seriously with the idea of taking me straight back to the hospital.

“Fine,” I mutter as I quickly decide to gloss over my embarrassment by gesturing towards Ronnie’s house and stating the glaringly obvious. “We’re here already.”

“Good to see it’s not your observation skills I have to be worried about,” he replies as, with what looks to be a resigned shrug, he removes the key and opens the door.

Sighing, I unclasp my seatbelt and reach for the door handle. “You only live, what, five or so minutes away from the hospital, yeah?”

“Traffic was surprisingly light today and we had a good run so, yeah, five minutes would cover it.”

“And I fell asleep during that time.”

“If you must know, you were out cold before we’d even made it out of the parking lot.”

“Oh.” Pushing the door open, I climb out of the car with all the ease and grace of an arthritic ninety year old. “Sorry,” I add, joining Ronnie on the footpath and shooting him an apologetic look. “I hope you’re not looking for a scintillating houseguest as I think it’s fairly safe to say I’m not up for much at the moment.”

“Not scintillating, no,” Ronnie responds, keeping a watchful eye on me as I limp up to the front gate, “just you.”

“Well that I should, with any luck, be able to manage.” Letting Ronnie open the gate, I follow him along the path to the door as perhaps the first logical thought I’ve had for days pops into my head. “Actually, at the risk of being a nuisance, shouldn’t we have perhaps called by my place first so I could pick a few things up? No offence, but we’re not exactly the same size and…”

“Just leave all the thinking to me, Sunshine,” Ronnie interrupts with a knowing smirk as he opens the door and gestures me in. “While I didn’t expect you to snore your way here from the hospital I also didn’t think you’d be up for a trip home first and went around there last night to pick up a few things for you.”

Although I’m relieved to hear that Ronnie’s thought of everything and that I’m not going to have to pretend to be far more energetic than I actually feel in order to ensure I have everything I need, I know better than to show it and settle for giving him a questioning look. “Oh, you did, did you?”

“Mmm… I had a great old time too, ferreting through all your drawers and the like.”

I snort, more amused by his response than feeling so much as even mildly disturbed by it. “Find anything interesting?”

“Not really,” Ronnie replies, indicating with a tilt of his head that I should make my way into the lounge room. “You do seem a little overly obsessed with stripes though, are you aware of that? Striped shirts, striped ties, striped pyjama pants. Even your boxers have stripes on them.”

“You were in my underwear drawer?”

“You planning on not bothering with underwear while you’re here?”

“Er… No. I can’t say that particular thought had crossed my mind.”

“Then, yes, I was in your underwear drawer. Got something you’d like to say about it?”

“Other than thank you?” I murmur, flashing a quick smile at Ronnie as I walk across the lounge room and sink down gratefully onto the sofa. “Thank you both for bringing my sad fixation with stripes to life and for braving my drawers in order to pack bag a for me. Just…” Trailing off, I release a deep breath and look around the room, taking in how much neater it looks than usual and how the recognisable scent of Mr Sheen fills the air. I know, without having to ask or make an issue out of it, that he would have done this for me, that the cleaning and getting of my stuff would have all been part of his plan to make me both comfortable and welcome, and… It’s probably ridiculous and yet another by product of all the drugs I’m on – especially given that I’d do the same for him in a heartbeat – but knowing that my partner cares this much touches me in a way that almost takes my breath away. “Just… Thanks, you know, for everything. I… I really appreciate it.”

Other than an all-too-fleeting smile of pleasure than ghosts across his lips, Ronnie shrugs off my gratitude and points to a large collection of DVDs stacked on the floor next to the television. “Check it out. I’ve made everyone in the nick bring in their favourite movies for you. Can’t say I’ve even heard of a lot of them but, who knows, maybe some of them will be up your alley.”

“Assuming I can stay awake long enough to get through one,” I mutter, as touched by the thought and effort behind the DVDs as I am by everything else and wishing I felt more worthy of it. “Thanks, though. You’ve really thought of everything.”

“I aim to please,” Ronnie replies, brushing off my thanks with another shrug. “It’s not often the Brooks B and B takes in a guest and I wanted to make sure everything was as hopefully right as I could get it. You’ll note on the coffee table that there’s everything you should need. Remote controls, magazines, your laptop… which is already plugged into the wall and good to go, the phone if you need anything while I’m out. In fact, all I really think you’re missing is a drink which, as I’m needing to be on my way, I’ll get for you now.”

Knowing there’s no need to issue forth with yet another parrot-like ‘thanks’, I nod and don’t reply as Ronnie leaves the room for the kitchen. Despite the nap in the car I feel exhausted and just want to sprawl out on the sofa – complete already with pillows and a blanket – and close my eyes. My head throbs, I feel so strangely emotional that I’m afraid of either tearing up or saying something stupid and… It’s pathetic. But everything is really just striking me as far too much at the moment.

Choking back a sigh, I listen to Ronnie as, muttering something about having forgotten to bring my pills in from out of the car, he leaves the house through the front door before quickly returning and heading back into the kitchen. Feeling, even though quite literally it’s about the last thing I physically feel like doing, that I should get up and see if there’s anything I can do to help, I’m in the process of trying to lever myself up from the sofa when a decrepit looking cat that I’ve never seen before marches across the lounge room floor and, positioning itself by my feet, stares up at me as though it’s trying to get a read on me. Well fed and tabby in colour, the cat is missing half its left ear, possibly even some of its whiskers and definitely an inch or two off its tail. As cats go its certainly never going to make it to the front of a Hallmark card and I’m wondering if it just took it upon itself to sneak in when Ronnie went to the car when he walks back into the room carrying both a glass of water and a cup of tea.

“Cat,” I announce somewhat dumbly as, not looking at all perturbed by my statement, Ronnie places the drinks down on the coffee table in front of me. “Unless hallucinations are another side-effect of that damn drug cocktail, there’s a cat sitting by my feet.”

“Ah, I see you’ve met old Bobby already. Thank you though, for proving to me once again that I don’t have to worry about your exceptional observation skills as, yes, you’re right. It is indeed a cat,” Ronnie replies facetiously as, clearly finding my company lacking, the cat strolls over to him for a rub around his legs and a scratch behind the ears. “Matt, this is Bobby and, Bobby, this is your new houseguest, Matt.”

“Bobby?”

“As in Bobby Moore, West Ham’s…”

“Yes, yes. I know who Bobby Moore is. It’s only Monday that’s been wiped from my memory, not decades of arguably useless sports trivia.”

“So what are you getting all worked up about? Are you allergic to cats or something?”

“No. I’m not allergic to them. I just didn’t know you had one, that’s all. Especially not one who’s so… bedraggled looking.”

“As you don’t look much better than him at the moment, I’d watch who you were calling bedraggled,” Ronnie retorts with a laugh. “Seriously, Matty, stop looking so… surprised. I got Bobby here a few months back when I rescued him from a couple of young scrotes who seemed intent on strapping him into his own cat-sized go-kart and shooting him into oncoming traffic. They’d already made a couple of unsuccessful attempts by the time I came on the scene, as you can see from what’s left of his tail and ear, and, well, after forking out so much at the vet’s to get him up and about on all four paws again I decided that I may as well keep him.”

“Oh.” I give the cat a suspicious look as, apparently having lost interest in both of us now, it sits by the coffee table calmly licking its nether regions. “Why didn’t I know about him then?”

“Honestly, I have no idea.” Ronnie shrugs and pulls his car keys out from his pocket. “It must have just slipped my mind. Now, sorry to have to love you and leave you both, but I’d better be getting back to the nick before the Guv sends out a search party. Do you think you’re right, or is there something else I can get you before I go?”

“I’m fine,” I murmur, stifling a yawn as I pull the blanket down from off the back of the sofa and spread it out over my legs. “What are you working on anyway? Is it anything I should know about?”

“Don’t you worry about work and just concentrate on getting better,” Ronnie replies over his shoulder as he walks out of the room. “It’s not the same without you, Matty, and I want you back with me as soon as possible. So, take your pills, make friends with Bobby and rest. I’ll see you later.”

~*~

~*~

Powerscroft Road, Hackney, Greater London E5 0
Friday, 25 February 2011
6.50pm
*

I wake to a room lit only by the blue AVI screen of the television and, having made my peace with my current inability to stay awake long enough to make it all the way through a movie, don’t even feel so much as an iota surprise at the fact the DVD is obviously long finished. The dead weight on my hip doesn’t surprise me either as I know, just as he has every time I’ve dozed off, that it’s only my new feline friend, Bobby, using me as his very own personal bed. The sound of movement coming from the kitchen surprises me a little though as it means it’s both later than I would have expected it to be and that Ronnie’s home already. This, as I could have sworn I’d put whichever Bourne movie it was on just after one, means I’ve been asleep for far longer than I would have liked and that, going on the darkness, night has well and truly fallen.

Just… Damn. Looks like another day’s been wasted then on doing little more than taking up space on a sofa and providing a warm bed to a cat. I don’t know what I truly expect, especially seeing as I’ve only been out of hospital for a day, but this, lounging around without the energy to do anything is seriously going to get very boring very quickly. The feeling nauseous has all but stopped, the headache has gone from being constant to just coming and going, but the lethargy seems to have taken up permanent residence and even making the not exactly onerous trek to the downstairs toilet has been taking far more out of me than I care to think about.

