Jerry waits until the noise dies down before he goes in. When the curses, angry bellows, and shrieks of pain have fallen silent, he unlocks the door.
The copper is lying motionless on his side, hands still tied behind his back. His legs are drawn up, his chin pressed against his chest, as though he'd tried to make himself small, less of a target.The large red stain on the front of his white shirt shows how well that worked. Smiling, Jerry walks past the dead cop, and looks down at the blond man sitting on the floor in the far corner. He's rocking back and forth, crooning soft words that don't make sense. "Miserere mei Deus, miserere mei, miserere, miserere..." Misery? The bastard's got plenty of that, now that he's coming down from the high.
"How you doing, mate?"
The blond man doesn't reply. He keeps up his 'misery' chant while staring at the kitchen knife he's holding in front of him, and at the blood coating its long, thin blade.
"No worries, mate," Jerry says cheerfully. "I was going to cut you into little pieces for trying to interfere in our business, yeah? But you've done us a big favour, offing that copper, so I'm gonna do you a favour. Gonna give you a hit of Jackpot, and end your misery fast and painless."
Three weeks earlier
"Welcome back, sir. How was your holiday in Manchester? And your daughter?"
Robbie smiles back at DC Julie Lockhart as she adds another half-inch to paper to his already overflowing inbox. "Says she feels as big as a lorry, and can't wait until the bairn's finally born." He glances around the office. "Seen Hathaway around anywhere? He was supposed to be back from France yesterday. I tried to call his mobile, but it kept going to voicemail."
Julie hesitates. "Actually, he came back a few days early. Some kind of special assignment."
"Oh, aye?" He doesn't ask who James is working with. That's a conversation he needs to have with someone else. He dismisses the constable with a nod of thanks, gulps down the last of his coffee, and heads off, a man on a mission.
Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent isn't surprised to see him. "Lewis. You're heard about DS Hathaway's temporary reassignment."
"I have, ma'am."
Innocent answers the question he didn't ask aloud. "Normally, I would have consulted with you before coopting your sergeant, but I saw no reason to disturb your time with your family. Hathaway was given a choice about participating. He agreed, and really, he was the perfect fit for this particular case."
He listens, face impassive, heart sinking, as she provides a quick overview of the case. 'Drugs' and 'undercover' are not words he wants to hear in connection with James Hathaway. "I'd like to talk to the supervising officer, ma'am." Despite the polite words, it's not a request.
The Chief Super lets out a very soft sigh. "I told DI Purdy to expect to hear from you." She sets a slip of paper on the desk in front of her. Robbie tucks it into his pocket. He's halfway to the door when her voice halts him. "Lewis... I'm not deluded enough to tell you not to interfere. Just bear in mind that a successful conclusion to this case could be very beneficial to Sergeant Hathaway's career. Trust him."
"I do, ma'am." It's not Hathaway that I doubt.
Robbie is prepared to hate DI Peter Purdy, but the man proves to be likeable and competent. "It's a new designer drug," he explains, running a hand through his thinning ginger hair. "Most of the users are university students.They call it Insight. It creates a state of hyper-focused attention. One little pill, with an energy drink as a chaser—just the thing for overnight essay writing or revising for a big exam. It's not addictive, but an overdose has nasty effects." He ticks them off on his fingers. "Confusion, panic attacks, paranoid delusions. One girl was found running down Cowley Road in her nightdress at 4:00 AM, screaming that a burglar had tried to kill her. The PCs who responded found no signs of a burglar, just her boyfriend still in bed, with a bleeding head-wound from where she'd hit him with an unopened can of Red Bull."
"But you said it's local? Limited to Oxford?" Robbie asks.
"For now. We suspect the developers are in Oxford—might even be students themselves. That's where your sergeant comes in. His cover is Greg Abbott, a post-graduate student from Cambridge, doing research at the Bodleian during his summer break."
"And if someone tries to check his bona fides?"
"We asked the Cambridge Constabulary to put us in touch with someone on the faculty who'd be willing to vouch for 'Abbott' if any inquiries came in. They suggested Dr Simon Farrow, in Medieval History."
