The graveyard was just as he remembered it, but as though a thousand years had passed. Each gravestone emerged bent, aged out of the ground, cracked and groaning like a maw filled with rotting teeth. So crumbling and overgrown were they that if ever there were any names upon them, they were lost long ago. Weeds upon weeds writhed their growth over the dying stones. The bitter-green stinging nettle, yellowed now but its bite still intact, clumped in the edges. The black bindweed slithered its steady progress around the grave, choking as it went. He could almost feel it as though it grew around his neck, strangling, suffocating. One solitary marble angel looked down upon the scene, a slug’s sheening trail tracking down from its eye like a path of neglected tears. Its harp strings lay smashed at its feet.
Joe remembered the cemetery from the last time he was there. Then, it had been daylight of sorts, a grey flat morning; now, a hideous twilight, the moon gazed brokenly through the trees, washing everything in an empty lonely blue. Like then, he was looking for something, someone, only he couldn’t remember who. Last time, Emerson had been with him. Emerson had found the thing they were looking for and Joe had been allowed to touch him again. To grab his shoulder and hope the squeeze of his fingers kneaded his meaning, his feelings, through jacket and shirt. To say ‘well done’ when really he meant ‘I need you.’
But Emerson was not there now. Where was he? He would not desert Joe, not when he needed him, not unless he had no choice. He had to be there somewhere.
A flicker of movement in Joe’s peripheral vision caused him to spin around. He felt surprisingly light on his feet, almost balletic. Usually, he was so weighed down with anxiety or tiredness that each step felt like a trudge through slime. But now he could pirouette two, three times without tiring, seeking out his new companion. Out of the skeletons of trees materialised four girls. Four faceless girls in pink dresses, the pale colour of their garments bleeding out slowly into a startled grey. The fronts of their heads were smooth blank ovals and they nodded at him dreamily as they swayed. The shoulder of the first girl glowed brilliantly with a white so bright it was almost inverted to a dazzling black, so painful in its beauty. It seemed to Joe that the last star in the sky had fallen and been laid to rest on this girl’s shoulder.
The girls beckoned him forward, leading him deeper into the graveyard. He followed, his feet stepping by themselves in a hypnotic dance. There was no sound, not a single bird sang, not even the night-time frogs croaked. He saw a raven, perched watchingly on a branch but even its ‘nevermore’ was silent. All was voiceless, all was mute. Even so, Joe felt an inbuilt rhythm pounding, driving him incessantly forward with each footstep (doom, doom, doom). He shuddered, wishing Emerson was beside him.
“Do you know where he is?” he asked, addressing the first girl.
True to form, she said nothing, her head tilting in a way that could have been yes, but could have been no. The light on her shoulder flashed suddenly, enlightening the glade. Joe was suddenly aware that he stood before three freshly dug graves, a deathly triptych, and he gasped in horror, a breath that did not even touch the sides as he drew it down, as he saw what lay within them. There were the three faces that most haunted him – Morgan Lamb, the mirrored shard in her chest beaming with reflected brightness, Josie Eagle, her purity ring shining the same, and Emerson. He lay inert, just as he had the night he was shot. His face was tomblike and pale, his eyes glassy, open but sightless.
The silence was broken by the heave of a whisper winding through the trees. The whisper surrounded him in an antiphonal chorus, so he could not tell which of the seven bodies in front of him it came from.
Why didn’t you save us, Joe? Why didn’t you save us? You didn’t save us. Save us, save us, save us.
The words hissed and buzzed in his head, crawling through the labyrinthine canals in his ears like tiny insects delving, burrowing, making their nests.
The sound throbbed louder and louder, taking on an insistent metrical pulse. The graveyard in front of his eyes faded into nothingness and Joe found himself in his own bed, the ghastly blues and whites replaced by warm shades, the cream of the bedsheets, the beige of the curtains, the yellow of the sunlight. The deep brown of Emerson’s hair was sprawled waywardly on the pillow alongside him. His phone whirred next to him in its usual morning salutation, alerting Joe that it was nearly time to rise and ready himself for another day. The ragged entrails of his nightmare still clung to him, breathing down his neck, goose pimples racing along his arm in a clammy sprint. It was not the first time his dreams had been visited by visions of a mortally wounded Emerson, but this one had been more vivid than most. His chest tightened at the memory, his breath coming in erratic bursts. He felt engrimed with fear, as though a thick layer of dread lay slick upon his body, mixed in with the sweat and sleep and sheets.
Joe lay frozen until he sensed the soft movement of Emerson stir beside him. He was on his side, facing away from Joe, coiled in on himself protectively. Joe had shared a bed with very few people before Emerson, so he had minimal evidence to go on, but he suspected that a person’s character was revealed in the way in which they slept. He, Joe, most often slept on his back, legs straight and trim, orderly even in slumber. The only hint of relaxation was in his arms, which might occasionally drape themselves languidly around Emerson’s body. Emerson, meanwhile, had two distinct patterns. Either curled around Joe, clinging like a limpet to every spare bit of skin, or else rounded into the foetal position, a defensive circle. He always looked much younger somehow, whichever position he chose. It made Joe’s heart swell in tenderness to watch him, motivated to keep him from harm. Looking at him now, feeling Emerson’s leg move against his own, finally began to remove the last echoes of the nightmare. Relief washed over him, sluicing off the terror. Emerson was safe beside him, cocooned and secure.
Just to make sure, he reached over to brush a lock of hair out of Emerson’s face. Yes, solid skin, smooth hair. The younger man smiled at the touch, the corners of his mouth stretching towards Joe’s fingers. He was still asleep – the deep snuffling of his breaths spoke as much – but Joe could sense that he was teetering on the edge of wakefulness. His limbs were beginning to release him from their deathlike grip of night. He was becoming gradually more supple, more moveable, emerging back into his body like a bud opening, or a sunflower turning towards the light. With every breath becoming less like the tomblike vision of Joe’s dream. Less like the comatose figure he had but lately been. Emerson rolled over into Joe’s side, his arms searching, probing, seeking out Joe’s body to cling onto. And Joe clung back desperately.
His breath ghosted over Emerson’s hair, the strands dancing lazily in the warm breeze of his exhalation. Just having these mornings together made Joe feel almost, for want of a better word, blessed. Their bed became a hallowed space and all the rest, their bad luck with cases, the curses, the evil they had to grapple with, was cleansed away. Maybe that was why they called marriage a sacrament. It had been six months since he had married Emerson, the man who made him feel strong and weak, fearless and terrified all at once. Two people contracted, bound together, for better and for worse. That Joe had that with Emerson made him feel the luckiest man alive.
Emerson’s eyes flickered momentarily, like the curtain of a shrine being pulled back only to drop shut again. Although still dulled with sleep, their brief glance was the final comfort Joe needed. A pilgrim would have to travel a long way to find a more perfect benediction than that.
“Em,” he whispered against the cavity of Emerson’s ear.
“We need to get up.”
“I know it’s nice, but you’ve already had five minutes. I’ve snoozed the alarm once.”
“Snooze it ‘gain.”
“Emerson,” Joe said, attempting to sound stern, a hard task when all he really wanted to do was stay exactly as they were, crooked together in an eternal pause.
Emerson cracked open a single eye. “You’re turning into a nag, Joseph Chandler.”
Joe laughed, almost silently, his chest vibrating, jolting Emerson’s shoulders so the two men juddered in unison. “Well, someone’s got to get you moving in the morning.”
“You mean like this?” said Emerson, heaving himself up and straddling Joe’s hips, an indolent grin awakening his face.
In response, Joe extended an arm to gently brush the crusty remnants of sleep out of Emerson’s eyes with his thumb. When he slept, at least when he was undisturbed by night visions or discomfort, Emerson tended to give himself over fully to it. He so completely dedicated himself to the act of sleeping that for some time after waking, slumber still pooled at the fringes of his eyes, blurring his irises and exposing his gaze. His whole body seemed softened by it. Joe was grateful that Emerson could have such nights, such sound restorative sleep that filtered through into his waking eyes. He had been through so much, borne so much, that he deserved all the rest he could get. He needed its dilution, to take the yoke of his travails and dissolve it. Emerson inclined his head into Joe’s hand, a soft press of cheek to palm. The weight of his head seemed to act as a substitute for his whole self, and in that movement Joe felt entrusted to carry any burden Emerson asked him to.
Joe leaned upwards to join their lips together in a kiss. It still thrilled him that it felt so natural to do so. An electrifying routine, an extraordinary habit. And didn’t that oxymoron just sum up their whole relationship?
“I love you Em. Happy birthday,” he said.
Emerson’s mouth took on a displeased twist. “Ugh. Don’t remind me. I’m getting so old. And I swear the rookies are getting younger. There’s a new PC at the station who looks about twelve.”
Joe swung his eyes disbelievingly.
“Well,” Emerson qualified, “they’re probably twenty-something, but anyone who looks younger than me is ‘about twelve’, I’ve decided.” He smiled. “Though I’ve officially outlived Jesus, so that’s something.”
Joe smiled wryly. Time had certainly moved on if Emerson was complaining about getting older. He remembered the young detective with apparently endless enthusiasm, his youthful ally who had not been wizened or disillusioned by the job. Looking at him, he saw how the boy had gone, beaten away by knife, fist and gun. In his place, though, sat a man, a little more life-sore, with a few more grey hairs, an occasional limp and shortness of breath, but still with the dedication and eagerness, and even some of the innocence, that Joe had loved (yes, loved, he could admit that now) from the start.
“If you’re getting old, what does that make me?” said Joe.
“Oh, positively ancient,” breathed Emerson flirtatiously, as he cupped Joe’s face for one more kiss before clambering out of bed towards the shower. “You’ll be turning up at weddings moaning about albatrosses next.”
Joe’s knuckles stretched white as he gripped onto the steering wheel. Emerson couldn’t decide whether he looked more like he was holding on for his dear life, or to throttle the life out of it. Emerson shifted in his seat. He was tempted to reach out and stroke his thumb over the back of Joe’s hand, but he was worried that Joe might startle if he did. The leather seat squeaked resonantly, and Joe threw it a look of distressed loathing as his fingers twitched fitfully about the rubber wheel. His face slid from a noxious green through fractious orange to livid red as the traffic lights changed in front of them. Uttering a chewed-off curse, he stamped on the brakes with hurried force as the car in front of them crunched to a halt sooner than expected.
“Joe, are you okay?” asked Emerson, quietly, as they came to a full stop.
Joe looked at him with a tight, thin-lipped smile. “Yes, I’m fine.”
“Have I done or said something to upset you?”
“What?” Joe’s head rotated sharply towards him. “No… no, it’s not that. You’re fine.”
“So there is something bothering you?”
“It’s nothing, Emerson.” Joe’s voice was harsh, gritted, like the crumbs of toast that Emerson was always careful to remove from the butter dish.
Emerson retreated into silence, swallowing the words he wanted to say. A silvery-sour sensation pricked his throat and he didn’t trust himself to open his mouth. Turning to face his window, he watched the rain beat against the glass, its drops trickling down quixotically. One bead of water formed an erratic zigzag as it made its way down the window, each time leaving a little of itself behind until Emerson was sure it would perish before it reached the bottom. But the raindrop, stronger than it seemed, struggled on regardless.
The inside of the car glowed a sickly neon again, and they lurched forward with an angry howl. They were driving down Commercial Street now, staggering along in the sluggish traffic. Rain made idlers of everyone, it would seem, judging by the lack of cyclists and walkers on the sodden streets, and the roads were busier than usual. Christ Church, Spitalfields jolted by on their left, its spire rising sharply like a dagger. Back in his student days, Emerson had sung a concert there with his college choir. Little could he have known then that, over ten years later, he would be shot and beaten nearly to death on that very same street, within looming distance of the church. He saw Joe’s eyes flick momentarily out of the car into the mizzley street, seeming to be drawn almost involuntarily towards the spot where Emerson had been found that night. His jaw set tighter, clenching still further when he realised that Emerson had noticed. Emerson knew Joe usually avoided driving in this way, but they had been running a little late and this was quicker than any alternative route.
Emerson wasn’t sure what had happened, why Joe had abruptly changed mood. He had seemed so relaxed earlier, but now was distracted and agitated. The soft skin of sleep seemed to have been flayed from him leaving him exposed. Come to think of it, the dips under his eyes were darker than usual, his face ashen. His tie, although perfectly tied and straight, somehow gave the impression of being more of a noose than an article of clothing. Joe evidently had not slept particularly well. Emerson could have kicked himself for not noticing sooner. But Joe had been so wonderful all morning, surprising Emerson by slipping into the shower with him, dotting little kisses across the back of his shoulders, massaging his shampoo through his hair, holding him close as the warm water ran over the both of them. And if Emerson had sensed Joe might have been washing off more than just soap, the thought was quickly quashed by long fingers on his face, noses nudging tentatively together, lips pressing, slack-jawed, as teeth and tongues and the insides of their mouths connected. Afterwards they had dressed collaboratively, fastening each other’s buttons with intricate fumblings. And as Joe had draped Emerson’s own tie around his collar, he had knotted it tenderly, smoothing its tails down over Emerson’s breastbone with care.
It had only been as they were readying to leave that a modicum of tension had sidled into the flat and settled, if not between them, then somewhere nearby, hovering expectantly.
“You know I don’t really like you riding that contraption,” Joe had said as Emerson reached for his helmet and grabbed the keys to his scooter.
“I’m a big boy, Joe. I’ll be fine.”
Emerson had noticed Joe’s neck tendons clench, only slightly, but a definite tightening nonetheless. If he hadn’t known what to look for, it would have been unnoticeable, but Emerson knew Joe now. He knew him when he was relaxed, soft as honey, when his voice hummed and his movements were gentle. He knew him as no-one else did. So he also recognised the creeping signs of stress when they first began to crack through Joe’s limbs and tendons.
“Well, it’s just… I’ve seen too many people come off those things,” he had said. “And it’s raining out. It might be slippery on the roads. You’ll get soaking wet and you could develop pneumonia, or pleurisy… You know you’re more susceptible at the moment.”
Letting Joe read all the aftercare leaflets the hospital had sent home with Emerson had been a bad idea. Was it even possible to be a hypochondriac by proxy?
“Why don’t you let me drive you in today?” asked Joe. “As it’s your birthday. Think of it as part of your present.”
“Fine,” Emerson had said, replacing his scooter gear on the hall table. “You win. But I get to pick what we listen to on the radio. I’m not really in the mood for John Humphrys being grumpy at politicians today.”
In the end, there hadn’t been anything Emerson fancied listening to on any of the radio channels. They sat in a fractured silence, broken only by the tick of the car’s indicators and the thump of the wipers. He drew his phone out of his pocket, realising that he had left it on silent with the vibrate turned off, hoping he hadn’t missed anything important. It would be just his luck. Thankfully, as far as he could tell, there were no missed calls, though several text alerts filled his screen, a strange, imperfectly spelled noticeboard. As was to be expected, they were all variations on the theme of birthday wishes from his former flatmates, his cousins and his auntie, who seemed to have finally accepted that modern technology was typically a tad more reliable than psychic communications at relating everyday messages.
The most recent text was from Erica: [Happy Birthday Bambi xxxx]
Emerson pursed his lips in irritation. He really thought Erica would have got bored of that nickname by now. He jabbed at his phone screen in reply. [Kindly eff off. Or I’ll tell Mansell what you were called at school. Happy bday to you too btw ;)]
Erica was always a prompt replier. [You should know better than to try to blackmail me Emmy. You better be free Fri night]
[Why? And don’t call me Emmy either]
[Mum’s coming over so doing dinner @ ours. You & J, me & Fin and Mum. Fin’s cooking.]
[I’ll bring the stomach pump then]
[Ha. Ha. So can I count you 2 in then?]
He turned to look at Joe, who was biting his lower lip in concentration.
“Joe? You up for dinner at Erica and Mansell’s on Friday? We’ve nothing on, have we? Mum’s coming over apparently, so we ought to see her really.”
“Hmm?” Joe spoke distractedly, his eyes fixed gimlet-like on the road. His nose wrinkled slightly, a tiny tug between his nostrils and upper lip. “They won’t want me there.”
“What are you talking about?” sighed Emerson. “Erica asked for you specifically. Anyway, they get me, they get you – that’s how it works. I’m not going without you. I’m telling her we’re coming, okay?”
His fingers wove across his phone screen one last time to reply in the affirmative to Erica, before snapping the device shut and dropping it back into his breast pocket. He had more room in that pocket lately, since he had stopped keeping his appointment diary in it. He preferred now to keep his schedule locked away on an encrypted file on his computer which only he and Joe could access. That had been another of their small changes since Emerson’s attack – Joe’s idea, but one Emerson could live with. It seemed a bit extreme, perhaps, and occasionally inconvenient, when he needed to check a date and couldn’t access the file. But better safe than sorry seemed to be their new motto. It wasn’t edgy, but then again, when had they ever been?
“Em?” said Joe, a subdued mewl, which cut straight to the space between Emerson’s heart and stomach, replacing his normal voice.
“If you’re worried about spending an evening with Mansell, I understand,” said Emerson, trying to lighten the mood. “But he seems pretty serious about Erica, so I think we’re stuck with him.”
“No, it’s not that. I just… I don’t think your mother likes me very much.”
“What? Of course she does.”
Joe tore his eyes away from the windscreen to raise his eyebrows doubtfully at Emerson. “She blames me for you getting hurt.”
“Oh don’t be silly, Joe. She might have been a bit suspicious of your intentions to start with, but she realised you were sincere when I was in hospital. Though why everyone seems to think I need protecting all the time, I’m not sure.” Emerson huffed, aiming for joviality but falling somewhat short.
Joe’s lips tightened in such a way that suggested he was biting back something, either laughter or pain. It unnerved Emerson that he couldn’t tell which it was.
It had been one of those days, as it turned out. One of those nondescript days where the hours rolled into each other indistinguishably, like small waves colliding on a beach, washing away footprints and flattening the sand. A day where somehow Emerson was kept busy, but as the clock spun closer to five thirty, he couldn’t quite work out what he’d been doing all shift. Criminals, apparently, didn’t go out in the rain either.
He hadn’t seen Joe much during the day. He had been in and out all afternoon going between tedious budget meetings, where Emerson knew he would have had to defend their every expense, right down to the new kettle they had acquired when the old one had exploded, and the posh biscuits Ed seemed to favour. If Joe had been tense before that meeting, he would be rock solid by the end, his shoulders cramped in a miniature Gordian knot. Emerson could see him now, scrunched at his desk in an uncomfortable-looking pose, frowning at some paperwork as though it had personally insulted him. Which it possibly had. Emerson massaged the back of his own neck in sympathy, looking forward to getting home where maybe Joe would allow him to do the same for him.
He didn’t stare at Joe as often as he used to. Not like before, before he had realised that Joe felt the same way as he did. Back when he thought that looking was all that he would ever have, he had practised the fine art of observation until he became expert, had memorised and could envisage without sight the way that Joe fretted his cufflinks, the fit of his fingers around his pen, the arc of his spine as he leant forward in his chair. Emerson was frankly astounded that he had ever got any work done. Each illicit glance had felt like a tiny theft, albeit a harmless one in which nothing was stolen. Like overhearing a singer rehearse through an open window – the music had not been intended to be shared, but the act of listening did not remove nor damage a single note. It had sometimes made him feel a bit pervy, until he found out that Joe had surreptitiously been doing the same.
Now, though, Emerson had no need to steal glimpses of Joe, no need to savour every smile as if it might be the last, no need to wonder or imagine. He had license to look at him, all of him, whenever he wanted, at home. He had an intimate knowledge of all of Joe’s cufflinks, having fastened and unfastened them countless times. And the less said about what he knew about the shape of Joe’s fingers and the bow of his back the better, during work hours anyway. Still, on quiet days, Emerson would find that his eyes would sometimes migrate across the Incident Room and alight upon his husband’s shoulders, or his neck, or his lips, and nest within their curvatures for a while. It was a cliché, but it felt like coming home.
Emerson’s fingers twitched as he watched Joe reach for his Tiger Balm and massage the ointment into his temples, longing to do it for him. But it was not quite the end of the day yet, and they had to remain professional, buttoned back into their respective roles of DI and DC. The unpinning, and undressing, would have to wait. He was finding it increasingly hard to switch from being husband and lover in the evenings and mornings, to being subordinate officer during the day. At some point in the last few months all of his edges had become blurred, as though the bullets that had ripped through his lungs and stomach had also torn the veil that separated his two selves.
A bright ping wrenched Emerson’s attention back to his desk. Opening his inbox, he found it was just a mass email from HR about professional development opportunities for officers in the Met.
The Metropolitan Police Service is dedicated to your growth and development within the force, and we encourage all officers to make the most of the available training opportunities. The following courses and temporary secondments are currently open for applications. You must seek approval from your commanding officer before applying.
Emerson wondered if he ought to start paying more attention to these emails. His mum had been on at him for a while about his prospects for promotion saying, quite correctly, that he had been a DC for over eight years and wasn’t it about time he moved on? But if truth be told, he had never wanted to leave his unit. They had all become like family to him (Joe quite literally) and he couldn’t imagine working without Miles’ curmudgeonly but affectionate supervision, or Riley’s maternal gossiping, or even Mansell’s teasing. But lately, he wondered whether a move would be healthier for him – to transfer to a department where he wouldn’t be directly underneath Joe. He had always fancied having a go at the Sergeants’ exam. Many had been the time when he had almost decided that he would speak to Joe about it, but then he would catch Joe’s eyes in his and not be able to bear the thought of leaving him.
As though Emerson’s thoughts had suddenly become audible, he heard Joe’s voice calling from his office. “Kent, would you come in here a moment?”
“Ooooh,” whistled a sing-song voice from somewhere behind Emerson.
As he stood, he felt something light but slightly scratchy bounce off the back of his neck. He turned to see a ball of paper roll under his desk and Mansell, not quite quickly enough, lowering the arm which had clearly just thrown it at him. Instead of looking shamefaced, as Emerson would have expected of most adults caught wastefully flinging stationary around, Mansell grinned in an ebullient leer, and blew a series of sarcastic kisses in Emerson’s direction.
“Best not keep hubby waiting,” he said.
Emerson exhaled noisily. “Give it a rest, Mansell. Don’t you ever get bored?”
“Nah, mate. Not when you make it so easy for me.”
Emerson rolled his eyes, muttered there’s a flaw in that logic somewhere, and strode into Joe’s office.
Joe picked up his watch from the table and strapped it to his wrist as he stood up from his chair. The squeak of the leather and the ticking of the timepiece together created a pleasing and synchronic rhythm that lent a dancing atmosphere to the small office. It bounced from wall to wall, uplifting as it went, elevating Joe’s tense, day-worn mouth into a gentle smile.
“It’s after the end of the shift, Emerson,” he said.
“And?” Emerson raised his eyebrows.
Joe’s brow rose to accept the challenge. Emerson could tell he was trying to look authoritative, or mischievous, or some mixture of the two, but there was a neediness apparent in the corners of his eyes and the bearing of his shoulders that marred the effect. Emerson might have laughed, if Joe’s vulnerability didn’t feel like a wrench in his heart every time.
With a movement like a wave crashing helplessly onto the shore, Joe pulled Emerson into him. Emerson felt himself submerged in the billows of Joe’s jacket, the scent of eucalyptus washing over him.
“I’ve missed you today,” whispered Joe.
Emerson hummed into Joe’s neck, his words soaking as liquid into the muscle. “You’re a massive softie, you know that?”
His scalp tingled as Joe smiled against his hair. “To my credit, yes I do know that,” replied Joe. “I’m sorry I was a bit prickly this morning. I hope it hasn’t spoilt your birthday.”
“Oh never mind about my birthday. It’s just another day. And you haven’t spoilt anything. As long as you’re alright.”
Joe’s torso jerked, just a tiny bit, an almost imperceptible tightening and release. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Emerson leant backwards and wiggled Joe’s tie knot so that it realigned perfectly with the symmetry of their bodies, then did the same to his own. “You forget how well I know you, Joe.” he said, “I can always tell when you’re not.”
Joe waved his hand dismissively, throwing a slightly distracted look over Emerson’s shoulder. A short moment passed, wherein Emerson attempted to follow Joe’s line of sight, but the grip of the older man around him prevented him from doing so. Eventually, Joe turned back to him, and with a “Happy birthday, Emerson,” spun him around so that he was facing the outer office. To his utter amazement, the sight that met his eyes was that of all of his close colleagues, including Ed, Llewellyn and some of the uniforms, saluting him with drinks in their hands, clustered around a cake. Their chorus of the birthday song was as enthusiastic as it was out of tune. At least three different keys vied for supremacy, until the more ambitious singers realised, as they approached the highest note, that they had overstretched, and promptly dropped out for a beat or two, returning for the final line in tune with Miles, who had gamely kept going throughout. Mansell brought up the rear about half a bar behind everyone else. At the end, Emerson was amused to see all of them take a gulp of their respective drinks, as though toasting the fact that they had got to the end unscathed. It certainly looked as though the Met workplace choir would not be getting any new members from this department.
“Did you plan all this?” Emerson beamed at Joe. “Is that what was bothering you this morning?”
An attractive shade of pink gravitated upwards from Joe’s neck as Emerson traced its path with his fingers. “Well, I thought that if we could have a divorce party for Mansell, I didn’t see why I couldn’t do this for you.”
Emerson was so overcome by Joe’s sudden demonstrativeness that he didn’t notice that he hadn’t answered his second question.
Ed was the first to wish him many happy returns, bustling up to him, bound pages in hand.
“My best wishes to you, young Kent,” he said. “Or perhaps not so young now, eh? I must confess to doing some digging to find out the year of your birth – solely for the purposes of your gift, you understand. Never fear, I shan’t reveal it. Some of the past’s secrets are safer kept hidden.”
“My gift?” Emerson sincerely hoped that it wasn’t another hagstone.
Ed presented the document in his hands with a dramatic flourish. “I give to you a report, a dossier if you will, of a selection of interesting murders that occurred in the year in which you were born. I do hope that you find it enlightening.”
Not a hagstone, then, although Emerson was pretty sure his face was forming itself into the same shape that Joe’s had when Ed had hung the bizarre amulet around his neck. He pulled his muscles into a semblance of gratitude.
“Wow… er… thanks Ed,” he said. “That’s really… umm… yeah.”
He was torn between feeling touched that Ed had gone to so much trouble for his present, and being slightly disconcerted by the nature of it. It was just like Ed, though. He was always so fervent about everything, so excited by knowledge, mining every corner for a new fact like an enthusiastic mole. And like a mole, he could sometimes be blind to the sensitivities of those around him. He meant well, however, which counted for a lot in Emerson’s book.
“Thank you,” he said again.
“You are very welcome,” replied Ed. “I shall look forward to hearing your thoughts on it when I return next week from the True Crime Writers’ convention in Edinburgh. In fact, my research for your gift was very useful preparation for my talk on Making Modern Crimes Ethically Entertaining.”
One side of Emerson’s brain, the half that still occasionally warped his features in mirrors, was briefly struck by the uncharitable thought that Joe evidently was not providing enough work for Ed to do if he had the time for all of those side projects, but he quickly squashed it down.
“Well, enjoy your trip, Ed,” he said, the words only half sticking in his throat.
“Eddie, Eddie, Eddie!” came Mansell’s voice, the DC bounding across the Incident Room with Riley in tow. “Don’t hog the birthday boy. Some of the rest of us want to have a crack at him.”
“Shouldn’t you be with Erica?” asked Emerson, his shoulders locking as he braced himself for whatever Mansell had planned. “It’s her birthday as well, remember.”
“She’s on her way here, mate,” explained Mansell. “I’m taking her out for supper after this. Then it’s back to ours so she can unwrap her own present, and have a bit of afters, if you know what I mean.”
Mansell winked in a way that did not fail to turn Emerson’s stomach. “Please,” he winced, “never, ever say things like that in front of me.”
Mansell shrugged. “Suit yourself. But don’t expect me to keep quiet the next time I catch you and the Boss having a snog when you think we’ve all gone home.”
Emerson’s mouth battled with itself as he tried to decide how to respond. He settled, reluctantly, for allowing his face to blush furiously, once again frustrated that Mansell had bettered him.
“Oh leave them alone, Finlay,” said Riley. “It’s sweet.”
If anything, Emerson’s complexion became an even deeper crimson. Of course, he couldn’t see his own face, but he recognised the blazing heat creeping across it, taking up residence just underneath his skin.
“So how old are you then, Kent?” asked Mansell. “Forty is it?”
Emerson’s calculated and eloquent retort of ‘Piss off Mansell’ was overshadowed by the older DC’s howl of surprise as he was smacked around the head by a dark haired woman who had crept up behind him.
“Hey, you watch it, Fin,” said Erica. “You know we’re only thirty-four.”
“Oh sorry love,” said Mansell, squirming around to kiss his girlfriend. “I always forget you two are twins. He’s got a lot more grey hair than you do.”
Erica and Emerson shared a roll of eyes. Hers rotated anticlockwise while Emerson’s always went clockwise for some reason, in a sort of reverse image, like opposite antipodes.
“Nice try,” said Erica. “But you’re being a twat.” She spoke lovingly, though, as she leaned her face briefly against Mansell’s cheek.
That had been one of the things that had finally reconciled Emerson to their relationship – that Erica was clearly the one in charge. Stood next to her, Mansell took on the appearance of an oversized rabbit. And the way Erica looked at him – Emerson recognised the glow in her eyes from his own wedding photographs. He cared about her a lot, more than anyone else except for Joe. She was his twin, his oldest and closest confidante, but he realised that he had gone about things in entirely the wrong way when she and Mansell had first got together. Erica had always been the stronger of the two of them, the one to look out for him, the one who bore all his trauma when the Krays attacked him. And then when he was suspended, when it had felt as though his whole life was as torn to shreds as his flesh had been, she had found all the pieces and stitched them back together. She had done so much for him. So his reaction to her going out with Mansell had been some sort of delayed and misplaced machismo, perhaps, trying to prove to himself as much as to everyone else that he could be the protector as much as the one being protected.
“Oh, to be thirty-four again, eh Finlay,” sighed Riley.
“Ah stop it,” grunted Mansell. “You’ll give me a complex. It’s bad enough I’ve got to sit at the desk next to butter-wouldn’t-melt over here.”
Is he talking about me? Emerson mouthed to Erica. She shrugged and nodded at the same time, rolling her chin onto her shoulders in rueful but amused support.
Considering everything Emerson had experienced during his time in Whitechapel – the long hours, the threats, the woundings, the times when the fog in the streets seemed to be living inside him as he went about his duties – he was amazed that he had reached the age of thirty-four with his youthful exterior still, apparently, relatively intact. However he may have appeared on the surface, though, underneath his suits he was a patchwork of scar tissue, mended but not wholly healed. Mansell and Riley, and the rest of his colleagues, they didn’t see that, or if they did they never mentioned it. To them, he was simply Kent, the youngest wide-eyed DC, diligent and guileless, if occasionally a bit moody. If he was honest, Emerson quite liked that he wasn’t defined by his injuries – that they could ignore it. That they could know, but not know. Erica knew, and Joe knew. But they were his family, bound in blood and more than blood. They had both seen what the others never would. Yet deeper still, beneath his skin, more buried than bone, lay something that not even Joe was aware of. You could cut Emerson in two, lay him out on Llewellyn’s autopsy slab and open him up with a Y-shaped incision, and still you would never find it, so tightly did he keep it locked away. You would locate it on no medical records, on no CV, not in any biography. But it was there all the same, a little kernel at his core that meant that any affectation of unworldliness was a mirage. It wasn’t toxic, or destructive, but it was solidly there, a part of him and immovable. Sometimes, just sometimes, he wished others would notice it. But then he would have to explain it, and he wasn’t sure he would ever be ready to do that. Until he was, he would just have to put up with a little bit of teasing.
Riley and Mansell had seemed to decide that the occasion of Emerson’s birthday was the perfect chance for ultimate winding-up, and were competing to see who could embarrass him the most.
“I bet Kent’s never done anything really naughty,” smirked Riley. “He’s much too young and wholesome.”
Wholesome, seriously? thought Emerson, his head in his hands.
“Ah but he did shag his boss – that’s gotta be a point in his (dis)favour,” replied Mansell.
“Yeah but that doesn’t count,” rejoindered Riley. “He wiped the slate clean on that score when he married him. Face it, Finlay, you’re a dirty old man next to Emerson.”
Emerson snorted. “He’s a dirty old man next to most people, Riley.”
Mansell swung around to face Emerson, his index finger wagging accusingly. “Come on then, Kent. You must have some dark secret hidden away somewhere. I know you quiet types. There’s always something.”
“Nope, sorry to disappoint,” said Emerson, a little too quickly. “No dodgy stories, no mysterious past, no dirty secrets. Nothing that I’d let on to you lot about anyway.”
He purposefully avoided catching Erica’s eyes as he passed her on his way to join Joe and Miles, although he felt her gaze burning a borehole into the back of his neck as he walked away.
Joe’s car gasped to a halt with a relieved, end-of-day sigh as he drew it into their allocated parking space and turned off the ignition. Home. One more day done with. Joe had lived through far more difficult shifts than the one they had just completed, filled with much more stress, close-calls or monotony. On the scale of bad days, this one should barely have registered. But a patina of anxiety had sat upon him since leaving the apartment that morning, which had soured every minute. It had been an unpleasant surprise, to feel it oozing once again through his pores, after lying dormant for months. Joe knew how it worked, he should have expected it to make an appearance, just when he was at his happiest. But he had begun to hope that, maybe… He knew Emerson had noticed as well, which only made it worse. He didn’t want Emerson to worry about him. And he knew he couldn’t explain it to him – he could barely rationalise it himself. It was something to do with his nightmare, but it wasn’t only that. That had been only a symptom. Everything was good, everything was good. It was. There was no reason for him to be feeling stressed now. But perhaps that was it – he had been complacent for too long. He had been too carefree, which was only another word for careless. He had been so consumed with his own happiness that he hadn’t considered the dangers still out there. They still lurked in his every waking breath, his every footstep, reminding him of what he had nearly lost, and what he might yet throw away if he wasn’t vigilant.
Not that the day would have ever ranked as a particularly good one either, even without Joe’s festering fear. Budget meetings were not exactly what he had dreamed of when he joined the Police, even back when he had swallowed and regurgitated all of the management bollocks, all the handbooks on modern sustainable policing. Especially not budget meetings where he had to sit meekly in front of the Chief Super while he itemised every single expense Joe’s department had made that was ‘not proportional to their operating effectivity.’ The upshot of which was that, unless their clean-up rate of bringing suspects to trial improved, their resources would be dramatically reduced in the next financial year. Only last week one more had slipped through Joe’s fingers like quicksilver. A suspect charged with the grisly murder of three students had had a huge stroke whilst on remand and was now unfit to stand trial, and likely never would be. No one was blaming Joe personally, of course, not for this one. But he had been the one to inform the families of the victims that, once again, the scales of justice had overbalanced on his watch and their children’s killer would never have to face what he had done. He had had to watch their last dregs of hope drain from them. The death in their eyes had been worse than any censure or approbation from a senior officer.
It had been getting harder and harder to disassociate himself from the cases. More and more often, Joe would find himself with a single-minded determination to bring down murderers, not just because he was a dedicated policemen and it was his job, but because he knew what it felt to grieve. He had fastened himself inside the skin of the victims’ loved ones, the join between his flesh and theirs forming a scab at which he could not stop picking. Was there a special club for bereavement, where all mourners recognised each other and spent their time together as each sad second stretched to an hour? If Bousfield had succeeded in meting out Joe’s punishment, if Emerson had died back in January, would Joe, as a fellow member of this club, have been better able to help those families? Would his more acute understanding of loss have meant that he could have offered more than just hollow comfort and recommendations of counselling? Or would he have already left Whitechapel, unable to live with seeing Emerson’s face in every crime scene, smelling his scent in every corner of the apartment, watching every motorcyclist who passed him, just in case? In his experience, grief was a solitary companion. It played at being your friend, coddling you and wrapping you up against the world. But it was an abusive partner, forbidding you from your other friendships, bruising you every time you left the house, making you feel as though you would never deserve to be happy.
That had been the main reason why Joe had organised the surprise party for Emerson’s birthday. As proof of life, fighting against the death that was only waiting for its next opportunity. Joe had never really been one for birthdays – why mark the passage of time in such an arbitrary way? – but this year, he wanted to celebrate, to rejoice, that not only had Emerson been born at all on some otherwise insignificant date thirty-four years earlier, but that he still lived and breathed with Joe. (To think, that Joe had existed on this date nearly forty times before he had realised its consequence. And to think that this date had passed through on the twelfth year of his existence without him ever being aware of the momentous occasion that had occurred on it.) The previous year, they hadn’t been able to mark Emerson’s birthday at all due to a big case. Emerson had said that he hadn’t minded, when they had both emerged three days later, and it had not really seemed important. It was just a birthday. Another twenty-four hours in the calendar where the air still tasted the same, the sun still struggled through the rainclouds in its valiant, autumn way, and a bin lorry still blocked the end of their road with its acrid girth as they were leaving the house in the morning. That, as much as anything, had haunted Joe as Emerson had lain in his coma, in the gap between living and dying. The thought that he might have no more birthdays, and that they had wasted his last one. That Joe had missed his last opportunity to honour the chance randomness of the universe that had allowed Emerson to be conceived and born. He had decided then that if Emerson recovered, his next birthday would be something a bit more special. Something to prove that he was valued, cherished and loved. And something to show how thankful Joe was that Emerson was.
