From the door of the living room Rick looked across at the couch where Milo was sprawled, mustard tie undone, lime green shirt clashing with emerald green eyes that were currently fixed unwaveringly on the large TV screen.
“Slob,” he said, affectionately, noting the empty cups, cans and potato-chip bags that littered the table by his partner’s side. ‘But my slob,’ he said inside his head, emphatically and with a feeling he would fight off any and all comers to keep it that way.
“Sshh,” was the only response, and Milo didn’t even look up when Rick deposited a plate of sandwiches and a cup of coffee beside him, carefully filling the only empty spaces on the table and even overlapping some of the filled ones.
With a theatrical sigh, meant to sound long-suffering but somehow coming out as teasing, Rick went back to the kitchen to get his own plate and cup. He settled on the unused portion of the couch (no mean feat considering the amount of space Milo was taking up), using the other side table to hold his snack. Milo flung a casual but proprietary arm around his shoulders but didn’t look, either at Rick or at the culinary offering. His gaze was riveted on the events taking place on the television.
“Again?” Rick nodded at the screen though he knew Milo was looking at it, not him.
“What d’you mean, ‘again’?”
“He’s the guy we’ve seen quite a few times, isn’t he? Partner to the big man. Goes to prison for something or other in the end? And I seem to remember buying you the boxed set. See, I do pay attention sometimes. But this must be quite early in the series because he’s clearly still a cop. What’s his name? Something that ties in with a famous singer or something? ” Rick occasionally sat beside his lover, a journal open on his knee, while the screen delivered Milo’s favourite shows. He rarely took much notice, preferring nature documentaries, Shakespeare and political debate. But Milo tended to assume that presence meant concentration.
“This,” said Milo, fairly patiently (although the current scene was a fight, and the outcome would no doubt be made clear later), “is a different series. Miami, even. Look at the sky. And his name’s Caruso. Far as I know, he doesn’t sing.”
“Caruso, yes. Told you so. What d’you mean, a different series? He’s out of prison and moved from New York to Miami? Yes, I can see the weather isn’t quite New York”
“No.” Milo’s teeth were gritted now. “A completely different series. It’s just chance he’s playing a cop again.”
“Typecasting.” Rick nodded, trying to look and sound intelligent about it. He got no response this time; Milo’s attention was once more with the unfolding drama. This was fast reaching a climax (and hopefully a conclusion) and Rick watched too, completely bemused, making up stories in his head to go with the incomprehensible characters and plot that he evidently hadn’t seen before. He had no idea what was going on; he’d been reading and then working in the kitchen during the first three-quarters of the program.
Milo frequently rewatched things, looking for details missed first time around. Sometimes he would focus on the acting and sometimes on the detection. He rarely watched the more recent programs, the ones everyone mentioned at work. Rick thought he could be forgiven for getting confused.
When the closing credits flashed there was a brief tussle for the remote and Rick either won or was allowed to win. He channel-surfed for a few moments before homing in on a nature documentary that was basically eye-candy with a syrupy voice-over. He knew better than to switch off altogether.
“Penguins?” Milo was grinning. “I thought we could watch that season five episode of The Wire. The one Belzer’s in.”
“Another one who appears all over the place in unrelated series?” Rick deliberately injected incomprehension into his voice; sometimes it was fun to tease.
“He’s Munch in all of them. They’re linked. Kind of.” Milo knew quite well that Rick had watched Homicide: Life on the Street from start to finish because they’d watched it sitting on this same couch, and they had been following and discussing Law and Order: SVU from the beginning to the current season. A change from Milo’s usual viewing habits. They were reasonably up to date on The Wire, too, though Rick, as usual, had brought his journals to the couch to avoid some of the more violent scenes. There was enough blood, he thought, in his operating theater. “And the one I mean has Aiden Gillen in it. You like him.”
Rick raised an eyebrow. “The pretty one from that UK series about gays? Yes, he was better than our homegrown versions.”