Robbie nods. He has no doubt that James could pass muster as a student in that subject. "And this Farrow was willing?"
"Eventually. He wanted to know the sergeant's real name, so he could look up his academic record. Wanted to make sure that 'Greg Abbott' wouldn't disgrace his department's reputation. When I phoned him the next day, he said he supposed that Hathaway's degree was adequate."
He can't hold back a snort of amusement. Hathaway took a Starred First at Cambridge—he knows that from personnel records. From the slight curl of Purdy's lips, he knows it too.
What now? There's not much he can do. He's not assigned to this case, and from what he can tell, Hathaway is in good hands. He's almost tempted to arrange an unofficial meeting at the Bodleian. Naomi Norris would likely do him the favour of passing a note to Hathaway, directing him to retrieve a special book in an out-of-the way office. He shakes his head. The last thing Hathaway needs in the middle of a difficult case is to be distracted by his foolish old worrywart of a governor. Instead, he thanks Purdy for his time, and heads back to his own office, to distract himself with paperwork and bad coffee.
James settles himself at one of the larger tables in the Upper Reading Room, a thick volume of printed historical records open in front of him, notebook and pencil at his side. A quick glance through the preface tells him everything he needs for a two-minute monologue about the diligent indexing by Victorian antiquaries which will minimise the time he'll need to spend at the National Archives in Kew. He's already prepared his description of his research: using twelfth-century conveyancing records to compare patterns of inflation in several counties. His choice of topic virtually guarantees that no one will want him to elaborate any further. Real property makes for dull conversation in any century.
He carefully opens another leather-bound volume, and pretends to read it. There are millions of books surrounding him, most of which have far more interesting content than a twelfth century land contract in Latin. Still, he needs to stay in character. Any of the students passing by his table might be connected to the drug gang. He peers at the text, which is long and tedious, full of quitclaims, remissions, appurtenances, and advowsons One phrase catches his eye. 'Imperpetuum reddendo de per annum unum par albarum cerotecarum ut unum denaris ad pasche...' James wishes he could share that with Lewis. He can imagine the two of them sitting in a pub, discussing it. He can almost hear the other man's incredulous tone. "A pair of white gloves worth one penny, every year at Easter? In perpetuity? Who needs that many pairs of gloves? Why not just pay the penny?" And then James would regale him with examples of other medieval rent payments: shoes, ducks, cumin and pepper, and a single rose. Damn. He misses Lewis more than he expected.
DI Purdy is a good officer. He knows his bailiwick, knows the intricacies of the drug networks of Oxfordshire, knows how to guide a junior officer with limited undercover experience. For this particular case, Purdy is the better handler, disloyal though that thought seems. He's got a plan to put James in contact with some of the dealers who work the University territory.
The following day, James makes the acquaintance of Neil Topham, an art student working a part-time summer job at Blackwell's. According to Purdy, Neil is a regular user of cannabis who sometimes sells to other students. Neil is happy to sell a few tokes' worth of weed, and invites 'Greg' to smoke with him in a remote corner of Port Meadow. It's just as he remembers from his brief experimentation in his own undergraduate days: relaxing, amusing, but not a path to greater spiritual awareness.
After two more purchases, James mentions to Neil that he's finding it hard to stay awake for long nights of cross-referencing legal minutiae and formatting footnotes in Latin. He's got to get this bloody research done before the end of the summer.
A few days later, Neil introduces him to a dodgy character identified only as 'Macavity'. Not a master criminal, James decides, despite the pseudonym. A low-level dealer and perhaps, part-time thug.
"Greg, I've got the so-lu-tion to your sleepy sit-u-a-tion," Macavity says, overenunciating the syllables in a sing-song voice. He puts his hand inside his denim jacket, and pulls out a small plastic bag of multi-coloured capsules. "Jelly Babies will do the trick."
James recognises the street name for amphetamines, but Greg Abbott wouldn't. "Is that... speed?" he asks, in the hesitant tone of a schoolboy who hopes he's used the correct declension.
