One of Robin’s new housemates calls her Sherlock, a sarcastic drawl tossed her way during the morning scramble over the kettle, travel mugs and Nescafe, bickering over whose milk is whose.
Robin smiled every day last week, maybe a little thinner each time, but this week it’s grating against her nerves.
“I’m not Sherlock Holmes,” she mutters this morning.
Helen, who works in an office in a job she hates and makes no bones about hating, rolls her eyes. Her lashes are clotted with morning mascara, her shoulders hunched under the weight of a hangover.
“It’s not all looking at the chips in someone’s manicure and figuring out they once accidentally snogged their cousin Nigel,” Robin adds, blithe, as she pops the lid onto her travel cup. She’ll have to go soon, or she’ll miss the tube that lets her pick up breakfast on her way in, and will have to get the one that scrapes her in a few minutes late instead.
Helen chokes, and looks at Robin with widened, slightly scared eyes. It’s suddenly worth that dull afternoon when Cormoran was doing a stake-out in a sandwich shop and Robin was doing the research on their latest client, the extra googling she did around the edges, the facebook chat with an old school friend of a friend. Petty, perhaps, but not unsatisfying.
She leaves Helen examining her damaged nails with a faintly stricken expression, and for a moment misses the quiet shared mornings, BBC radio and making each other coffee and a quick kiss before dashing out the door – but those are behind her, and she concentrates on the rhythm of her boots on the pavement until the feeling passes.
Though he’d never admit to it, Cormoran has a favourite mug – it’s one of the first ones that Robin bought when she started working for him, a navy one from Waitrose that you can easily cup your hands around. There was a matching grey one that she bought too, which has broken since then – Robin thinks that was the one that a distraught client threw at the wall when confronted with proof that her girlfriend was cheating; there’s still hints of the stain on the paintwork in bright sunlight – and they’ve acquired a handful more over time, from all sorts of places. Lucy is always bringing them by, and Robin’s mother dropped off a couple as though it was some sort of maternal duty, providing her daughter’s detective agency with crockery. The blue mug even has a little chip in it, a break in the rim that Robin caught her lip on a couple of times before she realised. She should throw it away, really; they have prettier mugs, bigger mugs, classier mugs.
Nevertheless, when he’s the one wielding the kettle, Cormoran always makes his tea in the navy blue Waitrose one. He doesn’t request it when Robin’s making drinks, and she leans more toward the delicately striped one that holds about half a litre of caffeine for him, but when he chucks a Yorkshire teabag into a cup and mashes it with a spoon, it’s always in the same one.
Her training tells Robin that she needs to make observations, look for patterns; something inside her warns that she shouldn’t try analysing this until she’s ready to know the answer.
Lots of people Robin’s age are living like this: sharing rooms in a larger house, grousing over bathroom time, sighing over commutes and London’s disgusting rent rates. She was just lucky, really, that she got to move to the city in a nice flat and not have to change three times to get to work, but it was her choice to leave those things behind, and she only regrets it a little on cold mornings, waiting bitterly to change at London Bridge with a hundred other angry sleepy Londoners and the Starbucks closed for no apparent reason.
Cormoran doesn’t talk about it.
He asked her, when Robin stomped into the office without warning, ring missing, head pounding but eyes dry, if she wanted to talk about it. She shook her head and he’s taken her at her word. They don’t tiptoe around it, exactly – it’s not as bad as when Cormoran was living in his office and she was pretending that she somehow didn’t know – but they’re careful, respectful of their spaces, of the threads of tension that sing around the subject.
It could be worse, Robin reminds herself sometimes. She could have had to move home. She could be sleeping on a camp bed between the sofa and her desk. She could be married to someone who lied to her and lied to her and lied to her.
“Can’t we get some kind of company car that we can both drive?” she still complains, clicking through to a car rental place that they haven’t pissed off yet.
Cormoran, slumped on the sofa making longhand notes beside a stack of photos, looks up, something wry curling his mouth.
“Did you save a millionaire from assassination this week and forget to inform me?” he asks mildly.
Robin’s week thus far has involved rubbish, rubbish, a spot of surveillance in a pulled-down beanie, and a weeping mother-in-law who ate a surprising amount of biscuits.
“No,” she allows.
Cormoran smiles a little, though not like he’s won anything, not like he’s just proved a point. It’s just a smile, maybe a rueful tint to it.
“You get bored of waiting, you can always sell your story to The Sun,” he remarks after a moment, bone dry. His eyes flick up to hers, always bluer than she expects. “You can sell my story to The Sun.” When Robin doesn’t say anything, he adds: “play your cards right, you could probably manage a series of some kind, get your car and put a deposit down on something closer than zone five.”