Milo tightened his hold on Rick’s shoulder. “Pretty? Don’t make me jealous, dottore. You’re supposed to have eyes only for me. Though you may,” he added condescendingly, “admire the acting.”
“I have eyes for pretty boys. Queer eye for a pretty guy.” He risked a glance at Milo, who kept his features immobile. “It’s a bit like admiring a work of art. Choosing to grow old with you or a Tiffany lampshade, there’d be no contest.”
“I’d win?” There was a note of wistfulness in Milo’s voice and Rick hastened to reassure him, snuggling closer into the encircling arm.
“You’d win every time, Big Guy,” he said.
“And what’s that about growing old? Are we?” Again, a hint of uncertainty.
“We all do eventually and I merely meant when we do. But we must be getting older. I feel as if these cop guys are part of my life from way way back; we’ve been watching them for years.”
“This particular cop guy is part of your life.”
“But he doesn’t often bring cases home. Thank goodness. Leaves that to the TV cops. Like Sipo-what. He’s big and ugly, same as you, and I like him well enough.” A small grin and a quick feather-light stroke of his fingers down Milo’s thigh. “ And he gets around the cop shows, too.” Milo was conventionally ugly, he reflected as he often did, with his overlarge nose and his pockmarked skin, but he was strong and reassuring, a powerful alpha male and as such incredibly attractive. (But hooked on cop shows.)
“So you do notice some things.”
“We didn’t watch as many in the early days so it was easier to concentrate - they didn’t just blur. When Lieutenant Buntz from Hill Street Blues weasels his way into his own Beverly Hills spin-off and then turns up with a false identity in New York, why wouldn’t I notice? Anyone would notice.” At the beginning of their relationship Rick had tried to keep up with Milo’s tastes in television. Had really, really focused. Then he had noticed that this was not reciprocal and had abandoned his effort.
“When we first moved in together. We didn’t watch as much TV of any kind. Probably had better things to do.” He braced himself for the inevitable good-natured smack.
“Still got those things to do, dottore. You saying you don’t get enough?”
“Never saying that. Just that we seem to have upped the time we spend on re-runs.”
“We watch new stuff too.”
Yes, Rick knew that. And he supposed the episode that had just ended was part of the “new stuff”. Except that with the same actors in similar roles, how was he to know? Some things, he did know and said so. “Last Saturday it was Starsky and Hutch all over again.”
“Think yourself lucky it wasn’t Cagney and Lacey.”
“Women cops? You? Nothing to admire there.”
“I can admire their police skills.”
“But you say so often that they haven’t any - any of them, I mean, not just the women. That so many of them are simply fairy tales of New York or here or wherever. Even NYPD Blue - the bits based around the cops’ lives more than the crime parts. And Starsky and Hutch... Those guys must be older than us. Retired, even.”
“There you go on the age thing again. Something on your mind?”
“Dunno. Guess I had a hard week. Feeling tired. Maybe feeling my age.” Rick held out his long slim surgeon’s fingers, so that Milo could see the slight tremor brought on by the stresses of the last few days (and hopefully gone by Monday). He wasn’t old - yet - but some day he would be past his medical sell-by date. He hoped Milo would still be there when that happened.
“Hard week, Baby? You and me both.” Milo had moved his arm a little. His fingers were curling round the back of his neck now, making short runs up into his hair, caressing but not quite sexual; they could still talk, watch television. Nothing was going on that couldn’t be stopped or scaled down. But it felt nice. Daytime weekday touch meant scalpels, masks and blood. Milo could always soothe him. And he could soothe in turn.
“Hard going after evil-doers or hard as in the boss putting you under pressure?”
“Both. But the boss was maybe the worst. Meetings.” Milo didn’t need to elaborate. “You?”
“Just...two deaths on my watch. Nothing I could have prevented but...”
“I know, dottore. You’d like to save the world.”
“Something tells me you have similar ideas.”
