Now with nobody but himself to please, some nights Ray would stay up until the small hours, feeding the fire and reading or painting, or believing that at any point he might start to do so, rather than keep on staring through an uncurtained window into the wide rural darkness.
The absolute quality of night in the countryside had impressed him – city lad that he’d been - when he’d first moved to his cottage nearly five years earlier. But, as he’d grown used to the empty quiet, he’d come to realise that it was nothing of either, that life progressed perhaps even more vigorously here by night than by day. It was at night that the larger creatures prowled, and the myriad nocturnal insects buzzed, and things died and cried out, sharp.
So there was suffering and pain out there around him, but not anything that was his concern, not any more, though he would disable rabbit traps and snares if he found them out walking; ignorant and unhelpful to country life, perhaps, but more than he could live with to leave them.
There had been a period of time, until a few months ago, when his nights had been distracted, and had involved less introspection, but that was over, and now Ray sat in his small cottage in the evening alone, shivering in the fingerless gloves he favoured so as to be able to hold a paintbrush, reboiling the water in his kettle and stewing tea-bags and memories together, following a familiar loop of thoughts around inside himself.
He should have been painting now. He needed the money. The cottage he’d been able to buy outright with a legacy from a distant relative, but to keep on top of the daily expenses he really ought to ship a few more of his oils to the gallery in London that – thank goodness – continued to be interested, at least for now, in selling them.
On this particular night, however, he had been reading, at least for a while, and now a spine-snapped Penguin paperback of The L Shaped Room rested around his fingers, still held open in his place so that he could return to it when he could make himself.
There wasn’t much to be said for the place, really – that was how the book had begun, the first lines on the first page – but it had a roof over it and a door that locked from the inside, and that was all I cared about just then. I didn’t even bother to take in the details – they were pretty sordid, but I didn’t notice them so they didn’t depress me; perhaps because I was already at rock bottom.
Those words had fitted so easily into Ray’s brain, a mirror he’d not been expecting to find. The book would help, he’d thought. But he’d stumbled out of it again five or six pages later, and found himself instead reliving the loop of re-considered decisions once more, bound in the claustrophobia of his thoughts.
His eyes focused suddenly on his own reflection in the window glass, his face a smear of pale skin under wild curls and behind three days’ growth of beard, his body curled forward in the armchair where he sat, hunched and tense.
He looked at his wristwatch, the one that Syd’s widow had given him when he’d left both London and the police in one fell swoop. That she’d given to him because it had been Syd’s, because – she’d said - she thought Ray might like it as a memento. He’d wanted to push it back at her, nervousness and guilt running through his black grief like lines of mould through cheese. But he’d gulped, nodded, kept his head down and avoided her eye, and she’d given a small sigh that might have been satisfaction.
By now, nearly five years later, he could see the watch without having to disturb his grief’s congealed skin, and right now, looking at it, he thought mostly that at quarter past two in the morning it was beyond time to go to bed. He made himself stand at once, knowing he’d reconsider the decision all too soon. It was far from tempting to leave the meagre warmth he’d built up in the living room, with the embers of the fire and his moth-eaten tartan rug, and go up to the cold slab of his bed, but it had to be done.
He was bending to pick up his mug so he could tidy it to the kitchen before retiring, when the sound came – a noise somewhere outside the house that made him freeze and glance around himself quickly from a long-ago learned but deep-grained instinct.
It had sounded like a gunshot.
Enough like a gunshot that he had reacted as though it had been one, instantly alert, scouting every sightline, retreating to put his back safe and flush against the wall. But of course it could not have been – or, at worst, merely a poacher after a rabbit. More likely a branch underfoot of some creature, cracking under a long-held strain.