Robin briefly wonders if he’s serious, his tone light, fingertips inky. She doesn’t feel like she doesn’t know enough of his story to tell, but there’s more than enough for the tabloids, perhaps: the rockstar’s bastard estranged son, his detective agency that keeps falling into the spotlight, his habit of living on cheap coffee and cigarettes and biscuits when he’s caught up in his own mind, the posh girlfriend who tore him to pieces and left her marks in the slightest of places.
She swallows, throat dry.
“Maybe I’ll start us a swear jar,” she suggests, and feels her toes uncurl when Cormoran laughs.
It’s getting late; Robin has already composed half a text apologising for not being home yet, before she remembers she has no one to send it to. If Cormoran’s noticed her slip, he doesn’t mention it, instead poking dejectedly at an emptied packet of peanuts, a just in case. It’s warm in here, the windows steaming up, a merry hubbub of talk around them.
It’s been long enough that Cormoran doesn’t try and test her resolve anymore, something torn and guilty in his eyes, like he wanted her to pass, but thought it would be better for her to fail. It’s true, that a lot of detective work involves sitting around, waiting for something to happen that may or may not happen. Some days, it seems like a lot of Robin’s life feels that way, though those tend to be her more maudlin evenings, sitting in her room staring at the ceiling and thinking about her choices.
“We should have more stakeouts in pubs,” she says, pulling her thoughts away from that direction.
Cormoran smiles the smile that crinkles the corner of his eyes, softens his features. “I’ll be sure to mention it to any future subjects.”
Robin sips her wine. Neither of them can drink too much, since they’re technically working, and the more you drink the more difficult it is to keep an eye on a cheating husband who is possibly giving their client’s jewellery to his mistress, then gaslighting his wife. This is a nice pub, not exactly the kind either of them like, too classy and uncomfortable, but even so: Robin finds the whole situation tacky. She wants to get the proof, so their poor client can get her divorce and move on with her life.
She’s been taking care lately not to be too personally invested in cases where a woman is being in any way screwed over by her boyfriend, because she’s a detective now, and she can be professionally detached, she can. Occasionally, she thinks she catches Cormoran watching her, his gaze flickering, but he never says anything, never warns her back, and she takes that to mean that she’s succeeding.
They don’t exactly need a cover to be there, but they’re letting everyone around them believe that this is a date; it explains why they’re sitting together in this corner for so long, spacing out their drinks, and pretending to watch the room without really watching it. Robin knows this: there was a plan in the way she slipped her heels on before they left, in the tie she watched Cormoran knot three times until he was sure it was right.
This is work, and it feels like work, and it doesn’t.
“It’s not always this good,” Cormoran tells her, like he’s forgotten that Robin’s been around long enough that she doesn’t need reminding, taking a happy swig from his lager. “Most of the time you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person’s girlfriend and broken nose.”
Robin doesn’t need telling that their job is hardly glamorous or safe, but Cormoran is cheerful this evening and their marks aren’t moving any time soon, so neither are they. Robin is planning on cornering the girlfriend in the toilets later, pretending to be drunker than she is, to admire whatever jewellery it is that she receives tonight. Maybe take a picture or two – I’m always telling my boyfriend to get me something like this; d’you mind? – and gather her evidence, slur and stagger a little on her heels. She’s got it all worked out, but it’s not time yet.
“That was a very specific example,” she says. “Almost too specific. I think I’m going to require the story. You know, for research purposes.”
They’re still careful about each other’s personal lives, backgrounds, but it’s getting easier to ask. It’s probably a sign of some kind of important barrier collapsing, but she’ll worry about that later.
“I think you’d need to buy me a drink first,” Cormoran responds, and he isn’t flirting, but it curls something in Robin anyway.
“The client’s paying,” Robin says, “I’ll buy you two.”
He grins, all teeth, and some of the amusement, the sense of relaxation is for show, just like when he took her wrist briefly earlier and Robin managed not to jump out of her skin. They didn’t have to walk in here all over each other; everything is about the minutiae, the little details of fingertips and the angles of smiles. Throw in a few of those, and it’s a perfect cover, easy and simple to maintain.
It’s not all for show though, and Robin wonders, rubbing her thumb against the condensation on her wineglass, if Cormoran knows that yet.
The Thursday coffees with Lucy are an interesting development.
They’re not a secret, exactly, because Robin’s life is complicated enough as it is, but she hasn’t mentioned them to Cormoran and she knows Lucy hasn’t either.
