The dark alley reeked of urine, stale alcohol, and rotting vegetables. Detective Sargent Greg Lestrade did his best to confine his breathing to shallow intakes as he waited behind the malodorous skiff, wondering if the pong would kill him before hypothermia set in. Each breath was a puff of white steam against the shadowed night. Behind him, the filthy brick wall practically vibrated with the heavy metal bass line emerging from the club. He was shaking so hard from the cold that his chattering teeth were beginning to drown out the metal din, which really wasn't a good thing.
If Harry didn't show up in five minutes, Greg was packing it in. The junkie had given him some outstanding tips in the past, but he wasn’t even on the drugs squad anymore. While he didn’t mind helping out his old team by passing along the occasional tidbit, it wasn’t worth frost bite. It had been more than ten minutes since he and his toes were on speaking terms.
Greg breathed a relieved sigh as he finally heard someone making their hasty way through the rubbish-strewn alley. About to step out to meet Harry, he froze as a complete stranger slammed into the wall at an all-out run two feet away from his hiding place. The man was in his early twenties, tall, very heavy, and immaculately dressed in suit trousers and a camel coloured, cashmere coat that probably cost more than Lestrade made in a month. The stranger was clearly not in good shape. Sweat was streaming down his face as if he were in the tropics, plastering his ginger hair to his scalp. The panting man turned in Lestrade's direction, obviously intent on hiding behind Greg's skiff. It was too dark to make out many details, but the newcomer obviously saw Greg hiding there and stopped in his tracks.
A moment later, more rustling of the rubbish sounded at the front of this suddenly busy alley.
"Knew a fat arsed nancy boy like you couldn't run worth a damn," a cruel, but cultured voice, declared in a tone that set Greg's hackles on edge. While Greg hadn't heard those words with quite so posh a delivery, he'd certainly encountered the tone before in more street thugs and bullies than he cared to remember. "Don't know what the old man's thinking, trusting a tub of lard like you in the field."
"Is that the best you can do? Fat boy insults? Really, Kramer, is it any wonder Mr. Hornstead prefers to have me handle the delicate assignments?" the first stranger demanded in a scathing tone, straightening to his full height. If the bully's accent was posh, this man's was so cultured it could have come straight out of a BBC Jane Austen mini-series.
"Well, you won't be handling much of anything anymore, not once Hornstead finds out about the two million pounds in that Swiss bank and the incriminating emails arranging the missile plan's sale from your personal account."
"You can't seriously imagine that Mr. Hornstead will believe that I sold our country out for money?" the heavy set man demanded.
"It's what everyone sells out for eventually, isn't it? Know you think you're above the rest of us mere mortals, but even fat, rich boys get hungry while waiting for their parents to pack it in."
"My parents, as you so elegantly phrased it, packed it in more than a decade ago. I spend more money than that on my wardrobe. Mr. Hornstead will never believe I could be corrupted by such a meagre amount."
Two million pounds was a meagre amount? Greg's mind was reeling from the concept, even as he worried about what he'd stumbled into here. Part of him wanted to step forward and announce his presence, but the subject matter made it clear that there was some kind of set up going on and Greg’s copper instincts were demanding he hear the whole of it.
"Won't matter what he believes. It's what he'll be forced to accept. We've got you sewn up tighter than my grannie's nickers," Kramer answered.
Greg still couldn't see the second man, but he saw the first man's shadowed face still, something like irritation entering his features. "Really, Kramer, a gun?"
The heavyset man glanced Lestrade's way, his chin giving a nearly imperceptible movement towards the deeper shadows between the skiff and the wall.
The guy was warning him to hide better, Greg realized. He hadn't a clue who these people were or what was going on, but he'd heard enough to know the first man was being set up to take a fall for something that sounded like treason. Greg gave a nod and slipped as quietly as he could deeper into the shadows, not to hide, as the heavyset man had warned him to, but to make his way around the skiff's back so he could come up behind this Kramer guy.
Although Greg could barely feel his cold feet, he somehow managed to move fairly quickly, without tripping over any cans or any of the other rubbish lining the floor.
"Guns are our stock and trade," Kramer countered. "Don't sound so outraged. I've helped bury more than a few bodies that had your lead in them."
"Guns are a last resort," the first man countered. "How are you going to explain this?"
"I won't have to explain anything. The club behind you is owned by the Russian mob. It's common knowledge that a number of our associates come here to exchange items of interest, on the QT, as it were. It's the perfect place to unload the stolen missile plans. One of the credit cards issued in your cover's name has been used here four times in the last month. There will be a line straight back to you."
"I've never set foot in this establishment," the first man denied, as Greg finally squeezed around the corner of the skiff.
Greg absorbed the scenario in a heartbeat – the heavyset man with his back to the brick wall, looking uncowed, despite the fact that the middle-aged, blond, athletic man in front of him was holding a gun pointed at him. Kramer's back was to Greg. In the better light, the two strangers looked like a pair of bankers. Homicidal bankers, but suits all the same. Not at all the type Greg would be expecting to pull a gun in public.
"Hornstead won't know that. And you won't be around to protest your innocence."
Like so many of the events in his life, Greg didn't think about his next move. There was no planning involved. Instinct had him charging at the armed man's back, tackling him low like he would while trying to take down a rugby opponent.
The gun discharged the same moment Greg collided with Kramer. There was a soft, pain-filled "Ummphf," from Greg's left, then both Greg and Kramer went flying into the brick wall under the force of Greg's charge.
Greg's face hit the wall hard, the ice cold brick banging into his forehead and scraping the skin off his right cheek as he went down.
Time seemed to freeze after that. Greg laid there for a stunned moment, trying to figure out what had happened. He was still in the stinking alley, but he wasn't on the cold ground. There was an uncomfortable bulk between him and the filth below. Gathering his jarred wits about him, Greg sat back on his heels.
The first thing he saw when he looked at the shooter’s intended victim was the blood blossoming through the golden wool covering the heavy man's left shoulder. The guy had slumped down to the ground and was breathing hard. The man's eyes were squeezed tightly shut, his right hand pressed to the bullet wound.
"Don't worry," Greg quickly assured. "You're gonna be all right. I'm a police officer –"
"Disarm him. Quickly," the wounded man ordered in such a commanding tone that Greg was obeying before he even realized what he was doing.
Greg leaned forward, his gloved hand picking up the gun.
"There will be a smaller weapon. Ankle holster, left leg," that authoritative voice informed. "Possibly a knife holster as well, either at his left shoulder or at the small of his back."
Wondering what the hell he'd gotten himself caught up in, Greg retrieved a .22 from Kramer's ankle and two wicked looking knives from the hidden sheaths whose presence the wounded man had predicted. Greg let the collected weapons rest on the ground between his legs as he searched for any other hidden hardware. It was only as he ran his hands over the crumpled man's sides for the third time that Greg noticed how utterly still Kramer's chest was. He wasn’t moaning or showing any other signs of imminent awakening.
His stomach clenching in cold dread, Greg fumbled the glove off his right hand and made a frantic move towards Kramer's carotid. The skin beneath his fingers was still warm, but there was no pulse at all. Greg frantically straightened Kramer out, preparing to administer first aid, when the other man's voice softly informed, "I'm afraid it's too late for that. His neck must have snapped when he hit the wall. He would have been dead before he reached the floor."
"No…" Greg whispered. Christ, he'd never . . .
Much as he wanted to protest reality, Greg could see by the unnatural way Kramer's head was lolling to the side that the injured man was correct in his assessment.
For a numb moment, Greg stared at the lifeless body before him, trying to process that he was the thing that had made it lifeless. He'd killed a man. Not intentionally, but his actions had directly brought about this man's death.
"You did this to save a life," the injured man said, no longer sounding authoritative. The deep voice was shaky, in obvious pain. "It was an accident. Had Mr. Kramer not chosen to hold me at gunpoint, he would still be alive, Officer . . . ?"
Realizing that the other man was asking his name, Greg quickly supplied, "Detective Sergeant Gregory Lestrade. I . . . I'd better call this in." Abruptly realizing that the man offering him emotional consolation had just been shot, Greg quickly climbed to his feet. "I'll get you an ambulance. How bad is it?" He belatedly rushed to the victim's side.
The man was already holding a handkerchief to his shoulder and pressing down on the wound. Beneath the sodden hanky, there was still blood seeping from his shoulder wound, but it wasn't the fast pulse of an arterial wound, thank heavens.
"Through and through. Although surprisingly painful, I don't believe it's life-threatening."
Looking down at the injured man, Greg had the brief impression of sharp, long features, surprisingly not fleshy for a man so heavy. The stranger had a cleft in his rather weak chin; thick eyebrows above pale eyes – either gray or blue, their colour was impossible to determine in the low light – a long, largish nose; and a mole under his right eye. He looked to be in his early twenties, if that. Far too young to be playing spy games in a back alley.
"Good. Keep that pressure on it. I'll get that ambulance." Greg pulled out his mobile. Huddled here between the huge metal skiff and the brick wall, he had no reception. "Damn. Hang on. I'll be right back."
Remembering to bring the weapons and wallet he'd removed from the dead man, Greg pocketed them in his coat and walked out to the sidewalk. There were still a lot of people entering and exiting the club. Looking down to dial his mobile, he tried to keep the phone from shaking out of his hands from the cold. His whole body was trembling. He didn't know if it was from the cold or from the fact that he had just ended someone's life. It took less than two minutes to report the shooting and order an ambulance and SOCO team.
Thinking that he'd better go check on the injured man and maybe do some police work, like getting the shooting victim's name and the details surrounding the crime, Greg hurried back to the skiff.
Kramer's dead body was lying stretched out near the wall where Greg had left it. When he looked for the shooting victim, there was nothing but a little spot of blood four feet below the bullet hole on the wall that the injured man had been lying against. There was no trace of the man himself.
Greg stared around the alley, wondering if the injured man had tried to move somewhere warmer. But there was no one in the shadows behind the skiff. When Greg tried the two doors opening onto the alley from the buildings it ran between, they were both locked.
At a loss, Greg stared at the only other thing in the alley – the skiff. His gloved hand caught hold of one of the rails up at the top. With a bit of effort, he hauled himself up. Confused, he stared down at the nearly empty, foul-smelling interior. No one was hiding in it.
Jumping back to the ground, Greg studied the alley. Where the devil could a man that big, with a bullet wound in him, have disappeared to? The dozens of horror movies he'd indulged in during his misspent youth paraded a bevy of possible answers to his frazzled mind, everything from vampires to a wizard's invisibility cloak raced through his thoughts before he took a firm hold of himself. If the heavyset man had any supernatural qualities or powers, surely he would have employed them to avoid getting shot? No, Greg decided, whatever he was dealing with here, it wasn't mystical in nature. Mysterious, yes, but firmly of this world.
Finally, Greg's uneasy gaze settled on a flimsy looking metal fire escape on the wall behind the skiff's far side. Moving closer to it, Greg jumped up, his hand just closing on the bottom rung of the ladder. It came down, making the devil's own racket. Could he have possibly not heard something this loud? Given the deafening bass line emanating from the club, it was possible, he supposed.