By the time the shift had spluttered to a halt, however, Joe already regretted organising the surprise party. By then, all he wanted to do was take Emerson home. He had sat in his office for the majority of the party, watching remotely, until Miles came to find him.
“What you doing cooped up in here, then?” Miles had asked. “Aren’t you coming to join in?”
“It’s not for me, it’s for him,” Joe had replied, nodding towards Emerson, who was enveloped in a crush of people, happy people wishing him well, who didn’t want their boss shadowing over the festivities like a spectre at the feast.
“Doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. How about a bit of cake? It’s not bad actually. I had to get it from somewhere else when the place Judy’s sister recommended closed down. Got on the wrong side of some bad PR apparently. Who’da thought there could be such a hoo-hah over sponge and icing, eh?”
Joe had held up his hand, his palm a blockade against the paper plate Miles had tried to thrust his way. “No thank you, Miles. Though I am grateful to you for sourcing and fetching it.”
“Well, if I can’t buy a mate a cake once in a while…” grinned Miles. “Seriously, though, you don’t exactly look as though you’re enjoying yourself.”
Joe creased his face and shoulders into a form of shrug, affecting nonchalance. He knew Miles would see through it straight away, but it was the attempt that was important. If he couldn’t fool Miles, then maybe he could fool himself into composure. Miles coughed out a wheezy sigh, and sat down opposite Joe.
“You were the one who wanted to have this do for him. You came up with the idea in the first place, got us all involved. Why’d you do all that if you didn’t want to?”
“I did want to. I do want to. I mean, I want it for him. After everything, he deserves something nice.”
“And I’m sure he appreciates it. But I’m also sure he’d much rather just be with you than having all of this. I mean, look at him.”
Miles had gestured towards Emerson, stood in the centre of the Incident Room with Riley, Mansell and Erica. His face rested, eyes down, within the bowl of his hands, looking like a child counting to one hundred in a game of hide and seek. Only no-one was hiding, except for Joe. And Emerson wasn’t a child anymore, and it wasn’t that sort of birthday party. Not that Joe would have been able to recognise it even if it had been. He had never been invited to other children’s birthdays when he was a boy. Once, when he was eleven, a boy in his class had asked him along to his summer barbeque, but Joe had spent the entire time washing his hands and throwing suspicious glances at the sausages slowly burning to black over the fire. He had refused to eat anything that he hadn’t personally seen prepared from scratch, and had gone home early when the other boys started playing football. He suspected that the boy’s parents had made him invite Joe only out of sympathy for his father’s death, and he hadn’t been asked back.
“Go on, take him home,” Miles had urged, as Emerson dismissed himself from the group and started to walk towards Joe. Emerson had taken no persuading to leave, making Joe wonder whether the whole thing had been another waste of time.
“Joe?” Emerson’s voice broke through Joe’s thoughts, dragging him back to the present, where he realised he was sitting in his car’s driving seat, seatbelt still clinched around him, the door open and one of his legs already halfway out. “Are you planning on staying there all night?”
The seatbelt sprang open with a snap and a buzz as Joe extricated himself from the car. He followed Emerson into their building and upstairs to their apartment, locking the door behind them to seal themselves in. He was pleased with the new intruder-proof lock system he had recently had installed, and this, in combination with the familiar smell of the flat – pine and cloves mingled with something inexplicable belonging to Emerson – helped him to shed most of his anxiety along with his overcoat. (Perhaps it lurked in his pockets, waiting for him to leave the flat each day? He would have to get that coat dry cleaned now before he could wear it again.)
Emerson was already leaning against the doorframe between the kitchen and living room as Joe entered.
“What would you like for dinner?” Joe asked, stroking his hand down Emerson’s upper arm as he passed.
“Hmm,” said Emerson, his eyes broadening, “I’m not really in the mood to eat anything at the moment. Not food, anyway.” He wrestled his tie back and forth with his left hand, working it loose.
Joe had flicked open a box of matches to light the hob with, but at Emerson’s words, he lay it slowly down upon the counter-top. “Oh,” he said.
Emerson leisurely drew his lower lip between his teeth. His index finger followed the path of his incisors, dragging his lip down so that Joe could see the cherry-red interior of his mouth. All the while arresting Joe’s gaze in his in an unmoving, brazen stare.
“Oh,” breathed Joe again. He felt as though he had swallowed one of the matchsticks, that it had struck itself alight on the walls of his throat and now lay smouldering in his belly.
In one blaze of motion, as a flame rising up a chimney, Joe was across the kitchen. The two of them became all hands, flickering, unfolding, unfurling. Joe always undressed Emerson reverently – lifting his jacket off his shoulders, untucking his shirttails and slipping loose his tie had become a perfect ritual, a ceremony performed with breathless awe. Usually, this was a chance for Joe to adore Emerson, a slow meandering adulation, no less exhilarating for having been carefully rehearsed. But that evening, it felt different, somehow. As Emerson tugged him into the bedroom, Joe felt that there was an urgency that had not been there for a long time. A burning need to feel flesh on flesh and for their skins to shine together. To hold Emerson closer than close as they become one body.
If you had asked Joe before he was with Emerson what he thought about sex, he would have said that he understood people found it enjoyable, but that it wasn’t an important part of life for him. In some ways, that still held true. Oh, he wanted Emerson, no-one could ever say that he didn’t. But he didn’t usually need. Not like this. But for once his body and mind worked in symphony, craving feverishly every fingersoft brush against the upraised hairs on his arms, every sharp bite and lick against his neck, every sub-breath swearing as the proximity of their hips revealed that Emerson was just as hard as he was. They were close, but not close enough. Something crackled between them – a jolt of static. Too many layers divided them, they were confined and constrained by stubborn material that had to be removed, metal and cotton and silk. Joe shifted in frustration and felt as much as he heard Emerson’s melodic gasp against him.
He whimpered from the loss of contact as Emerson bent down to discard the remainder of his own clothing, then rose to unbutton, divest and disrobe Joe fully. They stood, facing each other, not quite touching. He could see Emerson’s skin everywhere, elevated with goose flesh. His breath too was bumpy, as though his pores and his oxygen were holding each other, poised on the brink. Then something broke as he and Emerson crashed together. Seconds and breaths and pulses became one. Time ceased to have any meaning for Joe and became merely a sequence of separate moments, powered by heartbeats. Each moment stood independently of all the rest, yet could not be divided or unglued from those that came earlier or later. He was on his back, cushioned in bedding, as Emerson arced above him. Another moment, and Emerson was at his middle, doing something wonderful with his mouth. And yet another found him with his arms scrabbling around Emerson’s shoulders, pulling him as close as he dared. A succession of icons, picture-framed friezes, yet somehow all was movement. And as the heartbeats pumped faster, the images flashed more frequently. He tried to concentrate on the sensations and not let his mind put a halt on him, as it so often did.
Their positions were switched now, and Emerson lay beneath and around and without of him, his face beautifully lax. All was movement – a shimmering tidal wave of reckless abandon. And all was sense and noise as Emerson teased a sighing incantation from his lips. He did not even care how rumpled the bed sheets were becoming. He would care, later, afterwards. He always did, once the glow had faded and each wrinkle and untucking seemed to sit in judgement upon him. The remembrance of future anxiety almost put a falter into his rhythm. Intimacy had always been tricky for Joe, for he struggled to just let loose and feel without thought. With Emerson it was both effortless and impossible. Effortless because, well, it was Emerson, and nothing felt more natural than seeing, touching, loving and being seen, being touched and being loved. Impossible because, well, it was Joe, and in his mind it was always their first time, all bound up with what Emerson had confessed to him then. He traced his fingers over the tattoo ablaze on Emerson’s thigh as he pulled himself closer, trying to ignore the raised peregrination of scars that marked their route around the other side.
“Joe… stop… thinking…” said Emerson, his words sounding as though they were being protractedly wrung out of him, pulled from his lips like a magician’s scarf. “Jesus… fuck.”
Emerson’s mouth formed into the shapes of silent expletives as they both escalated their motions. Joe had never quite decided what he felt about profanity in the bedroom. Screwing, shagging, fucking. There were a lot of words that people used to name the act of sexual union, ranging from the vulgar to the faintly ridiculous, none of which seemed to fit with Joe. For him, their conjunction defied language. Any attempts to put it into words fell woefully short. All he knew was that when he was inside Emerson, deep inside him, with his hand grasped around him, he felt that that was where he was meant to be. And if anything could make his mind go blissfully blank, it was that.
Yes that, there, like that.
And then they were liquid together. The room slid and the air boiled. Everything was both out of place and exactly where it needed to be. Joe cried Emerson’s name as he came, the syllables all jumbled into the wrong order, vowels and consonants clambering over each other exultantly. His eyes were closed, but at the back of his brain he could see and feel and hear Emerson’s own shuddering release.
For a while afterwards, Joe was content to lie loosely next to Emerson, half on top of him really, sipping blood-red kisses like wine from the chalice of his lips. Joe held them in his mouth lightly for safekeeping. Although Emerson offered them to him unconditionally, he still felt as though they were only borrowed, and that he would have to give them back. Hopefully not immediately, but he could see the clock behind Emerson’s head flashing out its seconds steadily and uncompromisingly, while his own heartbeat slowed to meet it. Time was ticking again beyond Joe’s wish or control.
Emerson had slipped asleep, his breaths still tangling with Joe’s. A bead of sweat made a short procession from his brow onto his cheek, curving down and anointing the pillow. Joe brushed away the sheen left behind, leaving no trace of its dedicated path. The come-down was always bittersweet, a glorious aurora mingled with a feeling of something ended. As though eternity itself lasted only a day, infinity encapsulated within the confines of an hour. Outside of which was nothing. There was beauty in the ephemeral, it was more blessed because it faded so soon.
“Happy birthday, my Emerson,” whispered Joe into the diminishing light.
That too had lasted only a day.
Thanks for reading, you lovely people.
If anyone is not familiar with British radio, John Humphrys is one of the hosts on 'The Today Programme' on BBC Radio 4. It's on every weekday morning between about 6am-9am, and is a news, current events and politics programme. John Humphrys is well known for being tough on the politicians he interviews.
The next chapter will be posted in late April/early May, so look out for that. In the meantime, comments and kudos give me happy bubbles...
A few warnings for this chapter. Please heed.
- Homophobic language and violence (hinted at)
- Fairly graphic descriptions of crime scenes, including the bodies.
- Reference to a true crime
- Manifestation of OCD
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The night congealed around him, the air thick with the sluggish hours, treacly and viscous. His duvet clung to him with the weight of all his forgotten dreams, the ones that tormented his mind with their half-formed abstract shapes. The ones where all he could recall was their presence, not their content. Joe was not entirely sure if he’d slept yet. He felt as though he had been lying awake forever – mountains could have risen and fallen in the time it had taken for him to give up on trying to be comfortable. He thought he may have dropped off once or twice, his body defeating his mind momentarily, before being dragged back into a peevish consciousness. In the still dark of trying to sleep there were blanker patches. Patchwork portions of time of which he had no memory. Without looking at the clock, he could not be sure, and at that dead hour of the night all was a void anyway. His mind wandered without aim. Hazy thoughts tripped around his mind, but when he tried to concentrate on them, to capture them, they slipped away leaving no trace. Like a hallucination in the peripheral vision, they were gone as soon as they were looked at directly.
At some point, Emerson had turned away from him so that all Joe could see of him was the back of his head and a thin crest of shoulder. The fingers of one hand curled around the lip of his ear, cradling its shell as a bird would care for its egg. Joe couldn’t remember at what point in the night they had separated. He must have been asleep after all. They had started the night as they always did, with Emerson’s head roosting on Joe’s breastbone, their legs entwined. As Emerson had gradually sunk into a deep sleep, his body had grown heavier, the hand which had stroked, featherlike, upon Joe’s collar stilled. Emerson had effectively pinned Joe to the bed, a second, warmer, more reassuring cover. Joe had almost imagined the world flying away, leaving them alone in their embrace, safe in their nest. But Joe’s arms were empty now, as though they had been invaded by a cuckoo, stealing that which was most precious to him. The space between him and Emerson felt cold and barren, and he had no recollection of how it got that way. By contrast, his constricting sheets were hot and oppressive. Would he ever find the perfect, fairy-tale balance between too much and too little? He doubted it – he had always been a man of extremes, first pushing away too forcefully, then clinging on too tightly. Too hard, or too soft, never just right.
With a muffled snarl, Joe kicked his legs to free his feet and hoisted himself up onto one elbow to plump his pillow, which had sagged forlornly in the middle. He punched and pummelled it violently into shape, his knuckles sinking with some satisfaction into the bulbous and downy oblong. He closed his eyes, allowing the innocent headrest to bear the brunt of his frustration and dislocation. It felt good – the hostility bubbling down his arm, the crush and spring against his knuckles, the savage gratification at seeing the object bend to the force of his will. He had felt a similar spite when he had hit William Bousfield. It was all a bit of a blur, if he was honest, but he remembered the glow of something approaching pride when he had seen Bousfield’s mug shot, his face swollen and purpled from Joe’s handiwork. Joe had almost scared himself with his own viciousness, he was not used to such all-consuming anger, but how close Bousfield had come to taking Emerson away from him scared him more. He could not bring himself to regret his actions, not that one anyway.
Emerson moved in his sleep, rolling further over, dragging the duvet with him to enshroud his body more fully.
He rolled over like a little fucking bitch.
Bousfield’s final words to him echoed, mocking, in Joe’s head. He jerked suddenly, aghast and sickened at the turn his mind had taken against his will. His powerful ferocity crumbled, undermined by wheedling words and malicious memories. However much he might revel in the strength of his punches, he would always be defeated by Bousfield’s taunting jeers. They connived their way into his head and sat malevolently, tainting all about him. That they could take root now, even in the sanctuary of his and Emerson’s bed, repelled and horrified him. While they were there, Joe could not touch his husband, could hardly bear to look at him, or even think about him in the same thought. It was a defilement, a violation of their space to have Bousfield’s cruel laugh resounding in his ears while he could also hear Emerson’s soft somnolent breathing next to him. The two things didn’t, couldn’t, match.
He struggled out of bed, using his phone’s torch to light his footsteps, and headed towards the bathroom to wash, to rinse his body and mind of all pollution. A dim, sickly light oozed through a small gap in the curtains as he passed the window. He pulled at the two edges of material, catching a glimpse of the sky outside. The heavens were veiled by a yellowish cloud, jaundiced with sodium. It seemed that the sky and all its stars had needed to take shelter, unable to bring themselves to shine any more, and had secreted themselves under the only covering they could find, no matter that it was filthy. Neither was the moon visible. Even had the skies been clear, Joe knew that at that time of night the moon would be hiding just above the horizon, safely concealed from view by office blocks, train tracks and warehouses. It was a dying moon, nearly at the end of its life, with no energy for illuminating anything beyond a thin sliver of itself. The very air felt dirty. But that was London for you, aged, creaking London, so grubby with the past that had never been fully cleaned away.
Joe swallowed a small wave of revulsion and tip-toed across the hall to the bathroom. Emerson had thought it strange at first, Joe knew, that he refused to sleep in the master bedroom – the one with the en-suite. He had understood that Joe needed there to be more than just a thin partition between the bathroom, and what happened in it, what his father had done in it, and the place where he would endeavour to relax, but he hadn’t been able to hide a raised expression when Joe attempted to explain. When Emerson had first started staying over, he had slept in the master suite while Joe stayed in his own room, although within a couple of months they had taken to sharing a bed. Emerson had made no complaints about downgrading to be with Joe, but that didn’t stop Joe from wondering whether he missed the convenience, the ease, of what he had had before. Far from it being Joe who had provided accommodation for Emerson when he moved in, it was Emerson, always Emerson, who accommodated him.
As he washed Bousfield’s leering face down the sink, Joe gazed down at his bare skin, slightly clammy from his overheated bedsheets. A small portion of the air shifted, causing an unsettling chill to crawl down his back. He felt exposed, and not just because he was unclothed, but as though something or someone had unpeeled him and slipped beneath his naked skin. He shivered, and doused himself in the almost boiling water collected in the sink. He scrubbed with vigour at his arms, scraping them pink, scouring away the memory of William Bousfield. With every rub a little more was purged. While he was concentrating on that, Bousfield’s face was not visible behind his eyes, his voice did not ring in his ears. And if he could scratch those into oblivion, then he need no longer worry that Emerson would get hurt again. He could rid himself of the anxiety that he, Joe, might somehow by association harm him because his mind had brought Bousfield into their home. If he could destroy Bousfield through the layers of his skin, then Emerson would be safe. One more rub should do it, and just one more, and just one more, and just one more.
He forced himself to pull out the plughole, and watched as the greying water gurgled away. If he listened hard enough, he could still hear Bousfield’s callous laughter reverberating in the pipes. His hands, about to refill the sink, were halted in their progress by the shrill squawk of his phone’s ringtone. Stirred by the vibrations, the handset nearly slid into the bath, but Joe caught it in time.
“DI Chandler,” he said, holding it to his ear, the devices edges feeling severe and uncompromising. At that time of night, it could only really be one thing.
Sure enough, it was Miles’ gruff voice that croaked down the line. “Boss? We’ve got a couple of bodies. Definitely suspicious, almost certainly murdered. Down by the old railway station on Leman Street.” His voice was muffled through sleep and the erratic signal. “Riley and Mansell are on their way in. I’m just leaving home now. I’ll meet you there as quick as I can so SOCOs can brief us.”
Joe sighed. Well, if he was going to be awake anyway, at least now he had something useful to occupy his time. The thought immediately made him feel guilty as he considered the families of the victims, who might not even have been aware of their deaths yet. A murder investigation could not just be a way for him to stave off his inertia. But he was above all things a policeman, and that was what he did. Without murderers, without victims, he would have no purpose. That was what he had dreamt about, not admin, not paperwork, but the chance to set things straight. To avenge the dead and seek justice for the living. And perhaps to save lives along the way. He thought all detectives must have that within them. Miles had told him that it wasn’t all car chases and saving the girl at the end, and it wasn’t, of course it wasn’t. But in Joe’s experience, the officers who stopped believing in the possibility of that rarely stayed in CID. They all wanted to do, to make a difference, to count. But for them to avenge the dead, people had to die in the first place. It was all part of the terrible progression, cause and effect and result.
He had already washed everywhere he could and, tempted as he was to cleanse himself again, he pulled himself out of the bathroom and back into the bedroom to dress. Emerson, still deep in sleep, had rolled over again to face the inner part of the bed, towards where Joe had been lying, but facing away from where he now stood. His left arm extended out over both pillows as though seeking out Joe in the unmoving, cold darkness. Joe reached out to wake him, but his hand halted in mid-air. In the murky light, it looked more like a claw, wizened and crooked. He couldn’t bring himself to rouse Emerson. He knew he should – they would need the whole team at the crime scene, and he couldn’t be seen to be giving his husband any special treatment at work – but something stopped him, as though there was a barrier between him and Emerson, which kept him from laying his fingers on him. A barrier, or was it a shield?
Joe clothed himself secretively, leaving Emerson untouched and unspoiled. At least for the remainder of the night, his innocent sleep could be kept intact. He scribbled a note of explanation, an explanation which left out almost everything, leaving it where Emerson would be sure to find it and left the flat, extracting his spare overcoat from the wardrobe and locking the front door securely behind him.
Miles was waiting for him at the crime scene, rocking from foot to foot while his arms crossed, brushing kinetic warmth into each other. It wasn’t exactly cold, the hibernal frosts remained at bay for the time being, and the nip in the air that Joe felt was more likely to be caused by lack of sleep and the early hour than the temperature on the thermometer. However, there was a distinct end of year feel in the air, a fresh staleness in the wind, which caught the back of his throat with a crisp jolt as he breathed in. Miles raised his eyebrows at Joe as he locked his car.
“What’ve you done with Kent, then?” he asked. “He’s not riding that daft bike of his at this time of night is he?”
Joe pursed his lips and looked at the wet pavement. A small puddle had formed in the ridge between road and kerb, and Miles was partially reflected in it, his beige raincoat an eerie pale in the dark water.
“He’s not coming,” he said, keeping his eyes fixed on the watery image of Miles, rather than looking at his friend directly.
“What d’you mean, not coming? Why, is he ill?”
“He’s not coming,” Joe repeated firmly. “He was sleeping.”
“Of course he was sleeping,” exclaimed Miles. “I was bloody sleeping as well. What else would you be doing at half three in the pissing morning?”
Joe dropped his car keys into his breast pocket. The jingle they made as they settled into the silk lining sounded louder than normal, a harsh high-pitched chorus cutting through all the other sounds, the whirr of cameras, the plod of feet, the murmur of voices. It punctuated the look of finality Joe hoped was being expressed on his face as he turned back to Miles. Miles threw him a look of his own – a familiar mien, both appraising and paternal – but said nothing.
“Would you care to tell me what we’ve got here, Miles?” said Joe, impatience sharpening his voice. He was keen to get on and do his job rather than debate why he had taken it upon himself to give one of their team some impromptu time off.
Miles’ sideways glance lingered for a few seconds before he answered.
“Right, well,” he said, beckoning for Joe to follow as he lifted up the cordon and started to walk towards the white scene of crime tent erected some feet away. “Couple of students walking home after a late night out spotted two bodies hanging from the railway bridge above the old station platform. Apparently they thought they were just early Hallowe’en decorations at first, but when they realised what they were, they called 999 at about two thirty this morning. Victims are two adult males, IC1 and IC3, both look to be in their late twenties or early thirties.”
“And they’d been hanged? We’re sure it’s not just a double suicide?”
“It looks pretty unlikely to be self-inflicted. Go on, you’ll see. I’ve got Riley and Mansell doing a detailed plan of the area. I was going to get Kent to take the statements from the kids who found the bodies, but I suppose one of the uniforms can do that.”
Joe ignored the jab as he fastened himself within a forensic suit then ducked through the opening of the tent. Caroline Llewellyn stood with her back to him, assisting a SOCO officer in carrying something heavy to the floor. As they set it down, the object made a dull thump on the ground, a dark shadowy sound. In fact there were two thumps as one end of the object hit the pavement a moment before the other, like a muffled, percussive prologue.
“Give me a second,” called Llewellyn over her shoulder. “We’ve just got the poor things down.”
The tent was a large one, but it felt cramped and crowded, filled as it was by police and forensic officers, all vying for space. Amidst their jostling, however, they all seemed to know where they were going. They walked and stood with purpose, as though their every movement had been carefully choreographed. Each had their exits and entrances, as Shakespeare had put it, all bustling around for the sake of the two victims, who had barely reached their third age. None of the people here were novices to a crime scene – they all slipped comfortably into their roles like actors in a play. Only Joe felt like an understudy who had wandered onto the stage by mistake. Finally, Llewellyn directed Joe to the bodies, lying side by side, temporarily covered with sterile sheets. They looked completely out of place on the dark ground, white and still, while all around them was neon and blur, yet none of this activity would be there if they weren’t. They were the central characters, but their parts were already over.
“Okay,” said Llewellyn. “First things first, I’ve got IDs for you. Don’t you love people who keep their driving licences in their trouser pockets? This one,” she pointed at the taller body on the left, “is Paul Sage, aged 35. His companion here is Adam Snow, recently turned 32.”
“And what happened to them?” asked Joe.
“Now you know I can’t give you anything definitive until after the PM,” said Llewellyn, a teasing twinkle in her eye. “But from my initial assessment, it looks like cause of death in both cases was spinal shock from a broken neck.”
“Could that have been caused by them jumping from the bridge to hang themselves?”
“Well, if they’d done that, they probably would have broken their necks rather than asphyxiated, yes, but I don’t think that’s what happened in this case.”
She lifted up the sheet covering Paul Sage’s face. His skin was mottled, almost maroon in places, his neck swollen and horribly distended. His eyes were shut, Joe was thankful to see. It was always the eyes that haunted Joe the most, the way they looked without seeing. He had been ten years old the first time he had seen dead eyes. He had found a dying frog in their garden when he was out playing by himself. It had obviously got lost and wandered too far from the nearest water, dehydrated and disorientated. Joe knew there was nothing he could do to help it, and he had cradled it in his hands as it slowly passed away, the faint light in its eyes fading to grey. His mother had made him wash his hands five times before he was allowed back inside the house, but he still felt the dead weight of the small creature sitting within his hold. He had had bad dreams for several nights afterwards, in which he was the frog, being steadily crushed to death by two giant hands. His mind could not stop imagining what last things those little eyes saw before they glazed over. A month later, Joe saw that blank stare for the second time when his father died, and the nightmares had returned, only far worse. The frog had sat within his hands ever since.
“If they’d died from a drop hanging,” continued Llewellyn, “then I’d expect a lot more bruising higher up the neck from the force of the rope. There are bruises, but not in my opinion consistent with that sort of injury. It’s more like what you get with finger marks. I think they were killed first and hung up there afterwards.”
“So they definitely didn’t hang themselves?”
“Nothing’s ever one hundred percent definite, but I would be very uncomfortable in saying that these were suicides. For one thing, I can’t see how they would have got up there without help – there was no ladder or anything like that. There are also ligatures around their wrists and ankles, suggestive of having been tied up for some time, and that’s not all.”
Llewellyn knelt down between the two bodies and rolled down the sheets to their waists. Joe noticed her hands were steady, almost mechanical in their movement. They were in total contrast to his own, which were fidgeting in the air, fighting and fretting against it.
The upper parts of both men were revealed, shocking Joe into stillness. His fingers froze, while his left hand raced towards his mouth, the knuckles crushing into his lips as he swallowed bile. Both bodies had bare chests, without clothing or body hair, except for a small amount of fuzzy down around their navels. They could have been naturally hairless, or shaven, or even waxed, Joe did not have the experience to be able to tell. Apart from that similarity, however, their physiques were almost completely opposite. Paul Sage was darker-skinned, well-built and muscular, while Adam Snow was pallid and skinny. Paul’s hair was short-cropped, his scalp shining through, Adam’s curled like a whisper around his ears and draped floppily on the ground. The one distinguishing feature they shared, what stood out the most, was the thing Llewellyn was pointing at. On each of their chests, etched out in crimson, were the letters FAG carved into the flesh. The cuts were neat, and had evidently been made with sadistic care. There was very little blood on the bodies, Joe was surprised to see. The lack of blood made it worse, somehow. It was normal for a cut to bleed, and just a little normality would have been welcome. Without it, the marks shouted their message all the louder, their desecration all the plainer, coarse and violent.
But it wasn’t that which was making Joe feel nauseous. He had seen far worse in his time in Whitechapel, seen at first hand the horror that one human body can wreak upon another, had experienced the worst that evil had to offer. No, it wasn’t the disfiguring letters that upset him. He knew it was impossible, that it was just a horrible coincidence. His head told him not to believe the suggestion his eyes were making, or at least one half of his head did. The other half was screaming, screaming, blocking out almost all else, that he’d made a terrible mistake, and that this pale, lifeless body lying in front of him wasn’t Adam Snow at all, but Emerson. He tugged at the tightly bound rubber cuff of the latex glove on his left hand, letting it snap back onto his skin, whipping a wince from his mouth. Llewellyn cocked her head at him curiously. He shook his head, his lips dragging towards his chin in a weighty, bulging frown. Forcing all of his panic downwards, so that it rested in his chest and stomach, showing no ripple on the surface, he looked again at the corpse. It wasn’t Emerson, it wasn’t, he knew that. And after the initial shock, he found he could catalogue the differences between them. The chin wasn’t quite the right shape, and the incline of Emerson’s shoulders and collarbone was altogether smoother, less angular. But the eyes, even closed, and the hair, down to the irregular shots of grey weaving through the curls, were strikingly similar. This body wasn’t Emerson, or even his double, an imperfect imitation at best. But still… Joe clenched spasmodically, his fingers clamping into sharp squares, like a set of bony teeth grinding against each other. A fruitless wish pulsed through him, stronger with every seizured breath, that he had woken Emerson after Miles’ phone call. Just so that he could put them side by side and confirm. At least then he could have been sure, beyond the cruellest, most persistent doubt.
He cleared his throat, his larynx vibrating painfully. There was a salty swollen tang growing somewhere in the region of his tonsils.
“How… how long have they been here?” he asked.
Llewellyn sucked her bottom lip and cocked her head to one side. “I’d say, given the rigor in their jaws, that they’ve been dead no more than four to six hours. And the lividity is all in their legs and feet, so they were moved here pretty quickly, probably within half an hour of the time of death. I reckon you’re looking at a window roughly between ten last night and about one this morning.”
The relief overcame Joe, covering him completely, like the sheets Llewellyn was replacing over Paul and Adam. He had been with Emerson all that time. He could personally vouch that he had still been breathing at half past three, well outside of the margin. And anyway, Emerson had still been in bed when Miles had rung, so he couldn’t possibly have been hanging by his neck from a railway bridge. Nevertheless, it was reassuring to have it scientifically proven. Evidence and logic, clean and sharp and precise, that was all he needed. Wasn’t it?
Something felt off as soon as Emerson became aware that he was awake. Before he had even opened his eyes he could sense that he was lying alone in a bed that usually had two occupants. The duvet covering him sat in a different way, heavy in all the wrong places, bunching constrictively around his feet but falling short at the top, leaving his shoulders bare and chilly. Cold air shot down his back with every breath he drew. It was one of his pet hates, a bedsheet that didn’t perfectly conform to his contours, making him all the more aware that it was a separate entity, that there was a layer of thin space between it and him. He didn’t notice it when Joe was there – they made it theirs together – but without him, it felt like a false covering. Like something alien that just didn’t fit. Like lungs in a human body, it was simply much more effective and comfortable when there were two within it.
Nothing was quite as it should have been. The object Emerson held closely to him may have smelled like Joe, but it had no supportive shoulders or embracing arms, no warm skin flushed with sleep. Emerson clutched it closer to him, but it just squashed into itself submissively, not returning the embrace or giving back anything in affection at all. His eyes shot open to confirm that, yes, he was in fact cuddling Joe’s pillow, the man himself nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t unusual for Joe to be up before him, and on many mornings, Emerson would float into waking on the comforting sound of the shower pattering across the hall, or the low murmuring hum of the news bulletin from the living room. But that morning, there was nothing. No sounds, no dry savoury smell of gently toasting bread, no lingering warmth from Joe’s side of the bed. Even the air was cold as though it was stood still, having not been touched or passed through for hours. There was only a dead, stale stillness in the flat.
Unlike Joe, Emerson had never lived alone. He had gone from his parents’ house to university halls of residence to a flatshare, and from there to living with Joe. When he was younger, he couldn’t have afforded London rents on his own, and by the time he could, he found he didn’t want to. He liked having someone to come home to, someone to share life with, someone who would notice if he died in his sleep or didn’t come home at all. That last point had seemed suddenly unpleasantly relevant after he had been striped, though he had laughed at himself later on for thinking it. It wasn’t that he didn’t value his privacy, but he had perfected the knack of being alone in a crowded room when he needed to be, and the rest of the time he enjoyed the company. Sharing a house, sharing mealtimes, sharing oxygen, sharing themselves. Their combined experiences, the things they told one another, even when they didn’t speak, kept the house alive. He had nearly forgotten what an empty house felt like, deserted like a widow done out in weeds and cobwebs. An empty house was to him like a crime scene, abandoned and waiting to be discovered. There was not enough life in it to fill it, and so every corner became a dark grey hollow where silence filled the air like dust. It disconcerted him to wake from a dreamless sleep into such stagnancy, as though he himself were a corpse, forgotten and left behind. It was funny though, really, when he was alert enough to think about it. Joe could only have been gone a matter of hours at most. For the flat to feel so bereft so soon showed how great, or how small, an impression Joe made. Either he was so inconsequential that he was forgotten the moment he stepped out, or was so essential that even the smallest parting felt like a rent in the fabric of the universe. There was nothing in between.
Emerson felt a light sugary tickle at his nose and carefully plucked from the pillow a single golden strand of Joe’s hair, proof that he had been there at one point. He twisted it tightly about his thumb, the colour of the hair showing up darker against his skin than it was when it grew, alive, from Joe’s head. It was a thin, fragile filament, though with strength enough to alter the shape of Emerson’s finger as it weaved like a chain around it. Centuries ago, people used to keep locks of hair as keepsakes, forget-me-nots. A remnant of the living person after they had died, plaited and fastened securely behind metal clasps. Emerson remembered a family heirloom that had belonged to his great-grandmother, a large lozenge-shaped ring containing a coil of her husband’s jet black hair buried within crystal. It had always given him the creeps a bit, which was why it had been left to Erica. The hair, severed and imprisoned as it dulled, had reminded him too much of his own. Part of his own DNA would be coded in those strands that once were part of his great-grandfather, just as Emerson’s DNA profile was recorded on the police database, just as it would probably be on file at the hospital since he’d had his skin graft following the striping. Hair, skin, when it came down to it, they were just data and dust. During life, they were shed every day without you noticing, regenerating and regrowing brand new, their detritus filling shelves and mantelpieces and forgotten places. After death, they were your autograph, left behind to identify or commemorate you.
But Joe wasn’t dead, he’d presumably just gone into work early. And this strand of hair he had left behind him was just incidental, natural wastage. Emerson shook it from his hand onto the floor, watching it float in the morning light for a second before it disappeared into the carpet like a mirage. As Emerson stretched his limbs, pulsing out the energy of his mind to incite them to movement, his right leg brushed against something harder than the bedsheets. An object that relocated with a rustle down towards his feet with the movement of his shin. Like a dextrous but lazy monkey, Emerson picked it up with his toes and slid it up the bed towards his waist, too sluggish yet to move more. The small parcel delivered into his hands, he saw it was a small piece of lined notepaper, folded neatly but crumpled from its journey down and up the mattress. Joe’s meticulous handwriting peeked reticently out of one corner.
I’m sorry. There was a call-out. I didn’t want to wake you. Find me at work when you come in.
All my love,
There was nothing else on the paper, the other side of the note as bare as Joe’s side of the bed. Emerson swore loudly, knocking his phone off the bedside table in his hurry to get up. His vision blurred blackly, blood rushing like red full-foamed waves in his ears. The roaring in his ears seemed to provide the soundtrack to the morning sky outside as Emerson thrust open the curtains. The sun had only recently risen and the shadows were long. The firmament was rouged, like a face flushed in anger or humiliation. Thin clouds like fingertips scratched across it as though they were painting in the blood of the heavens, leaving their fleeting scars before they were blown away. Already they were scudding across the sky as directed by the wind rather than the force of their own will.
What the hell had Joe been thinking, leaving Emerson to sleep when he should have been working? Did he think that Emerson wasn’t up to it, was that it? That he was still frail and vulnerable, an invalid? Invalidated? They hadn’t had any very big cases since Joe had finally allowed Emerson back from sick leave, not since before. Emerson had been kept off any murders or violent cases for several weeks, and while he hadn’t liked it, and had burned against the chains of his desk with more friction than even the bonds of his coma, he had understood. It had been procedure, due process, to ease him back in gently. But it was now six months on. He was fully certified as fit to work, and he would have thought that Joe, his own husband, would have understood his need to carry on as normal. But perhaps Joe had overheard him having a small coughing fit in the bathroom the other day and hadn’t wanted to be burdened with someone who couldn’t keep up on a cold, damp crime scene, where the early morning twists of fog might still cling to the pavement and clog up his damaged lungs with their choking vapour. What did Emerson have to do to prove that he was capable? If even Joe had doubts, what must the rest of them have thought?
He groaned, imagining the amount and variety of ways in which Mansell could use this to wind him up. He liked Mansell, he did, on the whole, but the man never missed an opportunity to try to get a rise from him, usually succeeding. And the others, would they think that he had been skiving and got Joe to cover for him? The only thing he could do now was to get himself to the office as soon as he could, well before the official start of the shift. The hour was still early – usually at this time, he and Joe would be enjoying a leisurely morning together. One of them might grab a shower while the other prepared breakfast. Or they might sip their tea curled up together on the sofa in their dressing-gowns, sleepily catching up on the news headlines or just silently breathing each other in. There was something wonderful about the way that Joe smelled in the morning, before he had washed. It was purer, an unblemished scented glimmer of the man beneath the soaps and balms. It delighted Emerson to think that he was probably the only person who was allowed to know it. Sometimes, they would stay in bed as late as they could get away with, simply because they could. But this morning was as far away from those tranquil togethered hours as it was possible to be. Emerson threw on his suit hurriedly (thankfully he had taken on Joe’s habit of laying it out the night before), muttering curses when he realised he had done up his shirt wrong, leaving a spare buttonhole flopping uselessly in the top of his collar and an unrequited button hanging at the bottom. The whole shirt sat uneven and out of alignment. It was in such sharp contrast to the way Joe had fastened him up the previous morning, with fluent fingers and a kiss at the end. It was too reminiscent of the years he’d spent pining for Joe, as though his memories of the previous day, and night, were just one more vivid fantasy.
He paused for a moment, a tentative smile warming his face, remembering their closeness of the previous night. It had been a split-second decision, to instigate sex, and he had not been entirely sure that Joe would go along with it. Emerson had just wanted not to think for a while, to iron out the anxiety from Joe’s face and in doing so, to pluck it free from his own spirit as well. For the two of them to be only bodies and not minds. It had worked too – he had drifted off into a warm soaked slumber with Joe still loosely inside him and for a time there was nothing else. Nothing but heat and breathing and tenderness. It had been so perfect, too perfect – maybe he had only imagined it?