Wanting to at least give the impression of feeling better than I actually do, I gently pick Bobby up and, ignoring the mew of complaint he lets rip with at the fact I’m being both so daring and inconsiderate as to move him, place him on the end of the sofa before getting up and meandering in the direction of the kitchen. Entering it, I find Ronnie sitting at the table and, having already been upright for just about as long as I can handle at the moment, I pull out a chair and sit down next to him. “Hey.” Yawning, I run my fingers through my hair and will myself to focus. “Some guest I make. You should have woken me.”

“You need your rest,” Ronnie replies somewhat automatically as he looks up from the mug of tea cupped in his hands and glances at a familiar looking yellow paper evidence bag lying on the table. “How are you feeling anyway?”

“Tired. You wouldn’t think it possible, what with the amount of hours I’ve been sleeping, but tired pretty much covers it.” I shrug and, knowing that it has to be there for a reason, look pointedly at the envelope. “What’s that all about then?”

Ronnie sighs and dredges up a weary smile. “We need to talk,” he responds, sliding the envelope closer and tapping it with his finger. “But only if you’re feeling up to it. If you’re not, just say and it can wait.”

“I’m awake and I’m sitting down,” I state, alert enough now to know I really want to know what the envelope contains, “and, really, as I think this is as good as it’s likely to get, now’s fine. So, come on, tell me. Has something come up?”

“Do you want a cuppa?” Ronnie asks in a couldn’t-be-more-obvious-if-he-tried attempt to further divert the subject as he pushes his chair back and makes to stand up. He appears tired, distinctly uncomfortable and, although I really don’t want to see it, I can’t ignore how old he currently looks. I don’t, not since the very early days of our partnership anyway, usually notice the age difference between us – always seeing instead my best friend, partner, and person I happen to rely on most in the world – but tonight the thirteen years are there on Ronnie’s face and I know he’s trying to protect me from something.

“I’m fine,” I reply, gesturing for him to sit back down again. “Come on, Ronnie. I’m beginning to think I’m not going to like what you’ve got to say.”

Sighing, he returns to his chair and, with a notable lack of enthusiasm, mutters, “You’ll like some of it.”

“Good. Then start there.”

“The good news,” he announces with no further preamble and with the briefest hint of a genuine smile as he looks across at me, “is that we’ve found your medallion.”

The news being both so unexpected and wonderful, for a second I don’t know what to say. My grandfather’s St Michael medallion, the only thing I have to remember him by and which my mother handed down to me when I said I was going to join the police. Losing it on top of everything else had almost been like the last straw. Knowing that it’s been recovered though… It’s more than enough to make the day seem not so bleak after all.

“Seriously?” I murmur at last. “That… That’s excellent. Where though? Where’d you find it?”

“With your watch and phone at a grotty little pawnbrokers near the Camden Lock Market. They were brought in Wednesday and a both new and honest staff member who I suspect very much isn’t cut out for working in such an establishment actually paid attention to the police notice and phoned them in this morning.”

“And?” I prompt, unsure as to why Ronnie appears to still not be wanting to have this conversation. “That’s all good, yeah? Do we know who brought them in? I suppose it would be too much of a stretch to hope for CCTV footage.”

“The store’s a right dodgy hole,” Ronnie responds as his gaze drops once again down to his tea. “No cameras and ID very much not required.”

Feeling let down by this although, really, not all that surprised, I sigh. “Damn. So much for thinking we may have caught a lead.”

Ronnie’s shoulders slump and he stares at his tea as though he’s hoping it will somehow offer him the strength to go on. “Oh… We’ve caught a lead alright.”

“Yeah?” The pleasure at knowing my medallion has been found deserting me only to be replaced by an ominous sense of dread, I look at Ronnie and wait for him to go on. I’m not going to like what he has to say, that much is a given, but I wish he’d just get on with it anyway.

“Mmm… Fingerprints taken from your belongings have come up trumps.”

“Uh-huh?”

All the time avoiding my eyes, Ronnie picks up the envelope and pulls two mug shots out of it. “The prints come back to one Thomas Clarke and one Charles, or Chas as he’s known to his toerag mates, Pritchard,” he replies as he slides the photos across the table to me. “Matt…”

“No,” I interrupt hoarsely, not wanting to hear what comes next because I still either can’t or simply won’t entertain the idea. Pushing the photo of Tommy away, I pick up the one of Chas and stare at it intently. The hard looking, wiry man with the sunken eyes and too-black-to-be-natural hair that stares back at me is a stranger, someone who if I’ve ever seen him before I can’t recall it. “I know you think Tommy had something to do with it but… No! This… This Chas lowlife…” I let the photo slip from my fingers. “It must have been him.”

“The prints are conclusive, Matty, they both handled your things,” Ronnie replies gently as he pushes the photo of Chas back towards me. “Here. Have another look. Do you recognise him?”

I shake my head. “No. I don’t,” I respond flatly. “He looks like a thug though.”

Nodding, Ronnie takes the photo back and turns it face down over the one of Tommy. “One with a pretty impressive assault record too.”

“Assault?”

“Amongst other things, yeah.”

“So…” It’s not a nice thought by any stretch of the imagination but, given the other option, I throw myself at it like a drowning man going for a life raft. “He… Chas could have done it.”

“Listen to what I’m saying, Matt. I know you don’t want to hear it, but both sets of prints were found. Tommy was there.”

“No!” Refusing to accept what Ronnie’s saying even though a small voice whispers in my ear that he’s right, that I can’t just bury my head in the sand and ignore it, I push back my chair and stagger out of the kitchen. My head spinning and my legs feeling as though they don’t want to hold me up, I know that I won’t make it far and lurch into the lounge room. Somehow making it to the sofa, I flop down on it and, rubbing my hands over my face, gaze vacantly at the coffee table.

The coffee table which is now half covered with an ugly assortment of pill bottles. Pill bottles that are only there because I’m in Ronnie’s house, and…

The only reason I’m here is because I foolishly went out on Monday night and something… bad… happened to me.

Something bad at the hands of…

Moaning, I let my head fall back against the sofa and stare up at the ceiling. Just… No. Not Tommy. He couldn’t. Not after what he’d experienced at the hands of Nugent. I… I just can’t believe it.

I don’t want to believe it.

Why? And… How? How could he?

It just can’t be true. That’s all there is to it. I just have to prove it.

Walking silently into the room, Ronnie joins me on the sofa as I start to babble. “Just because he might have been there doesn’t… It doesn’t mean he was the one to…”

“Of course it doesn’t,” Ronnie murmurs, taking pity on my obvious inability to say it and talking softly over the top of me. “Here,” he adds, placing my medallion in the palm of my hand and closing my fingers around it. “I’ve cleared it with Evidence and it’s yours again.”

Clutching the medallion tightly in my hand, I allow Ronnie to place his arm around my shoulders without either comment or the stupid macho posturing I usually feel compelled to indulge in and willingly relax against him. “Maybe…” I don’t want to be having to say this, but given how the facts are adding up, what other choice do I have? “Maybe if we brought him in he could explain…”

“I’ve already thought of that,” Ronnie sighs as he hugs me close, “but it appears that both he and Chas have gone to ground.”

~*~

Chapter Text

*
Boswells, Russell Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2B 5HZ
Sunday, 27 February 2011
2.05pm
*

“Sorry I’m late,” Alesha announces with an apologetic smile as she walks up to the table and places her shopping on the floor. “First the escalator was on the blink at the station, then there was a delay on the Tube… Honestly, I was beginning to think I’d never get here.”

“Not to worry, love. You’re here now,” Ronnie replies as, beating me to it, he stands up and pulls a tenner out of his pocket. “What’ll you have?”

Her smile broadening, Alesha shakes her head and reaches into her handbag for her purse. “No. It’s okay. You’ve both got yours already, so I’ll get it.”

“Consider it my treat,” Ronnie counters. Taking the purse out of her hand, he drops it back into her bag with a wink. “Besides, I’ve decided I want cake now anyway. How about you, Alesha, can I twist your arm into joining me?”

“Thanks, but I’ve really not long had lunch,” she replies as she takes her coat off and drapes it over the back of the chair before sitting down opposite me. “I would love a latte, though.”

“One latte coming right up,” Ronnie responds as he begins to make his way over to the counter. “As for you,” he adds, glancing over his shoulder and disguising the pointed look he’s giving me with a lopsided smile, “I’m not even going to ask if you want anything because, as you need to eat, I’m getting you something anyway.”

Knowing better than to risk making a scene by refusing or repeating what he no doubt thinks is my current favourite phrase of ‘I’m not hungry’, I just nod. “He’s trying to fatten me up,” I comment, turning to fully face Alesha and flashing her a smile that I’m quite sure doesn’t meet my eyes. This being the first outing I’ve had since leaving the hospital, I’m pleased to be both sitting in a café and seeing my friend, but at the same time I’m not entirely certain I’m fully up for it. I want to be here because I want to convince Ronnie I’ll be fine to go back to work next week, but… Although the café’s half empty I’m still finding it both hot and noisy and the headache that didn’t put in an appearance for all of yesterday is back with a vengeance. Pathetically, all I really want to do is be back on the sofa with Bobby.

