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The Luscombe Dilemma

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            She was undoubtedly beautiful - Professor Emma Luscombe - in that plump, lush, brunette way that Lewis liked. Something juicy about her. And a bright, ready smile too. Although not much of that today, as they walked on the terrace outside Worcester College in the sun. Talking about the death of her colleague, Michael Rednell, Reader in Early Modern History. Rednell had been found dead in his rooms, strangled with the electric power cable of his own laptop. Luscombe’s office was next door, which made her a potential witness, if not a suspect. Robbie was probing her alibi, getting the details of her day.

            ‘I was lecturing in the morning. Lunch on the hop with my research assistant. Two hours of tutorials in the afternoon and then the Work Allocation meeting. After that,’ she said, ‘I went up to my office, and did a few hours marking.’

            ‘Anyone to confirm that?’

            ‘Well, I find it hard to mark with anyone in the room. Distracting, you might say.’

            And where was bloody James, Lewis wondered, irritably. The lad definitely didn’t appear comfortable in Professor Luscombe’s company. Instantly awkward and stonily silent, he seemed only too glad to take a call from Forensics on his mobile, which meant he had to rush out of the room. Luscombe had given Lewis an impish smile at that, and suggested they walk in the sun.

            ‘Your sergeant obviously doesn’t want to miss a moment of this lovely weather,’ she pointed out. ‘And neither should you. It’s too nice to be inside.’

            Lewis wasn’t averse. He’d have enough hours behind his desk over the next few days, poring over witness statements and action forms. On the other hand, where the hell had Hathaway got to? He’d practically bolted out of the room. Maybe he fancied the lovely professor, Lewis concluded. Bowled over by her beauty. It wouldn’t be the first time. James could be odd around women, gauche. Especially ones he was attracted to. Lewis remembered that pretty lass at the Botanical Gardens. James had bowed to her. Honestly! The poor sod didn’t have a clue.

            ‘What time did you leave your office?’

            Pretty Professor Luscombe actually blushed. ‘About midnight.’

            ‘That’s more than a couple of hours of marking,’ Lewis observed.

            ‘Well, my husband popped in.’

            There was a pause as they passed a bed of roses.

            ‘Your husband?’ Lewis pursued, watching her bend down to inhale the scent of the blooms. She really was lovely.

            ‘We –er.’ More blushes.

            Fair enough. They were married, and Lewis had seen enough happy, and unhappy, couples in his time to know what people got up to in private. Got up to a bit of it himself, once upon a time.

            ‘He doesn’t have much time these days,’ she went on. ‘Busy with work. So when the opportunity presents itself, one must simply pounce on it, so to speak.’

            Lewis offered an understanding smile. ‘Your husband is-?’

            ‘The Master. Anthony Wade. I think you met him when you arrived.’

            Which gave Lewis pause. He had not made the connection, and not simply because Professor Luscombe still used her maiden name. Many female academics did, after all, and not out of feminist principle. They usually had publications under that name, and it would be ridiculous to rebuild a reputation under a new name. But Anthony Wade?

            Lewis had come across Wade before, at one of Innocent’s ‘handbag’ events. A polite chat about community policing and ‘Town and Gown’ over cocktails. He was about Lewis’ own age. He had the impression that Wade had been happily married for many years, though he had never met the man’s wife. And now here she was.

            Beautiful. Charming. Intelligent. And in her early thirties.

            ‘Ah,’ the newly outed Mrs Wade said, reading his thoughts in his face. ‘I gather you are one of those who disapprove of such ‘May to September’ romances, Inspector?’

            Lewis mentally kicked himself for failing to conceal his reaction.

            ‘Not my place to comment,’ he said, trying to sound neutral.

            ‘But you do, I can see. Perhaps you think it akin to paedophilia?’

            ‘I wouldn’t go that far,’ he retorted, and then had to calm himself with a breath. ‘I just don’t see what someone with all their lives ahead of them could see in a man who, well-‘

            ‘Is old enough to be her father?’ Emily Luscombe laughed. ‘Dear Inspector Lewis, surely you are more of a man of the world than that?’

            ‘Power, then?’

            She laughed again. ‘Not in the least. I was twenty when we met, and he was an obscure senior lecturer. No power at all. He was intelligent, charming, everything you would expect from an Oxford don. But far more importantly, he was, and continues to be, the sexiest man I have ever met. I find him beautiful. And I can see that shocks you. Doesn’t it.’

            A statement, rather than a question.

            ‘Not a lot shocks me these days, ma’am.’

            ‘You are being disingenuous, I think. You are shocked, whether you admit it or not.’