His phone buzzed rudely from the floor, almost as if it could read the trail of Emerson’s thoughts and was exasperated by them. Emerson was exasperated by them himself, if he was honest. He hated that Joe could still make him feel so insecure, just by a sudden and unexpected change to their routine. He dove across the room, hoping his phone might present a message from Joe, in explanation perhaps, or at least to say good morning. He pretended not to feel the surging, sagging disappointment in his chest when he realised that it was only one of those round robin updates from work, informing all teams about a missing 14 year old girl. He dutifully archived the message, though he never really expected to look at it again. She would only be his team’s problem if she turned up dead.
Waiting beneath that was a text from Mansell, sent only a couple of minutes earlier.
[cant say i blame the boss 4 wantin u 2 keep his bed warm 4 him but bloody hell cld have dun with u there earlier skip sez 2 make urself useful & bring in a round of coffees when u get ere]
“For fuck’s sake, he couldn’t even wait half an hour,” muttered Emerson. “And has he never heard of punctuation?”
He deleted the message with grim force – he’d remember the coffees without the prompt. And he could do without the reminder that Mansell had been at work, doing and getting on with things, while he, Emerson, had been tucked up obliviously in bed. He had never thought he would see the day when he was outperformed by Finlay Mansell, and it rankled. That thought annoyed him more than anything, though he couldn’t say exactly why.
With the text gone, an earlier message from Erica, received about forty-five minutes before Mansell’s, was revealed, standing visible and haughty on his home screen.
[Heard from your old friend Ollie yesterday. Wanted your address. I take it you haven’t told Joe about what you two got up to at uni?]
Emerson froze mid-scroll, his fingers silhouetted against the bright phone screen. He waited a minute or two before replying. The tension in his fingers was such that he feared he might break the screen with the force of his typing. The screen was already cracked and in need of repair – a thin fissure, barely a hair’s breadth, criss-crossed the screen like the string from a spider, waiting to be spun into a web.
[There’s nothing to tell. Don’t have time for this now Erica.] He jabbed firmly yet carefully at the screen, before slamming the phone down on the table so that he could finish getting dressed.
He ignored the intrusive ping of her reply that interrupted him as he was leaving the flat.
The burr of the ringing tone tolled loudly in Joe’s ear – one, two, three… It was probably one of his least favourite sounds. When it was the other way around, if someone was telephoning him, it meant action, that he was needed and could be purposeful. He could answer, have the conversation and be done. But when he was the one making the call, all that sound meant was waiting. Waiting, not knowing whether the person on the other end wasn’t answering because they weren’t with their phone, or because it was on silent, or they were in an unpredictable signal area, or whether they were ignoring him, or worst of all, they were grievously injured and therefore incapable of answering. His imagination would torture him, dreaming up ever more improbable scenarios. The more he cared about the person, the worse it was. He tried to tell himself that he was being irrational, but on at least three occasions, reality had equalled or even surpassed his worst visions. Once, when Ed had been abducted, and twice when Emerson… Joe gripped his left hand around the receiver, a brutal but vain strangulation, and tried to sieve his mind of the images filling it. Seven, eight, nine… He had tried to tune it once, the ringing tone, to ascertain exactly which note of the scale it was that vibrated at him as he held. To catalogue and quantify and keep it fixed in place. He had held the telephone to one ear, and a tuning fork to the other (Emerson had still had one lying around at home from his singing days), and listened carefully. But of course it had been out of tune, the intonation somewhere between an A and an A flat, oscillating between the two but hitting neither. It had felt as though the microtones were laughing at him. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…
He was just about to hang up, when there was a muffled crackling from the other end and a flustered sounding voice answered.
“Ah, Joe, hello,” said the voice, breathlessly. “My apologies for not answering right away but I was just alighting my train, and a person whom I would hesitate to call a gentleman was quite deliberately blocking the carriageway with a suitcase of frankly ludicrous proportions. I very nearly had to raise my voice at him. My good man, I said…”
“Ed… Ed,” interrupted Joe, knowing that the historian was fully capable of taking fifteen minutes to relate an event which lasted only thirty seconds. Every last detail was, to him, an event worth recording, which was what made him an excellent researcher, but a somewhat infuriating conversationalist. “We’ve got a double murder, so I can’t be long. I was just hoping you might be able to help us with a precedent.”
“Oh, well, of course. I have very few notes with me, but I’ll be what help I can. Do you need me to return to the station?”
Joe smiled. “Oh no, Ed. Thank you for offering but I’m sure we’ll manage a few days without you. You deserve to go on your conference.”
“Very well. How can I be of assistance?” Joe had known Ed for many years, and recognised the various inflections of his voice. He thought that Ed sounded just a little bit put out at not being proven indispensable.
“What do you know about carvings on murder victims?”
“Yes. Made with a knife, or a blade of some sort. A word, perhaps, or letters, symbols, cut into the flesh.”
“Oh, I see.” Ed’s voice hushed almost to a whisper, and Joe suddenly realised that the archivist was standing on a very public train having a conversation about the most gruesome aspect of a confidential case. That was how leaks happened.
“It doesn’t matter,” Joe said, quickly. “It can wait until you get back.”
“No, no,” replied Ed, “Let me just find somewhere a little more private.”
There were a series of dense bass thumps, followed by a static rustling that reminded Joe of dusty newspapers. After a moment, Ed’s voice, previously only heard as a distant “excuse me, thank you so much”, returned to the line.
“Carvings, yes,” he said. “As far as I can recall, there have been a number of cases where victims have been tortured and their bodies mutilated in that way. Often, the words carved on the victims had some meaning to the killer, perhaps as a way to explain the killing, or to define the victim according to how the killer saw them. There are cases of girls being branded as prostitutes, even when they weren’t, to fit their killer’s image of them, for example.”
“So the victim would have known their killer?”
“I’d say more often than not, yes. But some of the carvings have never been explained, as the cases were not solved, so it’s impossible to say for certain. In fact… yes, I do believe…”
Ed’s voice trailed off in thought. Joe could hear the abrasive sound of the train announcement foretelling the stations Ed would be passing on his way to Edinburgh. If only crime investigations could be so clearly prophesied. Then again, having a strict timetable and sticking to it were two completely different things. The one thing that could be predicted with any sort of certainty was that, at some point, a breakdown or a signalling failure or the wrong kind of weather would throw you off course. And if you arrived at your destination at all, there was no guarantee that it would be as you had hoped or expected.
“Ed?” prompted Joe. “Have you thought of something?”
“Ye-es,” said Ed, a reflective tilt in his accent, his pitch tumbling from the upper part of his vocal register to his lower notes within one slow word. As he recovered his speech, he became once more the showman, declaiming his narrative with dramatic pauses and a timbre designed to enthral.
“The year was 1947, the place Los Angeles, when a gruesome discovery was made. A woman walking down the street saw what she thought was a mannequin from a clothing store, lying in two parts on the road. It was only as she drew closer that she realised that it was the disfigured corpse of a young woman. She had been mutilated horribly, her face almost unrecognisable, and most ghastly of all, she had been completely severed in twain. The victim’s name was Elizabeth Short, but she was also known by another name, a name which has gone down in modern legend – the Black Dahlia.”
“The Black Dahlia?” said Joe, a hint of confused recognition shading his voice. “What has that case got to do with ours?”
“Well,” replied Ed, “if I remember rightly, I have nothing here to refer to, you see, the letters BD were carved onto her thigh. BD for Black Dahlia, one assumes. There is some confusion as to when she acquired her pseudonym, whether it was in life or in death. The killer was never found so we will never know why he marked her with those characters, but I would hypothesise that it was a form of labelling, so that her identity would forevermore be the mutilated victim, Black Dahlia, rather than the vivacious young Elizabeth Short she once had been.”
“He was making sure she was only seen in one way – through his eyes,” said Joe, his breath soft and sinister. “He wanted to reduce her to a concept rather than a person.”
“That’s certainly one interpretation of the known facts,” said Ed carefully. “I do know that there is a file on this case in my archive – you may benefit from seeking it out. I shall be returning to Whitechapel on Monday so do k…”
Ed’s voice broke jerkily and disappeared into a dead silence, broken twice by jarring crackling, like the sound a firebrand might make when it was hurled into darkness. Even the best phone networks could still be defeated by tunnels and the remoter parts of the British landscape.
Joe replaced the receiver gently back into its cradle, taking care to position it precisely on his desk with the wires curved into two parallel lines, not a kink or a coil out of place. He had just refined its arrangement to his liking, when his startled elbow knocked it all off track with the sudden appearance of Miles at his office door.
“Miles,” he grunted in irritation, reaching for his Tiger Balm, thankfully still in its proper position at the other end of the table. The relief of massaging the salve into his forehead was just a momentary top-up – his stress levels were not so high at that moment that it was a necessary rescue, as it often was. That did not mean that it was any less important. In fact, he knew that if he did not refresh the balm regularly, then he would crumple later. Like certain medication, or an addiction, it needed continuous use to have the desired effect.
Miles shuffled into the room. “Sorry sir, didn’t mean to make you jump. Just had the initial report back from Llewellyn. The PMs are scheduled for this afternoon, but we’ve got enough to go on from this for now.”
Joe raised his head briefly and gestured for Miles to continue. His eyes met his sergeant’s for a second or two, just enough time to recognise the unwanted concern floating there. He scowled and looked away, rearranging the items on his desk once again. The telephone cable was refusing now to sit where Joe dictated.
Miles sat down creakily in the chair across from Joe. “Right,” he said, “Llewellyn says that Paul and Adam were most likely to have been dead before they were strung up. Their necks were broken manually, with some force, and they were hung up under the bridge once they were dead.”
Joe breathed heavily. “Yes, I know that. She said as much at the crime scene.”
“Alright smarty-pants. I’m only repeating what she’s just told me. Did she also tell you that the carvings were made ante-mortem, while they were still alive? They were pretty deep too. It must have been bloody agony for them.”
“Jesus,” whispered Joe. “But… the blood, there should have been more blood, shouldn’t there?”
“It was all washed off with disinfectant by the killer,” Miles explained. “Before and after death, Llewellyn reckons. Bastard wanted to make it as painful as possible for them before he finally put them out of their misery by snapping their necks.”
Joe grimaced, as the loathing he felt for the telephone wire mingled with the horror of what Miles had told him. “Perhaps he also wanted to make the word he carved stand out more clearly. I’ve just spoken to Ed who thinks that the carving might be a way of labelling the bodies. To reduce their identities to a single concept. He’s suggested a precedent. Might that give us a lead on motive?”
Miles blew through his lips with a thoughtful whistle. “FAG - well, there’s one obvious possibility…”
“You… you think it might be homophobia?”
Miles shrugged. “I don’t know. You were the one who suggested the word might be important. I doubt the killer was trying to advocate the benefits of cigarettes, that’s for sure.”
“Don’t be flippant, Miles.” A swell of something both sour and bitter surged through Joe. It wasn’t quite anger, but he couldn’t place the emotion either. It felt like a poisonous honey trickling down into his stomach. “I want to know if either Adam Snow or Paul Sage were gay, and if they’d ever encountered any discrimination or abuse.”
“Okay, sir, we’ll get right on it.” Miles turned to leave, but paused after a quarter-turn. “Oh and sir, if it turns out they were, try not to take it too personally, alright?”
Joe frowned. “I don’t know what you mean. Why would I?”
“No reason at all. Oh look, Kent’s turned up.” Miles gestured at the outer office, before pointing accusingly at Joe. “You can catch him up with the case.”
Joe sat stubbornly at his desk for precisely four minutes (he kept one eye on his watch as it beat obliviously round the dial in its perfect circle over and over and over and over.) He didn’t want to give Miles the satisfaction of following him straight out, so he sat and watched as Miles shouted to Emerson, “Hello sleepyhead. What time do you call this?”
He watched Emerson’s flustered response as he battled with his belongings, distributing hot drinks among the team, his face flushed and tense. He watched as Emerson replied tersely to Riley’s attempts at conversation, though his words were lost in the space between them. He watched as Emerson’s eyes slid to meet his, though not with their usual bright gladness at seeing him, then as they sloped away to his computer screen while his fingers tapped their way into the desktop. The cheerful sound of the computer’s logging in belied the hooded expression on Emerson’s face.
Joe knew what time Emerson’s alarm would have gone off, and he could make a fairly educated guess as to what time he would have gotten up and discovered the note. Emerson surely must have rushed more than was healthy to get into work an hour before the official start of the shift. He appeared to have been in such a hurry to leave the flat that he had forgotten his coat, which would now be hanging limply and empty from the hook in the hall, as Adam Snow’s body had hung from the bridge. Without that additional layer protecting him, Emerson would have been at the mercy of every bleak breeze and dreary raindrop during his ride to work. A breathy rattle, like wet muddy gravel, emerged from him as he cleared his throat, and although his arms were extended towards his desk, his shoulders were tightly bound to his body, as if to lock in warmth. Well, Emerson would have no need to go outside again for a while, Joe could make sure of that.
Eventually, Joe could watch no longer, and he rose and stepped out into the main Incident Room and towards Emerson’s desk, where he was pointedly looking away from Joe. His jaw ticked, pulsing visibly in his cheek in a beat just out of step with Joe’s gait.
“We have a case, Kent,” he said.
Emerson still didn’t look at him, scrolling instead through his small library of unread emails. “Yeah, I’d kind of gathered that much, sir. I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner, no-one told me.”
Emerson glared at Mansell, his eyes widening and chin clenching, though Joe suspected that the older DC was not the real object of Emerson’s wrath.
“Yes, well,” he faltered, unsure how to deal with his husband’s sudden coldness. His DC, he was his DC, they weren’t husbands here. “You’re here now. I want you to read the initial report from the crime scene, familiarise yourself with the details, then I need you to locate a precedent in the archives. Ed thinks the Black Dahlia case from 1947 may give us some insight.”
Emerson looked up at him then, his eyes wet with confusion. “Sir?”
“As you’ll see in the report, the two victims were found in Leman Street with carvings on their bodies. I want you to focus on finding examples of this occurring in past cases, as a guide to what it might indicate.”
“But… but, sir, surely…” Emerson stumbled over his speech. “Surely… isn’t there something more inter… more useful… I can do? What about interviewing witnesses, background on the vics’ families and friends, their work, CCTV?”
“Well someone needs to pop back to the crime scene to go over the site plan in daylight,” piped up Miles. “We need to find which direction the killer might have come from, and finish the door-to-door. Might be useful for Kent to go seeing as he didn’t get a chance to see it earlier?”
Joe swallowed down a whispery gasp of alarm at the thought of Emerson at the crime scene, alone, coatless, unprotected. His vision blurred, and an unbidden image of Emerson swinging from the bridge entered his head, conflating the man sat in front of him with one of the bodies now lying in the morgue. Bulging eyes stared at him, a thick flaccid tongue flopped in a hellish vernacular, in a horrid mimicry of the man he loved. Joe’s fingers twitched as though they were throttling and constricting around an invisible neck.
“No!” he exclaimed, more quickly and more loudly than he had intended. He breathed deeply and spoke again at a calmer level. “No, Kent. I want this to be your priority. Mansell and Riley will be focussing on backgrounds. We can get one of the uniforms to go to the crime scene.”
The apparition in front of him dissipated, like the looming night-time shadows, which turned a dressing-gown into a hovering corpse, would fade with the dawn. Even the hurt look on Emerson’s face couldn’t dampen Joe’s relief. Not even the silence broken by the aggressive thump and screech, the sound reminiscent of the oppressive clunk of a cell door locking, as Emerson elevated himself from his desk could make Joe feel anything but reassured.
“Fine, whatever you want, sir,” grumbled Emerson. “But I’m not a fucking librarian.”
Joe watched the back of Emerson’s head as he trudged out of the Incident Room, fixing on him like a beacon until he disappeared from view. In his peripheral vision, he could see Mansell and Riley looking uncertainly at him and at each other. A wave of irritation rose up from his chest and spewed out of his mouth.
“Well?” he said, spinning to face them. “You know what you have to get on with.”
As his two DCs obediently set to their tasks, Miles fixed Joe with a stern look.
“Could I have a word with you, sir?” he said. “In private.”
Joe wanted to protest, to argue that he had too much to do, but Miles had already started to advance towards Joe’s office, practically commandeering Joe with him. He actually held the door open for Joe to walk through, and indicated for the DI to sit down, as though it was Miles’ office and not Joe’s. Miles calmly clicked the door shut behind him and took his seat, clasping his hands into a pyramid in front of him, while Joe backed warily into the corner of the small room. The fingernails on Miles’ hand shone menacingly like sunrise on a battlefield.
Thirty seconds of silence, solid as a doorless wall, passed before Miles spoke. “Are you going to tell me then?”
“What?” mumbled Joe, peevishly.
“What it is that’s bothering you.”
Joe leaned forward, pressing his palms firmly downwards on the desk to launch him to his feet. “We’re in the middle of an investigation, Miles. We can chit-chat later.”
Miles raised his voice, not so that anyone outside of the office could hear, but, combined with the steel in his eyes, it left Joe in no doubt that the conversation was far from over. “Sit down, sir. Please. This is about the investigation.”
“Well?” snapped Joe, sitting sullenly.
“We’ve all seen it, sir. Don’t think we haven’t. The only one who hasn’t is Kent, and that’s only because you didn’t give him a chance to fully catch up before you sent him off.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know who Adam Snow reminds you of.” Miles’ voice had decrescendoed once again, tiptoeing around itself, needling at every crack in Joe’s raised barrier.
“I’m glad you think you can read my mind, Miles. It’ll save a lot of pointless conversations like this in the future.”
Miles sighed, a resonant huff like a wolfish attempt to blow down the wall.
“Look, I get it, I really do. You’ve both been through the mill this year. And to be faced with a case like this… I’m just trying to say that you can’t keep him wrapped up in cotton wool forever. It was fine when he was still recovering, but you can’t just shunt him off down to the archives to do Ed’s job, when he’s got his own stuff to do. We need him here doing what he’s trained for, not fannying about with decades-old books.”
“Look it’s my team, not yours, to allocate as I see fit.” Joe’s voice was the one getting louder now, louder and harsher, a rallying cry against invasion. Only whom exactly he was calling upon for defence was unclear. Miles sat firmly between Joe and the rest of the team, a whole staircase and several floors now lay between him and Emerson, assuming that Emerson had gone where Joe had ordered. Usually, it would be Miles himself sitting at Joe’s right hand, offering his unconditional support. Well, maybe not unconditional, perhaps, but not since Joe first came to Whitechapel had he felt that he and Miles were on opposite sides. Joe was alone and unaided, barricaded and trapped behind his desk.
“Yes it is,” said Miles. “But that doesn’t mean that you can’t take advice. And they are my team as well, Joe, don’t you forget it. I’m the one immediately responsible for them, for their welfare.”
“Miles! could you just…” The words burst out of Joe like gunfire, over before they had begun. He didn’t even know how he had planned to finish the sentence. Just what? Just get back to work? Back off? Stop being right?
Miles’ half smile, a soft stretch at one side of his mouth, was, Joe was sure, intended to be sympathetic. “Look, no-one was happier than I was when the two of you got together. You’re clearly made for each other and it’s done you both the world of good. Some people might have said I shouldn’t have encouraged it, a DI and one of his DCs, but I always knew you’d both keep it professional at work. But if something’s changed, if that’s no longer the case, then…”
Finally the frustration bubbling beneath the surface burst through. Who did Miles think he was, talking about Joe and Emerson as if he knew more about their relationship than they did? It was none of his business, and Joe was prepared to listen no longer.
“I’ll just leave you with that thought, then, sir,” were the last words Joe heard as he stormed out of the office.
Thanks again for reading. This fic will be alternating POVs between Joe and Emerson throughout, so we will be able to see things from both perspectives. I'd be interested in hearing what you all think about that - whose POV do you most agree with, or can you see both sides? Have I made both believable?
Next chapter will be up in about a month - early June most likely.
Sorry this is a bit delayed. It's a combination of writers' blockiness, self doubt, and general procrastination. But your comments and kudos keep me going.
As usual, please heed the warnings. In this chapter, TW for homophobic language (some quite strong), implied homophobic violence, fairly graphic description of a true crime scene (please do not google the photos of this case if you might be triggered), implied alcohol abuse, swearing.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ed’s basement archive was never going to achieve top billing in Emerson’s favourite places to spend time in Whitechapel, or even just in the station. That honour would have to go to Joe’s office, after hours, with the door locked and the blinds rolled shut. Early on in their relationship, when they had still been tentatively teasing at the boundaries between work and pleasure, the office had been their bolthole. It had given Emerson a powerful thrill each time Joe had pulled him inside by his lapels and reached around the small of his back to drive the bolt into place. Now that they had their own flat the allure of the semi-public office had diminished somewhat. Not least since Emerson had become convinced that Mansell could tell each time they spent an evening there, and whatever they actually got up to would be as sawdust next to the devices of Mansell’s imagination. Though that appeared to be in overdrive no matter where they were. Why everyone seemed to find his and Joe’s sex life so endlessly fascinating, Emerson would never understand.
He pursed his lips to swallow the tiny smile that was threatening to creep onto his face. Even such delectable memories could not quite settle the seething annoyance that still crawled around his body, giving all his movements a heavier tread, a sullen weight. Made weightier by the cloying subterranean atmosphere of the basement. The air was stuffy and still, sweet but with the stony taste of dust, like the inside of a tomb. Emerson coughed, struggling to drag in a full breath, but he met resistance halfway, as though all the dust and spores in the air had coagulated into a thick soup. A hole in the lung will do that, sometimes. He still felt it at times, the place where the bullet went in, though he couldn’t let Joe know it. In the cold, in the damp, after exercise if he didn’t warm up properly. It was one of the last things he remembered of his attack before he had lost consciousness, the tearing, the rending, as though a sharp pincer had reached into his chest and tweezed out his breath, gasp by gasp. The puncture wound had long since closed up but the shadow of it still sat there, malevolently making its presence known. Not all of his scars were visible on the surface. And the cloistered oppression of the archive certainly was not helping.
There was very little room to move about comfortably, so overgrown was it with papers and books, photographs, paintings and engravings. A forest of crime, mountains of murders. Too many murders. How did Ed manage, cooped up here day after day, with only the ghosts housed in ink and page for company? Emerson had read once that when a person died, if there were no open windows within the room where they lay, then their spirit could not escape, and their phantom was doomed to remain there, restless and trapped. There were no windows there, not a single aperture. Emerson looked uneasily about him, half expecting the dead to rise out of the shelves and stacks. He knew there was a reason why he avoided coming down to the basement as much as possible.
It had been down there where Louise Iver had crept on her baleful mission three years before. The thought caused a slight frisson of dread to shiver down Emerson’s spine. Not because he believed she was an immortal demon – he would go along with Miles on many things, but not that – but because she reminded him of a time he would rather forget. Her hissed poison at Ed’s book launch had unlocked the darkness in his own soul, and all of his fear, his jealousy and feelings of inadequacy had come bleeding out. It must be hard when no-one takes you seriously. Especially when you’ve been through so much more than they could ever imagine. He had managed to pull himself out of the mire eventually, and he knew now that Joe did take him seriously. Had always done so, in fact. Joe loved him, and respected his abilities as a police officer. Didn’t he? So why had he sent Emerson down there to do grunt work? Not even useful police work, but an exercise in bibliophilia.
Come on, stop this. That old bat’s long gone and you’ve got a job to do. You’re a professional.
He sighed deeply, gagging a little on the stale taste lodged at the back of his throat, and twisted his way over to the first set of shelves to his left. British and Irish crime. Further along was the collection on the crimes of Europe – Portuguese, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swiss, Polish. The documents spread east across the continent, as though tracking the motion of the sun in reverse. In the furthest, darkest corner, Emerson could just make out the beginnings of the Russian crime archive. Across the Atlantic Ocean of Ed’s desk were rows upon rows of records on Crimes of the Americas. At least Ed’s cataloguing was systematic, he’d give him that. Emerson plunged across the room towards the shelf marked US – California 1900-1949. He ran his fingers along the individual files. His nails strumming down the card edges made a grey muted sound, an almost aery buzzing like a small insect trapped in a jar.
Ah, there it was. His hands alighted upon a buff folder marked Short, Elizabeth: “Black Dahlia”, a grimy black and white photograph protruding from within its pockets. It was a murky image, hard to make out, but Emerson could clearly see a pair of legs, unfolded to a Y, their whiteness startling against the inky coloured ground. They were almost perfectly mirrored by the outstretched arms of a torso, raised like a crucifix. Most horrifyingly, there was at least a foot of grass between the top of the legs and the bottom of the trunk where the woman’s body had been cut in half. Emerson swiftly acquainted himself with the particulars. Skimming the case notes, he recognised many of the tropes familiar to their past investigations – the savage mutilation, the almost pornographic glorification of death, as though the killer used murder as a sick art, a hideous painting, with Beth Short’s body as his canvas. The media at the time had been little better, transforming her into lurid entertainment, rendering her only as they wanted her to be portrayed. Emerson found himself thinking back to the Ripper case, the crowds at Mitre Square. That had only garnered so much attention because of the fame and romanticism of the original Jack the Ripper. Vultures, all of them, getting in the way of their investigation solely to get their scoop. The victims were secondary characters, with much lower billing than the elusive and glamourous killer. Jack would never die, the theories and legends would keep him leaping and running and slashing forever. But the women he killed, left up to the news outlets, they would be known only by the gruesome tableaux of their murders. Their lives, the things they did, the people they cared for were only illustration. They died a second time, a more final death because they were never allowed to live.
Beth Short’s brief life could be easily summed up in a few bullet points. Nicknamed Black Dahlia, she had been an aspiring actress. She had grown up in Massachusetts without her father, only reconnecting with him in California in her late teens. She had had a fiancé who died in the war. Aged nineteen, she had been arrested for underage drinking. Aged twenty-two, she was murdered. A neat little biography, just the right size to fit on the whiteboard, or down the sidebar on a front page. But it wasn’t her, was it? She had been a person with likes and dislikes, dreams of what she would have been doing aged thirty-two, sixty-two, ninety-two. A life was so much more than a CV. It was the things that made your stomach spin, your memories, the things you left unsaid. Joys, hopes and regrets all tumbled together in one linear motion from birth to grave. And after that, the remainings, the footprint left behind. The little wrinkle in the sheet of the universe, the hollow that remembers that you were there once. Somewhere in the atmosphere still endured the air particles that Beth exhaled, feeding trees and wind, the water that she drank still continued its sempiternal cycle.
There was another photograph of her in the file – a professional-looking shot for a casting call or résumé. A string of pearls was expertly laid about her neck, grinning upwards to the matching earrings which glinted coquettishly in the studio lights. Had it been her own jewellery, or had they been garnished on her by the photographer, another façade to be cast off when it suited? Her warm eyes looked playfully off to the left, a mysterious half smile curving her lips, as though she were about to speak. In the dead quiet of the basement, Emerson felt as though if he listened hard enough he might be able to hear her, a susurration through the woodlands of paper like wind through leaves. He thought he would have liked her. He would certainly have liked to hear what she had to say. What does it feel like to die? he would ask. What is that final step like? He had come so close to it – how easy would it have been to just… finish it? But she remained voiceless, as she had done for nearly seventy years.
He had to get out of there.
He took the stairs two at a time as he ascended to ground level, not caring if it made him breathless. His eyes focused straight ahead, Orpheus-like, but with no desire to look behind him. Though he did turn to check, just once. If anything followed him, it could stay there.
He had almost completely passed the lobby before he realised someone was calling his name.
“DC Kent. Emerson!”
The silence from below remained thickly in his ears and it took a few overlong seconds to realise where the voice came from. Spinning around, his ears finally performed their role and informed him that the mezzo-soprano tone addressing him was not whispering from within the folds of the case file in his arms but shouted from the entrance desk.
“Oi, earth to Kent!”
“Sorry, Sergeant Wallace.” He shook himself, nudging back to reality. He stepped over to the desk sergeant, a middle aged woman with wavy red hair and a stern but twinkly expression. “I was miles away.”
“Yeah, I can see,” she said, her mouth curving good-humouredly. “You thinking about your hunky husband again?”
Emerson felt the familiar joyful discomfort, a heavy-footed hop in his core, that he usually experienced when a colleague teased him about Joe. Normally it was Riley or Mansell – it made a change for it to be one of the uniforms. Emerson was popular around the station, his apparently shy nature endearing him to most people. He was on friendly terms with the majority of the officers, although it was some of the women ‘of a certain age’ who took a particular shine to him. They mothered him intensely. He had never been so embarrassed as when he had overheard a circle of them talking about him: “oh, I just want to wrap him up, take him home and give him a cuddle.” It had its upsides though – he had had homemade lasagne coming out of his ears in the days following his striping.
Ironically enough, it had been the Krays case that led him to venture out in collegiality, a sort of survival instinct, particularly after what happened in the Incident Room burglary. It had taken a long time for him to be able to trust any officer outside his immediate team and although he knew, in his head, that every copper associated with Jimmy and Johnny had been dismissed, he wanted to ensure that he kept his enemies close. He wanted to be able to look each and every one of them in the eye and know that he knew their names.
Of course, he swiftly discovered that the police men and women remaining after the purge of Kray supporters were all lovely people, whom he was fortunate to befriend. Sergeant Dawn Wallace, for instance. She had known him longer than anyone. His reporting officer when he first joined the Met, she had taken an unformed, frightened twenty-two year old and moulded him into an effective police officer. His first mentor, shaping the reach of his arms, powering the speed of his legs and tempering the steel in his mind. It had been she who recommended him for detective training and who had poked and prodded him upstairs to CID. In many ways, he had her to thank for him and Joe. If not for her nudging, they might never have met, or at least never worked closely together.
“You are thinking about him, aren’t you?” she said.
“Alright, you caught me,” he sighed, laughingly. Better she thought he was mooning like a lovesick newlywed (which he was, in a way) than going mad trying to listen to the photograph of a long-dead murder victim speak.
“Ah well, I can’t blame you. He is gorgeous,” said Wallace, her right eye flashing in a wink. Her face puckered in affection as she tracked Emerson’s blush spreading across both cheeks and flushing over his ears. It was always his nose that reddened first, to his great annoyance, which had earned him the nickname ‘Rudolph’ at school. At least it had been a step up from ‘Bambi’.
“Seriously, though,” she said, “you do make a lovely couple. How is married life anyway? How long is it now?”
“Six months, just over,” replied Emerson. “Yeah, it’s great. We’re… really happy.”
That wasn’t the whole of it, and he knew Wallace could tell it wasn’t. But he wasn’t on the witness stand – he was under no obligation to tell the whole truth and nothing but, not if he didn’t want to.
Wallace shifted in her seat, her fingers ordering a strand of hair back into alignment. She clearly wanted to press him for more information but knew better than to force it. She settled for a warm smile, her lower lip flirting between her teeth.
“I’m so glad you’re happy, Kent,” she said. “Both of you. You deserve it after the year you’ve had.” Her smile faded as her teeth began more of an anxious chewing. “You know I was the first on scene when you were shot?”
Emerson looked blankly at her. That was the first he had heard of it. Neither Miles nor Joe had offered him the opportunity to study his case file, and truth be told, he did not really care to. He had no wish to see his name in the box marked Victim or to have his attack (which still occasionally replayed itself in his head in blinding reds and aphotic blacks) condensed frame by frame in forensic precision.
Wallace nodded with a grimace. “Yeah. I was the one who ID’d you. And I had to tell him and DS Miles when they arrived. You know, everyone always thought he was such a cold fish, the perfect copper. But that night… he just… broke. That’s the only word I can think of to describe it. They train us in the police how to deal with the violence and the crime scenes, well you know that, but it was like he wasn’t a policeman anymore.” She eyed him carefully. “Because it was you lying there.”
Something in Emerson’s stomach shunted in a queasy-green motion. He swallowed forcefully against the ball which had formed in his throat.
“Oh hush my mouth!” cried Wallace, reaching over to lightly cuff Emerson’s forearm. “All I’m trying to say is that you’ve got a good man there.”
“I know,” smiled Emerson, the acid in his stomach neutralising and melting. “And I’d better get this file up to him before he sends out a search party for me.”
“No, wait, hang on. There was a reason I called you over.” Wallace pointed towards a woman sitting on one of the school-type plastic chairs. Her face was a pale, almost transparent yellow. The chair squeaked rhythmically as she rocked fretfully on her seat, back and forth in a savage lullaby. She had the air of a student awaiting exam results which were almost certain to be poor. “She says she knew Adam Snow and Paul Sage. Name’s Marina Marshall.”
“Okay, thanks.” Emerson looked afresh at the young woman. She looked back at him, her eyes dull and swollen. “Could you ring up to the Incident Room and tell them where I am?”
Wallace grinned in agreement as Emerson made his way over to the waiting area.
“Ms Marshall?” he said, extending his arm in greeting.
She pushed herself jaggedly out of the chair, the shiny legs giving one last howl of protest as they scraped along the floor. “It’s Mrs. But call me Marina. Or Ree, that’s what my brother calls me. Called… calls… I don’t know.”
“Marina,” said Emerson gently. “My name’s Detective Constable Kent. Would you like to come with me?”
“Is it true?” The sobbed words vomited from her.
“Is what true?” he asked.
“Adam and Paul… are they… someone said they were… they’d been killed.”
“Why don’t we go upstairs?”
“Just… tell me… Please.”
Emerson sighed. He didn’t want to tell her in public, but she stood, obdurate, refusing to move and take her unanswered question with her.
“In the early hours of this morning, the bodies of two men were found on Leman Street. They have been identified as Adam Snow and Paul Sage.”
Marina nodded slowly, her face retreating into itself like a folded letter being sealed in an envelope. “Okay… okay…” Each word was punctuated by a hiccoughing breath, as though each inhalation sucked the information deeper into her, but whether to suppress or assimilate Emerson was not sure.
He led her slowly up the staircase to the witness rooms on the first floor, walking a little ahead of her, but careful to keep her as close to his side as possible. He sensed that rapid movements should be kept to a minimum, although there was always a certain amount of creative legwork required to navigate around the busy station. Marina had a tense fragility about her, brittle though not weak. It was more like she’d had to be strong for too long, like a rubber band stretched to capacity. At the top of the stairs, Emerson ushered her into the first available room. It was only as the door closed behind them that he realised it was the same room where Morgan Lamb had died. There, by that wall was the chair she had sat in, that was the telephone she had used, the floor she had bled out on. The carpets had been changed, evidently. He avoided using this room as much as possible – he didn’t like being reminded of her. He knew Joe thought about her occasionally, but that didn’t mean he had to. But the ghosts of Whitechapel evidently had a habit of travelling beyond the confines of the basement. Wherever there was a mind to remember, there they would be.
Emerson scowled to himself as he gestured for Marina to sit down. As she did so, he pulled up his own chair and sat facing her, a respectful distance away. He noticed she was shivering, an erratic pulse shuddering her body.
“Would you like anything to drink? Tea, coffee? It’s only from the canteen, so it’s not great, but at least it’s hot.”
A choked sodden laugh emitted from her throat. “You don’t have any vodka, do you?”
Emerson thought about the small bottle Joe kept in his desk. “I’m afraid not,” he said.
Marina released another laugh, a caged unused sound that appeared improvised and forced. As though it had forgotten what a laugh was supposed to sound like but was doing its best to impersonate one. “Never mind. I don’t drink anymore anyway.”
Emerson adjusted his notebook in his hand. “Can I ask you a few questions about your relationship with Paul and Adam? How did you know them?”
Marina sniffed. “Adam’s my brother. My little brother, but he always felt older. He looked out for me, you know? He was the one helped me kick the booze… I couldn’t have done it without him. Been dry for a year now. I was about to get my certificate from my support group – Adam was supposed to come with me. Make it a celebration.” She sucked in her lips with her breath. “Fuck, I could really do with a drink right now.”
She clenched her fists and pressed them together in front of her breast, her elbows jutting out spikily, as though in vicious prayer.
“And Paul? You knew him as well?” Emerson nudged, a vain attempt to retune her thoughts.
“Paul’s Adam’s… Oh, God, they were getting married… They’d just announced it, the other day. They had an engagement party and everything. That’s the last time I saw… You’re sure it’s them?”
Emerson squeezed his lips into a regretful smile. “Well, we might need a formal ID, but we’re pretty sure. They had their driving licences on them. I’m sorry.”
Marina nodded again, tighter this time. The third time her head bobbed towards her chest, the weight of it appearing to drag her whole torso down to her knees as she collapsed in tears. Her long dark hair flopped over the top of her head and hung in front of her legs like a shroud. It swung sporadically with each racking sob. Emerson hesitated for a few seconds, unsure whether he should comfort her, or maintain his professional veneer. Not that he had ever been much good at ‘keeping up appearances’. His mask had cracked several times before, not least the last time he had been in that room. His emotions, good and bad, had a way of rupturing through.
His compassion won. He edged his seat closer to Marina’s shaking form and carefully placed a hand between her shoulder blades. Her cardigan was soft, velvety to the touch, but as Emerson ran his hand up and down her back, the friction of fingers on material began to rub abrasively. He ceased the motion, choosing instead to maintain a low pressure on the middle of her spine.