“So, Matt, how are you?” Alesha queries brightly. A bit too brightly, really, and I think going on the look on her face she may well be in agreement with the idea I need fattening up. “I’m so sorry I didn’t get to come and see you in the hospital. I wanted to, we both did, actually, that’s James as well, but we were in the middle of a huge trial and there just weren’t enough hours in the day. You got our card though, yeah?”

I nod. “I did, thank you. Please though, don’t worry about not having made it to the hospital. I’m sure if you ask Ronnie he’d be only too happy to tell you about how I did little other than throw up anyway and how visiting me probably made a trip to the dentists look preferable.”

“I bet he didn’t think that at all,” Alesha murmurs, her composure slipping as she suddenly reaches across the polished wooden table top and grabs my hands. “Oh, Matt. I was so sorry to hear what had happened to you. It… It’s just not right.”

Alesha’s words ringing a distinctly unwelcome chord with me, I pull my hands back as though they’d just touched raw flame and fight rising, sickening panic.

Maybe it’s just because I’m still way off my best game. Alternatively, maybe paranoia is yet another side-effect of P.E.P…. I don’t know. What I do know however is that the seed has been planted and I don’t know what I can do to stop it from taking root.

She knows.

Somehow, Alesha knows.

Ronnie must have told her because… Because this is a set up. It’s not coffee-with-a-friend at all, it’s a set up. Get the two victims together so they can talk and so that Victim Number Two, the latest, freshest victim, can open up to someone who’s had the misfortune of having been there and done that already.

Just…

How could he?

How could he betray me like this? What’s more, how could he put Alesha in this position?

Fighting panic – Control. I must remain in control. It’s not Alesha’s fault that she’s been put on the spot like this – I swallow hard and try desperately to think of something, anything to say.

Nothing comes to mind though. Nothing.

All I can think about is how this can’t really be happening, how my friends can’t really be ganging up on me in the hope of getting me to talk about something I can’t remember and don’t want to remember.

Why? Isn’t knowing that someone I once called a friend was involved in it bad enough?

“Matt…” Looking increasingly worried, Alesha leans across the table and tries again, this time more forcefully. “Matt! You okay? You’re worrying me. Do you want me to get Ronnie so he can take you home?”

“I…” Shaking my head, I will myself through sheer determination alone back to reality and, rubbing my temples, smile wanly. “I’m fine,” I whisper, knowing that I look anything but and that, unless I want to bolt out of the café with my tail very much between my legs I have to somehow reassure her that no, I’m not really losing my marbles. “Really, I am. Sorry for worrying you, but…” Now what? Now what do I say?

Shifting around to Ronnie’s seat, Alesha places her hand on my arm and tries to get me to look at her. “I’m sorry, Matt, but you don’t look fine. In fact… You really don’t look very well at all. Perhaps coming here was a bad idea as you’re clearly not up for being out and about yet.”

“I’m fine,” I repeat. I’m not, and you’d have to be blind, deaf and brain dead to think otherwise, but like my other go to response of ‘I’m not hungry’ when nothing else is forthcoming in the face of kindness, it’s the best I can come up with. “Seriously, Alesha, I’m sorry for… zoning out on you, but, it’s…” A flash of what I hope to be brilliance suddenly hitting me, I shrug and look up to meet her gaze so that I can gauge her reaction. “It’s just another side-effect from the course of P.E.P.,” I finish. “Just when you think you’ve cycled through them all another one comes along out of nowhere and hits you for six.”

“You poor thing,” Alesha replies as tears well in her eyes and she slides her hand down my arm to curl her fingers around mine. “All of this because some… some bastard… shoved a needle into you that could have been God knows where! It… It’s just not fair.”

She’s right of course, it isn’t fair, but it is, hallelujah, what I needed to hear.

I was just being paranoid. She doesn’t know. Ronnie hasn’t told her and I’m an idiot for thinking the three of us were meeting for a coffee for any other reason than we’re friends and it’s what friends do.

Smiling, I take her hand in mine and give it a squeeze. “I’ll be okay,” I murmur, letting her pull slowly free in order to slip back to her seat as, carrying a tray, Ronnie returns to the table. “You’ll see. I’m still here and I’ll be fine.”

What’s more, with any luck, if I keep saying it I might even start to believe it.

“Of course you will, Sunshine,” Ronnie states, plonking a plate containing a slice of baked cheesecake down in front of me. “Get that into you and I guarantee you’ll be even better.”

~*~

*
M.I.U. Bow Street, London, WC2E
Wednesday, 2 March 2011
8.26am
*

Pleased to be back at work, I’m actually smiling as I walk along the corridor to the office. The Nurofen are doing a perfectly adequate job of fending off the once again ever-present headache, the abrasions on my face have faded to the point where people no longer stop and stare, my wrist and ankle are back to normal and, while my rib will preclude any running for the foreseeable future – and I just hope I remember to tell Ronnie that if any suspects leg it until then that it’s up to him to give chase and collar them – even it’s well on the road to recovery. Okay. So I had to put another notch in my belt this morning just to stop my trousers from slipping down and, having insisted that I was well enough to return home, I didn’t sleep well last night because my flat seemed so silent and empty and I missed the weight of the damn cat perched on me, but… So be it. All in all things are looking up. Everyone I’ve encountered on my trek through the station gave every indication of being genuinely pleased to see me again and I’m just looking forward to getting back on the job.

I just want to be busy and for things to go back to how I’ve always taken them granted. Afraid of what might come to mind if I stop still long enough to think about things, a voice in my head tells me that I have to keep occupied, that if I settle back into my usual routine I won’t have time to fall prey to the constantly lurking sense of doubt that I know lingers just below the surface.

It’s a classic avoidance technique, one that I can only hope doesn’t slap me in the face when I least expect it, but I simply don’t want think about it. Not the assault, not the fact that most of my health issues now stem from the drugs I’m on to help protect me from possible HIV exposure, not Tommy… Just not any of it. It’s both too painful and too scary and I want to focus instead on the positives. And that is that I’m alive, more or less in one piece, and life goes on. Nothing else really has to come into it.

Entering the office, I nod a greeting to the three early-birds who have beaten me in and, taking my coat and scarf off, drape them on the rack. It’s stupid of me I know, especially seeing as I have actually taken leave of longer than a week before, but seeing that the office hasn’t changed in my absence reassures me on some hitherto unknown level that I’m not entirely sure I even want to own up to possessing. The desks – groaning under the amount of paperwork and tat piled on top of them – all look like they did the last time I saw them, coffee is dripping into the pot just as it always does, and the same slightly musty scent fills the air. It’s a little pathetic, I accept that without hesitation, but I feel a greater sense of relief taking in the unchanged state of the office than I did walking through my front door and getting to sleep in my own bed. Home, it could be argued is where you keep a toothbrush and, well, as I do happen to have one in the office…

Deciding that the time has come to brave the backlog of emails that would have built up over the past week, I meander over to my desk, pull my chair out and, not quite believing what I’m seeing, freeze.

A cushion, blue corduroy and both faded and frayed enough to make me think it’s most likely an original from the Seventies as opposed to an attempt at a fashionable reproduction, sits on the seat of my chair. It doesn’t belong there, I’ve never seen it before and, regardless of whether I’m leaping spectacularly to the wrong conclusion or not the sight of it quite literally makes me see red.

A cushion… Extra padding… As if it’s been assumed that I’m a little… delicate… in that area, or in need of extra softness when I sit down.

Maybe it’s meant in kindness. Perhaps it’s an ill advised attempt at a joke.

Whatever it is, it means they, the officers in this unit, possibly even the whole station, must know. They must know about…

Feeling – more freaked out by the second and as though I’m in danger of losing control – just as I did in the café with Alesha on Sunday, I snatch the cushion up and, positioning myself smack bang in the middle of the office, angrily wave it around. “Who put this on my chair, huh?” I demand as, startled by the sudden appearance of a ranting lunatic in their midst, everyone in the room turns to stare at me wide-eyed. “Well? Come on! Someone must have put the bloody thing there!”

“Matt… What’s the matter? It’s just a cushion.”

Spinning around to glare at Frank Golding as, trying to placate me even though it’s clear from his expression that he thinks I’m off my nut, he starts to get out of his chair, I shake the cushion at him and, my voice getting louder with every word, continue shouting. “What’s the matter? I’ll tell you what the fucking matter is and that’s that I don’t find this even in the slightest bit funny. In fact…” Ignoring the sound of my name being uttered from the doorway, I hurl the cushion to the floor and, just for good measure, give it a kick. “I don’t know whose idea it was or whether you were all in on it, but I’m here to tell you now…”

“DS Devlin!”

“What?” Almost as pissed off at being interrupted as I am by what I happen to be reading into the cushion, I whirl round to face the doorway and find myself coming under the decidedly unimpressed gaze of DI Chandler. Too worked up by this stage though to come to my senses and get off my high horse, I stare back at her and gesture at the offending cushion. “I don’t know if you knew about this, but…”

“My office. Now.”