“So this pair of aging knights in modern armor need to wind down and you choose cop shows. I don’t mind; they’re all fairy tales to me, even the reality ones where they chase traffic, but I’d have thought you’d want a change from your reality sometimes.”
“Nah. The way some of the cops can’t see the truth till they fall over it, and the way they wrap everything up in an hour - those things amuse me, tell me there’s hope in the world, or at least in the imagination of the scriptwriters. You saying you’re bored with my choice of entertainment? Thought you liked them. You never complained.”
He’d begun this thread of conversation, Rick supposed, so he’d better live with the consequences - and come clean. “I’ve never been bored. But sometimes recently I’d like a change. Something where the same characters don’t wander in and out of each other’s scenarios, changing their names at random.”
“You got it in for the actors who take on roles they’re good at?”
“No. And sometimes it’s interesting. Makes me imagine crossover stories - the kind where Starsky and Hutch visit New York and chat to Sipo-whatnot. Hey! We haven’t watched that recently - NYPD, I mean. I thought it was that tonight but it was just the singer namesake in something else. I was interested in where they were going with the gay receptionist guy.”
“I think he was just one of their token gays - and only a receptionist at that. At least if I’m LAPD’s token I’m a lieutenant.”
“Homicide had that officer experimenting with the gay life.”
“You definitely notice. But look where that got him! And there have been others, but not with the same experiences I’ve had here.” Milo did not elaborate but Rick knew he was right. He tended to look up when gay characters were inserted into mainstream television. “OK - what do you suggest? Medical dramas?”
“You mean like House? No thanks. I leave all that firmly at work.” He did, too. He read medical research journals at home, but that was as far as it went. He had enough pain and gore at work; didn’t want to watch it dressed up as entertainment. That was one reason he didn’t always concentrate on Milo’s choice of program. Blood; violence; death.
“What then? There’s that channel with Brit cops. Dreaming spires, Yorkshire moors, cozy villages, X-cars or something, take your pick.”
“They don’t do city cops?”
“Probably but they don’t seem to export them much. There are those dramas like Prime Suspect. Or Dalgleish. Pure fantasy. I can’t suspend disbelief long enough to watch what they’re doing. And I can’t imagine what their superior officers would have to say.”
Rick grinned. “No fantasy then. Anyway, I was thinking. Someone at work mentioned that new Swedish series. Well, not new new. Just new here. Sounds good and although it isn’t a rerun it isn’t exactly live. I think they’re on season three and we could start at the beginning on one of the rerun channels.”
“Swedish?” Milo’s eyes were wide with horror.
“Subtitles,” Rick reassured him quickly.
The eyes reverted to normal. “Still, Swedish. Italian, now, or Spanish - but Swedish?”
“My colleague said their whole way of working was interesting. Told me there were some pretty boys. No cast photos on IMDb but…”
Milo sniffed. “You researched it? Swedish pretty boys? Probably all smell of herrings.”
“Last time I checked we didn’t have smellies, only movies. But you asked me for a suggestion; that’s it. I could have suggested nature programs.”
“Penguins?” Milo glanced at the screen where some photogenic chicks were waddling across the beach and the music, threatening even at low volume, told the viewer (though not the chicks) to look out for sea lions. “I think I’d rather have Swedish boys than penguins. But I reserve the right to change my mind. When and where?”
Rick hid a smile. He had heard of Wallander and it sounded - well - different. And he was prepared to indulge Milo with cops, so long as they weren’t more of the same. The Swedish countryside would be a bonus.
They found a channel with the show. It turned out to be the Brit version rather than the original Swedish one, so there were no subtitles to contend with. With Brit shows Milo sometimes thought there should be but so far they had abstained from the closed captioning option.
Rick had hoped… His colleague had raved about the Swedish original, seen on a conference trip to London. But this would do. There was time to kill before it started; the penguins continued their march to the dangerous seas and both men finished their sandwiches and coffee. Then Milo’s cell phone bleeped. He patted his pockets, meaty hands flailing in their search for the interruption. Rick watched with an inner worry that this would be an emergency. In their jobs, either of them could be called out at the most inconvenient times but the instances got fewer since they got older - and with promotions.