Shaking his head, Ray carried his mug to the sink and left it, visited the bathroom and then took himself upstairs. The indoor toilet and sink and built-in bath, with its temperamental water-heater installed on the wall above, were the only improvements he’d made to the farm-labourer’s cottage after moving in, apart from plumbing in the kitchen sink so it had taps as well as a plughole, and adding internal electrics attached to his own generator out the back. There were no radiators, of course, and since he didn’t fancy spending all day every day tending to the iron cooking range that had come with the place he used a hotplate and a toaster, and sometimes an open fire; it was sufficient to his purpose.
Over the last two winters there had been Gregory to go and stay the night with at Gregory’s small bungalow, if it got very cold or Ray wanted a baked potato – both those sorts of considerations had tended to come before any very strident wish to see Gregory, which was one reason Ray didn’t see Gregory any more. But for nearly four months now Ray had had the long evenings and cold bed to himself, and that was, after all, what he’d wanted, what he’d been aiming for when he’d first moved out of London, swearing off human contact altogether.
In his bedroom Ray changed into his pyjamas, leaving his socks on against the chill, and slid into bed with a sigh, pulling the covers up around himself and closing his eyes, meaning to stop paying attention to anything.
It was more quiet, now, than usual. In the silence, perhaps, his ears strained a little, and he caught a faint echo, something like a shout. Most likely a fox calling for a mate, a harsh, angry, pained noise that presumably sounded amorous to them - he’d been caught out by mistaking that sound before, had stumbled along a dark road once looking for what had sounded so much like a person in distress, before he’d seen the fox itself at the edge of the woods.
He could feel the heaviness of sleep gathering between his eyes, and he drifted.
The noise that woke him, Ray could not be sure of. He didn’t feel he’d been asleep long – an hour at most. Something sharp and loud had jolted him awake but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d hallucinated something like that out of a dream. He listened, waiting for the busy dim hum of undisturbed animals that would tell him he’d been mistaken.
But he heard, instead, and from the room directly beneath him, the sound of footsteps creaking on wooden floorboards, and rough, ragged breathing.
Someone, or something, was in the house with him.
Ray’s muscles tensed, his thoughts too – gone fiercely tight, focused on the moment.
He felt his heartbeat pick up.
Moving carefully, as silently as he could, Ray got out of bed and padded out of the room and down the stairs, grabbing from the wall a heavy wooden mallet that had been there when he’d bought the place, of some obscure agricultural purpose and which he sometimes used to crack walnuts or shift ice in the pipes.
At the foot of the stairs, he sidled up to the living room door, peering into the darkness.
Gasping, that was what he could hear. Laboured breathing, and from a lower height than he would have expected – had the person slumped to the floor? Or was it after all an injured animal, having somehow found a way in? Some larger bird down the chimney? Or had he left a window open?
Electric light would blind them both, but Ray had no idea what he was facing, and he couldn’t fight someone in the dark. Very slowly, he put his hand through the space in between the door and the frame and found the light switch, flicking it on and then leaping back but also through the door, keeping it behind him, his weapon raised, as he squinted and tried to make out who or what lay before him.
It was a person. A man. A man of about his own age, dressed in all black and bleeding coursing rivulets of scarlet blood onto his floor from a wound in his leg. He had flung up one arm against the light, and in his hand he had a revolver, although the muzzle currently pointed at the ceiling.
“Put down your weapon!” Ray shouted. Not that his mallet could outface a gun, but he’d long ago learned that in this sort of situation an authoritative voice could get you a long way. For most of his old job, after all, he’d had little more than a notebook and a pair of handcuffs.
And indeed, now the man’s arm lowered, slowly. His face was rather pale, his dark hair neatly clipped. He had a jagged scar across most of one cheek, giving him a threatening air that was almost too obvious – it was in the set of his jaw, the long stare of his eyes that Ray saw more convincing evidence of dangerousness.
“And who are you, mate?” the man asked in turn, voice light, almost impudent, as if he wasn’t bleeding out on a stranger’s floor at three in the morning.
“This is my house.” Ray told him coldly. “Put your gun right down and get rid of it.”