            He decided that, since they were going to have this conversation, he might as well engage with it.

            ‘But what about kids? What about having a life together?’

            ‘I never wanted children, so that makes a difference, I suppose. And frankly, I suspect that the twenty years we are likely to have together will far exceed in quality most marriages that stretch into sixty years! I have more with him than I ever could with anybody else, and I know it.’

            He shook his head. ‘I can’t see it.’

            ‘Are you married, Inspector?’

            ‘My wife died,’ he explained, as briefly as he could. And was amazed to see that she looked genuinely sympathetic.

            ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said.

            He looked away, out over the grounds, across the green lawns, to where a group of students were sitting on rugs, reading a play aloud together. On a brilliant June afternoon like this, Oxford felt uncannily like a film set for ‘Brideshead Revisited’. Today, of all days, he could imagine old Morse, stomping round the corner of the golden stone building towards him, his white hair shining, his blue eyes flashing. On a day like this, he still expected to glimpse Val shopping in the Broad, dressed in one of her pretty cotton sundresses. On a day like this, he wondered why the hell he had come back here, to be reminded of so many memories, so many lost joys.

            ‘Aye, well,’ he sighed. ‘It’s been a while.’

            ‘Perhaps time to move on?’ she asked, gently. ‘Did you know that the composer Ralph Vaughn Williams remarried at the age of 80. To a woman some forty years his junior. Their very active sex life was legendary.’

            He looked back at her, startled.

            ‘A younger partner clearly gave him a new lease of life. I like to think I did the same for Tony. Hence the Mastership.’ She smiled kindly. ‘You might find the same. I am sure your sergeant would be only too happy to help.’

            ‘What?’

            ‘A few hours in the arms of a beauty like that might change your mind about the age gap,’ she went on. ‘He obviously adores you.’

            A bird was singing somewhere. It sounded like it was singing down a long pipe, echoing from far away.

            James? Adores me? What is she on about?

            Her face paled. ‘Oh, dear, I appear to have revealed his secret. I’m so sorry. I assumed you were aware-‘

            ‘No, I-‘

            James? What is she on about? The question echoed around his brain, bouncing off the inside of his skull like a shout around the dome of the Radcliffe Camera.

            ‘Perhaps I should leave you. If there’s anything else you need to ask me, do please phone. You have my number?’

            He nodded, feeling light-headed, and watched as she walked back along the path, her hips swinging, her head down. His ears were ringing. Ringing with the syllables of a name. A name that sounded like a bell.

            James.

            Ask not for whom the bell tolls, he thought. It tolls for thee.

 


 

 

As soon as Emily Luscombe laid eyes on him, Hathaway knew he had been rumbled. It was like that sometimes, with intelligent women. It was as if they could see right through him. He could carry it off with the men, but the women-.

The phone call had come just at the perfect moment to allow him to escape her. No more squirming under her flinty gaze. Under pressure like that, he always feared he would give himself away. With shaking fingers, he had pulled out his phone and dashed for the nearest door. Thank God for Forensics.

            Standing in the shade of the quad, he discussed the first findings from Rednell’s rooms with Romy Gallagher, the CSI assigned to the case. Fingerprints had been found on the power adaptor box on the laptop lead. Likely the murderer’s. The database search was already underway. There were epithelial cells on the cable too, consistent with damage to the strangler’s palms, offering the possibility of a DNA match. It was a huge boost to the investigation. The picture beginning to emerge was of an opportunistic killing, most likely by a person known to the deceased, and probably one of those clichéd ‘crimes of passion’ that James hated so much. They always seemed so lazy to him. And so desperately sad.

            Still, it was good news. They had an update meeting with Innocent to get to before the end of the day. At least she would be pleased. Now all he had to do was find Lewis, and prize him out of the clutches of the beautiful Professor.

            The phone call over, he stalked back through the college buildings. He had glimpsed the direction that Professor Luscombe and Lewis had taken earlier, while he was listening to Romy’s update. He found his boss standing alone on one of the lawns, close to a flower bed full of brilliant red roses.

For a moment, he allowed himself to hover in the shadow of the building, to observe his guvnor whilst unobserved himself. To appreciate Lewis’ beauty, the strength evident in his profile, his distinctive posture. Snatched moments like these were the best that James had. These, and those quietly reflective evenings sitting by the river with a pint, in gentle and silent communion. These few, fleeting moments of bliss that made his life worth living.

            Robert Lewis, he found himself whispering. The name of the meaning of life. Because that was what Lewis was to Hathaway. Before that fateful moment when Lewis had stepped off the plane from the BVI, and asked James ‘Are you for me?’, James’ life had been empty.