“Hi, Alex! Sorry. Couldn’t find the phone for a minute. How’s things? And what’s up?” Not work then, or at least not officially. But Alex was unlikely to ring this late on a Saturday to exchange social pleasantries.
“How’s Robin? And the pooch?” A low hum from the speaker as Alex presumably answered. “I know, I know. You aren’t ringing to tell me about your lady or your mutt. What then? Spell it out!”
Rick listened, trying to fill in the unheard half of the conversation.
“So this kid’s in the system now but you believe the mother. Any reason?” Humming. “Gut instinct’s sometimes the best.” More humming. “Have you seen the kid?” A brief pause. “Then you’ll know more in the morning. But I don’t see what I can do.” The humming was prolonged this time. “I’ll ask him, but you know, this is like that game. Chinese whispers or something. CPS tells you and you talk to the mother and she tells you something else then you tell me and I ask Rick, and none of us have seen the kid.” A pause where the phone seemed to splutter in Milo’s huge hand. “Well of course the mother and CPS have seen him. You know what I meant. OK, OK. I’ll ask. I’ll get back to you. As soon as.” Milo shut the phone and turned to Rick.
“I need to ask you...”
“...a medical question. I know.”
“And you don’t like it. I know that, too.”
“This is home, not work. But go ahead. It’s for Alex.”
Milo frowned at the phone as if holding it personally responsible for ruining the mood. “They called Alex in to consult on a case. CPS took the kid over when the school reported suspected abuse - grabbed him from school just before the last bell but by the time Alex got the message it was evening, would you believe? And by then the little boy, just six years old, had cried himself to sleep and nobody wanted to disturb him. So Alex talks to them for a while and then the mother. She went to pick her son up from school and was told he’d been taken. She went to the cops; they questioned her rather than the school but there was no evidence and they brought her along to talk to CPS. Everything has to wait till tomorrow now, and maybe wait for Alex’s diagnosis or for a pediatrician.”
“But Alex is worried enough to wreck your Saturday evening. So why?”
“The mother’s claiming the kid’s sick. But she doesn’t know the proper name of whatever’s wrong with him. Just that what looks like abuse isn’t. Moved here from Seattle and she reckons the doc there knew. But he’s asleep - like the kid. Again, nothing till tomorrow.”
“So what can anyone do? Why involve us? Why not wait till the morning?”
“Alex wants to have something to hold onto when he sees the kid. Make him more certain of his approach. Cause as little trauma as he can, especially if the kid is genuinely sick. He’s still talking with CPS and wants some kind of positive lead before he leaves. The cops are still threatening to arrest the mother and he doesn’t want her to spend the night in custody. He’ll research things when he gets home.”
“So I’m supposed to diagnose outside my specialty and underpin his morning housecall? How on earth do I know what’s the matter with a child I’ve never seen? That Alex has never seen.” He was grumbling from habit, but he would do his best. Alex was Milo’s best friend, his unofficial partner in investigations. If Alex needed help, he, Rick, would do his very best. And while Alex was a doctor he was a long way from hands-on medical practice. Psychology was largely a cerebral pursuit. Rick grimaced to himself as his mind came up with that description.
“Says he’s seen photos. Looks as if the kid’s arm has been burnt or something. Maybe even...”
“What?” Rick hated the look of anguish on his lover’s face.
“Flayed? Then that’s for the cops. And not you; you didn’t get the call on this case.”
“But Alex thinks he believes the mother. Says she’s very young, not bright, probably not bright enough to act that well. Says she’s claiming some illness called Eeby. Doesn’t sound likely, does it? But...” Milo stopped as Rick got up suddenly and left the room.
Moments later he was back with a medical journal, the one he’d been reading during the first half of the Caruso program. He held it out, open at a double spread with a lurid illustration and a great deal of dense text.
