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Never and Always

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I have fallen asleep with the blinds open and wake squinting at the light flooding into the bedroom. I am fully dressed, on top of the covers and feeling bloody awful.

At least I got home. In the worst of my hard-drinking days before I left for the BVI there was no guarantee of that. But I wish I could remember how I got here. I had been for a drink with Hathaway, my new sergeant, that much I know. I remember letting him switch from orange juice on the second round. I don’t recall much after that, but there must have been spirits or I wouldn’t be feeling like this. I try to turn away from the light and reclaim sleep but daytime is insistent so I resign myself to getting up.

I gaze at my wretched self in the bathroom mirror. I shouldn’t have done it, I should have gone home after one pint. It was stupid and unprofessional and I hope I haven’t lost Hathaway before he’s even started. He doesn’t seem the type to run and tell tales to the Chief Super but he could still go and work for Grainger. Odd fish though he is, I would be sorry to lose him.

Thanks to my keen Detective Inspector instincts I realise the distant rumble I have been hearing since I regained consciousness is not the motor of some malfunctioning machine. It is someone’s breathing.

I follow the vibrations to the kitchen and find Hathaway there. He has his head down on the table and is asleep. I know that table of old and I can attest to what kind of night he has had.

The noise of me filling the kettle wakes him and when I turn around he is sitting up with two hands over his face.

“Oh God,” he says.

“Morning, Hathaway.”

“Sir.”

“How are we?”

“Why is it so bright?”

“A new day, sergeant. A brand-new day.”

He laughs and winces. After checking his jacket pocket for cigarettes, he goes outside to smoke. When he comes back, I hand him a mug of tea.

Hathaway never gives much away but I want to know what kind of night we had, what kind of drunk I was. Did I say anything I should not have, become unpleasant? I settle for thanking him for getting me home.

“That’s not going to be part of your regular duties, I can assure you.”

He frowns, “I’m not sure that’s how it went, to be honest.”

“No?”

“It’s possible you were the only one who could remember a home address.”

I am grateful for that kindness; that refusal to get one up on his new senior officer when he has the chance.

He keeps doing this; proving his loyalty when he has no real reason to. Our first case together was pure Oxford, to do with mathematical minutiae and academic reputation. It was difficult and strange and I could see he was enjoying the puzzle intellectually, as Morse would have. But he never forgot he was dealing with flawed humans, including a jet lagged, shell-shocked inspector.

“Look Hathaway,” I say. “You’re all right after what happened yesterday? With Ivor Denniston, I mean.”

Denniston’s ghost self-administering poison, presents itself. In our job we become accustomed to being in the presence of death, but in the normal course of events, our arrival is strictly post-mortem.

“Of course, sir. We already talked about this.” He glances over. “Last night.”

So I was the type of drunk with staff welfare anxieties. It could have been worse.

“Remind me to take the pledge, will you, sergeant?”

“Noted, sir. It’s kind of you to be concerned. It’s more his wife I’ve been thinking about.”

“Because of your aunt?”

“Motor Neurone Disease is a hard way to go.”

“Were you close?”

He tilts his head. It is a shrug, a polite dismissal. This, I am learning, is a signal I have trespassed on to one of the many areas of his life that are strictly private property.

As he drinks his tea, his policeman’s eye wanders the flat’s bare walls and shelves.

“Did you rent this place out while you were in the BVI, sir?”

“Aye, I did. I’ll have to get my boxes out of storage, make it feel a bit more like home.” Even as I’m saying it, I know it will never happen. “Or maybe it’s time to move.”

This is the place I bought after selling the family house when Val died and Mark pushed off. I did the worst of my grieving here and the worst of my drinking. It harbours only dark memories and I believe I would do better almost anywhere else.

“Brand-new day, sir,” Hathaway says softly.

