The briefing droned on. Not that Bodie would ever suggest the word droning within earshot of the Cow, but the grin whispering it under his breath put on his partner's features was worth the basilisk scowl the schoolboy misdemeanour elicited from the great man himself.
''Do you have something to add, Bodie?'' Cowley interrupted himself to enquire acidly.
''No, sir'' snapped Bodie instantly in response ''But I think Doyle has something to say...''
Doyle immediately smartened up his slouch and offered ''Was just saying we could do with some back up, sir.''
''Indeed?'' Cowley intoned glacially.
''Yes, sir'' Doyle assured his boss brightly ''Old ladies make Bodie nervous.''
''I should have thought that boot resided firmly on the other foot'' Cowley muttered irritably to himself, before returning his attention to his audience ''In conclusion gentleman, this is a sensitive matter and I have given the PM my personal undertaking that it will be resolved sensitively.''
This statement was followed by a general murmuring of respectful assent, intermingled with the sound of chair legs scraping across the floor, as the assembled agents rose to leave.
Bodie and Doyle turned to follow the tide of retreating agents ebbing from the room.
''Doyle, Bodie'' bellowed Cowley, ordering them back.
They came immediately to heel, as the dictates of self-preservation demanded, to await their fate.
''My patience with your antics, Bodie'' Cowley began, having identified to his own satisfaction the likely ringleader in the double act's latest act of petty insurrection ''Is not inexhaustible.''
''No, sir'' agreed Bodie.
''Or to be tested'' warned Cowley.
''No, sir'' repeated Bodie.
''I think he means 'Yes, sir' '' Doyle contributed helpfully.
Cowley eyed them both with baleful suspicion and then announced ''I have a job for the pair of you.''
''Yes, sir'' said Doyle, with an innocence bordering on insolence.
Cowley narrowed the focus of his suspicion upon Doyle ''What do you know about knitting?''
Bodie inexpertly stifled a giggle, Cowley raised a censorious eyebrow in Bodie's direction, Bodie tried manfully to produce his poker face.
''Not much'' admitted Doyle, implausibly oblivious to the by-play between his partner and his boss ''Me Mum's a dab 'and, though.''
''I shall bear that in mind'' replied Cowley disdainfully ''In the meantime, I want you at the V&A, and take the Laughing Cavalier, here, with you.''
''What for?'' asked Bodie, recklessly skirting the edge of belligerence.
''Doyle, because one of our great national museums is hosting an exhibition of valuable textiles, which will include some of the earliest examples known to the historical record, and for which they are seeking our advice with regard to security'' responded Cowley ''And you, Bodie, because I'm sick of the sight of you.''
''You have to be kidding, sir'' protested Bodie, impervious to insult ''That's a job for the W.I.''
''Not this time, mate'' contradicted Doyle ''I've read about that exhibition. They've got some pretty heavyweight stuff, sort of thing that can cause an international incident, if it gets vandalised or nicked.''
''Quite so, Doyle'' affirmed Cowley approvingly.
Bodie looked sourly between his boss and his partner and then seemed to resign himself to his fate ''Okay, then. Lead on, Macduff.''
''Dunno what you're worried about'' remarked Doyle, heading for the stairwell with a jauntiness calculated to irritate ''Cushy little number, like this. Be a doddle compared to what Cowley's stuck the rest of the squad with. You can't tell me you really wanted in on that job.''
''Wasn't the job'' replied Bodie petulantly ''It was the benefits.''
''What are you talking about?'' asked Doyle as they exited the building and headed onto the street.
''Where are you going, Doyle?'' asked Bodie.
''Bus'' said Doyle succinctly, stopping abruptly at a bus stop and sticking his hand out.
''Bus? '' demanded Bodie, scandalised.
''Yeah'' said Doyle, his arm still outstretched ''Bound to be one in a minute.''
''And why are we getting on a bus?'' queried Bodie, scornfully eyeing Doyle's obvious, if somewhat misplaced, acquaintance with the concept of a request stop.
''Parking'' replied Doyle.
''What's parking got to do with it?'' asked Bodie, scanning the empty street and wondering if Doyle's optimism would actually summon a bus.
''It's all double yellows round that way, we'll never find a meter'' replied Doyle piously ''We'll get a ticket, bring the mob into disrepute, that would.''
''Doyle'' said Bodie patiently ''Am I standing at a bus stop because you're still trying to get your leg over the Fascinating Felicity Frosty-knickers, our favourite, but unthawed, meter maid? Give it up, me old son, lost cause.''
''What d'you mean 'lost cause'?'' objected Doyle, straining his arm to its limit ''Just needs a bit of work, she likes the law abiding type.''
''And that would be you, would it?'' enquired Bodie sceptically.
''Ex-copper'' replied Doyle smugly ''Can't get more law abiding than that.''
Bodie confined his disbelief at this assertion to one slow blink and then directed his gaze heavenward for support in his hour of need.
''They don't listen to atheists'' announced Doyle gleefully as, miraculously, an ageing routemaster, complete with a whippet-lean conductor, lumbered into view.
Leaping on board, Doyle hurtled up the stairs and made a beeline for the front, closely followed by his partner. Bodie seated himself behind Doyle, leaning his back against the window as Doyle turned in his seat to face him.
''Do you even know where this bus is going?'' asked Bodie.
''Be going into town somewhere'' reasoned Doyle ''They all do, tourists love 'em.''
''Okay, Marco Polo, wake me up when we get there'' replied Bodie, shutting his eyes and snuggling down as best he could in his seat.
''You'll never get any sleep like that'' scoffed Doyle. Then, sighting the conductor at the top of the stairs, he called over Bodie's head ''This bus go anywhere near the museums, mate?''
''Nah'' said the conductor, swaying expertly towards them ''But if you're feeling healthy, I can put you off at the park and you can cut through and walk the rest.''
''That'll do'' said Doyle ''Single for me and Sleeping Beauty here, just give us a shout, eh?''
''You two don't look like tourists'' confided the conductor as he reeled off two tickets and hunted for Doyle's change ''Car off the road?''
Bodie peeled open an eyelid and offered ''We're commuters, slaves to the nine to five.''
''You're late, then'' the conductor advised him cheerily ''It's gone ten.''
''Civil Servants'' countered Doyle, pocketing his change ''Flexi-time.''
'''S'alright for some'' observed the conductor amiably, heading for the stairs ''I'll give you a shout when we get to your stop.''
''You strike out with this bird, Doyle'' muttered Bodie ''And I'm gonna throw you under a flaming bus.''
''Told you, she likes the law abiding type'' replied Doyle confidently ''What benefits?''
''Eh?'' queried Bodie, struggling to lever himself up in his seat and peer quizzically at his partner.
''You said you wanted in with the rest of the mob because of the benefits'' said Doyle ''What benefits?''
''Not that you deserve to know'' replied Bodie ''But that hall where the mad old biddy and her sister live?''
''Yeah?'' shrugged Doyle.
''Naturists'' imparted Bodie sagely.
''What, those two batty old dears?'' queried Doyle incredulously ''Cowley reckoned they're eighty, if they're a day.''
''Yeah'' dismissed Bodie ''But, it's not them, is it?''
''Isn't it?'' asked Doyle, trying to rid his mind of the images now playing in it.
''No'' said Bodie ''They run the place like a hotel, you know, for the like minded.''
Doyle winced ''You mean the place is full of starkers old dames?''
''Did you listen to any of that briefing, Doyle?'' asked Bodie, rolling his eyes in despair.
''Yeah'' answered Doyle, affronted ''You were the one mucking about. Some posh bird has invited half the debs in the country for a long weekend in the sticks, and now the Cow's in a flap because it turns out she's in big with some nutty sect. Figures they're out to brainwash the daughters of the great and the good. Reckon we're well out of it, posh birds give me a pain.''
''Since when?'' scoffed Bodie.
''Since they 'ad the sort of hyphenated parents who are gonna let us 'ave it with both bleedin' barrels for spying on their little darlings'' replied Doyle ''Not to mention the bit where the Cow has 'em hauled off to interrogation, and if the papers get wind...''
''Little naked darlings'' interjected Bodie, arching a knowing eyebrow for emphasis.
''Oh'' said Doyle simply.
''Little naked, brainwashed darlings'' continued Bodie ''All revved up and willing, just waitin' to wheedle me secrets out of me, by the oldest means in the book.''
''Oh'' repeated Doyle.
''I wasn't planning on putting up a fight'' added Bodie meaningfully.
''Sorry, mate'' offered Doyle.
''Problem with you, Doyle'' advised Bodie ''Is that you don't do your research properly. Never get anywhere sticking to the brief.''
''What about the job?'' asked Doyle, ever curious about his partner's idiosyncratic work ethic.
''Never said 'don't do the job', did I?'' replied Bodie ''Just look after number one, while you're at it.''
''Oh'' said Doyle once more.
Bodie suddenly leaned forward and gave Doyle's hair an energetic and impromptu restyling ''Trouble with you, Doyle, is that you think too much.''
''Better than not at all'' protested Doyle, grinning with indulgent chagrin.
The conductor picked this moment to reappear and announce cheerily ''Next stop is yours, gents.''
Bodie fidgeted, yawned and doodled his way through Doyle's meeting at the V&A. Lulling the other side into a false sense of superiority, until a particularly snooty curator got sufficiently up Bodie's nose to prompt him into delivering a pithy and withering assessment of the opposition's combined security efforts thus far.
After that, the rest of the room did the fidgeting while Bodie leaned against a window, now jacketless and conspicuously armed, glowering in turn at each person, with the exception of Doyle, seated round the cramped conference table.
As the meeting drew to a conclusion, Doyle shuffled together the few notes he'd taken and folded the sheets of paper in half, twice over, tucking them into the inside pocket of his jacket - smirking gently to himself as the rest of the attendees skittered nervously past Bodie, who was holding the door open and grinning like a shark.
Bodie closed the door behind the last of them and moved to retrieve his jacket from the back of his chair.
''Enjoy yourself?'' asked Doyle, any censure in his tone entirely undermined by his schoolboy grin.
''Get on me nerves, that sort'' observed Bodie, slipping his arms into his jacket.
''Could've fooled me'' replied Doyle, leading the way from the room ''Thought you were the ice man - all cool, calm and collected.''
''Yeah, well'' objected Bodie, skipping down the stairs after his partner ''Every man has his limits, Doyle.''
''How come you never remember that when it's my limits?'' asked Doyle, holding open a heavy door to allow his partner to pass through it, and then following briskly behind, until they finally found themselves once more out on the streets.
Bodie suddenly stopped, looking left and right.
''See something?'' asked Doyle, instantly alert.
''Two o'clock'' hissed Bodie urgently.
Doyle immediately swivelled his gaze to the opposite pavement and then relaxed, thumping his partner robustly between the shoulder blades as a uniformed blonde looked up from scribbling something in what looked like a leather bound notebook and waved at them.
Bodie crossed the road towards her, dodging the traffic with reckless aplomb, Doyle in kamikaze pursuit.
They ended up either side of her, Bodie lifting the notebook from her hands and tutting sorrowfully as he pantomimed leafing through it, observing as he tossed it to Doyle ''All human misery is here.''
Doyle caught the notebook effortlessly, theatrically examining its pages, in his turn, and shaking his head, before tossing it back to its rightful keeper.
The blonde crooked her head and demanded in a voice full of indulgent laughter ''Don't you two have anything better to do?''
Doyle turned to Bodie in obvious enquiry, Bodie bounced on his toes, beaming brilliantly, and announced ''Not me, how about you, Doyle?''
Doyle turned to the happily exasperated blonde and informed her ''I'm with 'im, how d'you fancy being with me?''
The blonde pursed her lips together in an attempt to retain her professional demeanour and managed to ask ''Ray, what are you doing here? I haven't seen your car...'' then indicating Bodie with a nod of her head, she added ''...Or his.''
''Oi'' protested Bodie ''I do have a name.''
''I'm sure you do'' agreed the blonde suggestively ''But I'm too much of a lady to ask why.''
Bodie's indignation collapsed into an admiringly scandalised smirk.
''We're on the bus'' Doyle replied blithely ''You still free later?''
''Are you going to stand me up again, Ray Doyle?'' asked the blonde without any heat.
''Not if I can help it'' answered Doyle with feeling.
''Pick me up at eight'' instructed the blonde in return.
''Okay, love'' said Doyle, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek and allowing the kiss to linger a heartbeat longer than was chaste.
Bodie's expression sobered into something resembling genuine fondness, as he planted a fraternal kiss on her other cheek, before announcing ''C'mon, Doyle, we have a bus to catch.''
''You two seriously on the bus?'' asked the blonde doubtfully.
Bodie rolled his eyes meaningfully in Doyle's direction and replied ''It can only be love'' before seizing his partner's arm and literally dragging him back across the road to a chorus of beeping horns and inventive invective.
The blonde watched them heading along the pavement, making their way back towards the park, giving one final wave as Doyle spun round on his heels to wave at her, before he fell back into step with Bodie and they were lost amongst the crowds.
''Always liked Diane'' Bodie announced unbidden.
''Hands off, mate'' replied Doyle emphatically ''Diane is mine.''
''Only if you can keep her'' warned Bodie.
''Don't I know it'' conceded Doyle morosely.
Bodie gave his partner a comradely shoulder bump and said ''Sarah's free tonight, how about the four of us at that Italian place you like?''
''Diane was thinking of Greek tonight'' replied Doyle ''That okay?''
''Yeah, alright, you're on'' agreed Bodie ''Meet you there?''
''Yeah'' confirmed Doyle ''Table's booked for eight-thirty, I'll ring and add you to the booking. They're never full midweek, should be no problem.''
''Ages since I had a bit of calamari'' observed Bodie ''Reminds me of me youth.''
''Alright, Zorba'' scoffed Doyle ''Have it with chips round your way, did they?''
''Merchant Navy'' replied Bodie ''Joined up, saw the world.''
''Yeah, okay'' dismissed Doyle ''I forget that bit of your disreputable past, what with Africa and the rest.''
''I'm hurt'' claimed Bodie unconvincingly ''How about, I race you to the bus stop? Last one there picks up the tab tonight?''
''You mean, you hadn't intended to stick me with it anyway?'' asked Doyle, yelping in protest as Bodie took to his toes, electing to gain unfair advantage rather than defend his impugned honour.
They reached the bus stop at a breathless draw, Doyle panting out ''Wanna take some of that lard off, mate.''
Bodie drew himself up to his full height, gratified that their respective shoe choices actually favoured his natural advantage today, and replied haughtily ''That's hundred percent muscle, mate. Solid.''
''Yeah'' agreed Doyle, as a bus with an unexpectedly familiar, whippet thin, conductor drew up at the stop ''Especially the one between your ears.''
''Hello, gents'' the conductor greeted them as they hopped on board and headed up the stairs ''Know where you're going, this time?''
''Two singles back 'ome'' Doyle yelled back over his shoulder ''And don't spare the horses.''
It was a few minutes before the conductor joined them to collect their fares, taking Doyle's money and reeling off the tickets with the legerdemain of a professional magician, while Bodie answered the call of his transmitter.
''What's that, then?'' asked the conductor as Bodie acknowledged the message with his call sign.
''We moonlight as minicabs'' lied Doyle.
''Pull the other one'' scoffed the conductor ''Reckon you two are coppers. Wait 'til I tell the missus, the Met's so desperate, it's going by bus.''
''What?'' asked Doyle ''And blow me cover?''
The conductor choked disbelievingly and spluttered ''I'll tell 'er that 'n all. You sure you know where you're getting off?''
''Yeah'' said Doyle ''Same place we got on.''
''Well, that's life for yer'' the conductor offered philosophically and headed back downstairs.
Still smiling from the exchange, Doyle turned his attention to Bodie ''Anything?'' he asked, nodding towards the transmitter in Bodie's hand.
''Yeah'' replied Bodie glumly ''But you won't like it.''
''Why?'' asked Doyle defensively, already calculating damage limitations with Diane.
''Don't worry, Casanova'' comforted Bodie ''Cinders will still go to the ball, but you've got a date with your favourite blonde first.''
''Diane is my favourite blonde'' protested Doyle, perplexed.
''Oh, don't tell me...'' groaned Bodie ''You've not gone and fallen for her. Don't you ever learn?''
''She's nice'' insisted Doyle soberly, with an unsettling imitation of coyness.
''Oh, for...You have, haven't you?'' moaned Bodie dispiritedly ''Well, you're on your own when she breaks your heart. I'm done with putting up with you moping about the place and banging on about love's young dream.''
''Well, if it's not Diane, then who?'' demanded Doyle, as unmoved by Bodie's declaration of abandonment as he was by his prophetic pessimism.
''Who's our favourite fence?'' enquired Bodie mildly.
''Oh, no'' protested Doyle, horror-struck and unconsciously backing away from his partner until he was plastered up against the bus window ''You don't know what she's like.''
''You shouldn't have revved her engines'' admonished Bodie piously.
''It was rape'' protested Doyle.
''Well, keep your legs crossed this time'' dismissed Bodie heartlessly '''Cos she's asked for you specifically and the Cow's said yes.''
''You're coming with me'' ordered Doyle.
''I'm a lout, remember?'' said Bodie ''It's you she wants, Goldilocks. Even remembered your name – at least, she did, if you've changed it to Reg.''
''Do we have a Reg on the squad?'' asked Doyle, mind blank, desperately clutching at straws.
''She may have got your name wrong, Doyle'' intoned Bodie meaningfully ''But, according to the Doc, she's got your identifying marks down pat. Some bits of you are apparently unforgettable.''
''She used my...to identify me to the Cow?'' Doyle groaned dramatically and let his head fall back against the window, the vibrations of the bus chattering his teeth together as he bemoaned ''I wouldn't mind, but she gave me that bloody mark.''
''What?'' speculated Bodie in awe ''That star shaped thing on - ''
''Stilettos'' interrupted Doyle morosely ''Metal tips. Bloody cramped, that back seat.''
Bodie winced on his partner's behalf and then said loyally ''I'll wait in the car.''
''Oh, thanks a bunch'' said Doyle ''What if she has another go?''
''Well, look on the bright side'' advised Bodie ''At least they'll match.''
As promised, Bodie waited in the car as Doyle sacrificed his chance for children for the sake of CI5.
Emerging from Marge Harper's emporium of object d'art some hours later, with a haunted look in his eye and a slight limp, Doyle wrenched open the passenger door of the capri and tumbled into his seat, wincing unashamedly.
''What's she have to say?'' asked Bodie, slinging the paper he'd been reading onto the back seat.
Doyle rolled his eyes towards his partner in mute accusation.
''How are you?'' amended Bodie.
''Nails'' said Doyle ''Ruddy great red talons.''
''Still got two?'' asked Bodie.
Doyle nodded glumly.
''What you complainin' about, then?'' replied Bodie unsympathetically.
Doyle suddenly reached over, seizing Bodie's most prized assets in a vice-like grip, and squeezing for all he was worth. Bodie jerked as if electrocuted, yelping in protest, and inadvertently, and simultaneously, sounding the capri's horn. When Doyle released him, his eyelashes were rimed with tears.
''She did that?'' panted Bodie incredulously, and with a remarkable lack of venom.
''She doesn't want kids'' said Doyle ''Past all that, she says.''
''What?'' demanded Bodie, still trying to regain his composure ''She tried to give you the snip on the cheap?''
Doyle shook his head ''No, said the relationship wouldn't work, 'cos I'd want me own some day.''
''So?'' prompted Bodie.
''So, I play up to her, you know, for the sake of the Cow'' explained Doyle ''Said a man in my line of work isn't looking for that.''
''So?'' said Bodie.
''So, she showed me what would happen, if I ever got caught sowing me oats somewhere else'' replied Doyle ''Bloody good thing these jeans are new, she'd've drawn blood through me old ones.''
''And all that took the best part of three hours?'' asked Bodie, checking his watch.
''No'' said Doyle miserably ''That was just the finale.''
''What were you doing the rest of the – ?'' Bodie abruptly halted his interrogation as a grin of which the Cheshire Cat would have been proud spread across his features.
''I thought of England'' said Doyle ''A lot.''
''So what happened to that merry little twinkle you normally get?'' asked Bodie.
''Wasn't much use'' confessed Doyle, by way of explanation, nodding euphemistically in the direction of his lap ''You know, last time, after she'd stabbed me in the...upholstery.''
''Never mind, mate'' consoled Bodie '''Appens to us all.''
''Ever happen to you?'' asked Doyle.
'''Course not'' dismissed Bodie scornfully ''But if a man takes a hit there, he's got to expect the odd misfire.''
''But not you?'' pressed Doyle.
''Exception that proves the rule'' confirmed Bodie smugly.
'''Course'' mumbled Doyle dispiritedly.
''Went alright this time, though?'' asked Bodie, a hint of genuine concern in his voice.
''Oh yeah'' said Doyle ''Went alright this time. And the second time. And the third time.''
''Three times in...'' Bodie checked his watch again ''You okay?''
''I'm bloody limping, or hadn't you noticed?'' snapped Doyle.
''You'll recover'' encouraged Bodie cheerily.
''By tonight?'' Doyle shot back sardonically.
''Tonight?'' echoed Bodie.
''Yeah, you, me, the Greek place'' expounded Doyle, with withering patience.
''Thought you and the meter maid were still at first base?'' said Bodie.
''Yeah, well, I was hoping to change that'' replied Doyle.
''So change it some other night'' shrugged Bodie ''She'll keep.''
''For how long?'' demanded Doyle despondently.
''She's not a pint of milk'' said Bodie, turning the key in the ignition and swivelling his head to check his blind spots before pulling away from the kerb ''She's not going to curdle for want of a bit of the other.''
''No, but I might'' said Doyle as they joined the traffic on the main road.
''Randy little toad'' accused Bodie ''You've just 'ad more than you can handle.''
''Don't remind me'' groaned Doyle.
''Never mind'' advised Bodie '''Least she's a bit of alright, Cow could've stuck you with far worse. Count your blessings, Raymond, my old lad.''
''Really?'' queried Doyle ''Thought you weren't interested? All a bit of a laugh, getting stuck with 'er and her bloody octopus 'ands? All over me, she was. 'Adn't even got in through the front door.''
''Well you shouldn't go round being irresistible, should you?'' counselled Bodie callously as he turned off for headquarters.
''S'alright for you'' grumbled Doyle ''She thinks you're a lout.''
''Yeah'' agreed Bodie, sounding suddenly aggrieved, as if he'd only just remembered the insult ''Bit of a cheek that, I'm on the side of the angels. Says so on me warrant.''
''That's not a warrant'' objected Doyle ''We'd be answerable, if that was a warrant. That's just a certificate of bloody ownership, s'os the Cow can claim our broken bodies back, no questions asked.''
''Probably lucky he hasn't had 'Property of CI5' branded on our rumps'' agreed Bodie ''Talking of which, am I taking the walking wounded back home, or dropping you off at the ranch?''
''Better take me back to the ranch'' said Doyle ''I'll write up a report, pick up me car and go home and have a good soak. Feel like I need a bloody good scrub.''
''Want me to do your back?'' suggested Bodie impishly.
