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No Time for Sergeants

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Sergeant Janice Longbright took another sip of her Mai Tai, regarded with admiration the Jungle Red lipstick mark on the glass, smoothed down the skirt of her Victor Stiebel 1959 original cocktail dress, and sat back to wait for Sergeant Wield to take his turn.

"Never have I ever," began Wield, and hesitated. It was clearly not an easy game for him, and Janice wasn't sure how she'd talked him into it. He was only on his second pint, and it couldn't be the splendor of her cleavage. Her gaydar had pinged the moment he'd sat down at her table -- well, a moment or two later -- and he'd turned out to be happily settled in the domestic realm, so splendid James Hathaway joining them hadn't persuaded him either.

Wield glanced up from contemplating his bitter, and clearly by association said, "Never have I ever had my super stand me a drink."

Sergeant Hathaway shook his head and took a swallow of his gin and tonic. "Mine's Lady Bountiful," he said. "I did manage to get a round in once when the three of us were out, and Robbie--sorry, DI Lewis and DCS Innocent were having one of those 'Yes, ma'am' non-arguments. Not that drinking with herself is a common occasion." He looked at Janice.

"I don't really have a super," she said. "Like I said, the PCU is an anomaly. We answer directly to the Home Office. In the sense of answering back, usually. But if Raymond counts -- he's our Acting Head -- since 1973 -- then sure, he's bought me drinks. I take him out for cocktails and consolation when he's particularly frustrated by... well, mostly Arthur. Like the time he made Raymond's laptop useless for anything but playing 'Lovely Rita Meter Maid' over and over. Oh, I forgot the rule," she added, and took a sip. "I'm not usually so talkative. Must be the influence of you two."

Wield and Hathaway looked at each other, said nothing, and returned their eyes to Janice in unison. They were a pair. As much as two people with so little in common could be. Nationality, Detective Sergeant in front of their names, and an invisible portcullis ready to slam down and protect secrets: that was about it. And sex, of course. Sexuality, maybe. Wield had been surprisingly upfront about his circumstances, telling them he lived in a Yorkshire village called Enscombe with his partner, Edwin, an antiquarian book dealer. Hathaway had immediately started trying to worm the bookshop's catalogue out of Wield, who'd put up his hands and pled ignorance.

Hathaway himself was impossible to read in that regard. He was impeccably dressed, for the modern period, in a pale grey suit with a purple tie that mocked at "metrosexual," reminding her of the photos of young John May in her mother's albums. Tall, blond, posh, and endearingly awkward, he provided a complete contrast to Wield's dark, craggy, fascinating ugliness. He'd given Janice a flattering once-over when they met at the bar. She was looking her best tonight -- the complete Diana Dors -- but since she was old enough to be Hathaway's mother, at least if she'd been put up the duff when quite young -- well, fairly young -- she'd appreciated his assessment. Even if it had led her to expect a "You have been to Camden Town, I perceive" that in fact he was too shy to utter.

None of them was uttering anything just now, so Janice took up the conversational torch again, asking Wield, "So, if your superintendent's never bought you a drink, you don't know him very well, then?"

"Oh, I know him too bloody well," said Wield, his accent deepening. "Just a tight-arsed bastard, Andy Dalziel is."

"Don't care for him, then?" said Hathaway.

"Best boss a man could have," said Wield, toasting his absent superior. They all raised their glasses and drank. It was Hathaway's turn in the game, but he was clearly contemplating his next move, or something else, with the absorption of a chess master, so Janice took a moment to glance around the room.