Taking a deep breath of the freezing, malodorous air, Greg carefully hauled himself up the ladder. He was in shape, in near perfect health, aside from the occasional cig, and it was still rough going to make it to the top of the fire escape. Could a man with a bullet in his shoulder really have made this climb, especially so heavy an individual?
Greg studied the roof the fire ladder led to, half expecting to see a dark form crumpled up there, but there was nothing there but a few broken beer bottles. There was no body.
About to descend even more carefully, he stared down at a dark spot directly next to where his right hand was resting of the roof ledge. It looked like blood.
A siren wailed, getting louder fast. With a last glance over the deserted roof, Greg carefully made his way back to the ground, wondering who the hell this guy was.
"Can you run through it again, Sergeant Lestrade?" the young, hard muscled black man in the flawless dark coat and suit, with cold dark eyes asked forty minutes later. The territorial tug of war for custody of the case was long over. The Yard had lost, as usual.
Shifting where he sat on the back of the ambulance, Greg took a deep breath in a vain attempt to still his rising temper. "I've been over it four times. You took notes the first time. My story isn't going to change, no matter how many times you make me re-tell it."
"Indulge me," the man in the suit, who had identified himself as Mr. Black when he'd flashed his warrant card, requested.
Greg had dealt with MI5 a few times, and, although Mr. Black's warrant card had identified him as belonging to that worthy organization, every instinct he owned was screaming this agent was MI6 or something even more dangerous. Pulling the orange blanket the paramedic had given him closer to his trembling form, Greg ran through the bizarre events of the night yet again.
"And you know the names Hornstead and Kramer how?"
"Like I said, the bloke who got shot called the dead guy Kramer and claimed that whoever this Mr. Hornstead was, he wouldn't believe the lies being told about him. The him that wasn't Kramer, that is," Greg clarified.
"And how do you know that they’re lies?" Mr. Black challenged.
"I don't know a damn thing about whether they're lies or not. The only thing I know is that I heard the dead guy tell the man he shot that they had him sewn up tight for whatever the set up was. The dead man mentioned a Swiss bank account, faked emails, possible identity theft through what sounded like stolen credit cards, and stolen missile plans," Greg repeated.
"And how are you so certain these things were stolen?"
"Because that's what the dead guy bragged about before he shot the other guy."
"And then this injured man, whose weight you estimated at being more than 18 stone, just scrambled up the side of a building with a bullet in his shoulder like Spiderman?"
"He didn't walk past me. I never left the front of the alley. So, either he left through one of the locked doors or over the roof. The staff in the kitchens behind both doors swear no one entered through them. That leaves only the ladder. Your men found the blood at the top of it. All I know was the man was lying there by the wall bleeding when I went to the front of the alley to find a signal to call for an ambulance and he was gone when I got back three minutes later. You don't want to believe me, fine. But why the hell would I make something like this up? If I were involved, wouldn't I have high-tailed it out of here instead of calling this mess in?"
Those flat, nearly emotionless eyes dug into Greg.
Most men would have shivered under those dead, shark eyes. They only made Greg angry. Concealed weapons, false IDs, heavy intimidation technique, there was little to differentiate Mr. Black here from the murdering bastards Greg arrested. None of them cared about the innocent bystanders who could have been killed if the bullet Kramer had fired had pierced the wall behind his victim.
Finally, Black broke the staring match and said, "Okay. We're done with you now. If we have any more questions, we'll be in contact."
"I look forward to it," Greg sassed, completely unimpressed with the tosser. He bounced off the back of the ambulance and left the orange blanket crumpled there. Black didn’t move as he stepped forward, so Greg made a point of shouldering the creep out of his way.
"You all right, Greg?" a familiar voice asked Lestrade as he finally got away from the crime scene proper. "You look like hell."
Jumping a little, Greg turned, relaxing when he caught sight of Detective Sergeant Andrew Timmons' worried features. His coworker had been hovering nearby since Black had started questioning him. The stocky brunet was keeping an eye on the purported MI5 men even as he approached Lestrade.
"Yeah." Greg tried to crack a smile. Timmons' expression made him suspect it had come out more like a grimace.
"I hate these spooks," Timmons said in a low tone, his gaze following a pair of trench coated operatives who looked like extras on a Bond movie set. They seemed to be all over the place, presumably searching the area for the missing, wounded man.
"Yeah," Greg said again.
"Where do you think your missing spy went?" Timmons asked as both their gazes watched a huge black SUV pull up and discharge yet six more similarly dressed operatives.
"Haven't a clue, but I'll bet you these wankers won't find him. They're about as subtle as the clap."
Timmons laughed. "You off for home now?"
"Yeah. When I called the Inspector to report this mess, he put me on sick leave for the next two days."
"That lump looks painful," Timmons commented.
"I've worked with worse through a footie match," Greg groused.
"Cindy's gonna lose it when she sees those scrapes," Timmons said.
Wondering how bad his face actually looked, Greg gave a low, "She'd have to actually be home to see it, wouldn't she?"
"Like that, is it?" Timmons asked, wincing in sympathy.
Greg nodded, grimacing at the jar it gave to his aching head. Police work and marriage got on together about as well as the Israelis and Palestinians did.
"You two splitting up?"
"The decree nisi came through last month. You know how the story goes," Greg answered, trying to sound worldly about this betrayal, instead of just crushed.
"I am sorry."
"Not your fault. It's not even her fault, not really. It's just the job, you know?"
“Hard to find someone who knows better than me. Four times and counting," Timmons almost bragged.
"Christ. And here's me feelin' sorry for meself."
"The way that face of yours looks right now, mate, you've got reason. You okay to drive yourself home?" Timmons checked, like the good friend he was.
"Yeah. It looks worse than it feels."
"I sure hope so. When your head stops hurting, give me a call and we'll go for a pint," Timmons offered, patting his back as they said their goodbyes.
Greg made his way back to his car, which was, thankfully, intact. This part of Brixton wasn’t as rough a neighborhood as it had been in his own youth, but street crime was still fairly high here. Settling behind the wheel, he tried not to shake his head too hard as another team of trench coats walked down the street, dressed for either a bad spy movie or a stop in the nearest sex shop. With the nearby clubs, this part of London was rarely quiet, even so late in the night. But the frigid weather had kept most of the foot traffic indoors tonight, so the only people on the street were these idiots.
Still wondering where the injured man had vanished to, Greg pulled his car out into traffic. He was stopped at a red light four blocks from the crime scene when his gaze settled on a dreary park. There wasn't much to it. Just a couple of swing sets, a broken see saw, and a monkey bar set, all looking terribly eerie and deserted under the street lights. But it wasn't the recreation equipment that caught Greg’s attention. Near the back entrance on the far side of the park, there was an overgrown tumble of evergreen bushes and weeds that looked to be nearly a block deep. While the copse of trees and buses wasn't thick or deep enough to merit a path through it, the vegetation was tall and neglected enough to hide a man.
Greg looked around, searching for the spooks that had been trawling every other street, but none of the agents had gotten this far yet. Or, if they had, they'd abandoned the search as useless. Most men on the run tended to try to lose themselves in crowds. This block had no pubs or clubs on it. The nearest building was a dilapidated school. On the other side of the park there was a train yard fenced in behind barbed wire. No access there. This entire area was open and windswept, cold as a witch's teat, offering next to no shelter. No self-respecting felon would head this way.
But the man they were hunting tonight had proven himself to be anything but a common criminal. If Greg were injured and being hunted the way tonight's shooting victim was, he might try holing up in that overgrown tangle of woods for a couple of hours till the heat cooled down some and then try scaling the fence to the train yard. This time of night, a fugitive could walk for miles along the tracks without being seen.
Hit with a sudden hunch, Greg nearly pulled out his phone to call his suspicions in, but his hand stopped mid-reach. This wasn't his case anymore. And even if the case was still with the Yard, Greg had taken enough stick tonight already about losing the gunshot victim while his back was turned. The last thing his professional reputation needed at this point was for him to call in for a midnight raid on a kiddie park. He should just go home and put some ice on his bump.
But, pathetic loser that he was, he hated the thought of his empty home. There was this ridiculous, romantic spark in Greg that couldn’t give up on the hope that he and Cindy might still find a way to work it out. In his saner moments, Greg knew how stupid that was. His loving wife had been cheating on him for the last five years with multiple partners. He’d known, he was a cop, how could he not know, and yet he’d still hoped maybe they’d find a way back to where they’d been before things went south. But the Decree Nisi pretty much put paid that fantasy. Now there was nothing to go home to but an empty house crammed with memories, which was why he was sitting here nursing his sore head and considering foolish delaying tactics.
As with so much of his life, what Greg should do rarely ever ended up being what he actually did. Instead of going home to take care of his battered noggin like a sensible person, Greg found himself circling the park to the entrance on the far side. Parking illegally in front of the entrance, he pulled his torch out of the glove box and left the heated nirvana of his vehicle for the frigid night. The wind ripped at his injured face as soon as he attained the vertical. Its angry talons seemed to be reinforcing how incredibly stupid this plan was.
Just so he would be aware of the full level of his idiocy, he reviewed the facts as he knew them. The man he was hunting was some kind of spy, whose deceased coworker had been carrying two guns and two knives. Said spy had been clever enough to escape unnoticed from an alley guarded by a seasoned detective. The man he was hunting was injured, run to ground, and no doubt desperate. And Greg was about to follow him into a rubbish-strewn wood, with nothing but a hand torch and no back up. Yep, that pretty much summed up the situation.
The part of his brain that actually cared about his survival pointed out that, by following the felon into this wood alone, Greg would be providing the man with the opportunity to murder him and steal his car. Once again, he considered calling for back up and reluctantly dismissed the idea.
About to turn on his torch, his finger froze on the switch. He'd never been much of a Boy Scout, but even his city-bred instincts recognized that turning on the torch would pinpoint his own location far sooner than it would reveal the hiding man – if the suspect were even hiding here. So far tonight, the heavyset man had displayed excellent skills.
The streetlights in the park behind him cast enough light for Greg to just see where he was going without the torch. There appeared to be an opening of some kind to his right. In warmer weather, this bit of tangled brush probably hosted a variety of felonies. The number of used condoms sticking to some of the surrounding branches like obscene Christmas decorations declared that the space inside was used for trysts, probably of the paid variety.
Trying not to make too much noise, Greg eased his way through the least tangled part of the bushes. He thought the trees might be yews. Their small needles were pointy and ripped at his already sore face as he struggled through them. The frozen ground underfoot was a stratum of icy newspapers, plastic bags, discarded garments, soda cans, and beer bottles. The rubbish made the Devil's own noise as Greg lumbered over it. So much for sneaking up on his prey.
Shaking from the cold, Greg stopped as the path he was on abruptly narrowed, so that the tangled branches were now thickly entwined from his thighs up. If he were really determined, he could get down on his hands and knees and crawl through to the bit of clearing he could see about six feet in front of him.
Realizing how completely mad this imaginary pursuit was, Greg started to back out. His left leg snared on a branch. A couple of shakes and tugs did nothing to free it. Greg bent down to try to pry his trouser leg loose, and froze as his gaze settled on a newspaper underfoot. The paper had been here for some time. It was frozen solid and eerily white under the ambient light. There was a fresh, dark liquid stain glinting on top of it. Saying goodbye to his glove, Greg reached down and flicked his index finger over the substance, carefully drawing it up towards his face. His gloves were soft tan kid skin. There wasn't a lot of light here, but it was sufficient for him to recognize recently spilt blood when he saw it.