I drop him off at his car, which thankfully we left at the pub, and we go our separate ways. It is Saturday and I have no plans to go into work now the case is closed. But a few hours later, there is a knock at the door and I find Hathaway there. He is dressed for work though hardly more awake.

“Stabbing near George Street,” he tells me.

“Us again?”

“We’ve got an inspector shortage, sir,” he says.

“There never seems to be a murderer shortage,” I grumble before going to get a suit back on.

***

The victim is a man in his early thirties. Tall, white, well-built with brown hair shaved at the back like Hathaway’s. His sweatshirt is slashed and stained with wide brown circles of blood and there are cuts on his face and arms. He was found by a lass working in the kitchen of one of the businesses backing on to this alley. She was putting out rubbish when she spotted his body hidden among the bins and piles of boxes.

“Heavy night, inspector?” Laura asks. Then catching a glimpse of Hathaway, she grins. “And sergeant?”

“Speak slowly and quietly,” I tell her. “And no sudden movements.”

“So this happened sometime last night,” she says. “I’d estimate between eleven and two. The victim was stabbed multiple times with a small-bladed knife. He put up a fight; most of the cuts are defensive wounds but at least three of them were potentially fatal.”

“Which suggests a firm intention to kill.”

“Quite. When he was either dead or incapacitated he was dragged behind the wheelie bins from over there.” She waves in the direction of another taped off area. “And covered in refuse.”

“Any idea how many attackers?”

“He’s a big lad, but one person could have done this.”

The uniformed officer who was first on the scene is holding several evidence bags, “Anything of interest, constable?” I ask.

“We’ve got a wallet, cards and a phone, sir.”

“Not a robbery then.”

“There’s also a bag of skunk. Personal use probably.”

“What’s his name?”

“It’s Thomas Morgan, but he goes by Dizz.”

“He looks familiar,” Hathaway says frowning down at the body.

“Not surprising, sarge, we nicked him three times last year. Mostly charges to do with smuggling cigarettes and alcohol. He does a bit of heavy lifting for the Costa brothers.”

“Is that how you know him?” I ask Hathaway as we drive across town to break the news to Morgan’s wife.

“I wasn’t involved in any of those arrests,” he says. His frustration at his inability to place a delinquent memory is evident. “I must have seen him around the station.”

Angela Morgan, despite acknowledging Dizz’s criminal connections, cannot comprehend why anyone would go to the trouble of murdering him. Her shock and devastation appear genuine.

They live in a small fifth floor flat on an estate. She has a two-year old boy and a baby girl so we believe her when she says the three of them were home alone all last night. Also, she is small and slight and if she wanted to kill her husband, she would have found another way to do it.

She tells us that Dizz’s real job was as a mechanic in a Cowley garage and he was working hard, after his last disastrous year, to stay on the right side of the law. He did still associate with the Costa crowd, mainly because he played trumpet in a jazz band with friends of theirs. He had been a fan of Dizzy Gillespie, which was how he came by his nickname.

We wait with Angela until Family Liaison arrive and then go to the office.

Hathaway gets on with organising victim profile, CCTV review and door-to-door while I go and brief Jean Innocent. Apparently, it is normal for her to be at her desk on a Saturday. Her concession to the weekend is a pair of jeans and slightly less efficient hair.

I update her on the case and our plan for it.

“Nice and simple, then,” she says. “Drug transaction goes wrong, no PhD in pure maths needed?”

“A bit less Oxford, you mean.”

“If at all possible, inspector.”

“I’ll do my best, ma’am.”

She tells me then, in confidence, that DI Knox, Hathaway’s former inspector, is unlikely to be coming back to work. His drink driving arrest meant automatic suspension, but I know from Laura it was not an isolated incident. There was already a complaint of sexual harassment against him from a young member of the admin team plus multiple sickness absence issues. It seems he has been going downhill quite spectacularly since I’ve been away.

“I’m sorry to hear it,” I say. “He used to be a good man.”