“Guv!”

“Matt… My office.”

Muttering, “Fine! I heard you the first time,” I stalk up to the doorway and walk past Natalie without looking her. My heart beating a dull tattoo in my chest, I don’t bother waiting to see if she’s behind me and make my way directly into her office. I’m barely in the door before she’s shutting it to give us some privacy and shoving the cushion at me.

“Okay, Matt. Just what the hell was that all about?” she queries calmly as she walks behind her desk and sits down. “I could hear you going off in here.”

Still seething, I drop the cushion on her desk and jab my finger into it. “This,” I state, scowling. “This was on my chair and, forgive me for not having much of a sense of humour at the moment, I just don’t think it’s particularly funny.”

“At the risk of not quite getting it, and please keep in mind I haven’t had my morning coffee yet, it’s just a cushion,” Natalie replies, glancing pointedly at the chairs in front of the desk. “Please, Matt. Take a seat and explain to me what the problem is.”

“It’s clear what the damn problem is,” I retort, gesturing once again at the cushion and ignoring her offer of a seat. “Don’t you see? Somehow the whole Goddamn office knows about what happened and some enterprising comedian decided to make a joke out of it!”

“Matt, sit down,” the Guv murmurs, frowning. “Come on… You need to calm down.”

“I’m fine…”

“Just take a seat and I’m sure we can get to the bottom of this.”

“But, Guv…”

“Sit!”

Flopping down in the chair with all the good grace of a petulant child, I fold my arms across my chest and glower across the desk at her. “It’s not funny.”

“If you’re right and someone meant it as a joke, I agree,” Natalie replies as, holding up her finger in a ‘keep quiet’ gesture, she picks up the handset and punches a number into it. “Is DS Brooks in yet?” she asks when someone picks up on the other end. “Good. Then tell him I want to see him in my office now.” After rolling her eyes at whatever the response to her request is, she adds, “Then find him!” and hangs up the phone. “If anyone knows what’s going on then it’ll be Ronnie.”

“Ronnie wouldn’t have done it,” I mutter, my anger slowly giving way to embarrassment. While I stand by feeling offended and, yeah, okay, hurt, I’ve had my say now and just want to forget about it. “Just… Forget it. If it was a joke it was in bad taste, let’s just leave it at that.”

“If it was meant as a joke I will not forget it and want to get to the bottom of it,” the DI responds bluntly. “I’m still hoping that you’re mistaken, but if you’re not…” Trailing off as a brief knock on the door heralds Ronnie’s arrival, she calls out, “Come in,” and flashes me a reassuring smile.

“Guv, you wanted to see me?” Noticing that she’s not alone in her office, Ronnie beams and gives my shoulder a gentle slap as he takes the seat next to me. “Matty! There you are. I was wondering where you’d got to when I saw your coat on the rack.”

“You missed the show,” I reply with a shrug. “I expect you’ve probably heard about it already though.”

“What show?”

“If you haven’t heard about it I’m sure you will.” Hell. By now the entire nick is probably talking about it.

“Matt found this cushion on his chair,” Natalie interjects, picking up the cushion and chucking it over to Ronnie, “and he took it as an extremely bad taste joke in respect to… what happened last Monday night.”

“What?” Ronnie exclaims, his expression one of obvious shock as he looks from the Guv to me and back again. “No! How could you even think such a thing?” he continues. “Not only does no one outside of this room and the staff who treated you at the hospital know anything about it, but even if they did… Come on, Matty. You know the team as well as I do and have got to know that no one would be so…”

“Stupid?” the Guv offers, leaning back in her chair and no doubt hoping that, having got off to such a tremendous start, the day can only get better. “I have to say I feel the same way but the cushion, it was on Matt’s chair where, I think we all agree, it shouldn’t have been.”

Sighing, Ronnie turns the cushion over in his hands. “It would have been meant as a joke,” he states slowly, “but just not on Matt. The cushion is Dave’s. He was bitten on the backside by a dog on his way home on Monday and brought the cushion in on Tuesday to sit on due to reasons of… tenderness. Because he’s got a good sense of humour and has made such a song and dance about the bite…” Pausing, he looks at me and pulls a face. “In fact, if he offers to show you the wound… and he will, trust me on this… I strongly recommend that you don’t take him up on it.”

“Noted,” I murmur, my levels of embarrassment growing with every passing second. Why did I even open my mouth? All I had to do was shift the cushion, sit down and that would have just been that. But no, just as I did with Alesha I let paranoia take control and now I’m left looking like a fool, one who I’m sure the Guv is questioning whether he’s ready to be back at work. “Uh… Thanks for the warning.”

“That’s what partners are for,” Ronnie smiles, giving my knee a little pat. “Anyway! Where was I? Oh. That’s right. Dave and his cushion. For no other reason than it sets him off, a couple of the team decided it would be amusing to keep moving it around on him when he’s not in the room. It’s childish, yeah, but all in good fun. Dave and a few others were still in the office when I left last night, but I imagine once he’d called it quits for the night one of the others must have picked up the cushion and hid it on Matt’s chair.”

“Funny, I don’t think. Oh, and it stops now,” Natalie mutters drily as she catches my eye and nods. “Matt? Sound reasonable to you?”

“I…” Of course it sounds reasonable. What’s more, if the dog had bitten Dave a fortnight ago I would have been up for a spot of cushion hiding myself. Just… What can I say? Ooops? “I… I’m sorry,” I whisper, glancing at Ronnie in preference to the DI as I get to my feet. “I should have thought before I went off and I apologise for making a fuss out of nothing. I should have known better and… uh… don’t know what came over me.”

“Having, I think, done the subject of the cushion to death,” Ronnie comments with an easy shrug as – taking effortless charge as always – he stands up and, with a nod to the Guv, starts to move towards the door, “I don’t know about the rest of you but I could murder a cuppa. Come on, Matty, I’ve missed you telling me that I don’t need biscuits this early in the morning. Nat, can we get you anything?”

“Coffee. Black,” the Guv replies, making shooing motions towards the door. “Go on, get out here, the pair of you… Oh! And take the damn cushion with you. I never want to see the thing again.”

~*~

*
M.I.U. Bow Street, London, WC2E
Monday, 8 March 2011
2.23pm
*

“Okay, Mrs Williams, for the record we need you to go over what happened one more time.”

“Are you lot deaf or just dumb?” Susan Williams shoots her poor unfortunate duty solicitor a long suffering look and rolls her over made-up eyes. “I been through all this already,” she adds querulously, folding her arms across her considerable chest and, actually – surprise, surprise – possessing enough brain cells to have already worked out that I don’t like her, turning her gaze on Ronnie and pouting. “He hit me first. How many times do I have to tell you? I’m a battered wife and you lot should be treating me with more respect instead of keeping me here and asking stupid questions.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs Williams,” Ronnie replies smoothly as he glances up from his notes and offers the fat troll a practiced, sympathetic smile, “but it’s important that we’re clear on the facts that led up to your husband’s death.”

“He hit me!” Susan wails indignantly. “Can’t you get that through your thick skull? The bastard, he hit me!”

“And yet there’s no evidence to indicate that that was actually the case at all,” Ronnie responds with a casual shrug as he returns his attention to his notes in preference to taking in the sight of Susan’s breasts struggling to be stay confined within her too tight top as she leans over the interview table. “Our Medical Examiner wasn’t able to find any injuries on you to support your claim.”

“Fuck your stupid poncy doctor. What would she know anyway? Stuck up cow.” Her character assassination of the M.E. complete, Susan rearranges her breasts in a way she’s no doubt deluded enough to think displays them to their best advantage and, after giving me a calculating, dismissive look, reaches her hand across the table to brush her fingers against Ronnie’s. “The bruises have all faded, haven’t they,” she murmurs, attempting to appeal to his better nature. “Reg, he was good at what did. Knew how to beat me without leaving no marks, did Reg.”

Picking up my pen, I tap it lightly against the note paper in front of me and, as the nerve in my thigh pulses in time with my growing agitation, try to lull myself into a place of inner calm. If I make a bid to play a part in this interview or even open my mouth I know I’m going to hit Susan Williams with just how little I happen to think of her and, simply put, that just wouldn’t be on. My role is to be impartial and non-judgemental. Until the facts are set in stone I’m not to leap to conclusions or go off half cocked and I know this as well as I know anything.

Susan Williams though… It’s just that she’s pushing every button I’ve got, along with a few others I wasn’t even aware of before. Hell, she’s irritating me so badly that I can’t even be bothered fending off all the stereotypes she falls into and am applying them to her with almost a sense of liberating glee. Chav. Mutton dressed up as lamb. Thick as two short planks. I could go on but even the stereotypes fall short of conveying the true horror of the spectacle sitting opposite me in the interview room. Bottle blonde hair in desperate need of a fresh injection of colour before the grey tinged black roots take over. A heady aroma of nicotine still managing to dominate over the sickly sweet scent of eau de Asda and, worse, poor hygiene. Garish fake nails in hot pink and resplendent with diamante accents setting off the orange of the sun bed tan and fake gold jewellery to perfection. Make up that even the lowliest of drag queens would turn her nose up at and clothing that I hazard a guess would have to be at least two sizes smaller than it needs to be in the name of common decency.