The Sergeants' Club was busy this evening, Sunday being the low-crime point of the week. Janice was a regular; Hathaway had been here a few times when in town; it was Wield's first time, but then he admitted he rarely got to London. He'd been staring grim-jawed into space and had nearly blundered into Janice's table before she called out, "Oi, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, watch yourself!" He looked down at her, grinned briefly, and said, "I don't have a dog." Then he'd sat, still gazing around, and said, "It looks more like a Chief Inspectors' Club." The place was pretty swanky: Curzon Street, Mayfair; lots of dark wood and heavy curtains and an incongruous Art Deco bar in glass and steel, where they served any cocktail you could name, and Janice could name quite a few, as long as they'd been invented before 1965. You got all sorts here, as membership was automatic upon promotion to sergeant in any U.K. police force, with similarly-ranked guests from around the world welcome. No one else was allowed inside except for cleaning and repair; the barmen were all retired sergeants. Janice's mother had been one of the first women to force her way inside, lipstick, slingback pumps and all. Theoretically all were equal here, but the DS's tended to segregate themselves into alcoves off to the side.

From where she sat in the Cuff Memorial Alcove, Janice could almost overhear what looked like a heart-to-heart between Wiggins and Havers, while at another table Rinus de Gier was trying his best to make time with Siobhan Clarke. Janice didn't know the only-currently-out-of-uniform sergeants as well, but in the middle of the main room she spotted Andy Davidson, looking much happier than the last time he'd arrived from Cardiff. She'd brought Jack Renfield here a couple of times, but he kept getting into fights with his old colleagues from the Met, who insisted on teasing him about joining the oddity that was the Peculiar Crimes Unit.

Janice sensed that Hathaway was watching her watch the room, and turned back. "Never have I ever," he pronounced, and she could hear nursery giggles and world-weary sighs together in his tone. Like Wield, he paused and began again, shaking his head a little at the absurdity. Janice wanted to tell him to embrace it. He finished: "Never have I ever wanted a higher rank than sergeant."

"James, is that true, really?" Janice couldn't help asking. "You're young, and I bet you have the brains and the ambition to get to the top."

"Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell..." Hathaway said, and dipped one finger in his drink. He kissed the liquid from it and added, "Almost entirely true."

Janice put her hands, crossed, over the top of her glass. "True for me. They couldn't pay me to be anything but. Though who knows if I'll get paid again. It's not too certain just now. And you... um. Wieldy?" He'd dodged telling them his first name when they'd made the exchange earlier, offering this bit of awkwardness instead.

"True for me, more or less," he said. "I'm too old to change now, any road."

"You're not," said Janice. His age was hard to guess, but she thought he was younger than her.

"Aye, well, I'm settled." Janice kept her eyes on him until he sighed and added, "When I started out it were an offense I could be sacked for. I kept it quiet, all right? Even now, I keep it quiet. I don't know why I told you lot."

"Because you'll never see us again," said Hathaway.

"Bugger that. I'm coming back here next time Edwin has book shopping to do and there's no murders in Mid-Yorkshire. It's not my kind of place, but I like it here."

Hathaway nodded, ran a fingertip around the rim of his glass, and said, "When DI Lewis retires, I'm leaving the force. I'll find something else to do. Maybe go into competition with Edwin. In the book-buying sense, I mean."

"The book business can get pretty rough, I hear," said Wield.

"Yes," said Hathaway, "I know. 'You may threaten its life with a railway share; you may charm it with smiles and soap.'"

"Oh dear," said Janice, thinking he sounded rather like Arthur. "Well, I've left a couple of times already, but the PCU keeps popping up again, like a mushroom. Wieldy, have you ever considered another profession?"

He shrugged. "Maybe summat to do with animals. How about you?"

"I was in ladies' underwear. Briefly."

Hathaway's mouth twitched. "And it always looks grave at a pun," he said.

"I wanted to be an actress once, too."

"Mm. May I ask you something, Janice?"

"Yes, James."

He gestured at her ensemble. "Do you dress like that at work, by any chance?"

"Of course not; this is evening wear, sergeant. Do you have a pink tie as well as the purple?"

"Of course. Wield, do you have a motorbike?"

"Yeah." He fingered the Triumph patch on his denim jacket. "Sherlock bloody Holmes, are you?"