Macavity chuckles. "Yes, indeedy, that is speedy."
They haggle briefly, and James scurries away with a six-pack of speed at only twice the usual street price in Oxford. He turns it over to Purdy at their next meeting. The rules for drug use were made clear at the beginning: James may smoke cannabis to establish his cover. He is not to take any other illegal pharmaceuticals unless refusing to do so would endanger his life.
A day after the amphetamines would have run out if James had actually been taking them, James meets Macavity outside his favourite cafe near the Bodleian. The dealer greets him with a gap-toothed grin. "You needing some more Jelly Babies, Greg baby?"
James shakes his head emphatically. "No more. First two nights, they worked like magic, but after that—" He scratches his short goatee with fingers that tremble only slightly. "Kept me awake, but I couldn't think. What's the use of being awake if I can't focus?"
Macavity's grin widens. "You want to focus? Hocus pocus! There is something that will help you focus like a fuck-ing la-ser. I just have to con-fab-u-late with the right people."
He pulls the mobile out of his jacket pocket. "Lewis".
"He's got it!" Purdy's voice is jubilant.
"A sample of Insight to give to the lab boys. It may help them come up with an antagonist drug to treat overdoses."
Like naxalone for heroin. "That's good. Is he any closer to finding out who's at the top?" So we can shut the bastards down and I can get my sergeant back.
"Not yet. Can't rush these things, Lewis. I've told Hathaway to ask about sources for Insight in Cambridge. If they're planning to start a network there, we can alert Cambridgeshire. Or if we're really lucky—"
"They'll offer him a job," Robbie finishes. There's a lump of ice the size of a cricket ball in his gut.
"That's what I'm hoping."
James thinks he may go mad if he has to spend another minute inside this depressing little bedsit which is Greg Abbott's pied-a-terre in Oxford. Greg spends most of his evenings at home, toiling over his endless notes. James doesn't have to do the actual paperwork, but he does have to stay indoors in case someone is watching. And since the room only contains items that fit Greg's persona, James is without his normal distractions. No guitar, few books other than those for research, no telly. He can watch movies on his laptop, but he'd rather be watching something senseless on the telly, with Lewis beside him, exchanging snarky observations. Or sitting in a pub with his governor, talking over the details of a case.
Something inside him snaps. With a muttered curse, James jumps up from the sagging armchair, grabs his keys and mobile from the kitchen table/desk and heads for the door. Even Greg Abbott must do something impulsive now and then. He'll go to a pub and spend an hour relaxing over a pint.
Brooding over a pint is more like it. James is sure that he is not cut out for this kind of policing. He needs to be doing something. He's got no desire to emulate Action-Man Peterson, but he needs to be asking questions, observing, formulating theories—not sitting idly like a bit of rancid bacon in a mousetrap. And though he used to think of himself as a loner, he's become accustomed to working with a partner. With Lewis.
He rises from his corner table, and heads for the door. A short walk in the summer night will clear his head.
Robbie walks out of the shop where Farhad Madani is the evening shift manager. He didn’t bother to bring along a junior officer. This is just a quick stop before heading home: a couple of follow-up questions for a witness in a cold case. As he slides behind the steering wheel of his car, it occurred to him that this is the neighbourhood where Hathaway is currently living. He knows the address, and it’s ground floor front, so maybe if he drives by slowly, he’ll see a familiar lanky silhouette through the window. Robbie hasn’t been there, and wouldn’t be fool enough to visit—he hasn’t even spoken to Hathaway on the phone—but a quick drive past couldn’t hurt, could it?
On second thought, he decides it would be better to go on foot, so he parks a few streets away and strolls in the correct direction. He walks on the pavement on the other side of the street, not allowing his impatience to show in his face or posture. Just another middle-aged bloke out for a walk on a summer evening. As he approaches James's building, he can see that the window is dark. Might be out buying cigarettes, or getting a takeaway curry for a late dinner. Without slowing, he continues down the street. He doesn't want to alert any watchers that he's interested in that house. There's a Tesco Express that's open late on the next cross street. He'll pop in there, get a tin of cat food, then walk back to his car. Maybe he'll catch sight of Hathaway on the return trip.