''Want you to do something'' muttered Doyle, under his breath.
''Don't be like that, Raymond'' admonished Bodie ''S'not my fault she's got the hots for you.''
''Thing is'' confided Doyle a trifle self-consciously ''If it wasn't for the Cow...if it was just me and her...it was...well, it was alright.''
''What?'' asked Bodie, navigating his way round a large West Indian woman, inexplicably pushing a bassinet full of potatoes across the road.
''Marge'' clarified Doyle ''It was...she was...alright. Tough as nails because she's 'ad to be. Might've ended up like that meself. Not sure I 'aven't.''
''Oh for...Leave it out, Doyle'' groaned Bodie ''Diane's one thing, but even you can't 'ave fallen for that blonde barracuda.''
''No...'' admitted Doyle ''But you 'ave to respect her.''
''What?'' demanded Bodie ''Even if she's wearing your knackers for earrings?''
''Strong, though'' assessed Doyle ''Reminds me of Cowley, a bit.''
''If you tell me you've got the hots for Cowley'' threatened Bodie ''I'll shoot you now and put us both out of your misery.''
''Idiot'' grinned Doyle affectionately ''But it can't 'ave been easy, being a woman in her line of business.''
''Yeah, well, back in the real world, Mata Hari'' replied Bodie ''The rest of us want to know if you came up with anything useful.''
''I'm not sure'' admitted Doyle, doubtfully ''I can't see what all the cloak and dagger was about.''
''So she could have her wicked way with you, Raymond, me old lad'' replied Bodie ''No good to her last time, were you?''
''Yeah'' agreed Doyle, too preoccupied with his train of reasoning to marshal any excuse in defence of his manly virtues ''That might be why she wanted me there, but why did the Cow agree?''
''He has a sense of humour?'' suggested Bodie.
''The Cow?'' scoffed Doyle ''If he has, he's got it walled up in a cellar somewhere.''
''Don't you believe it'' cautioned Bodie.
''Explain this, then'' countered Doyle ''When we actually got round to talking, after she'd nearly made jam of me plums, she says that one of her regulars had a fright on his last job.''
''What kind of fright?'' asked Bodie as they neared CI5 headquarters, its ugly presence apparently focussing his mind on the job at hand.
''He breaks into this pied-à-terre on a tip off'' said Doyle ''Belongs to some MP from the shires.''
''Yeah?'' responded Bodie, turning into the CI5 car park and bringing the capri to a halt in order to give his full attention to his partner ''So what?''
''So'' continued Doyle ''The old boy's been booted upstairs. Cue appointment at the palace, 'im and 'is missus in their best bib and tucker, celebrations all round after his nibs' investiture, and a safe full of tomfoolery, all ready to go back into the safety deposit box.''
''And?'' prompted Bodie.
''So Marge's contact - '' continued Doyle.
''Thief'' interjected Bodie.
''Slanderous, but true'' acknowledged Doyle ''Anyway, Darby and Joan sink enough champers to launch a flotilla and are safely tucked up in bed, dead to the world, so Raffles gets started with the safe, when he hears this noise.''
''Not the sound of silence'' suggested Bodie with assurance.
''No'' agreed Doyle ''The sound of someone having it away on his toes from the flat above.''
''So?'' pressed Bodie.
''So Marge reckons there's something dodgy'' said Doyle.
''Using us to eliminate the competition?'' speculated Bodie.
''Possibly'' agreed Doyle ''But then why would the Cow play ball? And anyway, the way she said it, like there was more, but she wasn't telling. I just got this feeling...''
''That the second feeling, or the third?'' asked Bodie, staring pointedly at Doyle's fly.
''I'm checking it out'' Doyle announced bullishly, ignoring his partner's immodest scrutiny ''Something's not right.''
''Okay'' agreed Bodie, trusting his partner's instincts ''But tomorrow, eh? Tonight we have wine, women and calamari.''
''Well, at least I can still manage the wine and calamari'' Doyle consoled himself philosophically.
It was two minutes past eleven, according to the clock on the wall above the filing cabinet. Six minutes past eleven, according to the clock above the door, and five minutes to eleven, according to Doyle's watch.
Bodie was late by all three.
Doyle yawned and stretched and wondered if it was worth calling his partner.
The previous night had gone far better than he could have hoped. Diane had always liked Bodie, in a reassuringly platonic fashion, and had taken to Sarah immediately. The evening had been full of laughter and wine and, as he and Diane had made their way back to her flat, she had slipped her hand into his and suggested he might like to stay for a nightcap. Trusting to the same fates he relied on while at work, he had agreed.
She had snuggled up next to him on the sofa, kissed him and caressed him, and then fallen asleep in his arms.
After a while, he'd fallen asleep himself.
They had awoken far too late to do anything but bid each other a hasty farewell, as Doyle had headed back to his flat, and Diane for her bathroom.
He was basking in an afterglow of an absurdly sentimental variety, and enjoying every minute of it.
Bodie had been wrong about Marge, he liked her, admired her in some ways, but she had never breached his defences. She didn't need him, she didn't even really want him. He was exactly what she'd told him he was, a pretty pebble, to be plucked up from the beach, turned and admired, and put back where she'd found it.
They might have slept together that first time, if fate hadn't intervened with a cruel stiletto. They might have slept together without Cowley's matchmaking, if under auspicious stars, their paths had crossed again.
It wasn't that their encounters had been meaningless, but each had left nothing of themselves adhering to the other. They had left each other as they had found each other.
Diane was different, Diane would need him. It was obvious in her reticence. It was an easy thing to give the gifts of the flesh, harder to give the gifts of the soul. Bodie was wrong about that too, he wasn't in love with Diane, not yet, but she was falling in love with him. Should she fall all the way, he knew he would be there to catch her, and that was who he would fall in love with, the woman who had fallen in love with him.
He yawned and looked at his watch again, two minutes past eleven. In another four minutes it would have caught up with the clock above the door, at least it would have caught up with where his glance had frozen it in his memory. There was probably something profound in that. Maybe he should get himself one of those Salvador Dalí prints, the one with the melting clock faces.
And maybe he should call Bodie.
It was just conceivable that the stupid great lump hadn't stumbled into Sarah's bed last night, or even made it home to stumble into his own, but had actually stumbled into trouble.
Just as this thought was starting to get a queasy grip on Doyle's stomach, the stupid great lump arrived, grinning unrepentantly and proffering a lukewarm mug of tea.
''Where have you been?'' demanded Doyle.
''Turn up anything?'' asked Bodie, depositing the lukewarm tea in front of his partner.
''This is cold'' complained Doyle.
''No it's not'' denied Bodie easily ''Just a bit off the boil. Stopped to make a 'phone call.''
Doyle picked up the handset of the institutional, General Post Office issue, sage green telephone in the centre of the table serving as his desk, and waggled it at his partner in a gesture heavy with sarcasm.
''Not that sort of 'phone call'' corrected Bodie.
''What other sort is there?'' enquired Doyle with a healthy scepticism engendered by years of being the target of Bodie's pranks.
''The sort that gets you this'' said Bodie, producing a hastily folded piece of paper from his pocket and sliding it across the table to Doyle.
Doyle picked it up, his eyes widening as he unfolded it ''How?'' he asked.
''That new temp'' said Bodie ''Told her I needed to use a secure 'phone.''
''They're all secure'' dismissed Doyle abstractedly, eyes still glued to the grainy, photocopied image covering one side of the paper.
''We know that'' agreed Bodie ''But she's only here to help out with the mountain of filing, that fraud case has clogging up Cowley's office.''
''Well I hope you made a good impression'' said Doyle ''Because you'll be joining her when Cowley finds out about this.''
''Reckon it's serious?'' asked Bodie.
Doyle peered again at the degraded photographic reproduction of a handsome, middle aged woman and pronounced ''You're off your rocker.''
''I'm telling you'' insisted Bodie ''The Old Man's only human.''
''He's not that human'' objected Doyle ''She's…Well, look at her.''
''I know'' agreed Bodie gleefully ''Wouldn't mind a crack at her, meself.''
''Have you got some kind of death wish?'' hissed Doyle forcefully.
As if in vindication of this caution, the retort poised on Bodie's lips was eclipsed by Cowley's sudden appearance in the doorway, enquiring in strident Scottish tones ''Are you two still here?''
''Waiting for a 'phone call'' pleaded Doyle, by way of defence.
''And you, Bodie?'' demanded Cowley.
''Brought him some tea, sir'' said Bodie.
Cowley eyed the both of them with malevolent contempt, and then disappeared as abruptly as he had arrived.
Bodie caught his partner's eye with a barely suppressed smirk, igniting an explosive fit of Doyle giggles.
As he recovered his composure, Doyle unfurled his hastily formed fist, releasing the now crumpled ball of photocopied paper, and bounced it in a languid parabola off his inner elbow and into the wastepaper basket.
Bodie followed the arc with a low whistle of appreciation, its last notes meshing with the sound of the telephone ringing.
Doyle grabbed the receiver and jammed it under his chin, gesturing desperately to Bodie for something to write on. Bodie leaned in, snaking a hand under his partner's lapels and retrieved a small notebook from the inside pocket of Doyle's jacket, along with a partially gnawed bic biro.
Doyle's eyes were two mutely grateful orbs as he began scribbling down notes, nodding energetically to himself.
Bodie barely waited for the receiver to be back in its cradle, before returning to the question with which he'd originally greeted his partner, and enquiring ''Anything?''
''Yeah'' said Doyle ''That was the Land Registry, on who owns the flat.''
''Oh, yeah?'' prompted Bodie.
''Yeah'' repeated Doyle ''Turns out we know 'im.''
''How?'' asked Bodie ''The address wasn't flagged, I checked it meself.''
''When?'' demanded Doyle.
''Called it in this morning, before you started nosing around'' answered Bodie ''Wanted to make sure no one was likely to put a dent in that overactive hooter of yours, not when I wasn't about to straighten it back out again.''
Mollified, Doyle wrinkled the hooter in question and gifted his partner with an affectionate, doe-eyed grin.
Bodie met the more soppy side of his partner's nature with an indulgent nod of acknowledgement and then said ''Well don't keep me in suspenders, Doyle. How do we know 'im?''
''Royal pain'' responded Doyle ''The sort that writes letters to the Times when some halfwit parks his capri on their spaniel.''
''I never touched the bloody thing'' protested Bodie ''It dug its way under there all on its own. I was hip deep in mud and bulrushes by then, trying to stop you swallowing half the river.''
''Oh, is that what you were doing?'' queried Doyle ''I thought you just fancied yourself as the infant Moses.''
''Better than fancying meself as a drowned rat'' retorted Bodie ''So did our resident pain report a break in?''
''Wasn't there'' said Doyle ''Must still be in the country, tucked up in the bosom of his missus. My old mob reckons half those places are empty, probably only uses it when he's in town.''
''So we leave it to them'' said Bodie ''They get a statement, he claims on the insurance, we get back to doing what we're supposed to.''
Doyle sucked on his teeth, looking doubtful.
"You want to follow up on this, don't you?" asked Bodie with an epic lack of enthusiasm.
"Whatever else Marge is, she's not one to cry wolf, Bodie" replied Doyle "And she was worried enough to call the Cow.''
''She might've had an ulterior motive, Goldilocks'' cautioned Bodie gently.
''Yeah, I know'' admitted Doyle ''But she's not exactly backwards in coming forwards. If that's all it was, d'you really think she'd've needed to rope in the Cow?''
Bodie decided to inspect his shoes for a moment or two, then he looked up from under his non-existent fringe and conceded reluctantly ''Guess not. Go on then, Sherlock, what d'you want to do?''
''Talk to the occupier, see if anything's missing?'' suggested Doyle in as conciliatory a tone as his nature would permit.
Bodie pulled a face which suggested that he'd rather partner the gullible filing temp for the duration, but managed to muster a loyally businesslike ''Okay, you're on.''
Julian St Greave QC, decided Doyle, must be a paragon amongst men. No vices, no debts, no parking tickets, just an unblemished record of marital fidelity and public service.
Bodie didn't like him. Or his spaniel. Unfortunately, at least on the canine front, the feeling wasn't mutual. Judging by its single minded interest in him, the dog must have developed a corduroy fetish.
''Are you certain nothing of value was taken?'' pressed Doyle, ignoring the heated love affair being conducted between the spaniel and Bodie's trousers directly under his nose.
Julian St Greave maintained a remote aloofness with regard to the dog's antics.
Bodie divided his time equally between glowering at the dog and glowering at his partner.
''I am not in the habit of mistaking my facts'' replied Julian St Greave loftily ''The only thing missing was a rather ugly vase, a gift from my char. My wife insisted we keep it, for fear of offending the dratted woman. It was a rather inferior crystal and, to be frank, I'm grateful to be rid of the blasted thing.''
''Can you think of any other reason why someone would target you?'' asked Doyle, clutching at straws by this stage in the proceedings.
''Don't they teach you better than that at CI5?'' demanded Julian St Greave imperiously ''Where is your evidence, man? There is absolutely no proof that this was anything other than an opportunistic burglary.''
''Odd that nothing was taken, though'' mused Doyle, mostly to himself.
''Not at all'' insisted Julian St Greave ''The burglar must simply have been disturbed and run off.''
''With the least valuable thing in the flat?'' postulated Doyle sceptically ''Even a novice could tell Woolworth's from Wedgewood.''
''As I said'' replied Julian St Greave ''The man simply grabbed the first thing to hand in the dark, he probably only discovered his error once he had time to stop and examine it. Long after he'd taken to his heels.''
''Bloody dog'' contributed Bodie sourly, ignored equally by his partner and Julian St Greave.
''How d'you know it was dark?'' challenged Doyle.
''It was a reasonable supposition based on the facts as you have outlined them'' dismissed Julian St Greave with weary disinterest ''However, I fail to see that it makes any difference to your case. If the flat had been lit up like Blackpool pleasure beach, the burglar took only the vase. Whatever his motives, that fact remains incontrovertible.''
''But why that vase?'' pressed Doyle, thinking out loud more than addressing either of his companions.
''I have no explanation beyond that with which I have already provided you'' replied Julian St Greave. Then, eyeing Bodie with suspicion, he advised superciliously ''We don't encourage him to do that.''
''Well, you bloody stop him, then'' retorted Bodie peevishly.
''Arthur'' commanded Julian St Greave. The dog stopped slobbering at Bodie's genitals and turned attentively between Bodie's knees towards its master, its enthusiastically wagging tail replacing its inquisitive snout, leaving a very curious expression on Bodie's face.
Julian St Greave nodded in the direction of the dog basket in the corner of the room and the spaniel obediently trotted over to it, padding round in a circle two or three times before flopping down and propping its muzzle on its forepaws. Eyebrows twitching over limpid dark eyes as it followed the remaining conversation.
Bodie's eyes were a dangerous blue glitter.
Doyle rose to leave, pocketing his pen and notebook as he regained his feet, in a move which spoke volumes about his agility.
Bodie levered himself to his feet in a move which spoke volumes about an elemental force, barely contained. Even Julian St Greave had the good grace to look slightly unnerved.
Doyle smiled pleasantly and collared storm front Bodie, ushering the brooding menace ahead of him as he advised their host ''If you think of anything else, please let us know.''
''Nothing'' replied Julian St Greave emphatically ''As I have explained ad nauseam, neither my wife nor I were in town on the night in question. The char reported the robbery, I suppose it's just conceivable the wretched woman might know more than she told the police, but you'll have to speak to her yourself. My wife is visiting our daughter in France and I have already devoted more than sufficient time to this nonsense.''
''Thank you'' said Doyle as they reached the front door, stopping to add with a cheery politeness, unlikely to bear close scrutiny ''We'll let the local boys know if we turn anything up.''
Bodie didn't stop, not until he was ensconced behind the wheel of Doyle's capri, awaiting his partner with seething impatience.
''If you insist'' replied Julian St Greave ungraciously, closing the front door pointedly in Doyle's face, leaving him standing alone on the doorstep.
Doyle grinned to himself, and then hurried down the garden path after his partner, before Bodie gave in to his sorely tried instincts and drove off without him.
Doyle's feet were barely in the passenger footwell before Bodie screeched away from the house, pelting through the country lanes as if the devil himself was on their tail.
''Get up your nose, did he, Sunshine?'' Doyle asked mildly, as he hung on to the handle just above the passenger window to keep himself from being hurled from his seat and through the windscreen.
''Bloody dog'' snarled Bodie.
''How about we stop for a pint?'' suggested Doyle ''Go over me notes.''
''How about I go back and punch his bloody lights out?'' growled Bodie.
''Whose?'' asked Doyle placidly ''His nibs' or the dog's?''
''Both'' responded Bodie savagely ''I'd bury them in the same hole.''
''And Cowley would throw your knackers in after them'' observed Doyle equitably ''So how about we stop for that pint, you take a few deep breaths, and I'll see if any of my old mob has a handle on that char?''
A muscle jumped once or twice in Bodie's jaw, but the capri slowed to a more sedate version of breakneck.
''Know any good pubs round here?'' ventured Doyle.
Bodie made no reply, but the capri took a precipitous ninety degree lurch at the next turn off, slamming Doyle unceremoniously into the passenger window.
''Oi, watch it'' protested Doyle ''Nearly 'ad me out with that one.''
''Behind you'' snapped Bodie ''Over your left shoulder.''
''What is?'' asked Doyle.
''Seat belt'' Bodie shot back maliciously ''Give it a whirl.''
''I'll pretend I didn't hear that'' said Doyle ''Where are we going?''
''Black Swan'' announced Bodie ''Only decent ploughman's for fifteen miles.''
''Ten'' countered Doyle ''You've forgotten the Red Lion.''
''No I haven't'' replied Bodie, his mood beginning to respond to Doyle's obdurate refusal to be goaded ''Mavis ran off with that bloke who got done for poaching from the trout farm, Len's on his own now. Couldn't get a decent packet of peanuts.''
''Big bloke with red hair?'' speculated Doyle.
''No'' contradicted Bodie ''Skinny runt, with four eyes and a big nose.''
''Know what they say about blokes with big noses'' intoned Doyle knowledgeably.
''S'not true, that'' said Bodie, holding his own pert snout proudly aloft ''It's a myth. That, and big feet.''
''Take your word for it, Sunshine'' said Doyle ''Think you can slow down long enough for me to get me notebook out and go over me notes?''
Bodie didn't say anything in reply, but the capri slowed again. This time the pace dropped to a reasonable facsimile of the speed limit and remained steady. Doyle unclenched the death grip he'd had on the handle above the window and retrieved his notebook from the pocket inside his jacket.
He leafed backwards and forwards through the pages, gnawing on the end of his pen and sucking in air through his teeth.
''Can't you do anything quietly?'' complained Bodie peevishly.
''I'm thinking'' said Doyle ''Gets me creative juices going.''
''Charmin''' replied Bodie ''Wish I hadn't asked.''
''You love me really'' answered Doyle confidently.
''I don't'' said Bodie as the pub came into view and he slowed the capri almost to a crawl in order to coast into the car park ''I'm just a sucker for waifs and strays, couldn't walk away from your pathetic little face.''
''Well, you can tear yourself away from it now and buy me a pint'' said Doyle, putting away his notebook.
''How come it's suddenly my round?'' grumbled Bodie as they exited the car and walked towards the pub.
''Oh, okay, Little Orphan Annie'' relented Doyle ''I'll buy the first, you can get the second. Halves, mind. We can't afford to get sozzled.''
''Like we could, on a couple of pints between us'' muttered Bodie, but headed dutifully to the back of the pub and out into the garden to stake his claim to a table.
Bodie had only just settled himself into his seat when Doyle arrived and planted a half pint of lager in front of him, together with a wooden spoon with the number seven emblazoned on the back of its bowl. Bodie stared pointedly around the tussocky lawn, with its strutting crows and empty seating, and then back at the wooden spoon before enquiring ''Worried they wouldn't be able to spot us, were they?''
''They wouldn't take the order unless I had a number'' said Doyle ''They've got a whole tub of spoons and spatulas with numbers painted on 'em. Must get really busy in the summer.''
Reprising his reconnaissance of the emptiness around them, Bodie enquired ''How come we're number seven?''
''First one out of the tub'' shrugged Doyle ''Bloke behind the bar says they go missing sometimes, but they don't bother working it out, they just keep a record of the last number and add one on the end.''
''Reckon Cowley's got a tub like that somewhere?'' asked Bodie '''Cos I've never figured out how he assigns call signs.''
''Murphy reckons he's got a couple of dice'' said Doyle, waving the spoon unnecessarily to attract the attention of a rotund youth with flushed features, who had just emerged from the pub, and was approaching them with two plates of food.
'''Ere go, gents'' announced the youth as he reached them ''Want any sauces?''
Bodie surveyed his plate and replied ''Got any pickle?''
The youth pulled a small jar of Branston from his back pocket and set it on the table, enquiring perfunctorily ''Anything else?
''Does me'' pronounced Bodie ''How about you, Doyle?''
Doyle peered up at the youth, giving him his second best winsome grin, his best being reserved for the sole purposes of wheedling his way round his partner, or into the knickers of the fairer sex, and said ''I'm fine, looks good, ta mate, much appreciated.''
The youth smiled back tentatively, shyly backing away from the table, then he turned, walking purposefully back into the pub with a noticeable spring in his step.
''You've made his day'' observed Bodie ''Be thinking of you when he's got 'is 'ands on himself tonight.''
''Reckon?'' asked Doyle with indolent curiosity.
''Told you'' said Bodie ''Shouldn't go round being so irresistible.''
''You've managed to resist me'' said Doyle.
''I know all your 'orrible little habits'' replied Bodie '''Sides, your legs are atrocious, all hairy and scrawny.''
''Diane likes my legs'' objected Doyle.
''Your legs, or what's between them?'' grinned Bodie.
''Philistine'' accused Doyle amiably.
Bodie's grin widened beatifically.
''That wasn't a compliment'' admonished Doyle.
''Go on, then, Goldilocks'' prompted Bodie, unperturbed ''Get anything useful from your little black book?''
''No'' admitted Doyle despondently ''If I was still on the beat, I'd chalk this one up as a non-starter. No one would be interested.''
''What makes you so sure it isn't?'' asked Bodie gently ''Must be a million break-ins like this everyday.''
Doyle looked up, an earnest glint in his eye, and started to say something.
''Figure of speech'' said Bodie hastily, cutting him off ''I don't need a lecture on the bloody crime statistics. I just meant, what makes this one so special?''
Doyle looked sheepish for a few moments and then shrugged and admitted ''I don't know, I've just got this feeling...''
''Copper's instinct?'' ventured Bodie softly.
''Yeah'' nodded Doyle ''Daft, innit?''
''Good enough for me, old son'' said Bodie ''When we've finished these, I'll get us another couple of halves and you can get on the blower to your old mob.''
''What about Cowley?'' asked Doyle doubtfully.
''What he doesn't know won't hurt 'im'' said Bodie ''Now eat up, got to keep all those manly charms in top nick.''
''Idiot'' grinned Doyle, only now realising how hungry he was and tucking in with gusto, only minimally aware of Bodie's innate ability to look after him.