He had tried to fill it with God. God did not cooperate.

Even the police force was not enough. But the job had led him to Lewis, and in Lewis, he had found salvation. And that was not an overstatement. They’d had their ups and downs over the years, but never once had James doubted that Lewis was the centre of his world.

            Lewis could never know that, of course.

            There had been many nightmares, bone-shatteringly horrifying night terrors when James had found his heart revealed, and seen Lewis’ face riven with revulsion. To be sent away was his greatest fear. He knew he would do anything, suffer any humiliation, endure any loneliness, to preserve their friendship, to keep the man he loved from discovering the truth. He could not lose Lewis. He simply could not.

            And then, as he approached his inspector, and saw his face, James’ steps faltered, and he knew without any doubt that all his concealment, all his efforts, had been for nothing.

            Somehow, Lewis had found out.

            In those precious few minutes, as he had spoken to Romy from Forensics, unknowing, his world had been cracked open. With no warning, life had ended.

 

 

            Even on the day he had discovered the identity of Mrs Lewis’ killer. Even on the evening they had fought after Will’s death over James’ lies and prevarications. Even in their worst moments, he had never seen Robbie Lewis look like this.

            Thunderous. Horror-struck. Bewildered. Betrayed. All at once.

            ‘Sir, please, I-‘

            Lewis held his hand up, silencing him as easily as if he had plucked the very words from James’ mouth. Then he pulled his car keys from his trouser pocket and tossed them to James, who caught them as deftly as ever, even though he was shaking so much he could barely stand.

            ‘Home. Now. You drive.’

            And that was it.

            James stared in misery as his boss set off, back across the lawns towards the college, his familiar lope stiffened with volcanic emotion. All he could do was follow.

 

            The drive back to Lewis’ flat was probably the longest journey of Hathaway’s life. It could not have been longer if he had been walking to the gallows. Which, in a sense, he was.

 


 

   

         Lewis’ head was spinning. He sat in the passenger seat of his own car, as he had done so many times before. Hathaway was beside him, driving as expertly as ever, though he could see the lad’s hands were shaking every time he reached for the gear stick.

            What the fuck am I doing? What the fuck am I going to do? This is ridiculous. He’s half my age. Less. Stupid. He needs a woman. Or a man. Kids. A life. A family. What does he want with me? Insane, not just stupid. It’s bloody insane, that’s what it is.

            But he’s James. He’s my James.

            Gradually, his mind began to calm. He became aware of a strange sensation, an odd warmth down the right hand side of his body. The side that was nearest to James as he drove. Warm arm, warm shoulder, warm thigh. A kind of magnetism. Drawing him closer.

            This is ridiculous! He’s just a bloody child! And besides, he’s beautiful. She’s right about that. He could have anybody. What the hell does he see in me? I was hardly a looker to start with! Even when we were young, everybody said that it was me that got lucky with Val, not the other way around, and they were right, too. Now everything’s gone south, and I’ve bags under me eyes like bloody suitcases, and not enough of me own teeth, either. If I was a horse, they’d have sent me to the knackers years ago. He’ll be pushing me about in a wheelchair in a few years’ time. I don’t want him to hate me. I don’t want him resenting me. I don’t want him wiping me bum, and feeding me pills.

            And then it occurred to him. Not one of the objections he had come up with so far had anything to do with the fact that James was male.

            Bloody funny time to have a sexual identity crisis. Sixty three, ready for retirement, and discovering you’re bloody bisexual? Punting from the Cambridge end? What the hell are you playing at?

            Val’d get a kick out of it, though. You daft bugger, Robbie Lewis. Been under your nose all these years and you couldn’t even see it! Call yourself a detective?

            Because he had known. He’d known since the morning he had come to work to find Hathaway poring through the photographs of the fancy dress party at which Chloe Brooks had been assaulted. All night he had been at it, piecing together the time line from dozens and dozens of snaps of undergrads in silly costumes. All because Lewis had a hunch that something didn’t fit.

            He’d known since he had realised that James had gone to Zoe’s house after their argument during the Will McEwan case. He’d known in the moment he understood that Zoe was the killer, that Zoe meant to finish James too. Since he had pulled the beautiful lad, half drugged, out of that burning building. Since he had almost lost him.

            And he had known since that afternoon in the Covered Market, since that horrifying moment when James lay on his back in the wreckage of the florists’ display, with a hypodermic syringe of elephant tranquiliser sticking out of the foam support collar around his neck. He had held the assailant, Katharine Dutta, tightly, and looked down into James’ shocked eyes, and felt the terror well up inside his heart, that he would lose James this time. His James.