The return trip is on a street that is much quieter than when he walked it earlier. It's a Wednesday, and there isn't much in the way of nightlife nearby, other than a couple of small pubs. He walks steadily, his eyes scanning his surroundings. He's been a copper for too long to do otherwise. Out of the corner of his right eye, he sees movement in an alleyway that runs between two houses. It's dimly and indirectly lit by the streetlight thirty metres farther down the street. He halts, straining to make sense of the shadows. Rubbish bins, packing crates, and behind them, two men struggling with a third. Reflex takes over. Running across the street he shouts, "Oi! Police! Break it up!"
He's about ten feet from the trio when he realises that the third man looks a little like Hathaway, except for the scruffy chin beard. Then his attention is distracted by the sound of running footsteps behind him. As he turns to see his pursuer, a fist slams into his face and darkness takes him.
Robbie awakens to a blurry world of too-bright lights and white boxy shapes looming over him. For a moment, he can't remember what happened, but then he blinks, and the pain in his right eye brings it all back: the alley, the two men assaulting another who looked like.... James! Bloody hell! Is James here? He swivels his head to survey the place he's in, and is rewarded with a wave of nausea. He holds himself very still and breathes shallowly until the worst of the reaction passes. Then he surveys his surroundings. The big white shapes are a washer and dryer. He's in a laundry room, likely in a cellar, as the floor is concrete, and there are no windows. The light that dazzled him is a ceiling fixture with three large bulbs. The room is small enough that he can tell he is alone.
Next, he assesses himself. He's propped up against the back wall of the room, facing the door. His hands are tied behind his back. Robbie wriggles his wrists experimentally; there's no slack in the rope. His right eye is so swollen that he can scarcely see out of it, and it still throbs, but the nausea is easing. Probably just a mild concussion. Head like an anvil, he thinks, and manages a small smile. Best as he can tell, there's nothing else, other than a few bumps and bruises from when he was knocked down.
Click. Without warning, the door opens, revealing a short, wiry man with a crooked nose and an unpleasant smile. He stares at Robbie, then calls over his shoulder, "He's awake." Robbie hears a distant voice reply, though he can't make out the words. "Boss wants to see you," Crooked Nose says curtly.
Robbie finds himself marched down a hallway, and into a large room. No concrete floors here. This is a comfortable, finished room, with dark blue carpeting, walls painted butter yellow, and several lamps to make up for the lack of windows. Two young men and a woman, all in their late twenties, are sitting on a yellow-and-blue striped sofa. There's a clear family resemblance between them and the older man sitting behind an Ikea-style desk. The desktop is littered with several stacks of computer printouts—and Robbie's warrant card. The man glances up at Robbie, and frowns. "Jerry, this is not Mr Abbott."
Robbie can't see Crooked Nose—Jerry—who is standing behind him, but he can hear the smirk in the man's voice. "Sorry, boss. Abbott's in the coal cellar. I thought you wanted to see the copper."
"No, I did not wish to see the police officer, Jerry. Moreover, I did not want him to see us." The man sighs. "Inspector Lewis, please believe me when I say that this unfortunate situation was not my intention. It's quite clear that you were not intending to meddle in my business affairs. You were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and doing your duty as you perceived it." He says it in a tone of polite regret, like a host at a posh dinner party who has just discovered that his butler served the wrong wine with the fish course.
"We didn't know that," the younger son protests. "We had our hands full with Abbott. And then Jerry knocked him down—"
The young woman chimes in, "I told them to leave the fucking cop in the fucking alley, but they wouldn't listen, Dad."
"Margaret! Language!" the man chides, then turns his attention back to Robbie. "There are certain disadvantages in running a business with family. Especially children. Do you have children, Inspector?"
Robbie straightens, despite the strain it puts on his shoulders. "Two. A boy and a girl. And my daughter's going to have her first in November."
The man nods. "If it's a boy, perhaps she'll name him in your memory." He seems to think he's being comforting.