As they munched hungrily on bread liberally supplemented with grated cheese, ham, Branston pickle, boiled egg, pickled onions and the nationally ubiquitous iceberg lettuce, Bodie's brow began to furrow uncharacteristically.
''What's wrong?'' asked Doyle, accustomed at mealtimes to his partner's stomach pasting its glee at being fed all over Bodie's features.
''Talking of the Old Man'' Bodie began tentatively ''D'you reckon he's lonely?''
Doyle choked on a bit of cheese, which had taken a sudden wrong turn via his lungs. Eyes watering, and thumping on his own ribcage to dislodge the interloper, he reached for his lager to rectify matters.
''Only I've never seen him like this'' continued Bodie, sublimely confident of his partner's powers of recovery.
''Like what?'' gasped Doyle hoarsely.
''Well, haven't you noticed?'' asked Bodie ''His hair?''
''I've got enough problems with this'' said Doyle, jabbing his fork in the direction of his own abundant curls ''Why would I bother with his?''
''Haven't you noticed what he's done with it?'' pressed Bodie ''He always used to use this dodgy pomade from his barber's. Now I swear he's using hair spray.''
''What? Is she, or isn't she?'' scoffed Doyle.
''Look'' said Bodie, sounding slightly aggrieved ''I'm running with your tip-off from the insatiable Blonde Bombshell, no questions asked. How about a little reciprocation when it comes to my gut instincts?''
''Yeah'' protested Doyle, not noticeably abashed by the accusation of disloyalty ''But you're talking about the Cow.''
''I'm telling you, Doyle'' insisted Bodie ''There's something up with the Old Man. Look how he was this morning.''
''What?'' queried Doyle ''Irritable, unreasonable and Scottish? Which bit of that is news to you?''
''Okay, then'' said Bodie, warming to his theme ''What about that bird?''
''What bird?'' asked Doyle.
''The one in the picture'' said Bodie ''You know, the one you did your Harlem Globetrotters bit with, into the wastepaper basket.''
''What about her?'' asked Doyle.
''The Old Man's got her photo in his desk'' said Bodie ''That's what I copied.''
''The Old Man's got my photo in his desk'' objected Doyle ''And yours, if that's any clue, he's got the hots for half the squad.''
''I don't mean pinned in a file'' said Bodie '' I mean a glossy eight by ten, the sort you put in a frame.''
''Surveillance'' dismissed Doyle.
''You saw that photo'' said Bodie ''Did it look like surveillance to you?''
''I dunno'' said Doyle doubtfully ''The Old Man never has a good word to say about anything I take, maybe that's how they're supposed to look.''
''I tell you what, Doyle'' said Bodie, using the last of his bread to wipe his plate clean ''Do me a favour, you take a good look at the Old Man, then tell me I'm imagining things.''
''We can't put the Old Man under surveillance'' sputtered Doyle, scandalised.
''What if I'm right?'' said Bodie soberly ''What if I'm right and we did nothing? What if he needs us?''
''The Cow?'' squeaked Doyle in disbelief, then dropping his tone conspiratorially, he added urgently ''Bodie, you're talking about the Controller of CI5. If we stick our oar in, it'll be treason. Honest to goodness treason. They still put people in the Tower for that, we could be hanged.''
''They might hang us'' replied Bodie ''But it won't be in the Tower, upset the tourists.''
''It's Cowley'' said Doyle ''He'll have our heads and sell tickets.''
''Ray'' said Bodie earnestly ''I really think the Old Man needs us.''
''Because he's found a woman he doesn't have to pay for?'' protested Doyle.
''No'' said Bodie firmly, shaking his head ''Because he's hiding it. If she was legit, if this was legit, he'd be taking her to church, picnics in the glen, you know, courting her. The Old Man's like that, old fashioned.''
''Perhaps she's Jewish'' said Doyle ''And where's he going to find a glen round here? And anyway, she didn't look like the old fashioned type to me, maybe she's dragging him into the twentieth century. You never changed your style for a bird?''
''I'm not Cowley'' insisted Bodie stubbornly.
''And what makes you such an expert?'' pressed Doyle ''When's the last time either of us saw him with a bird?''
''Exactly'' said Bodie grimly.
Doyle had only interrupted his torrent of objections in order to draw breath to renew it, but Bodie's one word argument stopped him in his tracks. He stared into the dregs of his lager for a moment, marshalling his thoughts, then he reached across and gathered up Bodie's plate, stacking it beneath his own and depositing both sets of cutlery on top. ''Right'' he said, standing up ''I'll get rid of the plates and the Branston, you take our wooden spoon and the glasses back to the bar, get another round in.''
''Then what are we going to do?'' asked Bodie.
''First, I'm going to call my old mob, like we agreed'' said Doyle ''Then we're going back to headquarters.''
''What for?'' asked Bodie.
''So I can type up my notes'' said Doyle ''And so you can have another crack at that temp, see if you can find out anything more.''
''No need to take the plates in'' said Bodie as Doyle headed off to return the crockery, cutlery and pickle to the kitchens.
''Crows'll only have 'em, if we leave them out here'' replied Doyle '''Sides, if I go with you, you'll stiff me for the next round.''
''Cheek'' objected Bodie amiably.
''Experience'' countered Doyle confidently, as Bodie disappeared into the pub, heading for the bar.
Doyle deposited the plates and Branston jar into the hands of a sullen looking teenager, obviously working a reviled job in the kitchens to fund his extra curricular activities, whatever they were. 'College' thought Doyle, recognising the disaffected air the teenager gave off from his own youthful trials and errors. 'Wonder if he's got a scooter, too?'
On the way back to meet up with Bodie, Doyle stopped at the pay 'phone to call one of the less antagonist contacts from his former career, establishing a name and address for the much maligned char. Although, no one had taken anything more than a perfunctory statement from her, as dismissive of her value as a witness, as Julian St Greave had been of her value as a human being.
The rhythmic clatter of a manual typewriter announced a Doyle diligently at work.
Bodie leaned against the door jamb and watched his partner as he tapped away. Stopping periodically to review what he'd written, occasionally scrolling back through his typewritten report to rub out a word, blowing away the debris and retyping it.
''The girls in the pool have word processors, now'' observed Bodie from his vantage point ''You could at least get hold of one of those electric ones.''
''No thanks'' said Doyle ''I'm sticking with this. Found it at the back of the stores when I first joined, we're a team now. Wrote at least three resignations on this.''
''Then you met me and withdrew them'' speculated Bodie, smugly.
''Wrote two of them because of you'' replied Doyle ''I thought you were an arrogant prat.''
''What changed your mind?'' enquired Bodie, shifting himself off the door jamb and entering the room.
''I didn't'' said Doyle, winding the last page of his report out of the typewriter and placing it with the others, before shuffling them into a neat pile and slipping the whole lot into a folder ''I just got used to it.''
''I had a go at resignation'' announced Bodie ''Didn't type it, did it properly with a fountain pen on Basildon Bond.''
''Why?'' asked Doyle.
''Because'' said Bodie ''Cowley had just stuck me with a skinny ex-plod who spent half his life getting up my nose and the other half trying to bite my head off.''
''Think I met 'im'' said Doyle ''Whatever happened to him?''
''Dunno'' shrugged Bodie ''Must've resigned.''
''Prat'' offered Doyle affectionately, ducking in a half-hearted attempt to frustrate Bodie's ruffling of his hair, as Bodie took a seat at right angles to his partner.
''So, you ready to go and talk to your char?'' asked Bodie.
''Get anything more from Cowley's office?'' returned Doyle.
''Not exactly from his office'' answered Bodie evasively.
''Where, then?'' asked Doyle.
''His bathroom'' said Bodie ''He's got, um, you know, things, in his medicine cabinet.''
''Aspirin?'' suggested Doyle mischievously.
''No, you know'' said Bodie uncomfortably ''French letters, something for the weekend, male contraceptives'' he finished primly, actually flushing a rosy pink before Doyle's very eyes.
''What did you expect him to use?'' asked Doyle ''The pill?''
''Will you take this seriously?'' asked Bodie, made irritable by his own discomfort.
''I do'' said Doyle.
Bodie eyed his partner sceptically.
''I do'' protested Doyle more forcefully, getting to his feet and putting on his jacket ''At least, I take you taking seriously, seriously.''
''Eh?'' said Bodie.
''Look'' said Doyle ''It's no crime for the old man to have a few rubber johnnies. It's what he's been doing with them.''
''What d'you think he's been doing with them?'' enquired Bodie sardonically.
''No'' corrected Doyle ''I mean, who's he been doing?''
''We know who he's been doing'' answered Bodie impatiently ''That bird in his desk drawer.''
''No'' said Doyle as he led the way out of the building ''We think it's the bird in his desk drawer. Did you even check the date of those things?''
''What d'you mean?'' asked Bodie.
''What d'you get every physical?'' asked Doyle.
''The hump'' said Bodie.
''At the end'' prompted Doyle.
''Drunk'' said Bodie.
''No'' said Doyle patiently as they climbed into Bodie's capri ''Between the hump and the pub, what d'you get?''
''I give up'' said Bodie, turning the key in the ignition and pulling out of the car park and into the traffic ''What do I get?''
''The little talk'' said Doyle ''The one with the fourteen year old nurse and the prophylactics.''
''God, I never stick around for that'' shuddered Bodie.
''Cowley would'' said Doyle ''Example to the troops.''
''You think they were from the last physical?'' asked Bodie.
''You saw them'' said Doyle ''Were they?''
''Not sure'' admitted Bodie ''Might've been.''
''Right'' said Doyle ''So they could mean nothing.''
''So we're back at square one'' replied Bodie despondently.
''For now'' agreed Doyle ''But if you reckon something's going on, we'll turn something up, we always do.''
''Yeah'' said Bodie, not sounding at all convinced.
''Cheer up, Sunshine'' said Doyle ''Least we've got some movement on the char. Softly, softly.''
''If the going gets any softer, we'll sink without trace'' responded Bodie sullenly.
Doyle gave up and allowed Bodie to wallow in his own juices, while he peered out of the passenger window, watching the London streets pass by like an animated, latter day, Bayeux Tapestry.
Twenty minutes later, Bodie pulled into the kerb in front of an ugly terraced house. The mismatched dressing of lace curtains told its own story about the subdivision within. A ground floor flat, with plain utilitarian net curtaining at the windows, and an upper storey and garret, garnished with a busy floral weave.
Their direction of travel had placed Doyle kerbside when Bodie pulled in, so Doyle got out and left Bodie to lock the car, while he rang the bell.
The door opened just as Bodie joined him. Doyle flashed his ID at the diminutive woman in front of him and said reassuringly ''CI5, love. Can we come in?''
''Police?'' asked the woman uncertainly, showing no signs of moving.
''Different mob'' said Doyle, trusting his instincts ''But we still catch the bad guys.''
''What do you want?'' asked the woman.
Bodie started to fidget beside his partner, his own instincts better honed to breaking down doors in a less metaphorical manner.
''It's about the robbery'' said Doyle ''We want to ask you some questions.''
''I told the other policeman all about it'' said the woman ''You can ask him.''
''Look, love'' interrupted Bodie, patience at an end ''You going to let us in, or not? My partner just wants to ask you a few questions about the robbery, if you don't want to co-operate with the investigation, just say the word. We've both got better things to do, than hang about here all day.''
''Investigation?'' repeated the woman.
''Yeah'' said Bodie ''God alone knows why, but Sherlock Holmes, here, has got it into his head to investigate your robbery.''
''Let me see that identity card again'' said the woman.
Doyle dutifully handed over his ID and waited patiently while the woman plucked at a chain round her neck, fishing a pair of spectacles from the depths of the hand-knitted cardigan she had drawn round herself against the chill in the air.
The woman scrutinised the ID, then pulling the spectacles away from her face she studied Doyle like a bug under a magnifying glass.
''CI5?'' she said, handing the ID back to Doyle ''Not Police?''
''Still out to catch the bad guys'' repeated Doyle.
''Look, love'' said Bodie ''What's the problem? He's house broken, good to his Mum, minds his P's and Q's, always washes his hands and does his own laundry.''
''I haven't been to the shops yet'' said the woman ''I've only got rich tea, you'll have to make do.''
Then she turned on her heels and led the way up some precipitously narrow stairs and through to an immaculate but dingy sitting room at the rear of her accommodation.
''Not good enough for the front parlour'' muttered Bodie, as the woman went to put the kettle on.
''Don't knock it, mate'' said Doyle ''We're in, aren't we?''
The woman returned a short while later with a fully laden wooden tea tray, lined with a crocheted cloth. Doyle stood up and took the tea tray from her, while the woman unloaded the tea service onto the little coffee table, the only concession to modern tastes the little sitting room boasted.
As the woman poured the tea and offered sugar, milk and rich tea biscuits, Doyle prompted her to repeat her statement, such as it had been.
''That young lad, the other policeman, he didn't seem interested'' said the woman ''Not after he realised they hadn't taken the Crown Jewels, just my vase from when I visited my sister.''
''It's Mrs Hillbottom, isn't it?'' said Doyle, making sure he wrote the name conspicuously in his notebook ''Doreen?''
''That's right'' said the woman ''Married forty-two years. Mr Hillbottom worked on the railways, God rest his soul. I just do a bit now, so I have money to visit my sister in Scotland. Keeps saying I should move up there, but it's foreign, Scotland, isn't it?''
''We don't get up there much'' said Bodie ''Find enough of it down here.''
''Tell me what happened in your own words'' said Doyle, ignoring his partner ''And don't leave anything out.''
''Well, there's not much to tell'' admitted the woman ''I can't say I really cared for that young copper they sent round to see me, too sharp by half. That type cut themselves in the end.''
''Was it just the vase that was taken?'' pressed Doyle.
''Not that it was worth anything'' confirmed Mrs Hillbottom ''Got it at the white elephant stall at the church hall. My sister's, that is, not down here. Did you know they have jumble sales in Scotland? Anyway'' continued Mrs Hillbottom, without waiting for an answer ''I wasn't getting that snooty pair anything grand. I used to do for this family in Hampstead, real class, they were. French. Went back home in the end. Gave me this lovely broach with real diamonds in it, antique, they said. Mr Goldman, he used to be in the jewellery trade, he said it was from the old Queen's time, you know, Victoria. Lovely family they were. Not like that snooty pair.''
Doyle took a deep breath and persevered ''Can you add anything to your statement?''
''Not in words'' replied Mrs Hillbottom, getting up and disappearing into another room.
''In semaphore?'' suggested Bodie ''Think she's gone to get the flags out?''
''Here you are'' said Mrs Hillbottom, when she returned, proffering a small dog-eared card for Doyle's attention.
Doyle took it and handed it over to Bodie for inspection, then he turned his attention back to Mrs Hillbottom, and asked ''You didn't show this to the police?''
''That young copper had my back up by then'' said Mrs Hillbottom ''I didn't see why I should tell him anything, but you seem like a nice young man. Are you attached? Only my sister's girl, her youngest, my niece, that is, she'd be about right for you. She's very bright, works in an office. We're all very proud of her.''
''I couldn't move to Scotland'' replied Doyle diplomatically, employing his best poker face, while Bodie crammed four rich tea biscuits into his mouth in an attempt to stifle his mirth ''And I couldn't ask her to give up such a good job to move down here with me.''
''Yes'' said Mrs Hillbottom forlornly ''I see that. It's just such a shame, she never seems to meet the right man. I don't understand, I really don't. I keep telling her, you modern boys wouldn't mind her keeping her job, but she and her friend Morag are just the same. Been together years, neither of them can find a man, and they're such pretty girls, too. Inseparable they are, do everything together, even share the same flat. Still, spinsters should stick together, so it's nice they have each other.''
Bodie was now a peculiar shade of puce and, mindful of Cowley's views about the expense of replacements, Doyle decided a strategic retreat was in order before his partner's lungs imploded.
''Thank you'' said Doyle, getting up and dragging Bodie to his feet ''You've been very helpful.''
Purple and bug-eyed, Bodie nodded his agreement.
''Is your friend alright?'' asked Mrs Hillbottom.
''Just needs a breath of fresh air'' Doyle assured her ''Asthmatic.''
''Oh, the poor boy'' cooed Mrs Hillbottom ''I thought he was a bit peculiar, well never you mind. Mrs Smith's middle one, her boy, is an asthmatic. Had to go away to the country when he was a lad. Pasty like your friend, too. Got a job with the Water Board in the end. Maybe they could take your friend?'' added Mrs Hillbottom ''Mrs Smith's lad goes abroad every year. Spain, you know. It's amazing what they can do now, isn't it? He's got one of those inhaler things. You'd never know there was anything wrong with him, except for that. Maybe your friend could get one, too?''
''I'll look into it'' said Doyle, manhandling Bodie from the premises and into the passenger seat of the capri, with Mrs Hillbottom in attendance all the way.
''Now, you make sure you look after him'' Mrs Hillbottom called from her front door as Doyle clambered into the driver's seat, giving a last cheery wave of farewell before driving off.
Bodie choked and spluttered for half a mile, then he spent a further half mile dragging in great lungfuls of air and wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. Finally he sobered enough to hold a conversation, although his breathing was still strained.
''That card say anything useful?'' asked Doyle, his eyes not leaving the road as he navigated his way back to headquarters.
Bodie dug the card out of the pocket in which he'd stowed it and tried to focus on it with his tear ruined eyesight.
''Says 'Limited' on it'' he pronounced after holding it up to the windscreen and squinting at it for several seconds.
''Limited, what?'' asked Doyle ''Limited membership, limited offer, limited number?''
''No'' said Bodie ''Limited, as in, like a company.''
''What company?'' asked Doyle.
''Let you know that when I can see straight'' said Bodie.
''Fat lot of help you are'' observed Doyle indulgently ''Go on, open the window. Get a bit of fresh air in here.''
''You sure?'' queried Bodie doubtfully ''Be a bit nippy when the traffic gets moving.''
''I'll survive'' Doyle assured his partner.
Bodie wound down the window, allowing the breeze to buffet his face.
''Feeling any better?'' asked Doyle.
''Think me nose has gone numb'' said Bodie, prodding at it experimentally.
Before Doyle could muster a response to this revelation, the radio interrupted, demanding his attention. Doyle yanked the handset free and announced succinctly ''4.5''
''I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, 4.5'' replied a female voice, sounding not in the least bit apologetic ''But there's been another break-in.''
''Don't tell me, The Great Green Shield Stamp Robbery'' muttered Bodie adenoidally.
Doyle shot his partner an exasperated look of censure before venturing hopefully ''Okay, tell the Old Man we've got some new evidence, we're on our way in.''
''Must be your lucky day, 4.5'' observed the voice ''I'll believe you, and Mr Cowley's gone home.''
Bodie's eyes instantly sought out his partner's, in a mutual acknowledgement of concern.
''Is he alright?'' asked Doyle for both of them.
''He said he had some shopping to do'' replied the voice, sounding slightly perplexed at the turn the conversation was taking ''You two aren't normally this keen on Mr Cowley catching you lounging at headquarters.''
''We are today'' declared Doyle anxiously ''We'll be there as soon as we can, 4.5 out.''
''The Old Man never goes home'' snuffled Bodie, the minute his partner had signed off.
''Maybe he has a meeting with the Minister'' suggested Doyle, convincing neither of them.
''He doesn't shop for the Minister'' said Bodie, sniffing urgently to clear his nose ''I think we both know who he's meeting.''
''Control didn't say what he was buying'' argued Doyle ''He'd buy scotch for the Minister.''
''No he wouldn't'' countered Bodie ''He'd send someone to buy scotch for the Minister.''
''Yeah'' conceded Doyle dolefully ''Probably one of us.''
''If he's buying it himself'' continued Bodie ''It has to be something which needs that personal touch.''
''Or he could just be buying a new pair of shoes'' said Doyle ''He'd have to go himself for that, he'd need to try them on.''
''George Cowley?'' scoffed Bodie, his abused sinuses almost back to normal ''He's got two pairs of brogues, one brown, one black, and those daft things with spikes he plays golf in.''
''Fat lot you notice'' replied Doyle scornfully ''The black ones aren't brogues and he's got some hiking boots.''
''Anyway, doesn't he get them made?'' speculated Bodie, sartorially sidetracked from his original train of thought ''Or maybe that's just the golf? And doesn't he have some loafers?''
''The point is'' argued Doyle ''That just because he's gone shopping, doesn't mean the world, as we know it, is about to end.''
''Doesn't mean it's not'' argued Bodie.
''We could always call him...'' dared Doyle in return.
''Okay, then'' replied Bodie, smugly calling his partner's bluff, pulling his transmitter from his jacket and raising it to his lips ''Control, patch me through to Alph -''
Doyle's hand snaked out at lightening speed, whipping the transmitter from his partner's grasp ''Control, ignore last message. I repeat, ignore last message.''
A voice, male, clipped and calmly impersonal, acknowledged ''Can 3.7 confirm, 4.5?''
Steering with one hand, and seemingly navigating the traffic on instinct alone, Doyle glared at his partner and shoved the transmitter in the direction of Bodie's mouth.
''3.7 confirming'' Bodie said meekly into the handset ''False alarm. Thought I saw something. Forget it.''
''It'll have to be logged, 3.7'' the voice cautioned.
Doyle took the handset back, replying redundantly, but with evident satisfaction ''Understood, control.''
Bodie sat back glumly in his seat.
''Serves you right'' said Doyle unfeelingly ''Stupid great oaf, what d'you think you were playing at?''
Bodie folded his arms across his chest and turned his head to stare out of the open window, refusing to it turn back again, or wind up the glass, until they had reached headquarters, by which time his nose was dripping, his entire face was stiff with cold, and the tips of his ears were singing exquisitely with pain.
Taking in his partner's pinched, frost-bleached features, Doyle enquired breezily ''Finished freezin' yer nose off to spite your face? 'Cos if you have, you can write up the report while I find out what this other robbery's all about.''
Bodie clambered stiffly out of his side of the capri, flushing with uncomfortable warmth as his body registered the sudden decline in wind-chill, and enquired sullenly ''Are you armed, Doyle?''
Already at the door of CI5's unprepossessing premises, and pointedly holding it open for his decrepit partner, Doyle replied ''Of course, why?''
''Because'' rumbled Bodie ominously as he stalked past his partner into what his body insisted was the near stifling heat of the corridors beyond ''It always takes more explaining if the corpse is unarmed.''
''No one to blame but yourself'' observed Doyle, blithely unrepentant, as he closed the door behind them.
By the time Bodie had thawed out, metaphorically as well as physically, two days of stilted truce had passed. Time in which Bodie's aggrieved ego and Doyle's unrepentant aggravation had paced warily round each other, as the rest of the squad held its collective breath, anticipating the long awaited explosion that received wisdom held was the inevitable destination of the nitroglycerine partnership.
The partnership itself remained serenely oblivious of this bit of CI5 lore, accepting each bump in the road as part of the indivisible whole. The sparks only serving as proof of life.
So it was with some bemusement that Bodie approached Murphy on the third day to enquire ''I know Doyle's an irritating git, but why is everyone avoiding him?''