            His James.

            Yes, the truth was, he had known for a long time.

            God, our Val must be laughing her head off in Heaven.

 


 

 

            Lewis took the bunch of keys from his hand and opened the front door of the flat. James followed him in, obedient to the last. Like a puppy waiting to be kicked, his father would have said.

            Lewis, the older man with the greying, thinning hair, stood in the middle of his own kitchen, staring at the work surface, silent.

            James willed him to speak, just to get it over with. And when he didn’t, James decided he couldn’t wait any longer. He would end it himself, if he had to.

            ‘I’m sorry, sir, just. Just please. Don’t send me away.’

            Lewis’ head snapped up, his face a picture of surprise.

            ‘What?’

            James could only look at his feet. The words wouldn’t come anymore.

            ‘What do you want with an old fool like me, lad, eh?’ Lewis voice sounded weary. ‘You deserve better. You deserve a family and a home. You deserve someone you can spend the rest of your life with, not some old bugger you’ll have to nurse in a few years’ time.’

            ‘I don’t care about that,’ James finally managed to croak.

            ‘Well, you bloody should!’ Lewis’ shout was painfully loud in the stillness of the flat. Something in his tone made the love rear inside James’ chest.

            ‘I don’t care. I don’t care about any of that. The only thing that matters is that the years I’ve spent with you have been the happiest of my life! I don’t care that you can’t give me any more. I don’t care that it’s just friendship. All that matters is that I can be near you!’

            Lewis finally moved, turned, came close to James, reached up and cupped his face in his big, shipworker’s hands, those beautiful hands that James had spent so many years staring at, longing to be touched by.

            ‘Oh, lad,’ he whispered. ‘So little?’

            The tears came, brimming, shaming. Even so, James couldn’t stop looking into those cornflower blue eyes. Gentle, loving eyes. Strong, brave, honest eyes.

            ‘Not so little. More than the world to me,’ he said, and meant it. ‘Everything. Everything.’

            Lewis leant forward.

            ‘Don’t,’ James breathed. ‘Not if you don’t mean it.’

            ‘Oh, I mean it alright,’ Lewis whispered.

   


        

            Lewis was not quite sure how it had happened. How that lithe young body had come to be in his arms. How those soft, wide lips came to be pressed against his.

            He didn’t care how.

            Not now. In the end, it didn’t matter. Pressed chest to chest and belly to belly was all that mattered. James’ long bony musician’s fingers slipping through his hair, stroking the back of his neck. And when had that sun-cracked skin become so sensitive?

            He had forgotten this was what a kiss could be. Had it really been that long?

James didn’t know what he was doing, that was for sure.

Poor lad. No one has ever kissed him properly. Not surprising. That Fiona he was with, bet she was one that liked to dominate. Rode him like a horse and kicked him like a dog, I shouldn’t wonder. And Scarlett. Bloody Scarlett Mortmaigne. Never forget the look on the poor lad’s face when he realised. The pain of betrayal. I’ll never do that to you, my bonny lad.

How many others have you kissed? Maybe another boy at school? Maybe a fresh-faced girl at Cambridge, before you meant to be a priest? Oh, my precious lad. Give yourself to me, and I swear I’ll never hurt you. Not till the end, not till I can’t help it. Give yourself to me and I will teach you what real pleasure is.

 


 

            James’ head was spinning. He had never been kissed like this. Never known physical pleasure like this. Intoxicating. Overwhelming. Like drowning. Drowning in joy.

Lewis’s mouth. Dear God, the man knew how to kiss! Better than any fantasy. James found himself moaning and whimpering into Lewis’ mouth, trembling, sweating all over. Every cell in his body screaming Take Me!

            They came up for air, gasping.

            James rested his head against Lewis’ forehead, tried to catch his breath, tried to concentrate, make sense of it. Looked into Lewis’ eyes, so blue, so very blue.

            ‘Sir?’

            ‘Not sir now,’ Lewis whispered. ‘Not any more. At least, not when I’ve got you in my arms.’

            In my arms. Why did that phrase, that old-fashioned phrase, make his knees go weak?

            ‘Robbie,’ James breathed, the sacred word, as precious as YHWH was to the ancients. ‘My Robbie.’

            ‘Yes. Your Robbie. If you want me.’

            ‘I do. I really do.’

 


 

 

            Skin. James had never realised what a miracle skin was. How beautiful. How sensual. To press his lips to skin, to bury his nose in skin, to slide his hand over skin, the smallest, yet greatest, privilege possible.