“Oh Adam…” she gasped falteringly as she rolled herself into Emerson, grasping onto his suit jacket as though it were her only lifeline.
“It’s okay,” he whispered, “take as long as you need.”
Her nails were long, some broken, all with the gritty traces of dried blood crusted beneath. The sleeves of her cardigan had rucked up her arm to reveal torn skin, a map of puce-coloured lines and lesions engraved in her flesh, an angry ridge of crimson eruptions scaling along her wrist and hand.
Marina noticed him looking, and pulled down her sleeve hurriedly, raising herself back to a semi-upright stance, though her shoulders still hunched over, sheltering her chest.
“It’s not what it looks like,” she said. “I get quite bad eczema sometimes and I scratch too much. It’s been worse since I got sober. Replacing one unhealthy stress relief with another, I guess.” Her lips rolled into the semblance of a smile. “Maybe I should take up smoking and get the hat trick. It would give me something to do with my hands at least. I mean, I know the health risks, but if Adam and Paul can be killed, just like that, then you kind of wonder what’s the point?”
Emerson winced at the hollow timbre of her voice. “The point?”
“Yeah, why bother doing what you’re supposed to do, keep healthy, all that, when… it can all just… stop” She paused and fluttered an inward breath. “I just keep thinking about what I last said to them. I think it was ‘See you Saturday.’ I mean, what sort of a farewell is that? See you Saturday. And it was a lie as well, ‘cause I won’t see them on Saturday now will I? I can’t stand it. I don’t want that to be my final words to them. It’s just so bloody fucking meaningless. If I’d known… if only I’d known, I’d have said… oh, I don’t know what I’d have said, but it would have been something better than that.”
“And this was at their engagement party?” prompted Emerson.
“Yeah, on Tuesday evening. I left early – Adam was talking to my husband Craig, about work I think – so I just said goodbye and went.”
“And you didn’t notice anything unusual?”
She shrugged. “No, but like I said, I went early. I don’t know if anything happened later.”
“I’m sorry to ask, Marina, but can you think of any reason why anyone would have wanted to kill your brother and Paul? Did either of them have any enemies?”
“No… nothing like that. Everyone loved them. They were both so kind, they’d do anything for anyone. I told you that Adam helped me get over my addiction, and when they had their engagement party, they could have gone to a bar or a club, but they didn’t. They had it at that new alcohol-free juice bar on the Whitechapel Road, just so I could come along. That’s the sort of people they are… were… considerate, you know? Just… always looking out for others. They wanted to make a difference, help people. There was always some cause they were fighting for. Like, last month they led a boycott against a bakery that refused to make a wedding cake for two of their friends. Because, you know, they were two women. And they volunteered at food banks, collected clothes and things for refugees, stuff like that. Paul was a fucking Samaritan, for god’s sake. They were… just… good. I can’t believe they’re gone.”
“Do you have their names? The couple who didn’t get their wedding cake?”
“Oh… yeah, sure.” Marina stabbed at her phone screen, her fingers sliding aimlessly for a while, like figure skaters without a routine, before she found her contacts. Emerson copied down their names and details, noting that Marina appeared to have very few names saved in her address book.
“Well, I think that’s probably everything,” he said, enclosing his business card into her hand, along with her phone. “Please get in touch if you think of anything else that might be relevant. And take care of yourself.”
They both stood, Marina jerking to her feet like a marionette being pulled by strings from far away.
“Do you need anyone to drive you home?” asked Emerson. “I can get a squad car to take you if you like?”
“No, no thanks. I’ll be fine. Thank you.” She pointed at him. “I hope he makes you happy.”
Startled, Emerson’s eyes followed the direction of her finger and alighted upon his wedding ring, encircling his finger in its loving embrace.
“How… how do you know it’s a he?”
A small smile, which almost but did not quite reach her eyes, crept onto her face. “You remind me of Adam somehow, so I just assumed… Plus I overheard a bit of your conversation with the policewoman at reception. You’ve been married six months? Congratulations.”
Emerson laughed. “Very observant of you. Ever thought about a career as a detective?”
“With my history with drink? They’d never want me.”
“Oh I don’t know. There are more of us than you’d think who seek solace at the bottom of a bottle.”
Emerson thought, as he often did, about Joe’s reaction to the Kray case. The self-medication. He hadn’t been there, then, but Miles had told him after. How much of that had been because of him? He knew Joe still blamed himself. Emerson still, even now, was not entirely sure whether Joe had been drinking water or vodka during his apology on that night in Ed’s kitchen.
Marina’s bloodshot eyes widened. “You?”
“No, not me.” He looked down at the small patch of darkened cotton where Marina’s tears had soaked into his shirtsleeve. “I’ve got my own ways of coping.”
The Incident Room door swung shut too quickly behind Emerson as he entered. The glass bounced off his buttocks and reverberated through his scars with an unpleasant ripple. He stumbled, nearly dropping everything he was carrying, but his arms, more alert than the rest of him, contorted themselves ingeniously to rescue his things before they collided with the floor. Thankfully the rest of the team appeared not to notice his less than elegant entrance. They were all huddled around Mansell’s desk looking with a vague interest at something on his computer screen. The only one who wasn’t was Joe, who stood by the whiteboards, still and pensive. After the gloom of the basement, and the grey monotony of the interview suite, the Incident Room seemed too bright, as though it were lit by a brand-new bulb, passed over and kept in a drawer for too long, who now wanted to prove its luminosity and was over-shining. The strip lighting overhead buzzed frantically with their own radiance. It was more than just bright though, it was a hollow, unreal light that made Joe look like he had been cut out and re-pasted flatly onto the air like a picture from a magazine. Emerson almost expected to find an advertisement for a Savile Row tailor printed on his other side.
Emerson stepped over to stand by Joe who barely moved in acknowledgement of his presence. If Emerson squinted, he could perhaps imagine that Joe’s shoulders inclined ever so slightly towards him. He ached to hold Joe’s hand, for his fingers to slip themselves into the spaces between Joe’s, but something held him back. He hadn’t held him since last night and they had shifted apart in the hours between. And when both his past and his present told him that the touch of his hand was not wanted, he tended to listen. It really wasn’t the place for it, there. Not with the smiling faces of the dead looking at them. Instead, he mirrored his husband in staring at the board where the team had started to map out Paul and Adam’s backgrounds. The whiteboard itself was almost full, heaving with information. Dark lines choked the shiny white panel like tentacles, covering nearly the whole board with inky black. A jumble of different handwriting styles wriggled and writhed together – Miles’ spidery scrawl tangled with Riley’s looping characters, while Mansell’s crashed around them both. A small section had been left blank with the single word ‘PRECEDENT’ written in Joe’s efficient capitals at the top. That was the only space allocated to Emerson – seemingly all that he was going to be allowed. A tiny little box, separate and walled away from everything else.
He coughed to attract Joe’s attention. “Sir? I’ve got that file you asked for.”
Joe’s neck snapped around in surprise. At first his face was blank. No, not blank exactly. Just the opposite in fact, as if too many thoughts collided at once with none gaining priority, like the writing tumbling over the whiteboard. But with Joe, too much and too little often looked the same. Then a look of relief spread across his face like something slotting into place, refocusing. It was almost as though he hadn’t expected to see Emerson, as though he hadn’t thought he would come back. Didn’t Joe know by now that Emerson would return to him without exception and without fail? He had already, through stripe, suspension and shooting, and would continue to do so, always. As long as Joe still wanted him to.
Joe smiled at him – it was his DI smile, remote and authoritative, but Emerson fancied he saw something else in there too, just for him. Unless that was just his imagination?
“Thank you,” said Joe, his hushed voice breaking, a fissure that no-one but Emerson could hear.
“And I’ve interviewed Adam Snow’s sister. She’s pretty upset, as you’d imagine, but she might have given us a few things to go on.”
“Word’s got out then,” said Miles from behind them. “Adam and Paul’s Facebook pages have started to get memorial messages on them already.”
It pleased Emerson much more than it should that he and Joe spun on their heels at the same time and at the same rate, to face Miles and the rest of the team. It was the first thing they had done together since the previous night when they had… well, he couldn’t think about that now. But the gratification was swiftly diminished when Joe vacated his position beside him, leaving a cold space and a sinking feeling.
“God, that was quick,” Emerson muttered, directing his words towards Miles but wondering whether Joe had also caught the double-meaning.
Mansell evidently hadn’t. “Yeah well, that’s the internet for you. Can’t keep anything quiet for long. And both our vics were very active online, campaigning for all sorts of causes – lots of followers on Twitter and all of that.”
Emerson noticed Joe and Miles exchanging wary looks. Neither of them were particularly well-versed in social media and largely found it very suspect. Emerson had helped Joe set up a Facebook account a few months earlier, but all he had posted since was a message saying Good afternoon, I have joined Facebook and a solitary photograph of the two of them on their wedding day.
“Adam Snow had a blog as well,” Mansell continued. “He wrote a lot about gay rights and stuff like that. And Paul wrote a few bits about race as well. Seems to have a lot of people commenting on it.”
“Anything negative?” asked Joe. Emerson wondered whether the barely-visible tick in Joe’s jaw was reflected in his own. His teeth ground together to eviscerate the disquiet that lay on his tongue.
“A bit, yeah,” replied Mansell. “Trolls mostly, nothing that you’d get too upset about. Just crank stuff – sodomites will burn in hell, pansy faggot, paedo – that sort of thing. Nasty but I don’t think it’s anything we need to worry about.”
“Spoken like a true heterosexual,” said Emerson, his voice beginning to sharpen beyond his control, all the different things he felt uneasy about twisting into a single arrow that darted from him before he had realised it. Mansell had just happened to walk directly into his line of fire.
“Sorry, mate?” said Mansell, frowning at him.
“How the hell would you know what he might have got upset about?” Emerson peripherally noticed the shocked looks on Miles’ and Riley’s faces. He didn’t want to be shouting at Mansell. When he had opened his mouth it had not been his intention to release such a tirade. But his entire body was shaking, unable to stay still long enough to hold back the release of his tongue or the whipcrack of his lips or the raw expulsion of his throat. “You’ve just got no idea, have you? Of what it’s like to have people, strangers, hate you without even meeting you, just because of who you are, who you find attractive. To not be able to hold hands with your boyfriend in the street in case people start throwing abuse at you. For people who you thought were your friends to casually call you a ‘poof’ or… or… a ‘shirt lifter’, or they make a big thing about keeping their backs to the wall when you’re around, and then expect you to just laugh it off. To always be the butt of people’s jokes and always being a bit afraid… because you never know when what just starts as ‘banter’ might turn into something where you end up in A&E. So yeah, you might think that comments typed by some arsehole on a website can’t do any real harm, but when you know that behind every misspelled word, every hateful letter, is a person who despises your very existence, then you tell me that you wouldn’t worry about it. Jesus, Mansell, have some fucking empathy!”
For a second, Emerson took pride in his anger, the way it turned the air red and flashing, the way the adrenaline pumped thrillingly through him, the way his voice filled the room with strings of rage, gagging anyone else who tried to speak. Mansell stood shell-shocked, simply gazing at Emerson, his mouth opening and closing as if his words were too heavy to heave into the open.
“What?... I don’t… I didn’t mean… Just…”
As Emerson’s wrath gradually threaded away, Riley stepped in. “I think what Finlay meant, Emerson, was that none of the comments would be classed as death threats or incitements to violence. So they’re not much help to our investigation.”
“You do know they were going to get married? Adam and Paul?” said Emerson, breathing deeply in an attempt to regain control of himself. He was still shivering – the air had lost its glow and become icily cold, though that was probably exacerbated by the thin sheen of sweat on his forehead. The atmosphere had shifted. Goosebumps raced down Emerson’s spine as Joe strode past him, raising up a small wind with the movement of his jacket. His mouth was a harsh straight line, his eyes widened but creased with an emotion Emerson couldn’t read. The whole Incident Room rang with the slamming of Joe’s office door behind the DI, a choleric coda to Emerson’s outburst.
The rest of the day passed like a glacier – staggeringly slow, frozen and silent but for occasional crashes and rumblings as files were dropped, teacups thumped onto desks and chairs driven noisily back. Hardly any words were spoken among the team, and Emerson got the distinct impression that he was being avoided, judging by the scuttling glances towards him that darted away as he looked up. If the room was an icecap, then Emerson was locked in the centre of it, secured in compacted crystal, behind a window for all to see but through which he was not permitted to look out. Joe kept to his office, he too avoiding Emerson’s gaze. Emerson noticed Miles and Joe sharing a look at one point and he couldn’t help but wonder what Miles read there.
Towards the middle of the afternoon, the team regrouped to go over what they knew so far, which was very little more than they had known earlier. Both Adam and Paul had a lot of friends and acquaintances, many of whom praised their public-spiritedness and campaign work. Except for the bullying comments on Adam’s blog, no-one seemed to have anything bad to say about them. This didn’t seem to have put Joe off the idea that the motive for their murders was a hatred for their sexuality. In fact, Emerson’s shouted speech only appeared to have solidified that belief. Miles didn’t seem so convinced.
“The fact is, sir,” he said, “we don’t have much to go on yet, except the fact that they were a couple.”
“They were activists, though,” replied Joe, his voice leaning heavily on the first syllable of the third word, as though he were counting on it as a prop for support. “They’re sure to have made enemies, people who try to do good always do. We just haven’t found them yet. And then there’s the carvings. Kent, what does the precedent suggest about that?”
Emerson startled, not really having expected to be addressed. He had almost forgotten about Beth Short’s file sitting on his desk. As he picked it up, her photograph slid out, her cosmetic, film star eyes making her look older than she had been. Like the rest of the team, she was also refusing to look directly at Emerson, but at least she was faking a smile. He briefly talked the team through the contents of the file – the grim details of her death, the ensuing investigation, the letters BD engraved onto her body.
“Aside from the mutilation, the ligatures around the ankles and the fact that the bodies were washed and dumped, there aren’t any obvious similarities between the cases. I think this is a bit of a dead end, sir.”
“Not necessarily,” said Joe, his eyes focused somewhere above Emerson’s head. “BD presumably stands for Black Dahlia, a way of the killer labelling his victim, identifying that he knew who she was. If Adam and Paul were also labelled in the same way, then it lends more weight to the theory that their murders were motivated by homophobia. Put it on the board.”
As though marking his territory, Emerson hurriedly filled in the small area of the whiteboard that still remained blank. He felt nauseatingly keen, over-eager, like the star pupil trying to impress the teacher, gratified for just that tiny bit of space. It was a feeling that made his heart both swell with pride and shrivel in shame. The black marker pen felt thick and unmanageable in his hand. It was too big for him – he couldn’t curl it tightly into the core of his hand, as he could with a normal pen. It sat on the margin of his fingers as if it were just waiting to reject him. He didn’t like the way it made his handwriting look, either, blocky and childish, his cursive far less polished than it should be. It forced him to use his whole arm to write, waving his elbow like a grounded bird with every stroke, rather than a subtle hidden twitch of index, middle finger and thumb. It had never quite been the same since they had replaced the old blackboard. He could see the benefits, of course. There was less dust, and you needed less force to make the writing visible. A whiteboard was Joe all over – wipe clean, shiny, the pens that needed just that little bit of special care to remain fresh. But still, Emerson missed the chalk.
He did not stick Beth Short’s photograph on the board – he kept her safely in his breast pocket. He could not really say why.
As the team dispersed, he noticed Mansell hovering close by, just close enough that Emerson felt uneasy, but sufficiently far away that he knew Mansell wasn’t actually trying to make him uncomfortable. That this was, in fact, Mansell’s attempt at being discreet. Any discomfort, the vigilance that clawed the back of his neck, all came from Emerson. He felt a wrench of remorse for how he had spoken to Mansell earlier. Not that he hadn’t meant what he had said, or that it wasn’t true, but that once again Mansell had borne the brunt of a resentment that did not truly belong to him. Mansell had taken the wounding in Joe’s stead, which was all the wrong way round. It should have been Emerson standing in front of Joe, ready to take the hit – instead it had been Emerson who had thrown the weapon. He had just needed to cause damage wherever, however, he could, and Mansell had conveniently provided him with an appropriate target.
The irony was that, after Miles, Mansell had been the first to show his support of Joe and Emerson’s relationship, in his own blunt and basic way. It had been a month after they had told Miles that they had decided to come out to the rest of them. Joe had gone on so much about the team needing to be open and honest with each other that to keep such a big development from them had seemed hypocritical and duplicitous. But grand announcements just weren’t their way. Emerson had envied the natural manner in which Miles had broadcast Judy’s pregnancy with Martha, but he had known that Joe would rather rip off his own arms than declare something so personal so publicly. Over the next few days, Joe had spun himself into a panic – so much so that Emerson had almost begun to think that tearing his limbs off would have been the better scenario. Emerson had never thought of a flannel as a lethal weapon before. Miles had warned him about that, but it was still a shock to see it up close, cloth violently weeping foam against skin.
In the end, Emerson had seized the initiative, deliberately and very obviously grabbing hold of Joe’s faintly chapped hand as they left at the end of the day. Their fingers had fitted together like cogs in a well-oiled engine, with only the tiniest stalling judder as Joe had jolted in surprise before easing into the embrace. Emerson could visibly see the mechanisms of Mansell’s brain turning as the minute intimacy had been displayed before his eyes. His usual drowsy smirk of farewell had modulated in comically slow motion as his eyebrows and lower jaw appeared to bid each other adieu before travelling in opposite directions. The next morning had greeted Emerson with Mansell’s fraternal grin, and a soft but insistent nudge that suggested more than just a question.
“So. You and the Boss, then? Good on ya. Does he keep his tie on in bed?”
Emerson had whacked him resoundingly on the shoulder with some witness statements, Mansell had ruffled Emerson’s hair, and that had been that.
“Er… Kent? Do you mind if I take a pew for a second?”
Emerson raised his head to see Mansell standing hesitantly at his shoulder. His face was directed towards the floor, although his eyes were looking sidelong towards Emerson, creating a triangle between his two lines of vision. Emerson shrugged, and kicked out the spare chair with his left leg. It was as much of an invitation as he could manage at that moment. The chair rocked grudgingly on its hind legs before settling firmly on the floor with a bang.
“Look… ah…” began Mansell, his hand weaving towards Emerson’s shoulder as he sat down, but he pulled it back at the last minute. He evidently doubted Emerson’s ability to bear his weight, but whether he put it down to animosity or fragility, Emerson couldn’t tell. God, if even Mansell was being cagy around him, something had definitely gone wrong. He tried to force a smile, though the heaviness in his chest pulled it southwards into a lopsided grimace.
“Mate, I…” Mansell started afresh. “I’m… Erica’s right – I can be a bit of a twat sometimes. I didn’t think, I’m sorry.”
Emerson felt something crack. His face crumpled along well-trodden furrows, the fault lines he both hated and prized when he looked in the mirror. He hated them because he could read his life in them, like a biography engraved on his skin, reminding him of all the times he had been frightened, or angry, or uncertain. That one was from that night at university, that one was from the Krays, that one from Joe. He couldn’t see the scars on his rear, not without contorting into an unnatural pose. Yet there they were, retold, in the corners of his eyes, wriggling along his forehead and rippling out from his mouth. But he valued them for the same reason, because at least they proved that he was alive. And when Joe held him close and kissed each one in turn, Emerson almost thought he could learn to love his wrinkles.
He looked at Mansell, whose face was teetering on the edge of a question. But for once, the question wasn’t about how much scarlet he could paint on Emerson’s cheeks today, or how many jokes could he make at Emerson’s expense, but something on the verge of ‘are you okay?’ or ‘can I help?’
Emerson’s smile lifted, just a little. “You’re alright. It’s just been a bad day. Must have got up on the wrong side of bed or something.” (Or rather, the entire other side of the bed had suddenly disappeared overnight.) “Those trolls on that blog, it was just the last straw, I guess. Reminded me of stuff I’d rather forget.”
“Everything alright with you and the Boss? I’m not trying to be nosy, it’s just you both seem a bit crabby today.”
“Yeah, no, I don’t know,” said Emerson, his head dropping. “Yeah, we’re fine, I think. He’s… he’s just been a bit weird the last couple of days and I don’t know why. I think… maybe it’s me. He’s fed up with looking after me for so long or… I dunno.”
The words dropped out of Emerson’s mouth like the effluent discharge from an unused tap. Somehow Mansell, of all people, had twisted Kent in just the right way to release what had built up inside.
“Oh give over!” Mansell’s voice rose several decibels in indignation then suddenly hushed away as Joe looked up briefly from his desk, distracted by the sound. Despite the situation, Emerson wanted to laugh at Mansell acting outraged on his behalf. A nervous giggle skipped at the base of his throat, refusing to be swallowed away.
“He can’t be fed up with you. You’re a catch,” Mansell whispered
Emerson’s eyes swivelled dramatically, straining painfully at the corners. “Yeah right.”
“No, I mean it,” said the older DC. “If you’re half as good as your sister is… No, I didn’t mean like that, you dirty sod!”
Emerson had winced and rubbed at his nose roughly, as if a genie would pop out and erase the mental images that, he thought, Mansell had deliberately fashioned. On realising that his thoughts had released themselves well ahead of the conversation, and that his colleague was being, for once, perfectly innocent, he bit his finger with a chewed-off ‘sorry’ and looked back at Mansell through shamefaced eyes.
“God, can’t take you anywhere,” chuckled Mansell. “And they say I’m the smutty one. No, all I meant was that I know how lucky I am to have Erica, and the Boss is lucky to have you. And he knows it, for sure. You can count on that with all your fingers and toes.”
Emerson smiled, properly this time. “You love her, don’t you? Erica. I’m sorry I was a dick when you first got together.”
“Ah well,” said Mansell, wagging his head from side to side, “I probably wouldn’t have let my sister date me either, to be honest. Not that I have a sister, but, you know.”
Mansell leaned on Emerson’s shoulder as he pulled himself to a standing position. “Hey, if you ever want to just go for a pint and a game of darts, just say the word. We’ll have a lads’ night out, leave the missus at home. Yours and mine.”
“Actually, I may need your help with something. I want to take Erica to see a show in the West End, but I’ve not got the foggiest idea what’s worth seeing.”
“And you think I’d know because…?”
“Well, you know…” Mansell shrugged good-naturedly.
“Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I like musical theatre.” Emerson feigned exasperation, but his bubbling laughter was still waiting for its chance to appear, and he couldn’t force an anger that just wasn’t there anymore.
“C’mon, everyone loves a bit of Lez Miz don’t they?”
“I really wouldn’t have a clue, Finlay.”
“Fine then, I’ll ask Riley. She looks like she’d know her way round a chorus line.” A familiar glinting wink flashed momentarily on Mansell’s face. “We alright then?”
Emerson had never before truly appreciated how good an ally Mansell was. Or well, he had really, only somewhere deep down, somewhere hidden where he hadn’t had to think about it. It had just been easier, to cast Mansell as the adversary, bullish and inconsiderate, so that he didn’t have to deal with his own anger and guilt. That was what he did, or at least what he always used to do. Succumbed to hate when he couldn’t work out what he really felt. He had even thought that he hated Joe at one point, just for a little while. The problem was, Emerson couldn’t always tell his emotions apart, discern one from the other. He felt everything so strongly, every feeling on the spectrum sat in his gut, bellowing for precedence. Misery was so close to joy, guilt linked arms with vindication. They bled into one another until he was drowning in a sentimental soup. They all felt, physically, so similar, the same twisting ache, the same dead-alive shifting in the gut. It was like his coma, where death and living had held hands so tightly that Emerson hadn’t been able to distinguish them. There wasn’t a roadmap for emotions, that plotted empirically where in your heart lay sadness, where love, which valve controlled happiness, in which ventricle sat hate. Though would it really have done much good if there were? Emerson had never been much good at biology. He recalled learning in school about how the taste buds on your tongue were separated into clearly labelled segments. A perfect atlas for your palate. But he found that when he ate, there was no obvious delineation that he could make out – all the flavours combined into one, the sweet all mixed in with the bitter. Toby Shawcross, in sixth form, had proven that to him, behind the bike sheds. It had been the first time another person’s tongue had slid against his, a new kind of biology. He had tasted like cigarettes and crisps and chocolate Freddos, and all of them at once. It had all fallen apart in a couple of weeks, of course, and Emerson had gone back to being confused and alone. His happiness at their encounter had been tainted by his humiliation, and he could never afterwards walk past that place without feeling a muddled sickness. He could have done then with a friend like Mansell, he realised – someone who maybe could have stopped him from taking everything so seriously.
“Yeah, we’re fine Fin,” he said. “Maybe we can downgrade you from a twat to a prat.”
“Cheers,” Mansell spluttered. “Oh, and tomorrow night, when you come to ours. Will a bit of the old Mansell curry do you?”
“Yeah, just don’t have anything you need fingers for. If Joe can’t eat it with a knife and fork, he won’t eat it at all. And don’t even try and pretend you know how to use chopsticks.”
Mansell tousled Emerson’s hair affectionately. “Don’t worry, I won’t. I remember his face at that teppanyaki place. You can trust me.”
Emerson smiled to himself as Mansell wheeled away back to his own desk. “Yeah, I think I can.”
Emerson swore under his breath, a choked curse that half stuck in his nose with only the consonants striking the dashboard. The stupid car had stalled again, this time at a busy intersection with a luminous, impatient stream of traffic building up behind him. Emerson had never completely got used to operating Joe’s car. The biting point on the clutch was too high for him, so every time he had to move off in first gear felt like a dangerous balancing act. One false move and everything would wobble and spasm, one slip of his foot and it would all be over. Added to that, Joe’s legs were so much longer than his, so he had had to drag the driver’s seat several inches forward so that he could reach the pedals, resulting in him sitting uncomfortably close to the windscreen. Every ramp or bump in the road threatened to strike a reminder onto his forehead. It was so very much Joe’s car, every cog assembled for his needs, his idiosyncrasies, that Emerson constantly felt like an imposter, a child playing at being a grown-up. It didn’t help that Emerson had managed to avoid driving any car for several months. He had only taken his driving test at all because the Met wouldn’t have accepted him without a full licence. He didn’t really trust cars – they seemed go out of their way to be unhelpful, blocking his vision with inconveniently placed doorframes so that he always felt too far away from the road. Somehow he felt more exposed in a motorcar than he did on his Vespa. In a car, he could see less of his surroundings, yet be seen more. Anyone who passed could snatch a glimpse of Emerson sat foolishly at the wheel. He knew perfectly well from the short stint he did in Traffic that doors and windows were no concealment. Yet, on his Vespa, his head shielded by his helmet, no-one could see his face. And befriended by the wind and rain, he was at one with the road rather than just its client. He had never yet been hurt while on his Vespa, never mind how Joe might worry – he had only been injured when he had gotten off. Maybe that had been why leaving it at the station that evening had felt like he was abandoning an old, loyal friend. As the car had made its ungainly lurch out of the carpark, the beam of the headlights had struck the body of his deserted scooter, which had glowed back in a forlorn farewell.
The car behind them honked aggressively as Emerson fumbled to re-start the engine. That was the other thing he hated about driving, other drivers. Everyone always seemed to be in such a rush all the time, shut up in their little tin coffins, growling up behind him while he was still trying to move out of a dead stop. The driver behind nudged ever closer, the revving engine biting noisily at his tail. Oddly enough, the sound made him feel more at ease rather than less. At least he could see this person trying to intimidate him, he could watch his gesticulations, read the laughably grim fix in his jaw. It was when he didn’t notice them coming that he was in trouble.
Finally, the engine ticked and sputtered back to life, just as the green light of the traffic beacon flicked over to orange and then promptly to red. Emerson managed to drag the car across the junction within the allowable margin, Mr Tailgate following perilously close behind. Emerson was half tempted to note the number plate and report the driver for dangerous driving, but he wasn’t sure if he could be bothered with all the paperwork. To be honest, as long as Joe wasn’t awoken by the chorus of car horns shrieking behind them, Emerson wasn’t too troubled. As he turned off the main street, Emerson chanced a look at Joe, reclined in the passenger seat, eyes closed, his chest rising and falling as evenly as it ever could. His legs stretched out in front of him, his suit trousers runched up just enough so as to reveal a tiny window of bare flesh at each ankle. Joe had fallen asleep almost as soon as he had sagged into the car seat and clumsily folded himself underneath the seatbelt.
“Em?” he had mumbled into his chest as his eyes fell shut, the syllable taking up residence in the inviting crinkles in his shirt.
Emerson was left to wonder what Joe had wanted to ask him, or tell him. Maybe his name itself had been enough to tip Joe over the boundary into slumber, in the same way that Emerson often fell asleep with Joe’s name on his lips, the J shushing through his teeth like a lullaby, the O modulating, evening out and joining his breathing. But that didn’t make sense. Joe never napped. He never relaxed enough to glide out of awareness in a place not designed for sleep. Like Argus, at no time did his whole body repose at once. Not when subdued by alcohol, not at the end of a thirty-six hour shift. It just did not happen. Something – an eye, a limb, an ear – was always vigilant. Even at the start of their honeymoon, during the eleven hour flight to Tokyo, where the seats reclined in invitation and the film choices were disappointing, Joe had remained fully alert throughout. Somewhere over Turkmenistan (he knew it was Turkmenistan because Joe’s television screen had been fixed on the live route map, which Joe was following with intense concentration) Emerson had awoken to find his head buried into Joe’s side, the painful crick in his neck eased somewhat by the warm press of Joe’s fingers ironing through his hair. As he had unfurled himself like a badly folded sheet, Emerson found that he had been almost fully rearranged by sleep. His jumper had slid up around his neck in a choking clinch, his t-shirt had stretched itself free from beneath his belt leaving part of his back exposed and draughty, and his wrist, probably his face too, bore the imprint of Joe’s corduroy trousers. Emerson had dozed as though in a whirlpool, pulled down messily and thoroughly and completely. But Joe had barely loosened his shirt collar and appeared as fresh and aware as he had when they had boarded the plane, although the corners of his eyes had betrayed a vague travel fatigue. The only part of him that was out of place was the space on his thigh that had been given over as Emerson’s erstwhile pillow, which was indented slightly to the shape of Emerson’s head. Joe had been happy then, blissful even, after their wedding. He had not even seemed fazed when Emerson carefully plucked away one of his hairs that had clung to Joe’s clothes, or when he had shamefacedly dabbed away a patch of saliva he had left on Joe’s lap. He had just laughed and pulled Emerson closer to him allowing their breathing to synchronise peacefully. But still he had not slept.
Emerson couldn’t think what was different about this evening, this car journey, that had allowed Joe to ease so effortlessly and trustingly into sleep. His right hand lay on his knee, open and facing upwards, the joints in his fingers loose and slackened. If Emerson hadn’t been driving, he would have placed his own hand within Joe’s unguarded palm and traced his thumb along the heart line. His auntie had tried to teach him palmistry once, but he hadn’t taken it seriously and could remember very little of what she had told him. Apparently he had a double life line, whatever that meant. He did remember that she had said, ‘Forget the eyes, the hands are the true window into another’s soul. You hold a person’s hand in your own and you hold all of their history and everything they do. Think about it, you work with your hands, you eat and you drink with your hands, you fight with your hands and you love with your hands. To trust someone so much that you allow your hand to be taken in theirs is one of the most dangerous and wonderful things you can do, because you never quite know where they will take you.’
Emerson knew what she meant, up to a point. You expected to make eye contact with people, maybe not the deep penetrating contact so romanticised in films, but it would be strange if people went around avoiding each other’s gaze. Whereas hand contact was something much more intimate. And you could tell so much about a person from the roundels of their fingernails, or the callouses on their knuckles. Emerson wondered what he would have deciphered in Joe’s hand if he had known how to study those creases in his palms, the echoes of the unique way his fists were formed. Had he been able to, he would have read them like a book, memorising their grammar and syntax, greedily absorbing every inch. But he didn’t have the means to do that, and it was all rubbish anyway, wasn’t it? Besides, he needed to concentrate on manoeuvring the gear stick and on rolling as gently as possible across the sleeping policeman straddling the road. Even with his great care, his angle was off and the vehicle bumped over the speed ramp, not one of its four wheels rising at the same time. It jolted as though the engine was about to stall again. The sleeping policeman in the passenger seat grunted fitfully and snapped his hand shut. Emerson winced with a hollow laugh. Joe’s relaxation certainly couldn’t be due to any misplaced faith in Emerson’s driving capabilities.
Maybe it was simpler than that. Maybe Joe was just tired – a normal, human reaction to a long day. It still wasn’t usual, when it came to Joe, but even he had to be mortal sometimes. Skip had noticed, had practically forced him to take Joe home that evening.
“I don’t care what you do to him, just take him home and look after him,” Miles had said, taking Emerson aside an hour before the usual end of shift. “He’s been jumpy about something all day, and he won’t talk to me about it. He’s not himself, he’s making odd decisions. He even wanted to make you the Family Liaison Officer, but I think I talked him out of that one.”
Emerson had bitten his lip. “I can’t go yet, Sarge,” he had said, looking at his desk. “I missed the call-out. I need to stay and catch up.”
“There’s nothing you can do now that you can’t leave till tomorrow,” said Miles. “And His Nibs has been on duty for over twelve hours and he needs to go and rest. He won’t do that while you’re still here, you know that.”
“It’s fine, kid. I know it wasn’t your fault you weren’t here this morning. Go on, now. Take care of your husband. That’s an order.”
Something about the imperative command had briefly given Emerson the confidence to lead Joe out of his office like a puppy on a string, and to arrange his outdoor coat about his shoulders while Joe passively placed his arms where Emerson directed. And it had been surprisingly easy to persuade Joe to let him drive, the carillon-like jingle of Joe’s keys in his hand sounding almost like a submission. A sacrifice of some sort, perhaps demonstrating Joe’s full faith in Emerson to get him back safely. But no, on any ordinary occasion Joe would not trust Emerson with his car, with good reason. He had surely just been too tired to argue.
At long last the gates to their building’s private car park were in front of him, swinging gently, pneumatically, back to admit them. Emerson was grateful for the fob on Joe’s keychain that alerted the gates to their presence, vouching for them as people cleared to enter, that they belonged there. In his hurry to leave the flat that morning, Emerson had forgotten his own fob, his passport to the building, so if he hadn’t returned with Joe, he would have had to present himself at the public entrance and prayed that the porter recognised him. Once, long before he had moved in, he had visited Joe unannounced only to find a new security guard on duty. The guard, with an apparently malicious pleasure, had probed him with a series of personal questions regarding the nature of his visit and his exact relationship to Detective Inspector Chandler. Eventually, Joe had been forced to come downstairs to act as Emerson’s guarantor before he had been allowed past the lobby. As the lift doors had shuddered shut behind them with reluctant acceptance, Emerson could have sworn that he saw an unpleasant smirk sprouting on the porter’s face. He had held off from touching Joe in any way until they were securely inside the flat, and even then he hadn’t been quite sure if he was allowed.
As he neatly slotted the car into its space and the engine waited for his request before cutting out, Emerson felt a mild sense of achievement that he had safely negotiated them both home without waking Joe. Unfortunately, that was where his self-satisfaction ended, realising that he would have to rouse Joe out of his sleep in order to get them both inside. He wished there was some way he could transport Joe where he needed to be without bothering him. Just to prove that he was capable of doing some things on his own.
He took one last look at his husband’s slumbering form, pale as a high mountain and almost as insurmountable.
“Joe?” His voice tripped like a falling pebble down the contours of Joe’s sleeping face, skating along his cheekbones and teetering, then plunging, over the edge of his nose.
Joe’s voice rumbled in the back of his throat, like a distant echo, but he didn’t move except to roll his head down and around his chest, as though he were circling in on the coordinates of his dreams. Emerson reached over to unlock Joe’s seatbelt. The polite, aristocratic snick of the catch was at odds with the way the plastic strap smeared itself across Joe’s chest, getting caught gracelessly under his armpit.
“Joe?” Emerson said again. “We’re home. I’d carry you in if I could, but you’re just too bloody tall.”
Joe’s inarticulate reply was buried by the click of the driver’s door opening.
“Sorry, Joe, I didn’t quite catch that.”
Joe huffed through his nose, and his eyelids flickered as he wriggled back into consciousness. “Mmm… maybe you’re too little.”
Thanks again for all your support. Next chapter will be up sometime in July. Hopefully in the first half of the month but it may depend on... things.
I am truly sorry it's taken so long to get this chapter up. I went on holiday and I'd hoped to get it up before I went, but work and packing and stuff got in the way, and then we had a 50+ hour delay coming back... Hey, it's still July right?
Plus, I've been really slow at writing this month. It's sods' law - you finally get your mental health under some semblance of control, and writing becomes ten times harder. Anyway, here is chapter four :)
In this chapter particularly, please PLEASE heed the warnings. This section explores Joe's OCD in a lot more depth, and there is a short section that is technically non-con, although it's in a dream so it doesn't actually happen as such - but it is described in a fair amount of detail. There is also reference to homophobic assault.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Em? Can I ask you something?”
Emerson had very nearly finished the washing up after dinner. There were only two things left to rinse, and stack in the dishwasher according to Joe’s precise system, which Emerson had never quite figured out. He was happy to leave Joe to sort the crockery, the pans, the cutlery into their perfect regiments, arranging them as methodically as an artist might lay out their tools, or a serial killer might pose a body. Emerson did the dirtier job of soaking, scouring and sluicing away the detritus of their meal, his fingertips creping in the greying water. That was how they had always done it, ever since they had made a habit of eating together. It was nice, in a way, the two of them in a homage to domesticity. Joe was even wearing the novelty apron Miles had bought him last Christmas.