Murphy, whose placid nature belied his effectiveness as an agent, and whose understated intelligence had long ago cemented his place as unofficial aide-de-camp to CI5's irascible Controller, raised an amused, sardonic eyebrow and replied ''What makes you think they are?''
''Well, I was sitting in the squad room, minding me own business'' explained Bodie, with a good natured willingness few but Murphy ever drew from him ''When Doyle comes in to make a cuppa. Two minutes later, it's just me and 'im, on our tod.''
''Then what happened?'' asked Murphy, simply for the entertainment value.
''What d'you mean, 'then what happened?''' asked Bodie peevishly ''What d'you think happened? Doyle sits down and has his cuppa and I carry on reading me paper.''
''Domestic bliss?'' enquired Murphy with an impish gleam in his eye.
''Oi'' objected Bodie ''Me and Doyle do our bit, we're not ready for the pipe and slippers routine just yet. Not our fault the Old Man's got his knickers in a palaver over a couple of tinpot robberies.''
''Okay, calm down'' replied Murphy, holding up his hands in mock surrender ''How's that going, by the way?''
''What?'' asked Bodie sceptically, but nevertheless prepared to be mollified ''The Miss Marple bit?''
''Yeah'' agreed Murphy ''Must be bored stiff by now.''
''I am'' admitted Bodie, defusing as Murphy had intended he should ''But you know what Doyle's like.''
''Terrier with a bone?'' supplied Murphy.
''Thing is'' offered Bodie conspiratorially ''I'm more worried about the Old Man.''
''Why?'' asked Murphy.
''Haven't you noticed?'' replied Bodie.
''So?'' shrugged Murphy loyally ''He's moving with the times.''
''A-ha'' pounced Bodie ''You have noticed.''
''I like his new suit'' said Murphy defensively ''I've got a wedding coming up next month, old mate from school, thought I might get one, meself.''
''Bit staid'' assessed Bodie ''I mean, for someone our age.''
''We can't all be Man at C&A'' dismissed Murphy snippily.
''Why now, though?'' asked Bodie, too confident of his own position in the sartorial pecking order to be distracted by Murphy's sniping ''What's he up to?''
''Beats me'' admitted Murphy ''Don't care, so long as he doesn't cancel my leave, I like a good wedding.''
''You like a free bar'' accused Bodie.
''That too'' conceded Murphy contentedly ''And free bridesmaids.''
''Maybe you should take Doyle'' suggested Bodie ''Might loosen him up a bit.''
''Might be news to you, Old Chum'' replied Murphy wisely ''But I'm not as green as I'm cabbage looking.''
''Eh?'' said Bodie.
''Doyle'' replied Murphy ''With his take-me-home-and-look-after-me eyes. No thanks.''
''Pulled that trick on you, too, has he?'' asked Bodie.
''What I don't get'' answered Murphy in aggrieved confirmation ''Is why the birds fall for it. No offence, Bodie, but your partner's all thorns and no rose.''
''Is that why everyone's avoiding him?'' asked Bodie, perplexed ''I know he can be a bit volatile, but the only person he ever thumps is me. That is, if you don't count the villains, and he's sorry about those. Well, sometimes.''
''I'd noticed'' said Murphy ''Hard not to, we've all noticed how you two get into it.''
''Yeah'' beamed Bodie ''Never worked with anyone I can really have it out with before.''
''Guess the Old Man knew what he was doing after all'' smiled Murphy ''Match made in heaven.''
''Might have been a bit south of heaven'' conceded Bodie ''But it works.''
''And talking of the devil'' muttered Murphy, spying a familiar figure limping towards them along the corridor and raising his voice to announce in greeting ''Sir.''
''Ah, Murphy'' replied George Cowley, appearing uncharacteristically distracted ''A word, if I may.''
''Sir'' repeated Murphy, giving the Controller his full and conspicuous attention.
''There is a certain person whom I am desirous of meeting'' continued Cowley ''However, I am equally desirous that said meeting should fly under the radar of certain interested parties.''
''Yes, sir'' answered Murphy gallantly, in a state of complete incomprehension.
''Good'' said George Cowley ''In that case, I would like you to pick me up at the rear of this building, in your own vehicle, is that understood?''
''Yes, sir'' repeated Murphy, still in the dark.
''You will then drive me to a spot near Epping Forest'' instructed Cowley ''Leaving me at a telephone box, which I shall specify. Clear?''
''As mud'' muttered Bodie under his breath.
''As crystal'' confirmed Murphy simultaneously, drowning out Bodie's muttered aside and sparing him the tartan wrath of his employer.
Bodie's eyebrows arched in a manner suggestive more of derision than gratitude.
Murphy rolled his eyes and headed for the car park, knowing better than to keep George Cowley waiting.
Cowley eyed Bodie with suspicion ''Do you have anything to report, 3.7?''
''Not report, no, sir'' said Bodie ''Ask.''
''Indeed'' intoned Cowley with a distinct lack of humour.
''What's going on, sir?'' asked Bodie ''Why not use your own car? Why not drive yourself?''
''You already have an assignment, 3.7'' replied Cowley ''I suggest you stick to it.''
''Doyle's doing enough sticking for both of us'' ventured Bodie recklessly ''Look, sir, if you're in trouble...''
''If I were in trouble, 3.7, and I stress if'' admonished Cowley ''You would do better to look to your own interests. You were out of luck before I hired you. Fortunately, for the peace of the realm, the future of this organisation, and therefore of your employment within it, is not in question.''
''Sir'' replied Bodie sullenly.
''Well, don't just stand there'' snapped Cowley ''Find Doyle and get me some answers.''
''Sir'' repeated Bodie, without conviction, as the Controller limped briskly away, intent on his surreptitious rendezvous with Murphy and whatever secrets lay beyond.
Bodie was so preoccupied that he failed to notice the trainer muffled footfalls approaching him from behind, until a voice murmured into his ear ''Penny for them?''
Bodie flinched on reflex, then annoyed with himself for having been caught unawares, he demanded ''Haven't you got anything better to do, Doyle?''
By way of answer, Doyle plastered a sheet of paper over Bodie's face. Bodie snatched it away irritably, then took a look at it and asked ''Where d'you get this?''
''Murphy'' replied Doyle ''He doesn't know who she is and he isn't happy about it.''
Bodie studied the photocopied photograph, recognising the same handsome, middle aged woman who had ignited his own concerns, but this was a different photograph to the one Bodie had seen. In this picture the woman was not alone, she was walking with a man. A short, stocky man with cropped grey hair and coal dark eyes. Not that Bodie could see that much detail in the grainy picture, but he recognised the man from CI5's copious files. ''KGB'' he breathed grimly.
''See?'' said Doyle ''Surveillance, like I said.''
''Then why's Murphy unhappy?'' asked Bodie.
''Because the Old Man hasn't told him who she is'' replied Doyle ''You'd think Murphy would be used to living like a mushroom by now.''
''Eh?'' said Bodie distractedly, still adsorbed in his study of the photocopied picture.
''You know, kept in the dark, fed on manure'' said Doyle ''Or, as the Old Man likes to call it, triple think.''
''Okay, so that explains Murphy'' observed Bodie antagonistically ''What explains you?''
''Eh?'' said Doyle.
''You're revoltingly chipper'' replied Bodie.
''Oh, that would be this'' answered Doyle, producing two stapled and folded sheets of paper from the back pocket of his jeans.
Bodie peered round his partner in a vein attempt to get a line of sight on Doyle's back pocket, without actually shifting his position, and enquired ''You having some sort of identity crisis, Doyle?''
''Eh?'' said Doyle.
''Man or filing cabinet?'' suggested Bodie.
''What d'you want me to do?'' protested Doyle ''Carry a briefcase?''
''Not with that t-shirt'' dismissed Bodie, taking the document from Doyle's hands ''Okay, what's all this, then?''
''Third robbery'' said Doyle, leaning in over Bodie's shoulder to track his reading of the document.
''We haven't even had a chance to investigate the second yet'' objected Bodie.
''Had a bit of a breakthrough there'' replied Doyle ''Been on the blower all morning, raising cain, we can see them both today.''
''Oh joy'' pronounced Bodie unenthusiastically.
Unfazed, Doyle indicated the report in his partner's hand and explained ''Got fed of waiting, the other lot wanted us to request an appointment by post, and this lot didn't want to talk at all'' he continued, launching into a sneering parody of the response he'd received ''Too trivial a matter, don't you know.''
''Can't say I blame 'em'' said Bodie.
''Thought you'd say that'' replied Doyle smugly ''What if I told you that when I bumped into Murphy, he was headed for the car park?''
''What have you got cooking under those curls, Doyle?'' questioned Bodie, lifting a sardonic eyebrow.
''Murphy's planting a tracker on the Old Man'' said Doyle ''He can't follow him, Cowley'd spot him straight off, but we could. He wouldn't be expecting us.''
''I scratch your back, you scratch mine?'' queried Bodie.
''Exactly'' responded Doyle, looking pleased with himself.
''Okay, Goldilocks, you win'' conceded Bodie, heading for the nearest exit ''Let's get going before I change my mind.''
Doyle fell obediently into step behind his partner, only thinking to object belatedly, as they reached the open air ''Oi, what's wrong with me t-shirt?''
Bodie did not deign to explain himself and Doyle spent the first ten minutes of their journey checking himself for tomato sauce stains and the second scowling purposefully at his impervious partner.
Eventually Bodie said ''So, that's one dodgy vase, a battered photo frame and now some bloke's old school tie. Wasn't even a good school.''
''How would you know?'' sniped Doyle.
''Would've heard of it'' replied Bodie with untrammelled confidence.
''Yeah, well'' said Doyle ''That's not all, did a bit of digging.''
''Regular little bloodhound'' observed Bodie amiably ''And what did you find?''
Doyle was about to respond when his transmitter interrupted. ''4.5'' He announced into it succinctly.
''Just dropped off our Golden Goose'' announced Murphy ''Tracker's activated, for God's sake, don't get seen.''
Without taking his eyes from the traffic, Bodie leaned in far enough to say ''We're not bloody amateurs.''
''Everyone's an amateur when it comes to crossing the Old Man'' replied Murphy ''Try and remember that, and maybe we'll all still have a job tomorrow.''
Bodie looked as if he was about to respond, so Doyle turned away, shielding the transmitter from the benefit of Bodie's opinion and said ''Don't worry, if push comes to shove, I'll get Diane to sign us all up as traffic wardens.''
''Who's Diane?'' asked Murphy.
''Traffic warden'' Bodie called back, in a voice raised sufficiently to overcome the distance ''And his latest bird.''
''Always thought you were a sick man, 4.5'' observed Murphy ''I'd probably be worried about that, if 3.7 wasn't worse.''
''That's just favouritism'' objected Doyle ''You've known 'im longer.''
''As it happens, I wish I didn't know either of you'' responded Murphy good naturedly ''I would say 'try and stay out of trouble', but as that's a forlorn hope, I'll stick with 'try not to get any of our gooses cooked, especially the Old Man's'.''
''Amen to that'' agreed Doyle ''4.5, out.''
Bodie had crooked an expectant eyebrow in Doyle's direction.
Doyle reached into the glove compartment and pulled a small device from it.
Bodie rolled his eyes ''You have to be kidding.''
''Well, we can't use control'' reasoned Doyle ''The transmitters haven't got the range, and the radio's out, they monitor the frequencies.''
''How far d'you think we're gonna get with that?'' enquired Bodie dryly ''Your Boy's Own crystal set?''
''Murphy got it off one of his mates'' said Doyle ''Be stupid to use CI5 kit for this.''
''That you or him talking?'' asked Bodie.
''It's common sense talking'' replied Doyle ''If you're right, and I'm not saying you are, but if you are, then you, me and Murphy have to have time to work something out.''
''If I'm right'' Bodie considered bleakly ''There's not going to be enough of anything left to bother working it out.''
''That's the spirit'' said Doyle ''Always look on the bright side.''
''So how's that thing work?'' asked Bodie.
''It's a tracker'' said Doyle , fiddling with the device ''So, I turn it on...'' he continued as the device began to emit a series of monotonous beeps ''And we follow it.''
''And how do we know we're tracking Cowley?'' asked Bodie ''And not some wandering herd of migrating elk?''
'''Cause the thing's tied to its own frequency'' replied Doyle ''It won't pick up anything else.''
''Says Murphy'' said Bodie.
''Says Murphy's mate'' corrected Doyle ''But what choice do we have?''
''I'd be happier if we were using our own kit'' said Bodie ''You and Murphy'd better be right about this, it'd better work as well as anything we have.''
''Murphy's who you'd be, if you ever grew up'' replied Doyle ''You know you can trust him.''
''Yeah'' said Bodie ''But then, up until now, I thought that went for the Old Man, too.''
''Nah'' said Doyle, shaking his head ''You could never grow up to be Cowley, you'd look daft in a skirt.''
''Sometimes, Doyle'' replied Bodie ''I wonder about your priorities.''
Indifferent to criticism, Doyle concentrated on the bleeps being emitted from the device in his hand, issuing a stream of instructions, keeping Bodie on the right track, as Cowley's clandestine course halted, meandered and changed speed.
Bodie obeyed with no noticeable effort at good grace.
Suddenly Doyle announced ''Keep your head down, he's got to be within half a mile of us.''
Bodie immediately swivelled the wheel, taking the capri into the first side street he saw and pulling up in a line of cars parked along the kerb.
''We walk?'' asked Doyle.
''Damn'' said Bodie ''If we get out and follow him, that thing's gonna give the game away. My deaf Aunt Nellie could hear it – and she's dead.''
''Oh, ye of little faith'' replied Doyle, fiddling with the device and adding triumphantly ''Silent setting. Just buzzes now.''
''And you don't think the old man is going to notice a scruffy looking, five-foot-six bee creeping up on him?'' enquired Bodie.
''Wotchit'' warned Doyle ''When I wear me boots, I'm taller than you, and you can't hear the buzzing when it's in a pocket, only feel it.''
''Better be careful which pocket you stick it in then, mate'' advised Bodie as he clambered out of the car ''They have laws about that sort of thing in public.''
Doyle climbed out of the car and then stood looking sheepish on the pavement.
''You don't have a jacket, do you?'' said Bodie.
Doyle shook his head.
''You want to borrow mine, don't you?'' said Bodie.
Doyle nodded his head.
Bodie shrugged out of his jacket, hanging his head and extending his arm sideways towards Doyle, his jacket dangling from his fingertips, as if from a coat hook.
Doyle took the jacket, slipped it on and stuck the tracking device receiver in a pocket.
''Preparation, Doyle'' counselled Bodie smugly ''An ounce of it, saves nine.''
''I did prepare'' said Doyle, as he headed off, one hand in the pocket containing the buzzing device ''I prepared to borrow your jacket. No point us both wearing one.''
''There's a name for people like you'' said Bodie as he fell into step with his partner.
''Canny?'' suggested Doyle.
''Cheap'' replied Bodie.
''Anyway, it's stitches'' said Doyle ''A stitch in time, saves nine. Preparation has something to do with perspiration.''
''That's genius'' said Bodie as they turned onto the main street ''Ninety-nine percent perspiration, one percent inspiration.''
''So what's preparation, then?'' asked Doyle.
''Like prevention'' said Bodie.
''No, it's not'' protested Doyle.
''Yes, it is'' insisted Bodie ''You've never heard of either of 'em.''
They were nearing a small tea rooms now, decked out in mock tudor trappings. Doyle put a hand on Bodie's arm ''Either the Old Man's stood right in front of us...''
''...or he's in there?'' finished Bodie.
''We need a way of getting a good look'' confirmed Doyle.
''No, we don't'' said Bodie, bundling them both off the street and into a narrow alleyway running between the tea rooms and the fireplace emporium next door, as the bell above the tea rooms' door warned of its opening.
They waited with baited breath, watching to see who emerged onto the pavement. Doyle's knees almost gave way in relief as two gossiping old ladies in improbable millinery stepped onto the pavement and then headed for the pelican crossing to the taxi rank, outside the train station, on the opposite side of the road.
He made to turn and grin his relief at Bodie, but felt Bodie suddenly tense at his side. Doyle instantly returned his attention to the pavement. The handsome woman from the photographs must have followed the women out, because she was there, on the pavement, and with her, the Controller of CI5.
''Thank you, Mr Cowley'' said the woman, sounding deeply grateful for some great favour.
''I thought we'd agreed on 'George''' Cowley purred softly in reply, folding her fingers around his own and raising them to his lips.
Some part of Doyle's oxygen starved brain speculated that you could probably run a small town off the electric silence in the alley beside the tea rooms, Bodie could probably charge the entire National Grid. Still barely breathing, they watched transfixed as the woman hesitated nervously before replying ''I know we did, but...Oh George, what am I to do?''
''We agreed on that too'' answered Cowley smoothly ''You're going to leave it all to me.''
''But are you sure, George?'' pressed the woman ''To help a woman like me, with my past...''
''And what is your past, Iraina?'' counselled Cowley with affection ''You fell in love with the wrong man, and in that there is hope for both of us.''
''Hope?'' echoed the woman in puzzlement.
''If you've already fallen in love with the wrong man'' Cowley murmured softly ''Then you must now be ready to fall in love with the right one.''
''Oh, George'' breathed the woman ''I am, so very ready.''
''Well, then'' said Cowley kindly, offering his arm to escort his lady to the door of an expensive looking sports car parked incongruously amongst the respectable saloons and fleet favourites parked along the high street ''I must endeavour to be that man.''
''Oh George, you are'' replied the woman ''The absolutely perfect man. My prince among frogs.''
They both laughed at that, softly, as if it was some tender private joke.
Cowley opened the door and the lady stepped into her car, then Cowley stood back and watched her drive away, leaving him alone on the pavement.
Doyle was dimly aware of Bodie quietly calling in the registration number beside him, but his attention was focussed on Cowley, as the Controller of CI5 followed the lead the two gossiping old ladies had set, and crossed the street to the taxi rank.
Within minutes Cowley was gone, doubtless heading back to CI5.
''Well?'' asked Doyle, without turning his head from the pavement ''What d'you think?''
''Two good looking blokes duck into an alley in broad daylight?'' speculated Bodie ''Bet we disappointed the CCTV.''
''Reckon they'd have footage?'' asked Doyle, side stepping his partner's alleged wit.
''Couldn't ask for it, even if they did'' said Bodie ''Never get it past Cowley.''
''What did Murphy have on the car?'' asked Doyle.
''Registered to one Marius Westin'' replied Bodie grimly.
Doyle gave a low whistle ''No wonder she thinks she fell for the wrong bloke.''
''Traitor twice over'' agreed Bodie ''Is there such a thing as a triple agent?''
''If there is, he invented it'' said Doyle ''Think that's why Cowley's interested?''
''In a bloke who happily sold everyone down the river?'' dismissed Bodie ''If he's got anything left to tell, it's only 'cos no one wants to hear it.''
''What, then?'' asked Doyle.
''Right answer, wrong question'' replied Bodie, heading for the street.
''Eh?'' said Doyle, striding to keep up with him.
''Not what the Cow's up to'' said Bodie ''The other way around.''
''Don't be daft'' protested Doyle ''The Cow would spot that a mile off.''
''Would he?'' asked Bodie ''Remember Annie Irvine?''
''That's different'' said Doyle less certainly ''She was an old flame.''
''Yeah'' replied Bodie grimly ''Well, I think Iraina Westin is a new one.''
''They're still married?'' queried Doyle.
''Yeah'' said Bodie ''Still lives in the same house, still drives the same car.''
''But he's in prison'' said Doyle ''And where he is, he'll likely die there. Should've stuck to selling out democracies, at least he'd have got to write a book. Maybe she's just looking for a meal ticket, the Cow'd be an obvious choice with a history like that.''
Bodie shook his head emphatically ''Would he? The Controller of CI5? I know it's still a sore point mate, but you couldn't get married without your bird being put under the microscope, so what d'you think happens to the bird Cowley takes a shine to?''
They'd reached the car by now and Doyle had stopped in his tracks with a wistful look on his face.
''Sorry I hit you, Bodie'' he said quietly as he handed back Bodie's jacket, his knuckles white as he gripped the tracking device receiver he'd retrieved from its pockets.
''Best forgotten, eh mate'' said Bodie, taking back his jacket ''And I don't just mean the split lip.''
''Yeah'' said Doyle, moving to get into the car ''Water under the bridge. Got Diane now.''
''You that serious?'' asked Bodie once they were settled in their seats and he was pulling away from the curb.
''Beautifully serious'' said Doyle, turning his head to beam happily at Bodie.
''Here we go again'' breathed Bodie, more or less to himself.
''We've still got to see the other two robbery victims'' said Doyle, dragging himself back to business ''Wanna grab lunch first? I can tell you what I found out?''
''Think Cowley will ever put us back on duty?'' asked Bodie.
''We are on duty'' replied Doyle, perplexed.
''This isn't duty'' dismissed Bodie ''Running around after a few petty thefts that even your old mob couldn't give a toss about.''
''You agreed'' protested Doyle.
''Yeah, I agreed'' conceded Bodie ''But that was for you, not for 'im.''
''Well, maybe he's waiting to see if we'll stick it'' said Doyle ''You know, he says 'jump', and we say 'how high'?''
''Or maybe it's linked'' speculated Bodie ''We're the only ones, besides Murphy, who'd have the gall to check up on him.''
''Well, in that case'' countered Doyle ''How come Murphy's not sitting behind me?''
''Hadn't thought of that'' admitted Bodie ''Murphy's still in the land of the living, so this can't be linked, can it?''
''Well, I hadn't thought about it at all'' replied Doyle ''I'm just a simple lad from Derby, I'd just like to find out what's going on.''
''Skip lunch though, eh?'' said Bodie ''Get it over with, so we can go to the pub?''
''Yeah'' agreed Doyle '''Cos you're just a simple lad from any boozer in town.''
Bodie decided to answer this by deploying an eloquently derisive eyebrow, and now they were on the leafier roads, and less likely to pick up any blue lights, by applying his foot to the accelerator.
They pulled up outside the lichen covered stonework and manicured lawn of Trellow House just after half-past two.
Bodie eyed the house with sullen cynicism and enquired ''You know they're going expect us to use the tradesman's entrance, don't you?''
''Gonna be disappointed, then, aren't they?'' replied Doyle as Bodie took the capri down the gravelled drive and parked it conspicuously outside the front door.
They got out of the car and stood side by side as Bodie lent on the front door bell.
A few minutes later, the door opened to reveal a man wearing a cardigan which Bodie would have sworn had been lifted directly from Cowley's wardrobe.
''Yes?'' said the man imperiously.
Dutifully Doyle, and then Bodie, presented his ID for inspection.
''Yes?'' repeated the man, to all appearances, none the wiser.
''We've come about the tie'' said Doyle ''I understand you've had a break in.''
''You'd better come in, then'' said the man, eyeing the capri with disdain ''But as I said on the telephone, I don't really have the time, so I'd appreciate you making this as brief as possible.''
Once settled in the living room, without the offer of tea, Doyle opened his notebook and enquired ''It's Mr Petros Hircombe, isn't it, sir?''