Thinking there was nothing for it, Greg hunkered down and started to creep through the bushes. The path became shorter as he went, and within a couple of feet, he was on his hands and knees crawling forward.
This was so monumentally stupid, he couldn't even catalogue the level of imbecility involved. He knew he should turn around and call this in, but . . . the blood could have been from anyone. It wasn't like this area was the safest neighborhood. For all he knew, the blood mightn't even be human.
If the injured spy was here, there was a fifty/fifty chance he was unconscious or even dead from his gunshot wound at this point. In which case, Greg would call for another ambulance. Of course, the other fifty percent probability was that Greg was going to crawl through to whatever waited at the center of this filthy wood and find a loaded gun pointed at his face.
Well, in for a penny, Greg thought as he pushed through to crawl into what seemed to be a more open area. He'd progressed maybe another foot forward on his hands and knees when that cultured voice from the alley ordered, "Stop right there."
Wondering if there was already a weapon focused on him, Greg did as he was told.
After an audibly labored breath, the man continued in a less strident tone, "If you put your left hand down where you are aiming it, you will land on a used syringe."
Greg still couldn't see the other man, but a panicked survey of the area directly in front of him revealed a wicked looking needle tip pointing up right where he'd been about to place his hand. It was near invisible, sticking up out of the carpet of dead leaves and rubbish.
"Christ. Thanks for the warning." Greg scrambled around a bit, examined the ground in front of him and cautiously edged forward. When he was able, he kicked the needle further under the bush. Recalling the caution he'd received, he asked as casually as he could manage, "You gonna shoot me if I join you in there?"
Greg wondered if it were just his imagination or if he really could feel the other man silently debating his imminent demise.
After what felt like an eternity, an almost defeated sounding response emerged from his right, "That would be sorry recompense for saving my life earlier."
"I'll take that as a no," Greg said and crawled the remaining three feet into what turned out to be a surprisingly roomy open circle in the center of the thicket. The heavy man from the alley was slumped into the bushes to Greg's right. One look told Greg why the guy hadn't attempted to lose himself in a crowd. The entire front of his cashmere coat was lurid with blood. In the dappled shadows, his face was white as chalk, either from blood loss or cold. To Greg's intense relief, there was no weapon in sight. Taking heart from that, Greg said, "You're a very elusive man when you want to be."
"And you're a decidedly persistent one. Is this even your case anymore?"
"No. The James Bond wannabes took it from me," Greg answered, more than a little amazed at how calm the other man was. "It won't be long before they get here. I did tell them what that guy in the alley said about setting you up, so you can turn yourself in."
"Describe the man who questioned you," the stranger commanded, sounding like Greg's inspector ordering a report.
Deciding to humour the injured man, Greg answered, "About my age. Mid-thirties. Dark skinned black man. 12 stone. Northern accent. Shark eyes."
The other man released what was either a weary or pain-filled sigh.
"What?" Greg questioned. "Tell me what's going on."
After another long pause, the bleeding man answered, "I can't. Sergeant, you need to leave here. If you are caught in my company or they suspect I've spoken to you, you will not be safe."
"And if you stay here, you'll be dead in an hour. Either the blood loss will get you or the hypothermia will." Greg thought that the other man was pushing his luck with hypothermia as it was. The man wasn’t wearing a hat or gloves. His extremities must have been agonizingly cold, if he didn’t already have frost bite. There wasn’t enough light to really see the colour of the other man’s ears and nose. What light there was just made his skin look a sickly white. The muted, distant streetlights reflected off the stranger’s ghastly pale skin as off snow.
"I'm aware," the wounded man snapped.
"So turn yourself in," Greg all but pleaded.
"I won't make it back to base alive if that team captures me."
Hearing the truth in those bitter words, Greg argued, "Let me take you in, then. I'll drive you straight to hospital and stay with you until –"
"Until someone with clearance you can't argue with takes command of me and finishes the job they started. I have but one hope of survival –"
If he hadn't seen that dead guy try to murder this man, Greg would have thought the agent was playing him, but he'd heard Kramer brag about setting the wounded man up. Every instinct he owned was telling him that the man in front of him was innocent. "What's that?"
"I have a thumb drive on my person that will clear my name and give irrefutable evidence as to whom the guilty party is in this sordid mess. If I can get it to my superior . . . but I won't be able to do that until morning, at the very earliest," though still employing better grammar than Greg would ever hope to have, the other man was now visibly shuddering, from the cold, shock, or a combination of both.
"You can't stay here," Greg insisted. "Come on . . . "
"No, please, just . . . leave. Remove yourself from this situation before it-t-t costs you your life."
Greg knew his only real choice was to back out of these woods and call the fugitive’s location in. Only, as far as he knew, this man wasn't an official suspect yet. Those spooks had waltzed in and taken the case out of Greg's hands before he'd been able to issue an official BOLO or APW on the man in front of him. Struck with the type of sudden inspiration that had come a hair's breadth away from getting him fired in the past, Greg softly enquired, "Have you been officially charged with any crimes yet?"
"Wha-a-attt?" The man was shaking so hard now that Greg could hear his teeth chattering.
"Your friends wouldn't let me call in a BOLO or APW on you. Is the Yard even looking for you?"
"Thisss type of sssitua-shunn would be handled in housssse."
"So, as far as the official police force is concerned, you're not a felon? You've been accused of no crimes?" Could he even believe the answer he'd be given, Greg wondered.
"N-n-no. N-n-not in thisss countree . . ."
The qualification heartened him, a bit. Greg abruptly recalled Kramer saying how he'd helped bury bodies this man had shot. The agent in front of him mightn't be the hard case Kramer was, but Greg was under no illusions that the man was harmless. Despite his youth and out of shape appearance, this wounded stranger had somehow managed to pull himself up a fire escape that Greg had barely managed. That spoke of hidden strengths. "Any committed in countries with legal extradition procedures from the UK?"
Greg felt those eyes sharpen on him. A negative headshake followed.
"Okay, then I have no obligation to help those tossers apprehend you. Come on, we're getting out of here."
"You need medical treatment. Once we get you patched up, we'll figure the rest out. Can you walk?"
Another nod followed.
"Well?" Greg asked when the man made no movement.
"Thiss goes againsst my b-bet-t-ter j-judg-m-m-ent-t-t. If-f-f you'r-r-re caught-t-t help-p-ping-g m-m-me, I won-n-n't-t b-be ab-b-b-el t-to p-p-pro-t-t-t-ect-t you," the words were nearly incomprehensible, the man was shaking so badly.
Appreciating how much courage it must have taken for this injured man to try to refuse life-saving help out of concern for his rescuer's safety, Greg smiled and borrowed the other man's turn of phrase, though he offered the words much less crankily, "I'm aware. Let's get you out of this cold."
Greg's heart was in his mouth during the excruciating crawl out of that trash and syringe laden wood and subsequent walk to the car. He kept expecting his companion to keel over or one of the searchers to spot them. Once they got out of the bushes, Greg kept his hand on the swaying stranger's elbow. The guy was at least three inches taller than him. Greg stepped in close to help support the wounded man as he chivvied him to his parked car as quickly as possible.
Once his companion was settled into the passenger seat, Greg hurried around to the driver's side, started the car, switching on the headlights and turning the heater up as far as it would go. Rather than going back towards the club, which risked one of the numerous agents patrolling the neighborhood seeing and recognizing Greg's wounded passenger, he drove along the road that followed the train tracks. Deserted, dark, and inherently spooky, no one was out on foot there and they didn't pass a single vehicle.
His passenger was completely silent as they drove. Greg kept expecting him to pull a gun on him, but the man just sat there breathing carefully, holding his blood-soaked hankie to his hurt shoulder as those pale eyes watched Greg.
As soon as they were far enough out of the area being searched, Greg pulled over beside the train yard fence and dug out his mobile. "I'm going to ring up a mate of mine. He's a doctor. He might be able to help us."
"He'll have to report a shooting," the wounded man reminded Greg, his speech far more comprehensible under the heater’s warmth. The stranger was still shivering, but he wasn’t shuddering uncontrollably.
"Yeah, well, let's cross that bridge when we get to it. Let's get you sorted out first, okay?"
His passenger didn't say anything as Greg found Clancy’s number in his contacts, greeting as his friend answered, "Hey, Clance, how're you doing?"
"Greg! God, what are you doing up this late? Are you actually going to make rehersal this Sunday morning or is this another See You When I See You call?" Clancy joked.
"Actually, this is sort of work related. Are you on duty at the clinic tonight?" Greg questioned, holding his breath. Normally, if Clance were working, his mobile would have rung over to voice mail.
"I’m working, more's the pity. We haven't had a walk in all night." Which explained why he was answering his mobile at the first ring. "Even the working girls are staying indoors."
Greg breathed a relieved sigh. "You still working that Southwark clinic?"
"'Yep, still servicing London’s finest,” Clancy chuckled.
"I've got a bit of a delicate medical situation that I could use your help with, mate. It has to stay off the official radar, if you take my meaning."
There was a pause at the other end. Greg could nearly hear his friend thinking. "Life threatening?"
"Yeah. I wouldn't ask, otherwise.”
“What are we dealing with?” Clancy questioned.
“GSW, upper left shoulder.”
“Damn. I can’t get my staff involved in hiding a gunshot,” Clancy said in a tone Greg had never heard before.
Recognizing how much trouble his old friend could get into, Greg quickly said, “I understand if you can't –"
"I know you wouldn't ask if it weren't desperate," Clancy said, sounding stressed as anyone would when someone as close as a brother asked him to break the law. "We’re on a skeleton staff tonight. Maybe I can keep them out of it. Park in the alley beside the outreach van. I'll meet you at the side door. How soon?"
"We'll be there in five minutes. Thanks, mate," Greg said, ending the call. He pulled back onto the road and took a side street up to the A23. Stopping at a red light, he glanced over at his passenger. The guy was starting to look shocky, his eyes bright against his pale and now sweaty face. "How're you doing?"
"I've been better," the man replied. "I . . . would like to thank you for your assistance, Sergeant Lestrade. It was most . . . unexpected."
"All the spies who bleed all over my upholstery call me Greg," Greg corrected, flashing a smile. "You got a name you can give me or should I just call you Bond – James Bond."
The man snorted, his thin, bloodless lips quirking up at the ends, "I'm sorry to disillusion you, Sergeant, er, Greg, but I really am only a minor government worker in the Department of Transit –"
"Who just happened to get shot in an alley while discussing stolen missile plans?" Greg challenged. "Pull the other one."
The stranger sighed. "Why are you helping me, then?"
"Why didn't you give me up to Kramer? You might have escaped while he was dealing with me."
"Endangering the lives of British citizens isn't in my purview," the man answered in an almost prissy tone.
"Mine, neither," Greg said. "So, should I be calling you James, then?"
"You may call me Ian," Greg's passenger allowed, his voice no longer shaking from cold and back to that haughty tone he’d used on his attacker in the alley.
Not even pretending to believe for a minute that Ian was the stranger's real name, Greg questioned, "Ian..?"