“Sure, ask away,” Emerson replied.
Joe flexed his fingers as he stood up from rearranging the knives in the cutlery rack, ensuring they were all assembled pointing downwards. “Those things you said before. At work. When you were shouting at Mansell. Why have you never told me?”
Emerson swallowed his lips in a wince as his hand was pricked by a forgotten fork hidden in the far reaches of the murky sink.
“Would it have made any difference if I had?”
He handed Joe the final two bowls that were still bobbing blithely on the surface of the water. Joe slotted them both firmly into the dishwasher, shoving a little too hard so that the machine jangled slightly with its contents. The bowls sat one behind the other. From a certain angle, the back dish could have been cradling its partner, its curved edges spooning around the other protectively. But from where Emerson was standing, it looked more as though the front bowl was trapped in place, prevented from moving even if it had wanted to. A sharp prong of the rack thrust upwards into the guts of the bowl, like a blade impaling its stomach.
“No, no of course not,” said Joe, easing the dishwasher door shut with a soft snap, reminiscent of the safety catch being taken off a firearm. “I... I just don’t understand why you never mentioned it before, that’s all.”
Emerson pulled out the plug and watched the scummy water swirling down through the strainer. As the water lowered, raggedy lumps of food appeared through its greasy skin – translucent slithers of onion, tumorous biopsies of tomatoes, gobbets of sauce made stretched and tissuey by their submersion. He bent over the sink, all elbows and shoulders, to hide the repellent slurry from Joe’s eyes while he scraped it up into a cloth.
“I didn’t actively not tell you – it never really came up, I suppose,” he said. “It’s not the sort of thing I could just say casually is it? Do you want a cup of tea, love? Oh, and by the way, when I was eighteen I was called a dirty queer by a gang of older students when I was coming out of a gay bar, and for a moment I thought they were going to glass me.” He shrugged roughly. “Maybe part of me didn’t want to scare you off.”
“Scare me off? What?... No, nothing could scare me off you, Emerson.” Joe spoke fervently, but he couldn’t seem to suppress a faint shudder of repulsion as Emerson opened the waste bin and threw the oily, sodden and stained kitchen roll into its depths. A nasty little voice inside Emerson’s head whispered I wouldn’t count on that if I were you, but it disappeared as the bin enclosed itself inside the under-sink cupboard and vanished from view.
“I don’t mean me, exactly. I mean this… us…” Emerson gestured around the kitchen, trying to encapsulate their whole lives within the broad sweep of his arms. “The reality of being in a relationship with me. There are still plenty of people out there who think that we’re… what we do… what we are… is wrong. Maybe subconsciously I was worried you wouldn’t want to take that on. Or at least, that you wouldn’t appreciate the reminder.”
“So you were hurting and you kept it from me? Again?”
“Joe, it was nearly half my lifetime ago. I was a different person back then. It’s not important now.”
“It’s important if it’s affecting the way you conduct yourself during an investigation.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Emerson’s voice rose sharply, and he wasn’t sure that it was entirely due to needing to speak over the sound of the tap swilling around the sink as it washed away the slimy residue. “I thought I was speaking to my husband, not my boss. My mistake.”
The tap handle thumped in Emerson’s hand and the flow of water dribbled to a stop with two final petulant drips. Emerson backed out of the kitchen, not quite trusting himself to look at Joe.
“Sometimes I’m both, Emerson,” the older man called after him.
The sofa in the living room was not as accommodating as Emerson had hoped it would be. It groaned venerably but reluctantly at his weight as he sat down, making him feel a little as though he were being judged. He couldn’t get comfortable. It was Joe’s sofa, and had been a fixture at the flat much longer than Emerson had been, adopting him when he had moved in. His own battered couch had been left at his old flat for his former housemates to continue using, which they had done for a few months until it had finally fallen apart and been replaced by something fancy in suede, or so Ailsa had told him. There was nothing left of him there now – all of his things moved out, his room occupied by a new housemate, someone whom Emerson had never even met. But that was how it was meant to be, wasn’t it? When he had moved in with and married Joe, when they had combined their two lives into one, Emerson had been glad to leave behind what had gone before. Ailsa and Rich were his last living links to who he had been at university, or at least one half of who he had been then. The respectable half, the half with clean, gelled-back hair, vergers’ processions and Ave Marias. The half that he hadn’t already abandoned more than a decade ago. And while they were still important to him, he couldn’t imagine not being in contact with them, they also represented an Emerson before Joe. An Emerson without Joe. And to imagine that, a life without Joe in it, was unthinkable. This, here, on this belligerent sofa was the life he had chosen. This was what he wanted. So why did it feel sometimes as though it didn’t want him?
Emerson’s legs wrestled with the feather-filled bolsters on the arms of the sofa, struggling to find a secure position to sit in. How ridiculous to feel intimidated by a piece of furniture. A sofa was usually built for comfort, and shouldn’t there be something comforting in the thought that it was older than them, not in the age of their bodies, but in the length of their relationship? This cushiony seat had pre-existed them both. It had watched them grow, develop and join together. It had been witness to their joys, their arguments, their passions. Yes, it may have initially been Joe’s own – he may have been the one to choose it, long before they were anything more than a wish. But surely after over a year of living there, of co-owning the flat, Emerson had some sort of right to it, didn’t he? An element of ownership? According to the deeds, he and Joe together owned the flat. But could one ever, truly, own anything? What about bad luck, illness, death? When Emerson thought about it, which was a lot more often than he would have liked, he referred to it as his coma. Because, well, it wasn’t anyone else’s, was it? They were his injuries, his scars, his nightmares. His past. They were all part of him, indivisible from his skin and his thoughts. They formed him, as a potter moulds clay, imperfections and neuroses all. They were his inasmuch as his self was his. But he did not possess them, still less control them. That they belonged to him didn’t make them any less unpredictable. Ownership, belonging, was more than legalities and bank accounts. Emerson was not Joe’s just because a piece of paper said so. This flat was not his home simply because his signature was on the deeds.
His eyes didn’t raise, though the surface of his skin did, as he heard Joe approaching, shuffling tentatively. Joe was heavy-footed in a way unusual to him, as though he were worn down by some weight trying to pull him through the floor. Or maybe he was just trying to warn Emerson wordlessly of his imminent arrival in the room. The seat wheezed as Joe lowered himself into it, upright and anxious, sitting on the edge of it like a man appointed to guide a lifeboat to safety without coordinates or directions, or any real knowledge of how to steer the thing.
He twisted with awkward grace to look at Emerson, who was wedged at the far end of the sofa. When Joe had bought the couch, Emerson felt sure he would have measured its dimensions exactly and would know precisely how many feet or inches they sat apart from each other. Emerson had no head for distances, but it felt like a mile. Joe’s feet, still in their shoes, were square, flat on the floor with military precision. Emerson frowned as he realised that his own were in odd socks, and Joe was sure to have noticed. He could try and blame Joe, for making him need to rush that morning so that he didn’t take the time to check he had a pair, but he was a policeman, and a grown man – he should have been prepared with paired socks ready. Maybe that wasn’t quite what Joe had meant, all those years ago, when he had badgered the team into remaining sharp and ready for action, but it was near enough. Emerson tucked his mismatched feet, one a tranquil blue the other an irritable yellowy-green, underneath him and waited for Joe to speak. He hoped Joe would speak first.
Please, Joe, say something.
Joe was staring at his knees, as though maybe he expected there to be a map drawn on them to guide them. Eventually he drew in a deep stroke of breath.
“I’m sorry, Emerson, I have to ask,” he said in a rush. “I can’t not.”
Joe’s eyes met Emerson’s then, a harried look of almost desperation coursing through them. “Was anyone ever violent to you? Back then? Physically, I mean.”
“Oh.” Emerson wasn’t sure what question he had expected, but he was surprised that he was so surprised. “Um, well, yeah, once or twice. It was more threats than anything else, but there were a couple of incidences. A few shoves in the street, couple of black eyes, that sort of thing. Broken wrist once. I’ve had worse since,” he finished, speaking at a darker pitch than he had intended to.
A strangled, drowning sound keened from Joe’s throat, high-pitched and breathless. “And that was all because…?”
“’Cos I was out with a bloke, yeah. It happens a lot. It’s shit but unfortunately not uncommon. I mean, you must know the stats?”
Emerson repressed a wince as he heard his own voice, how flat it was, how matter-of-fact. Joe had evidently noticed as well, judging by the way his fingers flickered erratically through his hair, appearing to push his head into a curt nod, before groping in his pockets for his Tiger Balm. Emerson cursed his choice of words. They had enough of statistics at work – crime levels, successful prosecution strike rates, the ratio of overtime expenditure to their clean-up rate, even the rate at which they got through the bloody biscuits was calculated and budgeted and could be used against them. They all knew that everything, everyone, could be reduced to a number, and both Joe’s and Emerson’s names had been used as examples to illustrate too many statistical analyses already.
He got up the courage to edge himself slightly nearer to Joe, losing his balance halfway across so that the push of his legs combined with the divide of the sofa seat served to tip him, tumbling clumsily, humanly, into Joe’s arms. The shock of his sudden movement fixed his breath in that nowhere place between lungs, throat and mouth until he felt the strength of Joe clinging on, shocking the air through his lips. The cushions, softer and more forgiving than the frame upon which they sat, moulded themselves around them.
“I didn’t know… I didn’t know,” Joe choked into Emerson’s neck, his wet sporadic gulps spilling down his shoulder.
Emerson swallowed, his own breathing regularising as Joe’s became more unstable. “I didn’t know it would upset you this much. I promise I didn’t keep it from you deliberately – I’m sorry, I just don’t like thinking about it.”
“I’m sorry. I just don’t… I can’t… I love you so much, you do know that, don’t you?”
Although Emerson was not quite sure he knew what Joe was trying to say, there was something reassuring in their repetition, the way they were mirroring the beginning of each other’s sentences. And there was room for one more, another ‘I love you’, one final echo nodded and buried into Joe’s collarbone, where it hung for a moment in near disbelief.
The silence gathered around them like a blanket, one of those foil-lined insulating sheets they would see paramedics drape around their witnesses when they were in shock. There was an enveloping weight to the air, but accompanied by a tinny metallic edge that prickled as Emerson breathed. He tucked the small of his back closer to Joe. The movement created an involuntary unbalancing of the top of his torso from the lower part so that he was forced to grapple with the string of Joe’s apron to right himself. The metal in the atmosphere seemed to flood his mouth and stab the edge of his tongue. A scent of iron pervaded. With a hiss, the blades of his teeth retreated, but the damage was done. A second attempt to lay his lips onto Joe’s breast felt out of alignment – his bitten tongue obliterated the kisses that had gone before, cancelling them out.
“Why didn’t you wake me up this morning?” he lisped, the softer consonants fat and bulbous on his tongue.
Joe’s shoulders stiffened. “I… you were asleep…” he replied.
“Well, yes… I do tend to be asleep before I wake up. That’s kind of how it works.” Emerson leaned back to take in Joe’s face. It was the right side of Joe’s head, ticking at the temple and jaw, that was in Emerson’s direct line of sight. The rest – eyes, lips, nose, any of the furniture of his face that made it undeniably his – were kept at a remove, trained away from Emerson. “You should have got me up. You know you should.”
The side of Joe’s mouth that was within reach of Emerson’s eyes stretched into a vague semblance of a smile. But it was a smile with no mirth or joy in it.
“Look Joe,” said Emerson, taking a lung-filling breath which pushed his shoulders to his ears. It both expanded and thinned him, inflating his chest with assertive oxygen while squeezing the join of his neck and collarbone into hiding. “I know last time it… we… I went about it all wrong. After my striping. I came back to work way too early, because I thought I was fine, but I knew I wasn’t really. You should never have allowed me back in then, because… and this pains me to admit it, and I’ll never say it again, but I wasn’t ready. I’d been shredded like paper in a mill, and not just my skin. Everything was torn, and I didn’t even realise it. You’re right, I was in pain and I didn’t want you to know. And that meant that I made mistakes, mistakes that cost the investigation, because I was trying to prove a point. To myself, as much as anyone. And I was trying to impress you, if I’m honest. It was exhausting. Looking back now, it was almost a relief when you suspended me, except that it meant you didn’t trust me.”
Perhaps thankfully, Emerson’s memory of that day was obscured and unclear. He hadn’t slept well the night before, lying in a fixed pose, a collapsed soldier still acting at standing to attention. He had expected at every moment for his bedroom door to groan open and for the officers who had ransacked the Incident Room to swarm in, uprooting his possessions one by one, stealing his bravery, his honesty, his good name, just as they had earlier stolen everything from the investigation. He had got some sleep eventually, after faking it for so long that it became true, but it was a damaged sleep, ripped and broken and dislocated. The next day’s events had seemed only a continuation of this. He remembered the telephone call from the Embassy of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the swell of enthusiasm in his chest as he had answered. He remembered the stunted frustration when he was put on hold as well, and how the heavy beat of the holding music throbbed in time with the still half-open wounds on his backside. While waiting, he had imagined the music entering him through his stripes and powering through his bloodstream, giving him a feigned strength just for a moment. He couldn’t really remember Joe speaking to him, or recall at what point he had put down the phone. He may have shouted at Joe, crying out finally with all the pain and humiliation, or he might have done so only in his head, Emerson couldn’t say for sure. He recalled standing and gathering what things he could carry, affecting as though that was what he had intended to do all along. He didn’t speak in case that cracked the illusion. His memory would not tell him with any clarity how he came to be in the car park, as though he had sleepwalked down there, swimming through the stares. Maybe he had still been half dreaming, as he distinctly remembered a donkey being present, which made no sense. But none of his memories of that day, or indeed that whole week, were rational. The previous few days had felt as though he was just playing at being conscious. He had never been much of an actor, but that had been the greatest role of his life.
What he did remember most clearly was the raw choke in his throat and the burn in his eyes and the first real thought, with actual words, that he had had all day – Thank God, I can stop pretending.
And that had made the tears fall all the faster as he realised that pretending was all that he had.
“But this time it’s different,” he continued. “I took the proper amount of time off, kept all my appointments at the hospital, I didn’t try to make out it was nothing. I had you to help me and that made all the difference. And it’s nine months on now, and I’m fine. I really am.”
He was. He had to be. And each time he said that he was fine, aloud or to himself, it became a little more true.
“I need you to have faith in me,” he sighed, sitting on his hands.
Joe snapped around to face him. His brow buckled in a way that Emerson ordinarily found endearing.
“I do,” he said, his voice rising and falling triangularly, sharpened at the top.
Emerson turned his head so that his chin burrowed into his shoulder. “Well it doesn’t really feel like it at the moment. Skip said you wanted me to be the Family Liaison Officer?”
“Yes. What’s wrong with that? It’s an important position, it carries a lot of responsibility.” Joe’s fingers laced together, tying knots that would not hold. His face had retreated again, pinned back and expressionless. “From what you fed back earlier, you built a rapport with Adam Snow’s sister. She might tell you things in private that she wouldn’t mention otherwise.”
“That’s crap, Joe, and you know it. Just admit that you don’t trust me in this investigation, and you’d rather shove me somewhere where I can’t do any damage. That’s what you all think, isn’t it? Poor little Kent, he tries, bless him, but he’s not really up to it.”
Emerson’s hands propelled him forward off the sofa, his legs swinging out just in time to catch him. His socked feet pushed against the floor in their eagerness to assist. But the floor pushed back, seeming to take a vindictive pleasure in the way his heel cracked against the wooden parquet and slid forward in an out of control rush. A bruising pain toured his ankle, moving slowly like an aimless sightseer or unwanted visitor who wanted to prolong their amusement no matter the inconvenience to their host. Why was everything in the flat going out of its way to unsettle him that evening?
“What? No… Em, that’s… No-one thinks that.”
Emerson heard Joe shift behind him – the cheap nylon of the apron scratching against the superior silk of the rest of him.
“No don’t stand up!”
It was stupid, and it was immature, but in that moment Emerson didn’t think he could bear to have Joe upright by him. He could tell by the castrated squeak of the sofa, punctuated by a tattered sigh, that he had hurt his husband’s feelings. But Emerson had looked up to Joe enough times that day, and his neck and shoulders were beginning to bow with the pressure.
He staggered over to the other side of the room, to the white space nearest the door. That corner seemed to be the least unwelcoming part of the flat and he couldn’t hear Joe’s breathing from there. Not without listening hard, anyway. He leaned forward and pressed his forehead against the wall. The painted plaster felt cool against his skin, an inhuman sort of soothing. Close up, the wall revealed its veiled identity, the miniscule air bubbles in the topcoat, the bumps and ridges and textures of the paint. Whereas from further away, it appeared smooth and perfect, not a crack, not a smear, not a blemish. It hid its imperfections in plain sight, not ashamed of them, not concealing them. Just trusting that nobody would look closely enough at them to notice.
“Emerson?” came Joe’s hesitant voice, tip-toeing across the room.
Emerson flattened his fist against the wall. “I don’t get what you’re doing. I wish you’d be honest with me and tell me what your problem is. If you don’t think I’m good enough, you should just say.”
Emerson slowly turned around in time to see Joe concealing a tub of Tiger Balm in his pocket. A renovated scent of menthol grew in the air.
“Em, I…” Joe started, his fingers circling his temples as though tuning a radio. “I’m trying to do what’s best. That’s my job, as your DI and…”
His words were overshadowed by the honking of the intercom, informing them that there was someone downstairs wanting admittance. The buzzer resonated through the apartment with a roar both dissonant and raucous, more of a demand than a request.
A groan moved through Emerson from top to bottom. “I’ll get it,” he said. “But this conversation is not over.”
He limped over to the intercom monitor pinned to the wall where the living room merged with the kitchen. The handset felt cold against his ear, the chill creeping down his neck all the faster when he heard the voice on the other end.
“Ah good evening, Detective Chandler.” The unctuous tone oozed down the line, and Emerson recognised the voice as belonging to the same porter who seemed to take pleasure in making him feel uncomfortable. The feeling hadn’t changed even after he and Joe were married. “There’s a man down here to see your… Mr Kent.” The porter stretched the word ‘man’ to an excessive length, as if he were testing how far it would go. There was insinuation there that kicked at the base of Emerson’s stomach.
He knew he shouldn’t let it get to him, but there was something about that particular security guard that made Emerson feel like he constantly had to defend his right to be there. The night they had returned from their honeymoon had been just one time out of many. It had been nearly midnight, with a shift looming the next morning, and perhaps Emerson had just imagined the sharklike grin, or the way the porter had greeted Joe and ignored Emerson, or the subtle emphasis as he had said “I hope you had a nice holiday.” But he hadn’t imagined the cruel sneer when Emerson had struggled with his luggage, he was sure of that. Joe hadn’t noticed it, but Emerson recognised it as a close relation of the sneaky looks he had had all of his adult life.
It didn’t help that everything in the building – their postbox, their parking space, their front door – was labelled with Joe’s name only. Everywhere it was Chandler, Chandler, Chandler, like Kent didn’t exist. He might as well have been Joe’s lodger, or his bit on the side.
“You could always take my name,” Joe had suggested, not seeming to realise just how confusing that would have been at work.
Emerson’s fingers clenched around the receiver, stiffening into a numbed claw.
“This is Mr Kent,” he said, leaning with aching heaviness on the second word, as much to give himself confidence as anything. “Did this man give a name?”
A phlegmy cough racketed into his ear. “Hru-hmm, yes,” came the reply. “A Mr Oliver Luckhurst? He said you would know him.”
“Oh…” A prickle needled at his hairline. His head was sewn in place, unable to move this way or that. The sole part of him capable of stirring was a jolt of vinegary panic, which raced upwards pushing out his cheeks momentarily. It was only as he tried to speak that he realised he had been holding his breath.
“Umm, ok,” he said, “That’s fine, send him up.”
The clunk of the receiver as he replaced it seemed to resound through the flat, bouncing off each wall in turn, returning to him like a murmur from the past. He had never before noticed the echoes – the way that sound skidded across the hard floor, settling nowhere until it died. He would hear them always now.
Standing still was proving difficult now that he had nothing connecting him physically to the wall. He followed his own footsteps into the kitchen and lapped the table three, or five, or maybe ten times. He soon lost count. The flapping of his feet on the ground settled into a regular rhythm at complete odds with the pounding of his erratic pulse.
Ollie Luckhurst. Now that was a name that had barely sidled across his mind in ten years. When Erica had texted that morning, warning that Ollie had requested his address, Emerson had assumed it was to send him a belated birthday card or something. Not that he would suddenly reappear after all this time, unwanted and unannounced. It wasn’t that Emerson disliked Ollie. In fact, they had been close, once. Ollie had been one of the most vivacious and popular students on campus upon their arrival at university, and being his roommate had lent to Emerson a thin veneer of ‘cool’ that had never been his, before or since. So many students of all genders crowded regularly into their narrow corridor, just to be in Ollie’s presence, that Emerson had found himself assigned gatekeeper to his more attractive, more charismatic friend. And Ollie had returned that favour by helping him to come out publicly. Advice and introductions had been what Emerson had needed, and that had been what Ollie so enthusiastically provided. He had even shoved a few of his exes Emerson’s way, ‘just for experience.’ Well, Emerson was sure he had meant that to be kind. Most of Emerson’s successful nights out were fruitful only because Ollie had been around to prompt him. And on his worst nights too, he had always been there. For all of those first two years, he had been an almost constant presence at Emerson’s shoulder, pushing, promoting. Then the thing had happened and it had all changed. The differences between them had grown greater, and their respective friendship groups ceased to overlap. One day Emerson had seen his former roommate drinking with a pride of admirers in the college bar, a peacock swollen on attention, and he had not had the courage to approach him. They were gone from close friends to virtual strangers with one critical decision.
So, no, Emerson bore no ill-feeling towards Oliver Luckhurst. He had simply grown accustomed to there being no connection between them anymore. In the Venn diagram of life, he and Ollie were now happily in opposite spheres, never intersecting. And if Emerson was struck by a frozen crunching in his chest, it was just the shock of those two worlds colliding once more. If he dreaded the sight that would await him in the hallway, it was simply apprehension at seeing more than a decade of aging pass by in the time it took to scrape open the door. But if Joe ever found out about the thing…
“Em… EM! Are you alright? Who is it?”
Emerson blinked, and discovered that he was still pacing the kitchen. His breath came rapid and wheezy, like he was trying to rid and replace all the air in him. It collected in his mouth and behind his teeth, his nose unwilling to assist. He forced himself to stop moving, though his toes twitched in complaint, and built a smile just for Joe out of the fragments of his face.
“Oh it’s just… No-one really,” he said with a brightness he didn’t quite feel. “Someone I used to… from uni. I’ll just see what he wants and get rid of him.”
As though it had been waiting for its cue, the front door grunted out three heavy knocks. That echoed too, and Emerson was amazed that Joe didn’t seem to notice the resonance as it juddered between them. He just sat where Emerson had bade him stay, hesitant curiosity flitting in his eyes.
Opening the door took longer than normal. They had already locked up for the night, bars and bolts and latches secured into their final positions. Emerson scrabbled on the table for the keys before realising that he was looking in entirely the wrong place, and his keyring was hung where it always was, on a hook by his coat. Even his brain and fingers were procrastinating. Finally he brought himself to slot open the locks with a reluctant thud and, driving the handle downwards, pulled the door towards him.
“Emmy-boy!” The voice exploded like a train barrelling through the tunnels of Emerson’s ears. “C’mere, it’s been too long.”
Emerson found himself trapped between a solid chest and two strong arms that gripped him closely. The chest was wearing a thin vest which did not disguise the musculature of the body beneath. Memories flooded up Emerson’s nostrils with the oily, woody scent that assaulted them.
“Mmmff, yeah, hi Ollie,” he murmured, wriggling free. “What are you doing here?”
With expansive arms, Ollie gestured up and down the corridor, taking in the surroundings – the gloss and sheen and plush of an exclusively-maintained apartment building. It was a relatively new build, but with pretentions of being older. The steel-framed walls were panelled in shined mahogany, the lift doors opened to reveal a layer of manually-operated wrought iron. And the doors to each apartment, at first glance, could have been the heavy oaken entryways of an ancient Venetian library. Turning back, Ollie coiled his upper lip at Emerson’s suit, which was half undone but still obviously expensive. Emerson stood, full-bodied in the doorway, blocking the way in.
“Bloody hell, I heard you’d done well for yourself. All my training paid off, I see.” He reached around Emerson’s waist towards the hall table, drawing back with one of Joe and Emerson’s framed wedding photographs grasped between his fingers. He squinted at the image, his eyebrows scrunching into oblongs. A thick laugh belched from him. His voice was jovial, though Emerson caught a tiny hint of menace hidden within its notes.
“I should have known you’d be the one to get yourself a sugar daddy.”
“You don’t know anything about it,” said Emerson, his right arm flailing towards the photograph.
It was only the work of a second, but Emerson saw it all in stop-motion, as though his brain analysed every still before letting him see it. The crook of his hand striking the corner of the picture frame, the object teetering on Ollie’s fingertips, rocking once before diving to the floor with an almost graceful arc, the bounce as it landed. The felt back sprang out of its setting and the photograph within slid out of alignment. Joe’s image came to rest outside the range of the frame, whilst Emerson’s was lying obliterated beneath the gilt edging. Ollie bent down to pick it up, shoving the picture wonkily in place, creasing the paper as he did so. A noticeable furrow appeared between Joe and Emerson’s faces.
“Oh, sorry,” he said, making no attempt to repair what he had damaged.
“Just… just leave it, Ollie,” snapped Emerson, snatching back the frame and ramming it face-down into a drawer under the table. There was no noise as the drawer slid shut, its casters easy and silent. Only the internal rumble of the frame grazing against wood could be heard.
“Why are you even here?” Emerson asked, emphasis heating his words.
“Can’t I look up an old friend while I’m passing?”
“I haven’t seen you in twelve years. Some friend you are.”
“It takes two, Emmy-boy, it always takes two.”
There had been a time once, early on, when Emerson had been happy it being just the two of them. Ollie had erected a circle of followers and admirers around him, a meaningless and vapid entourage, but he had always come back to Emerson in the evenings. That was, unless he found someone else’s bed to spend the night in. Emerson had liked to think that he was the closest to Ollie, that he was the only person he would confide in, that he knew him more closely than anyone else did. The fact that there was no romantic attraction between them made had only made him feel particularly special. That Ollie had liked him for himself, and not what he could get out of him. For two years he had let himself be led into a life that wasn’t really his, and he had enjoyed it. For a time.
“Look, alright,” said Ollie, plea and pressure battling in his speech, “I’ve been a shit friend. I get that. Though you were the one who started avoiding me, if I remember rightly. Going off with your singing buddies from the chapel – pretending to be all mister innocent. As if a few hymns could wipe away everything you’d done.”
Emerson’s hand plastered itself over Ollie’s mouth. “Just shut up,” he hissed. “I wasn’t trying to pretend or wipe away anything. I’d moved on, that’s all. I told you all that wasn’t for me.”
The squeeze of Ollie’s fingers on Emerson’s wrist bordered on painful. “Fine, whatever,” said Ollie, grabbing onto Emerson just slightly too long before releasing him. Emerson’s arm flew backwards in an equal and opposite motion, narrowly avoiding the door frame. “We’ll agree to disagree. But I need your help now, Em. Please. I’ve been kicked out of my flat and I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
It was only now that Emerson noticed the suitcase and backpack secreted behind Ollie. Wheel prints tracked along the corridor from the lift to their door, carving indelibly their route in the deep and soft carpet. For a second, they reminded Emerson of tyre marks at a crime scene. They weaved and skidded in the same hurried, careless way.
“C’mon Em, for old times’ sake. My landlord’s an arse – he doesn’t like what I do anyway and he’s been waiting for an excuse to get rid of me. I miss just one month’s rent…”
Emerson raised his brows in question.
“Alright, maybe the last three months’… But I’m good for it, he knows that. At least I will be as soon as my work picks up again. But no, it’s all pack your bags and get out with just three days’ notice.”
Ollie stepped forward, his toes massaging the threshold. A thin shiver ran down Emerson’s spine.
“Look, if I could…” he said, his shoulders edging backwards. “But this really isn’t a good time. And Joe, my husband, he doesn’t know you. I can’t ask him to… I’m sorry. You’ll have to find somewhere else.”
Ollie made no further movement towards or away from Emerson. His arms posed by his side, one hand tucked into the waistband of his jeans, a gesture still familiar after all those years. Emerson noticed the knot of his fingers shifting under the close-fitting material, stretching towards something unseen. It leant in the direction of the door, and Emerson’s feet, but Ollie physically came no nearer. Even so, the air pushed forwards.
“Ah, come on Emerson,” said Ollie. “We had some good times, didn’t we, back in the day? You can’t turn me away, not after all I did for you. Your husband won’t mind – he’ll probably enjoy hearing all about what we got up to.”
The plummet in Emerson’s stomach must have reflected in his face, enticing a responsory leer upon Ollie’s.
“Oh, you never told him about any of that?” he said in a stage whisper. “It would be a terrible shame if he found out then, wouldn’t it?”
He bent, head and shoulders and torso, to invade Emerson’s personal space. His breath, hot and wet with implicit threat, curled around Emerson’s chin. His detergent-bright teeth glinted menacingly. Emerson bundled him into the corridor as fast as he could, though shock and dread made his limbs slow-acting and heavy.
“What do you want?” he spat.
One corner of Ollie’s mouth curved upwards. “I need somewhere to stay for a few days, Emmy-boy, and I want to stay here. I reckon you’ll do that for me, won’t you? For an old friend.”
The sofa felt hollow, like a hole in Joe’s side, without Emerson sat by him. He was only in the hallway, a distance measured in feet and inches, not miles, but the weight of their unfinished conversation made it seem so much further. The walls and the door that separated them loomed like the barriers they were, while the artillery of Emerson’s words bombarded Joe where he sat. He was pinned to the seat by their force, shell-shocked and numbed by his imagination of Emerson’s memories. He had known that homophobia existed, of course he did. He had read the reports on hate crime, he had memorised the statistics, he had investigated cases of GBH that turned out to have been motivated by the victim’s sexuality. He watched the news and read the papers. It wasn’t a phenomenon he was unaware of. And yet it had never before felt quite so familiar. As Emerson had related his past experiences to him, Joe had seen them play across his vision like a film, in colour and in sound. He thought he could see Emerson’s face pale with fear, hear the crack of his wrist splintering, smell the salt-metal of the blood that oozed from a gash in his forehead. Emerson hadn’t mentioned any head injuries, but Joe’s imagination had not let that hold it back as it created its gratuitous scene. It was so vivid, so dynamic, it might have been Joe’s own memory. But it was all invention, for Joe had not been there. Once again, he had not been there. He hadn’t been there to stop it, nor to help. Nor did he even have his own experiences to draw on in solidarity. When he had first started his relationship with Emerson, Joe had not quite appreciated that he would be entering into that world, and it made him feel fraudulent. He had never considered himself to be gay, he still didn’t, really. Then again, he had never fully identified as ‘straight’ either, although he hadn’t turned down the label when it was offered. If he was sexual at all, he was Emerson-sexual – Emerson was the only person it had ever truly felt right, safe, with. At puberty, he had realised that he found males and females equally attractive, but the idea of actually finding a person to be intimate with had been like the idea of a copycat Jack the Ripper – first laughable, and then impossible, and then horrifying.
His ears strained to hear Emerson at the front door. His upper register was lost somewhere in the aether, swilling around the ceiling perhaps, unwilling to return. The bass notes lingered though, singing their indistinct cadence as Emerson conversed with whoever was on their doorstep. His voice paused now and then as the second speaker joined the hushed duet. A percussive laugh, followed by a muted rattle-crack like distant machine fire, hit Joe’s ears, firing his imagination once more. He was all set to spring as a saviour to Emerson’s rescue, his legs and hands stiffened in readiness, and he was halfway out of his chair before he heard Emerson’s unmistakable voice speaking again. It was spiked with irritation but otherwise unharmed. Joe sank back in relief. But like weevils in a loaf of bread, the thoughts writhed on. He couldn’t bring himself to say that they were his thoughts – they felt more like trial ones that he was testing to see how they fitted – but they wriggled in his mind nonetheless. As long as he didn’t give them words, articulate them at the speed of speech, then he could keep them at bay. But the moment he gave them access to the front of his head, it would be like he accepted them, and he could not allow that to happen. His forehead scrunched into lines with the effort of keeping the floating images smothered. He. Must. Not. Let. Them. Through.
He had years of practice at this. Decades of blocking his mind so that his unwanted, his unthinkable thoughts could not fully emerge or become real. It didn’t always work, but he was by now proficient enough to be successful more often than not. It had started as a curiosity in his early teens, an experiment under controlled conditions, or so he had led himself to believe. He would allow his worst thoughts voice, just for a moment, to see what it felt like to think such things. He would tell himself that it wasn’t really him thinking – he was only observing. Any disgust he might have felt could be chronicled, designated as a by-product, and set aside. But practice makes perfect, as they say, and he became so accustomed to these simulated thoughts that he worried they had become his own after all. And if such things really did stem from his own brain, then what kind of a person did that make him? So he had cut himself off from his peers, not caring if the other boys found him rude or standoffish. He shared none of their passion for sport or supermodels anyway; he couldn’t contribute to their humour. There was only one classmate he had felt comfortable around, at least comfortable enough to share a desk with in most lessons. He had been kind. He hadn’t poked or pressed or needled to find out what had happened to Joe’s parents, or why Joe stayed with his godfather during the school holidays. He hadn’t crawled with his eyes over Joe’s workspace, as the others had, lips twitching in amusement when Joe arranged his things just so. He hadn’t even questioned when Joe washed his hands three times after using the bathroom. The two of them had stepped into something like friendship, and in sixth form he had been the only person with whom Joe could have conceived of sharing a twin study room. In retrospect, however, that had been his worst decision.
The first dream, or at least the first one he remembered, had happened about two weeks into term. He had awoken with buzzing skin and tingling groin and a vision of him and his roommate rutting together on the bed. The next morning, he had had to pretend to have spilled hot chocolate on his duvet to explain why he was changing his bedsheets before breakfast. A week later, the dream had recurred, only this time the other boy was prostrate, doubled over Joe’s desk. His forehead slid against the wood of the table, scattering Joe’s few regimented belongings into a messy pile. It had taken Joe several attempts when awake to reconstruct their perfect positioning, even though he knew, he knew, that they hadn’t moved in actuality. The few nights that followed had been dreamless, relievedly blank. But they were followed by three successive nights in which Joe’s unconscious mind led him down dark red paths of skin and sinew and sweat, rippling and being ripped. The third one was the worst. In it, Joe’s roommate was asleep, clothed in full school uniform that strained slightly too small on him. The buttons on his blazer were easing themselves out of their holes as he breathed, his trouser legs had ridden to the midway point on his calves. Unable to control his dream self, Joe could only watch from within his eyes as he braced himself over his roommate’s body and slowly drew down his fly. The low scratching of the unfastening zip sounded like it was tearing open the air itself. Joe’s hands reached inside the rent they had created and deftly located the other boy’s flaccid cock. It was soft and squashy like a plump marshmallow, an invitation to taste perhaps, but Joe’s fingers kneaded it until it began to solidify. Its owner’s breathing shortened, but the boy remained oblivious in slumber. Contracted to a fist, Joe’s right hand drove up and down the rigid, blood-filled flesh, forcing it on to completion. The boy burst awake at the instant of ejaculation, terror leaking from his eyes like the liquid that coated Joe’s hand.
Joe had come to consciousness, gasping, in his own bed. The savoury musk of his own sweat had surrounded him, drenched into his sheets and his pyjamas and the air in his nostrils. His right hand was gripped onto his own erection, which pushed insistently into it. He rolled over to see his roommate lying across the room, sound asleep and untouched. Joe’s relief at realising that it had been a dream was short-lived, as his roommate’s deep sleep-breathing echoed Joe’s heaves of arousal. Nausea galloped through him, its green-tinged pain kicking at his stomach and throat. Horrified, he had staggered to the bathroom down the hall, where he had spent several minutes in a cubicle yanking at his cock, as though he were trying to rip it off. And then half an hour afterwards washing his hands again and again, boiling and soaking away the guilt that mingled with the fluid he had painted there.
He could have put it down to normal urges – he had had wet dreams before, if none quite so vivid – were it not for what had happened that weekend. It had been a Saturday afternoon, free time for all students not obliged to represent the school at sporting fixtures, although Joe had not yet changed out of the smart two-piece suit sixth formers were expected to wear for lessons. He found it more comfortable than the casual attire favoured by his contemporaries. It pinned and tied him in all the right places, feeling more like a skin than his own ever had. Straightening his tie so that its vertical matched the right angles of his desk, Joe concentrated himself on the Oxford University application he was working on, smothering the chaotic memories of his recent dreams beneath the disciplined rows and boxes of the form. A rhythmic crash like an interrupted drumroll had startled him, his fountain pen carving a thin blue line bisecting the page. Turning around, Joe had seen his roommate crouched on his haunches, gathering up a collapsed pile of books that he had seemingly dropped. No thoughts had passed through Joe’s mind before he was helping his friend, collecting volumes that had skidded out of reach. But as he had bent over the other boy, handing him the final hardback, it had suddenly leapt into Joe’s mind just how much smaller than him he was. Not just because he was squatting beneath where Joe was standing, but smaller in size, in weight, in strength, in everything. Joe may have given up boxing in senior school, but he still maintained a powerful upper body strength. And against his will, his thoughts supplied the rest.
