He's checking his emails and drinking his first cup of coffee when the commander walks into the office Zayn's Unit shares with Wildlife Crime, suited unknown in tow.
"Listen up, everyone." He has to shout a bit to get himself heard way all the way at the back and even then most of Wildlife look like they're ignoring him anyway. Harry, whose desk the commander's standing next to, winces and pushes his hair over his ears.
"This is Doctor Payne, our new forensic psychologist. He's just finished doing some work for Homicide and Serious Crime and now he'll be working with ESC, so you'll be seeing him around - team leaders, request his assistance through me. I want everyone to make him feel welcome, ok?"
There are grunts of assent and a couple of half hearted waves. Zayn feels a bit bad for him - it's not the best first day introduction. He gives the guy - Dr Payne, he'll remember that - a small smile and goes back to unstacking and re-stacking the folders on his desk, looking for that one particular form.
It's Monday morning and everyone's in a foul mood, Zayn included. It was pissing down when he left and there were delays on the central line, bad enough that he'd headed above ground two stops early and taken a bus.
Zayn fucking hates the bus.
He hates writing reports too, which is why he picks up on the first ring when his phone starts blinking red.
"Detective Malik? This is Sergeant Richards from the Marine Policing Unit. I'm calling from Woolwich Dockyard, or thereabouts."
That's unusual. Zayn's got fuck all to do with MPU.
"What can I do for you, Sergeant?"
"I've been told you're the resident authority on Mr Horan."
Zayn spills the rest of his coffee all over himself.
Harry lends him a spare shirt - Zayn even gets a choice of four colors - from the ones in his desk. Where he keeps his paperwork is a mystery.
(Zayn's not quite sure that Harry's joking when he says "don't do paperwork", because Harry's a charming bastard and it's not unlikely that there are several junior - or even senior - officers doing his job for him.)
They're on their way out when the Superintendent beckons them into his office. Zayn groans. It's not like time is of the essence - unless Horan's left them an ice-cream cake again - because once Niall's gone, he's gone. Zayn just wants to get away from those files.
The Superintendent motions for them to sit down. The forensic psych guy from earlier is perched awkwardly on one of the chairs so Zayn takes the other. His underling can stand.
Or apparently he can't. Harry seats himself in Zayn's lap.
The Superintendent coughs.
"That's inappropriate, Styles, this is a professional environment."
"Sorry, Simon," says Harry. He stays seated though, smiling at the Superintendent like butter wouldn't melt. The Superintendent's frown relaxes into a grin and he wags his finger mock sternly at Harry.
"I'll make this quick then. Detective Chief Inspector Zayn Malik, Detective Inspector Harry Styles, meet Dr Liam Payne and vice versa. I'm sure you can get acquainted on your own time."
"Dr Payne's going with you, Zayn, in case you haven't worked that out. We haven't made much headway with Mr Horan and I think he'll be able to help."
"So you're not the people who look at antelope porn all day?"
Zayn sighs. He's been waiting for Liam to ask.
Zayn leads his own team in the Extradition and International Assistance Unit. Yes EIA share offices with Wildlife crime, but only because they're two of the smaller units. Wildlife crime don't even deal with that sort of thing - it's mostly illegally imported tapirs and tamarins - but that doesn't stop people from somehow assuming that Zayn's job has something to do with bestiality. He's stopped mentioning Wildlife crime when talking about his job to people outside of work.
He suspects the people actually in Wildlife Crime have done the same.
They meet Sergeant Richards ("Call me Dan.") on the south bank of the Thames near the disused docks.
"Walk us through what happened."
"The boat was heading east past Battersea when Horan and an unknown accomplice approached alongside in a smaller vessel. The owners say he and his companion boarded the boat, ordered them off and offered the smaller vessel in exchange."
"What does that mean, ordered them off? Did Horan threaten them?"
"Not as far as I know. The owners aren't being too cooperative at the moment, won't really say what happened."
"Give us your best impression," says Liam, scratching at his cheek. Zayn opens his mouth to tell him that he's supposed to be the one asking questions, but Liam's smiling at the Sergeant, small and encouraging and the Sergeant's smiling back. He lets it go.
"Honestly? It sounds like they just gave it to him, only now the boat's been damaged and someone's got to pay for that and the fines incurred, so they've changed their tune."