''Doctor Petros Hircombe, actually'' replied the man ''Economics.''
''And the only thing missing was the tie?'' ventured Doyle.
''Yes'' confirmed Doctor Petros Hircombe ''And hardly worth pursuing, I would have thought.''
''Where was the item kept?'' asked Doyle.
''In my desk drawer'' replied the Doctor ''In my study.''
''Anyone know it was there?'' asked Doyle.
''I have no idea'' responded the Doctor ''My wife, possibly, but I hardly think...''
''No, sir'' Doyle accepted hurriedly ''I understand the school itself is about to be closed?''
''So I believe'' agreed the Doctor ''But the relevance of that escapes me.''
''News to you, is it, sir?'' asked Doyle.
For the first time during the conversation Bodie actually looked like he was paying attention, sitting forward and frowning attentively.
''I may have heard something about it'' admitted the Doctor evasively ''It was my old school, one hears things.''
''Heard it was being redeveloped, did we, sir?'' pressed Doyle.
''Something of the sort, I believe'' conceded the Doctor.
''Different sort of school to your day, though'' observed Doyle ''Local Authority picked it up in the sixties.''
''It was too isolated for day pupils'' replied the Doctor ''And boarding schools fell out of favour, I believe the council took it over for the handicapped.''
''Yeah'' said Doyle ''Place is full of disabled kiddies.''
''I fail to see what any of this has to do with the theft of my tie'' said the Doctor
Bodie looked as if the same question might be on the tip of his own tongue, but unlike Doctor Petros Hircombe, Bodie's demeanour was one of expectation, as if he was simply awaiting the explanation, his faith in Doyle's deductive processes undinted.
''Lot of families use that school'' Doyle continued his interrogation ''Respite care, sometimes the whole family stays.''
''I repeat'' said the Doctor ''What has this to do with my tie?''
''The council have found a new facility'' said Doyle ''They're converting the old baths, all the mod cons, near the park, but it's not in the country, won't feel the same. The local rag is calling the consortium redeveloping the school a bunch of Scrooges.''
''One of the things I dislike most about public life in the modern era is that kind of mawkish sentimentality'' observed the Doctor ''So unless you have any further questions, I think this interview is at an end.''
''No further questions'' said Doyle, flipping shut his notebook and rising to leave.
Bodie's face was a picture of quizzical bafflement as he dutifully followed Doyle out of the house and into the capri.
''What was all that about?'' asked Bodie, once he had the capri back on the road.
''Told you I'd done some digging'' said Doyle.
''Granted'' agreed Bodie ''But, my little Squirrel Nutkin, for all the sense you made back there, a bloke could be forgiven for thinking you were just burying your nuts for winter.''
''I'm saving me nuts for Diane'' said Doyle ''What's left of 'em.''
''Then you'd better hope she's gentle with the cracker'' advised Bodie ''Is there any chance of this making more sense after the next one?''
''Probably not'' admitted Doyle ''Still trying to figure it out meself.''
''Great'' said Bodie ''Can we look forward to enlightenment any time soon, like this side of Christmas?''
''Dunno'' said Doyle ''But look on the bright side, Christmas is weeks away yet.''
''Is that Doyle speak for 'I've forgotten to get you a present again this year'?'' accused Bodie.
''Once'' protested Doyle ''Once, one time, singular, I did that, and then it was only because we were flat out, running our socks off, trying to find you. What kind of idiot gets themselves kidnapped the week before Christmas?''
''Could happen to anyone'' said Bodie defensively '''S'not my fault I like roast chestnuts, how did I know he was dealing?''
''I still don't get why they locked you up'' complained Doyle ''Beat you up, I can see, but why lock you up?''
''Well, don't ask me'' said Bodie ''It wasn't my idea. All I know is, one minute I'm asking for a bag of chestnuts, next minute I wake up, buried in an old freezer.''
''Not put you off chestnuts, though, has it?'' observed Doyle.
''It's traditional'' said Bodie ''Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, sleigh bells, fairy on top of the tree.''
''Star of David, in my house'' announced Doyle.
''Bethlehem'' corrected Bodie.
''David'' insisted Doyle ''My cousin Ralph made it in metal work as a Christmas present for me Mum.''
''Jewish, was he?'' asked Bodie.
''No, but the lad next to 'im was'' said Doyle ''And Ralph was never big on doing his own thinking. Last I heard, he'd joined the army.''
''Too bright for the boys in blue, was he?'' enquired Bodie sweetly.
Doyle grinned and said ''Always liked Christmas. Me Uncle Herbie, Ralph's dad, used to mull wine, the old fashioned way, with a poker, you had to fish the lumps of clinker out of it.''
''We had cocoa, Christmas Eve'' said Bodie ''Me Mum used to lace it with rum, so's we'd get some sleep.''
''We used to toast bread on the gas fire'' said Doyle ''Took ages, been much quicker under the grill, but that's not the point, is it?''
''We had a coal fire'' reminisced Bodie ''Came out tasting of sulphur and coal tar.''
''Looking forward to Christmas with Diane'' confided Doyle ''Be the first time in years I've spent Christmas with a proper bird.''
''Give me an improper one any day'' said Bodie.
''You know what I mean'' said Doyle ''A bird who I...Well, it's better if you feel something, innit?''
''Any time you can't feel it, mate, you just let me know'' offered Bodie ''I'll send out a search party.''
''Twit'' accused Doyle fondly.
''So where next, Miss Marple?'' enquired Bodie.
''Surrey'' said Doyle ''That photo frame.''
''Okay'' said Bodie, navigating his way through the roads with the instincts of a homing pigeon '''S not like I'm bored with the great and the not so good.''
''What made you say that?'' asked Doyle.
''What?'' said Bodie.
''About the not so good'' replied Doyle.
''Well...'' said Bodie, drawing the word out beyond its natural length ''I've never bought all that pillar of the establishment malarkey, they're all at it one way or another.''
Doyle shook his head ''That's the thing'' he said ''Not this bunch. I couldn't find a dodgy bank account, or a clandestine lover, or leaked secret among them. Squeaky clean.''
Bodie arched an admonishing eyebrow ''No one is squeaky clean, Doyle.''
''This bunch are'' said Doyle ''You could eat your dinner off them.''
''Doesn't mean I have to like them'' observed Bodie sullenly ''Or their dogs.''
''Does that mean you've got me something for Christmas?'' asked Doyle.
''Eh?'' said Bodie.
''All that about me forgetting your Christmas present'' said Doyle ''That your less than subtle way of letting me know you've bought me something?''
''I always buy you something'' protested Bodie, desperately casting his mind back ''Last year I got you...''
''Socks'' said Doyle bluntly ''The twelve days of Christmas.''
''Oh yeah'' remembered Bodie ''The lads couldn't prise you out of those new boots you had on, even when you ended up in the canal.''
''No'' said Doyle '''Cos some berk bought me the twelve days of Christmas.''
''You didn't have to wear them'' said Bodie piously.
''How could I not'' said Doyle ''When you were parading that set of cufflinks I got you all round the place.''
''I liked them'' said Bodie defensively.
''Well, I liked the socks'' argued Doyle belligerently ''Only, how do I say 'you're nicked' with ten lords aleaping prancing round me ankles?''
''I dunno'' replied Bodie ''Cowley could nick someone in plus-fours.''
''Cowley wears a sporran'' countered Doyle dismissively.
''So does that mean you'll be wearing boots again this Christmas?'' asked Bodie.
''So long as someone doesn't buy me a sporran'' warned Doyle.
''Deal'' said Bodie ''And yes.''
''Yes, what?'' asked Doyle.
''I already have your present, Goldilocks'' replied Bodie.
''Know what I'm getting you, too'' said Doyle ''So be careful where you get your chestnuts roasted.''
''Funny that'' said Bodie ''But me Dad had this talk with me when I moved into long trousers, said pretty much the same thing.''
''Has anyone ever told you that there's more to life than sex?'' chided Doyle.
''Yeah'' said Bodie ''But I didn't believe them.''
Doyle settled back and closed his eyes, turning the thefts over in his mind. Trying to find some pattern or thread which drew them all together.
It seemed only a few seconds later that Bodie tweaked his nose and said ''Wake up, Sunshine, you're here.''
Doyle blinked groggily for a moment, a weird sense of mourning fading from his consciousness, but he couldn't put a name to what he had lost.
''You alright?'' asked Bodie.
''Yeah'' said Doyle ''Someone must've stepped on my grave.''
''Couldn't have'' said Bodie cheerily, leading the way to the door of a picturesque country cottage ''Cowley'd never spring for a funeral.''
Feeling more himself, Doyle grinned and waited for someone to answer Bodie's peremptory assault on the door knocker.
Much to his surprise a young woman in old fashioned domestic uniform opened the door.
''May I help?'' asked the young woman without enthusiasm.
''Who are you?'' asked Doyle.
''I'm Tracy'' replied the young woman ''I work here.''
''As what?'' asked Bodie, eyeing the prim black dress and flimsy white apron with a curious combination of appreciation and scepticism.
''Lady Cynthia's domestic help'' said the young woman ''Sounds better than maid, dunnit? I know the uniform's a bit much, but money's money, innit?''
''Isn't there supposed to be a cap, or something?'' asked Doyle ''Like nurses?''
''I'm not wearing that'' said Tracy ''I told 'em straight, I'll wear the uniform, but they can stick their rotten hat.''
''And they say you can't get the staff'' observed Bodie, to no one in particular.
''May we come in?'' asked Doyle ''We have an appointment.''
''And ID'' said Bodie, smiling brightly.
''What sort of ID'' asked Tracy.
''CI5'' said Doyle.
''Better come in, then'' said Tracy.
''Don't you want to see our ID?'' asked Doyle.
''Not my house'' said Tracy ''You can show Lady Cynthia. I'll be in the kitchen, if you want me, she's bound to ring for a pot of tea. Don't know why she can't just pop round and ask, 's not like I'm on the moon.''
''Right'' said Doyle, as Tracy led the way inside.
''In there'' said Tracy, indicating the first door on the left as she headed for the kitchen.
Doyle knocked tentatively on the open door, feeling like a schoolboy about to face the Headmistress.
''Come in'' ordered an authoritative voice from the cover of a wing backed chair.
''CI5'' said Doyle ''We telephoned.''
''Tea?'' enquired the voice, furiously ringing a small bell, without waiting for a response.
''Yes, Madam'' said Tracy, appearing in the doorway.
''Tea'' demanded the voice.
''Yes, Madam'' said Tracy, and disappeared again.
''Wretched girl'' said the voice ''I the understand you spoke to my son.''
''Yes'' said Doyle, edging his way round the overcrowded furniture to find a seat on a hard backed chintz sofa.
Bodie followed him and seated himself next to his partner.
Tracy came in with the tea on a tray, setting down the individual pieces of the service on the coffee table.
Lady Cynthia remained as immobile as if she had been enthroned in effigy.
''Shall I be mother?'' asked Bodie.
''Young man'' replied Lady Cynthia ''Would you be kind enough to inform me which of you telephoned to my son?''
''That would be me'' said Doyle.
''Then what is the other doing here?'' replied Lady Cynthia, ignoring Bodie as he passed her a teacup, in the absence of direction, filled in accordance with his own best guess as to her preferences.
''He's my partner'' replied Doyle.
''I thought you said you were a policeman'' replied Lady Cynthia.
''No'' said Doyle ''CI5.''
''I suppose that is some form of explanation'' observed Lady Cynthia ''But what is CI5's interest in petty thievery?''
''The picture frame wasn't valuable, then?'' asked Doyle.
''Stirling silver, of no particular merit'' confirmed Lady Cynthia ''I'm afraid my husband's first wife had appalling taste.''
''First wife?'' queried Doyle.
''Yes'' said Lady Cynthia ''She died during prohibition. They had travelled to America, to visit friends. There was a party, the liquor was bad. A number of people died, my husband's first wife among them.''
''I see'' said Doyle ''But you don't think there was any connection to the theft?''
''If so, the connection escapes me'' replied Lady Cynthia.
''What was the picture'' asked Doyle ''In the frame?''
''It was a photograph of my late husband'' said Lady Cynthia ''In truth, not one I ever cared for, the photographer was a friend of his.''
''I'm sorry'' said Doyle ''But, in cases like this, the photograph is rarely recovered.''
''The photograph was not stolen'' replied Lady Cynthia ''The thief removed it from the frame and left it on the mantelpiece.''
''Was it damaged?'' asked Doyle.
''Not a mark upon it'' replied Lady Cynthia ''Rather curious, don't you think?''
''And the photographer?'' pressed Doyle.
''As I said'' replied Lady Cynthia ''A friend of my late husband's. She emigrated after the war. Australia, I believe.''
Bodie chose that moment to excuse himself ''Mind if I visit the little boys room?''
''Dreadful euphemism for a perfectly natural function'' observed Lady Cynthia ''The girl will show you where.''
''May I see the photograph?'' asked Doyle.
''It's in that cabinet'' said Lady Cynthia, indicating a walnut display cabinet, situated in an alcove, comprising two glazed doors set above three drawers.
Doyle gingerly navigated his way round the furniture and peered through the doors of the display cabinet at the collection of figurines and ornaments arranged on the shelves behind them. The photograph was at the back, propped behind behind a shepherd and shepherdess in eighteenth century dress.
''This photograph'' asked Doyle ''It looks familiar, was it ever published?''
''Not to my knowledge'' said Lady Cynthia ''It was taken shortly before my husband proposed. Of course, in those days, the families had more to do with it. I remember my Mother being particularly anxious about my husband's propensity for drink. But, of course, by that time, he was teetotal. Guilt, d'you see?''
''Yeah'' said Doyle, unable to shake the feeling of having seen something familiar ''Did they stay in touch, your husband and the photographer?''
''I believe he sent a Christmas card, the first Christmas after she emigrated, but then we were married and of course that changed things'' replied Lady Cynthia ''Things are so lax these days, young people have no standards. The woman who runs the village shop is quite brazen about it. Her daughter is living in sin with the postman. But then, rurals, what can one expect?''
''We done?'' enquired Bodie, appearing in the doorway.
Doyle nodded at his partner, turning back to Lady Cynthia to say ''Thank you for your time, and the tea, we'll let ourselves out.''
Tracy was nowhere in evidence as they left the cottage and climbed back into the capri. Bodie steered it in the direction of home, his own route, via his local hostelry.
''So?'' prompted Doyle.
''Not much'' said Bodie ''But that Tracy must know every bit of gossip between here and John o' Groats.''
''Got anything useful on Cowley's mystery lady?'' asked Doyle.
Bodie chose to treat this remark with contempt it deserved and ignored it.
''Oh, alright, then'' Doyle capitulated ''What's she got on Miss Havisham, back there?''
''Rumour has it that the Old Boy and Lady C were not a match made in heaven'' said Bodie.
''Fights?'' asked Doyle.
Bodie shook his head ''The opposite.''
''What's the opposite of a fight?'' asked Doyle ''If they didn't get on?''
''All very civilised'' said Bodie ''He lives in one wing, she lives in the other.''
''Isn't that just what toffs do?'' asked Doyle.
''Yeah'' said Bodie ''But they usually do it on the same continent.''
''Eh?'' said Doyle.
''Old Boy went to Australia'' explained Bodie ''Sometime in the sixties, never came back.''
''That's where the photographer went, the one who took his picture'' said Doyle ''The photo in the stolen frame.''
''Connection?'' asked Bodie.
''Who knows? Who cares?'' said Doyle ''That photo was taken years ago.''
''The first wife?'' suggested Bodie ''Maybe it wasn't bad liquor, maybe it was murder.''
''But even if the Yanks wanted to prosecute'' said Doyle ''The Old Boy's dead, what's the point?''
''Natural justice?'' suggested Bodie ''Get the truth out in the open?''
''Okay'' said Doyle ''But what about the tie? Or the vase? What's the connection there, if they are connected. I dunno, maybe Cowley's got this all wrong. Maybe I have. Maybe Marge led us all up the garden path.''
''No'' insisted Bodie ''They're connected.''
''How?'' said Doyle ''Maybe you were right and the only connection is Cowley throwing us off the sent.''
''You weren't wrong'' said Bodie ''Whatever Cowley's up to, this isn't about him.''
''What makes you so sure?'' asked Doyle.
''This'' said Bodie, producing a business card from his pocket and handing it over to Doyle.
''How long have you been carrying this thing around?'' asked Doyle incredulously ''Mrs Hillbottom and her co-habiting spinster niece? Three guesses how many beds in that household.''
''No'' said Bodie ''Tracy gave me that, it was left with the photo. She was supposed to throw it out, but apparently her Mum doesn't trust Lady C. It's supposed to be insurance against them deciding Tracy stole the photo frame. Proof there was a burglary.''
''But the police eliminated her'' objected Doyle ''It's not much of a file, but the local woodentops did establish that she'd gone to the pictures that night, with her mates. She's got six eyewitnesses, and the cinema know her. The projectionist is her mate's uncle, she's got a better alibi than I have.''
''Yeah'' said Bodie ''But on the assumption you haven't taken to a life of crime, that's your connection.''
Doyle turned the card over in his hands ''Inspectors of Distinction'' he murmured, looking at the neat copperplate printing ''I can't read the date, what did it say on the other card?''
''Glove compartment'' said Bodie.
''That's evidence'' protested Doyle ''You can't leave it in the glove compartment.''
''Why?'' asked Bodie ''We're the only ones who give a toss.''
''That's not the point'' said Doyle ''We're bagging both of these, the minute we get back to HQ.''
''Tomorrow, then'' said Bodie ''I'm going to the pub tonight.''
Doyle weighed up the likely success of persuading Bodie to detour via what passed as CI5's evidence room and decided he'd hang on to the cards himself until morning.
''So?'' asked Bodie.
''So, what?'' said Doyle.
''Can you read the date?'' asked Bodie ''Inspectors of Distinction, since when?''
''Nope'' said Doyle ''Smudged on this one too.''
'''S not important'' said Bodie ''Can't be too many firms out there called Nice-Orno Limited, and if they're inspectors, they must be registered somewhere. Regulated. Once we've figured out what they're inspecting, we should be able to figure out the connection.''
''Nice is in France'' offered Doyle.
''Yeah, and there's a place in Sweden called Ornö'' said Bodie ''But something gives me the feeling that this is a bit closer to home.''
''Yeah'' agreed Doyle ''Me too, just can't put my finger on why.''
''My money's on you, Sherlock'' said Bodie, flashing his partner a reassuring grin.
Bodie fiddled with the bit of card in his hand and checked his watch, a fortnight of petty thefts and Cowley watching had made them both anxious and irritable.
A least, it had made him anxious, and Doyle irritable.
Apparently, this morning, it had also made Doyle late. Bodie sipped dispiritedly at his Britvic orange and fished about hopefully in the bottom of his empty crisp packet.
''Alright'' demanded a voice above him ''Why did you drag me out here on a Saturday morning?''
''Mornin''' replied Bodie, abandoning his futile attempt to mine the depths of his empty crisp packet.
''Don't you 'mornin'' me, mate'' said Doyle ''This is the first Saturday I've had off in over a month, I had other plans.''
In answer to that, Bodie held aloft the card in his hand.
''What's this?'' demanded Doyle, snatching the card ungraciously from his partner's fingers.
Bodie leaned back in his seat, looking smug.
''I'm not playing twenty questions'' snapped Doyle ''Out with it, or I'm off.''
Bodie swigged down the last of his orange, put the the glass back on the table with a thud audible enough to prick up the ears of the barman, and cause the two old men playing dominoes by the window to hunker down in a determined show of not getting involved, and said quietly ''Sit down, Doyle, before I find a reason to put you down.''
Doyle hesitated, assessing his partner's mood, then sat down obediently, enquiring mildly ''This your subtle way of telling me that I'm being an arse?''
''No'' said Bodie ''This is my subtle way of telling you that I've found your bloody missing link, now what d'you want to drink?''
Doyle's eyebrows communed with Bodie's, in silent acknowledgement of the wince inducing rhyme. Then, because Bodie deserved it, whether he was being an arse or not, Doyle replied obstreperously ''Tea'' followed less antagonistically by ''But seeing as we're in a pub, you can get me a tonic water.''
Bodie got up and approached the barman, who was looking less than enthusiastic about the idea, and asked for two tonic waters.
Radiating nervousness the barman offered ''Bit of lull right now, but the local nick's only down the road, we get a lot of coppers in here, especially if they're changing shifts, should be busier any minute now – if you were thinking of ordering lunch.''
''I wasn't'' said Bodie ''Or starting a fight, if that's what's bothering you. But me and my mate don't like company, so we're not going to find ourselves knee deep in coppers because you 'phoned the nick, are we?''
The two men playing dominoes had given up any pretence of not listening and were watching the exchange as if it was a game of tennis.
The barman looked distinctly uncomfortable. Bodie threw some notes on the bar and said ''Use the change to stick something festive on the jukebox'' before picking up his drinks and acknowledging the two old men with a nod of his head as he made his way back to his table.
''When did you start taking lunch orders at ten-thirty, then, Nige?'' asked one of the old men, much to the smirking amusement of his companion.
The barman scowled impotently and headed for the jukebox.
Doyle had watched the entire performance with sardonic patience ''Do you have to?'' he chided, as Bodie set the drinks down and resumed his seat.
''Get fed up of being treated like a thug'' said Bodie.
''Think he'd've been different, if you'd been in uniform?'' asked Doyle.
Bodie pulled a wry face ''Who knows.''
''So c'mon, then'' encouraged Doyle ''What's me missing link?''
Bodie plucked the card from Doyle's fingers and said ''How many of these have we got now?''
''Ten'' replied Doyle, as the jukebox kicked in with a rendition of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.
''Eleven'' said Bodie, waving the card under Doyle's nose.
''The not-so-good Doctor and his missing tie'' speculated Doyle ''Or, our fly in the ointment.''
''Not any more'' confirmed Bodie ''He got one too.''
''How d'you find it?'' asked Doyle, sipping his tonic, the investigative gleam in his eyes making them sparkle with more seasonal authenticity than the lacklustre tinsel draped sporadically around the pub.
''What you said to him, about the local rag'' said Bodie ''It suddenly occurred to me that they might have tried to interview him about the tie.''
''What for?'' asked Doyle.
''Because you rang them up about the school, remember?'' answered Bodie.
''But there was nothing in it, no dodgy deal, no back handers'' said Doyle ''Alright, it's a crying shame, those kids losing that place, but there was nothing criminal. We turned that deal inside out, if there was, we'd've found it.''
''But it does turn out that Dr Petros Hircombe is a share holder in the company doing the redevelopment'' said Bodie ''And that he voted to approve the project.''
''So did three quarters of the board'' countered Doyle dismissively ''And their votes would carry more weight.''
''Yeah'' pressed Bodie ''I'll admit it was a long shot, but it's not the first time one of those has paid off, is it? And I didn't have much to lose.''
''So, what happened?'' asked Doyle.
''So, I rang the paper, had a chat with the reporter who's been following the story'' said Bodie.
''And...?'' prompted Doyle.