A lot of Robin’s London friends are her-and-Matthew friends; for that matter, a lot of her other friends are her-and-Matthew friends, because it’s always been her-and-Matthew. She’s still sifting through the wreckage of those relationships, finding out what she can keep and what she can’t, and while she’s too busy to be lonely, it’s still true there aren’t not many people in her life she can go for a casual drink with.
It started, of course, with Lucy dropping by to see her brother. Cormoran was out, and Robin couldn’t say when he’d be back, or even if he’d be back; she ended up offering coffee to Lucy’s dejected face, and simple smalltalk spilled into something else. It was nice, and they ended up sheepishly exchanging numbers. They have a pact that they can’t discuss Cormoran in more than passing, to avoid something like conflict of interest – Robin’s tempted sometimes, she’s very good at interrogating witnesses and families now, keeping her face kind and her questions delicate – but they get on surprisingly well.
People deal with their trauma in different ways; god knows, Robin understands that. Lucy’s method is very similar to what Robin thought that hers was: the home, the husband, the children, the carefully plotted domestic life. She occasionally misses that, the certainty of that path, the certainty of wanting that path, but sometimes she’s a little relieved too. Of course, she doesn’t mention that part to Lucy, and Lucy is graceful enough to pretend she doesn’t see it from time to time.
“You should get back on the horse,” Lucy says, blithe, and Robin chokes on her cappuccino.
“I’ve just ended a longterm relationship,” she manages at last.
“I’m not saying you should go and get a new fiancé,” Lucy replies, cheerful, “I’m just saying, go try it out. Having options.”
It’s not as though Robin hasn’t thought about it. “Tinder’s a little complicated now I’ve learned about detection,” she says. “I find myself trying to read between everyone’s lines and the next thing I know I’ve pulled up a credit check and their disgraceful old facebook photos.”
“I don’t think that’s just detection,” Lucy says drily. “I think that’s just modern dating.” Robin smiles, a little raw, because she hasn’t had that; has never needed to have that. “I’m not saying that you should jump in,” Lucy adds, “but you could dip a toe.”
Robin could; she maybe even should. She’s not always entirely sure it’s just nervousness holding her back.
Now she’s thrown herself wholeheartedly into her job, Robin has it all: the late nights, erratic work hours, keeping a clean pair of knickers and a toothbrush in the bottom drawer of her desk. They’re not making a fortune, but the cases are steady enough now nothing too media-inspiring and horrifying has happened for a while, and now there are two of them carrying the full workload they can take on more clients. Nothing’s easy, but it could be far, far worse.
She’s got all the pieces of this one, Robin’s sure: the missing jewellery, the handful of suspects, the ridiculous Agatha Christie-ness of it all. Their client is determined not to involve the police, but she needs to know which family member stole from her. It sounds very complicated and Robin is yet again glad for her own, far more simple, family relationships.
Robin has this, but she can’t get everything to slot together. She reads through the dinner party caterer’s witness statement one more time, and the next thing she knows Cormoran is turning off the lamp she left on on her desk, saying: “you should go home, Robin”.
Slumped on the sofa, not exactly comfortable, but not bad either, Robin can’t imagine dragging her coat on, taking a night bus or the tube or a cab, fumbling herself into bed. It seems a long way away, and she’s got a meeting in the morning.
“Nah,” she says, and she can’t remember when she kicked her shoes off, but it’s easy to slide herself sideways on the sofa and lie down fully, paperwork slipping from her fingers. She’s loosely aware of the low rumble of Cormoran chuckling, of a blanket they keep in the filing cabinet being draped carefully across her, but then it’s all gone in the exhaustion.
She wakes up to the closing of Cormoran’s office door; there’s a steaming mug of coffee placed deliberately within her sightline, but far enough away that she can’t knock it over when she swings herself upright. In the morning light, this all feels a little different: even when Cormoran was living in his office, even when Robin has to periodically go upstairs and bang on his door until he wakes up, she’s never really been there for him sleeping. She feels suddenly self-conscious, wonders what she looks like asleep, what secrets she might somehow give away in that state.
Robin drinks her coffee, changes her underwear, puts on deodorant and a clean blouse, brushes her teeth and hair, and within twenty minutes no longer looks like she slept on a sofa of dubious comfort for far too little time. Cormoran stays tactfully in his office the entire time, and she’s quietly relieved. They’re still figuring out their lines. If there even are lines to figure out, these days.