"Dick move," says Harry.
Dan shrugs. "If they're pressing charges, they're pressing charges. Besides, Horan and his friend broke the speed limit, and you're not allowed to just abandon a boat this way."
Harry tsks. "Ah well, what's one more theft charge and a speeding ticket on top of everything else?"
"If he did order them off the boat, it's technically piracy."
Zayn breathes through his nose. "That knob. I bet he did it for that exact reason, because he wanted to play pirate."
"That or he wanted a lift to the Kanye concert. We're not far from the O2," says Harry.
Zayn wouldn't even be surprised.
Liam's been watching the exchange, scribbling frantically in a black notebook. He lifts his eyes to meet Zayn's. "Why would they just give him their boat?"
"Because," says Zayn, "Horan's is the type of idiocy that's contagious."
They board the boat at Zayn's insistence, though according to the owners the interior's untouched. "You could get someone down if you wanted to check for prints - from our end it's a pretty open and shut case, no need for that - but I doubt you'd find anything. We've already bagged the one thing left for you, DCI Malik." He hands Zayn an evidence bag, a single square of card inside.
"The owners described the thief - small, blond, Australian - and confirmed the man in the photo was the same person who commandeered their boat. One of my officers ran it through the databases, that plus the name and we knew who to call."
But Zayn's not listening, focused on what's inside the evidence bag.
It's a polaroid of Niall smiling, middle finger raised at the camera.
There's a sudden spike in the familiar background hum of guilt Zayn feels when he thinks of Niall.
He turns the picture over and sees Z A Y N spelled out in sparkling gold-edged stickers, pink and blue and green and pink again.
He traces the ridges where the stickers meet the card. He won't be able to feel that on the photocopy he gets from the guys in evidence.
They hadn't know Niall's name at the start - Harry called him Blondie and it stuck, until one day he rocked up with brown hair and they couldn't figure out which was real - he left it for them, on a teeny tiny little postcard with a picture of an elephant on the back. In the address box was written something to help you out :) and next to the postcard lay a magnifying glass.
Harry had cackled long and hard, but Zayn.
Zayn hadn't got it at the time - it was a present, Niall - Horan - was helping, however weird that might be. But back then it had made him a little angry, like he was being laughed at.
A quick search had revealed a likely match. Niall Horan, born September 13 1993, Mullingar, Westmeath, Ireland. Parents deceased [estimated] June 15-29 2004.
One birth certificate, two death certificates. And that's it, all that exists on paper. His name and birthday and the fact he's an orphan is all they officially know about Niall Horan.
So yeah, Niall had given him a gift - and Zayn had thrown it back in his face.
He'd received a call a few weeks after finding the postcard.
The voice is smooth, unaccented and entirely unfamiliar. He feels a prickling at the back of his neck.
"Who is this?"
"I'm a bit put out, Zayn, that you haven't guessed. I thought we had a connection."
Zayn's heart pounds a little harder in his chest. He's not heard Niall speak before and it's funny, but he'd never imagined him sounding like this.
Niall's laughing, and someone's laughing with him in the background - Louis, if Zayn had to guess.
Zayn feels annoyance burning bright in his chest. He's been looking into Niall for more than a year and now Niall calls him up just to laugh. He sounds so happy and Zayn wants to squash that, wants Niall to feel as crap as he does.
"So let's talk about your parents."
The laughter cuts out. There's a click and then dial tone.
Zayn's annoyance doubles because fuck that was maybe the best lead they've had. Mostly his anger is internally directed. He'd never thought of himself as cruel, but hey, looks like he was wrong.
The incident with the boat marks the first time in two months that Niall - that Horan - has been back in the UK. After the phone call with Zayn he'd headed to Norway. They'd received a request for assistance from the NPS in Alta and Zayn, Harry and (having drawn the short straw) Sergeant Beales spent two weeks freezing their balls off and not having any luck finding Niall.
Upon their return Harry had found a postcard in his pigeon hole - 'Greetings From Sunny Australia!'
It was blank, but Zayn got the message.
The polaroid looks to be a thawing of the ice, or at least that's what Harry thinks.
"I'm telling you, he wants to kiss and make up."
"Did Louis tell you that?"