''And, okay, Petros Hircombe's vote hardly carried the day'' conceded Bodie ''The way it's set up, the board decides which projects get the green light. The shareholders just get to rubber stamp the whole thing. The board's only gonna care, if the shareholders start selling their shares, and their not gonna do that, because the company makes a mint.
''All this we know'' said Doyle ''So...?''
''So, rumour has it, Dr Petros Hircombe plays golf with the bloke who runs the company'' continued Bodie ''And it was him who persuaded this bloke to look at the school. Apparently, this bloke, the one who runs the company, is hoping for a gong in the next honours list, and he was worried about all the negative publicity closing the school would generate. Petros Hircombe is supposed to have been the one who persuaded him that he could sell it as rural regeneration.''
''Okay'' said Doyle, tapping the card in Bodie's fingers ''And how does that, lead to this?''
''After you rang'' replied Bodie ''This reporter thinks he sniffs a human interest angle. You know, old boy demolishes school, that sort of twaddle. Anyway, he goes to see the Doctor, asks what he thinks about being a shareholder in the company about to redevelop the school.''
''Did he get anywhere?'' asked Doyle.
''Not really'' said Bodie ''Got a load of pompous guff, which - after he took the shine off it - amounted to how to spell Dr Petros Hircombe right, and what a pillar of the community he is. So, this reporter tries the robbery, thinking he might get something worth the ink.''
''He didn't'' replied Doyle ''I kept me on the papers, just in case anything turned up.''
''No'' agreed Bodie ''Not from the Doctor, but they've got this cleaner, comes in twice a week, and she was there the same day as this reporter.''
''Yeah?'' said Doyle.
''Yeah'' said Bodie ''So, two days after this reporter has been to see the Doctor, she turns up at the paper, asking to see the reporter.''
''Yeah?'' repeated Doyle.
''Yeah'' repeated Bodie ''She had this card, wanted to know if was worth anything, because it was found after the robbery.''
''So, did she know anything?'' queried Doyle hopefully.
''Nope'' replied Bodie ''Don't get your hopes up, Sunshine. She wasn't a witness. The bloke just felt sorry for her, so he offered her a fiver for the card and then forgot all about it. Until I rang him.''
''Oh'' said Doyle, deflated.
''But'' Bodie leaned forward to console his partner ''It proves you were right. All the robberies are connected.''
''How?'' asked Doyle forlornly ''And why is the Cow so interested?''
Bodie leaned back, defeated ''You got me there, Goldilocks.''
Doyle gave his partner a lopsided grin ''Thanks for trying, Bodie.''
They finished their drinks in companionable silence, accompanied by a medley of easy listening festive cheer, cranked out by the jukebox.
They were just thinking of leaving when the barman, with air of a Mexican peasant approaching seven hired gunslingers, arrived to plonk two glasses of babysham in front of them, complete with maraschino cherries on cocktail sticks.
Bodie immediately looked to the bar, to find a grinning Murphy raising his glass to them. The two old boys playing dominoes were cackling amongst themselves, obviously gleeful at the unexpected entertainment the morning had provided.
''From the gentleman at the bar'' the barman muttered, unheard, before beating a retreat to resume his habitual position at the pumps.
With great deliberation, Bodie plucked the cocktail stick from his drink and sucked the cherry from it. Savouring it, as if it were a rare delicacy.
Murphy left the bar, heading towards them in an unhurried saunter, hooking a chair from another table and dragging it with him. Once he had reached the table at which Bodie and Doyle were seated, he deftly twirled the chair around, plonking himself down to straddle the seat backwards, and leaned his forearms on the backrest, sipping his beer.
''Hello Gents'' he announced ''Come here often?''
Doyle grinned, sipping his babysham unashamedly, and demanded of Murphy ''What d'you want?''
''Glad I found you'' replied Murphy ''Thought you were going to Norfolk, Doyle?''
''I was'' said Doyle, glaring at Bodie in good natured censure.
''What's in Norfolk?'' asked Bodie.
''Bloke with a bit for my bike'' said Doyle ''Don't worry, I rang 'im. Got 'im to hang on to it.''
''Ring him back''' said Murphy.
''Why?'' asked Bodie, in voice laden with suspicion.
''Because'' intoned Murphy, with the air of a man imparting the wisdom of the ages ''Our Glorious Leader has arranged a quiet little retreat for himself.''
''But not by himself?'' speculated Bodie unhappily.
''No'' confirmed Murphy.
''Damn'' breathed Bodie, tightly.
Doyle continued to sip his babysham.
''How d'you know?'' pressed Bodie.
''Security'' said Murphy ''Some idiot rang to check with me.''
''Bloody fool'' swore Doyle, impatiently.
''Don't worry, Doyle'' said Murphy ''I think that's the last time he'll ring anyone who's not on a need to know list, no matter who they are. But it's bloody handy for us.''
''Who was on the list?'' asked Bodie.
''Cowley and the PM'' answered Murphy.
''Yeah'' nodded Bodie in comprehension ''Triple think.''
''More like triple bluff'' said Murphy ''No security, nothing to secure.''
''Only now, we know where he is'' added Doyle ''And if we know...''
''Yeah'' said Murphy ''This is one tea party I'm not trusting to the chimps.''
Bodie suddenly stood up ''How are we getting there?''
''Me, in Doyle's car, you two, in yours'' said Murphy.
''Why can't you drive Bodie's car?'' objected Doyle, as the juke box exhausted the last of Bodie's change with Bing Crosby exhorting everyone to have themselves a merry little Christmas.
''I can'' said Murphy, swilling down a last mouthful of his pint before abandoning it ''But who's gonna prise the keys off him?''
''Prima donna'' murmured Doyle in Bodie's ear as, side by side, they followed Murphy out of the pub.
''I know'' said Bodie, grinning unrepentantly ''But I'm the one driving me own car.''
Both capri's were in the car park, and Doyle threw his keys at Murphy, enquiring ''How d'you get here, then?'' as he pulled the passenger door of Bodie's capri open.
''Bus'' grinned Murphy, as he slipped behind the wheel of Doyle's car.
''You wanna watch it, Doyle'' said Bodie, as he pulled out of the car park, following Murphy's lead ''You're setting that lad a bad example.''
The miniature convoy made its way out of the comforting pollution of London, heading for the brisker, bleaker East Anglian countryside.
It was deep twilight when they arrived at their destination. An attractive village, with cottages crowded together around a traditional green. Murphy had pulled up at the pub and Bodie pulled in beside him and waited.
Murphy got out of Doyle's capri and walked over to the driver's side of Bodie's. Bodie wound down the window.
''Can't take the cars any further'' said Murphy ''The Cow'd spot us a mile off.''
''What, then?'' asked Bodie.
''I figure we settle in at the pub'' replied Murphy ''Order a pint, have a meal, book some rooms.''
''Three blokes together?'' protested Doyle ''Who are we supposed to be, The Three Stooges?''
''Nope'' said Murphy ''If anyone asks, you're here to collect your bike part, and me and Bodie came along for the beer.''
''Then why didn't we come on our bikes?'' objected Doyle.
''Because yours is off the road'' explained Murphy patiently ''And me and 'im are being solid mates.''
''Bit thin'' observed Bodie.
''That's the beauty of it'' grinned Murphy ''A decent cover story'd have Cowley's whiskers twitching a hundred miles off.''
''I can't figure out if this is advanced triple think'' grumbled Bodie, as he and Doyle climbed out of his capri ''Or the worst idea I've ever heard.''
''There's only one sure way to tell'' advised Murphy, as he led the way into the warmth of the pub.
''Oh, yeah?'' said Bodie.
''If works, it's triple think'' supplied Doyle ''If it doesn't - ''
'' - We're stuffed'' finished Murphy, unrepentantly.
''Terrific'' groused Bodie.
Murphy enquired about the rooms, two twin bedded, while Bodie organised the pints and arranged for dinner.
They regrouped at one of the pub tables with their drinks.
''So who gets what?'' asked Doyle, as a young woman appeared with two steak and kidney pies with mash, and a scampi and chips.
''You two can share'' said Murphy, as he prepared to tuck into his pie.
''Why do we have to share?'' protested Doyle ''I get enough of that with the job.''
''Exactly'' said Murphy ''You're used to it.''
''Oi'' protested Bodie ''I am still here.''
Presented with overwhelming temptation, Doyle and Murphy chorused in unison ''More's the pity.''
For an instant, Bodie appeared dumbfounded, immediately evaporating into amusement, as he threatened amiably ''Just for that, I promise to snore.''
''So what's the plan?'' asked Doyle.
''Lie low overnight'' said Murphy ''The we leave the cars here and grab a bus in the morning. Cowley's place is in the next village over.''
''Isn't that going to look odd, with two cars between us?'' asked Doyle.
''Not as odd as booking a taxi'' replied Murphy ''Anyway, that's where the beer comes in.''
''What beer?'' asked Bodie.
''CAMRA'' said Murphy ''The Campaign for Real Ale. The way I see it, three blokes on a pub crawl isn't going to attract any attention. And we'd be more likely to use the bus for that.''
''Do I look like a hippie?'' protested Doyle, as Bodie and Murphy struggled to keep loyally straight faces. ''I do not look like a hippie'' objected Doyle emphatically '''S not my fault me hair does this'' he continued, aggrieved, indicating his mop of unruly curls with his fork ''This look is very hip, very cool.''
''Don't get your beads in knot, Goldilocks'' Bodie assured his partner unconvincingly ''We never heard of a hip, hippie.''
''Cool, man'' agreed Murphy, adding to the incendiary platitudes ''Very cool.''
''Bastards'' retorted Doyle.
''Scruffy bugger's got a point, though'' conceded Bodie ''He may look like he belongs with the cheesecloth and sandals brigade, but what about us?''
''Oh, ye who are misinformed'' pronounced Murphy ''I joined up meself six months ago, I like a decent pint.''
''You have to be kidding'' choked Doyle.
''They have women, too'' continued Murphy.
''That's more like it'' said Bodie ''Who is she?''
''Been and gone'' replied Murphy ''She got fed up of being stood up, but it was beautiful while it lasted.''
''And you're seriously sticking with it?'' asked Doyle ''The CAMRA thing?''
''Don't knock it, 'til you've tried it, Doyle'' advised Murphy serenely.
The rest of the evening passed companionably. Bodie and Doyle put some effort into establishing their credentials as connoisseurs of the hop with a few of the regulars, and they all retired for the evening at an hour calculated to chime with their cover story, such as it was.
They employed the same judgement with regard to their rising, appearing at breakfast at an hour more fitted to Sunday service leisure than CI5 surveillance.
Over cornflakes and a pot of tea, Doyle took the opportunity to ask Murphy ''Has Cowley said anything about giving us a proper assignment?''
''I thought you were all gung-ho for this business card thing'' replied Murphy ''The way Bodie tells it, you're on a one man mission.''
''If there's a bee in my bonnet'' said Doyle ''Cowley put it there.''
''Well now you get to put one in his'' replied Murphy.
''Yeah'' said Bodie ''About that little thing, we can hardly haul the Old Man into interrogation and ask him what he's playing at – so what's the plan?''
''Forget the Old Man'' replied Murphy ''I'm more interested in what Iraina Westin's playing at.''
''Fat chance of dragging her into interrogation'' said Bodie ''Not with the Old Man playing Prince Valiant.''
''What we need is some evidence'' said Doyle ''Proof, one way or another. Then we'd know what we were dealing with.''
''Well, we're not gonna get that flapping our gums around here'' said Murphy, swilling down the dregs of his tea and getting to his feet ''Let's get going, before we come to our senses and change our minds.''
''Right'' said Bodie, following suit, and rising to his feet ''Off you go.''
Bodie and Doyle followed Murphy out of the pub, Murphy led them along the road skirting the green and then between the cottages until they were almost at the outskirts of the village.
''I thought we were getting the bus?'' objected Bodie.
''We are'' replied Murphy ''But I wasn't taking any chances, the bus we need doesn't go through this village. We need to get to the crossroads.''
''That's one way to dodge a tail'' grinned Doyle ''Ever think you're getting a bit paranoid in your old age?''
''Murphy was born paranoid'' observed Bodie, as they approached the crossroads ''That's why we love him.''
''If that was true'' Murphy shot back over his shoulder, as he turned off at the crossroads and headed for the bus stop fifty yards away ''I wouldn't have let some idiot talk me into scaling a chimney with him.''
''The man has a point'' conceded Doyle, as the three of them arrived at the bus stop.
The sun was out, a bright winter sun, which glinted off the stubborn vestiges of the morning's dew, and the air was sharp, and full of the promise of winter.
Bodie scanned the countryside around him and grinned ''Very flat, Norfolk.''
Twenty minutes later, they were rattling through the countryside in a bus. A little while after that, Murphy rang the bell and they disembarked.
This new village was smaller, with less obvious tourist appeal. The dwellings giving the appearance of still belonging to locals.
''Twenty years, and this'll all be stockbrokers'' observed Doyle glumly ''It's like the Highland Clearances, all over again.''
''Except these Highlanders will make a killing on the property prices'' said Bodie.
''Or their landlords will'' responded Doyle dispiritedly.
''Keep the red flag flying here, eh, Doyle?'' teased Murphy.
''It's just, sometimes, progress stinks'' Doyle answered him, the ghost of a wry, philosophical smile on his face.
''Or, maybe, you just think too much'' dismissed Bodie impatiently ''C'mon then, Murphy, where to, now?
''Nothing wrong with thinking'' muttered Doyle ''You should try it, sometime.''
''Look, Doyle'' argued Bodie ''Thumbing through a few Sunday supplements does not make you an expert on rural depopulation.''
''And I suppose a subscription to Sporting Life, does?'' objected Doyle.
''Just how long have you two been married?'' interjected Murphy pointedly, looking at his watch.
''Sorry, mate'' said Doyle, looking sheepish.
''Yeah, sorry, mate'' agreed Bodie.
''Right'' said Murphy, striding forward ''This way.''
Murphy headed towards a footpath leading off the main route through the village. The tarmac petered out as it approached the surrounding fields and, as the metalled surface gave way to compacted soil, Murphy stopped and pointed to a flint grey building set slightly apart from the rest of the village. It was surrounded by a wall of waist height, sheltering a sparse orchard of gnarled, leafless fruit trees, bordered by neatly bevelled, hibernating flowerbeds.
''That it?'' asked Bodie.
''That's it'' confirmed Murphy.
''How we supposed to get a look in there?'' asked Doyle.
''We're not'' said Murphy ''Cowley's not an idiot.''
''There's no fool, like an old fool'' muttered Bodie, apparently to himself.
''Quiet'' hissed Murphy, as the sound of an unseen door being opened reached them.
''Must be round the other side'' whispered Doyle.
''Yeah'' agreed Murphy, in equally hushed tones ''The front door's round that side, faces onto the old mill lane.''
''Where's the mill?'' whispered Bodie.
''Long gone'' replied Murphy ''But the lane carries on past where it used to be, taking you to the next village. The other way, it goes back to where we came from. Either way, we should be okay, if we keep our heads down.''
As if to emphasise the point, the sound of a gate being pulled open and swung to reached them.
Murphy gestured urgently for Bodie and Doyle to duck down, close against the wall, while he shuffled forward on his haunches until he was hidden by the branches of a holly bush, the only vibrant plant in the garden. An abundance of bright red berries were scattered among its spiteful, dark green leaves. Murphy raised up slightly, peering through edges of the prickly foliage. A familiar sandy coiffure was just visible heading away from the house, towards the next village. Murphy turned and sank back against the wall, breathing with deliberate care, steadying his nerves.
Bodie and Doyle exchanged glances. Murphy's reaction, all they needed to confirm the identity of their unseen quarry.
Then Bodie crept forward to join Murphy, followed by Doyle.
''What now?'' asked Doyle.
Murphy studied them soberly ''We go in.''
''Are you mad?'' hissed Doyle forcefully ''What if he comes back?''
''Then we can all kiss goodbye to our pensions'' replied Murphy, rising to his feet ''You coming, or what?''
''We're coming'' Bodie answered with grim determination, as both he and Doyle rose to join him.
Murphy led the way round to the front door, rapping the knocker smartly in a fashion which brooked no denial.
Scant minutes later, the door opened, revealing the woman they had only known from photographs. Even dressed in country casuals, she exuded an exotic, understated glamour. For a second Bodie felt a rush of desire, then a cooler appraisal prevailed and he remembered what had led them to this moment.
''May we come in?'' asked Doyle sweetly.
''Were you too afraid to come alone?'' answered the woman, her implicit invitation filled with indefinable promise.
''You know who we are?'' enquired Murphy, as the three of them trooped obediently past her to stand in the dimly lit hallway.
''I can guess'' she replied.
''Then you know why we're here'' announced Bodie bluntly.
''Shall we put our cards on the table, gentlemen?'' suggested the woman, leading the way into the kitchen ''As luck would have it, I have just boiled the kettle, would one of you be kind enough to make the tea? Isn't that the English way, whenever you feel threatened?''
Murphy caught Bodie's eye, exchanging a wry smile, then he got busy, making the tea.
Doyle slid into a seat at the table, opposite the woman, while Bodie leaned against the sink, trying to keep out of Murphy's way, and maintaining a constant watch through the Victorian style lace curtaining at the windows.
''And why would we feel threatened?'' asked Doyle.
''Because your boss is in love with me'' replied the woman levelly ''And because he would do anything for me.''
''Like tying up his agents investigating a pointless series of thefts?'' speculated Doyle.
For a fleeting instant, a slight frown flickered across the woman's features, then she smiled and said ''But of course.''
''Nice try, love'' replied Doyle, as Murphy began handing out steaming mugs of tea, beginning with Bodie ''But you don't have a clue what I'm talking about, do you?''
''Milk, sugar?'' interrupted Murphy, as he delivered Doyle's mug.
''I prefer it with honey and lemon'' the woman answered him ''And in a glass.''
''Pity that'' said Murphy ''Because this isn't the Ritz, so make up your mind or go without.''
''Is that intended to intimidate me?'' enquired the woman.
''Suit yourself'' shrugged Murphy, picking up his own mug and retreating to stand with Bodie.
''Think you've upset him'' observed Doyle ''He's a sensitive lad.''
''You do realise, you can't win?'' responded the woman ''Oh, you may be able to prevent me marrying George Cowley. You might even be able to turn him against me, even hate me, but it's all too late. Far too late.''
''Getting a bit ahead of ourselves, aren't we?'' asked Bodie, as Murphy took over window watching duties ''You haven't divorced the other one yet.''
''Why have half the cake, when you can have it all?'' said the woman ''I look very good in black.''
''With George Cowley playing widow maker'' Bodie comprehended sardonically ''You expect us to believe that?''
''Why not?'' smiled Iraina Westin.
''Because there must be a thousand easier ways to bump off a husband'' replied Bodie.
''Yeah'' added Doyle ''Chances are, place he's in, all you'd need do, is sit tight for a couple of years.''
''So, what is our black widow up to?'' Bodie pondered aloud ''You thinking the same as me, Doyle?''
''Cowley wouldn't sell out'' said Doyle.
''Yeah'' agreed Bodie ''Had me going for a bit. Really thought the Old Man might be losing it, but Doyle's right. Cowley wouldn't sell out. Not for any woman.''
''You think so?'' enquired Iraina Westin.
''Yeah'' confirmed Murphy from the window ''We do.''
''But no one would care what we think'' said Doyle ''Not after the news broke. Cowley would have to resign. It'd be another Profumo.''
''No smoke without fire'' continued Bodie ''The wife of a notorious traitor, like Marius Westin, and the Controller of CI5? And it wouldn't stop at Cowley, would it? There'd be nothing left.''
''As I said'' repeated Iraina Westin ''It's all too late. You see, I've been rather indiscreet. George is not the only man with whom I've been keeping company.''
''I'll just bet'' said Doyle ''You couldn't risk a cover up, CI5 closing ranks. Who is it? Not that it matters, Cowley has enough enemies. Any one of them would be glad to see him buried, and CI5 along with him.''
''Thing is'' added Bodie ''That cuts both ways.''
''Meaning?'' enquired Iraina Westin disinterestedly, certain of her victory.
''Cowley's not the only one with enemies'' supplied Murphy, as Doyle seamlessly slipped past him to take his place at the window, in answer to the nod of Murphy's head.
Abandoning his post to Doyle, Murphy joined Bodie and Iraina at the table.
''Do tell'' replied Iraina Westin.
Murphy reached into his jacket and tugged a large envelope from the inside pocket. It had been folded in half and Murphy smoothed it flat on the table before sliding it across to Iraina.
From their respective vantage points, Bodie and Doyle exchanged glances and awaited developments.
Tearing open the envelope along one of its short edges, Iraina tipped the contents out onto the table. The envelope contained several glossy eight by ten photographs, some of which Bodie recognised. Doyle turned his full attention to the window.
Gripping a corner of one of the glossy photographs between her thumb and forefinger, and dangling it in front of Murphy's nose, Iraina observed ''This one's rather fun, George can be such a romantic.''
''And how much do you think his enemies would pay to lay their hands on the woman he loves?'' enquired Murphy evenly ''Because I made a list, and then I sent an envelope, just like this one, to each and every one of them.''
''George loves me'' dismissed Iraina confidently ''He'll protect me.''
''The Controller of CI5 could protect you'' agreed Murphy ''But what about George Cowley, the disgraced public servant?''
''But...'' stumbled Iraina.
''See, it boils down to this'' continued Murphy ''It's not just Cowley's enemies. No one is ever going to have a problem finding the wife of the notorious Marius Westin. He made a lot of money selling everyone down the river. Money you're still living off. The world will always be full of people with a grudge, willing to sell you out. As Controller of CI5, Cowley could protect you. Probably already is. Your only insurance is that he cares enough to go on wanting to.''
''The damage I've already done...'' speculated Iraina, agile as a cat, pragmatically calculating the angles of this new reality.
''CI5 cleans its own house'' answered Bodie.
''But I've...'' hesitated Iraina.
''The only people we couldn't get to, wouldn't be the sort who'd listen to you'' said Murphy ''So now you're going to write a letter.''
Iraina's eyes narrowed in suspicion ''What kind of letter?''
''Dear John'' interjected Doyle, without taking his eyes from the window.
''Or, in this case'' amended Bodie ''Dear George.''
''But what could I say?'' protested Iraina.
''How about the truth?'' suggested Doyle nastily ''That being with you would destroy CI5?''
''If I know the Old Man'' rumbled Bodie determinedly ''That'll be enough.''
''And try not to break his heart while you're at it'' instructed Doyle.
Iraina remained seated for a moment, head bowed in resignation, then she pushed herself up from the table and left the room.
Bodie was instantly behind her, following her into the small sitting room. She seated herself at a neat little writing bureau, took up a fountain pen, and began to write. She wrote calmly and without hesitation. Bodie found himself admiring her composure, like a great general signing the articles of defeat.
When she had finished, she folded the letter with deliberate care, and then placed it in an envelope, which she left unsealed. ''What now?'' she asked.
''You pack'' said Bodie ''And then you leave.''
''You trust me?'' asked Iraina ''Just to walk away?''