"Ian Fleming," the minor government worker replied, looking as smug as a man bleeding out on Greg's passenger seat could manage.
"That's what you're going with? Ian Fleming? Seriously?"
"It's a bit more creative than Mr. Black, wouldn't you say?"
Greg laughed, in spite of himself. "You've got style. I'll give you that, Ian."
"Your friend – is he close by?" Ian questioned. "I'm beginning to feel rather…woozy."
"Two blocks, and we're there. Hang in there, mate." He glanced over. Seeing Ian's eyelids slowly lowering, Greg sharpened his voice, "Hey, no conking out on me. This is just a drop in clinic that caters to prostitutes and gang kids we're going to. Clancy isn't going to be able to run tests on you like a hospital would when we get there. He's going to need information I can't give him."
"I'm O-negative. No allergies," Ian supplied. "Just in case."
"We're here," Greg announced a moment later as he eased his Topaz into the tight space between the medivan and the skiffs in an alley as narrow as the one in which they'd met. There was barely room to open his door.
Shivering as soon as he stepped out into the night, Greg hurried around his car to open the passenger door and assist the injured man out. Ian was looking much worse than he had a few minutes ago. His skin had gone from pasty to greyish. Greg got an arm around Ian's waist and took most of his weight as they staggered towards a heavily secured metal side door that looked like it could withstand a tank. Up close like this, he got a quick whiff of some expensive smelling cologne, but it was overlaid by the scent of blood.
To Greg's relief, the clinic back door swung open when they were within a foot of it and Clancy's mop of frizzy blond curls caught the light from behind the compact, bespectacled doctor as Greg's friend rushed forward to give him a hand.
"How bad?" Clancy asked as they whisked the injured man through what looked like a storage room into the back of the clinic where the examining rooms obviously were. Clancy led them to the nearest door, using his elbow to flick on the lights as they barreled into an empty examination room.
"Lot of blood. I think the bullet went straight through," Greg supplied.
“It did,” Ian confirmed, sounding weak.
Greg was impressed with his old friend as the shorter Clancy got the much taller, heavier Ian up onto the examination table with a minimum of effort.
Ian's eyelids sank shut as soon as he settled on the table. As Greg watched Clancy quickly assemble the tools he’d need, Ian fell backwards onto the paper-covered examination table, clearly unconscious.
"Ian?" Greg called in alarm.
"He just fainted. It's a wonder he managed to stay conscious this long with this amount of blood loss. Give me a hand getting this coat off, will you? He’s dead weight now."
Greg helped move Ian and then ease Ian's heavy, bloodstained coat off his shoulders.
“Greg?” Clancy questioned when the coat’s removal revealed a shoulder holster and a very deadly looking Glock.
“I got it.” Trying not to be clumsy or hurt Ian, Greg removed the holster from the wounded shoulder, fumbling with the blood-slicked leather. He was glad Ian had passed out. He didn’t think the injured man would have parted with his arsenal without argument. Remembering the other agent’s stockpile, Greg reached behind Ian and found a knife holster similar to Kramer’s at the small of his back.
“Damn. Who the hell is this guy?” Clancy asked as Greg checked Ian’s ankle for the now-expected holster. He added a .22 to his growing collection.
“I’m not sure,” Greg answered.
“What? You’re risking both our careers and incarceration for a stranger?”
“We sort of saved each other’s lives tonight,” Greg tried to explain.
“Good enough reason. Makes me owe him one, too,” Clancy looked up from his patient to meet Greg's gaze for what was obviously the first time tonight. "Damn. What happened to your face?"
"It had an argument with a wall and the wall won," Greg answered. He'd all but forgotten his own injuries. It had to say something about the job he did that he could work around a pounding headache and barely notice it.
“I’ll take a look at it once I finish up with your friend here,” Clancy said.
Scissors in hand, the doctor cut away a shirt that might have been white at the start of the day, but was now mostly lurid patterns of blood. As soon as the shirt and undershirt below were off, Clancy got to work on halting the blood flow.
Greg stared at Ian's pale-skinned torso while Clancy worked on the wounds. Out cold like that on the examination table, Ian looked incredibly young, like some uni student, rather than a coldblooded spy. His skin was appallingly white. True, it was January, but Ian was so pale it looked as if it had never seen direct sun. The only touches of colour were the pink of his nipples and a light smattering of reddish hair down the center of his chest. His plump, blood streaked abdomen seemed strangely vulnerable under the glaring fluorescent lights.
The next few hours passed in a blur of medical procedures and transfusions. Greg kept expecting a tech or nurse to interrupt them to pull Clancy away to treat a walk in patient, but apparently the cold was still bitter enough to keep everyone indoors, so they weren’t disturbed. Greg had no clue how they would have explained any of this.
When Clancy was done with his patient, Ian’s skin was beginning to resemble a human colour again.
Seated on a cheap plastic chair, Greg waited beside the table Ian was on, watching as Clancy unhooked the empty plasma bag from the IV drips. While Ian was being transfused, Clancy had seen to Greg’s scraped up face and pronounced that, while painful, he shouldn’t have any scars.
This was the first moment Clancy had slowed down since Greg and his companion had crashed into his quiet night.
The doctor met Greg’s eyes and gave a rueful smile. “You never change, do you? Got to help every stray that crosses your path.”
“That’s a bit of the kettle calling the pot black, isn’t it, mate?” Greg grinned. “Thanks for this, by the way. Don’t know what we would’ve done without you.”
“You really don’t know anything about this guy?”
Greg shook his head. “Nothing beyond the fact that he saved my life. How long will he be out?”
“He should be coming around soon. I’d like to keep an eye on him for a couple of days, just to make sure he’s healing up right, only –”
“Only, it’s a miracle we haven’t been interrupted yet. Don’t worry, Clance. I’ll get him out of here as soon as he wakes up.”
“I’ve got some pain pills and antibiotics you can take with you. I’ll get them ready. Maybe I can check up on him after duty tomorrow, if you let me know where you end up?” Clancy suggested.
“That wouldn’t be wise.”
Both Greg and Clancy whirled towards the examination table at the hoarse comment.
Ian’s pale eyes were bleary, but open.
Greg reached out to grip Ian’s uninjured shoulder, keeping far away from the IV board. “How’re you feeling, mate?”
“Thirsty,” Ian responded, his drooping eyelids threatening to shut again. His colour was much better, Greg realized, pleased to see some pinkness returning to the previously chalk white face.
“The anesthesia always leaves you dry,” Clancy said. “I’ll get you some ice.”
“Anesthesia?” Ian echoed, his confusion bordering on alarm.
“You’re going to be fine,” Greg promised, quickly supplying, “It was just a local. You were injured earlier tonight. The doc’s patched you up. You’re going to make a full recovery.”
Greg saw the moment the injured man remembered the exact circumstances that had brought him to this state. Ian’s eyes seemed to sharpen with an act of will as he croaked out, “Where am I?”
“My friend’s clinic. You’re safe. We kept it completely off the radar,” Greg assured. “As soon as the doc says you’re fit to travel, we’ll move to someplace safer.”
“Here’s the ice,” Clancy said, closing the examination room door behind him as he returned. Greg took the cup of crushed ice and plastic spoon from his friend’s hand as Clancy moved to check his patient’s vitals again. “How are you feeling?”
“Better. I don’t know how to thank you, Doctor,” Ian said, all traces of the smugness that had seemed almost inherent to him missing as he addressed the man who’d saved his life.
“You already did when you kept this lunatic alive,” Clancy said, grinning down at his patient. “Greg and me go way back.”
Greg shifted uncomfortably as those pale blue/grey eyes turned his way. They were piercing; like an eagle or hawk’s gaze, they seemed to see right through him. “Here,” Greg said, spooning some crushed ice from the cup, “have some of this.”
His left arm secured in a sling, Ian tried to lift his right hand to intercept the spoon, but the IV board interfered.
Greg chuckled at the irritated expression that crossed Ian’s face. Clearly, this man wasn’t accustomed to depending on anyone but himself.
“I got this,” Greg assured, moving the ice-laden spoon to those tight-pursed lips. “You relax till the doctor gives you the all clear, okay?”
Ian opened his mouth to accept the ice, his features relaxing in unconscious enjoyment as the moist ice entered his no doubt parched mouth.
Greg didn’t wait to be asked before spooning out another heaping helping.
On the third spoonful, Ian’s slitted eyes slipped to Greg’s left hand and he gave a curious sounding, “Guitar or violin?”
“What?” Greg nearly dropped the ice onto Ian’s chest.
“Your instrument. It’s not a cello or viola di gamba. Something smaller, I think. Surely, not a mandolin?”
Greg and Clancy exchanged a bewildered glance.
Greg cleared his throat and answered, “I play guitar.”
“Yeah. How did you . . . the callouses? You knew from the callouses on my fingertips?” Greg guessed, his voice rising with excitement, feeling like a kid at a magic show as he guessed the trick.
Ian nodded, watching him with something like wariness.
“That’s amazing,” Greg said. Ian’s gaze narrowed on him. Somehow, Greg felt like his response wasn’t the reaction the other man was anticipating.
When whatever reaction Ian was expecting failed to appear, Ian ventured, “Do you and the doctor perform together?
Grinning, Greg questioned, “And the doc plays?”
“Keyboard, I think. The instrument isn’t long enough to be a proper piano, even an upright.”
“I get your knowing about me from the callouses, but keyboards don’t make callouses,” Greg pointed out. “How did you guess?”
“I observed, not guessed. The indentations on the doctor’s forearms betrayed his instrument, that slight red line where they’d rest on the keyboard. You practiced before work, did you not, doctor?”
Clancy gave a slow nod, looking at Ian as if he were possessed. “I practiced a couple of hours before coming in. How did you know it wasn’t a full piano?”
“The marks would have stretched further on the sides if you’d had to reach across a piano. Keyboards leave smaller indentations.”
“That’s incredible,” Greg admired, wondering what else the other man might have deduced about them. Clancy didn’t seem nearly as impressed by the mental tour de force. His face was pinched and nervous looking.
“I think we can probably get rid of that IV board now,” Clancy said, almost seeming eager to change the topic.
Ian looked down at the sheet and hospital blanket covering him. “My clothing?”
“Most of it had to be binned,” Greg said. “I’ve got your wallet and . . . equipment in a bag over there and that thumb drive you mentioned in my pocket. Once we get someplace safe, I’ll give you the thumb drive back. I want to hold onto the other stuff until we part company. Agreed?”
Not that he was left with much choice in the current circumstances, Greg thought as he watched Clancy undo the IVs and board.
“When will be leaving for this someplace safe? It isn’t entirely beyond possibility that a search won’t be made of all private surgeries and clinics, especially those open all night,” Ian said.
“Doc, is he up to travelling now?” Greg asked his old friend, careful not to mention Clancy by name. The least Clancy’s unusual patient knew of him, the better, although Greg was fairly certain the observational skills Ian had just demonstrated would be more than sufficient to determine anything he needed to know about them both.
“Yeah, he should be all right. Take him somewhere quiet. Let him rest a few hours. When he’s up to it, get some food and liquids into him, and make sure he finishes out the antibiotic course I’m sending home with you. Right?”