I could rape him if I wanted to.
The remainder of his time at school shot through Joe’s memory like the blur of a warzone. It had been a war with only one combatant as Joe had constantly fought to keep himself in control, to not let his thoughts consume him. His mind fixated on the abominations his body could carry out. That it would carry out were it not kept in check. He socialised with no-one outside of his lessons, he demanded that he be given a private room, citing some reason which he could not remember but that had made his former roommate’s face crumple as though it had been struck. Joe had regretted severing their friendship, but it was safer that way. This brute inside of him could not be trusted – it could be constrained by order or bought off by repetition, but it could not be killed. He was a monster, and deserved no friends.
Now, these many years later, Joe had developed methods of keeping his monster in retreat, though it still roared from time to time. Though he would never have believed it possible, beforehand, his relationship with Emerson had become his fortification, and the younger man’s pure trust made Joe anxious to be worthy of it. He just hoped he could be. While his godfather would never have understood – and God only knew what his father had ever thought about anything – Joe’s reasons for joining the police were not as clear-cut as they had appeared. The need to do and to be as foretold was part of it, certainly, but it was more than that. He had an inner, driving need to be a force for good, to use his mind to solve crimes and to save lives, to prove to himself that he was capable of more than harm. If only he could always live up to his own expectations.
Joe’s thighs throbbed with a dull ache at the two points where his elbows dug in. Deep in thought, he hadn’t realised that his face had sunk into the cup of his palms, where it lay as though in hiding. The fingers on his cheeks were stiff and cold, except for his little fingers which pressed into the corners of his eyes, damming them up from anything that might try to flow from them. They rotated over the balls of his tear ducts with a weight that was almost soothing. Like the squeeze Emerson would sometimes apply to his shoulders after a long shift. Emerson had helped him, even from the first, even without knowing. Joe had always known that the young DC was someone upon whom he could rely – someone who, like his old schoolfriend, did not judge him or laugh at him. When Joe had realised, amid the shooting and slashing and shouting of the bogeyman case, that his feelings for Emerson might have gone beyond professional respect – that they might have been romantic, or God forbid sexual – it had terrified him. He had been prepared for it with Morgan. She was a woman, that was accepted, and she had understood his demons. She had been a psychiatrist for Christ’s sake. But Emerson, Kent as he was, was too like another boy he had once known, another boy he had had to remove himself from in order to keep him safe. (Fuck, Emerson would only have been about four years old, then.)
It had taken all of Joe’s self-belief, a thin reserve at best, bolstered by Miles’ silent encouragement, to even consider the possibility of a relationship with Emerson. And yet, somehow, doing so had changed everything. Letting Emerson in, giving him his own chance to run away (a chance the younger man had not taken) had given Joe the hope that he was not innately monstrous. That he could prove his demons wrong. Giving of himself to another felt not dangerous, but right. Loving Emerson became a thing that had never not happened. It felt endless, it felt eternal, it felt everything. It was like hearing the middle of a melody in your head, and you cannot name it nor remember the beginning, but you know exactly how it is completed.
But Joe was always Joe, and the monster inside of him was always there. As long as Joe could help people, save them or bring them justice, then he could keep its roaring to a low mewl. As long as Emerson was unharmed and by his side, then Joe knew he was more than his thoughts. But there was only a fine tissue separating him from them. Loving Emerson had both strengthened and weakened it. For he needed Emerson, of all people, to be safe, constantly and truly. The knowledge that he had not always been gave Joe’s demons hope, and that simply could not be. If he could not keep Emerson protected, then not only would he have failed at that, but he would have failed for all time.
The sound of padding footsteps came from the hall, pushing their way through the closed door in advance of their originator. Joe lifted his head and narrowed his eyes, as though reducing his peripheral vision might increase the range of his hearing. There was Emerson’s shuffled gait, his mismatched socks easing some of the friction between foot and floor so that there was an ounce of elision between each tread. But there was something different, something alien in the sound. Another set of footsteps squeaked in a different rhythm, off-kilter, overriding the comforting familiarity of Emerson’s approach. There was something else too – a low grumble, quietly thunderous, rolling gradually nearer in bursts.
The door edged open, its hinges seemingly more resistant than usual. Emerson entered, accompanied by an unknown man and an unreadable expression. The stranger was weighed down from one shoulder by an oversized grey rucksack, and Joe imagined his balance was not aided by the wheeled suitcase he was heaving along behind.
Emerson left the man to struggle in the doorway and walked over to Joe. “Umm… there’s something… This is…”
Joe felt his face twist into a wince as the new arrival dropped his luggage to the floor with a scrape and a crash. Emerson’s eyes betrayed a brief flicker of alarm seeing the other man striding towards them with arm outstretched, straight as the butt of a rifle.
“You must be the elusive husband, then?” he said, staring unnervingly at Joe. “I would say Emmy-boy’s told me a lot about you, only… well… he hasn’t. But then, he always was one for keeping things on the down low.”
Proud of his composure, Joe stood. The newcomer was a close competitor to his height, though Joe fancied that he himself had the benefit of an extra inch or so. “Joseph Chandler,” he said, extending his own arm in territorial greeting.
The man’s mouth curled in a smirk. “Nice apron,” he said, his eyes darting up and down Joe’s torso.
A flash of prickly, aggravated warmth shot through Joe, settling, to his deep irritation, in his cheeks. Now was not the time for his blush reflex to make a reappearance. He drew in a deep breath to widen his ribcage, and reached around his back to fumble with the knotted ribbon tied there. His hands met with Emerson’s, which had got there first, and the brief entanglement of string and fingers eased his embarrassment for a moment. Emerson drew the apron over Joe’s head, making Joe think of the many wonderful times his husband had helped him undress. The thought alleviated his flush not one iota.
“Joe,” said Emerson from behind him, apron folded away and his left hand resting at the base of Joe’s spine. “I’d like to introduce…”
“Haven’t I seen your picture in the papers?” interrupted the stranger. His leer had modified into a curious squint.
Emerson choked into Joe’s ear, fingers digging into his coccyx.
“It does happen from time to time,” Joe replied, the airiness in his voice a thin veil to obscure the stabbing shame at being reminded of his failures. “Peril of the job, I’m afraid.”
The stranger’s eyes widened. The whites of his eyes were pinked, in sharp contrast to the otherwise coached fitness of the rest of him. “So you’re a rozzer as well, are you? That must be rather… ah… stimulating.”
“We both find it very rewarding.” The politeness oozed through the minute cracks in Joe’s gritted teeth.
“Oh I’m sure you do.”
Emerson’s stifled choking modulated into a distinct and pointed cough. It was no longer directed towards Joe, but sounded almost spat across the room. The noise seemed to act as a reminder to the stranger. He wiped his right hand down the leg of his jeans, then once again held it out as a handshake.
“Oh, I’m Ollie, by the way. Oliver Luckhurst,” he said. “Though if you’ve seen any of my films, you might know me better as Oliver Lucky.” He finished with a wink.
Joe shook the proffered limb firmly, withdrawing as soon as he could. The other man’s hands were strong and well cared for, not unlike Joe’s own, and he rolled Joe’s knuckles within them even as Joe wrenched free. “You’re an actor, Mr Luck… Luckhurst?”
Ollie’s eyes flicked over to the space just behind Joe’s right ear, to the space where Joe knew Emerson was standing. He didn’t have to see his husband to know his presence, even though his hand had removed itself some moments ago from Joe’s back.
“An actor?” said Ollie. “Let’s say… yes, I’m an actor.” He turned back to the hall doorway and went to gather his bags. “Tell you what – as it happens, I’ve got a few of my best works in here. Maybe I’ll put them on for you later.”
“Later?” Joe frowned, not following the path of the conversation. The word barely escaped his mouth before it was superseded by Emerson’s shouted “No!” His voice drove painfully into Joe’s aural canal, rattling his eardrum and settling deep inside. As Joe turned with a start, hot breath, humid from Emerson’s mouth, rode over his cheek. He felt the questions in his mind display themselves on his face, in the cracks on his forehead, in the corners of his eyes, in the pursing of his lips. But what questions, and how to phrase them? Why was this Ollie under the impression that he would be here later, and what did Emerson have against watching his films? Joe strained to remember the last time he had Emerson had sat through an entire film together. It had to have been back when Emerson was still on sick leave, bored and restless at home, and Joe had been desperate to find an incentive to keep him resting for just a few hours more. It had been some ridiculous fantasy epic, chosen by Joe despite his dislike for dragons and swords and magical rings. But it was one of the lengthiest DVDs they owned, and Emerson had sat curled into Joe’s side for three hours, safe in the sanctuary between his chest and arms, soft tears of enjoyment dampening Joe’s shirt.
Emerson ran a hand down Joe’s arm. It would have been a more soothing gesture had his fingers not clenched it to a scratch rather than a caress.
“I just mean…” he started, “Ollie’s films. They wouldn’t be your sort of thing, Joe.”
Ollie snorted, a vulgar, hacking noise that made Joe feel slightly queasy.
“I’m sorry,” Joe said. “Who are you?”
“I’m O-li-ver,” came the reply, several decibels too loud and a measure too slow, as though the speaker considered Joe to be both stupid and hard of hearing. Another flash of annoyance fired through him, so quickly that he couldn’t tell whether he felt it strongest in his stomach, his head or his heart.
“I mean, how do you know Emerson?” he said, his words tense. “And why are you here?”
“Ollie was my first roommate at university,” Emerson said, throwing out the words before the man in question had more than parted his lips. “We were close, for a while…friends, you know. He… er… he needs a place to stay for a couple of nights, ‘cause… umm… his landlord… is redecorating his flat… or something like that. I… I said it would be okay for him to crash here for a bit.”
Joe squinted at Ollie, trying to evaluate him as he would a suspect. There was something about the newcomer that made it feel like all the hairs on his body were coming loose and crawling of their own volition, raised higher than the hackles of a wolf. But Emerson evidently trusted him, didn’t he? And as a police officer, Joe could not allow his personal impressions to prejudice his opinion of the man. Even if his fists flexed around the strap of his rucksack like a Kray’s about a knife hilt, and his eyes seemed to glint with the sporadic eagerness of Bousfield’s confession.
The French windows that opened onto the balcony yawned black, reflecting inwards like the two way mirrors in the station’s interview suite. Joe observed the image of Ollie behind him as he pulled the drapes to, securing them in place for the night. Somehow the action, the arrangement of the material folds, the regulated roughness of the damask, soothed his worrying fingertips. Although as soon as he had the curtains positioned exactly as he wanted them, he had to suppress a strong compulsion to pull them apart once more. Just to check that the room behind was as he had left it and that Ollie had not absconded in the moments between. He turned into the room again in time to see Ollie toeing off his shoes, leaving them strewn messily on the floor. That haphazardness alone would have been enough to make Joe’s jaw seize and his stomach to churn, even without the man’s smirk and nonchalant shrug.
Perhaps sensing Joe’s unease, Emerson pulled on his hand, directing him away from Ollie and into the relative privacy of the kitchen.
“Look, I’m sorry,” said Emerson. “It won’t be for long, I promise.” His voice was breathy with whispering.
“You didn’t think to check with me first before opening up our home as a hotel?” Joe asked, his anxiety lending an unintentional harshness to his voice.
The burn from Emerson’s fingers, like a contradictory ghost, lingered long after they had whipped themselves free from his. “I didn’t realise I had to ask your permission, sir,” he glowered.
That word, usually so soft when forged by Emerson’s tongue, had grown teeth. So much so that Joe took an involuntary step back to escape its bite. He couldn’t remember the first time Emerson had addressed him by that title – he wished he could. He wished he could recall how long it had taken for it to become so much a part of the younger man’s vocabulary that it was more endearment than honorific. But never insult. Never that. Never before had Emerson used it as such a weapon.
“I… you don’t need permission…” Joe stumbled over the wound in his voice. “But… how well do you really know this man?”
“He’s hardly some random off the street, Joe. I lived with him for two years. Which, incidentally, is longer than I’ve been living with you so far.”
Emerson slammed his eyes shut like a door in Joe’s face and turned so that his back was all Joe could see. He ran his fingers through his hair, the curls knotting in resistance. Rigid from the top of his head to his shoulders, even the air seemed to have stiffened around him as a shield against anyone who might come too close. Or maybe it was only Joe who was being barricaded out? Joe tried to reach out, to stroke protective hands down Emerson’s head, but the space between them stretched as long as a decade, and not just in their ages.
Finally, after a solid silence, Emerson turned back around.
“Do you really need the life history of everyone I’ve ever known?” he asked, sounding as though his voice was trapped in his throat.
Joe sucked in a calming breath, milk white at its source, but turning coppery and red as it was exhaled. “Well yes, if they’re going to be living in my house, then yes, that would be nice.”
Emerson’s eyes and mouth seemed to buckle with the impact. His voice shook when he spoke, probably from withheld anger, but Joe couldn’t help but perceive pain in its tremors.
“You know, I really wish you would trust my judgement sometimes.”
And, for the second time that evening, Joe watched as Emerson stormed from the kitchen, his retreating body seeming more distant than as if a lock was bolted between them. For the second time, the sharp aroma of his Tiger Balm failed to cut through the oaken heaviness in the air. And for the second time, the unfinished tendrils of their conversation were left untied, and Joe was left to wonder whether they had ever spoken of anything else.
I'm starting a new job in a couple of weeks so that may delay things a bit. I will do my best to get chapter 5 up by the end of August or beginning of September. As always, concrit is greatly appreciated.
I'm so sorry this has taken a long time to get loaded. I promise I'm working on it, but it's had to take a bit of a backseat recently due to a whole load of things. Hope this chapter makes up for the delay.
TWs for this chapter: Homophobia & homophobic violence, reference to pornography, some sexual content.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The espresso machine thrummed into life with the press of finger to plastic. The gravelly noise it made resonated with the grit in Joe’s eyes, and its energy taunted him. It buzzed loudly as though to prove that it held the caffeine that he needed, and it wouldn’t give up its treasure until it was good and ready. The trickle of mahogany liquid into the cup seemed to take an age. Joe rarely drank coffee, especially not at home, preferring the calm routine of making tea. The quiet rumble of the kettle; the caress of hot water over the tea bag; the gentle filtering, like watercolour paint, of the tea as it married the water and they became one. That was the right way to start a morning. Not this violent shuddering noisy thing that drilled deeply into Joe’s sleep-deprived head. But he needed more than the mellow savouriness of green tea that morning. As much as he disliked it, he needed the bitter and intense flavour of Brazilian blend to beat through the fug in his brain and spike through his bloodstream. Once again, sleep had remained estranged from him. It had seemed to stand in the doorway, watching with curiosity as he tried to settle in bed, but then shrugged and kept on walking. Joe had gone to bed early the night before – perhaps that was why he had struggled to rest. And Emerson had left the bed unmade the previous morning, so that it required a thorough restraightening before Joe could get in. Though that had been Joe’s fault really, hadn’t it? Emerson had stayed up with his guest for an hour or so, their conversation from the living room indistinct but just loud enough for Joe to try to listen in. He might have heard his name mentioned once or twice, but the distance travelled by the sound had worn away any clue as to the tone or emotion of the voice.
Eventually Emerson had come to bed, undressing quietly by the eerie light of his phone screen. Joe had pretended to be asleep when he heard the door shunting open, but he had nonetheless kept a secretive, one-eyed watch over his husband as he removed his layers of clothing. His skin glowed blue as more and more of it was revealed, though there were still shadowy places that the light didn’t touch. One side of his chest remained in darkness, obscuring the place where Joe knew he had a bullet scar. If Joe looked closely, if he had forced his eyesight to sift and strain the almost non-existent light, he could possibly have made out its shape. But what would that have proved if he had? He knew the scar was there without seeing it. Emerson knew it was there. It was there yesterday, it was there today, it would be there in the morning. It would be always there, now.
He had kept up the pretence while Emerson dropped into bed beside him, even as he kicked out at the duvet, lifting and twisting it with his feet to get comfortable. But it had promptly become clear that Emerson was not going to fall asleep straightaway. He lay with his back to Joe, in a stiff position, not yet committed to relaxation, and his breathing was uneven. Joe had propped himself up on one elbow and placed his hand on Emerson’s bare shoulder. The duvet had only been pulled to the midway point on Emerson’s chest, and it was this fact that gave Joe hope for an opening. Emerson’s skin was warm, despite the lack of covering. Joe’s fingers had moulded to the contours of Emerson’s body, only the rise of his palm leaving a small pocket of space between them.
“Em?” he said, his croaky whisper sounding loud in the dark room.
Emerson had exhaled a shaky breath, thin and ragged like cotton wool.
“Not now, Joe,” he had said.
But the set of his shoulders had softened and a gentle hand had wound around to nudge into Joe’s, drawing them together slightly. Though he had not turned around, and did not speak, he had allowed, maybe even encouraged, Joe to enclose him within his limbs and sign the embrace with a kiss to his cheek. As Emerson had become heavy in slumber Joe held him close, barely feeling the seam where their naked bodies met.
The coffee machine squealed at Joe, demanding his attention. He had forgotten just how noisy it could be, and he winced as though a squeeze of his eyelids and clench of teeth could in any way affect its volume. He had forgotten a lot of things about this contraption, or so it seemed. It had taken him an embarrassingly long time to locate the right sachet of coffee, and then to remember the precise way it fitted into the appliance so that a drinkable liquid could be born from it. He couldn’t recall the last time he even used the thing. Were he the type of person to allow dust in his kitchen, this appliance by now would surely be wearing a thick layer. As it was, it was kept immaculately clean, as well cared for as a museum piece. Nor did it bear the stains of use. Neither totally forgotten nor well worn, it had entered the realm of decoration, as spotless as the day Joe had bought it. He had been just as hopeless in operating it then. Knowing that Emerson had a liking for cappuccino, Joe had ventured online and ordered the machine in time for their third date. Just in case. He hadn’t really expected Emerson to agree to come back to his flat afterwards, any more than he had expected to want him to. Desiring his company, however, had not made Joe any less nervous once his – boyfriend? – had crossed the threshold and hung his jacket in the hall so that the arms of Joe’s coat were wrapped around it. With Miles’ teasing about what usually happened on third dates echoing in his ears, he had fumbled with buttons and settings, hoping Emerson didn’t expect more than he was able to give at that time. As he had got increasingly frustrated by the machine’s lack of cooperation, Emerson had cinched a soothing arm around Joe’s waist and asked if he could help. Somehow his touch had charmed the appliance and Joe both, coaxing coffee from the first and a kiss from the second. Joe had relaxed then, and before sleeping in separate rooms, they had spent the remainder of the evening together on the sofa, laughing when white foam caught on Emerson’s upper lip, making him look both older and younger at the same time.
The froth on Joe’s coffee this morning was darker than Emerson’s had been, with no lightness of milk to dilute it. Still paler, though, it was than the black liquid beneath, which hid under the upper layer until Joe’s spoon disturbed it. How strange it was that just a little bit of air transformed liquid into foam, making the thinner, watery substance into something much richer. Just one addition, and its whole nature was changed. A few days after that first time Emerson had stayed, Joe had found one of his t-shirts neatly folded on the pillow in the spare room. To his surprise, it had been not threatening, not an intrusion, but a holder of promise, and it had made his sparse flat seem just that bit more like a home.
Sipping his coffee, or rather letting it stagnate on his tongue before gagging it down, Joe crossed the boundary from kitchen to living room, heading for his usual spot on the sofa. Thankfully, the harsh taste in his mouth was already beginning to mutate into a buzzing in his bloodstream, making the whole palaver worth it. At least now he had a chance of being functional at work later. As functional as he ever was, anyway. He eased himself down into his seat, glad that no-one was around to hear him grunt with relief into the cushions. Miles had started making a similar noise when pushing himself out of his swivel chair, and Mansell and Riley had teased him for weeks. Joe didn’t think the two DCs would ever make fun of him, not directly, though Emerson claimed they still managed to make good-natured jibes at their DI’s expense.
“That’s what I get for marrying you,” he had said. “They’ve made me your official proxy for all their daft jokes.”
In truth, Joe suspected that Emerson rather enjoyed gently winding him up, if only because he was the only one who knew how to loosen him again. And he also knew when to leave be, when Joe was tightly wound enough.
He took one more swig of espresso then placed the cup down with two gentle knocks onto the side table to his left. Almost directly opposite him, between him and the far wall, were Ollie’s trainers, toed off and left at careless angles on his arrival the previous evening. Squinting to see more clearly, Joe realised that what he had taken to be a shadow in the stony light before dawn was in fact the scuff from a rubber sole on the skirting board. His nails bit moon shapes into his palms. It wasn’t just the shoes, though they were the most obvious culprit. He could feel the weight of an extra presence in the flat, pushing hard against his chest. The silence roared in his ears, or perhaps that was just his blood flow, moving more quickly with his racing heartbeat. Knowing the spare room was occupied when it was usually empty made him edgy – he glanced into the corners of the room, looking for the hidden eyes he was sure were watching him. Maybe it was the jolt of caffeine he was so unused to, but his senses felt heightened and vigilant. Could he hear the creak of a strange body in the bed down the hall? Could he detect the almost imperceptible difference where the rug in the centre of the floor had been nudged out of place? And if he concentrated, could he make out the unfamiliar aftershave lingering in the air, staining into the headrest behind him?
Joe scowled to himself. Did people always feel like this when they hosted guests? It wasn’t like he had much experience of visitors, finding them altogether too intrusive and messy. The only other person to stay in that spare room had been Emerson, during those tentative first months. But that was different. Emerson hadn’t been a stranger. Even on the day they met, a box of chalk as greeting, Emerson had felt familiar to Joe. But this Ollie – who was he? Joe was sure Emerson had never mentioned him before. He hadn’t exactly kept a catalogue of every single one of their conversations, not deliberately anyway, but he certainly would have remembered any reference to old roommates. The only people Emerson had talked about living with before were his former flatmates, two of whom Joe knew had been his peers at university and in the chapel choir. Joe had always assumed that Rich and Ailsa had always been Emerson’s closest friends, spending their days in music-making and study, and their evenings together in a quiet and cosy flat. He didn’t like to think of any life Emerson might have had that included nightclubs or people like Ollie. It sounded altogether too dangerous. But then, Emerson had never liked talking about his time at university, barring the occasional tale about post-service curries or silly stories about giggling in evensong because of innuendo in the hymns.
Joe reached out for his coffee and drained the cup down his throat. The liquid had started to turn cold from standing, and tasted bitter and thick like worn-out rubber. Joe grimaced, rolling the tip of his tongue along his teeth to wipe away the sour residue. His incisors, still fuzzed by the early morning, felt far away and the underside of his tongue had to stretch awkwardly to reach. The ache was worth it, though, to make his mouth more comfortable.
“You’re up early.”
Joe was grateful that he had already swallowed his drink, otherwise it would almost certainly have exploded one way or the other, either onto the floor or choked into his lungs. He jumped around in surprise to see Emerson stood in the doorway looking at him. He had evidently pulled on his pyjamas with little care – the checked trousers hung low on his hips, the t-shirt twisted and back to front – and his hair splashed like a wave over his head. A pallid smile crawled onto his face as he shuffled closer, the drawstring from his pyjama bottoms swinging slowly. He sat down next to Joe, hushing his palms over his own thighs a few times.
“Could you not sleep either?” he asked.
Joe felt his forehead buckle into a frown. “You’ve been fast asleep all night. You were snoring when I got up.”
“I don’t snore,” Emerson retorted, his hands twitching as though he was holding himself back from moving. Normally Joe’s teasing would result in a playful tap or nudge, but perhaps the words released the previous night and not taken back sat too heavily between them. “Anyway, I woke up and you’d gone, and I couldn’t get back off. So I thought I’d just see where you were… make sure you’re alright.”
“What about your friend?” Joe couldn’t quite keep the knife edge out of his voice. “Shouldn’t you check that he’s alright?”
“Ollie? Oh, he won’t be up for hours yet. I doubt we’ll see him before we go to work. It’s ok – I’ve given him the spare set of keys and shown him how all the locks work. We’ll just need to inform the porters’ desk he’ll be staying so they’ll let him in the building. He can come and go as he likes then.”
Joe’s jaw was locked as tightly as their front door. “Well you seem to have it all worked out.”
He saw Emerson’s face collapse, and a pang of guilt thrust through him.
“Oh Joe, please don’t be like that,” said Emerson. “I’m sorry I didn’t check with you first. It’s just… I sort of felt obliged to help him out.”
“If he’s forcing you…” Joe envisaged Ollie clutching onto their keys like a weapon, the sharp end targeting Emerson’s chest.
“No he’s not… he’s not forcing me to do anything. Course not,” replied Emerson, a high-pitched giggle accompanying his hasty words. His index fingers wound in minute circles, tying themselves up in the cotton ribbon of his pyjamas so that his flesh bulged pinkly between the strips. What his eyes were doing, Joe could neither see nor say. “It’s just… it’s complicated. It’s a lot to do with stuff that happened when we were at uni, you know? I mean, me and Ollie, we’ve grown apart now, but we were close once. Like, really close, kind of intense in a way.” He huffed through his nose with a glottal stop as punctuation. “He was my best friend – I’ve never really had a friendship like it since.”
Joe heard himself speak as though from a distance. “Did you ever… were you… together?”
“No… no…” Emerson coughed. “No, it wasn’t like that. We didn’t like each other in that way. It was more… you’ve got to remember, I was just a kid when I went to uni. I was eighteen and terrified, and I hadn’t really come out properly. I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t have a clue. And Ollie… he was there on my first day, and it was like... he just made me feel welcome, and accepted. He took me under his wing a bit and made it… easier, I guess. Do you know what I mean?”
The question corkscrewed upwards as it crept through Emerson’s lips. The answer, however, was less easy to find. In his life, focused as it was on being uncomfortable around people, Joe had had few friendships worthy of the name. And in none of them had he felt relaxed or understood from their first encounter. Except there had been one. Only one person out of thousands had looked at Joe and seemed to see him truly. And at only one person had Joe looked back and seen confidence or acceptance straightaway. So yes, Joe knew the gratitude of finding a friend who would support him unconditionally. But he also knew the confusion and pain when feelings and impulses got involved, and he didn’t like the comparison Emerson was leading him to make.
“That doesn’t mean you owe him anything,” said Joe. Even though he himself owed Emerson all that he had. His life, his protection, everything.
“No, I know that,” replied Emerson, his knees fidgeting, then dropping still. His eyes took in Joe’s for the first time that morning. “Look,” he sighed, “you were asking last night about those times when… like when I broke my wrist. And if you want to know… if you’re sure you really want to know, I’ll tell you.”
A swallow and a nod was all that Joe could manage, his throat contracting and squeezing to a tight ball.
“There was this nightclub I used to go to a bit in my first year,” said Emerson. “It wasn’t a gay club or anything – just your bog-standard student nights, cheap shots, and a half decent band every once in a while type of place. To be honest, it was a bit of a shitty dive, but when you’re eighteen, nineteen, it’s the greatest thing on earth. It’s fine, I don’t expect you to understand that.”
He cast a half look at Joe.
“I’m not quite as naïve as all that,” Joe felt impelled to say. “I have been in a nightclub before.”
“Yeah, but going in for a case doesn’t really count.” Emerson’s mouth nudged at the borders of laughter as Joe sensed his cheeks heating, though he seemed unwilling to make a final crossing. “Do you want me to carry on?”
Perhaps mistaking Joe’s silence for uncertainty, Emerson gave a resigned sigh. “Forget about it. It doesn’t matter. It was ages ago anyway.”
“No, Em. Please. Whatever you want to tell me… I promise I’ll listen.”
Almost without thought, Joe gripped onto Emerson’s right hand, freeing his fingers from the knots that bound them. The string had carved ridges in an asymmetric pattern which rippled under Joe’s touch. Emerson’s flesh was bumped and raised into a lattice, as though his fingers were incarcerated behind bars. Joe raised them to his lips. He didn’t kiss them, but pressed his mouth to them, breathing into the gaps. He didn’t let go, even as Emerson started to speak.
“One night,” he began, “it was really hot. There’d been a heatwave for what felt like forever, so that the whole campus seemed to be swamped in this stagnant mixture of sweat and steam. Even at night the air was thick, so breathing felt more like drowning, like everything was liquid. Ugh, it was awful. Actually, at night it was worse than during the day somehow, maybe ‘cos the dark just makes everything feel heavier, you know, like being buried alive. So it was probably a stupid idea to go clubbing that night anyway. But we’d just finished our first year exams, so a whole group of us went out. If it was hot outside, it was absolutely sweltering inside the packed dancehall. It was hot as hell – I could almost believe the smoke machines were from the actual gates to the abyss. And you could still smoke inside back then, so with all that, there wasn’t enough oxygen left for me. I probably only lasted about an hour before I had to go out for some air in case I fainted or threw up or something, and I really didn’t want anyone to think I was on drugs or anything. So I went out the front, and the bloke I was with at the time followed me, and we ended up making out against the wall. Just there on the street outside. I remember he had these really dark eyes – I can hardly remember anything else about him, not even his name. But his eyes… god, they were incredible. And he always kept them open when we were kissing. He never seemed to blink or close them, ever. It got a bit weird, after a while, to be honest, but perhaps that’s why they’ve stuck in my memory. I suppose he must have shut his eyes when he was asleep, but I never saw that. We only slept together the once, and he didn’t stop over.
“Anyway, that night, we were kissing on the pavement, him with his eyes open as usual. I remember I grazed my knuckles a bit on the bricks behind his neck, and got a tiny speck of blood on his collar. He must have had his back to the wall, facing out, so you’d think he’d have seen them coming, but I guess not. The next thing I knew, the pavement was far too close to my face and my right wrist was sort of folded in on itself in completely the wrong way underneath me. And there were three of them standing over me with looks of disgust that seemed to take over their whole faces, like their skin bubbled with it. I’d never seen them before in my life, and they just hated me, like that. One of them, he spat on me and it landed on my face. Foul-smelling sour smoky spit that dribbled down my cheek. I tried to wipe it off with the back of my hand, and it smeared the club stamp with foam so you couldn’t read it. I didn’t know what they wanted with me, although if I’d been thinking clearly I’d have guessed. But I didn’t even have space in my head to be scared, ‘cos I’d been winded when I fell and my chest was battling to prevent every breath I wanted to take. I was so sure I was going to suffocate that I didn’t even notice the pain in my wrist. I could hardly move to defend myself, and they tried to yank me upright by my bad arm, and all the while they were shouting stuff like ‘take it like a man, you filthy faggot’… and other things, I can’t really remember. You get so used to the insults that it all merges into one, like the water vapour and sweat in the air, and the saliva and ink on my hand. But that was the first time it had turned really violent. I was only nineteen, and it was fucking terrifying.
“There were three of them, Joe, and only one of me. The guy I was seeing… well, let’s just say I didn’t see him again after that – he scarpered as soon as trouble started. The club bouncers were literally a few feet away but they did nothing. But Ollie… I really dread to think what would have happened if he hadn’t turned up at just the right moment. He was… strong, much stronger than I was. He pulled my attackers off me, he called the police, got me to hospital… he was everything I needed right then. I had a sort of hysterical panic attack in the waiting room when I caught the grazes scabbing over on my knuckles and made them bleed again. It was like that injury, which hadn’t even been part of the attack, seemed to open up everything inside of me… all the fear, all the hurt came spilling out in a big wet mess, so I couldn’t tell what was sweat, and what were tears, and what was blood. And Ollie just… held me until I calmed down. He stayed with me all night in A&E, and he stayed with me when I gave my statement to the police, he stayed with me pretty much the whole time for the next few weeks, making sure I was okay until Erica came over to help me move my stuff back home for the holidays. So can you see, Joe? Can you see how, even after everything that’s gone since, I can’t just kick him out when he needs help now?”
Joe recalled the opening night of the school play in his final year. He had known his lines perfectly – he could visualise the script in his head, laid out page by page and word by word. Standing in the wings, he had closed his eyes and foreseen the moves he was about to make upon the stage, the speeches he was about to deliver. He was as well prepared and practised as it was possible to be. Though that still hadn’t prevented the sick topsy-turvy spinning in his stomach, or the conviction that he was about to enter the scene the wrong way, with the words all upside-down and back to front, or the fear that the audience would jeer that he was doing it all wrong. Eventually, he had been pushed onto the stage, tripping over the faux silk of his costume. Hesitation had held him for just a moment before his lines spilled from him without effort, seeming to bypass his memory altogether.
That was what Emerson reminded him of as he described that night all those years ago. Over rehearsed but under performed. Joe wondered whether Emerson had ever spoken of it to anyone since it had happened, or whether the words to express it had simply sat in his head, growing ever more eloquent yet unsayable. Until they flooded out this morning in a fluent breathless burst.
He blinked, clearing the fog in his eyes, and he realised that he was staring at his lap. His hands clawed around Emerson’s, clinging tighter and tighter, as if by simply wishing, he could pull his husband free from the dangers of his past and protect him from the perils that lurked in his present and future. The fingers were stiffened, rusted in place from so much pulling. Perhaps that was all Joe had ever done, since the beginning of their marriage, the beginning of their relationship, the beginning of their first case together. The tendons in his hand contracted and flexed in an attempt to break the crust of their immobility. A slight dampness lubricated their way. As Joe lifted his and Emerson’s shaking hands, to hold them again to his lips, he tasted saline against their skin. More saltwater trickled silently into the corners of his mouth.
Emerson’s thumb stretched along Joe’s jawbone, his other fingers following and cupping his cheek. Joe’s hand slipped down to cradle around Emerson’s wrist, his own thumb and middle finger meeting each other.
“Joe?” Emerson repeated. “What’s going through your head?”
Joe choked out an empty laugh that pushed his chin further into Emerson’s palm.
“I don’t know,” he sobbed. “I don’t know. Do you want me to thank Ollie for what he did? I could… part of me wants to, but… I want to condemn him for encouraging you to go to a place where you could be in danger. If you hadn’t gone to that nightclub in the first place, none of that would have happened. But I can’t undo… I can’t stop what’s already done, and neither can he. What I really want to do is use all the power at my disposal to find your attackers and punish them. It almost scares me how much I want that. I want to bring them in like we brought in the Krays, but not care what happens next. And then I want to find that man you were with… I want to look him in these eyes you say you remember so vividly and ask him how dare he leave you to fight without help. I want to ask him how he can live with himself knowing that he wasn’t there. I want him to admit that it was his fault. How dare he put his own needs above yours for even one second? How dare he send you out alone?”
Too many emotions roiled through Joe, that he could not tell which one held supremacy, nor even name them all. They cackled at him, dancing with heavy feet just out of reach, defying classification. Just as he thought he had a grip on them, another pierced through him, stabbing wildly but with precision in its metallic assault. The ferocious fingers on his right hand dug through his hair, upsetting its placement, and he noticed that his other still clung too hard around Emerson’s wrist, so that it might leave a mark were he not careful. He forced himself to loosen; his muscles released and dropped his arms to rest on the seat beneath him. Though his fingers still surrounded the fragile and bony joint at the base of Emerson’s hand.
“I don’t blame him, Joe,” said Emerson, worrying at some loose skin on his bottom lip. “Not anymore. I mean, he wasn’t much older than I was, and it must have been just as frightening for him. If he’d got involved, it would probably have just meant two of us in hospital rather than one.”
“Look, I didn’t tell you to upset you, or to rake over things that have been and gone. You don’t need to find a reason for it, or to solve the case. It’s…it’s a part of my past that isn’t relevant anymore. It’s all washed away, water under the bridge, and I don’t want to talk about it. I kind of wish I’d never brought it up, but… you deserve to know… and now you do.”
Emerson winced in brief pain as he peeled his flaking lip, yanking free a tag of skin like a plaster over a wound. Redness swelled at the site of the damage, but it was swiftly blotted away by a fleeting lick of his tongue. An unconscious mirror, Joe sucked on his own lips, biting down on the soft inner tissue until he too could taste the salty vinegar of blood that ebbed from it. The sting allayed at least one of his emotions – he could sense it sinking from the top to the bottom of his stomach to be digested alongside his morning coffee. He still couldn’t say which it was, and what remained held few clues for a process of elimination.
“I swear, Em,” he said, his voice chapped like Emerson’s mouth. “I swear. I won’t let anyone hurt you ever again.”
Emerson leant his head on Joe’s chest. “You can’t promise that,” he said. Joe’s t-shirt billowed slightly in the draught of Emerson’s words.
“Yes. Yes I can,” he replied.
“Not if you want me to do my job, you can’t. I need to be able to take some risks, I need to get out there again. I can’t just be a paper policeman… I’m not built for that. I’ve not trained just for that. I haven’t gone through all this shit over the last year just to retire aged thirty-four to a comfy desk, picking up everyone else’s admin.”
But at least you would be safe, Joe whispered, so softly that even he could not hear himself, nor be sure that any air escaped his mouth.