''To walk away?'' echoed Bodie ''No. Not to walk away. But to protect that pampered little hide of yours? Yeah, I'd lay money on that.''
Iraina smiled in the manner of one creature recognising another of its own kind, but said nothing.
Bodie smiled back, content in his victory and needing nothing further.
Iraina slipped past him to pack her things, Bodie let her go and returned to the kitchen. He found Doyle still at the window, dividing his attention between keeping watch and interrogating Murphy.
''You could have told us'' Doyle was saying ''Bodie's been like a cat on hot bricks.''
''Some gratitude, that is'' retorted Murphy ''I could have left you in London.''
''The man has a point'' said Bodie ''He might have left us to work it for ourselves, Iraina Westin buggering off.''
''Still think it's a cheek'' said Doyle ''Where is she now?''
''Packing'' said Bodie.
''Where's the letter?'' asked Doyle.
''In the other room'' answered Bodie.
''Think we should look at it?'' said Doyle ''To make sure?''
Bodie shook his head ''She's not that stupid, and I don't want to read it, do you?''
Doyle looked doubtful ''Part of me does, the rest would rather have me eyes plucked out.''
''In that case, Gentlemen'' said Murphy ''Can we please hop it? Before the Old Man gets back.''
The front door suddenly slammed shut, followed a few minutes later by the noise of a sporty engine purring into life.
''And goodnight, Iraina Westin'' pronounced Bodie sardonically ''C'mon Doyle, let's do like the man said, and hop it.''
Warily retracing their footsteps, they found themselves back at the bus stop, somewhat miraculously, without having been spotted by the Controller of CI5.
Shortly after that, they were safely on board a bus, heading for the cross roads and the walk back to the village where they had stayed the night.
''Then back 'ome'' observed Bodie with smug satisfaction.
'''Oh, no'' said Doyle ''I rang that bloke again. You're giving me a lift to collect that part for me bike.''
''Why me?'' asked Bodie ''Murphy's the one with your car.''
''Because'' said Doyle ''After all that half-baked rubbish about CAMRA, Murphy owes me a favour, and I don't want 'im getting off that lightly''
''Oi'' protested Murphy ''There's nothing half-baked about CAMRA.''
''Same go for the world's flimsiest cover story, does it?'' enquired Doyle pointedly.
''Best I could come up with on the spur of the moment'' Murphy defended himself.
''We wouldn't have needed one, if you'd've let us in on the plan'' said Doyle ''You're the one who made us think it was going to be all cloak and dagger.''
''Yeah'' agreed Bodie ''Only with Murphy, here, it's just dagger, innit?''
Murphy grinned ''Someone had to get rid of her.''
''Well done, mate'' Bodie offered affably.
''Yeah'' conceded Doyle ''Well done, mate. Pity you can't do the same for our current assignment.''
''Why?'' asked Murphy ''By now, I figured you two must be close to getting that sewn up.''
''Are we, hell as like'' groused Doyle ''We've interviewed everyone we can think of, got witness statements coming out of our wazoos, got a file that'd make War and Peace look like light reading, but we've got precisely nowhere.''
''And the Old Man's gonna be like a bear with a sore head, after he reads that letter'' added Bodie glumly ''I reckon we can kiss goodbye to getting Christmas off.''
''You must have found something'' protested Murphy ''You've been at it weeks.''
''Nothing'' reiterated Doyle emphatically ''Nada, not a bean, nowt.''
''Except eleven business cards'' said Bodie ''All saying the same thing.''
''What same thing?'' asked Murphy.
''Nice-Orno Limited'' answered Bodie ''Inspectors of Distinction.''
''Inspecting what?'' asked Murphy.
''Good question'' replied Doyle bitterly ''We haven't got a clue.''
''Limited Company, though'' speculated Murphy ''Companies House'd have something.''
''Why didn't we think of that?'' Doyle enquired of his partner, in a voice laden with sarcasm.
''Nothing doing?'' Murphy asked Bodie.
''Not a proverbial sausage'' confirmed Bodie ''They can't find the papers. Very sorry, they must have them, they're doing a search.''
''For how long?'' asked Murphy.
''Weeks'' said Doyle ''It happens sometimes, files get misplaced, but a search normally turns them up. Only this time it hasn't.''
''So what happens, now?'' asked Murphy.
''Worst case scenario?'' replied Doyle bleakly ''They reconstruct the file.''
''Not much help to an investigation'' conceded Murphy ''Reckon it's a con? Backhander to some filing clerk?''
Doyle shook his head unhappily ''No motive.''
''Yeah'' agreed Bodie ''Nobody's got a motive, including Cowley.''
''Eh?'' said Murphy.
''Look'' said Doyle ''The only criminality in any of this relates to the burglaries. There's no corruption, no drugs, no lechery, not a single swiped document, no dodgy foreign holidays, nothing. All we've done is prove a load of upstanding citizens, are upstanding.''
''So why's Cowley still interested?'' pressed Murphy ''Can't have anything to do with Iraina Westin, can it?''
''Not as far as we can figure'' replied Doyle ''And anyway, same problem, what's her motive?''
''That's something I'm still working on'' said Murphy ''Can't figure why she got her hooks into the Old Man in the first place.''
''Like you said'' replied Doyle ''Protection.''
''No, that doesn't make sense'' said Murphy ''She was out to destroy him, remember?''
''Him and CI5'' added Bodie, leaning over them to ring the bell.
Doyle pondered this while they disembarked and began retracing their steps back to pub. ''Money'' he concluded ''Woman like Iraina Westin wouldn't be interested in anything else.''
''That's the way I figure it'' agreed Murphy ''So the question is, who's the paymaster?''
''Then why did we just let her go, without asking?'' demanded Bodie, sounding aggrieved.
''Because'' said Murphy ''I didn't think she'd tell the truth. She'd be better off keeping quiet, and she's the type who'd know it.''
''And if we'd tried getting it out of her'' Bodie conceded unhappily ''Bang goes our story about protection, and bang goes Cowley.''
''Exactly'' said Murphy ''Which is why I decided to let her go without asking, and see where she ran to.''
''Not just a pretty face'' approved Bodie.
''Standard procedure'' countered Murphy ''You must be losing your touch.''
''Not had a decent job for weeks, have I?'' grumbled Bodie ''I'm getting rusty.''
''Even the old man won't flog a dead horse'' advised Murphy ''If you've hit that much of a brick wall, why not ask if you can jack it in?''
Bodie looked glum ''Don't think I haven't been tempted, but there's just one tiny problem with that.''
''What problem?'' asked Murphy.
''His partner thinks the Old Man might be onto something'' answered Doyle ''He just can't figure out what.''
Doyle turned the chrome plated treasure in his hands, holding it up to the light to caress its curves with his eyes.
''Needs a polish'' he said ''But other than that, it's in showroom condition.''
''Terrific'' responded Bodie ''Think we can get back to doing something useful now?''
Doyle laid his treasure on a cloth, with all the care of a mother settling her infant to rest, and enquired ''Like what? We've been over that file 'til me head hurts, and we still don't have anything new.''
''We don't'' agreed Bodie succinctly ''But, according to Murphy, Cowley does. So, can we give the adoration of the mudguard a rest, and go and find out what?''
''Okay'' conceded Doyle ''But first, I'm locking me mudguard in one of the interrogation rooms. There are some very light fingered people round here.''
''Most of whom have keys to interrogation'' muttered Bodie, under his breath, as he dutifully followed Doyle to lock away his treasure.
Once Doyle was satisfied as to the security of the mudguard, both he and Bodie headed for Cowley's office.
''Have you been sleeping with that thing?'' accused Bodie.
''Diane got fed up with me having it on the table'' said Doyle ''So I brought it in.''
''Getting in the way of you having her on the table, was it?'' enquired Bodie salaciously.
''Not that you'd notice'' answered Doyle airily ''Decided what to get me for Christmas, yet? Only, it can't be easy choosing something for the bloke who has everything.''
''Lucky if you get anything at all, at this rate, Rockefeller'' replied Bodie as he rapped smartly on the door of Cowley's office, opening it without waiting to be asked.
''What do you two want?'' demanded Cowley irritably, distracted from his study of the framed photograph in his hands.
Recognising the woman in the picture, Bodie and Doyle exchanged glances.
''Out with it'' snapped Cowley.
''Thought you wanted to see us, sir'' answered Bodie ''Only Murphy...''
''Oh, yes'' said Cowley, as if in sudden recollection ''That damn business of the petty thefts.''
''Yes, sir'' confirmed Doyle, looking concerned ''Are you alright, sir?''
''I have a number of pressing concerns on my mind, Doyle'' retorted Cowley ''I can't be expected to remember every jot and tittle.''
''No, sir'' said Doyle, unconvinced.
''But as we're here, sir...'' prompted Bodie.
''Quite so'' sighed Cowley ''I suppose you're wondering why I still have you on this assignment?''
''Never crossed our minds'' lied Bodie.
''Clearly, the thefts in themselves are unimportant'' said Cowley.
''We got that, sir'' replied Bodie ''It's not what was stolen, but from where.''
For a moment, Cowley looked surprised, then he conceded ''Precisely.''
Doyle looked at his partner in dawning realisation as Bodie continued ''That bloody idiot QC, with the spaniel and the lunatic char. Those flats are under constant surveillance, aren't they, sir? Not 'im, only person who thinks he's important is himself, but some of the other residents. Their lot, our lot. All those minor diplomats and senior civil servants. That's what worried Marge Harper, isn't it, sir? She rang up to see if you'd bite, and when you did and sent Doyle round, it put the wind up her good and proper. 'Cos it meant you knew nothing about it.''
''I may simply have been bluffing'' observed Cowley.
''Yeah, but you weren't'' pressed Bodie ''Because me and Doyle would have twigged that, sooner or later, but there was nothing. Except more robberies.''
''The gentleman who had his tie stolen wasn't of any particular interest'' tested Cowley ''Neither him, nor his place of residence.''
''Yeah'' agreed Bodie ''Although, there's a Chief Constable with a niece in that school. But okay, not on our radar. Nor Miss Havisham, of the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade, she's well connected, but not a target in her own right. Only, then there were other robberies.''
''Yeah'' continued Doyle ''And some of them were from secure buildings, or at least buildings that were being watched. You don't know how they're getting in, do you, sir? That's what you want to know. How they can swan in and out of any flaming building they like.''
''There's a file missing in Companies House, too'' said Bodie ''No calling card with that one, but then we don't know that it's theft.''
''Consider that'' intoned Cowley, with air of a school master setting a lesson.
''Bloody hell'' breathed Doyle ''We only know where they've been because of those calling cards. These break-ins, they could be the tip of an iceberg.''
''Someone out to prove they can go anywhere they like?'' speculated Bodie.
''But they're not taking anything'' objected Doyle ''Least nothing worth anything.''
''They don't have to'' sighed Cowley wearily ''They just have to prove they can do it and then hold the Government to ransom. Not a hospital or home secure, no base or barracks, no nuclear facility or farmhouse.''
''But the civilian stuff?'' countered Doyle.
''We are a democracy, Doyle'' responded Cowley ''Think, man, you were a policeman. How long do you think the rule of law would last if the great British public stopped believing in the police? If property could not be protected? If life could not? If anarchy prevailed?''
''Bit much, isn't it, sir?'' protested Bodie ''His lot have only been around for a couple of hundred years. The army put down strife before that. There wasn't anarchy on the streets.''
''No'' conceded Doyle ''But the police force came into being because the population demanded it. Ever heard of Peterloo? Cities need police forces. At least, they need decent ones. You've seen Belfast. It doesn't need the politics, just the distrust. He's right, it would be anarchy, or worse - every Tom, Dick and jumped up Hooray Henry would have his own militia.''
''You're as bad as he is'' scoffed Bodie.
''No'' Doyle shook his head ''There are already people the police can't reach. We don't have their trust.''
''Yeah'' dismissed Bodie ''Criminals.''
''Some of 'em'' conceded Doyle ''But not all. If the whole country went that way. Distrust, suspicion. Them and us. It'd be a bloody mess. And I mean, bloody.''
''Okay'' argued Bodie ''Say you're right. What do we do about it? We've been at this for weeks and got nowhere.''
''Not 'nowhere', Bodie'' corrected Cowley ''We have one substantive lead.''
''Could've fooled me'' said Bodie.
''Doyle'' ordered Cowley ''Lord Rudolph Calsopp, what did you make of his widow?''
''You mean Lady Cynthia?'' said Doyle ''Like Bodie said, Miss Havisham.''
''Anything else?'' enquired Cowley patiently.
Doyle frowned ''Not really.''
''Doyle'' enquired Cowley pointedly ''How long have you been a member of this organisation?''
Doyle looked at Bodie ''Not sure, must be -''
''The point is, Doyle'' Cowley interrupted ''That you have been here long enough to know that I expect accuracy in any report. 'Not really' hardly meets the need.''
''No, sir'' conceded Doyle contritely ''So, that would have to be my answer, 'nothing else'...but...''
''Your gut says differently, eh Doyle?'' surmised Cowley, enjoying himself.
''Sorry, sir'' admitted Doyle.
''No, Doyle'' contradicted Cowley ''Not 'sorry'. It's why I hired you, when I could have had any copper. One who'd found the barber and his tie, for instance. So out with it, what bothered you?''
''That photo'' said Doyle ''The one in the frame that got nicked, something about it got to me, but I don't know what.''
''And if I were to say Alice Hipcoate?'' enquired Cowley.
Doyle shook his head miserably, while Bodie looked on, thoroughly bemused.
''How about Cecily Rutherholm?'' pressed Cowley.
Doyle suddenly looked up ''Bloody hell, of course. Bloody hell.''
Bodie raised an enquiring eyebrow in the hope enlightenment would be forthcoming.
''Cecily Rutherholm was a courageous young woman'' continued Cowley ''A spy, and a damn good one. If she were working today, I'd hire her on the spot, assessment be damned.''
''And a bloody good photographer'' said Doyle ''I've always admired her work, no wonder that blasted photograph looked familiar.''
''Her cover'' confirmed Cowley ''In those days, as a society photographer, there were very few doors closed to her.''
''It was her wildlife shots I admired'' continued Doyle, a wistful gleam in his eyes ''She was one of the first to try and capture the animals as they are in nature. Get something of their habitat and behaviour. Even today, those shots stand up. And when you think of the equipment she was using...''
Bodie rolled his eyes ''Who the hell is Alice Hipcoate, then?''
''Alice Hipcoate is the name Cecily Rutherholm chose when she retired'' explained Cowley ''Shortly after the war. She left the country and went to live in - ''
''Australia'' supplied Doyle ''What's the betting she ended up with Lord What's 'is face?''
''The odds are remarkably short, Doyle'' said Cowley ''Whilst they never married, my enquires lead me to believe that they lived together until Lord Calsopp died.''
''How come they never married?'' asked Doyle.
''Lady Cynthia refused a divorce'' said Cowley ''In those days that alone would have made quite a scandal, but I also understand she threatened to make life very difficult for Alice. If it all came out in the papers, it's likely that her life as Cecily Rutherholm would have come under scrutiny. Things may have come to light that were not in the national interest.''
''Do you think the old bat knew?'' asked Doyle.
''About Alice's work as an operative?'' said Cowley ''Doubtful, I think it was, still is, simply a case of a woman scorned.''
Bodie contemplated this for a few moments, and then asked what he believed to be the obvious question ''How far did she say she was gone?''
''What?'' asked Doyle.
''Simple, Doyle'' continued Bodie ''Bloke A wants to marry Girl B, but ends up walking down the aisle with Girl C. Girl C was up the duff.''
''Reckon?'' said Doyle.
''As a matter of fact'' confirmed Cowley ''I suspect Bodie is right.''
''That doesn't tally with the family records'' observed Doyle ''Adopted?''
''Invented'' said Bodie ''Oldest trick in the book.''
''Given her active status'' said Cowley ''Cecily Rutherholm probably found some way of convincing Lord Calsopp that he needed to find someone else.''
''So he finds Lady Cynthia'' guessed Doyle ''She tricks him into marriage, and then he repents at leisure.''
''No man likes to be lied to'' reflected Cowley soberly.
''No, sir'' said Doyle ''Sorry, sir.''
''For what, Doyle?'' asked Cowley.
''Nothing, sir'' said Doyle, unconsciously glancing at the framed photograph ''Just, sorry.''
''Be that as it may'' continued Cowley, sounding slightly perplexed ''All this brings me very neatly to why I called you here.''
''Not to discuss unrequited love, then, sir?'' suggested Bodie, and immediately winced as Doyle kicked him hard in the ankle.
''Doyle, have you contracted some form of affliction?'' enquired Cowley.
''No, sir. Sorry, sir'' Doyle offered promptly in response.
Cowley raised an eyebrow, but continued nonetheless ''I have been contacted by the Colsopp family. At least, indirectly so.''
''Oh, I get it'' said Bodie ''Aristocratic rank pulling, who'd they contact? The PM? The Queen?''
''Marge Harper, as a matter fact'' replied Cowley ''Apparently, as a young woman in the sixties, shortly after Lord Colsopp left the country, she struck up an acquaintanceship with one of his nephews.''
''While the cat's away...'' speculated Bodie.
''No doubt'' dismissed Cowley ''The point is, she contacted me.''
Doyle swallowed hard.
''Doyle'' snapped Cowley ''Are you quite sure you're fit to be on duty? I won't have unfit men putting others at risk.''
''He's fine, sir'' replied Bodie ''What did she want?''
''It appears this nephew is going away for the festive season and wanted to ensure his house would be secure in his absence'' continued Cowley ''Apparently, he asked for a security assessment.''
''Talk about a gift horse'' choked Bodie ''Why'd she ring us?''
''For that very reason, Bodie'' said Cowley ''She's afraid that if the house is burgled, she's more likely to be viewed as poacher, than gamekeeper.''
''Tough'' said Bodie.
''Which is why I wish you to be present while the family is away'' continued Cowley.
''When are they off?'' asked Doyle.
''They leave on the morning of the twenty-fourth'' replied Cowley.
''Christmas Eve'' groaned Bodie.
''Yes, Bodie'' confirmed Cowley ''Christmas Eve. Which I believe gives you two full days to prepare.''
''Sir'' complained Bodie.
''You are dismissed, Bodie'' said Cowley firmly ''And take Doyle with you and have him looked at. I don't like his colour.''
Once outside the Controller's office, Doyle grumbled '''S alright for some. Bet he'll be all tucked up with his mince pie and sherry, come Christmas Eve.''
Bodie peered at his partner, studying him from several angles, as if he was a statue on exhibition.
''Do you mind?'' objected Doyle.
''He's right'' said Bodie ''You are a bit green about the gills.''
''It's Marge'' confided Doyle ''The blood rushes south on reflex now.''
''Prostituted for your country'' said Bodie ''Wonder what kind of medal you get for that?''
''I couldn't give a monkey's, so long as they don't put it on me grave stone'' replied Doyle ''What would me Mum think?''
''C'mon'' coaxed Bodie ''Let's get that lump of chrome out of interrogation and go to the pub.''
''Can't'' said Doyle glumly ''Got to see the medics.''
''Why?'' asked Bodie.
''You heard 'im'' replied Doyle ''He doesn't like me colour, got to get meself looked at.''
''No'' said Bodie ''He said I had to take you to get looked at, and I am. I'm taking you to The Crown of Thorns, and letting the landlord look at you. Faith healing, that is.''
Doyle looked sceptical, but allowed himself to be led astray.
In the end, Bodie led him a little further astray than he had intended, and he awoke the following morning on a sofa, with the chrome mudguard clutched to his bosom.
Bodie was somewhere nearby, if the sound of tuneless whistling was anything to go by.
''Whose flat am I in?'' asked Doyle, unable to recognise his surroundings, but comforted by the sound of a whistling Bodie.
''My new one'' said Bodie ''Thought it was about time you saw it, and the taxi driver refused to take you home on your own. I had to pay extra as it was.''
''Why?'' asked Doyle ''I wasn't sick.''
''No'' said Bodie ''But you proposed to your mudguard twice on the way over here. The second time, you did the whole down on one knee bit. Lucky it wasn't a minicab.''
Doyle screwed up his eyes and examined the distinctive smears on his mudguard ''Did I kiss it?''
''Yeah'' confirmed Bodie, to the accompaniment of a boiling kettle clicking off ''But, thankfully for all concerned, that's as far as it went. You decided to save yourself for the wedding night.''
''It's not that kind of mudguard'' sighed Doyle contentedly ''What did I use as a ring?''
''You didn't have one'' said Bodie ''It didn't seem to bother you at the time.
''Did it accept?'' asked Doyle.
''It must be shy'' said Bodie, suddenly looming over the back of the sofa with a mug of tea in his hand ''It didn't say anything.''
''Playing hard to get'' Doyle admonished the mudguard ''Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen.''
''Maybe Cowley's got a point'' observed Bodie ''This job's sending you doolally.''
''Am I getting any breakfast?'' asked Doyle.
''After you did the dirty on me with a mudguard?'' enquired Bodie archly.
''Yeah'' said Doyle.
''Oh, alright, you sweet talking bastard'' conceded Bodie ''You talked me round. Grab a shower and I'll do us some eggs.''
''Don't touch me - '' Doyle began in warning.
' '- Mudguard'' acknowledged Bodie ''Shower, now.''
''Your wish is my command'' said Doyle and disappeared to grab some of his clothes from the holdall he kept at the bottom of Bodie's wardrobe, hoping he'd remembered to top up the underwear supply.
''Fat chance'' Bodie muttered to himself, then yelled for Doyle's benefit ''You're out of socks. Borrow some of mine and don't forget to give them back.''
As the sound of Doyle showering thrummed through the flat, suggesting that Doyle hadn't bothered to shut the bathroom door, Bodie made scrambled eggs and toast.
Some while later, Doyle emerged to join Bodie in the kitchen.
''Just on time'' said Bodie serving up ''Get these down you, then we can get some Christmas shopping done.''
''What about the job?'' asked Doyle.
''Stuff the job'' said Bodie ''We're off everything else and nothing's going to happen now, is it?''
''You can't say that'' protested Doyle '''S nature of the job, unpredictable.''
''That's why God invented control'' said Bodie ''They can call us if anything comes up.''
''You're a bad influence'' accused Doyle.
''I know'' said Bodie.
''That wasn't a compliment'' admonished Doyle.
''I know'' said Bodie.
''Incorrigible'' grinned Doyle.
''I'd be offended, if I knew what that meant'' Bodie grinned back.
They finished their breakfast and then left the flat, intent on Christmas shopping. They spent most of the day buying things, only stopping to grab some lunch in a pub. By the end of the day they had enough food and drink to last both households over the festive celebrations and into the New Year. They had also picked up most of the presents they wanted. Bodie opting for gift wrapping in the few places it was available, Doyle sticking exclusively to wrapping paper in the hope of adding the personal touch to all his gifts before Christmas Eve arrived.
At the end of the day they divided their loot between capris and headed home.
The next day they spent on preparations, more for Christmas than the job, only ringing each other in the evening to confirm when they intended to meet in the morning.