"Haven't seen Louis in a while, mate," says Harry and his tone is light enough that Zayn can't tell if he resents Zayn for that or not.
Harry might be right about the photo. From everything he knows about Niall, Zayn doesn't think he's the type to hold a grudge. He's the type to let you know he's angry and then forgive you. At least that's what Zayn hopes is happening.
Liam clutches his notebook like a lifeline and looks desperately lost.
"Wait, who's Louis?"
The biggest drawer of Zayn's desk is filled with files pertaining to Niall. When they get back to the office he pulls them all out, lays them on the table in an empty conference room.
Liam comes in a minute later, mug of coffee in hand.
"Wow. That's a lot of paper."
Zayn gestures for him to sit down, slides the thinnest folder over. "Cold, hard facts. Everything else is technically speculation."
Liam's eyebrows make a bid for his hairline. He flips open the file and starts reading.
Just as he finishes the second and last sheet Harry enters, hurrying to deposit the two steaming mugs he's carrying onto the table.
"Ahhhhhhh, hot, hot!"
"I wonder what the handles are for?" Zayn mocks, reaching for his own mug.
"Thanks for risking your lovely hands to fetch me coffee, Harry," says Harry, adopting a strange, high-pitched voice.
"Fuck off, Harry."
Zayn blows on his coffee and Liam coughs. "So Horan was born in Ireland but he's got an Australian accent. I guess he must've spent a significant portion of his childhood-"
Zayn snorts. "Yeah, or he's just good at accents."
Harry flips through one of the thinner folders of speculation, slides a piece of paper across to Liam.
"It's a list of every nationality a witness has suggested to us based on Niall's accent."
"Wow," says Liam.
"This one guy in California - the blimp incident, it's in the files - swore up and down he was a native."
"Wow," says Liam again. "OK, so he's probably well traveled. Maybe he moved around as a kid."
"Maybe," says Zayn. "You saw in the file his parents' bodies were found in a house in Dundee." Liam nods. "So there's evidence of some migration, at least."
"But we don't know if Horan was with them."
"Nope," says Zayn. He needs a cigarette. "There was kids clothing in the house - here's a copy of the report, if you want to look at it - no photos with any children in them, but a couple of the parents together. The house wasn't in their name."
"Why would he get rid of everything - because that's what happened, right, Horan got rid of everything, any records that tell us who he is - but not this file?" Liam taps the Tayside Police's report of the Horans' murder.
"In case it got solved."
Niall's not one for revenge. Zayn doesn't know a thing about Niall's relationship with his parents, if it was great or awful, but he knows that Niall loves life and that he's not the type to spend it chasing vengeance. Niall doesn't carry things with him - he makes peace, he moves on. Niall likes stupid jokes and shiny things and peri peri chicken and has just crossed piracy off his bucket list.
Zayn knows who Niall is.
He knows that's a dangerous thing to think.
Liam finishes going through the files - it takes him a fortnight, and ok, Zayn's impressed - and writes up a preliminary profile on Niall. Zayn makes the mistake of reading it during his morning coffee, then makes the mistake of continuing to read it during his morning coffee. He's not sure his keyboard can survive that amount of liquid.
When he gets around to checking his inbox he finds a string of messages from Harry.
From Harry Styles [Harry.Styles@esc.met.gov.uk]
To Zayn Malik [Zayn.Malik@esc.met.gov.uk]
>> Wow this is hilarious.
>> Lol Liam thinks Niall is like a more tragic Harry Potter.
>> I think you might be Snape.
>> Lmaoo 'risk seeking behaviors representative of emotional volatility and desire for external acknowledgement of own value' !!
>> There's only one person who he wants to acknowledge his value, RIGHT ZAYN?
>> omg I think Liam's in love with Niall.
>> He's like the tragic, broken hero that Liam wants to fix.
>> WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT THAT, HUH, ZAYN?
>> He's moving in on your man!
>> Wow, this would actually make an ok film.
>> If I replaced ice cream cake with 'bomb' and boat with 'massive cruise liner'...
>> Oh hang on...
>> I watched a Keanu Reeves marathon this weekend, I think it's affected me in ways I don't yet fully understand.
>> I might give the film idea a go, actually. I don't know if you know, but I did English at uni.