“Got it,” Greg said.
As Clancy moved to bin the discarded adhesive tape from the IV board, he leaned in close to Greg and whispered in his ear, “Watch your back with this one, Greg.”
“It’s going to be fine.” Greg squeezed his friend’s shoulder and once again thanked him. He turned back to the examination table just in time to catch Ian as he stumbled after obviously moving too quickly. “Easy there, mate.”
A couple of minutes awkwardness followed as Greg helped Ian don the clean scrubs Clancy brought him. The agent’s suit was a complete write off. Realizing that the coat was still a sodden mess, Greg looked to Clancy, “Is it okay if we take the blanket? There’s so much blood on that coat that it’s likely to seep through onto his clean scrubs.”
“No problem,” Clancy replied.
“I’ll make sure you are compensated, doctor,” Ian promised.
“Just make sure nothing happens to Greg. As far as I’m concerned, tonight never happened. You don’t owe me anything. Just . . . don’t get my friend killed. All right?”
“You have my word, doctor. Detective Sergeant Lestrade will come to no harm at my hands or on my behalf.”
“You can’t really guarantee something like that, can you?” Clancy questioned, watching his patient with an uneasiness Greg had never witnessed before, even though he’d known Clance since they were ten and had gone through all manner of trouble with him in their misspent teenage years.
“No, there are no true guarantees in this world, of which a man in your position doubtless sees proof each and every day,” Ian answered in the tone and a manner that sounded decades older than his twenty-something years. “But I can give you my word to do all I can to prevent harm befalling him. I realize you don’t know me at all, but I promise you, my word is as good a guarantee as you’re likely to receive this side of the Pearly Gates.”
“Well, just make sure Greg stays this side of those gates, you hear me?” Clancy answered, not at all impressed, which surprised Greg. He was more than a little awed by his strange companion’s abilities, not that any homicide detective wouldn’t trade his right arm for such deductive skills. But Clancy was treating the man like an unexploded bomb.
“I am still here, you know,” Greg reminded the pair.
“Just make sure you stay that way,” Clance grumbled. “Have you got his pills? And don’t forget this lot,” Clancy handed over the heavy bag containing Ian’s weapons.
“Yes, mum.” Greg took possession of the arsenal.
“Very funny. If his wound opens or starts to look inflamed, you call me immediately,” Clancy ordered. “And, even if all goes well, you call me when this is over, right?”
“Yeah, promise. We’ll talk tomorrow. Thanks again, mate.” Turning his gaze Ian’s way, Greg checked, “Are you sure you’re all right to walk?”
Despite Ian’s affirmative nod, Greg took hold of his arm. Clancy led him back to the rear door from which they’d entered earlier, their egress as slow as their ingress.
With a last, quick thanks to Clancy, Greg walked the blanket bundled Ian to the passenger side of his Taurus.
“I think we’re going to have to forego the seat belt,” Greg fretted, seeing how the strap would dig directly into Ian’s wound.
“I’ll be fine,” Ian dismissed, continuing once Greg was in the car and the engine turned on. The pinging of the seatbelt alarm was annoying, but it cut off after a minute or so. “If you could help me acquire suitable attire, I’ll be on my way.”
“Yeah? Where are you going to be on your way to? You just had surgery. Like the doc said, you need to rest and recuperate. Your friends are still going to be searching for you,” Greg answered, carefully backing out of the narrow alley. It was after 2:30 now, and the streets were utterly empty.
“I’ve imposed upon you long enough,” Ian insisted. Although his voice sounded firm and determined, when Greg glanced over, his passenger was looking as peaked as any man an hour out of surgery would. Greg realized that, to be so lucid, the guy had to be running on adrenaline and fear at this point. Any other post op patient would have been completely out of it this close to surgery.
“Look, we’re a couple of hours away from dawn. There isn’t any place open to buy you clothes right now, and, quite frankly, I’m done in. Let’s go back to mine and get some rest, then we can figure our next move out tomorrow.”
“You intend to take me to your home?”
“I don’t see that we have much choice. Unless you’ve got a safe house somewhere nearby?” In every spy novel Greg had ever read, the operative always had a safe house and suitcase full of cash waiting for a night like this.
“Nothing that I could be sure is uncompromised.”
“All right, then, mine it is.”
Ian leaned back into the headrest and released a deep sigh. “I truly am sorry for the trouble I’ve brought down on you. That was never my intent.”
“I know,” Greg absently responded, concentrating on his driving as the heater tried to lull him into much needed sleep.
“I . . . I don’t fully understand why you’ve concerned yourself with my fate,” Ian said in a soft voice. “I’ve worked closely with more than a dozen people in the last five years, men and women whose lives I’ve saved, and there isn’t a single one of them who would have done as much for me as you did tonight.”
That had to be one of the loneliest statements Greg had ever heard. “Well, they didn’t hear that Kramer bloke brag about setting you up like I did. If they had –”
“They still wouldn’t have taken the risks you have. I don’t understand your motives,” Ian admitted. “The state of your wardrobe and vehicle decry that you are not a wealthy man, and yet you have made no overtures towards being compensated for your trouble, either by requesting monetary remuneration or suggesting a job offer. While it is clear you are bisexual, you are not actively interested in the dubious charms of my person. In fact, all evidence suggests that you are married, although not happily so.”
“How did you know about the unhappy marriage?” Greg asked, so unnerved by these casual revelations that he was now totally awake. The marriage itself was obvious. He was still wearing his wedding band. But how had Ian deduced the state of it?
“It’s 2:30 in the morning and you have not called to warn your spouse that you are bringing unexpected company home with you, which clearly suggests that your spouse is either on travel or no longer living at your shared residence. Your poorly ironed shirt suggests the latter. So estranged it is, then.”
“Soon to be divorced, actually,” Greg tried not to reveal how painful these matter of fact revelations of his entire private life were. No way in hell was he going to question the bi-sexual observation. Cindy didn’t even know about that.
Perhaps his tone wasn’t as unaffected as Greg hoped, for Ian softly uttered a mortified sounding,
“Apologies. I shouldn’t have been so free with my deductions. I know people aren’t comfortable having such insights broadcast aloud. I am normally much more disciplined than to go spouting painful observations like that.”
“Forget it. The observations were . . . pretty astonishing, to be honest.”
“Even so . . .”
“Hey, you were shot tonight, operated on in a clinic not set up for major surgery, and now you’re being driven someplace you’ve never been before by a stranger whose motivations you don’t understand, while the people you work with are hunting you down. You’ve every right to be nervous and off your game. And, nothing you said was a lie, so it isn’t like I can take issue with anything.”
“Nevertheless . . . what are you smiling at?”
“I never knew anyone who could work the word nevertheless so effortlessly into a conversation. My DI uses it, but it’s always an affectation with him. With you it just sounds normal.”
Another quick glance to Gregg’s left showed the pucker between Ian’s ginger brows smoothing out as the ends of his lips quirked upward. “Most people are put off by that trait, not amused by it.”
“I’m not most people,” Greg answered.
“So I’m learning.”
The silence that fell between them was rife with unasked questions. Greg had hundreds of his own, but he knew his companion was duty bound not to speak of the circumstances surrounding their meeting. While Ian . . . it didn’t take more than a moment of imagining himself in Ian’s position to realize how legitimately alarmed his passenger might be by his rescuer’s unknown intentions. Wanting to dispel any concerns, Greg softly said, “Regarding my motivations, they’re pretty simple. I’m helping you because I believe it’s the right thing to do. I know you don’t know me from Adam, so it’s got to be difficult for you to accept that, but my motives aren’t anything more complicated than not wanting an innocent man to die for a crime he didn’t commit. Okay?”
Greg didn’t know what type of response he expected, but the sound that emerged from the other side of the car sounded more like a gasp than a snort. “You okay?”
“Diogenes searched his entire life for a man such as you.”
While not really the most understandable of responses, it didn’t sound entirely bad. “Who’s Diogenes?” Greg hoped it wasn’t someone who was as famous historically as Henry the Eighth. He’d barely scraped by at London Met. Ian had Oxford or Cambridge written all over him.
“Diogenes was a Greek scholar. Well, technically, he was born in the area we call Turkey, but lived in Greece in the fourth century BC. He is credited with founding the school of stoicism and was instrumental in the clarification of the precepts of the school of skepticism. It’s rumored that he embarrassed Plato with his interpretation of Socrates’ teachings.”
“And this Diogenes bloke relates to me how?” Greg questioned warily, feeling completely ignorant. At uni he’d met more than a few fellows of Ian’s social class who took a great deal of satisfaction in lording the superiority of their public school education over someone like Greg. While Ian had sounded like he was complimenting Greg in some way, Greg knew that he could just as easily be throwing his ignorance in his face.
“Diogenes believed virtue was better revealed by action than theory. He taught that the wise man will be guided in his public acts, not by established laws, but by the law of virtue. He is depicted in art with a lantern searching the wide world for such a man.”
“Did he ever find one?” Greg questioned, genuinely intrigued. He’d never had anyone talk to him like this, words flowing with history and philosophy, the voice itself posh and mesmerizing.
“I don’t think Diogenes search ever took him to a Brixton back alley,” Ian replied, his tone silky and nearly flirtatious.
A shiver coursed through Greg as he interpreted the meaning of those words. How long had it been since anyone had spoken to him like that? Cindy had stopped complimenting him around the time they’d stopped trying for a baby, more than four years now. His rapidly greying hair seemed to have done the same with the rest of the world. Greg glanced over at his passenger again to find the man’s face crimson.
“Forgive me,” Ian quickly said. “I don’t know what came over me. I’m not normally so . . . please, ignore anything I say. Clearly, I am still under the influence of the anesthesia.”
Knowing that was true, Greg quickly assured, “Hey, it’s fine. Relax. We’re nearly there.”
Ian fell quiet until they exited the A Road, when he questioned in a strange tone, “You live in Bexley?”
“Yeah. Is that a problem?” he asked as he turned down his street.
With the way the night had gone, Greg was expecting the added complication of seeing Cindy’s car parked in their driveway when he finally arrived at their two bedroom bungalow. Greg breathed a sigh of relief as he pulled into the empty driveway.
Ian looked up at the wind chimes on the front stoop, his face tense and pinched looking again.
“What’s wrong?” Greg asked. “And don’t say nothing.”
“Forgive me for being indelicate, but this house is not what I would expect a Detective Sergeant to be able to afford. Junior ministers live in this neighborhood.”
Ian was watching him as if he were waiting for Greg to explode.
Almost relieved by the bluntness, Greg gave a calm, “Fair enough question.” Realizing that a British Intelligence Agent might have great market value, Greg recognized that these circumstances might seem ominous to the injured man, who was basically trusting his survival to nothing more than Greg’s character. Appreciating how worried he’d be were their circumstances reversed, Greg quickly offered, “I’m not dirty. My mum died when I was six. My dad wasn’t prepared at all. It nearly bankrupted him. After that, he took out a ridiculous life insurance policy. He, er, passed when I was seventeen. It’s how I got to attend uni and how I was able to afford the down payment on this place.”
“Forgive me. My question was quite rude.”
“But not without justification. I know this place is out of my league.”
“It’s quite charming,” Ian said, as if attempting to make up for his faux paus.