Although there’s no denying that she’s a… sight, it’s not the damage she’s doing to my eyes that really offends me. To each their own and all that. If she wants to walk around showing the world what Jordan’s likely to look like in ten years time then that’s her business. I have, even if I can’t exactly remember when off the top of my head, seen worse

What’s really offending me though is her battered wife act. That, and for a while I fell hook, line and sinker for it. Hysterical woman, man lying dead on the kitchen floor from a single blow to the side of the head. No question mark over the weapon used as the sobbing woman was openly babbling to anyone who’d listen that she’d had to do it, that he’d given her no choice and that the frying pan was the first thing to come to hand. She hadn’t meant to do it, honest, she loved him, she loved him with all her heart she did, but she had to stop the attack, she had to defend herself. He was a monster when he’d been drinking, and she hadn’t had his dinner on the table in time, he just went mad. It was her own fault. If she’d known he was leaving the pub early she’d have had dinner on. Oh, God. What have I done? Reg! My darling Reg.

Text book, yeah, but having seen it too many times before, believable. Even without looking at Reg’s lifeless body being zippered up and remembering all the times I’d longed to see the exact same thing happening to my father, I believed her. It was cut and dry. Surely. Susan Williams had endured years of abuse and torment at the hands of her husband and something had finally snapped. Easy. End of story. Tea, sympathy, gentle words from the domestic violence liaison officer and, farewell Reg, good riddance to bad rubbish.

Then – if I hadn’t been so focussed on writing Reg off as an abuser that is – as I should have known, a different story started to form. Disbelief from the neighbours. ‘Poor bastard. Should have left the mad bitch years back.’ Massive question marks from the coroner’s report. ‘History of poorly healed fractures. Fading bruises on upper torso and arms.’ Teary outrage from the couple’s two adult children. “She did it. She finally did it. Poor dad. Why didn’t he move in with me when I offered? I should have made more of an effort.’

Susan wasn’t the victim in the relationship, Reg was. Everything pointed to it as clearly as the initial scene in the kitchen had.

And it was up to us to prove it.

Battered husbands not quite having either the media pull or never ending array of both reports and experts as battered wives, the problem was that ensuring that the truth came out wasn’t going to be easy. Susan, the middle-aged pinup of trashy Chavdom, would be a thing of the past by the time the trial came round and in her place would be a sad, down trodden middle-aged woman in an ill fitting M & S skirt suit and sensible shoes. The jury would listen to her spin her tale of faux woe before translating the neighbours’ evidence regarding shouting matches being clearly heard through the thin walls of the council estate flat to mean Reg had started it and putting the son’s and daughter’s evidence down as children simply favouring their father over their mother. Even the history of injuries in the coroner’s report could be explained away by his manual labour job as a builder.

I’m not taking it personally, I’m really not, but the thought of her getting away with it makes me sick. All the cards stacked in her favour, there’s every chance she’ll be able to play the system and actually win – which is just wrong.

My pen slipping from my fingers and landing with a loud clattering sound on the table, I reluctantly tune back in to the drivel coming out of Susan’s bright red lips just as she says it…

“You have no fucking idea what it’s like. Just no fucking idea.”

You have no fucking idea what it’s like…

There’s something about her statement that, even though I can’t immediately put my finger on it, unsettles me, like… I’ve perhaps heard it before? But… Where? And why should I care? It’s just every day words pulled together to form a sentence.

You have no fucking idea what it’s like.

Just no fucking idea.

Same words, only said more viciously. And in a male voice. A male voice I recognise…

You have no fucking idea what it’s like.

A flood of unwanted memories sudden hitting me, I push back my chair and am on my feet without even being fully aware of just whatever it is I think I’m doing.

“Oh God…” The memories threatening to swallow me whole, I groan pitifully and, covering my face with my hands, stagger backwards until I hit the wall. “No…”

“Matt?” Ronnie’s hands close around my shoulders but he’s too late and, slipping from his grasp, I slide down the wall until I’m sitting on the floor, hugging my arms around my knees and whimpering like an animal in pain.

“Oi! What’s up with the pretty boy copper? Is he having an aneurism or something?”

Aneurism? As it would probably hurt less, I wish.

“Interview terminated at two-thirty-five pm,” Ronnie shouts, wrenching the door open and calling to a passing PC to take the suspect back to her cell before all but chasing both Susan and her brief out of the room and swiping at the recording equipment to turn it off. “Okay, Sunshine, I’m only going to ask this once, so… What’s the matter?” he murmurs, carefully lowering himself down to the floor next to me. “Do you want me to get the doc? The DI?”

I shake my head numbly and, as tears slip from my eyes and I honestly begin to feel as though I’m hyperventilating, refuse to look at him. “You have no fucking idea what it’s like,” I gasp. “That’s what he said! Tommy, he… He said that to me before… Oh God… I… I can’t…”

Having the facts point at it likely being the case is one thing. Thinking it, even though you were convinced it couldn’t be true, is another, different thing. Realising that it is though… That what you’ve been trying to deny is true…

Words can’t even begin to express how hideous it feels.

“Hey… Come on, Matty, calm down,” Ronnie murmurs, his usually soothing voice carrying more than an underlying tone of anxiousness to it as he returns his hands to my shoulders and tries to pull me away from the wall.

“I don’t want to calm down, I want to forget!” I retort breathlessly, momentarily resisting his pull before just giving up and slumping against him. “Tommy… You were right. You were right all along and he was there. He… He… It all adds up now.” Screwing my eyes shut, I slump against Ronnie and bury my face into his chest. “We… We have to find him, have to bring him in.”

“You know what that’s going to entail, don’t you?” Ronnie prompts as, settling himself more comfortably on the floor, he loosens his grip around me just enough to let me shift free the second I want to without actually moving away. “Matt? I’m all for bringing him in, but…”

But to charge Tommy will be to both commit it to paper and put myself on the witness stand. I’ll have nowhere to hide. Everyone will know. But… What other choice do I have? Regardless of my desire to simply close this miserable chapter of my life off, I have to see it to the logical, legal end.

“I know…” Wearily pushing myself just far enough into a more upright position so I can look Ronnie in the eye, I add quietly, “If it stops him from doing it to anyone else then… then it’ll be worth it.”

~*~

*
Treaty Street, Islington, Greater London, N1 0
Monday, 8 March 2011
7.15pm
*

Continuing to ignore the doorbell as it rings for the second time, I look down at the photo album open on my lap and run my finger across its smooth, cool protective plastic. The four boys, aged between eleven and twelve and positively gleaming in their pre-match kit, smile up at me as though they haven’t a care in the world. No thoughts of violence-happy fathers or paedophile priests mar the moment before the big game and, for an all too brief moment, all is well in their lives.

Now, over twenty years later, one’s dead, one is all but a recluse in his flat while another is on the run from the police, and I’m…

Well. I’m here, sitting on my sofa looking at old photos after having thrown a fit at work this afternoon and being sent home. My head hurts, I feel empty, detached even, and my mind’s so scattered that I can’t even concentrate on not thinking about the memories that assailed me in the interview room. They flit through my thoughts along with the embarrassment of my reaction, the fear of being stripped bare on the witness stand, the disbelief and disappointed that Tommy could have been involved, and… It’s just all too much. I don’t want to think, but I can’t stop.

Hearing the sound of a key being turned in my front door and knowing that it can only be one person, I don’t bother getting up and resign myself to having a visitor. Unable to get my head straight as it is I don’t see how I’m going to be able to play nice for company but, whatever, he’s here now and I just don’t have it in me to chase him away.

“News flash, Sunshine,” Ronnie announces as he sticks his head through the door and waves a take-away bag at me before continuing down the passage to the kitchen. “The light being on,” he continues upon returning sans food, “is a dead give away that you’re in here skulking.”

I shrug and remain sitting on the sofa. “You here to tell me I’m on gardening leave, effective immediately?”

“Nope. Your backside is expected in its usual spot next to mine tomorrow morning,” Ronnie replies, taking his coat and scarf off and draping them across the back of the armchair before looking over at me and trying to lighten my mood by smiling. “Besides, as you’ve already been home long enough to give that poor unfortunate thing that lives in the bathroom some water, I think it’s safe to say you’ve already had all the gardening leave you need.”

“Oh.” So much for thinking the scene in the interview room would have scored me a stint of enforced leave. I’m not saying I wanted it, in fact I’m grateful to have a reason for getting up tomorrow, but at the same time I sort of expected it. “What are you doing here then?” I query, despite knowing that the answer, whether he choses to give it or not, is simply that he wants to see how I’m doing. “Anything you’ve got to ask me could have waited until tomorrow.”

“You know me. I hate to eat alone,” Ronnie responds, tilting his head in the direction of the kitchen. “I got fish and chips. Your, not that you’ll ever admit it, favourite form of take-away.”