From Zayn Malik [Zayn.Malik@esc.met.gov.uk]
To Harry Styles [Harry.Styles@esc.met.gov.uk]
>> Stop spamming me.
Please delete these libelous emails at your end.
Zayn turns his attention to scrolling through notifications about new vehicle impound protocols, which don't apply to him but which he gets sent anyway because of fucking mailing lists.
There's a ping and a new message from Harry pops up.
From Harry Styles [Harry.Styles@esc.met.gov.uk]
To Zayn Malik [Zayn.Malik@esc.met.gov.uk]
I saw an old friend last night. :DDD
The triple smiley gives the game away. Zayn slides his wheely chair over to Harry's desk.
"You saw Louis?"
Harry grins and bites his lip.
"Did you get anything from him?"
"Nah," says Harry, examining his nails.
"Did you even ask?"
"Niall's his friend! I don't like putting him in that position."
"Harry, you're a police officer. I'm starting to think these clandestine meetings are actually you going out on dates, rather than you meeting with a source."
Harry worries his thumbnail between his teeth in lieu of a reply.
"So Louis is an asset?"
"Sort of." Zayn knows he's not doing a very good job explaining. "He's Niall's - Horan's - friend, or partner in crime, or whatever. Sometimes he'll talk to Harry, let us know what's going on or where we should be."
"How did Harry get to know him?"
The truth is that Louis made the first move.
Zayn had been promoted and assigned Niall's case. Harry put in a request to move from Higgins' team to Zayn's - the reasons he gave were that Higgins' team sat too close to Wildlife and that Zayn was his friend, but the Commander approved it anyway because he's treasurer of the Harry Styles fanclub (Harry's the President) - and accompanied Zayn on his first Horan-related crime scene visit exactly one month later.
The next day he'd come into work beaming, because some cute guy had talked to him on the DLR on his way home and they'd ended up going for dinner and had arranged to go out again that night. It was an eventful date, by Harry's account, opening with Louis confessing to being bffs with an international criminal and ending in "literally the most amazing sex I have ever had".
So the reason that Harry knows Louis, and that Zayn knows that Niall and his accomplice like to hang around and giggle at the police attempting to solve their crimes, is that that Harry dated him for a little while. Only, Zayn's not sure that's something he should tell Liam. The fact that Harry, superflirt, hasn't dated anyone since Louis leads Zayn to suspect there might still be something going on. If that's true, they're both better off not knowing.
In the end he settles for a half-truth. "Louis actually approached Harry. Niall wanted us to see him flying a seaplane under Tower Bridge."
"I don't get it," says Liam. "You have Horan's name, you know what he looks like and you've got direct contact with him, but you haven't caught him?"
Zayn shakes his head. "You've read the files. Zero evidence left behind, and yeah, we have witnesses which put him at certain crime scenes but no video or pictures, nothing concrete. The only reason we know anything is because he wants us to."
"So he wants attention."
"I don't know if I'd put it like that. I think the way he sees it, there's no point being that good at something if no one knows about it. Before he got into all this," Zayn flaps his hands about in a way that he hopes encompasses leaving postcards and drawings and passing on messages via Louis, "he used to leave glitter at all his crime scenes, so the police would know it was the same person."
"Mm, I saw the photos. Why glitter?"
Zayn shrugs. He's thought about it quite a bit, actually. "I think maybe he tried something else first, but it was too ordinary, or not obvious enough and sometimes the investigators missed it. I can't picture any crime scenes where copious amounts of glitter lying on the floor wouldn't look out of place. Plus, it's sort of endearing. If you're a police officer you're used to seeing some awful crime scenes, and the kind Horan left made a nice change - everyone likes glitter. It's shiny and pretty and you can't ignore it."
Liam nods and gives Zayn a quick, fake smile. He opens up his notebook and starts scribbling. Zayn's starting to get a bit curious as to what he's writing in that thing.
The next morning When Zayn unlocks his desk and slides open the top drawer he finds a tube of turquoise glitter nestled among his highlighters and pens. Attached to it is a post-it note.
Aw, Zayn. I think you're shiny and pretty too.
He grins before he catch himself. And he doesn't call CSU.
"I don't understand how he gets away with it," says Liam.