“I’m assigning you his caseload and office. You’ve already got his sergeant. Hathaway will brief you.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

And that is the end of Detective Inspector Knox. This is not an uncommon fate for a seasoned copper and I take due warning.

I keep in touch with Hathaway throughout the day, which seems to surprise him, and we go together in the early evening to speak to Al and Johnny Costa at the import/export outfit they run as a legitimate business. Their less legitimate line is smuggling; from cigarettes and booze to drugs and people. They are not known for violence, seeing themselves as businessmen, but they are not above it.

At their warehouse, we tell them what happened to Dizz. I watch their reactions and review the performances with Hathaway afterwards. Their surprise and dismay seem genuine and in any event they both claim watertight alibis having been at a fiftieth birthday party with multiple witnesses until the early hours.

“What do you make of it?” I ask Hathaway when we are back in the car.

“I’m starting to think this was nothing to do with the Costas,” he says. “Morgan doesn’t seem to have been important enough or involved enough to be worth killing.”

“Agreed,” I say. “We won’t exclude the possibility of a random attack. There are dozens of bars and pubs in that area. He might have got on the wrong side of a stranger.”

“Or whoever he got that skunk from.”

When we get to my house I tell him to call it a night and take tomorrow off, “On Monday we’ll get a look at CCTV, see where the door-to-door gets us and take it from there.”

***

I find Hathaway already at his desk when I get in on Monday morning. The paperwork relating to the Peverill, Griffon and Annie Denniston murders along with Ivor Denniston’s suicide is tied up as far as it can be, and ready for me to review. He has evidently worked through Sunday. I am yet to learn that a senior officer saying ‘take tomorrow off’ is regarded more as an interesting philosophical proposition than an instruction.

He stops work when I come in and goes off for a smoke and to get coffees. When he returns, we make a plan for the day. This is a ritual established during our first case which I found reassuring in those first raw days.

It is another bafflingly unproductive day. On the afternoon of his death, Morgan went for an uneventful drink with colleagues after work. He left for home before eleven but never made it. No one at the garage or in the pub can suggest anything exceptional about his day, there are no unaccounted calls to or from his phone, the door-to-door elicits nothing. DNA samples from the sweatshirt are rendered inconclusive by the food waste thrown on the body at the scene and the post-mortem report takes us no further forward.

We glimpse our victim on CCTV talking to a man deliberately concealing himself in a grey hoodie. The man is good at losing himself in crowds, at finding blind spots. The two of them disappear into the alley, perhaps to buy and sell drugs, and do not come out. We never get a look at the man’s face and the blurred stills mean nothing to Morgan’s acquaintances.

We widen the investigation to the extended family, to the gentlemen Dizz was arrested with last year and to the other musicians in the jazz band. There is nothing there; nothing to suggest anyone had anything resembling a motive to murder the man. Furthermore, there is no evidence of mugging or an alcohol-fuelled Friday night fight. In short, bugger all.

We sit down with Innocent on Friday afternoon and agree we can take the investigation no further until some new piece of evidence comes to light. It leaves a sour taste; there is a mystery here we should have solved for the sake of Morgan, who was not without hope, and his young family.

***

We have a relatively quiet couple of weeks after that, which gives me a chance to familiarise myself with DI Knox’s caseload. I am relieved to discover, that considering the sort of distractions the man had, it is in a decent state. I soon see this is due to the diligence of Sergeant Hathaway who has been acting as default case manager on all but the most high-profile murder investigations. He has done a good job but it hasn’t been fair on him; I can see where his inexperience has put him in difficulties. All the same, when I ask him about the state of the open cases and about those awaiting trial he impresses me again with his refusal to say a word against his old governor.

During this quiet interlude, I put my flat up for sale. With the property market the way it is, I get a good offer within a week and start looking for somewhere to buy. It should be straightforward. As long as the commute is reasonable I don’t care where it is and as long as there is a good sized second bedroom in case Mark comes back or Lyn visits, I’m not bothered about what it looks like.