“I’m not hungry,” I reply automatically as I nonetheless get to my feet and slowly follow Ronnie into the kitchen. “Thanks for the thought, but…”

“Then you can watch me eat,” he retorts, going over to the cupboard and retrieving two plates anyway that he immediately places next to the food on the bench. “Are you sure I can’t tempt you? It could be your last chance to enjoy a piece of cod before it disappears from our seas for ever…”

The aroma of the salt, oil and grease filling my kitchen smelling far better than I expected it to when I dragged myself off the sofa, I sidle up to Ronnie and pick up a plate. “Well… Seeing as it’s dead already it would be a shame to waste it,” I murmur. “Thanks.”

“A man’s got to eat,” Ronnie replies with a shrug. “Now, how about you getting the drinks while I get the cutlery?”

Nodding, I get the juice out of the fridge and pour two glasses before handing one to Ronnie, taking a knife and fork from him in return, picking up my plate and heading back to the lounge room. Not wanting to get anything on the photo album, I remove it from the coffee table just as Ronnie walks through the door and immediately makes a beeline for it.

“This the four of you, yeah?” Balancing his plate of food precariously against his elbow, he lightly taps the photo. “Just look at you. I’ve never seen a more shiny bunch before.”

“Mmm… That’s me, Pete, Harry, and…” Damn. This is new. All of a sudden I can’t even say his name.

“Tommy…”

“Yeah.” Shutting the photo album, I place it on the armchair and take a seat on the sofa. “It was a long time ago.”

“Back in the days when cod wasn’t the dearest fish on the menu you mean,” Ronnie mutters with a grin as, with his usual effortless ease, he simply moves the conversation along. “Come on. Let’s eat before it gets cold.”

Picking up my plate, I nod and we begin to eat in silence. Although the food tastes great I’m still only able to eat half of it before feeling full and, after dumping the rest of my chips on Ronnie’s plate, I walk back into the kitchen and busy myself with the self imposed task of making coffee. Once it’s brewed and I have two cups with just the right amount of sugar and milk in them, I carry them back into the lounge room and, returning to the sofa, hand one to Ronnie. “Assuming you have any room left to fit it in,” I comment.

“I’ll find the room, don’t you worry,” Ronnie replies, placing his empty plate on the coffee table before taking the coffee from me with a smile of thanks. “So… How are you feeling anyway?”

And so it starts.

“I’m fine.”

“Matt…”

“I’ll survive. Look… I’m sorry for what happened earlier.”

“I’m not.”

Surprised by Ronnie’s very matter-of-fact response, I stare at him and nearly choke on the mouthful of coffee I’d just taken. “What?”

“Better out than in,” he murmurs with an unbothered shrug.

“Yeah, well it’s definitely all out there now,” I retort, wincing as I experience yet another flash back to my BAFTA award winning performance this afternoon. “Probably all around the nick too.”

“It’s not, so you don’t have to worry about that,” Ronnie responds as he shifts around on the sofa to better face me. “And… Is it? Is all of it really out?”

Mentally waving the white flag of, if not defeat then weary acceptance, I look at Ronnie and slowly nod. “Yeah. All of it,” I state quietly. “I remember seeking out Tommy even though I told you that I wouldn’t and I remember finding him and Chas at the flat. Then… Well… Then things went pear shaped. I pissed him off, Chas stuck me with the Special K while he made his threats, then… Then everything just went hazy… And, well, that’s all I remember.”

Frowning, Ronnie prompts, “Just… hazy?”

I nod again, knowing what he’s getting at and not blaming him for a second for wanting to seek further clarification. If I was in his shoes I know I’d be doing exactly the same. “Yeah. Just hazy. I felt strange, really, really strange, then Chas hit me and, seriously Ronnie, the last thing I remember is hitting the floor before everything went back. If I remembered anything more I’d tell you, honest. I wouldn’t want to but I would. So… Please. Believe me when I say… that part… is still thankfully blank.”

“Thank God for small mercies,” Ronnie murmurs, patting my thigh as he settles back on the sofa. “I mean it too. You’ve already remembered more than enough.”

“Try telling that to whichever solicitor lands the job of, assuming we ever even find him that is, getting him off.” Sighing, I follow Ronnie’s lead and lean back against the sofa.

“It’ll be okay. We’ll just have to get the evidence so bang to rights that they won’t have anywhere to go.”

“Ha!” I snort. “You know as well as I do that they always have somewhere to go.”

“Just as I also know you’ll always have a shoulder to lean on if you need it,” Ronnie responds, returning his hand to my thigh and exerting just enough pressure on it to tell me he’s being deadly serious. “Every step of the way, Matty, I’ll be there with you. I’m not going anywhere and together we’ll come out the other side. You’ll see.”

Knowing that I could never put into words how much my partner’s clearly heartfelt statement means to me, I settle instead for glancing at my watch and randomly muttering, “It’s getting late. Want to stay?”

“Thought you’d never ask,” Ronnie beams as he places his cup on the coffee table and stands up. “Just let me get my bag from the car and then I’ll be back to help you decide what we’re going to watch on the telly.”

“Came prepared, huh?” I laugh, relieved not only that my friend is going to stay the night but also that everything is as much in the open now as it’s ever likely to get and that things already feel a lot brighter than they did only an hour ago.

~*~

*
M.I.U. Bow Street, London, WC2E
Thursday, 11 March 2011
10.28am
*

“Don’t you dare put me on hold… Aaargh!” Banging my head against a wall being out of the question thanks to the old fashioned, non cordless phone handset held up to my ear, I kick the rubbish bin instead and swear under my breath. Stupid, tedious phone call ruining my otherwise good day. Just… How dare it? I feel healthier than I have in weeks, there’s been no repeat performance of either the cushion or interview room incident, the evidence against Susan Williams is building up nicely and, foolishly, I’d actually been thinking today had been going fairly nicely. One phone call in order to hunt down bank account details though, that’s all it’s taken to bring everything crashing down.

Looking up from his paperwork, Ronnie grins. “Don’t tell me, let me…”

“Don’t even go there,” I warn, reaching over the small gap that separates our desks and helping myself to a handful of jelly beans from his West Ham glass. “Why, huh? Why is it so Goddamn hard to get put through to a bank manager, huh?” I demand tetchily as I shove all the jelly beans in my mouth at once. “It’s not like I want to have a chat with the Prime Minister or anything like that…”

“Anyone ever tell you that it’s not polite to complain with your mouth full?”

“Ha! You’re a fine one to talk. I don’t know what was worse the other day, watching that huge piece of sushi disappear into your gob, or hearing you try to sing along to Adele through it.”

Still grinning, Ronnie shrugs and returns his attention to his paperwork. “You’re just jealous of my natural born talent.”

“Jealous? Try…” Falling abruptly silent as the recorded message comes back on the line to tell me the blatant lie that ‘my call is important’, I roll my eyes and, for no other reason than I can, aim another kick at the bin. “That’s it. I’ve had enough. From now on I’m going to tell anyone who’ll listen to avoid banking with Santander. If they manage money like they manage their phones then, seriously, just forget it.”

Noticing a young, hesitant looking PC hovering behind me, I gesture pointedly at the phone and wave him and his piece of paper over towards Ronnie. The PC clearly being one to blindly follow directions, he nods and places the paper on the desk in front of my partner before, his task successfully completed, spinning on his heels and disappearing as silently as he’d arrived.

Picking the piece of paper up, Ronnie reads over it and, his expression grave, jumps to his feet. “Get your coat,” he orders, striding over to the coat rack and pulling his on even as he retrieves his car keys from his pocket. “I’m driving.”

“Huh?” I grunt, just as the bank manager’s secretary comes on the line to give me the good news that finally, after twenty minutes, she’s putting me through to him.

“Simon O’Donnell. I believe you wish to speak…”

Snatching the handset out of my hand, Ronnie slams it down on the base and, shoving the piece of paper at me, hauls me to my feet. “I think you’ll find that this is a little more important.”

~*~

*
I.C.U., The Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel, City of London, Greater London, E1 1BB
Thursday, 11 March 2011
11.00am
*

“I’ve already been through all of this with the uniformed officers that brought him in,” Dr Gupta states with obvious annoyance. “Don’t you lot ever communicate? I would have thought you could have gotten everything you needed from them instead of standing here wasting my time.”

“Unfortunately we need to hear it direct from his treating doctor,” Ronnie replies reasonably as, solely for the benefit of the both harried and exhausted looking Dr Gupta, he takes his pen and notepad out of his pocket in order to take down notes. “Of course, the quicker you’re able to tell us what we need to know, the quicker you can leave us to attend to your other patients.”

“And to think I thought we were bad here at the hospital at communicating,” the doctor mutters, his sour expression making it more than evident to anyone passing by that having to talk to us is a complete waste of his valuable time.

My patience at just about an all time low, I ignore the warning look Ronnie shoots me and position myself well and truly in the doctor’s personal space. I understand that he’s busy. I even understand that he probably can’t really afford the time to talk to us, but, seriously, I’m just not in the mood to be jerked around and hope he’s intelligent enough to see this in my face. “You heard my partner,” I grind out, my fingers itching to grab him by the lapels of his white coat and give him a good shake. “The quicker you cough up what we need to know the quicker you can be on your way.”