"He's like a ninja," Harry calls from behind his desk. "Plus, he's got the whole world wrapped around his little finger."
Liam learns exactly how right Harry is two weeks later.
They're in an innocuous music shop in Chelsea.
"So it was an acoustic guitar?"
Caroline - the owner - doesn't look particularly upset, considering the circumstances.
"Mm-hmm, a Paul Reed Smith Series Four Collection Grand Acoustic. It's worth around fourteen thousand pounds." She peers over Zayn's shoulder to make sure he's writing it down correctly. "We don't usually have those in stock, it was specially ordered for a customer."
"You told the previous officers that one of your other customers expressed interest in the guitar?"
She nods. "Niall. Lovely guy. He came in almost every day for a week, just to look at the instruments."
"I wonder if he plays," Harry wonders out loud.
"Oh, he does. He's good, actually. I could tell he really loved it, that's how we got to talking."
"And you offered to show him the guitar?"
"Did you bring it out here?"
"No, I kept it in the back. I can show you-?"
She leads the way into the small, box-filled annexe. "The other police officers said they couldn't find any prints."
Zayn scrubs a hand over his eyes. They never do.
"Where exactly was the guitar?"
Caroline points to a shelf, empty barring a bag of sweets.
"Sorry, I know you've been asked this already, but nothing else is out of place?" She shakes her head. "And these are yours?" He indicates the sweets.
"Oh! No, they're not. I thought the people fingerprinting left them."
And Zayn bets the crime scene unit think they were hers. He pokes at the mostly eaten bag of starburst with his pen.
Only the purple ones are left.
"D'you think it means something?" muses Harry, helping himself to a sweet and yelping when Zayn slaps his hand away.
"Don't eat the evidence."
Harry rolls his eyes but holds up his hands in surrender. "It could be a clue? Maybe leading to the next heist?"
"He might be attempting to throw you off," says Liam, gliding up behind them like a suited specter. "Maybe he actually likes those best."
Zayn rolls his eyes because he is surrounded by morons. Harry stuffs his fist in his mouth to keep from giggling.
"Or maybe he left them because he doesn't like them."
Harry starts, like he's just remembered something. "Hey, aren't the purple ones your favorite?"
Zayn will deny it until the ends of the earth.
"You saw him play the guitar, right?" Harry asks Caroline. "Which hand did he play with?"
"He's right handed. Does that matter?"
It doesn't, not really, but facts about Niall are so thin on the ground that any small morsel feels like a victory.
"Anything else you can tell us would really help, Ms Watson."
She makes a face. "Well, he stood outside and smoked with me a couple of times."
"Niall doesn't smoke." Or at least, not to Zayn's knowledge.
"He said he did, sometimes, to keep his boyfriend company."
Zayn's hand closes around the cigarette carton in his pocket. He counts backwards from ten and tries not to think of Niall, with his infuriating grin, tries to focus on the fact that all this stress will be worth it when Niall's in cuffs.
He has to shake his head to clear the images that conjures.
Liam comes to stand beside Zayn's desk one afternoon.
"I've been working up a geographical profile. D'you maybe want to have a look?"
Zayn grabs a chair from the closest desk - the plastics guys are giving a presentation, which most of the unit have chosen to attend - and motions for him to sit down.
"So, Horan tends to stick to the US and Western Europe." Liam starts spreading out maps and tables and weird circular graphs. "As we move east the number possible hits decreases. I reckon that's a language thing, right?"
Zayn nods his assent. "Right, we've got reports of him speaking Spanish, but it's probably easier for him to stick to places where he can readily communicate in English."
"OK, so the data back that up. Western Europe - lots of time in Spain and he mostly sticks to big cities. He seems to prefer continental Europe to the UK."
"He likes the sun," says Zayn.
Liam stares. "How d'you know that?"
"Because." Zayn's flustered. "Everyone likes the sun. And you've seen him, he's so-"
The silence between the two of them is profound enough that "More fucking terrapins!" can be heard all the way over from where Wildlife work. Zayn desperately tries to think of something to say.
"Anything significant about when he travels?"
Liam tears his eyes away from Zayn's face and goes back to scanning his graphs. "The last two times he was in Belgium and Germany match up with the dates of the Essen beer festival and Oktoberfest, but that's probably a coincidence. I can't find any pattern to the dates."