In his younger days, Robbie might have spit out a defiant reply, worthy of a tough cop from a Hollywood film. Not now. He'll keep shtum. He's been in worse situations before. Maybe the man will realise the trouble that a dead police officer will stir up.
"Take him back, Jerry. Hands off, for now. There are logistics to be considered."
James's thoughts are chasing each other around his head. What do they know? What do they think they know? What did I do wrong? Does anyone know I'm missing? That last brings back a hazy impression from the struggle in the alley. He thought he'd heard a man shouting "Police!" In his memory, the voice sounded like Lewis. Must be wishful thinking. What would Lewis be doing there?
He shivers. Although it's summer, it's still night time (he thinks), and this room is some kind of cellar storage room with concrete floor and walls. The only source of light is a single naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. Beneath the fear and uncertainty, he feels an odd sort of satisfaction. The wait is almost over. Something is happening. And though he may die tonight, at least he'll get a few answers before he goes.
Not half an hour later, he's standing in front of the people responsible for the drug. They're not at all what he expected.
"Tell me about your studies, Mr Abbott." The paterfamilias of the crime family gives him an encouraging nod. He's introduced himself as Dr Grosvenor. His daughter is Margaret; his sons, Edward and Lionel. Jerry, the thug-of-all-work who escorted James out of his cell, seems to be the only outsider in the gang.
"My studies?" James pauses just long enough to seem confused rather than defiant, then launches into a précis of Greg Abbott's research. "But, I don't understand. Why am I here?"
Grosvenor ignores the question, and picks up a paperback book from his desk. He opens it to a bookmarked place and hands it to James. "Please read the marked passage. Aloud."
James does so. The book seems to be a medical treatise in Latin. The marked passage is a long one about the treatment of intestinal ailments. It's nothing that Greg Abbott would ever read. It's nothing that James Hathaway has ever read. What is this for?
When he gets to the end, Grosvenor says, "Translate it, please."
He stumbles once or twice, and there's one phrase he can't make out at all. "I'm afraid that my medical vocabulary is a bit lacking," he says.
"Quite understandable," Grosvenor says, waving a dismissive hand. "Not your field. Do you know, my son Lionel thinks you're a policeman?" Before James can reply, he adds, "But I disagree. I have met many police officers. Some of them are educated, a handful are clever, but I have never met one with a true scholar's spirit. Never." He falls silent for a long moment, "That's why I developed Insight, you know. As a tool to sharpen exceptional minds.There are some... hazards for the weak-willed, but a disciplined intellect will not fall for them."
James glances at the younger generation of of Grosvenors. Edward is nodding vigorously; the other two are wearing polite listening faces. Not true believers, but they rather like the money.
"I have been looking for a like-minded person to bring Insight to other centres of British learning, such as Cambridge. I hoped that I had found one such, but..." He looks at his daughter. "While you were in the pub, Margaret paid a brief visit to your flat, and found something quite disturbing." He removes a small plastic bag, filled with pale yellow tablets: a week's supply of Insight that James hasn't yet delivered to DI Purdy.
Christ! James manages to keep the flash of panic from his face. "I don't use it every night," he explains. "It's so intense, sometimes I need a break—"
Grosvenor shakes his head. "I took a small sample of your hair earlier. The test result is reliable for 60 days. There is no Insight in your system. Sadly, I can only conclude that your purpose was to obtain enough of the drug to replicate the formula for your own financial gain. I am deeply disappointed, Mr Abbott, but I am prepared to offer you a final benediction, of sorts." He smiles gently. "You will experience the wonder of Insight before you leave this world."
His heart is pounding. Is it fear, or is it the drug starting to take hold? He doesn't know how swiftly it acts. That probably depends on the dosage, and he doesn't know how much he's been given. Grosvenor handed him a wineglass half-full of bright orange Lucozade with Insight dissolved in it, and politely invited him to drink. Jerry hovered nearby, obviously hoping that James would refuse, and need to be forced.