Both intending to make the most of their last night in a comfortable bed, neither retired late and both indulged in a lie in.
So it was refreshed, if not happy, that they met the following morning and took Doyle's capri to the house they were to occupy.
Parking outside, they were greeted by a familiar face.
''What you doing here, Murphy?'' asked Doyle.
Murphy held up a set of keys and said ''My last act of servitude, after this I'm free to indulge my vices.''
''Jammy sod'' replied Doyle ''Off for Christmas?''
''Three glorious days'' grinned Murphy ''Back the day after boxing day.''
''We'll be thinking of you'' said Bodie.
''Yeah'' added Doyle ''He's got this little doll he sticks pins in.''
''That's Hallowe'en'' observed Murphy, unmoved ''Have a good one.''
Then he strode away, leaving Bodie and Doyle to their own devices.
''Jammy sod'' repeated Doyle.
''Never mind, Cinders'' said Bodie ''Lets go in.''
The house was reasonably warm, but they kept their coats on until they had checked the rooms and satisfied themselves that the house was as empty as it was supposed to be.
Then they set themselves up in the kitchen with a pack of playing cards and played black jack for sugar lumps. That is, after the traditional argument over the rules, and Bodie's traditional lecture on how the game had nothing to do with pontoon, and Doyle's traditional yawning lack of interest.
After a couple of hours, Doyle suggested ''Why don't we have some tea?''
''I put cocoa in the thermos'' replied Bodie ''If you want tea, we've got bags, and some of that UHT milk, but you'll have to put the kettle on.''
''Okay'' said Doyle, getting up and going over to the kettle. He flicked the switch, but no lights came on. He waited, testing the wall of the kettle for heat. After about a minute he he crossed to the kitchen lights and tried those. Nothing happened. ''Bodie '' asked Doyle ''How long did Cowley say they were going to be away?''
''Festive season'' said Bodie ''Whatever that means, why?''
''Because they've turned the power off'' replied Doyle.
''They can't have'' said Bodie.
''Easy way to check'' said Doyle, crossing the kitchen to the 'fridge and pulling open the door. The 'fridge was pristine, empty and dark, and room temperature.
''They can't have'' repeated Bodie, with less conviction.
''That must be why they wanted a security assessment'' said Doyle ''The bastards have buggered off for the duration.''
Bodie got up and tried a tap, a few drops of water dribbled out of the pipework and then ran dry.
''It doesn't feel cold'' said Bodie ''Think they left the heat?''
''No'' said Doyle, holding up the flex to the fridge ''Bet they just had it on this morning. My guess is that they left the water and power on 'til then too, probably why there's water in the kettle. Expect they unplugged the 'fridge when they cleared it.''
''Wouldn't they have needed it?'' asked Bodie.
''What for?'' said Doyle ''They probably ate out yesterday.''
''What about breakfast?'' asked Bodie.
''Probably planning to grab brunch somewhere'' said Doyle ''Face it, mate. That cocoa's all we've got.''
''It'll be cold by tonight'' grumbled Bodie ''Even in a thermos.''
''Can't even light a fire in a grate'' said Doyle.
''Why not?'' demanded Bodie.
''Smokeless zone, innit?'' said Doyle ''They'll all be for show, the chimney's won't have been swept in years. We'll burn the place down.''
''You can't be sure of that'' argued Bodie.
''Take a good look at what they've laid, Bodie'' said Doyle ''Tell me you'd expect to start a fire with it.''
Bodie got up to inspect the fireplaces, after some minutes he returned ''Bastards'' he said simply.
''Means the little boys' room's out of commission too'' said Doyle.
''They've got three'' said Bodie ''One in the bathroom, one en suite to the master bedroom, and one down here in the room for the nanny. We can flush 'em all once. Could be worse.''
''Yeah, I know'' conceded Doyle ''It's not some derelict hole in the arse end of the docks, but it's Christmas. I wanted to be spending it with Diane, all cosy.''
''I sometimes wonder if you're cut out for this life, Doyle'' said Bodie.
''Me, too'' replied Doyle.
''Look'' said Bodie ''If they have turned off the heating, the living room will be warmer than here.''
''Yeah'' agreed Doyle despondently ''Might as well be as comfortable as we can, for as long as we can.''
''I'll bring the cards'' said Bodie.
With Doyle leading the way, they left the kitchen to settle themselves in the living room.
Bodie shuffled and re-dealt the pack and they played a few more games. As the temperature dropped, they buttoned their coats, and then Bodie dug in his pockets for his gloves and gave a snort of triumphant surprise.
Doyle looked up from studying his hand of cards ''What?'' he asked.
Bodie placed a slightly damaged mince pie on the coffee table in front of Doyle ''I forgot about this.''
Doyle smiled ''Nice.''
''We'll share'' said Bodie '''S what Christmas is all about, really. Don't get me wrong, I love all the booze, and the food, and something decent on the box for once. But none of that really matters if you don't have someone to share it with.''
''If you suddenly whip out the mistletoe, you know I'm going to kill you, right?'' growled Doyle, in an attempt to cover the unsteadiness in his voice.
''Merry Christmas, Doyle'' said Bodie.
''Merry Christmas, Bodie'' replied Doyle.
''C'mon, mate'' cajoled Bodie ''Let's push the boat out, break open the lukewarm cocoa and let's have some of this mince pie.''
''Yeah, okay'' grinned Doyle manfully.
''Diane, will keep 'til after Boxing Day'' continued Bodie as he poured the cocoa ''As will all the food. The box will be rubbish, but you'll have better things to think about.''
''Just gets to me, this time of year'' admitted Doyle ''Always figured, I'd be married by now.''
''Well there's always your mudguard'' said Bodie ''It didn't actually say 'no'.''
''Berk'' grinned Doyle, sipping his cocoa and making an effort to perk up.
They finished the mince pie, and the cocoa, and played a few more games of black jack. The hands on the clock dragged round the clock face and eventually the temperature in the room dropped to the point where they could see the delicate vapour clouds of their own breathing begin to form in the air.
It was early evening and dark outside. The street lights began to blink on.
''We don't even know anything will happen'' complained Doyle ''This is a complete punt.''
''I know'' said Bodie, collecting the cards and shuffling them together ''Too dark to play now.''
''Yeah'' agreed Doyle.
''What was that?'' asked Bodie suddenly.
''What was what?'' said Doyle.
''That'' replied Bodie, straining to listen.
''Birds'' said Doyle ''Roosting on the roof.''
''No'' countered Bodie ''Something else.''
The noise was louder now, scrabbling and scratching emanating from the fireplace.
''Bloody crow'' said Doyle ''Stuck in the chimney, nothing we can do about it. It'll make a hell of a mess if it finds its way down here.''
The noise grew steadily louder and Bodie grew more uneasy. As the noise appeared to be approaching its crescendo, Doyle motioned to Bodie to stay put and give him some cover. Then he drew his weapon and approached the fireplace, checking back over his shoulder to confirm Bodie was ready and in place before leaning in to try and peer into the pitch darkness. In the tense quiet of the room, the noise was near thunderous. Far too loud to be a crow.
''See anything?'' hissed Bodie.
''No'' Doyle whispered back hoarsely ''Too dark.''
The noise grew louder and nearer and Doyle backed away from the fireplace to stand with Bodie, both guns trained on the opening above the grate.
Suddenly a pair of black boots appeared, followed by a chubby pair of legs and rotund belly. Limbs and torso were encased in green velvet and the boots scrabbled desperately for a foothold. Doyle looked at Bodie, who shrugged in bewilderment, neither of them lowered their weapons.
The legs gave a final drastic kick and the entire body tumbled out of the fireplace and ended up in a heap before the hearth. The figure picked himself up and brushed himself down, looking surprisingly dapper for a man who had just navigated a neglected chimney. Still dusting himself off, the little man enquired ''Who are you?''
''Who are we?'' demanded Bodie ''Who the hell are you?''
''I'm Father Christmas'' said the little man, squinting in the gloom ''It's been a while'' he continued distractedly ''But it's William, isn't it? Red fire engine with extendable ladder.''
''Do me a favour'' said Doyle ''Father Christmas wears a red suit.''
Bodie shot a disbelieving glance at his partner and whispered in harsh admonishment ''Doyle, that is not really the problem, here.''
''Well, he does'' insisted Doyle stubbornly.
''Actually, I have several'' continued the little man amiably ''This is my second best suit. This chimney hasn't been swept in years and red shows the dirt terribly.''
''How many?'' asked Doyle, while Bodie glared impotent censure at him.
''Well, there's a blue one'' replied the little man thoughtfully ''Very dark, trimmed with brown fur. Of course, it's not the only one trimmed with brown fur, and I have some that are trimmed with white, and...let me see...yes, at least one hat trimmed with black.''
''None of which explains what you're doing here'' said Bodie.
''I should have thought that was obvious, William'' replied the little man.
''Bodie'' corrected Doyle ''He prefers Bodie.''
''Does he?'' said the little man ''Well then, of course, Bodie it shall be.''
''Am I the only one who's not gone completely round the twist?'' enquired Bodie.
''Well, speaking for myself'' said the little man ''I'm on top form. I always am at this time of year. Although, confidentially, I do tend to get a bit drowsy towards the end of January. Not as young as I was.''
''Yeah'' conceded Doyle ''Must be a busy time of year.''
Bodie could do nothing but blink incredulity at his partner.
''Raymond, isn't it?'' asked the little man ''No mistaking those curls. Cowboy outfit, with cap gun.''
''That's right'' said Doyle ''Worked brilliantly, too.''
''Doyle'' asked Bodie ''Did you get a crack on the noggin, I don't know about?''
''Hostage negotiation'' replied Doyle, under his breath.
''What?'' said Bodie, out of his depth.
''I'm applying the same principle'' whispered Doyle ''Gaining his trust.''
''Well, that makes more sense than it did two minutes ago'' conceded Bodie.
''Brrr'' shivered the little man ''It's chilly in here, and I'm not a stranger to the cold.''
''Lapland'' offered Doyle ''Or the North Pole.''
''Yes'' agreed the little man ''Somehow, I always feel the cold much more away from home. Odd, don't you think?''
''Oh, yes'' said Bodie ''That's certainly the odd thing about this situation.''
''Shall we have some heat?'' enquired the little man.
''Heating's off'' said Doyle.
''Oh, I think we can get something going'' replied the little man, glancing at the fireplace.
''Doyle reckons the chimney's a firetrap'' said Bodie.
''Yes'' conceded the little man ''But I've just come down it, that should have sorted things out a bit.'' Then he turned to the fireplace, leaning over the assortment of decorative logs and busied himself rearranging them.
''Oi'' said Bodie ''This is still a gun.''
''Yes'' agreed the little man ''But I think, in the circumstances, we can dispense with the formalities, don't you?''
''Face it'' said Doyle ''If we're not going to shoot him, we might as well holster them.''
Bodie hesitated, then holstered his weapon as Doyle did the same. When they looked towards the fireplace again, the little man had cajoled a flame from the logs and was nursing it into life.
''How did he do that?'' asked Bodie.
''You're the one who was in the SAS'' replied Doyle.
''Yes'' said Bodie ''So how did he do that?''
''Much easier than it looks'' announced the little man, straightening up ''Especially when the hearth is lonely for a fire.''
''Don't suppose you've got a pot of tea stashed anywhere?'' challenged Bodie, with sardonic ill humour.
''I'm not a magician'' retorted the little man peevishly ''There's only so much you can expect me to do, you'll have to do some of it yourself.''
''I know'' soothed Doyle ''Bodie understands that, it's just the electricity's out, so we can't make a cuppa.''
''Yes'' said the little man irritably, searching his pockets ''I have it here, somewhere.''
''You have what?'' asked Doyle, throwing Bodie a meaningful glance in the warming light of the burgeoning fire. Bodie's hand slid to his weapon.
''Here!'' exclaimed the little man triumphantly, producing a familiar looking calling card ''Nice Orno'' he muttered to himself ''Well, I think that's clear, isn't it?''
''Is it?'' asked Bodie warily.
''Oh yes, William'' said the little man, stopping to correct himself ''I do apologise, it's Bodie now, isn't it? I don't normally have much to do with the taller ones. My services are really for the small.''
''Services?'' echoed Bodie.
''Oh, yes'' answered the little man abstractedly, fishing a pen from his pockets and scribbling furiously on the business card ''I leave the big ones to my helpers. It doesn't require the same level of dedication, d'you see?''
''No'' said Bodie ''I don't.''
''Well, to put it bluntly'' said the little man ''They don't believe. Look at you, Wi – Bodie. You used to stay up all night, ears glued to the wall, hoping to hear the hooves of my reindeer on the roof.''
Doyle stared at his partner.
''When's the last time you believed you would hear them?'' enquired the little man kindly.
''I was thirteen'' replied Bodie ''I didn't exactly believe, but I still hoped.''
''And by fourteen, it had all gone'' offered the little man in gentle comprehension.
Bodie nodded, Doyle frowned.
''Ah'' said the little man, cocking his head to one side ''Good.''
''What is it?'' asked Doyle.
''Be a good fellow, Raymond'' instructed the little man ''And answer the door would you? Doors are not really my forte.''
Bodie sat down on the sofa ''Who are we expecting, Frosty the Snowman?''
''You could take this a little more seriously'' chided the little man.
''And you would not be the first to make that observation'' observed Cowley, stamping the cold from his feet and heading towards the fireplace to warm his hands.
''What's going on, sir?'' asked Doyle weakly, trailing in behind him.
''A question to which I would like an answer myself'' said Cowley ''But first, something to eat, I think.''
''The electricity's out'' chorused Bodie and Doyle wearily, while the little man nodded solemnly in confirmation.
''Doyle'' instructed Cowley ''Be so good as to fetch the hamper from my car, would you? And don't drop it, there's a particularly fine port in there.''
Bodie straightened up and elected himself aid to Doyle's mission, within minutes they were back in the living room. The hamper held between them.
''Put it on the coffee table'' instructed Cowley ''Then perhaps we can sort everything out, once and for all.''
''George, isn't it?'' said the little man squinting at Cowley ''You were such an earnest little boy, you wished for peace.''
''I still do'' said Cowley.
''This is more like it'' exclaimed Bodie, handing round plates and pork pies. There's all sorts in here, cheese, Christmas cake.''
''And port'' said Cowley ''If you'd do the honours, Bodie.''
Bodie took some glasses from the hamper and poured three ports, then he gestured hospitably to the little man. Upon the little man's nod, Bodie poured a fourth.
Cowley raised his glass ''Goodwill to all men of peace.''
''Goodwill to all men of peace'' answered the others.
''Not 'Goodwill to all men', George?'' enquired the little man.
''No'' said Cowley firmly ''I don't take my toasts lightly. Now, to business.''
''Er'' hesitated Bodie ''This man claims to be Father Christmas.''
''But it's only his second best suit'' added Doyle ''On account of the chimney being filthy.''
''And this business of the cards?'' queried Cowley, unperturbed.
''We hadn't quite got round to that'' admitted Bodie.
''They were doing very well, though'' conceded the little man encouragingly ''I was about to tell them everything.''
''Then don't let me stop you'' said Cowley.
''Well'' continued the little man ''As I was telling young Bodie and Raymond, I leave the tall ones to my helpers. Inventive lot, my helpers.''
''Mine, too'' said Cowley.
''Well, they decided they needed to compile a list'' the little man went on, pausing to savour a mouthful of pork pie ''Sort the sheep from the goats, so to speak.''
''Yeah'' speculated Bodie ''Frog down Mavis Hope's pinafore, no dice. Help a little old lady across the road, bingo.''
''Essentially correct'' agreed the little man, licking his fingers ''I don't suppose I could have a drop more port?''
Cowley waved his assent and Doyle topped up the little man's glass.
''Thank you'' said the little man politely ''We decided on a trial run. We'd never tried something like this with tall people. The variables were considerable.''
''So where do the cards fit in?'' asked Doyle.
''And Companies House, for that matter'' added Bodie.
''We're quite law abiding'' replied the little man ''The law required that we registered the company, so we did.''
''They can't find the file'' said Doyle.
''No'' conceded the little man ''I don't suppose they can. But our accounts are quite above board. We paid a dividend of contentment at Easter and we're re-investing a substantial amount of joy, with a view to expansion next year.''
''Who are your share holders?'' asked Bodie.
''Mankind'' said the little man.
''Bet organising the AGM's a killer'' observed Doyle.
''And the business of the cards?'' pressed Cowley.
''Ah, yes'' responded the little man ''I must say, I was rather tickled by those. But then I enjoy the jokes they put in Christmas crackers, so perhaps I'm no judge.''
''Nice-Orno Limited is a joke?'' queried Doyle.
''A pun'' corrected the little man ''A play on words, a rather good one, I thought. But then, as I say, possibly I'm no judge.''
''Oh'' groaned Bodie ''Nice-Orno.''
''Indeed'' said the little man.
''Would you care to enlighten us, Bodie?'' enquired Cowley.
''Nice-Orno'' enunciated Bodie ''Nice or No.''
''That's awful'' grinned Doyle.
''Is it?'' said the little man ''Please yourselves.''
''Nice-Orno Limited, Inspectors of Distinction'' recited Cowley ''Behaviour, that was the thing you were inspecting?''
''Quite so'' said the little man ''And what a sorry lot they were. You see? Variables.''
''No'' admitted Doyle ''I don't see.''
''Really?'' said the little man ''Maybe it's because you're part of it.''
''Part of what?'' asked Doyle.
''Mankind'' said the little man.
''That's the theory we're working with'' conceded Bodie ''Yet to be proven, mind.''
''Am I to take it that adult priorities muddied the waters?'' asked Cowley ''These people would all be deemed eminently respectable.''
''But not nice'' answered the little man ''Snobbery, thoughtlessness, meanness of spirit, we found them all. We found others too. A drunk who always feeds the birds in winter, a young lady of generous virtue who shops for her elderly neighbour, a young man who has no home, but is a regular volunteer at his church. Respectability, it appears, is no guide.''
''I find much the same in my line of work'' conceded Cowley ''However, I can't have you breaking in wherever the whim takes you. I must have your solemn undertaking that this experiment, in its current form, is at an end.''
The little man gave a solemn bow ''You have my word'' he said.
''Doyle, Bodie'' ordered Cowley ''Would you take the remains of the hamper out to my car and wait for me there?''
It was some minutes before Cowley deigned to join Bodie and Doyle, as instructed, waiting obediently by his car.
''What just happened?'' asked Bodie ''Was any of that real?''
Cowley looked up at the clear bright sky, and the few bold stars strewn above the cityscape.
''And who are we to judge what constitutes reality?'' he pondered aloud.
''CI5'' said Bodie ''That's bloody who.''
''It's a funny thing, reality'' ruminated Cowley ''It depends very much on one's perspective.''
''Are you saying he really was Father Christmas?'' asked Doyle.
''He believes he is'' said Cowley ''What does it matter if others believe he's a stateless acrobat named Constantin Baldor?''
''Why would a stateless acrobat want to break into all those places and not steal anything of value?'' asked Doyle.
''And why did we just let him go?'' asked Bodie.
''Because it's Christmas'' said Cowley.
Bodie looked at his partner.
''And the break ins?'' pressed Doyle.
''Shed a little light where it was needed'' replied Cowley ''On the iniquities of the human heart.''
''So that's it?'' said Doyle ''We just forget about it? Weeks of kicking our heels for nothing?''
''Nothing, Doyle?'' challenged Cowley ''Aside from the overdue application of boot to breeches you've both been so richly courting, we have established that a possible threat to the stability of this country was no more than a will-o'-the-wisp, a jack-o'-lantern. I do not consider that to have been an inconsequential use of your time.''
''So, if this Constantin Baldor bloke, isn't really Father Christmas'' asked Bodie ''What are you doing here?''
''Marge Harper'' said Cowley ''I told you she has connections with the family, she called me when she realised they'd mothballed the premises.''
''Didn't want Doyle freezing his assets off, eh?'' speculated Bodie.
''I believe Marge Harper would give anybody's variables a run for their money, Bodie'' replied Cowley.
''Are we off duty now?'' asked Doyle.
''Until New Year'' said Cowley ''I think you've both earned it.''
''How about you, sir?'' asked Bodie.
''Oh, I think I've earned a wee dram or two'' replied Cowley ''Marius Westin behind bars, his wife neutralised, and a double agent securely planted where they can do the most good.''
''His wife?'' queried Doyle.
''Yes'' affirmed Cowley impatiently ''Iraina Westin, couldn't have her running around loose. Fortunately, having our double agent paying her to set me up, killed two birds with satisfying economy.''
''Sir'' said Bodie ''How did you contact this double agent?''
''Standard procedure, Bodie'' replied Cowley ''I believe you were present when I asked Murphy to drop me off at a public call box.''
''Have a few of those in Norfolk, too'' grinned Doyle.
''I believe they do'' admitted Cowley ''Although, it can take the devil of an age to get to one with this leg.''
''So that's that'' said Bodie ''No mysteries at all.''
''Just one, Bodie'' said Cowley as he settled himself behind the wheel of his car.
''How your driver wangled Christmas off?'' suggested Bodie.
''No, Bodie'' said Cowley, as he pulled away ''How a deluded stateless acrobat found out what I wanted for Christmas as a wee lad.''
''Funny, that'' observed Doyle as he watched Cowley's tail lights recede and mingle with the sporadic flow of Christmastide traffic ''He was bang on about mine, too.''
''Yeah'' admitted Bodie ''Me, too. And that fire, how did he light it?''
''You don't really suppose....'' speculated Doyle.
Bodie thought about it for a moment, then decided emphatically ''No, he couldn't be. Could he?''
''Nah'' agreed Doyle as they settled themselves in his capri.
''Home'' said Bodie ''If I get the bird thawed by tomorrow there's a good chance I'll have Christmas dinner on the go by the time The Great Escape is on.''
''Sure you don't want to come to mine?'' asked Doyle.
''Not really keen on playing gooseberry, mate'' said Bodie '''Sides, once Sarah's seen her Mum, and her Nan, it's my turn.''
''The mind boggles'' answered Doyle as he pulled away ''I'll drop you off first, Diane said to swing by and pick her up whenever we got off duty.''
Together, they motored through the dark city streets, shop fronts and street lights twinkling with festive cheer.
After a few chilly miles, the car heated up and they were cocooned in its warmth.
A few miles more, and Doyle deposited Bodie at his front door. They said their goodbyes and promised to ring each other the next day, after they'd unwrapped their presents.
''Mine better be expensive'' warned Bodie as he waved Doyle off.
''It was'' agreed Doyle irreverently, waving cheerily in return ''I got it from the same Christmas cracker you got mine.''
Bodie watched Doyle's tail-lights disappear, on their way to Diane, then he turned to put his key in the lock. The street was breathlessly silent and a dusting of frost had started to form, sparkling like powdered glass.
As Bodie turned the key and pushed at the door he heard a sudden disturbance above him.
'Loose tile' he thought carelessly, half waiting for the slither and clatter of its fall. Then he smiled to himself and murmured ''Aren't you listening, William? That's the hooves of Father Christmas' reindeer.''