The morning was still young, the sun still in its cradle below the horizon. Not that Joe could see any horizon from where he was sitting. His perspective was blocked by heavy curtains enshrouding the windows, and beyond that, obstructed by the choke of buildings and trees, though not many of the latter. Somewhere out there was an open vista, Joe was sure, stretching to vanishing point beyond the reach of sight. But he had never seen it. He couldn’t remember the last time he had had a clear view of anything. There was always something in the way, and there always had been. After the striping, when Emerson had been in hospital the first time (at least, the first time since Joe had known him), a nurse had telephoned Joe to inform him. He had missed the call at first, too preoccupied with working out who had paid that boy to confess to Lennie Cobb’s murder, so all he had had was a faint voicemail broken up and riven with static. Once the message had gotten through, he and Miles had hurtled through at least ten multi-coloured blockades of traffic lights to reach the hospital. And when he got there, running down the corridor towards Emerson’s cubicle, he had counted all the chairs and trolleys and doorways that had impeded his pathway.
At least when he had arrived at Emerson’s side, his frantic worry had been gentled somewhat by the fact that his DC was alive and talking, and was clearly surrounded by a shield of medics, each doing what they could to heal his wounds. He had been relieved to know that there were people who could care when he couldn’t – that there were people who had the skill and the desire to mend what had been damaged, to rebuild what another attempted to destroy. Above almost all things, Joe wished he could believe himself to be one of those people, but with every passing year, it grew more and more of a forlorn dream. Where had he ever been when people, particularly Emerson, were getting hurt? What good had he ever done? When chance blocked his way, when had he ever forced through? There were three types of people in this world, Joe thought – those who harmed, those who saved, and those who did neither and did nothing.
He inhaled Emerson’s hair, nearly sneezing as a few wild strands explored his nose. “I suppose I should, then. Thank him. Ollie I mean.”
“Whatever for?” said Emerson, raising his head so that Joe’s chin came to balance on his forehead. “If anything, he should be thanking you, for letting him stay here.”
“I just…” Joe shifted so he didn’t feel like he was pushing into Emerson’s face as he spoke. “I feel I should find some common ground with him. After all, he helped you when you needed it, which is more than I… more than many have.”
“Joe, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. I never expected you and him to become friends, or even that you’d like him particularly. He won’t be staying long enough for you to need to put in that much of an effort.”
He knew that Emerson was only trying to be considerate, knowing most of anyone how difficult it was for Joe to trust people. And of course, he was right to show such sensitivity. The mere thought of trying to connect with Ollie on a social level, on any level really, caused heavy dread to sit darkly in Joe’s middle, alleviated only by a nervous anxiety that made his knees to fidget and his toes to twitch. Those few friends he did have had become so through little faculty on Joe’s part. But should it really be so hard to like someone who had protected Emerson? By rights, Joe should be praising the man, lining up to thank him again and again. Yes, forging relationships may have been an effort for Joe, but their mutual care for Emerson should be their bond. Did Emerson really have such a low opinion of Joe’s ability to be grateful?
If this Ollie was so important to Emerson, then the least Joe could do was prove he could take an interest. Determined to try, he sent his mind back to Ollie’s introductions the previous night in search of an opening.
“Ollie said that he was an actor,” he said. “Would I have seen him in anything?”
A guttural squawk pierced his ears, and he felt a shaking on his belly as though he was as the centre of a miniature earthquake. Emerson let out a quavering whimper, up and down at a high pitch, his shoulders bouncing at the same trajectory. It was only when Emerson sat up to face him, his hazel eyes glinting with barely suppressed hilarity, that Joe realised that the younger man was laughing, not crying.
“I doubt it…” Emerson coughed, humour turning his speech into song. His lips twisted and twirled like two dancers, circling and extending wide, their bodies keeping a constant connection.
“What’s so funny?” asked Joe, on the cusp of taking offence.
“It’s… oh, I’m sorry… it’s just… hmm…” Emerson’s voice was spliced with wheezing. “I mean… you’re hardly a film buff… so ah… you probably wouldn’t know anyway…But Ollie… hee… hee… he only does… ah…ha… adult films.”
“Adult films? You mean…?”
Gulping for air, Emerson visibly controlled himself, swallowing deeply. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat, seeming to siphon some of the redness from Emerson’s face as it fell.
“Yeah,” he said, biting his still twitching lips. “He makes pornos.”
A cloud of heat enveloped Joe, swelling upwards and descending simultaneously. Fiery and burning as it was, it solidified like scorched volcanic rock in his extremities – the skin of his face, the exposed back of his neck, the very very base of his pelvis. Even his eyeballs seemed hot as he closed his eyes in embarrassment, seeing pulsing, whirling red behind the lids. He didn’t dare open them again, not for a few minutes, in case he caught Emerson’s gaze. He dreaded what he might find. Which would be the worst thing to see coiling there – shame, mirth or want, or some disquieting mixture of the three?
Pornography. That was one typical rite of adolescent passage, and there were several others, that Joe had bypassed. He knew that some of the boys in his year at school had passed around a magazine, several months out of date and increasingly blemished with use, but he had never been invited to join their circle. Especially not since he had walked in on four of them wanking in the shared dormitory, their collective grunting reminding him of animals bellowing in pain.
His eyes jerked open, windows once again allowing light in to bleach away the mental video that screened on the walls of his brain. He shook his head to displace the images, and his sight fell upon Ollie’s cast off shoes in the corner of the room. They were worn, used, grimy from reels of mud lacquering the soles and bodies. The tongues, flattened yet protruding, seemed to gesticulate at him with a vulgar action. He couldn’t tell whether they were beckoning him on in invitation or goading him in response to his suspicion.
“Is that a problem?” Emerson was asking him. “That Ollie does porn for a living?”
Still not facing his husband, Joe’s voice dug deep. “Is it not for you?”
“No… why should it be? It’s not my business how he chooses to live, especially not since we’ve been pretty much out of contact for more than a decade. I know he’s careful, professional. As long as everyone involved is overage and wanting to be there… no, I have no problem with it.” An edge of defiance had crept into Emerson’s tone, pressing hard into Joe’s ear. “Look, if people want to watch it, people are going to make it.”
Joe felt a serpent-like stirring that he couldn’t attribute to any one thing. It slithered between nausea and arousal with eerie grace.
“I don’t… I don’t understand…”
Emerson sighed heavily, so his breath felt cold on Joe’s forehead. “Oh well, never mind. It’s fine, we’ll just leave it… forget I said anything.”
It was not the first time that morning that Emerson had said something similar. In some ways, Joe still found the other man something of an enigma, like a foreign language he wasn’t quite fluent in yet. But he knew him well enough to understand that when Emerson said to forget a subject, he usually meant the exact opposite. Forgetfulness was not something in Emerson’s vocabulary. Every rough word spoken to him, every violent act – each one stayed with him, Joe was sure.
“I said forget about it,” Emerson snapped. But the soft near-touch of his hand upon Joe’s face belied his barbed words. Fingers questioned his cheek, pausing, curled just above the skin, so that their presence was translated through the movement of hairs which stood on end. Coldness trickled, and hotness pooled, and Joe leaned his face closer into Emerson’s grasp. He closed his eyes as though to sleep, but a puff of dreamlike air radiated from his mouth as he felt dry, layered lips settle upon his.
“Come on,” said Emerson. “Enough talking. Why don’t we go back to bed for a bit? We’ve got loads of time.”
Another kiss, firmer, detailed his intentions, his hips pulling closer to Joe’s as if to underline them. Sudden hyperawareness startled through Joe. His whole body felt at once both full and empty. Every cell in his skin, his blood, his hair seemed elevated and enlarged, pumping and prickling and sensing in overdrive. Yet at the same time, Joe was outside of his body, looking inwards. He documented with cool calculation every point where he and Emerson touched, every time their breaths curled together in invisible steam. He noted, just as he would record in his police notebook, the way Emerson had reared upwards, swinging himself over so that the rounds of his knees pressed on either side of Joe. The way his t-shirt had risen like a theatre curtain, revealing the soft dark trail of hair that teased its way around his navel before creeping downwards. The way Joe could almost count every bump and groove on Emerson’s tongue as it laced around his own.
The way that, despite all that, Joe still gripped tightly onto Emerson’s wrist, his fingers surrounding the thin joint as though they might snap it in two…
The moan that lay in his mouth emerged as a gasp, and his arms exclaimed backwards, letting go of Emerson, raising themselves into the air in open-palmed surrender. Just behind Emerson’s head, leering through his hair, sat Ollie’s trainers. The eyelets through which the shoelaces bulged seemed to glare, unblinkingly, at him, challenging Joe to just carry on and take. Emerson, his breathing laboured, leaned backwards just an inch or two, and the shoes were once again hidden from view. Though Joe could feel them still, watching him with perverted pleasure as the sordid proof of his thoughts still pressed into Emerson’s groin.
“You alright?” Emerson asked, brow furrowed above his still dilated eyes.
“No… I’m… I can’t…”
He stood abruptly, causing Emerson to scrabble off his lap to avoid being thrown to the floor. Something in the body of the sofa creaked with the unexpected weight.
“I… we can’t,” he repeated. “Not now… not right... now.”
There was a long second of nothing. Shame muzzled all sound, or so it seemed, blanking out the hitch of Emerson’s breaths, the gulp of his swallowing, the shift of his limbs. When Joe finally turned to face his husband, he found he had drawn himself into a ball, enveloping a cushion between his chest and legs. His head had dropped into its folds, face down with what Joe assumed was disappointment.
“I’m sorry Em,” said Joe. “I… I’ll be in the shower if you want me… I mean, I won’t be long.”
He didn’t wait for Emerson to raise his head, or for their eyes to meet and spill their secrets. But as he stepped beneath the flow of too-hot water, numbing himself through the cleansing scald on his scalp and shoulders, he thought he heard a quiet, experimental shake on the handle to the locked bathroom door that tested the bolt for a few seconds before giving up.
Thank you again lovelies for keeping with me. Next chapter will be up as soon as I can.
TWs for this chapter:
Brief allusions to homophobia
References to violence & murder
This chapter is significantly lighter in mood than previous offerings, though angst is never too far away!
Joe had no brain power left in him to wince as Emerson drew back the locks on the front door, the inner mechanism grinding with a tooth-splitting shriek.
“Sh…” Emerson began as the sound rattled through the flat. Joe was unsure whether he had intended to shush or to swear.
True to Emerson’s prophecy, they had heard no sound from Ollie all morning, though not for lack of listening on Joe’s part. The corridor down to the spare room had felt pregnant with Ollie’s presence, deafening from its soundlessness; just the knowledge that he was there had seemed to travel up the narrow passage in waves like radio static. Breakfast had been a silent meal, all their words as exhausted as Joe was, broken only by the ringing of stainless steel spoons striking their porcelain companions, or the splash and gurgle of milk. Emerson’s hand seemed to shake and spill, drowning his cereal until dozens of grains floated facedown at the top of the bowl. Their colour bled steadily into the liquid, leaving them pale and wan, and tinting the milk the same purplish-brown of old bruises. There was just enough milk remaining for Joe to sprinkle into his own bowl, less than he would have liked. His Weetabix sat like a lifeboat run aground too far away to save anyone. Ambiguous apologies had risen and fallen on Joe’s tongue, never quite emerging through his teeth, only to be swallowed back by every mouthful, each one drier than the last.
Now it was time for them to start their commute. Their journey could be procrastinated no longer, not if they wanted to allow some extra minutes for Friday traffic. Joe was retrospectively grateful to Miles for making Emerson drive him home the previous night, as that obliged him to travel in again with Joe, securely fastened into the passenger seat. Relief had warmed Joe’s fingertips as he arranged Emerson’s coat around his shoulders. The jacket resisted attempts to be worn, hiding sleeves from his arms and twisting silk and wool out of place, and Emerson had chased himself into a spiral before Joe had managed to hold everything steady. His chest lay square against Emerson’s back, the coat scraping against him with each tug. Emerson’s head had smelt of sugar, mallowy from hair gel, and deceptively light. He had used a lot more product than normal, making the curls solid and unyielding; had Joe tried to run his fingers through it, they would have had to hack their way as though through gorse, like the prince at a fairy tale castle.
The front door opened with a clunk, startling Joe through his spine. Recovering, he made to follow Emerson over the threshold, but found himself running into the back of the other man when he stopped dead. For the second time, Joe had the scent of Emerson’s hair in his nostrils, hidden though it might have been.
“Oh, wait,” said Emerson, turning back into the flat. “I’d better leave a note for Ollie so he can get in touch later if he needs to. Okay if I give him my number at the station as well as my mobile?”
Joe frowned. “Is that really necessary?”
Emerson groped in his jacket pocket, his searching fingers visible through the thin material. After a moment spent with lips pursed and eyebrows wrinkled in concentration, he withdrew his notebook and the stub of a pencil.
“It’s just in case he needs to get hold of me and, I don’t know, my mobile’s off or the signal’s dropped again or something.”
Bending over the hall table, he started scribbling, taking less care over his characters than usual. The graphite nib hollowed out his letters in grooves into the paper and his knuckles strained white with effort. Joe wanted to ask why Emerson wasn’t using a pen as he normally would – surely the smoother roll of a ballpoint would have made the task much easier? He kept his tongue still, however, hiding his words beneath it like a blanket, unlike Emerson’s, which peeped through the corner of his lips as he wrote. There was even a biro there, waiting patiently at the other side of the table, left behind from some now-forgotten message or communiqué which one of them must have written once. It lay on its length, stranded and superfluous, its lid half off as if it had readied itself for use before realising it was to be ignored. Joe almost felt sorry for it. Its one use, its one way of contributing, of making a difference, had been denied it. Maybe that was what was giving Joe a feeling of wrongness this morning? That, or Emerson’s hair, or his jacket, or he wasn’t sure what. But something was off, he was certain, some normality was misplaced. But, then again, what was normal? Joe wasn’t sure that he and Emerson had ever defined what that was. There had been nothing in the marriage vows - in fact the promises they had made had stressed the enduring changeability of things. Sickness, poverty and bad times were accounted for, as equal to their opposites. Normality was somewhere in between, inexpressible and impossible to itemise, plodding along in the vague domestic middle. It could only really be documented by the notes they left each other, or the things they furnished their home with, or their comfortable morning routines. And even they were apt to change without notice.
The pencil wheezed to a halt for a moment as Emerson waved it in the air, rummaging for the right way to end the short epistle. Stepping back, Joe turned his vision wide in an attempt to work out what was different that morning, just what it was that bothered him. His eyes were drawn to a painting, a small, less than life-size portrait of Emerson, hanging just above the table where the real man now stood. Although created by synthetic bristles and pigment, he seemed wrought in lifelike animation, in fawn colours that seemed to grow from the earth, in russets that flourished like the quick bark of a tree. The brushstrokes were all curves, shaped like breathing. He wasn’t smiling, not as such, although his mouth seemed to stretch outwards towards his dimples, which cradled his lips within them like parentheses. He still smiled like that now, in his human reality, as though it was only an aside, offered but unsure if it was wanted. The Emerson in the picture was young, much younger than Joe had ever known him. No lines marked his forehead, no grey touched his hair. Those eyes that stared out of the frame into the middle distance had yet to see the terrors that Whitechapel had to offer. These painted eyes had never been forced to close in pain or fear, their nut-brown irises never engulfed by their whites. At least, so Joe had always thought until now. He strained to see the echoes of the abuse Emerson had suffered at university – were his eyelids perhaps stretched a little wider than normal, was there just the tiniest splash of darkness in them, only visible if you knew what to look for? Behind him seemed to be blank canvas, but a closer look revealed a mottled backdrop of pinks and blues and the lightest of greens, merging like liquid into the cream-coloured cloth. Joe distinctly remembered the day he hung it on the wall, though he could no longer recall what the empty wall had been like without it.
The painting had been a gift, well, more of a warning really. A few days after Emerson had moved in, Erica had visited the apartment. Joe had been surprised to see her in his doorway, as much by her mere presence as by the square parcel she held, its contents shielded by hundreds of cushiony plastic bubbles. He had invited her in, his courtesy undimmed despite the fact that her brother was not at home.
“Oh, it was you I came to see, actually,” she had said when Joe had explained that he was alone. Her smile was broad, and open, and contained a lot of teeth.
“Mmhmm…” Her murmur of assent was almost entirely covered by the crackling of the bubble wrap as she tore it open. “I wanted to give you a… well, call it a house warming present I suppose.”
Emerson’s eyes were the first to emerge through the foam-like covering.
“I’ve had this lying around at home for ages,” she explained, huffing with effort towards the floor. “I bet Em’s even forgotten I’ve got it. It got a distinction, you know, when I submitted it for my MA. Had it on display for a while, but for the last few years it’s just been kept wrapped up at the back of a cupboard. I reckon now’s a good time for it to come back out, as long as I can trust you to take good care of it?”
Joe hadn’t missed the implicit threat in her words. “Of course. I’ll do everything I can to keep it safe.”
“You’d better. It’s easily damaged if you’re not careful.”
She had insisted he hang it then, without waiting. Perhaps she had feared he would try to hide it away after she left, or change his mind and refuse to accept it at all. She had used his height as a tool with which to pierce precise nails into the wall, while she directed from the ground. Eventually, it was fully centred, the first of several changes to Joe’s décor that proved that he no longer lived an isolated, personless life. Some months later, the portrait had been complemented by one of their wedding photographs, which Joe had homed on the table directly beneath it. Two images set only a few feet apart, one in paint, the other in pixels. It had seemed the perfect location for it, and he had not been disappointed by the approving nod Erica had given him when she saw it for the first time.
“Ready?” said Emerson, re-pocketing his pencil and stepping back from the note and the table that now carried it. The space between the small piece of paper and the unused pen yawned with uninhabited mahogany – they were the only two things there, now that Emerson was moving towards the open door. A second check, a double-take, proved Joe’s vision correct, and he suddenly saw what was amiss, framed within a single second.
“One moment, Em,” he faltered. “What’s happened to the photograph? It’s normally right here. I don’t remember moving it, do you?”
Emerson’s head bounced on his neck, gazing from surface to surface like a drowning man desperately seeking something to cling to. The door, the floor, the wall where his portrait was fixed, the top of the table where its brother was noticeably absent. It was a wonder that Joe had not realised it was missing sooner. Although there was no mark to suggest its erstwhile location, the air around seemed to Joe to be moulded in memory of its shape.
“Umm… I… I’m not sure,” stammered Emerson. “It’ll be around somewhere, can’t have gone far, can it?”
Without waiting for a reply, Emerson bolted out of the flat and rushed towards the lifts, his brisk footsteps leaving indents in the corridor’s thick carpet. Joe stumbled frantically after him, pausing only to lock the door. He remembered only just in time not to set the intruder alarm.
A hooting laugh blared like an alarm out from the Incident Room and into the hallway. Emerson saw Joe’s back and shoulders crick with startled tension just ahead, two… three steps above him on the stairs. Despite their best efforts, they had still been late arriving at the station, and it was now a good quarter of an hour after the shift was supposed to start. Joe reached the top of the staircase, his long legs striding him away, his displeasure at his own tardiness evident in his gait. The Blakeys on his heel soles clipped against the solid floor with every footstep, their smart sound contrasting with the scuffle of Emerson’s feet as he tripped his way upwards. Emerson had to call out for Joe to wait for him, which he did, sucking his lips as Emerson stumbled to catch up. They had hardly spoken since leaving the flat, their silence in the car stretching as long as the queues that staggered down the street from each set of traffic lights and from every junction. Only once had Joe asked Emerson to text Ollie to request that he only call the station line in an emergency, as he didn’t want it tied up with personal calls. But the rest of the journey had been tortuous and silent, choked with dead words and asphyxiated sentences. When had they become like that? When had every unsaid thing collected and coagulated like an embolism, clotting the course and seizing the breath from their relationship? They had never been what one would call a full-disclosure sort of couple. Emerson knew full well that there were things that Joe had never elaborated on, and there were events in his own past of which he had never spoken. Things he had thought were sealed and nailed down and forever laid to rest. Things that had never seemed important – things that weren’t important until the memory of them impacted upon the waking and sleeping of his present. It was true, what he had told Joe that morning. It had been for neither effect nor attention that he had told him about the time he broke his wrist. He would just as rather not have mentioned it at all, except that in the six months they had been married, Joe seemed to have developed a way of making Emerson want to reveal everything he could. And he was worried about what else Joe would want to know.
The laugh grew louder as Joe opened the door to the Incident Room, screeching high then growling low with no space between them. Turning around, Joe looked nervous to hear such a raucous noise blasting from their workspace – his eyebrows drew closer together and his lips parted as though to speak, but another extended cackle cut him off. He attempted a smile at Emerson, if that twisting thing could be called a smile, and his left hand swung forward slightly, fingers extended, to brush the back of Emerson’s knuckles. Then he stepped fully through the doorway, adjusting his mouth, his shoulders, his tie all into straight lines, and Emerson’s Joe was gone. DI Chandler had arrived, and he was impatient to get to work.
He walked much as he had always walked, just as he had that first day on their first case together. When everyone thought he had already given up, in he had stridden wearing the mask they all would come to know, but that only Miles, and later Emerson, would ever get to glimpse beneath. He wore that mask now, though it shook a bit as he looked over at the watching photographs of their as-yet unavenged victims. Looking at Joe alone, Emerson could have been forgiven for thinking that little had changed since the Ripper case all that time ago. Yes, he wore his years upon his face and hair, and perhaps he seemed a little less uncertain, a little more at home. But he was still essentially the same man, desperate to prove himself. It was everything around him, everyone, that had altered. The furniture in the Incident Room had been moved about and replaced more times than Emerson could keep track of, blackboards becoming white, dull lamps becoming brighter, speckled floor tiles becoming chequered and back again. Miles and Emerson were the only two remaining of the original team, both of them looking at Joe differently now. Even the smell had improved from the staleness it had had. Back then, sour sweat had clung to the walls and floor, choking any enthusiasm that tried to emerge through the lethargy. Since Joe had made them clean up, the tang of deodorant and aftershave had become the overriding aroma, particularly since some, like Mansell, had a habit of using far more than was polite. When Riley had joined the team, her perfume had added a certain dignity to it all – Emerson hesitated to call it ‘feminine’ since she regarded herself as one of the lads, and carried it off considerably better than he himself did.
Emerson watched Joe recede, closely shadowed by Miles, into a private corner, throwing a disgruntled look over to Riley and Mansell, who were still chuckling indiscreetly by the whiteboards.
“Here, Kent, come and have a look at this,” Riley shouted, batting away Mansell’s attempts to put his hands over her mouth.
“For Christ’s sake, Riley, it’s not even that funny,” huffed Mansell as Emerson trod over to stand by them. “Wish I’d never bloody shown you now.”
“Well, you should have thought about that earlier, then, shouldn’t you?” she replied. “This’ll keep us going for weeks, won’t it, Emerson?”
Her wink was enticing and conspiratorial, and Emerson couldn’t help but join the joke, even though he had no idea what it was they were laughing at. Well, any chance to get one over on Mansell was fine by him, although any of the maliciousness he may once have felt was entirely absent.
“What’s going on?” he asked, ignoring Mansell’s dagger-like glare.
Riley jostled Mansell with her elbow, the movement causing his open jacket to slip down his shoulders in a schoolboyish, lop-sided way. “This pillock here,” she said, “he’s somehow signed himself up by accident to this catalogue mailing list. Some trendy posh boy fashion magazine. You know, the kind of thing someone like him would never read in a month of Sundays.”
“You mean he can read?” Emerson threw in, his tongue poking out in Mansell’s direction.
“Apparently so. But he obviously can’t write very well, ‘cos the best bit is, he gets the first magazine in the post this morning – right address and everything, only addressed to a Dr Cindy Manson. Cindy!”
Riley’s speech ascended into screeching, and Emerson felt his laughter squirming behind his face, moving about within the muscles and causing them to skip. His mouth tried to fight it back, but it blew out anyway with a gurgle and a spit and a snort. It felt good to laugh. It felt much healthier than that which had bordered on hysteria that morning. This was cleansing – it washed him through from the inside out, as though a gloomy cloud had burst somewhere. His giggle chattered like raindrops as it joined Riley’s.
“I’ll spit in your food tonight, you little shit,” grunted Mansell. The older DC glowered at Emerson, his forehead and voice both sunken, but the vehemence seemed contrived, and Emerson was almost sure that Mansell was trying to squash down a snigger himself.
Joe glanced over from the opposite end of the room, where he was catching up with Miles. He looked alarmed to his eyebrows, obviously wondering what the three of them were doing. Emerson’s smile faltered just for a second. He wished, pointless as it may have been, that it had been Joe to make him laugh like that. He couldn’t remember the last time that he had managed to release any similar reaction from Joe. Not just a smile, not merely the small puff of amusement that would occasionally escape out of his nose as if surprised to be let loose, amazed at its own existence. No, not that, but unbeautiful, full-throated gasps of merriment, laughter that shook the whole body, that stemmed from the gut, leaving it solid and painful afterwards. Had Joe ever lost control with the kind of laughter that left its mark on the rest of the day with little reminiscent hiccups, and its signature on the face with little memoried lines? There had been once, only recently, in the flickering light of the Hoop and Grapes, where the yellow beam from the lamp overhead had glinted pure white in the midst of Joe’s open mouthed grin. It had been a busy night in the pub and Miles had looked disgruntled as he elbowed them through the crowd, narrowly avoiding having his hair washed in London Pride. They had squeezed onto a table far too small for all six of them while Mansell waited to get a round in at the congested bar. Ed had been telling a joke – Emerson couldn’t now remember the punchline, or indeed the build-up. He recalled it being a convoluted anecdote, that to understand required a solid knowledge of ancient history and a comprehension of Latin grammar. Joe had attempted to explain it later, but the meaning had flown way above Emerson, not even touching his head. Something about Cicero, or was it Sisyphus… Whatever it had been, Emerson had promptly tuned out, and had begun talking to Miles and Riley, who looked just as baffled as he felt. But Joe, Joe had listened to Ed’s tale, Joe had appreciated it and Joe had laughed. Returning, Mansell’s lower jaw had all but taken a dive into the drinks in his hands to see Joe barking out a series of fervent laughs towards a self-satisfied Ed. Each laugh was independent of the others – his voice stalled fully before starting anew – but they created all one long entity, like a sentence running on, word after word, until the appropriate end had been reached. It had been an astonishing thing to see. So unusual that even Miles had been taken aback. Emerson had simply watched as Joe’s head tipped back to better support the weighty sounds emitting from his throat, his face slipping into shadow. He continued for several seconds, while the muscles in his neck bounced and contorted, like the laugh was being wrung out of him, until he seemed to suddenly realise that he had become the centre of attention, and not in a way that he was used to. Flushing almost orange in the dim light, his chin had declined towards his chest, and he had coughed, an embarrassed, vocalised hum. He hadn’t said anything more that evening, except to ask Emerson if he was ready to leave, just as Emerson had been about to offer to get another round in.
Emerson rotated himself back to survey the whiteboard before Joe could look away from him. He didn’t think he could bear to see Joe’s back become larger while his face became smaller, before finally everything that was him disappeared behind a wall of officialdom.
“So where are we then?” he asked Mansell and Riley, indicating the photographs of Paul Sage and Adam Snow.
“Well, we’re waiting on callbacks from a few friends and family, but no-one we’ve spoken to seems to know anything,” said Riley. “No-one was with them on Wednesday night, no-one even can suggest where they might have been. Plus, by all accounts, they were a pair of saints. Not a single bad word spoken about them, not among…” she glanced at her notebook, whispering numbers to herself, “…fourteen… eighteen phone interviews so far. Nobody could think of a single reason why someone would want to kill them.”
There was a bang and a buzzing, and waft of warmed air crossed Emerson’s skin as someone turned on the heating. It had a familiar scent, half excited, half anxious, the vinegary taste of the early hours of a case.
Mansell rubbed a hand through his stubbly hair. “There’s gotta be something we’re missing,” he said. “No-one’s that perfect. And, you know, to want to kill ‘em like that… in that… way… there’s one hell of a grudge somewhere.”
“The only negatives we’ve seen have been those trolls on Adam’s blog,” continued Riley, her eyes flickering away from Emerson, her blinking seeming like a portcullis rolling down to guard against battering. “Or, what was it that sister said yesterday, about a cake shop?”
“Marina Marshall?” said Emerson, recalling the woman he had interviewed, who had wept from both eyes and skin. “She told me that they had boycotted a bakery ‘cos they had refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. I spoke to the women whose wedding it was – they said they’d heard that the shop had gone bust because of it.”
“So we’re back to the anti-gay lot, then, are we?” Mansell started speaking with his usual assured confidence, but teetered off towards the end as he met Emerson’s gaze. “No offence,” he added.
Much as Emerson didn’t want to agree, it did make a horrid kind of sense. The carvings, those online comments, their authors gorged on vitriol, that he hadn’t even needed to see to know what they would have said, how they would have sounded. There were only so many ways to express revulsion for people like him, people like Adam and Paul, and those millions of others whose gender or sexuality did not conform. There was only a finite number of words they could have used. Emerson could put the vocabulary of hatred in any combination, in any order, and it would undoubtedly sound brow-beatingly similar to what those people had written. The fact that it was predictable and unimaginative, though, made it no easier to hear time after time after time.
He wondered how Adam and Paul had coped with it. Obviously they were braver than he was, setting up their blog, fighting for the right to live their lives. Maybe they had died for it too, the irony grinning through their corpses. If they had known what would happen, would they have carried on regardless? Had they ever had that conversation, asking themselves if it was worth the hate? But then again, you didn’t have to be an active campaigner to generate such animosity – Emerson himself was proof of that. All you had to do was exist. That night, when he was nineteen, when Ollie had defended him, there could have that been a very different ending. Rather than remembering his wrist being broken, Emerson could have been relating to Joe the story of how his skull had been fractured, or explaining why he could no longer walk. Or he would have been telling Joe nothing at all because they would never have met, Emerson long since murdered. Just one more statistic that a young DC Chandler might have read about. But they couldn’t just assume that motive this time, just because of who Adam and Paul were. They couldn’t crudely presume that the murderer, or murderers, had deliberately cut and scored their bodies simply to find out if their blood flowed differently, or to see if they had the word faggot printed through them like sticks of Blackpool rock. Please, let it be anything but that.
An icy finger strummed Emerson’s spine as he looked at the photograph of Adam Snow. Although, at the time, he had not been aware of the investigation into his own attack, had never seen which picture of him had adorned this board, which details of his life were noted as relevant, it all seemed reminiscent of something, like his colleagues were re-enacting past events. It was like they all saw Adam, and Paul by extension, as how Emerson could have been. Just another victim.
He felt a sudden ache in his temples, and he realised that he was frowning, his eyebrows knotted together, like a cord tightly bound around the crumpled bag that held his thoughts. Mansell and Riley were eyeing him sideways, a wary look shared between them.
Mansell took a step backwards, sliding one shoulder behind Riley. “Kent? You alright, mate?”
Emerson took a deep breath to smooth out the creases in his face and reassured Mansell that he was not about to take another swing at him. “There’s no chance it could be some other motive, though?” he asked them both. “I mean, maybe it was something to do with their jobs or something?”
Riley smiled and shook her head. “I don’t think so, love.” Her hand made its way to Emerson’s upper arm, and squeezed. “Paul was an accountant, and Adam worked in customer service in a bookies. I can’t imagine even the most disgruntled punter doing that, can you?”
“No, I guess not,” he sighed. “It feels too personal. More like… revenge.”
It felt like what had happened to him. Both times.
He reached into his jacket pocket for his notebook and his index finger came back bloody. A thin but deep papercut perfectly slashed along its soft pad. Emerson had forgotten the photograph of Beth Short was still in there. As though it had just been awaiting its chance, blood careened down his hand, escaping towards the border of his wrist, only to be captured with a lick of his tongue. Swallowing his plasma back inside of himself, Emerson tasted the steely memory of the last time his own blood had been in his mouth, coughed up blackly from a wounded lung.
“Well, whatever it is,” said Mansell, wrinkling his nose and handing Emerson the box of tissues Riley kept on her desk, “Adam and Paul must have been hiding something. I’m telling ya, everyone’s got secrets, a skeleton or two hidden in the back of their closets.”
Riley pursed her lips in thought. “You know what?” she said. “I think Ed’s got an actual skeleton in his closet. One of those plastic ones you used to get in doctors’ surgeries.”
Mansell’s yelp of startled amusement echoed around the Incident Room. “You serious?” he shouted. “‘Course he would, the weirdo.” He stopped suddenly, halted by both Riley’s admonishing prod and by the suspicious look scrambling over his features, seizing his mouth for a few seconds. “Oy, what were you doing in his bedroom anyway?”
“Who says it was in his bedroom? I was just helping him clear out some old books and stuff. You know, like friends do for each other. Not that you’d know anything about that, Finlay.”
“Hey! I have friends.” Mansell’s mouth seemed to open deeper and stretch wider as he spoke to better articulate his mock-offence. Careful to avoid Emerson’s still oozing finger, he slung an arm messily around his shoulders and pulled him in, with enough clumsy force that Emerson’s left foot was lifted off the ground. “You’re my friend, aren’t you Emma?”
For once, the feminine nickname didn’t feel like an insult or an insinuation and Emerson couldn’t quite control the small smile that twitched his lips. He nudged back.
“Yeah yeah whatever, Cindy.”
Sorry sorry sorry this has been so long. Your comments have been so lovely, and I'll try and post a bit more regularly as much as possible.
TW: homophobic language, some swearing
A bright turquoise Audi hurtled past Emerson with a splatter of mud and crisp packets as he indicated to park. If he hadn’t been on duty, with his Police lanyard visible between the folds of his jacket, he would have been tempted to wave his middle finger in the direction of the driver. Catching a glimpse of their profile, he was surprised to see that they weren’t a middle-aged banker type or boy racer but an elderly woman, her hair covered by a plum-coloured cloche hat. Emerson almost cricked his neck doing a double-take for, in the second of vision that he had, she bore a significant resemblance to Louise Iver. At least, he had detected a similarly shaped nose and spiky fingers. Maybe he had just imagined the sinister, curled, hellfire-red smile. Because it couldn’t possibly be her, could it? She hadn’t been heard from for nearly three years. And anyway, even if she was still darkening the streets of Whitechapel, she surely wouldn’t be doing so in a car like that. No, her vehicle, if she had one, would be black as a bat. A hearse, probably.
A chill quivered down his back, even though the sun shone. It had been raining overnight, but now the air was bright, almost loudly so, saturated with thunderous light. The sky above was gloomy and overcast, not a single window in the clouds to the expanse above, and Emerson could not tell where the sun was or how its brilliance was getting through, except that there was one patch in the leaden sky that hurt his eyes more than the rest. It had been the same sort of brightness in the dream he had had in the night. All white but with black beyond. The same dream that had propelled him awake that morning, eyes open and sitting upright before he knew where he was. The same dream that had Joe emerging out of the light like a knife cutting through flesh. He might have had William Bousfield’s pale eyes, and the Krays’ cruel voice, but Emerson was in no doubt that it had been Joe who looked at him. There had seemed to be a veil between them – a mist of precipitation perhaps – that hooded Joe’s emotions, and Emerson couldn’t tell whether he was looking at anger or disappointment or resignation. Only Joe’s mouth moved when he spoke, the rest of his features remaining blank and cold as the wind that didn’t seem to move.
“Ollie told me what you did,” Joe had said, his voice as motionless as the rest of him. “You aren’t fit to be a policeman. You’re certainly not fit to be my husband. Pack your things and get out.”
Waking up to an empty bed, Emerson had believed the dream true until he had breathed in several conscious breaths. The unfamiliar smell and sound of brewing coffee had confused his bleary awareness and it had only been seeing Joe, feeling him next to him on the sofa, that had convinced Emerson that it had all been a horrible illusion. It was all too possible, that had been the most nightmarish thing. But then again, the impossible had never been as frightening. Emerson had never feared losing Joe until he knew he had him. And he had never really feared the call of death until he had heard its siren song.
Dismounting the Vespa was much more arduous a task than it should have been. The scooter clung to every loose part of him, as though, having been left behind the previous evening, it was frightened to let him go again. The bottom of his right trouser leg caught on some wayward part of the mechanism so he was forced to hop clear. At the same time, he had to spend an extra effort to release the handlebars, the plaster Riley had given him for his finger sticking leechlike with glue to the rubber. Part of it came away as he pulled, tugging at the torn layers of skin beneath. He felt his flesh move and rub together, not quite painful but sharp and startling all the same. The adhesive had started to go grey and small lumps of it made a bid for the fingers of his other hand as he tried to fasten the dressing back in place. A clinical smell, mingled with something metallic and salty, crept up Emerson’s nostrils. His sniff turned into a small laugh when he looked properly at the design on the bandage. Of course Riley would be carrying around Mickey Mouse plasters, just like her seemingly bottomless handbag always appeared to contain tissues, wet wipes and a variety of healthy snacks.