At least he's alone now, back in his windowless cell. There won't be any spectators as he loses control of his mind. He tries to calm himself with a breathing exercise. Deep inhale... long, slow exhale. In... out... Is that a spider on the far wall? James shudders. He should cross the room while he still can, and smash the bloody monster with his shoe. As usual, he can't bring himself to do it. All right, he'll just ignore it. Perhaps, as the drug takes effect, he'll forget that it's there.
He can't. He can't look away from it. He squeezes his eyes shut, but a second later, opens them. This isn't the normal pattern of his phobia. The spider is still horrible, but it's also fascinating, demanding his attention. A dry inner voice murmurs, Fascinating comes from the Latin fascinum, meaning an evil spell.
Oh God! He's entering the hyperfocus phase. If he can't turn his mind to something else, he may spend hours (his last hours?) trapped in a nightmare. Got to think about something else.
What? What? The usual academic puzzles won't work. They seem too big, too complicated, too theoretical. He needs something more basic, emotional... music! Music has helped him through more than one dark night of the soul. His mind flashes to the Chloe Brooks case, connecting the photos while Mozart's Requiem pounded in his earphones. Dies irae... day of wrath...when the Judge will come... No! He can't go there, into the fiery day of judgment that's pulling him with the inexorable force of a black hole. God help me... mercy...
And then a memory pulls him in another direction. He's in the New College Chapel, listening to the choir perform Allegri's Miserere Mei, Deus. God have mercy on me. The haunting melody and words echo over and over in his mind; a desperate plea to which there is no reply.
"Wakey wakey!" Jerry croons. He sounds very far away.
James blinks at him. Is it morning? How long was he here, trapped in the cold and the dark and the music? Miserere Mei, Deus. He gulps in air. There's a searing pain behind his left eye, and his heart is pounding.
"You feeling all right, mate?"
"No," he croaks through a painfully dry throat. "Scared."
"It's a dangerous world," Jerry agrees. "They're coming to get you, the coppers." In a low voice, as if confiding secrets, he tells James every ugly detail of what the coppers are going to do to him. "You might be safe in here, but just in case..." He walks to the door, and as he steps out, he tosses something white and glittering onto the floor.
James crawls over to it and picks it up. It's a kitchen knife with a long, narrow blade, and it is beautiful. He clutches it to his chest, and waits.
A minute later, an hour, a year, an eon, James is still waiting. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
OhGodOhGodOhGod. He needs to think. Why can't he think? He used to be able to think. His thoughts were like music... musical notes made of light and crystal. The music of the spheres. Who wrote that? I used to know.
There's no more clarity in the world, no light. Just shadows, and Things moving in the shadows. They're going to get him. Jerry said so. The coppers are going to get him, take him away, hurt him. NO! Won't let them do it, got to fight back. His fists clench. Something is in his right hand. He looks down, It's the knife Jerry gave him to protect himself. The hilt is smooth white plastic. It looks like bone. He grips it tightly, so that his hand vibrates with the effort. Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake.
The door creaks open. Jerry enters, pushing another man in front of him. The man's hands are behind his back, and he looks very angry. One eye is swollen; the other is glaring. He looks like he wants to shout, to fill the room with angry words, but there's a crumpled rag stuffed in his mouth.
"Good morning, Greg. Look who I found lurking in the bushes," Jerry announces. "He's a copper. He's come looking for you." In a high-pitched voice he chants, "Here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a copper to chop off your head."
There's something wrong about that rhyme, but James can't think. The things in the shadows are whispering Dead, dead, dead, dead. He lifts the knife in front of him.
Jerry smirks. "That's right, Greg. Man's got a right to protect hisself, don't he?" He shoves the dark-haired man to the floor. "You do what you need to." He's laughing as he walks out the door and slams it closed.
Robbie doesn’t think he’s ever felt this terrified, not even when he was forced to dig his own grave by a shotgun-wielding maniac. It’s not the thought of dying that troubles him as much as the way of it. To be killed by his own sergeant—his friend—is obscene. Christ! What will this do to James when he comes to his senses afterwards? It’ll break him. He tries not to think about the fact that the gang are likely to kill James as soon as he does their dirty work. It’s clear that they haven’t sussed out that ‘Greg’ is a copper. It would tie up their loose ends nicely, to have a crazed drug-user kill the policeman who stumbled so inconveniently into their business.