“Fine.” Scowling, Dr Gupta takes a step back and consults his clipboard. “Thomas Clarke was brought in early this morning suffering multiple stab wounds to the chest. While he’s been through surgery and is now in recovery, and I’ll be honest with you… gentleman…” He pauses and, I swear, looks down his nose at me. “Mr Clarke’s prognosis is not good. The wounds were both substantial and deep and he’d lost a considerable amount of blood before he was discovered.” Pausing again, he shrugs dismissively and lowers his clipboard. “Then there’s his serious poor health. Malnourished, heavy drug user if all the track marks littering his body are anything to go by. If he was in better health I’d say he had a far better chance, but as it is…”

“Can I see him?” I interrupt, having already heard enough and feeling as though my head is in danger of exploding if I have to hear much more.

“If you must,” Dr Gupta replies reluctantly, his gaze straying to a closed door along the corridor. “But, and I really must insist on this, only for a couple of minutes. The patient is not long out of surgery and is still very weak. It would also be best if you were to enter the room with low expectations.”

“Thanks, doc.” Brushing the doctor off with an easy smile, Ronnie gazes at him until he gets the hint that he’s free to go and gently guides me over towards the door. “You want me to…”

I shake my head and, ignoring how it suddenly seems to be trembling, place my hand on the door handle. “I need to do this on my own.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I… I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll be waiting for you just over there.” Ronnie nods towards a couple of empty chairs sitting in the corridor. “Matt…”

“Mmm?”

“Don’t think you have to do this, as you don’t.”

“Yeah.” I smile grimly and begin to slowly open the door. “I do.”

“Well, you know where to find me then.”

“Thanks.” Taking a deep breath, I wait until Ronnie’s sat down before walking into the dimly lit room and silently shutting the door behind me. Although the image that greets me is the one I’d been expecting, it still both shocks and dismays me and I only just manage to stop myself from gasping. Deathly pale and with his bare chest heavily bandaged, Tommy lies flat on the bed, his body hooked up to multiple drips and monitors alike. If anything, he looks – near death – worse than I’d imagined he would.

Feeling as though I’m both intruding and that I’ve made a terrible mistake in being so convinced that I had see him, I’m about to – retreat – back out of the room when, with obvious effort, Tommy’s eyelids flicker open and he somehow manage to focus on me. “Matty?” he whispers hoarsely, inching his hand along the mattress as though he’s reaching for me. “Is that… Is that really you?”

“Shhh…” Walking over to the bed, I sit down in the visitor’s chair and without hesitation close my hand around his. Regardless of what all the facts might point at, he’s helpless, in pain, and someone I still view as being an important part of my childhood. It may be overly magnanimous of me, and I’ll still see the charges through, but for now everything else can simply wait. “Don’t try to talk. I… I just wanted to see how you were, that’s all.”

“No…” Tommy groans and, clutching my hand, tries to push himself up from the bed. “I have…”

“Shhh…” Using my free hand, I apply just enough pressure on his shoulder to get him to lie back down again. “You need to rest.”

“No,” Tommy repeats, his grip on my hand tightening as his eyes beg me to let him have his say. “I… You have to listen to me. I need to explain…”

“It’s okay, Tommy,” I murmur, squeezing his hand back. “It can wait. Really. You need to…”

“No… No, it can’t,” Tommy wheezes. “Just… Shut up, Matty, and listen. You’ve got to believe that I didn’t… It wasn’t me…”

“No?” My attention caught even though I know this isn’t the ideal time and that I should just take my leave in order for Tommy to get his rest, I lean forward and wait for him to continue.

“No!” Whimpering, Tommy lets go of my hand only to grab the sleeve of my coat and, with a strength he shouldn’t currently possess, pull me closer to the bed. “I was pissed at you for interfering, for sticking your do-gooder nose in where it didn’t belong, that I wanted to, wanted to teach you a lesson in order to make you go away for good,” he whispers, grimacing with pain as the words fall out of his mouth in a rush. “But… But I couldn’t! Oh God, Matty. You’ve got to believe me. Chas, he… He knocked you down and… and looking at you on the floor I was reminded of that time I watched through the front window as your dad flattened you and left you bleeding on the carpet… You… You were only ten or eleven at the time and it was so long ago, but… Oh God! To me anyway you looked the same. On the floor and with a bloody nose you looked just as you did all those years ago and… and I couldn’t…”

Taken aback by Tommy’s confession, I uncurl his fingers from around my sleeve and close both of my hands around his. “Shhh…” Seriously. I don’t think I can hear anymore. “Come on, Tommy. It’s okay. My dad never finished me off and neither did you…”

Tommy moans. “No! I… I haven’t finished. Matty, I’m sorry. So fucking sorry. Just… Just because I couldn’t do it, couldn’t hurt you, doesn’t mean I stopped Chas. I… I just took another hit and left him to it, left you… I left you. Matty, I… I let him do that to you, let him do what I wouldn’t even wish on my worst fucking enemy!”

“It’s history, Tommy,” I reply, my voice somehow managing to sound a hell of a lot calmer than I actually feel. “Just… Listen to me. What’s done is done. I’m still here and, for what it’s worth, I knew you couldn’t have done it.”

“You… You did?”

The raw hope in both Tommy’s wide eyed gaze and voice pierces me to the core and, dazed by everything, I just nod.

“Too little, too late, yeah,” Tommy whispers as, having heard what he’d hoped for, his hand slips from between mine and, struggling to keep his eyes open, he flops back down on the bed, “but I’ve been after Chas ever since. Have been… tracking… the fucker. Wanted to make him pay.”

“He did this to you?” I prompt as I get to my feet and lean over the bed to watch Tommy’s response. “Tommy? Was Chas the one who stabbed you?”

“Yeah… Bastard always was a dirty fighter…” His voice trailing off, Tommy’s eyes close before suddenly flying open again and locking onto mine. “Matty… I know I don’t deserve it, but… Can you forgive me? I… I need to know that you forgive me…”

“Of course I forgive you,” I reply, lightly running my hand along the line of Tommy’s unshaven jaw as a nurse enters the room. “Just… Get some rest, yeah, and I’ll see you later.”

His eyes already once again shut, I can only hope that he heard me and with one final, lingering glance at the tragic sight he makes on the bed, I turn to take my leave.

“Hope you’ve said your final goodbyes,” the nurse comments kindly as she goes over to the largest monitor to check its readings. “Poor love. It’s really not looking good at all.”

There being nothing I can think of replying to that, I walk out of the room and, feeling as though I’ve quite literally been through the wringer, sink down in the chair next to Ronnie. Taking the cup of coffee he immediately offers me, I stare down at my feet and sigh. “He said he didn’t do it, that it was Chas.”

“You believe him?”

“Yeah…” Leaning back, I take a sip of coffee and nod tiredly. “Yeah, I do.”

Echoing my nod, Ronnie toasts me with his coffee. “Then that’s good enough for me.”

~*~

*
Kensal Green Crematorium – West Chapel, Harrow Road, London W10 4RA
Friday, 18 March 2011
11.12am
*

Walking out of the chapel into brilliant sunlight, I stare up at the vibrantly blue, cloudless sky and idly wonder about the fairness of it all. While still on the cold side, it’s a lovely day and here I am standing in the middle of a cemetery after having just attended Tommy’s funeral service. It’s a moot point, seeing as if I wasn’t here I’d probably either be sitting in front of my computer in the office or attending a crime scene somewhere anyway, but it’s a day for being out and about, for walking along the Thames and marvelling at the fact that spring is finally, after far too many months of grey skies, here. It’s not, at any rate, a day designed for grief and mourning.

Harry Lucas, the only other mourner to attend the service after phone calls to Tommy’s mother and sister had elicited the same response of ‘oh, he’s already been dead to us for years’ before hanging up in my ear, joins me outside and together we walk along the forecourt in the direction of the parking lot. Although we see little of each other these days and he’d seemed disinterested when I told him the news of Tommy’s passing, I’m glad Harry made the effort to come and like to think that Tommy would have been pleased too.

Pausing to allow a hearse to glide quietly past, I glance at Harry and find him looking up at me with an unreadable expression on his pale face. Feeling as though he’s expecting me to say something I, for the want of anything better to say, smile faintly and comment, “And then there two.”

“One. Actually,” Harry replies as, with a quick shake of his head, he looks away.

“What?” Shocked by the strangeness of his response, the word comes out of my mouth more sharpish than I’d planned and, in a defensive move straight out of a text book, I swiftly move to position myself directly in front of him. “Just what’s that supposed to mean, huh? There was always the four of us. You, me, Pete and Tommy.”

Clearly not liking the fact I’m blocking his path, Harry shrugs and, stepping around me, continues to walk along the forecourt. “There was the four of us in one respect, yeah,” he mumbles, “but in another, possibly even more important respect, there were the three of us. Me, Tommy and Pete and… now I’m the only one left.”

This all coming as quite unexpected news to me, I frown and, only just managing to resist the urge to grab him by the arm, get back in step with Harry. “Is this because… he… never…” I trail off, knowing that I don’t have to spell the question out, that having learnt my lesson better late than never, Nugent’s name is really far better left unsaid.