“It was the house of my dreams,” Greg admitted.
He’d forgotten how sharp his companion was, even coming off some major drugs. Greg sighed. “We moved in right after I joined the force. I was going to settle down. We were going to have a couple of kids, maybe even get a dog, then I let the job eat my life. She hung in as long as she could, but . . . it wasn’t what she signed on for. Sorry, you didn’t need my sob story. Your night is going bad enough without my baggage.”
“I did ask, Detective Sergeant –”
“My name is Greg. This situation is weird enough without using our titles, isn’t it? Or do you intend to tell me what your actual job description is, Mister Fleming?”
“Come on. Let’s go inside.” Greg exited the car and quickly circled to help his passenger out.
Ian was moving slow, but he made it up the porch stairs with no more than a hand on his right elbow.
The house had that dark empty feel it always had since Cindy moved out. Greg paused on the entrance step into the foyer, the plastic bag with its lethal contents hanging off his elbow and banging into his side. He hit the overhead’s switch and blinked as the vestibule was flooded with light.
Greg hadn’t lied before. This cozy little bungalow had been the house of his dreams. But he had watched those dreams die off one by one in the twelve years he’d lived here, until they’d reached the present state where there wasn’t even a pretense anymore that the second bedroom would one day be used as a nursery. It was to this room that Greg steered his companion.
The guest room cum office was fairly cluttered. There was a single bed against the left wall and a computer desk against the right. Greg’s guitar case and Cindy’s sewing machine battled for space amongst the boxes of Christmas decorations and other junk escaping the closet beside the door, and there was some kind of expensive exercise contraption in front of the window that Greg had never seen Cindy actually use. Mostly, Greg just hung his clothes on it on the nights he bunked in here. Right now, his exercise clothes were draped over it, along with the raincoat he’d worn the last day the weather had been warm enough for liquid precipitation.
Ian’s gaze took it all in with a glance. Those pale eyes, almost the same blue as old, washed out jeans, focused on a picture on the cork board above the desk. Staring at it, Ian asked, “Is that your guitar?”
There were numerous photos tacked to the board. Greg was surprised Ian had focused on the one he’d asked about. “No, that beauty’s my dream guitar. If I ever make Commissioner or win the lottery, I’m going to buy one.”
“What kind is it?” Ian asked, moving with Greg as he guided the wounded man towards the single bed.
“It’s a Double 0-18 Martin guitar. This one is a model made in the 60s. It’s a fingerpicker’s wet dream. Sorry, I tend to lose it when I think about that Martin.”
“Do you play often?”
Greg was confused to feel his cheeks warm. “Whenever I can. The job can be . . . well, it takes a lot out of you. You need something to wash your cares away at the end of a tough day.”
“Most people use alcohol for that,” Ian pointed out.
“Yeah, well, whatever works, right? Personally, I find music easier on the liver. Here, sit down. Let’s get those shoes off you,” Greg said, trying not to feel awkward as he bent down to undo the laces on the expensive looking leather shoes as a visibly uncomfortable Ian shifted his foot in Greg’s hands. “How’s the pain?”
“Tolerable,” Ian answered, the wince twisting his face belying his assertion.
“You should take one of those pills. You’ll heal better if you’re not fighting pain all the time.”
“Thank you. You’ve been most kind.”
“I’ll bring you in a bottle of water.” Greg said, putting the second shoe next to its mate. “The loo is directly across the hall. I’ll leave out some towels and a toothbrush. My room’s right next door, if you need anything later. I’m taking your armory into my room with me. It will be under lock and key. I’m a very light sleeper. Just so you know.”
“I won’t attempt anything tonight,” Ian assured.
Greg was very conscious of the qualifier, realizing that all bets might be off come morning. “Good. Maybe we can renegotiate tomorrow morning.” Greg grinned as Ian’s face went completely blank of expression. “I am a detective, remember. I may not have your deductive skills, but I’m not a complete idiot.”
“I would never make that mistake.”
Greg searched for derision, but Ian seemed to mean the words. “I’ll be right back.”
Greg’s first stop was the kitchen to fetch the promised bottled water from the fridge. He stopped in the master bedroom to lock the plastic bag with Ian’s guns and knives in his father’s antique armoire, before returning to the guestroom with the medicine and water bottles in hand. He withdrew a pill from each of the medicine bottles and offered them to his guest, who was now sitting up in the bed, observing his surroundings as if he would be quizzed on the junk.
Greg expected an argument, but Ian accepted the pills and appeared to swallow them down with a large gulp from the water bottle. Greg reached out to hold onto Ian’s uninjured shoulder to help ease the other man more comfortably back onto the bed. Like removing Ian’s shoes, it was an oddly intimate gesture.
About to leave Ian to his rest, Greg froze beside the bed in horror. “I am so sorry. I forgot to ask. Is there anyone we should call?”
“Call?” Ian echoed, as if he didn’t understand the question.
“Is there someone at home worrying about you? Your wife or girlfriend?”
“No, the fairer sex isn’t really my area,” Ian denied in a prissy tone, his cheeks turning bright pink again.
Greg stifled a smile at having his suspicions confirmed. In the short time they’d spent together, he’d gotten that vibe off the younger man. “Boyfriend, then?”
“I, er, no. No. There isn’t anyone to call.”
For some reason, that struck Greg as wrong. While Ian might be frighteningly intelligent, he was clearly barely into his twenties. Kids Ian’s age were usually out in pubs with their mates, celebrating their newfound majority. But this accomplished young man was already some kind of high-placed secret agent who’d been shot defending Queen and country. It just didn’t seem right that there was no one who would care if he lived or died.
“Your expression seems to indicate displeasure. If my orientation is a bone of contention, I can leave now.”
“What?” Ian’s last words barely made any sense to Greg. Only as he tracked back to their previous conversational topic did Greg understand how his expression might have been misinterpreted. “No. Sorry, it’s not that. I just -”
“You just . . ?” That long face looked like it didn’t quite believe him. Recalling some of the homophobic insults Kramer had thrown at Ian earlier, Greg wondered if Ian took a lot of grief from his coworkers. It wasn’t as if it would be even possible to hide his sexual orientation from people who worked in the intelligence community.
“It’s just . . . you almost bled out in a back alley earlier tonight, and now you’re telling me that there’s no one in the world worrying about you.”
“That fact is hardly surprising, is it?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Greg asked, confused. Ian’s expression made it clear that he hadn’t intended to voice those words. The other man’s whole form seemed to have stiffened. The spy who had faced down a killer with icy indifference mere hours ago was nowhere to be seen. In his place was an injured young man, whose eyes were glittering from the effects of the drugs still in his system and whatever emotions were coursing through him.
“Physically, I’m hardly anyone’s idea of the ideal mate. No, please don’t look at me like that. I’m not currying sympathy, I’m simply stating fact.” Despite the fierce emotion in his gaze, Ian actually did sound as if they were discussing some impersonal topic like the weather or yesterday’s Manchester United’s scores. Greg couldn’t help but admire that control. “My parents are gone. There isn’t anyone worrying about me. Never has been; never will be.”
When Greg felt he could speak past the constriction inexplicably tightening his throat, he said, “That’s a pretty bleak prediction coming from someone so young. No one can say what the future will bring. You could –”
“What? Wake up one day to a world where receding hairlines, three stone of blubber, and a nose large as a ski jump will be considered the epitome of male beauty? I know what I look like. The chances of my appearance improving with age are slim to non-existent. Add to that, my less than charming personality –”
“There’s nothing wrong with your personality or your appearance,” Greg quickly insisted, approaching the bed and taking a tentative seat on its edge. Ian propped himself up on his right elbow, so that their gazes would be more on a level. Something in him needing to dispel the terrible hurt in those drug-brightened eyes, Greg said, “Yes, you’ve got some weight on you and your hair’s receding a bit, but neither of those things would preclude being in a relationship with someone who cared about you. I never heard such nonsense. Do you think only film stars find mates and have relationships?”
“You’re very kind. I appreciate your attempt at –”
“I’m not being kind,” Greg insisted.
“What man would want me for anything other than my trust fund?” Ian shot back, finally sounding like the subject was beginning to hit home. His cheeks pinking with telltale colour, Ian lowered his gaze to the expanse of boring white sheet between them, clearly mortified by what he’d just said. “Forgive me. I don’t know what’s come over me. I don’t usually –”
“It’s the drugs,” Greg said. “And, just for the record, I would’ve.”
“Would have what?” Ian seemed confused.
“Gone for you, if I’d met you in my wild uni days,” Greg was shocked to hear himself admit.
Ian’s gaze shot back up to Greg’s face. “Don’t be absurd. Someone like you would never
“Never have what?” Greg questioned, all too aware of the disparity of their backgrounds. “Been allowed to breathe the same air as you and your rich friends?”
“What?” Ian seemed genuinely shocked. “No, that wasn’t what I meant. Ridiculously handsome men never see people like me. We’re utterly invisible to men like you.”
Ridiculously handsome? Greg blinked, completely thrown by the matter of fact assessment. Feeling his own face heat, Greg ran a hand through his hair. His nearly completely grey hair.
Ian’s words were flattering. It had been ages since anyone had seen anything but his prematurely grey hair, but Greg knew he had to nip this in the bud. “Look, you’re not lacking anything you need. I wasn’t having you on before. I meant what I said, even though I had no right to say it.”
“I’m a married man, Ian.”
“How very convenient.” It wasn’t quite a sneer.
“Actually, it’s not, not at all. But I am still married and you’re more than a little stoned. This isn’t a conversation we should be having under these circumstances.”
Ian reached out with his unrestrained hand to clasp Greg’s forearm as Greg started to get up from the bed. “Please . . .”
“Ian,” Greg warned.
“No, I’m not . . . importuning you. Really, I’m not. It’s simply . . . the only qualities that have ever attracted anyone’s interest are my intellect and financial standing. You claim to see something else, something that no one else has ever seen before. I just wondered what it was?”
“Are you seriously asking me why I like you?” Greg questioned.
Obviously recognizing that that was exactly what he had asked of Greg, Ian quickly offered, “Apologies. The request was completely inappropriate and –”
And the man hadn’t a single clue why someone would find him attractive, Greg realized. What the hell kind of childhood had Ian had? He couldn’t have ever had any true friends if he honestly believed there was nothing more to him than a brain and bank account. Just thinking about it made Greg furious, but he had enough sense to stamp that reaction down hard. Instead, he drew a deep breath and softly said, “No, it’s okay. It’s just a little hard to, you know, say stuff like that out loud.”
Ian nodded. “You needn’t –”
“No. It’s fine. I, er, like that you’re so smart. Not in a want-to-put-your-intellect-to-any-kind-of-practical-use kind of liking it, it’s just . . .hot.” Greg felt his own cheeks warming. “You’ve got style and confidence to spare. I mean, the bespoke suits and the whole proper gentleman look fits you perfectly. And you’re funny, but subtle with it. A person’s got to be sharp enough to pick up on your humour to appreciate it. I bet most people don’t get you at all, do they?”
Ian’s gaze lowered to the duvet and he gave a slow shake of his head. When Ian looked back up at him, his expression seemed to imply that Greg wasn’t getting him, either.