The crazed drug-user hovers over him, then shuffles backwards, swaying like a strand of seaweed at the turn of the tide. He's clutching the knife in his hand so tightly that his fingers are nearly as white as the hilt. His pupils are blown wide, his breath quick and shallow. He doesn't look violent, but Robbie knows very well that the line between terror and aggression can be very thin. As thin as the blade of a knife.
He's got to get through to the lad, somehow, except that communication is a bit challenging, what with his hands tied and a gag in his mouth. How can he let James know that he won't hurt him? Semaphore with his eyebrows? Interpretative dance? With effort, he rolls onto his back and scuttles backwards like a crab, until he's up against a wall. James watches him suspiciously, but doesn't follow.
The gag is an old tea towel that tastes faintly of curry and soap. It's crammed into his mouth, but not tied or taped in place. He stretches his jaw open as wide as possible, thrusting his tongue against the cloth with all the force he can muster. Nothing. Again. And again. James moves towards him, slowly, and studies him like an unknown insect found under a rock. I must look a right berk, with the faces I'm pulling. He ducks his head down, trying to make himself smaller, non-threatening, and continues to tongue-wrestle with the gag.
He flinches when a pale hand suddenly appears near his face. It takes a moment to realise that the hand is empty and moving slowly. Then, before he can blink, two fingers grasp the edge of the tea towel, pull it out, and throw it on the ground. Robbie takes a deep breath and coughs. "Thank you."
The other man jumps backwards, as if slapped. "Don't call me that!" He waves the knife in his right hand, emphasising the point. "That's my secret name. No one is supposed to call me that."
"Sorry, sorry. What should I call you?" There's no reply, so he offers, "How about Greg? Can I call you Greg?"
There's a curt nod, then James is pacing around the room, muttering to himself. When he returns to Robbie's position, he whispers, "We've got to be quiet. They're coming for me. The coppers—they want to hurt me." The fear in his voice is real and heartbreaking.
"I'll be very quiet," Robbie promises. James seems to have forgotten that Robbie was identified as a copper. If he can convince the lad to free his hands, there's a better chance of them both surviving this nightmare, "Greg, I'd like to help you. If you were to cut this rope, I could protect you."
Robbie has heard that tone before. It's Sergeant Hathaway's 'bad cop' voice, the one that he saves for the toughest interviewees. "Because I'm your friend. You know me."
James still looks suspicious. "Are you—?"
Don't ask me that, lad. Please. "I'm your friend. My name is Robbie."
"Robbie..." James worries his lower lip with his teeth, then scratches his ridiculous-looking beard. "Robbie... are you a copper?"
What's the right answer? Truth or lie? James is still paranoid, delusional, and potentially violent, but he's also a detective with a keen nose for lies and half-truths.
James extends the knife until its tip is six inches from Robbie's throat. "Are. You. A. Copper?"
He takes a deep breath. "Yes, I'm a copper..." In for a penny, in for a pound. "And so are you. Detective Sergeant James Hathaway, Oxfordshire Police. A copper, and one of the best I've ever known. And one of the best mates I've ever had." As he searches James's face for a reaction, he can hear Dr Grosvenor's dry voice. "If it's a boy, perhaps she'll name him in your memory."
"How you doing, mate?"
Abbott doesn't reply. He keeps up his 'misery' chant while staring at the kitchen knife he's holding in front of him, and at the blood coating its long, thin blade.
"No worries, mate," Jerry says cheerfully. "I was going to cut you into little pieces for trying to interfere in our business, yeah? But you've done us a big favour, offing that copper, so I'm gonna do you a favour. Gonna give you a hit of Jackpot, and end your misery fast and painless."
"Can I tell you a secret, first?" the blond man whispers.
"It's a mystery." His voice drops lower, and Jerry has to lean in to hear the words. "For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall rise again incorruptible."
It sounds like some sort of churchy bollocks. Abbott didn't strike him as that sort, but who knows how much the OD fried his brains. "Yeah, someday."