"So - no offense, Liam, I can tell you've put a lot of effort into this - there's no rhyme or reason, is what you're basically saying?" He gestures at the papers, probably a week's work at least, "This is all useless."
"Ah, no - one thing. Over the past year Niall's been spending more time in the UK. We know he went to Spain in early March, but apart from that it looks like he's stayed mostly in London." Liam's looking at him with a laser focus. "Don't you think that's curious?"
"Lots to do in London," says Zayn. He hopes his voice doesn't sound off. He can't really hear it over the thumping of his heart.
"I suppose." Liam gives him a small smile that Zayn can't decipher the meaning of. "Well anyway, thanks for taking a look."
"No problem." The thumping's already quieting down. "It's good work, Liam. Get copies for Harry and the rest of the team."
Liam beams and starts to get up.
"Oh, and one other thing. Call him Horan, not Niall. He's not your mate, he's a suspect in thirty seven open cases."
Liam frowns in confusion. "But, you call him Niall all the time."
Zayn opens his mouth to protest, but now that he thinks about it-
They're watching footage of Niall strolling down a corridor in the Berkeley hotel, which has just lost a large amount of money from its secure safe. Niall checked out this morning, paying his outrageous bill in cash. Zayn rolls his eyes at the clichéd audacity.
According to hotel records and witnesses, he'd stayed at The Berkeley for two full weeks. Two weeks and all they've got is one clip of him strolling down the corridor. There are thirty four cameras in the hotel.
In the clip Niall walks side by side with another man. He's wearing Ray bans, but apart from that isn't making any efforts to hide his identity. His companion, on the other hand, is wearing a balaclava with the top cut off, so that his hair is free to lie in its normal style but his face is hidden. He looks ridiculous.
"Aw," says Harry and when Zayn turns to look he's grinning sort of dopily at the screen. Liam coughs into his hand.
Harry blinks and the glazed look vanishes from his eyes. He seems unfazed by Zayn and Liam's scrutiny.
"Lou hates messing up his hair."
Liam notes something down.
Witness statements have already been taken but Zayn talks to everyone again, just in case. He starts with the concierge.
"Yeah, I know Niall. I don't really want to get him into trouble, though. He's a cool guy."
"He's a criminal, Mr Devine."
"Yeah, but." The man shrugs.
Zayn can tell Mr Devine isn't going to be any help. He huffs out a sigh.
"Alright, anything you can tell us about how he looked? His hair, his voice, identifying features? Which hand did he write with? You're not dobbing him in by giving a physical description."
"You can see him on the cameras though."
"Mr Devine." Liam smiles that encouraging smile and scratches at his nose. "We can see a six second clip. Anything you can tell us would help."
Devine shrugs. "Blond. He had really nice hair, actually. I think he was Swedish or something. Definitely right handed, we did the crossword together one time."
The guy looks at Zayn like he's some kind of stalker and Zayn blushes even though he's got nothing to be embarrassed about. He's just doing his job.
"Yeah. I mean, I reckon so. It's kind of creepy that you want to know that."
"Thanks for your time."
Zayn corners Liam straight away. "What were you doing there, with your thumb?"
"What do you mean?"
"You scratched your nose, you got him to talk."
"Oh!" Liam brightens. "Subliminal signals! I gave him positive signs - smiling, thumbs up - subconsciously telling him that what he was doing was ok, that it was good to talk to us. Well done for noticing."
"I'm a detective, it's my job to notice things."
"This isn't the first time I've done it."
"Huh." says Zayn.
Jon Shone from Arts and Antiquities rings him on a Wednesday morning.
"Hi Zayn, it's Jon."
"Too lazy to walk one flight of stairs and come and see me in person?"
"I'm not going to deny it. But I'm actually not in the office at the moment."
"I'm down at the Tate Modern. Ever heard of a piece called ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’?"
"What, that Damien Hirst pickled shark?"
"That's the one. Someone made off with it last night."
Zayn laughs. "Hats off to them to be honest, that thing's huge. How'd they do it?"
"Not sure yet but here's the thing, Zayn. I'm calling because in place of the tank the thief left a picture, and your number printed on a business card."