Val’s birthday falls on a Saturday this year. The sun comes out for her after a rainy week and I go to visit her grave first thing. I speak to Lyn and Mark and then go and collect Hathaway. I have decided to get through the day by viewing a list of properties and he has offered to keep me company.

We are looking at a flat that meets all my specifications and I decide to make an offer.

“This’ll do,” I say. Hathaway does not answer but I see he is looking less than impressed. “What?”

“Why don’t you hold out for somewhere you might like better?”

It’s the first time he has given an opinion on anything other than square footage and accessibility to the A40.

“I’m not too fussy.”

“I know, but you are allowed to enjoy your life.” He catches my expression. “Sorry if I’m speaking out of turn, but this place is depressing.”

I look at it through his eyes. The flat is in a modern block on an eighties estate out toward Headington. It is far from any patch of green, a decent pub or even a row of shops. It has three small square rooms with walls so thin I know which episode of Columbo next door have on. I am aware I’m drinking more than I should of an evening and I have fixed on the idea that it is because of where I am living. But actually, would this place be any better? Perhaps he is right, perhaps there is a voice inside telling me it would be betraying Val to take pleasure when she cannot. I know what her opinion of that would be. I can almost hear her gentle rebuke.

“Aye,” I say. “You’re not wrong. I’ll keep looking.”

In the car on the way to view the next place it occurs to me I don’t know much about Hathaway’s arrangements beyond that he lives in Jericho.

“Are you a property owner?” I ask.

“Not with Oxford prices, but I’m saving for a deposit.”

I imagined there was family money but it seems he is in the same boat as the rest of his generation.

“What have you got now, a flat share?”

“I’m not really the flat share type.”

“Never was a truer word spoken.”

I get a wounded look for that, “I’ve got a small studio,” he says and heading off my next question. “It’s a more dignified term for a bedsit. But I might have to rethink, I could save more if I moved further out to somewhere cheaper.”

When we have looked at and dismissed the last property, we take ourselves off to a pub with a beer garden for an early evening drink.

It is peaceful being here in the sunshine, looking out over the pretty river view. Peace is a less alien feeling these days and it occurs to me this might have something to do with the person sitting across from me, now smoking meditatively. Even with all his sharp edges and even with mine, Sergeant Hathaway and I are a good fit and I know I have hit lucky with my sergeant this time.

“Is everything all right, sir?” He asks when the silence must have become noticeable.

“Sorry, Hathaway,” I say. “Everything’s fine. It’s my Val’s birthday, that’s all. It always gets me thinking. What’s that look for?”

“It’s my birthday too,” he says. I can tell by his expression this is information he did not intend to impart and immediately regrets.

“You’re telling me it’s your birthday today?” I say putting aside the coincidence.

“Yes, but I don’t –“

“What are you doing with me, man, why aren’t you celebrating with your friends?”

He gives me one of his looks.

“All right, never mind, none of my business.”

The man has surrounded himself with an electric fence. I usually do better at respecting the boundary lines.

“Well, happy birthday.” I hold up my glass until he concedes and toasts with me. “Next ones on me.”

“It was your round anyway, sir.”

“Oh, was it?”

It occurs to me that today is the first time I have seen Hathaway wearing anything other than a suit and he seems different in jeans and T-shirt; younger, less well-armoured. Not for the first time, I wonder what it is he is protecting so carefully.

“Do you usually mark today in any way?” He asks, relaxing when I do not pursue the top-secret matter of the day he was born.

“Aye sergeant, I normally get blind drunk.”

He looks appalled although it can hardly come as a surprise.

“Is that the plan this evening?” He asks.

“I wouldn’t distinguish it with the word plan.”

“Would you like some company?”

I shouldn’t have said anything. It has taken me long enough to persuade my daughter I would rather be on my own on significant anniversaries, I don’t want to have to start again with my sergeant.