"Oh, they don't let him in here."

"I'll say," said Janice. "Do you know the fit Donovan would pitch if they did? Even so, she needed three Bloody Marys and a shoulder massage the last time she arrived after a case with him. Speaking of which--"

"I give rather fine shoulder massages," said Hathaway.

"Or so DI Lewis says, eh lad?" Wield said.

Hathaway actually blushed. Aha. Janice had been pretty certain, but... "I was going to say, we're supposed to be playing a game here, and it was my turn. It's rather boring when we tell the truth, isn't it?" She raised her glass. "Never have I ever slept with a colleague. Oops," she added, and drank.

Hathaway drank as well; Janice had began another internal "aha" when he put down the glass and said, "She left Oxford; I hope that counts. I was thirsty."

"It counts," said Janice. "It most certainly counts." Her voice shook a bit, and Hathaway's gaze got keener. "He was killed," she added. "Not long ago."

"I'm very sorry," Hathaway replied.

Wield gave her a sympathetic grunt, covered his glass, and said, "Never had the luck. Now if you want to count suspects..."

Hathaway lifted his glass and took another sip. "Not you too. What are the police forces of this nation coming to?" he said dryly, but Janice could hear the tension. "The game, on the other hand, appears to be finding its roots. If you," he pointed to Wield, "were to say, for example, 'Never have I ever been in bed with a transsexual murderer in a burning house,' I would have to drink. I'll save you the trouble." The rest of the g-and-t went down his throat. "Time for another round, I think. Same?"

He rose without waiting for an answer and headed for the bar. Wield and Janice watched him go. "You think I hit a sore spot?" Wield said.

"Is it one of yours?" Janice asked.

"Not any more. I think I'd better not introduce him to Hat Bowler, though." Wield paused. "He's buying the round. Likely means he wants to stay. Think we should ask him about his DI?"

"How? 'In love with your guv'nor, then, mate?'"

"It's not uncommon. I fancied Pete Pascoe a bit. Years ago, that was."

"I can't say the same about John and Arthur, but just now I've one constable leading another about by the nose, and I can't do a thing to help. You learn to back off and mind your own business."

Wield laughed. "Not by following Andy Dalziel's example, you don't. 'All that rumpy-pumpy making you slow, Wieldy? You're lagging like a turtle swimming through treacle wearing a bridal train.'"

"He sounds dreadful. And that doesn't even make sense."

"Some days I can't wait for him to retire. Other days I think the world will end when he does. He was blown up once, and we thought--"

"Us too! We thought we'd lost Arthur. Turned out he'd just mislaid himself a bit. Oh, I feel the same way. Arthur and John drive me mad, and they're long past retirement age, but what will the world be when they're gone? Not so full of color, I think."

"I think you're managing the color end of things just fine, Janice."

"What a charming thing to say! Dear Wieldy, though I don't like calling you that. Wouldn't you please--"

"Edgar," said Hathaway, appearing suddenly with his long hands full of drinks. "His name is Edgar."

"How the hell--" began Wield.

Hathaway gestured toward the bar. "A Sergeant Dawkins, who claims to be an expert on embarrassing first names. Which yours isn't. My guv'nor's guv'nor, now that was a man with a name." He distributed the drinks with the air of a butler, and sat down.

"We were just saying," Janice told him, "that it might be nice to have a superior who wants to retire. Who doesn't assume he's immortal. Who wants to grow roses or play golf or spend time with grandchildren." Hathaway nodded, looking down at his glass. "James, if you want to tell us--"

"I ran into a man on the way back from the bar," he said, "tall, dark, scary-looking, like you took Edgar and crossed him with a pterodactyl. East European accent--"

"Oh, I know who you mean," said Janice. "Bothari. He worked for some really evil security service, but he's in mourning for a navy officer he helped to assassinate. Technically I'm not sure he's a sergeant, but they let him in here anyway when he emigrated, because they were afraid to say no. He just wants someone else to follow around, so he rants at anyone he sees, hoping. Stay away, James."