"Yep, recognized it straight away. Not your work number either, your mobile number."
"Exactly. You might want to get down here. Any ideas as to who it might be?"
He makes his way past disappointed gallery goers - not too many, because it's still early in the day for looking at art - and signs announcing the temporary closure of the exhibition. Jon waves him over to a big empty space, outlined by little markers on the floor.
"Right, there's not much to see. Here's where the tank used to be. We found this right in the middle." He hands Zayn an evidence bag with the business card inside. It's a plain white rectangle, Zayn's mobile number printed across it in black Times New Roman font.
It doesn't seem fun enough to be Niall.
"Gooood morning," Harry strolls into the room with Liam at his side.
"Nice of you to show up."
"We saw you walking in, we know you got here all of thirty seconds ago," says Harry, snatching the evidence bag from Zayn. "You're lucky you called while we were picking up our morning Starbucks from by the tube station, or we'd have been a lot later."
"Since when do you two get morning coffee together?"
He doesn't mean it to sound quite so harsh and he smiles apologetically when Liam flushes.
"Since we discovered that we both love the Speed movies and share the ambition of writing a screenplay."
Jon clears his throat. "A bit pushed for time here, lads. This is a major theft and the gallery is raging."
"Right, sorry. You said there was a picture?"
It's a child's drawing of a police officer - identifiable only because of the words 'police officer' written next to the stick figure - with very tall hair.
"I actually think Niall might have done this," says Harry, peering at the drawing.
"What makes you say that?"
"Well, he's signed it."
Zayn examines the corner of the sheet, and yep, what he'd taken for a small scribble is actually an extremely loopy Niall. He's got nice handwriting, Zayn thinks. Except it's probably not real. Still, they'll get it down to the handwriting analyst, maybe it'll give them something.
"Jesus, this is terrible. No wonder he's not into forgery."
"I actually think it's a pretty good likeness," says Harry, slyly. He smirks and that's when it clicks for Zayn.
His hair looks nothing like that.
"I'm going to kill him."
"Have to catch him first."
"When I catch the impudent fucker, I'm going to fucking kill him."
"I reckon you should just fuck him."
"I guess the question to ask here," says Jon, loudly, trying to steer them back on track once more, "is what does your thief want with a fourteen foot preserved shark?"
"Maybe it's a comment on modern art - the picture he left in its place suggests derision regarding this type of artwork," offers Liam.
Jon nods appraisingly. "Yeah, one of my guys thought the same. Of course, he might have stolen it for the money. This thing is worth more than eight million."
"He probably just thinks it's cool."
Zayn agrees with Harry. Niall's never really shown a particular interest in art, though he's nicked a lot of it. Frankly, some of the stuff he's stolen is - in Zayn's opinion, at least, and Zayn likes to think it counts for something, he's got a degree in fine art - gaudy bullshit. Niall has terrible taste.
They hang around for the rest of the day but nothing turns up. No prints, security cameras wiped clean, no witnesses. No explanation for how they moved the thing or where it's gone. All they've got is the business card and the picture, which get sent for more detailed analysis.
Zayn doesn't get the evidence department to give him a copy. He most definitely doesn't tape the picture to the side of his bedside table and stare at it before he goes to sleep every night.
He's not that fucking weird.
It's been almost a month since they last came across anything to do with Niall. Zayn's caught up with his paperwork, extradited two people and assisted with an arrest in Dubai.
He doesn't think he's ever been so bored.
"Psst. Psst. Zayn." Harry's leaning across his desk, too lazy to actually move from behind it. "Guess who I saw last night?"
He's got a particularly goofy grin plastered across his face and that can only mean one thing.
Zayn flings down his pen and wheels furiously to Harry's desk. "Have you-" He lowers his voice. Liam's looking curiously at them from the corner where he'd first settled all those months ago. "Have you been talking to Louis?"
Harry leans in closer, so that their heads knock together. "Just last night. And this morning."
"Fucking hell, Harry, you could get into so much trouble for this. He's a wanted criminal."
"He's not, there's nothing on him, no evidence linking him to a single crime. You don't even know his full name, or what he looks like!"
"I know what he looks like, Harry. Sunglasses and stick on beards only provide so much of a disguise. He doesn't even change his hair."