            Robbie’s skin was smooth, smoother than James had ever dreamed. Polished and soft on his shoulders and in the small of his back. Scored by the years on his face and chest and hands. Rough on elbows and knees and feet. Scattered with hairs, silken strands of brown and grey; with copper freckles and moles of warm cocoa. Skin with a soft pink glow to it. A feast, a cornucopia of textures, colours and flavours. No matter how much James touched Robbie’s skin, and with whatever part of himself, it was never enough.

            And the weight of him, pinning James down to the bed, his warm, wide belly spreading over James’ skinny body, protecting him, comforting him.

            And that soft, sweet mouth on his own skin, restless, relentless, tasting, testing, an endless search for all the tender places that made James moan and sigh. Kisses along the straight plane of his shoulder, the sweep of his collar bone, the sinuous column of his throat. Lips on the wide, bare flesh of his chest, seeking out a nipple, mouthing and nipping, suckling like a hungry infant till James was squirming and crying with the joy of it. Then lower, on his belly, sending shocks downward, lingering over his navel, tonguing there till he was writhing in need.

            A bite on the blade of his hip. On the quivering inside of his thigh. A nose pressed into the seafoam scented cave of his groin.

            Until all he could do was whisper: ‘Please.’

 


 

 

            Distant, a phone was ringing. Robbie found his hips falling in with its rhythm. Rocking in the loving cage of James’ long, lean limbs, the lad’s heels locked in the small of his back, hands gripping the points of his shoulder blades.

            James. The scent of him, the feel of him, the heat of him, filling every sense, every synapse. Those lovely lips caught in a perfect ‘o’ of pleasure. Those blue eyes startled by love.

            James. My James.

            A sheen of perspiration on his upper lip. Those little whimpering noises he made as Robbie pushed against him. The filthy slick slide of his cock against Robbie’s. A hand that wandered down and caught at Robbie’s buttock, sinking nails into the muscle, a sharp piercing pain cutting through the slithering pleasure. And the deep, smoky groan of need:

            ‘Oh, yes! God, don’t stop! Don’t stop!’

            Taking his weight on one elbow, he reached down with his free hand between flesh and bedsheets, and gripped James’ bum, sank his own fingers into the lush curve, felt the twitch and shudder of need, the hot spirt of culmination

            ‘Yes! Fuck, yes!’

            The scalding wet between their bellies, making everything sloppy and-

            Balls so tight to his body that they hurt. Then coming himself, come into come, pulsing hot against hard, trembling flesh. Coming so hard he saw stars.

            ‘James!’

 


 

 

            He managed to heave himself over onto his back, and lay there, staring at the ceiling and panting. Beside him, James lay still, his breath rasping.

            ‘You alright, lad?’

            ‘Never better.’

            They looked at one another and discovered they were both grinning. Robbie chuckled.

            ‘Look at the state of us!’

            ‘Yes, I hadn’t thought of that,’ James smirked. ‘Twice as much mess. Got any tissues?’

            ‘Use me shirt, man,’ he said, reaching over the edge of the bed to where his clothes had been shed.

            ‘It’ll stain,’ James cried, apparently appalled.

            ‘It’ll wash,’ Robbie said, snatching the white cotton up with the tips of his fingers, and polishing first his own belly, and then James’. The lad stared down at him, at his hand as it moved in circles, the cloth bunched up in his fist. Cleaning off that flat, almost comically muscular belly. Once he was done, Robbie threw the shirt away over his shoulder with a careless flourish that made James giggle.

            He’d never heard James giggle.

            Suddenly his eyes were full of tears.

            ‘What’s wrong? What did I do?’ The lad was all in a panic. Robbie pulled him into his arms, buried his nose in that soft, golden hair.

            ‘Nothing, love. You just don’t laugh enough.’

            ‘I never had anything to laugh about before,’ James said, his voice soft and vulnerable.

            ‘Ah, well,’ Robbie sighed. ‘Have to change that, then, won’t we?’

 


 

 

            ‘I rang you three times, Lewis. On your mobile. We had a meeting booked. You do remember that, don’t you?’

The next day, Innocent. Standing with arms tightly crossed around her body. Practically tapping her toe in fury. Lips pursed so tight that she looked like she had eaten a whole lemon in one gulp.

‘Where the hell were you?’

‘Ah, yes,’ Robbie said, awkward at suddenly remembering the phone ringing at just the wrong moment. Or perhaps it had been the right moment. ‘About that-‘

 

FINIS