Abbott shakes his head. "Now!" His voice is loud and clear and triumphant. Jerry doesn't have time to wonder why that is so, because he's being grabbed from behind, and a not-so-dead copper is telling him that he's under arrest.
The aftermath is long and confusing, as such things usually are. Having called from the cellar using Jerry's burner phone, they are ordered to stay put until the cavalry arrives; an order Robbie is glad to obey. The cavalry seems to consist of half of the Force. Purdy is the first to enter the cellar room. His hearty "Well done!" is cut short when he sees the large bloodstain on Robbie's shirt. "Medic, now!"
James says, "No—sir, it's all right. It's my blood." This doesn't seem to comfort DI Purdy, who shouts again.
A paramedic rushes in, and pauses for a moment, not sure which patient to treat. Robbie points to his sergeant. "He's got a knife wound on his left arm."
"Hardly a wound," James protests. "Just a little cut on the inside of the elbow. I was careful."
Purdy looks from one to the other before staring at James. "You did that on purpose?"
"I was meant to be stabbed to death," Robbie explains. "Wouldn't have made a convincing corpse without some blood." He frowns. "It should have been my blood. In fact, I seem to remember ordering you to let me do it." His grumble is interrupted by the arrival of a second paramedic, who begins to examine his blackened eye.
Essential needs tended, they're escorted out of the coal cellar. Jerry and the Grosvenor family have already been carted off. A small army of SOCOs are swarming through the house, paying especially close attention to a well-equipped laboratory next to the laundry room.
Back at the nick, they're separated and asked for oral statements. Full written reports can wait. Innocent swoops in to see for herself that her two most trouble-prone detectives are alive. Her expression when she sees Robbie's battered face makes him glad he replaced his bloody shirt with a clean scrub top from the paramedic.
And finally they are released. They exchange glances, and with silent consent, go out into the bright summer morning. They stop into a cafe and emerge with coffee and sandwiches, which they take to a bench near the river.
Robbie tears some crumbs from the remnants of his bacon butty and throws them down for the everpresent pigeons. "Well..."
"Why did you tell me the truth?" James blurts out.
"About what?" Robbie thinks he knows, but he'd like to hear it said out loud.
"About you being a cop." He adds in a quieter tone, "I might have killed you."
"Might have killed me if I lied to you," Robbie says matter-of-factly. He's not convinced that James would have attacked him in either case, but now isn't the time to bring that up.
He's not sure he can say it in a way that makes sense. Part of it was that, given equal odds, he'd rather have his last words be truth, rather than a lie. Only that sounds like a movie hero making a big speech. And another part of it... "I was thinking of something Innocent said, when she told me about your assignment. She told me to trust you."
The corners of James's mouth quirk upwards. "Somehow, I suspect that wasn't quite what the Chief Super had in mind."
"I suspect you're right about that." Robbie hesitates, then plunges forward. "The rest of it was truth, too, you know."
"Sir?" James has on his Sergeant Hathaway mask: bland, controlled, guarded.
"About you being a good copper and a good mate. I meant that."
"Sir, I don't know—" The mask slips, just a little. Robbie can see nervousness, scepticism... and hope.
"You're not expected to know everything, Sergeant. That's why you've got a wiser and more experienced officer to guide you. That would be me." He jabs a thumb at his chest. "For starters, you can call me by my name when we're off-duty."
"Is that an order, sir?" James asks dryly.
"Does it need to be? Look, man, no need to be formal all the time. You've bled for me—"
"Bled on you," James corrects.
He nods. "Exactly. And that's why you're going to be a good mate and come with me to the shops while I buy a dozen new shirts. Working with you is hard on the wardrobe."
James dips his head, acknowledging the truth of that statement. "All right, Robbie. But you do realise that it's my duty as a good mate to give you some advice? It seems to me you need to add more colours to your fashion palette."
Robbie pretends to consider this. "Could do. How about a nice purple to match my eye?" He rises from the bench and starts down the path to the sound of pigeon squawks and his best mate's laughter.
--- THE END ---