Picking up on his companion’s disappointment, Greg realized that everything he’d mentioned had either been a product of Ian’s intellect or social standing, which did hark back to the whole only brain and bank account appeal. Recognizing that this man, who obviously thought so little of his own physical endowments, might appreciate something flattering about his appearance, Greg approached the more dangerous ground of physical assessments. You could compliment a person’s intellect and character traits and still maintain a polite discussion, but as soon as you started listing another person’s physical attractions, any illusion of distance went out the window, for both parties. This man could read tomes from the inconsequential clues in a person’s daily appearance. Greg wondered how much he’d be giving away about himself to Ian with his words.
Drawing in a deep breath, Greg took the plunge. “Then there’s your skin. Peaches and cream perfection. Yards of snowy pallor that looks velvety as white rose petals. The ginger hair is like icing on the cake. What?” Greg broke off at the sharp glance that earned him.
“Ginger hair is never anything but an embarrassment.”
“Who fed you that bollucks?” Greg demanded. “My Cindy, well, my soon to be ex, is ginger. I’ve always had a weak spot for redheads, the brighter the better. Yours is the perfect shade, not carrot coloured, but a deep russet. And then there’s your eyes. They’re sharp enough to be a weapon, with everything you’re able to deduce from their input, but, if a man’s got the nerve to dare them . . . well, he could drown in them, given half the chance. And that whole air you’ve got of being above it all is enough to make anyone want to melt your reserves, just to see what you’re like when you ignite, because I’m betting you’re hell on wheels when all that cool distance is burned away.”
All Greg could hear in the silence after his unplanned and certainly insane declaration was his raspy breathing and the deafening roar of his own heart pounding double time. What the hell was wrong with him? Ian was the one on drugs, so any indiscretions on the younger man’s part were understandable. But Greg was too old to be putting himself into this kind of compromising situation with a dangerous stranger. He didn’t know a thing about this guy, other than that he really liked him for some incomprehensible reason. But that didn’t mean he should be running his mouth off, making inappropriate personal comments, even if he had been asked to do so.
Throughout Greg’s rushed appraisal, despite being over-wide and visibly shocked, those eyes that had deduced his crumbling marriage and hobbies from his person were taking him apart.
After what felt an eternity, Ian said in a low, shaky voice, “You . . . you meant what you just said. It really isn’t pity.”
“Nothing as cold as that,” Greg promised. His hand rose to cup Ian’s cheek, his calloused fingertips absorbing how that pale skin really did feel as velvety as the white rose petals Greg had compared it to. His gaze focused on the touch of pink nearby, those thin, prim lips that suddenly looked absurdly kissable.
The lush sensations filtering up from that sensual skin reeled through Greg. He sucked in a deep breath, but it didn’t help clear his head. The air carried with it the medicinal scent of betadine, the barest remaining hint of that expensive smelling cologne Greg had detected before, and the far more appealing natural scent of Ian’s skin. He smelt so damn good.
A warm haze Greg hadn’t felt in forever filtered through him. Trying to recall the last time he’d felt this . . . aroused, Greg realized that it had literally been years. Cindy’s growing sexual disinterest in him had seemed to have a proportional relationship to the increase in the amount of grey in his hair. It had been fully two years since they’d even attempted intercourse. While Cindy had looked for comfort elsewhere, Greg had told himself he didn’t need it, that he could do without, but, Christ, had he been wrong. He needed this. The way he needed his next breath. He was tingling all over, alive for the first time in fucking years, and it felt incredible.
With no conscious decision being made, Greg’s mouth covered Ian’s thin lips.
Ian froze completely, even the breath seeming to stop in his lungs. Greg was stunned to realize that this was obviously Ian’s first real kiss. The visceral shock tightening the other man and the awkward way his mouth stayed frozen couldn’t mean anything else. But within a couple of heartbeats, the lips beneath Greg’s softened. Ian released a stunned, “Mmmmm,” the sound of which shot a burst of sheer, carnal electricity straight to Greg’s prick.
Greg gave a tentative lick at the space between Ian’s lips. They opened immediately. Greg’s tongue sank in, something wild in Greg feeling like it had finally returned home.
Considering the other man was just a couple of hours out of surgery, it really wasn’t any surprise that Ian’s mouth was so dry. What was shocking was the way Ian drank the juices right out of his own mouth.
The sensations that swirled through him left Greg nearly dizzy. Greg’s hands moved to instinctively grip Ian’s shoulders and it was then everything went wrong, or right, depending on which side of sanity line the observer was aiming for. The pained yelp Ian gave when Greg’s fingers gripped too close to the bullet wound was like a bucket of ice water splashing over Greg.
Abruptly, Greg recognized what he was doing. He was seducing a kid ten years younger than him, a kid who was only a couple of hours out of surgery, and depending on Greg for his safety at the moment. And, beyond that lovely little complication, was the fact that Greg himself wasn’t actually a free man at the moment. True, he was as good as, but the decree absolute hadn’t been issued yet and until it was, Greg had no business fooling around, certainly not with anyone as vulnerable as Ian was right now.
Married. You’re still married, Greg’s conscience shrieked at him. Realizing the act he was on the verge of committing with this seemingly inexperienced, if undoubtedly lethal, young man, this drugged young man who was not presently in his right mind, Greg’s breath shuddered as he clamped down on the completely unexpected and inappropriate hunger. Wrong, this was so wrong, on so many levels.
Greg pulled back from the kiss, trying to sort out what had happened, where the shaking need gripping him had come from. He hadn’t looked at another man in over fourteen years. Stunned beyond reason, but still not wanting to offer anything that might be misconstrued as a rejection, Greg slowly withdrew completely from Ian, sitting back up, staring at the other man like he’d just been released from some kind of enchantment. He was shaking all over.
Ian appeared similarly affected.
Who the hell was this guy? Greg couldn’t remember having this kind of chemistry with anyone in years. Despite their wildly divergent backgrounds and the age difference, something had clicked. While Greg hadn’t lied to Ian before about anything he’d said he’d found attractive, it wasn’t simply his looks, for Greg really never would have glanced twice at the man if they hadn’t been thrown together tonight like this. It certainly wasn’t Ian’s profession. That whole secret agent thing creeped Greg out big time. No, there was just something about Ian himself, the hints of insecurity and innocence hidden below that considerably impressive façade. And, Christ, but he was impressive. Sharp and contained when in his right mind, with this powder keg of emotion lurking below, pushed down deep, always hidden. Greg knew if the other man hadn’t been on drugs, Ian never would have revealed the personal things he’d shared or indulged in that earthshattering kiss. Greg also suspected that Ian had probably never confessed those things to another person and he certainly had never shared body fluids with someone else, were his blown away expression anything to go by. The fact that Ian had done so with him made Greg feel strangely special.
Ian’s eyes were as huge as saucers, his pupils incredibly wide, perhaps from desire, but just as probably from the painkiller dissolving into his system.
Reading the offer in that willing, drugged gaze, Greg swallowed hard. The flavor of Ian’s dry mouth was still in his own. His first attempt at speech was more a croak than a coherent word, but finally he found his voice, although the hoarse, guttural tone which finally emerged was hardly recognizable to his own ears. “This . . . isn’t a good idea. You’re on some major painkillers and . . . I’m not divorced yet.”
“If you were free?” Ian sounded as if his vocal chords were undergoing a similar seize up.
“I’m not, not yet. You’re just out of surgery and . . . not in your right mind at the moment,” Greg repeated, reminding them both. “Morality issues aside, you could reopen that wound.”
“You’re right . . . of course,” Ian conceded after a long pause, staring at him, not with the contempt Greg knew he deserved, but with something akin to astonishment. Or perhaps it was just the painkiller.
“I’m going to bed now,” Greg declared, rising to his feet, unable to believe how hard it was to force himself away from this man he knew absolutely nothing about, but wanted with an almost visceral hunger.
“Detective . . .” Ian seemed to stop himself, replacing the title with an uncertain, “Greg?”
“Yeah?” He could barely force himself to look back at the bed, the full horror of the violation of trust he’d nearly committed was beginning to filter through his exhausted mind.
“Thank you,” Ian whispered.
“Proving Diogenes correct.”
Even though he knew he shouldn’t linger, Greg gave a confused, “Huh?”
“Without temptation, there can be no virtue. I’ve never been anyone’s temptation before.”
Christ. Greg sucked in another breath. While hardly defusing the situation, Ian’s words went a long way in easing the self-condemnation that was starting to take hold. That kiss had definitely been over the line, but perhaps it hadn’t been a complete mistake. No matter what, Ian would now know that someone had found him desirable. He’d never be able to prattle on again about only being wanted for his mind or money, not with memory of the taste of Greg’s saliva in his mind. Any more than Greg would be able to deceive himself that he could do without. Maybe those discoveries were worth how close they’d skirted to doing something they would both regret come morning.
Greg didn’t know whether the drugs were affecting Ian now, but the other man appeared strangely pleased, not upset or frightened by his unknown host’s alarming interest like any sane man would be in a similar situation.
“Good night, Ian.”
Greg nearly laughed aloud at the confused look the name earned him.
Ian seemed to recall the pseudonym he’d offered Greg and chuckled. “Good night, Greg.”
“I’ll see you in the morning.” With that, Greg fled to his room.
Before settling into the bed, Greg put the key to the armoire where the guns were locked under his pillow, along with Ian’s wallet and thumb drive. He didn’t think he’d sleep that night, not with a super spy next door and all the emotional upheaval of the night, but once he’d settled his head on the pillow, his exhausted body and mind sank into a deep slumber.
When he awoke, the weak light of another grey London January day was filtering through the curtains. Greg turned to check the time on the alarm clock on the nightstand, because the sun shouldn’t be up at all if this was a workday, which he was pretty sure it was. The pain that burned through his cheek as his abraded face scratched at the pillowcase brought back the events of last night.
Greg shot up in the bed, listening hard, but he couldn’t hear any strange noises in the house.
Sitting up, his toes searched along the carpet for his slippers, his still tired eyes noting that the rug needed hoovering. Greg was sticking his left foot into his sheepskin slipper when his gaze settled upon the mahogany armoire beside his bed. Or, more precisely, his gaze fixed on the door that should have been securely locked, but which was now gaping wide open.
Part of him wasn’t even really surprised.
Greg reached for the pillow his head had just vacated and lifted it up. There was nothing but smooth, blue cotton sheet where last night there had been an expensive leather wallet and thumb drive poking into his uninjured cheek through his foam pillow.
Greg shivered as he realized that sometime during the night, his houseguest had come in here and reclaimed his possessions – while Greg had slept on through it all. Hell, Ian had to have slipped his hand right under Greg’s head to retrieve his wallet. Greg couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened had he awoken. Would Ian have hurt him? Killed him? Maybe he was a complete fool, but he couldn’t believe either of Ian.
Greg wasn’t expecting anyone to still be here, but he had to go check. When he glanced around the open guestroom door, the bed was unsurprisingly empty. It was neatly made, with the scrubs Clancy had loaned Ian last night lying on top of the duvet.
Had the man left naked? Greg stared around the room until he noticed that the track suit he’d left hanging on the exercise machine last week was gone, as was the raincoat that had been there.