"His hair is a gift to the world. And ok, so you know because you've seen him. But there are no pictures and even if there were, no witness would be able to point him out in a line up. He's ok."
Zayn sighs, but it's true. They've got even less on Louis than they do on Niall. "Well, what did he say?"
"He told me to tell you that Niall sends his love." Zayn rolls his eyes and tries to ignore the way his heart jumps. "He also said we should check out the Natural History Museum tomorrow."
Tomorrow. If Zayn starts working now, their team can be in place for tonight.
"It's sad that you've only seen Louis in sunglasses. He has the bluest eyes."
Zayn snorts because Harry's fucking besotted.
No one's eyes are bluer than Niall's.
Zayn, Harry, Sandy and Rebecca spend the night watching security cameras from the security center in the museum. On tv it's always a van, but in reality it's impossible to park a van outside the National History Museum for twelve hours without arousing suspicion in either potential wrongdoers or the general public. There's also a significant risk of getting clamped.
There is a van, containing Zayn's two remaining Sergeants as well as everyone but the most junior officers from Higgins' team, parked a few streets away, but Zayn's starting to think they're not going to be necessary.
It's three am and there's no sign of movement on any of the cameras. If Zayn's honest, he's a bit relieved.
He's not sure he actually wants to arrest Niall.
"Maybe they've looped the CCTV."
Harry snorts dismissively. "That's only in Speed, Sandy. They haven't looped anything."
Zayn needs a cigarette. He doesn't want to stop watching because he can't shake the feeling that the minute he steps outside something's going to happen.
But his fingers are twitching and he swears he can smell the smoke and fuck it, he's going.
The whole building's wired to the roof with smoke alarms - fair enough, thinks Zayn, it's full of old dry things that could catch fire at the drop of a hat - so he heads outside through one of the side doors, thumb already flicking over his lighter.
There's a packing crate pushed against the wall and Zayn designates it his smoking bench. Aside from the odd passing car, it's dead quiet.
Niall's standing all of three feet away and Zayn would wonder where he's sprung from but his brain seems to have vacated his body.
"Well," Zayn licks his suddenly dry lips. "This is an awfully big coincidence."
Niall moves forward until he's close enough to touch and realer than anyone Zayn's ever seen.
"You needed a cigarette, right?" It comes out sounding like a laugh. "Let me bum one off you and I'll tell you all about it."
Niall's got an Irish accent that sounds too right to not be real.
Zayn holds out the pack. It's a moonless night but there are some lights in the museum that stay on all the time and they're casting a soft orange glow onto the side of Niall's face. It's a cold night but Zayn feels hot all over and when Niall shivers the shadows shift across his skin.
It's all too surreal.
Niall leans in, using Zayn's cigarette to light his own and this close Zayn can count his ashy eyelashes, see the darker roots creeping through the blond covering his skull.
Niall shifts away and sits down on the packing crate next to Zayn, close enough that their thighs are touching.
"Is this ok?"
Zayn nods and Niall gives him a slanted smile that has Zayn reordering his priorities in life.
"I thought you were supposed to be telling me all about it."
Niall waggles his eyebrow. "You probably didn't notice, but in there," he tilts his head backwards, exposing his throat, "you were sitting right in front an air duct. You know you can get spray that smells like cigarettes?"
"Well, you can. It's for people who want to quit or something. You wanted a smoke, the smell pushed you into getting one. Smart, right?"
Zayn shrugs. "Sounds like something Liam - our forensic psychologist - would come up with."
Niall lets out a delighted cackle.
Zayn's jaw hits the floor.
"No. No way."
"We went to uni together." Niall slides to his feet and taps the crate. "Want to give me a hand with this?"
"What's in there?"
Oh, of course.
"How'd you get it out here without them seeing?"
"Looped the CCTV."
They stick the crate in the backseat of Niall's car. Apparently you can park anywhere you want if you've got diplomatic plates.
"Heads up!" calls Niall and Zayn spins on his heel just in time to catch the keys Niall's thrown.
"You might want to drive," he says. "I had to take a couple of anti-anxiety pills to deal with the vents."
Zayn slides into the drivers seat and waits for Niall to get in before turning on the ignition. "Where to?"
"Where do you want to go?"
Niall grins and it's blinding.