E.B. said the title. An investigation into possible treatments for epidermolysis bullosa.
“See? I wasn’t wasting my time earlier. It’s a coincidence that I was reading this article. It isn’t my field; I was just interested.”
So what is it?” Milo’s eyes were wide with shock as he looked at the picture, facing the text, of a child with strips of skin hanging from raw arms. “Sure looks like abuse.”
“It’s a genetic skin disorder. The skin blisters and peels away from the flesh. Doesn’t stay attached. Horrible to look at and painful to experience. And the mother has the name right. E.B.”
“She could have heard of it and be using it as an excuse to confuse the issue.”
“She could. But it’s rare. And easy to diagnose once they get a pediatrician there. If Alex goes in armed with that knowledge he can get an official diagnosis first thing and reunite mom and kid. Job done. Plus they’ll hold off on an arrest if he tells them about this.”
Milo was already keying in Alex’s number. The conversation was quick to begin with then Milo read out the title of the article, spelling to make sure, followed by details of the journal. “Now you can Google it or whatever you do,” he said. Then, “Yeah, you’d have come up with it eventually but you did the right thing coming to us first. As it happens. It was pure luck, you know. Rick just happened to have been reading the article tonight.” A short pause. “No, it’s OK. You weren’t interrupting anything.” He listened again for a moment. “You and Robin might think that’s what Saturday nights are for; Rick and me, we have loftier minds. Which is lucky for you.” There were some polite murmurs of goodnight and promises to meet. Something about walking the dog later on Sunday after Alex had seen the kid, the mom and the authorities. Rick knew it wouldn’t happen, was just some kind of farewell ritual. He wasn’t sure if Milo believed he would go or knew he wouldn’t but said it anyway.
Milo had settled back into the cushions of the couch and was fiddling with the remote. He had muted the penguins when the phone had rung and now there was a mute newscaster mouthing platitudes of the day at them. He switched channels and turned up the sound.
Rick watched the Wallander title sequence. And the first scenes: bloody and haunting. Ah well, the gore was theatrical makeup and the whole thing was taking place at the other side of the Atlantic. He sat back resignedly; he’d asked for this. And Branagh’s acting would inevitably make up for a lot.
Quite quickly, Milo was hooked. At least it was a change. There were two episodes shown back to back and by the end of the second both men were surprised to find themselves in Los Angeles instead of Stockholm or its neighbourhood.
“Pretty enough?” Milo raised an eyebrow. “That Martinsson. Hot. Sultry even.”
“Yeah, but Wallander himself...”
“He’s a thug. I mean, he’s a cop but he’s a thuggish type.”
“He reminds me of you. Rough but real. Solid. Anyway, I doubt if the actor’s a thug, and I could fancy him.” Rick had fleeting thoughts of Conspiracy, Rabbit-Proof Fence and Much Ado About Nothing but the thoughts fled. Milo would just look blank.
“But you don’t need to fancy him. You’ve got me, right here.” Milo was holding him close, whispering into his hair. Everything suddenly seemed a long way away. Caruso, penguins, skin-damaged child, all as far off as Scandinavia. Reality was a big cop with huge but gentle hands and a love of old TV shows.
Rick burrowed into Milo’s side then emerged to say, “Think we might take this to the bedroom? We’re not teenagers any more; I’m too old to make out on the couch.”
“But not too old to take it further.”
“No, not that old. Never that old.”
“I don’t feel old at all. Not when I’m with you.” Milo was on his feet now, pulling Rick up to stand beside him, switching the television off.
“We must be old. I mean, spending our Saturday nights watching cop show reruns. What happened to partying?” Rick was grinning.
“When did we ever party? But I’ll show you partying. Just us, partying now, together.” The offensive tie was completely off, now, abandoned on the couch. The lurid shirt was completely undone and Milo was heading for the door.
He assumed Rick would follow. He assumed right.