"Janice, how do you know all this--"

"I had a drink with him one evening, years ago, during my brief and pointless Katharine Hepburn period. He latched on like a limpet; I had trouble shaking him off."

"But it's a man he's looking to follow?"

"A male officer, yes. Someone with ambition. Not one of us confirmed sergeants."

"Mm." Hathaway was silent for a time. "I'd follow him anywhere," he said finally.

"Your DI?" said Janice.

"Yes," the syllable choked off like he'd garroted it.

"Oh, aye. You've not just found out, have you?" Wield murmured into his pint, and took a swallow. "James," he said then, and stopped.

"Edgar?" prompted Hathaway.

"He must be a good man."

"The best."

"Then he's worth following. Someone has to, eh? I mean, there are leaders and then there are--"

"Sergeants," said Janice. "Not that John and Arthur could last a day without me. I expect that's true of DI Lewis as well."

Hathaway made a noise that might have been a laugh. "But he's the brains," he said, voice tighter than ever. "No, I accept that I'm occasionally useful. I do legwork, and I have insights. I get the job done."

"I expect you're a bloody good copper," said Wield. "Even if you belong on the cover of GQ. You'll be a bloody good chief inspector someday. Wear a maroon tie for that. Or Pinot Noir, if you can't help yourself."

Hathaway laughed, honestly this time. "You don't think I'll make superintendent?" He sobered. "I was going to be a priest, once. I think the police force taught me more about humility. But it was Robbie Lewis who taught me how to be a sergeant."

"Then tell him that," said Janice.

"I will if you will," Hathaway said, throwing out a challenge to both of them.

"It was my mother who taught me," Janice objected, "but I'll tell John he helped. I'll tell Arthur too, but he'll just say not to be silly and why can't I find his copy of The Search for Atlantis? Dear old man," she added fondly.

"Dalziel would ask if I'd summat wrong with my liver," said Wield, "but I'll tell him anyhow. Pete too, though I were a sergeant before he were." He looked intently at Hathaway. "Go to it, lad," he said. "It's as well to have things out in the open." Then the craggy face split in a grin. "Tell him on your knees, like."

Hathaway didn't blush this time, but he was spared from answering by a huge crash from the next alcove. They all jumped up. Peering around the corner, Janice saw the memorial busts of Williams and Milner smashed on the floor, and an unknown sergeant apologizing for the mess to a tensely hovering crowd.

Distraction. All six of their police-trained eyes turned back to the table as one, to see a dark-suited man straightening up from the floor. "My handbag!" cried Janice. "It was my mother's! Balenciaga, 1952!"

Wield and Hathaway moved into formation; the thief dodged between them and took off. Hathaway, sprinting between tables, brought him down, snatched the purse, and left his captive to the tender mercies of everyone who wasn't grabbing the accomplice. "You'd think he'd know better," he said, handing the bag to Janice.

"Oh, my dashing white sergeant," said Janice. "Thank you." She went on her toes and kissed him on the cheek. His pale skin remained unblemished, so she rummaged in her bag and reapplied lipstick before treating Wield to the same. "Though I doubt you'll make Edwin jealous," she said.

"No, ma'am," said Wield. "But I've love for you to meet him--"

"No time just now," she said. "I have a feeling that this" -- she nodded at the struggling bag thief -- "is going to end up a case for the Peculiar Crimes Unit. As you said, he ought to have known better. Who robs people in the Sergeants' Club? I'd better let John and Arthur know."

"Be careful out there, Janice," said Wield. "And it was a pleasure to meet you. James, care to come back to the hotel?"

"Afraid not. I have a train to catch, early. To Oxford."

And destiny, Janice couldn't help adding to herself as she walked away, taking out her mobile to call John. It was a pity none of them had more time for each other, but duty had you on its speed-dial, when you were a sergeant.