It’s not until the afternoon that Cormoran remarks, waiting for the kettle to boil: “I wouldn’t make a habit of it.” When Robin looks to him, he adds: “that sofa will do your back in, if nothing else.”
“It’s weird how something designed for comfort isn’t that comfortable,” Robin remarks, and this is how they let it go, this strange new milestone.
There was a time, a long time, when all that Robin wanted was to be safe.
Safe meant a number of different things – for a while, it was the four walls of her bedroom, and nowhere else – depending on her mood, on the season, on how the counselling sessions where going. Safe meant Matthew, on swift domesticity, on marrying young and starting her new life in London according to a set of guidelines and rules. The love she knew, the life she had planned for them, retracing the lines over and over.
Sometimes, of course, safe was behind the wheel of a car, stamping the accelerator, the speed needle swinging, running far faster than she’d ever be able to on her own two feet.
Tonight isn’t safe.
Robin sits next to Cormoran while the A&E doctor stitches the gashes across his palm back together. Apparently if the knife had sliced any deeper his motor skills would’ve been fucked, but it’s okay after all – they were lucky. They’ve both been lucky tonight.
Her head is thumping, her lower lip split where she bit it when she fell; her chin is cut too, but not deep enough to need stitches. The grazes on the heels of her hands sting under their gauze, her fingernails broken where she scrabbled to get to the knife first, and lost. Robin thinks she might quite like a brief cry to release some panic, some tension, but it’s too stark and bright here and she can feel the jangling of shock all the way through her bones, her bruised knees where she hit the floor.
They hadn’t counted on their suspect having friends – Robin is cursing herself for not thinking this through, and Cormoran was muttering stupid stupid stupid to himself in the back of the taxi, Robin’s scarf wrapped around his hand and trying not to drip blood on the seats. A miscalculation that could possibly have got them both killed – this bastard has killed before and probably would have again – or at least much more badly injured than they are. Robin should be terrified, should be questioning her career choices again – but then she never has, no matter what’s happened to her. Matthew questioned, her parents question, but she doesn’t.
“I’m sorry,” Cormoran says softly, when they’re waiting to be discharged, and they have their little island of quiet behind a drawn curtain. “This shouldn’t have happened, you shouldn’t have been in this situation.”
“Neither of us should’ve been in this situation,” Robin corrects. It comes out sharper than she meant it to – perhaps pre-empting Cormoran wanting to wrap her in bubble wrap and shut her in an office, just carrying his own shaky physicality to every confrontation. He has the bulk, but there are weaknesses to him, after all.
Cormoran nods, expression rueful, a little sheepish, a little amused. He lets out a long, slow breath. “I could murder a kebab,” he says at last, “how about you?”
It’s half past two in the morning; technically, the only thing Robin wants to murder is her bed. “Yeah,” she says instead, “I think I probably could.”
“She’s lying,” Cormoran says thoughtfully. He’s smoking out of the window, cigarette tucked into the corner of his mouth, while Robin reads her way back through her notes of a potential witness interview.
“I told her that her boyfriend had basically pulverised someone in exchange for what amounted to pittance,” Robin reminds him.
Cormoran shrugs a shoulder. “He’s not been her boyfriend that long. People in the first flush of love do stupid things.”
Robin thinks she isn’t supposed to catch the twist of bitterness in his words, but of course she does. Cormoran actually has a number of different shades of bitterness, some of which are more obvious than others, some of which he hides better than others. Robin doesn’t blame him, but she keeps her an eye on their calibre, just to be on the safe side.
“True,” she agrees, and then finds herself caught up a little.
Robin has never fallen in love when she was aware of it. She loved Matthew for years, but that never had a fixed starting point, never had the first heady days of awareness. Loving Matthew was more like slipping into a comfortable jumper she’d had for years, a jumper she didn’t notice was getting too small and too worn until it was too late and already unravelling.
She doesn’t know what this is, this weird state that she’s in at the moment – the part where the barriers have fallen and the world they’re rearranging on the other side of them is different and has entirely different rules. It helps, that Robin knows she isn’t the only one feeling this way: she sees it in the panic in Cormoran’s eyes, sometimes, that he can’t always hide, that he might not always realise is so visible. She thinks that maybe they were both more frantically reliant on that engagement ring than they were ever conscious of, until it was gone.
Robin has no parameters, and nothing to compare this to.
In the second of something like terror and something like wry amusement that it takes her to notice this, Cormoran takes a thoughtful drag on his cigarette, plumes the smoke out into the noisy street outside.
“Go on,” he says softly, and drags Robin back into the moment.
She blinks, and looks away from him, heart pressed to her ribs, and does.