Emerson’s stomach gurgled at the thought of food. It was only eleven o’clock, but his unsatisfying breakfast felt like a long time ago. He half-wished he had brought one of his colleagues with him – he might have been able to cadge a banana from Riley, or Mansell’s mucking about might at least have taken his mind away from his hunger. But he hadn’t even told them where he was going. Slipping out of the Incident Room while Joe and Miles were locked in what appeared to be a consuming conversation, the only notice of his departure had been a quick ‘I won’t be long – cover for me, will you?’ to Mansell. His Vespa had been doused in a layer of condensation from having been left out overnight, but he hadn’t wanted to go through the rigmarole of signing out one of the duty cars. Too much paperwork, too many explanations he couldn’t quite word properly on a standard box form. A quick wipe down with a tissue had made the moped dry enough to sit on. It was only afterwards that Emerson had realised that it was the same tissue that had soaked up his bleeding finger. There hadn’t been a bin close by, so it now sat, squelched into a soggy ball, at the bottom of his trouser pocket. He could feel it against his thigh as he walked.
He wasn’t completely sure what he was trying to achieve, trying to prove, by going out alone to the betting shop where Adam Snow had worked. He couldn’t even claim to be acting on any sort of hunch, except that they had driven past it on their way in that morning, and its glassy frontal had stuck in his head. None of the lines of enquiry so far had necessitated visiting Adam’s workplace – a simple phone interview with the manager would have done, and Emerson was sure the guy’s name would already be on a list somewhere on Joe’s desk. But as Joe and Miles reviewed the character and background statements that Mansell and Riley brought them, Emerson had found himself with no assigned task. Strictly speaking, he should have spoken to Miles to find out what was the next priority, but trying to grab his sergeant’s attention had proven impossible. Even Joe’s gaze had skidded over Emerson, with no recognition in his eyes. The old familiar yearning, the one he hated in himself, the feeling that his gut was reaching out of him, had taken over, and it had been all too easy for his feet to walk in the opposite direction, down the stairs and into the car park. His short journey from the station to the bookies had been spent going over the usual procedural questions in his head, adding a few more of his own as inspiration or curiosity struck. Now that he was there, standing in front of the entrance, they revolved in his head, as though memorised for an exam.
A man in ragged denim exited the shop. His face was crunched up like the betting slip he threw into the gutter with a throaty bellow. The paper floated in a murky puddle while the water soaked through its veins, smudging it into a mashed mess of ink and sludge.
“Blasted effing waste of space,” grumbled the man as he stomped onto the pavement. “Being turned into glue would be too good for the bloody nag. Lucky Sevens my arse.”
Emerson adjusted his jacket to hide his Police ID, and crossed his arms in an attempt to look nonchalant. The casual effect was lost, however, as he squeezed too hard, shoulders raised as though he were hugging himself. The stranger’s frown flickered and deepened.
“Wouldn’t bother if I were you,” he said. “They might give good odds, but that’s no bloody use to me now is it.” This last was shouted back over his shoulder, through the hazy glass doors swinging shut behind him.
Emerson modified his face into what he hoped was a sympathetic smile. “Bad day?”
“Ah just a bad tip. Supposed to be a sure thing – bloody animal went and fell halfway round. Lost me two hundred fucking quid.” His breath was acrid with the rival flavours of nicotine and chewing gum. Emerson could only pray that the man read his wince as commiseration for his loss on the horses and not the repulsion it reallywas. Angering an already annoyed man, broader and taller than him by far, not to mention one who gave the impression of liking neither Police nor poofters, was something he was keen to avoid.
“Oh, well… I’ll… umm… I’ll bear that in mind.” Emerson garbled something suitably vague and stepped aside to let the man pass him.
The doors to the betting shop were built of a light grey glass, slightly warped and smoky. Emerson could see people moving about inside, but their features undulated, as though viewed through convection currents. His vision was further obscured by a raft of posters covering the panels of the doors and windows, gaudily coloured but opaque. No passerby could fail to have the day’s racing times imprinted on their memory, nor notice the advertisements for the Executive Clients’ Scheme. Above it all, printed on a steel panel over the doors, prominent despite its dull bronze colouring and old fashioned font, was a name Emerson was already familiar with from Adam Snow’s background checks.
GOODE FOR A FLUTTER
Independent Bookmakers since 1982
Upon entrance, he headed for the nearest free counter, clutching his warrant card like a lucky amulet. Though the type of luck that was usually dealt in at this betting shop was not the sort that he was looking for at that moment. The staff member to whom he showed it stared at him for a moment or two until her lack of reaction made Emerson almost doubt his own existence. He frowned in question at her, the unintelligible babble of the television race commentators sounding like a made-up language invented by children simply wafting noise between teeth, tongue and lips. Eventually, the assistant mumbled something about fetching a manager and disappeared behind a clunky pass-coded door. Perhaps she just thought that Emerson didn’t really look like a police officer – too young, or too innocent, or too fragile. He was used to that, after all. It had taken long enough for his colleagues at the station to stop picking on him for his age.
“Bleeding Christ, they’re letting pre-schoolers be detectives now, are they?” Fitz had whispered on Emerson’s first day in CID, his hiss loud and enunciation distinct enough for Emerson to be sure he was meant to hear. It had taken Emerson several weeks to earn his new team’s respect, buying his way in with a black eye as currency.
“Er, umm… mister… sir?”
The small voice at Emerson’s elbow didn’t register for several seconds, nor the words that it said, so unused was he to hearing that title addressed to him. A girl stood behind and to the right of him, just out of sight until he turned around. Her hair was piled up on top of her head in the shape and structure of a haystack, though Emerson suspected that the messiness was artful and not accidental. She wore what appeared to be the company uniform – black skirt, green checked shirt and a silver satin necktie that gleamed under the tiled lighting in a poor imitation of silk. She had customised her clothing, however, to mimic the more dishevelled uniform of teenage girls. Her skirt had been rolled to just above her knees, and her shirt tails were untucked. Her scarf had made a forestalled bid for freedom at some point, and one end hung limply down her shoulder while the other was pinched into a tiny and severe knot around her neck. Its reflection cast a sallow light on her face, which was only accentuated by the crimson lipstick scored over her mouth. Dark eyes squinted out through thick unbroken ovals of yet darker eyeliner, as though they craned up out of two deep pits.
“Are you here ‘cos of what happened to Adam?” she said.
A lock of hair had worked itself loose from the mass above and the girl twirled it around her index finger, pulling the playful waves into a tight straight line. Attempts at a manicure had obviously been made some time ago but the dappled nail polish had cracked, leaving uneven, abstract shapes clinging to her broken nails. The last layer of varnish on her little finger came off in her mouth as she chewed on it. Emerson could see it hanging from her front teeth when she spoke.
“Fredsy… I mean, he’s my uncle? He owns this shop? He said someone had?… that Adam and his boyfriend?... that they’d been…?”
She had a strange, almost hypnotic manner of inflection in her voice. Her speech turned into an endless walk through a range of hills, never to reach a fixed destination. It curved down in a shallow dip, then commenced a hopeful climb to the pinnacle of each phrase, before tripping back down to the start of the next sentence. It made everything sound like a question.
“It’s true, I’m afraid,” replied Emerson. “Did you know Adam well?”
She shrugged. “Dunno? I guess? Haven’t been working here that long?”
Her chin jutted out in a defiant-looking motion, although her lower lip hid nervously behind its twin. Two warring brands of hesitation flickered across her face. A typical adolescent obstinacy was apparent in the tension in her jaw, but the way she sucked at her teeth and never quite met Emerson’s eyes suggested something closer to shyness or uncertainty.
He inclined his head towards an empty table in the nearest corner, straddled by two over-tall stools. The girl shrugged again, her shoulders and mouth moving in opposite directions, but she followed Emerson to the table and pulled herself up onto a chair. Her legs dangled between the chair legs, more than a foot of space between her soles and the floor. The seats were clearly not designed for people of her height, and her court shoes slipped from her heel and dangled perilously from the toes. Emerson fared little better, although his shoes stayed on at least, firmly tied as they were.
“My name’s DC Kent from Whitechapel Police Station,” he began, extracting his notebook from his inside pocket. The plaster on his finger yanked itself free on the lining, and plummeted into the depths. “Would you mind giving me your name?”
“Umm… I’m Sasha?”
“Okay Sasha, I’m just trying to get more of an idea of what Adam was like,” said Emerson. “Did he get on with people here? What was your impression of him?”
Sasha said nothing, just transferred the hair around her finger into her mouth and chewed on it, her eyes almost crossed as they looked down at the strand tufting out of her lips.
There was a swell of cheering and more gabbled commentary from the horse race playing on the screen nearest to them. Waiting for Sasha to feel ready to speak, Emerson concentrated on the television for a few minutes, watching as the frontrunner broke away from its immediate rivals, making a leap for the finish. The crowds, both at the racecourse and in the bookies, began to shout louder and higher, winding up their voices to screaming pitch. Then, at the last jump, the horse stumbled and shied away from the hedge. The rider was carried forward by his own momentum, the gasps of the onlookers sounding as though they were imitating the wind that did not cushion his landing.
“I used to want to be a jockey,” mumbled Sasha. “Not anymore.”
Emerson sighed. “You know you don’t have to talk to me, not if there’s nothing you think I need to know about Adam or Paul. I’m just waiting to speak to a manager – your uncle, I suppose.”
“Oh, right, my uncle? He’ll probably be here in a minute?” Sasha’s hair dropped out of her mouth as she spoke, and hung, clumped into a solid mass, by her cheek.
“He was nice, you know… Adam,” she said. “I liked him. He… he wasn’t like everyone else, not like the others who worked here. I mean, he wasn’t going to stay here forever, like there were things he wanted to do, things he cared about. Issues, problems, whatever they’re called. Bad things he wanted to make better.”
“Did he talk about any of these… ‘bad things’?” asked Emerson.
“Suppose, yeah. There were lots of things, really. You know, all what you hear about on the news or learn in school – he was, like, living it. Marches and stuff. I guess he thought he could really put things right. He believed in things, if you know what I mean.”
Emerson scribbled his immediate thoughts in his notebook: Adam Snow – idealistic. Naïve??
He read over what he had written, wishing, not for the first time, that his handwriting was a bit neater, more designed and attractive, less angular. Sucking the already chewed end of his pen, he tasted the bitter beginnings of ink leaking onto his tongue. The pen spat out of his mouth with a pop, and he scratched out the last word on the page.
“I suppose I hoped he was right,” Sasha continued. “But… I dunno. He’s gone now and can’t do anything anymore.”
The front door opened and closed behind Sasha, letting in a whoosh of breeze that incited at her necktie, blowing it outwards, almost pulling it free, before it settled over her shoulder, still and submissive and resigned.
“He was going to help me,” she whispered, raising her head and looking with widened eyes into the space just over Emerson’s shoulder. “Just… with homework – getting ready for my exams?”
Emerson started when he felt a hand descend onto his shoulder from behind. His pulse sped ahead of him like an advance guard, watching out for steel and brick walls. Wiggling himself to a stand, he leaned too hard on the side of the stool, so that the edges dug into the scars on his backside like a blunted knife. His wince of pain was only hidden by his uneven breathing.
“You alright there, Officer?”
The fact that the hand did not grip but let go as he turned, and did not force him to look away, persuaded his heart that it did not need to beat so fast its warning drums. It fluttered back into his chest, settled and slowed. Even so, as he swivelled round to look at the man at his back Emerson felt light-headed and transparent, flimsy like a thin piece of paper about to blow away.
“Wilfred Goode. I run this little place,” said the man, his arm outstretched into Emerson’s personal space, his handshake more like a probe up Emerson’s shirtsleeve. Emerson wondered whether the man could detect his still overwrought pulse jumping in his wrist.
“I understand you want to talk to me about Adam Snow,” continued the man. “My office is free if you like. Much more comfortable. Fewer distractions. Might even be able to find you a cup of tea.” He beckoned for Emerson to follow him. “You can take your lunch break now, Sasha. It’s all ready for you upstairs.”
Sasha nodded, got up from her seat, and left without a word.
“Thanks for your help,” Emerson called after her. “Just contact the Incident Room at Whitechapel station if you think of anything.”
Her head bowed lower into another nod that hid her face before she disappeared through a heavy door marked PRIVATE.
“I do hope she wasn’t bothering you,” said Wilfred. “She’s been very upset since she heard about Adam. I think she’d taken a bit of a liking to him, if you know what I mean. You know what kids can be like, I expect. They take everything so much to heart, don’t they? But we’re a family here, Officer, we take care of each other.”
“Yes, Sasha is your niece, she said?”
“Well, yes, of course.” Wilfred turned his back on Emerson for a moment to input a security code on the staff door. His suit jacket had an iridescent sheen to it, shifting between green and blue like petrol as he moved. “We do all worry about her, like to make sure she’s eating properly, so she takes her lunch up in the flat with my wife. All family looking out for one another. But, actually, I like to think that all my employees are like my family, you know? I think the same values apply – loyalty, devotion, trust. We’re all just devastated by this thing with Adam… it’s terrible. The place just isn’t the same now… no-one knows what to say to each other anymore, it’s like a bond has been snapped somewhere. I know it’s my job to pull everyone back together, but it’s hard. So very hard to repair the damage.”
Emerson followed Wilfred along a corridor that ran parallel to the front of the shop, trying to avoid brushing against the multitude of rotas, regulations and notices that were pierced to the cork boards on the walls. In his mind’s eye, he could foresee knocking some important paperwork to the floor and having to scrabble on the floor like a half-walking toddler trying to pick them up. Grateful that Wilfred’s back was to him, Emerson forced his gait into a lopsided twist, with his shoulders and hips facing different directions in his attempt to slope unobtrusively toward his destination. The thick red carpet, designed to provide a luxurious aura, muffled his uneven footsteps. It was a narrow but long corridor, with the craggy old Victorian floorboards still creaking underneath the fine décor. It felt like swimming in a fast flowing current, now up now down, not quite sure if you can stop in time. There were four doors that led off the passageway. The first, through which they had just walked, opened back into the front of house, where the cheers of hopeful punters were grew to a peak, then, more often than not, sank into the depths of groaning. At the furthest end, Emerson could see what looked like a staffroom – he could make out an assortment of dented and graffitoed lockers, a pair of crossed uniformed legs (their rest of their owner was presumably hidden around a corner) jiggling in time to a crackly radio, undercurrents of conversation sweeping down towards Emerson like flotsam washed away on an indistinguishable tide. A third door to Emerson’s left was locked, but the door could not prevent the unmistakable citrus smell of cleaning fluid from escaping. Diagonally opposite was the door which Wilfred now held open, ushering Emerson inside.
“Please, take a seat,” he said, pulling out a pair of dark leather-dressed chairs, shining fresh with polish. The chair legs snagged on the hemmed corner of a blue woollen rug as Wilfred dragged them into place around a large, magisterial desk, much larger and grander than anything they had at the station.
As they both settled into their assigned places, Emerson took in Wilfred’s appearance, studying his face for the first time. He smiled affably enough, but it was the sort of smile one might copy from a book, having never experienced one in the wild. Practised to perfection, the kind of masked countenance that sheltered more than it revealed. Underneath could be anguished grief at losing a colleague, or fear for what was to come, or any number of churning emotions held in check.
Emerson built his own smile to match. “So, from what you were saying, Mr Goode, it sounds like Adam was an important member of the team. He was popular?”
“Oh yes, he was a nice boy. A mutual friend recommended him to me. Too clever by half he was, maybe – I mean, he was destined for bigger and better things than working in a little backstreet bookies. He had real potential. And brains, too. I’ve always appreciated those who can think outside the box, as it were. I even offered him the chance to head up the new Executive Scheme, but I… I don’t think he saw himself staying long-term. In this job, I mean.”
Wilfred scrubbed his fingers through his wave of hair…
“And this Executive Scheme,” said Emerson, “what is that?”
“Oh, it’s just a way of branching out from bookmaking to a bit more of a corporate enterprise. I’ve a few contacts in the racing world, so our Exec members get VIP tickets to meets, special perks, that sort of thing. We’ve only been running it a couple of months, but it seems to be a success so far.” The chair brayed like the whinny of a horse as Wilfred leant back. “Just trying to spread my Goode name.” His laughter did not sound as forced as his smile had been, but there was still a rehearsed rhythm to it – a precise, measured gap between each beat of sound, like it had been notated beforehand.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “my puns are dreadful, I know. But, well, this whole business… if I didn’t laugh… you understand?”
Emerson had a wild temptation to apologise to Wilfred. Quite what for, he wasn’t sure, but just his being there, doing his job, felt like an intrusion. When he and Erica had been children, during the summer before their eighth birthday, they had fancied themselves spies, and had set up the EEK Private Detection Agency from a tumbledown desk in the back of the garden shed. Erica had used her budding artistic skills to make sketches of their adventures, as they had not been allowed to use the camera, while Emerson had kept a reporter’s notebook rolled up in his pockets at all times, populated with neat pencil markings, arrows, timings and alphanumeric codes. Two or three weeks of this had passed in innocent diversion, logging the number of times Mr Moffat next door watered his flowerbeds and marking in red ink any alteration to his pattern, assigning code names to the dog-walkers who trotted past their front gate, competing as to how long they could shadow unsuspecting people through the neighbourhood before they were spotted. Erica had always managed to charm her way out of trouble, but Emerson twice bore the sharp end of their father’s fury when their devious behaviour had been reported to him by affronted members of the public. None of this, however, had dampened his or his sister’s ambition to unearth some scandal or treason of national importance in their vacuous corner of the suburbs. Nothing could dissuade them of their newfound calling. Nothing, that was, until they actually found what they were looking for, ruining two families in the process when they inadvertently came across damning evidence of an illicit affair taking place between two married residents of their street. Powered by what they had felt was the essential rightness of their mission, their view unobstructed by thought or nuance, they had marched to each respective party’s home. Only for Emerson to have his first sour taste of guilt, standing in his neighbour’s home, as he watched the uncontrollable repercussions of his interference. He had never apologised for that, not even as ‘For Sale’ signs were erected and two households became four. And now every time his work brought him inside a stranger’s private life, he had to try hard not to apologise for being there.
“Did… umm… did Adam mention his private life much? At all?” he asked, gagging down the apology that lingered at the back of his throat, bringing it back up as a question.
Wilfred sniffed, a throaty glottal-stop accompanying the air travelling through his nose. “If you’re asking if we knew he was gay, then yes, we did. It would have been pretty hard to miss, to be perfectly honest. He didn’t exactly shy away from airing his opinions on this or that issue, getting us to sign his petitions, donate money, read that blog of his. And, like I say, we’re a family. It’s my business, my duty even, to know, to pay attention to these things.”
“And, would you say… was that a problem for anyone who worked with him?”
Emerson looked down at his notebook, pixelated with the odd word and phrase, but with no clear image emerging from the information he had drawn. His hand gripped around his pen, his fingers locked into a pentangle, skin stretched and burning. On his other hand, his wedding ring had shifted towards his middle knuckle, so that he could not fully bend that digit. Looking up, he realised that Wilfred’s eyes were fixed on said ring finger and its misbehaving ornament, his head cocked, making his not-quite-a-smile appear to capsize.
“You think that’s why they were killed?” he asked.
Emerson cleared his throat, a globule of slimy catarrh swimming in the hollow space between the back of his nose and airways before sliding down his oesophagus. A similarly sticky blob of black ink bled from the neck of his pen, blurring and obscuring his notes, as he set it on the table.
“We are pursuing several lines of enquiry,” he prevaricated, resorting to the official wording he had learned in training for this sort of situation.
“Well, if it is that, then it won’t have been anyone here, I can assure you,” said Wilfred, leaning forward. “I couldn’t care less who someone likes to jump into bed with, or marry, or whatever. As long as they respect me and mine, then I’ll have no problem with anyone. Adam and Paul could have been gay, bisexual or even trisexual, if that’s a thing now, that wouldn’t have bothered me, or anyone who works for me.”
A heavy weight pressed down onto Emerson’s right foot, and he realised that it had burrowed itself, almost to the ankle, beneath the rug that concealed the centre portion of the carpet. He drew it out, his shoe leather grating against the rug’s gnarled and knotted underside. The fabric settled back into place with a resigned flop-clap, wafting upwards a reminiscence of carpet cleaner.
Wilfred exercised another small, sad smile, taking it for a half-hearted stretch around his cheeks. “Officer, I would like you to know something. Please know that I deeply, deeply regret what has happened. I cared for Adam, I trusted him, both as his employer and as, I think, a friend. His loss… I feel… most keenly. And Officer, wherever it may lead, I wish you well in your investigation.”
Wilfred stood at that last remark, and it seemed that the conversation had come to its natural end. Emerson could think of no more relevant questions to warrant remaining, and so he allowed himself to be steered back down the claustrictive corridor and back into the main body of the shop, the slamming shut of doors pronouncing his exit. The girl, Sasha, was not there, or at least out of his sight as he made his way out. Wilfred stood in the doorway to wave Emerson off, and the last Emerson saw of him was him framed in glass, arm still raised, his image reversed in the Vespa’s wing mirror.
Joe was going out of his mind. Or, more accurately, his mind was going out of him, darting through streets and down alleyways, listening out for the familiar shuffle of footsteps, searching for the familiar bracketed smile. It certainly was not where it was supposed to be, leading a catch-up meeting of his team in the Incident Room.
“…so I think we can pause the background interviews for now, and concentrate on particular areas of interest…”
Although it was his mouth that was opening and closing, his voicebox working in association with his teeth and tongue to form words, it felt to Joe as though it was another person altogether that was speaking. He listened from a distance to the timbre of his speech rising and falling, hearing without quite feeling the crack between syllables as his voice fissured. He was standing by the whiteboards, looking out over his team, surveying, scanning. Although his eyes flickered most often between two precise points, the glass entrance doors, stolidly closed, and Emerson’s empty desk. He viewed the rest of the room only in the moments he could spare between.
Where was Emerson? Apparently Riley and Mansell were no better informed than he was, judging by the hidden glances and shrugs and worried frowns, hurriedly pasted over when Joe caught their eyes. Miles was trying to hide it from Joe, but even he squinted at his watch every few minutes, the surreptitious intervals growing shorter each time. He tapped with a stern finger at the glass disc on his wrist, the tick of his fingernail faster than seconds, as though he could intimidate time itself in the same way that he browbeat Joe and cajoled the other officers.
Joe coughed and swallowed down, bringing his voice back inside of him. “Reports have surfaced of an altercation that took place in a bar on Tuesday evening, involving Paul and Adam and an as yet unidentified third party. The three of them were ejected from the premises, though from most accounts it was this unknown person who was the aggressor. No charges were brought, or arrests made, so we have relatively little to go on, but this was only a little over twenty-four hours before they were murdered, so our bar brawler is a person of significant interest.”
The whiteboard marker squealed like a tiny insect, biting against the white surface as Joe wrote up the relevant information. In his determination, he pushed too hard and the pen froze up against an invisible obstacle, before skidding away out of control. The hallucinogenic smell of acetate wound in a spiral up Joe’s nostrils, and the writing in front of him seemed to writhe, horizontals becoming verticals and straight lines becoming rounds. The underline he had drawn for emphasis was no longer emphatic, but had become wobbly and insecure.
“Tuesday night?” repeated Riley. “That was their engagement do, wasn’t it? That’s what the sister told Kent…”
Her voice retreated at the mention of Emerson’s name. Joe’s fist clenched around the oblong duster used to erase the board ink, and he began to scrub away the lattice of letters that just would not go where he wanted them to be.
“Jesus!” Mansell let out in a stage whisper, startling at the bang of the eraser, which was far louder than Joe had intended it to be.
Joe set about again inscribing the data that needed to be displayed. His hand was not nearly steady enough, and the scrape of the pen took on a deeper, croakier pitch, groaning with every slow and scrupulous movement of his fingers. Each wave, each quiver, every time his knotted hand trembled away from the precise, it grunted at him in reproach.
“Do you wanna let me do that?”
Joe felt a palm squeeze his left shoulder, and Miles eased the marker away from him. Relieved of their burden, his fingers clawed around nothing, dragging up thin air beneath his fingernails in the same way that victims often tucked away a sliver of their assailant under theirs. Defensive scratches. Or so Llewellyn was always telling him.
“Where is he?” he hissed, jerking his head towards the space where Emerson should have been.
“You haven’t managed to get ahold of him?” replied Miles, with studied off-handedness. “Has anyone heard from Kent?” he asked the room.
Blank, apologetic looks were passed around the team, each one not quite aimed directly at Joe.
“All he said to me was that he was popping out for a bit and that he wouldn’t be long,” said Mansell. “I thought he was just going down to the carpark like he sometimes does, so I didn’t ask. That was a couple of hours ago though.”
“Two hours? He’s been missing for two hours?”
“Hey, calm down, Joe… sir.” Miles’ hand pressed harder into Joe’s upper arm. “There’ll be a simple explanation. Have you tried ringing him?”
“Of course I have,” Joe snapped. “He’s not answering his phone. I’ve left two messages, and he hasn’t called back.”
It had been halfway towards lunchtime before Joe had noticed that Emerson was not there, and that he hadn’t seen him all morning, not since they had parted in the doorway on arrival. Miles had kept him occupied with going over the post-mortem reports, which had involved a couple of trips to the morgue to check and verify several points with Llewellyn. The autopsy lab was always cold, frosted over with air unbreathed and steel surfaces like ice. Getting back into the Incident Room, with all of its noise and humidity, had felt like coming back to life, although he had still felt the need to defrost the blood in his fingers and awaken his insides with a hot beverage. Without allowing a stilted nod or greeting for his team, he had made his way directly for the kettle where he had bathed his face in steam for a minute or two, relishing the boil and brew as the teabags melted their contents into the water. It was only after the tea was made to his liking that he realised he had unthinkingly made two cups, as though he were in his own kitchen, and Emerson was waiting for him in the living room. He had shrugged to himself, half pleased, and picked up the spontaneous gift and carried it over to his husband’s desk. Only to find it empty and unused, computer screen black, the dregs of that morning’s coffee separated and swirly-white, swivel chair laid to rest. A check out of the office window, just gauging the weather, if anyone had asked – dry, with a hint of cloud; or perhaps it had been raining? – had revealed the lighter grey patch of tarmac where Emerson’s Vespa should have been. Where it definitely had been that morning when he had parked his car next to it. Emerson’s mobile phones, both his work and his personal one, had buzzed through to voicemail within five heartbeat-like rings, each time the preserved echo of his voice giving Joe a momentary lift of relief followed by renewed panic and worry. He had left enquiring messages both times, and it was only after hanging up from the second that he had realised that he had spoken as Emerson’s boss on his private number, while recording an anguished plea for communication on his Met-monitored, professional line.
Half an hour later, neither call had been returned.
“Something’s happened to him, hasn’t it?” Joe abandoned his pretence of leading the briefing, and took Miles aside.
“Don’t be daft, he’ll be fine,” replied Miles with a sturdy voice. “He’ll be driving or something, that’s all. We’ve no reason to think there’s anything out of the ordinary.”
“But last time…”
“Last time was last time. It’s not going to happen again.”
“You can’t know that, Miles. You can’t know that. You just can’t.”
Joe had started the conversation in a whisper, perhaps not as quiet as he had imagined, but hushed all the same, muffled under a layer of breath. But Miles’ vain attempts to reassure him had failed, and his voice now burst screaming through its covering and ran recklessly around the Incident Room, in full view of everyone in there. Mansell and Riley had their backs to him, faces down, but their postures were frozen still as the evidential photographs dotted about the whiteboard. Their fingers were poised over their computer keyboards but were not typing; they breathed, surely, but so silently and still they may as well not have been.
Joe lowered his head a little to reduce his volume. “And what about the time before that? We had no reason to think anything was wrong then either. Until the hospital phoned, we were completely oblivious, while he was… And then there was the time even before that…” He didn’t wait for Miles to ask about it. “He gets hurt, Miles. He gets hurt and I don’t stop it… I can’t stop it, I don’t know how. Hell, sometimes I’m the one hurting him. But right now, this very minute? Anything could be happening to him. He could be anywhere.”
Miles seemed to be trying to catch Joe’s eye, hovering in the most obtrusive part of his peripheral vision. But Joe did not want the distraction of sight. Or sound or touch or taste. They just got in the way, obstructing the path between mind and mouth as he tried to give voice to his thoughts.
“Well, yes, he could be anywhere, I suppose,” Miles was saying, as Joe gave up on blocking out his persistent Sergeant. “For example, he could be coming in through the door right behind you.”
Joe spun around quicker than his feet would let him, feeling something pull in his ankle as it struggled to catch up. He faced the closing door that framed Emerson’s entrance, as the younger man announced himself in a breeze of hallway air and the rustle of his outdoor jacket.
“Emerson… Kent… where in the name of hell have you been?”
Emerson squinted at him, his forehead crumpled, his eyebrows feebly pushing back against it, upwards, like Atlas holding up the sky in vain. Joe lost count of the number of staggered breaths he drew as he and Emerson stared at each other, as though trying to remember which part of their shared universe they were inhabiting at that moment. Joe was almost grateful when Mansell broke the impasse in his usual way, bringing them both back to the present time and place – the ground, not the sky; now, not later; work, not home. Mansell stood and nudged Emerson with his elbow, pulling the younger constable’s gaze away from Joe.
“Ooh, you’re in trouble now,” he almost sung. “You’ve been full-named, mate.”
Out of all of his team, Mansell was the one Joe understood least. The way he always had a joke prepared, safely stored, primed and ready to wear like one of Joe’s shirts. His laissez-faire attitude, how he could slide into the office with a minute’s grace, cheeks grey and eyes shadowy from the previous night, and crash from desk to desk in search of caffeine and conversation and things he needed to do. Nothing ever seemed to bother him, no small irritations burrowed beneath his skin, no large doubts ever concerned him. He was as opposite to Joe as it was possible to be, or so he had always seemed, although some veiled comments Riley had made once had given Joe occasional cause to rethink. Now was one of those times. As he looked at Mansell, whose shoulders sloped down from a tense neck, Joe perceived that the roguish grin daubed over his mouth was waxen, malleable and temporary. With just a bit more heat, it would shift, change shape, and melt away. Mansell, Joe realised, had also been worried about Emerson, in his own clumsy way, and was covering his relief with humour. Maybe he and Mansell were not so different after all. Joe's anxiety tended towards anger, not wit, that was all.
“I am waiting,” Joe said, spitting consonants, jettisoning them in his effort to keep the vowels level, “for you to explain just where you have been all this time, DC Kent, and why you did not see fit to inform anyone where you were going.”
“You take off with barely a word to anyone, you remain absent without leave for hours, you do not answer your phone, and you saunter in at the end of an important briefing, which you have now missed, incidentally. This is not behaviour which I will tolerate.”
Emerson took a step closer to Joe, then paused with one foot raised off the ground before shuffling backwards. “I just…” His head drooped to face the floor so that all Joe could see of his face was the peak of his forehead, cradled in curls, and a distant paleness of scalp where his hair was thinner. “I was just following a lead, sir. Well, not a lead, I suppose. Just filling in some more background. I thought… I wanted to have a look at Adam Snow’s place of work… get a feel for how he fitted in there. We’d covered all the personal stuff – it just made sense for someone to go out and take a look. I guess I should have said something, but… it wasn’t meant to take so long and… well, we don’t normally have to run everything past you every time we breathe. Or is that just me?”
“Mate…” breathed Mansell, his voice quiet and twisted in a wince. “Time and place, yeah?”
Emerson aimed some words at Mansell that caused the older constable to raise his palms in capitulation and slide away, his feet skidding backwards on the slippery floor. The words themselves were inaudible to Joe, striking his ear with only an indistinct crack, as Emerson slammed himself down at his desk. His computer monitor swayed like a badly founded building in an earthquake. He stabbed at the keyboard with agitated fingers, and when the computer logged on, its musical refrain sounded more like moans of agony. The sound seared through Joe’s head like a blade, unrelieved by the Tiger Balm which lay, obedient but useless, in a drawer in Joe’s office. In direct contrast to Emerson, who was head down in work, valuable though it may be, being stubbornly disobedient.
“Could you please look at me when I’m talking to you?” In his turmoil, Joe spoke in quite the wrong register, out of tune and off-key. He had aimed his speech to be more of an entreaty, soft and low and pleading, but his residual anger had made it run sharp.
Emerson didn’t move. “Oh, so you want my attention now, do you Joe?”
The collective gasp seemed to be inhaled throughout the room, as though the walls themselves had breathed in with shock. After a stultified moment, Joe heard a door open and shut somewhere, and his ears followed the click of retreating footsteps. His eyes did not need to look to see the rest of the team escaping the looming situation. A wisp of a breeze toyed with his cheek, raising goosebumps there, even as he felt his face redden. Heat and cold mixed together, but they did not neutralise each other. They only became all the more extreme.
“I… I mean…” Emerson spluttered, rotating around on the hinges of his chair, his own face blotchy and tilted over as though all its internal structures had collapsed. “Oh God, I didn’t mean…” He ploughed his hands through his hair, skewing in into pieces. “Shit, that was really unprofessional. I’m sorry. It’s just… it feels like lately… all you’re doing is pushing me away.”
“There are procedures for a reason, Kent,” said Joe. “Operational protocols – you know that. A chain of command. You can’t just make unilateral decisions like that.”
“I know… it wasn’t like that.”
“There hadn’t even been a proper risk assessment. You were leaving yourself so vulnerable, didn’t you even think of that?”
Emerson stood violently, kicking his chair away from underneath him with a thunderous shove. It rolled to a halt in the middle of the room, the seat circling a few times as though it were caught in a whirlwind. “You just haven’t listened to anything I’ve said, have you? This morning. Last night. I need to know that you trust me in an investigation.”
“It’s not a question of trust, Kent. It’s a question of safety.”
He pulled at the handle on the nearest filing cabinet, wrenching his shoulder in the process of tugging on the unyielding drawer. After a few seconds he realised that its obduracy was down to the fact that he had not turned the key to unlock it, batting away Emerson’s attempt to help him. The twist of the key in the lock was as smooth in opening as it had been stubborn in holding it the cabinet closed, as if it were being contrary on purpose.
“Here,” he said, reaching in and withdrawing a large apothecary-green booklet and slapping it into Emerson’s hands along with a presentation of dust. Their fingers did not touch during the exchange. “I’ll need you to fill out an incident report.”
“A what? Why? Joe, nothing happened.”
“Record it as a near miss, please Kent. As much detail as you can.”
The battered accident book, creased like an ancient face, had not been used in some time. It wasn’t that they had been lax with health and safety – although their reputation within the force might suggest otherwise – but all incidents involving members of the public had gone over to the paperless system, leaving the old analogue method for on-duty staff accidents only. And there had just been a lot fewer of those recently. The days of panic attacks, abductions and Incident Room infighting seemed to have passed, leaving a new era populated by kettle-scalded fingers, the occasional bad neck from watching too much CCTV, and that one time when Mansell had somehow managed to catapult a rubber band into his own face. In its later pages, the accident book had become almost a nostalgia document, rather than the catalogue of horrors it once had been. Joe meant to keep it that way, and if that meant clamping down on Emerson’s risky behaviour and forcing him to fill out a tedious and objectively unnecessary form, then so be it.
“And no-one goes out alone, understand?” Joe emphasised, as Emerson bent over the wobbly cabinet and began to scribble his details into the pre-set boxes, which were clearly laid out, but unexpandable and not quite big enough. Joe tried hard to ignore the way that Emerson’s letters pushed at the box’s edge, the kick of his ‘k’ and the cross on his ‘t’ sneaking across the boundary. “Not to interviews, not on arrests, not at all. Especially not you.”
Emerson’s hand paused midway through writing the date, leaving the year incomplete. The base of his pen levered upwards and buried itself into the heart of his fist, like a spear lancing his palm. He still didn’t look at Joe.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he said, his voice hushed and flat, but enunciated with venom.
“If you won’t let me… Do you have any idea…?” Joe swallowed a mixture of silt and saline. “There’s someone out there, Emerson, and we don’t know who, and he’s targeting, killing, gay men…”
“We don’t know that for sure yet,” Emerson interjected.
“…and being a policeman will be no protection.”
“So, what, you think that just because I’m gay as well…? Seriously, Joe, are you actually lecturing me on this? You think I’m unaware of the risks?”
Pain seared through Joe’s stomach as once again images of the night Emerson broke his wrist hacked his mind. “But that’s precisely it. There are some risks you just shouldn’t be taking.”
Like a door dampened by a buffer that restrained it as it shut and secured it as it locked, Emerson slowly closed the pages of the incident book, sealing it by placing his biro over the front cover.
“By ‘you’, do you mean all of us in general?” he said. “Or is it only me that can’t take any risks? ‘Cos if that’s the case, you might as well sack me now. For the millionth time, Joe, you need to let me do my job.”
His fingers brushed down the frontal of the booklet, curling underneath his knuckles and stretching out again. The page edges nipped at Joe’s wrist as they slid towards him, garnished by the pen that sat firmly on top, ensuring that the leaves could not be unfurled without dislodging it. Nonetheless, with stiff and unyielding fingers, Joe broke through this makeshift barrier and opened the book to Emerson’s incomplete report, tossing the pen to the ground where it clicked itself off and then lay still.
“Your job, DC Kent,” he said, “is to do as your DI asks. And I have asked, and now I am ordering you to fill in this incident form.”
Emerson blinked, and blinked again, and blinked again, each time his eyes growing shinier. He sniffed and cleared his throat.
“Can I at least get some lunch first, sir?” On his final word, his voice fell into a crack, emerging only as a whisper.
He bit his lips, sliding them in and out of his mouth as one as though he were locking in words he felt he mustn’t say. The Adam’s apple in his neck bulged up and down. He sniffed again, but turned around and exited without speaking.
Joe was not surprised when he heard the washroom door slam a few seconds later.