“It’s good of you to offer but -”

“I’d bring takeaway and we wouldn’t have to talk. We can just read verses from the bible.”

“You what?”

He looks delighted with that reaction, the bugger.

“Chinese. You can chuck me out when you’ve had enough of me.”

If it hadn’t been his blinking birthday too…

“Oh, go on then,” I say and find myself anticipating the evening with pleasure.

***

I wake the next morning to the sun angling in through gaps in the blinds. Head aching, stomach protesting, everything else aching. Here we go again.

It is still early, so I lie awhile attempting to piece together the events of the previous evening. Hathaway turned up, as promised, with food. I had once mentioned in passing that I rated Martin Scorsese and he brought DVDs. We watched Mean Streets side by side on the sofa. I am not sure where that scenario features in the inspector’s manual for maintaining a professional working relationship with your sergeant, but there we were.

That’s when it starts to get hazy. We should have stuck with beer but he likes a drink as much as I do and, with the heavy significance of the date hanging over both of us, I had to go and bring out the whisky. That potion worked its usual forgetting magic and I have little recollection of the hours after the film ended.

And through the haze, a particular memory shimmers. I have the sense I did not sleep alone.

There is no one beside me now. The bed is tidy, the pillow shows no indent, the duvet is straightened. But in my mind’s eye - Hathaway in the bed with me.

It is not necessarily significant, I try to persuade myself. This flat has no second bedroom, the couch is a two-seater and too small for Hathaway to sleep comfortably on, the kitchen table is no one’s first choice of pillow. So what if he got too drunk to go home and slept beside me? I’d rather he did that than wander the streets.

But the impression I have is that it was not as simple as that. Was there a kiss? Were there kisses? Was his body, warmly human, really lying against mine. Is that my arm around him? I imagine I can taste him, feel the press of his lips on my lips. The not-memory resonates with the impossibility and vivid clarity of a dream.

Cautiously, I investigate but I find no signs of anything more than a kiss having occurred.

And I regret it.

‘Watch yourself,’ I tell myself.

I used to be the sort of lad who fell in love easily. I wasn’t particular about gender either. And not that bothered about class, age, race or any of the other things the world takes note of. I realised before I was out of my teens that this wasn’t the most sensible of survival strategies and when I settled down to a marriage and a career, no one could tell me apart from the rest.

I never regretted any of my choices, especially not my years with Val. After she went, it was such a blow I found it hard to have any other human anywhere near me let alone love or sex or anything of the sort

And now, as time passes and I recognise the signs of recovery in myself, those green shoots of hope, I absolutely cannot set my sights on James Hathaway. Him being male is less of an issue these days of course but he is half my age. We watched a film last night which I had first seen at the cinema as a newly minted police constable when he was not yet born. More importantly he is my subordinate and I am not former DI Knox. I have seen rank abused too many times to succumb to that kind of temptation.

And what of Hathaway? No matter what kind of messages I think I might be getting from him, his sexuality is currently undeclared. I have no idea how he sees himself. I also have no idea what hold his religion still has on him. I had him down as a card-carrying member of the God Squad after he told me about his year in the seminary but he never discusses his beliefs or how much he follows the rules in his personal conduct. We can’t seem to talk about it without arguing.

And yet, I am fond of him. In the way old fools have been known to ruin themselves with beautiful young things. He makes my life better and I am happier when I am with him.

I bring myself into line. I apologise to Val and I mentally apologise to Hathaway for whatever difficult position I have put him in. It is probably just as well I can’t flaming remember as I can at least look him in the eye when I get into the office on Monday.

I am not surprised nothing is said. Hathaway is at his desk as usual. He behaves as though nothing out of the ordinary has occurred, saying he wanted to go for a run on Sunday morning and hadn’t wanted to disturb me. I am not fooled though, there is something different when he looks at me. There is a question in those pale eyes. One I have no answer to.