Wondering just when Ian had left, Greg turned towards the bathroom. He felt strangely ambivalent. Logically, he knew this was the best way this could have played out. Greg was self-aware enough to know that he’d provided all the help Ian could possibly get from him last night – giving the wounded agent the required medical assistance and sanctuary he needed until he was back on his feet. Had Ian lingered longer, Greg knew he would have quickly become a liability.
Even so, Greg still felt stupid and betrayed. The way he had in uni when he’d wake up after a spectacular, drunken shag to an empty bed. Which didn’t make a whit of sense, because nothing had happened between Ian and him, not really. A single kiss and some sweet talk. In the grand scheme of things, they hardly counted at all.
Yet the potential had been there. Greg didn’t understand why, but something had sparked between him and Ian. That was a very rare occurrence. For all that Greg liked and got on with most people, he didn’t bond with them easily. But somehow, he’d forged a connection with a stranger he knew nothing about, not even so much as his real name.
Unable to credit how depressed he was by the empty guestroom, Greg forced himself to go through his morning routine.
Greg practically leaped on his cellphone when it rang a couple of hours later. He was sitting in the kitchen, watching the guestroom sheets twirl around in the dryer. He should be hoping it was Cindy calling to try to patch things up. Why he would expect Ian to know his cellphone number when he’d never given it to him was something Greg didn’t want to think too much about. Still, it was that snide, cultured voice he was hoping for. “’lo?”
“Greg, how are you doing? How’s our patient?” Clancy’s cheerful voice greeted.
“I’m fine, but our patient’s flown the coop. When I woke up this morning the house was empty. He was fine last night before I went to bed.”
“Ah, well, it’s for the best. Isn’t it? He was like something out of a spy novel.” Clancy sounded openly relieved.
The spy who loved me, Greg thought, feeling more than a bit insane. Knowing he should be relieved that Ian was gone and that he had nothing more to regret than a single, illicit kiss, Greg gave a forced chuckle. “He was, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah. Pretty scary, actually. I felt like I was under a microscope every time he looked at me. It was unnerving.”
Greg made a noncommittal sound of agreement. He knew that was how he should have felt as well, but he rather liked that he hadn’t had to explain everything to Ian. He would have liked it a whole lot better if he himself had possessed similar super powers and had been able to suss out Ian’s secrets, or at least his real name and how to contact him, but, despite what Ian might have said, Greg knew there was nothing extraordinary about himself. He was just another soon-to-be-divorced copper, such a bloody stereotype that the weight of it was enough to crush him.
“You’re off duty today, right?”
“Yeah. Today and tomorrow,” Greg answered.
“You want to meet up for a pint or two later? Maybe play a bit? I’ve got the beginnings of a new song down. Thought we might work it into something usable.”
With the strange mood Greg was in, the pint wouldn’t have tempted him, but the music did. It was the only thing that ever really helped. Greg listened to the quiet of the house for a moment, before answering. “Sure, why not? Meet you at Curran’s?”
“Will seven work for you?” Clancy checked.
“Yeah. See you then.”
Greg went back to work the next day, unable to stand the quiet of the house.
A dismembered corpse washed up on the south bank of the Thames that afternoon, which, while not good for the poor sod missing his limbs, at least gave Greg something to think about other than his equally deceased marriage and the weird sense of abandonment he’d been experiencing since a man he’d barely known for six hours had vanished from his life.
Greg threw himself into his job with a passion, worked until he dropped, and managed to be the officer who tracked and knicked the nutter who’d sliced and diced the decedent in the morgue.
Greg kept an eye on the news and the papers, hoping there might be some oblique reference to one of the intelligence agencies cleaning house or foiling a plot to steal state secrets, anything that might indicate that Ian was still alive, but there was nothing. The man had vanished like mist. The only proof Ian had existed at all was a bloodstain on Greg’s passenger seat.
Greg’s decree absolute came through two weeks after Ian vanished. Even though he was expecting it, the finality of seeing his marriage dissolved in black and white print on an official document was unexpectedly jarring. He went out with Clancy and a couple of other mates and got pissed, put away every photograph of Cindy, and went back to work the next day to close another case. He worked ridiculously long hours, ate too much food that was bad for him, drank a bit more than he was comfortable with, felt too sorry for himself, and hung on as best he could, telling himself that things would get better.
One day flowed into another and, as had a way of happening, life gradually improved. Greg got used to the quiet of the house. While he was no longer waiting to hear Cindy’s key turn in the lock, he’d developed a far more disturbing habit of checking out every heavyset, tall stranger in a three piece bespoke suit, unconsciously searching for a man he was beginning to suspect dead. That possibility shouldn’t have disturbed him as much as it did, but it really hurt him to think that Ian hadn’t made it out of the mess he’d been in, that he’d just disappeared into that January dawn to end up in an unmarked grave. Every time Greg was called in on a John Doe, there was a part of him that expected to see Ian’s features behind the decomposing flesh. But he never did, and, slowly, he forced himself not to dwell on the depressing possibility.
Late one Friday night in March, six weeks after he was officially a free man, Greg let himself into the bungalow, using his right knee to balance his guitar case in the crook of his elbow as he simultaneously undid the lock and flashed a wave at Clancy as his mate drove off. It had been a fantastic night. Clancy and he had played a session at Curran’s. It had been a good sized crowd and they’d applauded Clancy and his original songs just as enthusiastically as they had the covers they played. That didn’t always happen. Hell, it had never happened before. The rush of having an audience like their own stuff was unique and unprecedented.
Greg locked the door behind him and stumbled towards the kitchen for some water, hoarse and dry from all the singing he’d done, but still buzzed from the rush of a successful performance. He leaned his guitar case against wall outside the kitchen and beelined to the sink, draping his jacket over the back of a kitchen chair. Two long, cold glasses of water later, his throat was finally feeling less like sandpaper and more like flesh.
God, he couldn’t remember the last time he had felt this uncomplicatedly happy.
A third glass of water in hand, Greg left the kitchen, heading towards a relaxing shower and some much needed sleep, when a casual glance into the lounge froze him in place. The room was dark, but the light spilling in from the adjoining kitchen seemed to be highlighting an anomaly, a silhouette that didn’t belong where it was. His Taylor was in its case in the kitchen behind him, yet, there was a guitar on a stand gleaming in the dim room in the space between the sofa and telly.
What the . . . ?
On guard, Greg flipped on the lamp near him. It was times like this he wished he carried a gun. He pulled his cellphone out of the back pocket of his jeans and poised his finger above the speed dial number that would connect him with the office as he did a quick reconnaissance of the house.
Nerves on edge, Greg searched the place from top to bottom. There weren’t any intruders. He checked everywhere, including the attic. The television and computer were in plain sight. There was no hint of a forced entry. Nothing appeared to have been stolen. Everything was exactly as Greg had left it this morning, except there was a guitar that he didn’t own sitting in the middle of his lounge.
Less concerned about his safety, Greg tentatively approached the newcomer. The only two people who had a key to the place were Cindy and Clancy. While Cindy might occasionally stop by to pick up some item that had been left behind, she always texted him to let him know she would be dropping by, as well as telling him what she was taking. She’d have no reason on Earth to leave a guitar here. She didn’t even play. As for Clancy, even if he’d done it sometime after Greg left for the pub this evening . . . his friend would never have been able to keep something like this secret.
Totally bewildered, Greg moved within touching distance and gasped as he read the ornately scrawled logo on the headstock: CJ Martin & Co., Est 1833.
A slow tremor started somewhere deep inside him as he took in the impossibility sitting right in front of him. It was a Double 0-18. The small bodied beauty he’d been longing for since he’d turned fifteen. And it looked like it was in mint condition, despite being a good forty or fifty years old.
Greg couldn’t have been more astonished if he’d walked in to find a pot of gold sitting in his lounge.
The trembling fingers of his right hand reached for the guitar’s neck. He fully expected the instrument to disappear in a puff of smoke at first contact, because he had to be dreaming. But the wood beneath his fingertips was cool and solid. It didn’t vanish and he didn’t wake up.
What he did was carefully remove the instrument from its stand and pull it closer. He fished a pick out of his pocket and sat down on the edge of the sofa to test the tuning. The first note rang clear and true as a bell through the quiet lounge. Someone had tuned the guitar before leaving it here. It only took a small adjustment to the G String before the beauty was in perfect tune.
The fingers of Greg’s left hand shaped a C chord and he was off and running. Already warmed up from the show tonight, Greg’s fingers flew true to every note, as if the instrument were enchanted and couldn’t play a bad note. Greg was in love before he’d gotten halfway through I Wanna Hold Your Hand. It was the very first song he’d ever learned and it seemed fitting that that old staple would be the first song he played on this incredible instrument. He’d never sounded this good in his life. Tune after tune spilled from his fingertips as he acquainted himself with the guitar the way he would a lover’s body. A couple of magical hours passed like minutes, until finally his fingertips started to hurt so badly he thought they might bleed. Even so, he could hardly force himself to put the guitar down.
It was only then when he returned to reality that Greg noticed the hard case, also bearing the Martin logo, on the floor on the far side of the coffee table. There was a piece of expensive looking paper taped to the case.
Greg reverently replaced the guitar on its stand, and moved to retrieve the note. Standing beside the sofa, he scanned the message. The neat and precise handwriting was unfamiliar. It looked like something a monk might have written, the penmanship was that perfect.
There is no way I could possibly thank you for the kindness you showed me last month. I would not be alive today, were it not for you and your virtue. I trust you will accept this instrument as a small token of my eternal thanks.
Perhaps someday we will meet again in better circumstances.
My warmest regards,
Utterly astonished, Greg stared at the note in his hands. Ian. Ian was alive.
The relief that washed through him was so intense, Greg would have fallen if he weren’t right beside the sofa. He sank down onto the comfy cushions, so many emotions crashing through him that he didn’t even know how to react.
He didn’t know how long he sat there, staring at the oddly formal, old fashioned message. He was relieved, so happy to know that Ian wasn’t dead. But . . . the man hadn’t left any contact information. While Greg couldn’t deny that the guitar was a dream come true, the entire thing made him more than a little sad, because the gesture felt like a goodbye.
Well, like his shattered marriage, the situation was what it was. There was no sense mourning a man he’d never really known. Ian was obviously alive and well, and uninterested in forming a more stable acquaintance.
It wasn’t like that was even a real surprise, Greg thought, recalling their disparate backgrounds. Their social standing aside, Greg was more than ten years older than the other man. And even if both of those things weren’t deal breakers, Greg knew he wouldn’t want to be involved with a spy, even if they just tried to be mates. Ian had made the right decision. It never would have worked out – whatever it was. But there was a part of Greg that resented the other man for taking that decision out of his hands, for not giving them the chance to explore what they might have been to each other, because every instinct Greg owned was telling him they would have been amazing.
His heart surprisingly heavy, Greg switched off the lamp and gave his new guitar a last, fond glance before moving to the bedroom.
As he settled onto his pillow, he should have been filled with the joy of the incredible instrument with which he’d been gifted. Instead of sweet songs playing through his thoughts, Greg’s mind was filled with the memories of a cultured voice telling him about long dead philosophers and the search for virtue, his heart aching for something he’d never had and never would, both organs converging in a troubled web of lost hopes.