“Not just because of that, no.”

“No?”

“No.”

“But that was part of it?”

Harry nods and, coming to a stop, gazes off into the distance. “It was part of it, yeah,” he murmurs reluctantly.

“Well, what was the other part of it?” It shouldn’t matter, and ultimately it probably won’t, but I want, no, need to know what Harry’s trying not to say here. I always viewed our friendship as four equal parts of a whole, but it appears now that I was wrong.

“All those times you missed school or couldn’t come out to play,” Harry responds, avoiding my no doubt accusatory gaze by staring down at his feet. “While we… uh… could never talk about what… he… did, we could talk about you and what an arsehole your father was and… uh… That’s it, really. You were different from the rest of us, Matt, that’s all. You were our friend and part of the gang but, well, at the same time you were still different…”

“Oh.” Well, there you go. You learn a new thing every day. Even as part of a gang I was on my own. Uninteresting to Nugent, one of the three punching bags having the misfortune to take up space in his house to my father, and a cause for both conversation and consternation to my friends. Perhaps I should be upset, but I’m not. If anything it makes me even more grateful for the life and friends I have today.

Shrugging off the moment both physically and literally, I touch Harry on the arm and tilt my head in the direction of my car. “Want a lift anywhere?”

“No thanks,” Harry replies with a weak smile to indicate his relief at having survived his confession unscathed. “Now that I’m here I thought I’d take the opportunity to pay my respects to all the graves I’ve been lax in visiting.”

“I laid flowers on my mother’s before the service,” I murmur, giving Harry’s shoulder a squeeze before beginning to walk off. “Thanks for coming, by the way, even if Tommy’s not around somewhere to appreciate it, I did.”

“Yeah, well… I felt as though I owed it to him.”

“Yeah. Me too. Bye, Harry. I’ll see you later.”

“Mmm… Bye, Matt.”

Our farewells having been said, we walk off in our separate directions and I realise as I turn onto the path that will take me to the car that I’m actually feeling curiously happy. The sun is shining, Tommy’s soul is hopefully at peace and, really, who cares if my version of the friendships I held close in my childhood isn’t exactly the full truth. It’s all history, anyway, and it’s the here and now that matters. The friendships I have today are the important ones, the ones that I know I should never take for granted and am lucky to have.

Speaking of which…

The car finally coming in to sight, I spot a very familiar figure wearing an equally as familiar coat leaning against it and the grin I can feel stretching across my lips is as instinctive as it is immediate. Not wanting to let on how pleased I am to see him though, I pull my phone out of my pocket and, as I near the car, pretend to make a call.

“I’m really sorry to bother you as I know how terribly busy the police are these days, but I’m at Kensal Green Cemetery and there’s a rather strange looking man wearing a mac lurking around my car and, well, I’m afraid that he may be a flasher.”

“Oh, very droll,” Ronnie mutters as he struggles to plaster a believable looking expression of unamused, long suffering across his face. “Whoever knew that funeral services could inspire such great comedy.”

Smirking, I slip my phone back into my pocket and lean up against the side of the car next to him. “So, as we’ve probably got a few minutes before a panda comes screaming in here to take you away,” I snicker as, giving up, he can’t help but laugh, “what brings you here?”

“Apart from the Bakerloo line to the station, you mean?”

I roll my eyes. “Yes. Other than the Bakerloo line, what brings you here?”

“Well, it’s a nice day for a stroll, innit?”

“Well, yeah. It is, actually.” I look up at the sky before gesturing at the collection of tombstones that pretty much surround us. “Pity about the location though.”

“Yeah. You’re right.” Shrugging, Ronnie flashes me a grin and, turning around, runs his hand over the roof of the car. “Yours?” he queries, abruptly changing the subject to, I suspect, draw out the real reason he’s here.

“Uh-huh. Paperwork from the insurance company finally came through late yesterday and I picked it up on the way here this morning.”

“It’s another Mondeo,” he states with a funny little sniff of disapproval.

“And to think your optometrist insists your eyesight is bad enough to require glasses,” I drawl, laughing.

“Smart arse,” Ronnie retorts as, really laying it on thick now, he gives the car a dismissive look. “What I really meant to say was… Why? Was it in the small print of your policy or something that you had to have another Mondeo?”

“Nope.” I shrug and smile. “I chose it. The old one suited me just fine, so why not get another one?”

“But…” He sniffs again and shakes his head. “It’s a… copper’s… car.”

“This coming from a man who is still mourning the demise of Rover?” I groan. “Give me a break.”

“They made a great car,” Ronnie protests, the gleam in his eyes giving it away that the whole purpose of this conversation is to stir me, nothing more. “What’s more, I’d still have mine if that old woman in the far too big Merc hadn’t ploughed into it and written it off.”

“And I’d still have my old Mondeo if it hadn’t been nicked and torched,” I retort, laughing at the absurdity of it all. We’re standing in a cemetery bickering over a car? Seriously. Whatever next?

“Seeing as it’s what we drive when we take a pool car, I still think it’s a copper’s car.”

“And? What of it? I am after all, unless the horror of my boring car has caused it to slip your mind, a copper.”

It all finally getting too much for him, Ronnie laughs and claps me on the shoulder. “You know, sometimes I think you were just born to wear the uniform.”

“There’d be worse things to be born to wear.”

“Yeah.” He nods and gives me a wink. “There would.”

“Now that we finally appear to agree on something,” I reply, feigning great relief as I pull the keys out of my pocket and use the remote to unlock the car, “what are you planning to do with yourself when I get into my boring, copper’s car and leave you here?”

“Actually, as much as might pain me to do so,” Ronnie responds, affecting a resigned expression, “I’m going to get into your boring car with you and you’re going to drive us to Wormwood Scrubs.”

“I… am?”

“Uh-huh. Seeing as that’s why I dragged myself out here, you are.”

“So much for thinking then that a trip to a cemetery was going to be the highlight of my day.”

“Stick with me, Sunshine. I’ll take you to all the best places.”

“Hmm… I truly don’t know who to thank for my great luck,” I retort, opening the car door and making to climb in. “Now, other than it making for a perfectly lovely outing, what on earth are we going to the Scrubs for?”

“Our mate, Chas,” Ronnie mutters as he walks around the car and opens the door, “he has a brother locked up in there and I thought we might have a chat with him as to whether he’s got any ideas where the toerag could be currently holed up. By all accounts they’ve never really got on, so with any luck he’ll be only too happy to shop him.”

“Sounds good to me,” I reply once we’re both in the car and pulling our seatbelts on.

“Aaah…” Beaming, Ronnie turns to face me. “On the subject of good, I think you’ll also really like what Alesha was able to discover this morning.”

“I will?”

“Uh-huh. She’s managed to dig up an old police report detailing how Susan Williams was once reported for hitting Reg with an iron.”

“An iron? I frown, the solely justice-orientated pleasure I’m feeling at knowing we’ve dug up another nail for Susan’s coffin being tempered by the fact we somehow missed the report in the first place. “How’d we miss that? I didn’t think any of the abuse had ever been reported.”

“Not here it hadn’t,” Ronnie replies. “The report’s from Blackpool, and that’s how we missed it.”

“Blackpool?”

“Five years ago Susan and Reg rented a flat there for six months when he went there for a job,” he explains. “We never looked anywhere else because all the information we had was that they’d spent their entire married life living in their flat in Marylebone. There was nothing to indicate they’d ever lived anywhere else.”

“Until Alesha dug deeper…”

“Uh-huh. I think we’ve really got her now, don’t you?”

I nod and place the key into the ignition. “It won’t bring Reg back, but… Excellent. I’d say the case is as watertight now as we’re going to get it.” Starting the engine, I’m in the process of putting it into gear when Ronnie’s hand closes over mine as it rests on the gearstick and stops me.

“Hey, Matt,” he murmurs quietly as the mood in the car shifts subtly. “How are you holding up?”

The question having been inevitable, I smile and almost luxuriate in the knowledge that for the first time it what feels like ages I have an easy, honest answer to give him. “I’m good.”

And I am, too. Chas, when he’s found – and he will be – will be going down for Tommy’s murder thanks to both the bloody fingerprinted knife being found and Tommy’s statement to the uniformed officers who’d travelled in the ambulance with him, and that will be just that. Justice will be done for the worse crime and, seeing no point in pursuing it, I’ll never have to be on the witness stand telling my side of the story. Some might see it as a cop out, but so long as Chas goes down I can’t say I really care. I’ve made my peace with what happened and just want to put it behind me. The knowledge that I still have to wait for the results of a HIV test hangs over my head but not even that is causing me any great concern these days. What will be, will be. It’s not the death sentence it used to be anyway and, besides, having too much to live for I plan to be around for a good long while yet. If nothing else, my partner would be lost without me and that, as far as I’m concerned, is as good a reason for sticking around as any.

“Yeah?” Ronnie prompts, cautiously returning my smile as his hand continues to rest over mine.

I nod and, turning my hand over, give his a squeeze. “Yeah. I’m good,” I confirm with another, even brighter this time, smile. “Really good.”

~ end ~