“Run out of bullets anyway,” said the man, voice casual, and chucked the thing away from himself to clatter in the corner against the skirting-board. “You got any whisky? Vodka? Vodka for preference. Was looking for some, but…” he shrugged, as if running out of energy due to debilitating wounds was a cause for social embarrassment but little more.
“No alcohol at all, I’m afraid,” Ray told him, shifting across the floor to place himself solidly between the man and his gun. He’d only ever kept wine when he was still entertaining regularly – when there had been Gregory – and it had been far too easy to drink the remains of that, sufficient that he’d thought it better not to buy more to replace it and see it go the same way. “Now, take off your jacket and throw that out of reach too.”
“Oh, excellent,” the intruder said now, with the driest of sarcasm, as he obeyed. Not drunk, Ray thought. Possibly off his face on something or other, but one of those drugs that left people airily lucid, not heroin, not skunk. Ray knew there were raves in country fields sometimes, farmers leasing empty barns no questions asked, but he’d never been aware of it around his area, which was surely too far from any big towns to make sense as a party destination.
The man was continuing. “That’s all I broke the window for, you understand? Thought the place was empty and it’s not, thought there’d be stacks of booze awaiting returning weekenders, and there isn’t. Just lovely,” he ended, sarcasm snapping out even as he continued to drip blood onto the floor.
“Were you looking to drink it or wash with it?” Ray asked. “Because if you want cleaning up I’ve got a decent First Aid kit, phenol solution, some painkillers… Bandages, even.”
The man looked up at him, eyes narrowed. He was doing a very good job, Ray thought, of hiding the hitch in his breathing. “Now, why would you offer me that, rather than phone the police like anyone else?”
It had been a long time since Ray had felt himself so closely observed.
Ray shrugged slightly, as if he wasn’t asking himself the same question. “By the time the police get here, if you wanted to kill me or I was likely to let you, it would have happened. So why don’t I help you instead?”
An ambulance would also more than likely be late on the scene. But they could have been called, if the man had asked for it. Ray wasn’t expecting him to, though, and no mention of it came.
Instead, the man just inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Very well. Lead on.” He made as if to start scrambling to his feet.
Ray stepped forward, mallet raised, and shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. I said ‘help’ not ‘trust’. Stay there a minute.” He took three more careful steps, his eyes not straying from the man in front of him, and reached into the bookshelf.
“Kinky, are we?” the man asked, seeing the handcuffs Ray had withdrawn.
“Careful,” Ray told him. “Hands behind your back please. I’m sure you’ve done this before.”
“Wouldn’t you like to know, sailor?” was the response, which Ray should perhaps have predicted, but the man put his hands to be cuffed willingly enough. Ray suspected that this meant the man had some confidence in his ability to come out on top of a fight even so immobilized, but the restraints would at least help. And the wound on his leg looked nasty enough to slow him down a little.
Ray stepped back. “Get up now then, and you can lead the way. And how about a name for your good self while we’re at it? I’m not supposing you’ll tell me what’s on your birth certificate, but something specific would be handy.”
“You can call me Bodie,” the man muttered, interspersed with bitten-lip silences as he found his feet, putting weight through his leg and no doubt the shifting of his trousers exerting some pressure on the wound. “And mine host?”
“Ah. As in ‘of sunshine’?”
“As in ‘do you want a fucking bandage or not?’ So keep moving.”
“Some of us were woken up in the middle of the night by a break-in.”
“Some of us got shot in the thigh.”
“Shot, were you?” Ray wasn’t surprised at the fact, but was that the man had so easily admitted it. Although probably the wound would be telling enough, nonetheless this man ‘Bodie’ might have banked on Ray not knowing what he was looking at when he saw it. “I suppose you were, what? Scrumping apples, then?”
“Something like that.” Bodie had led the way from the living room to the small dining area and thence on into the bathroom, where he sank into the one chair, arms slotting neatly behind himself. There was a blotchy, persistent trail of blood left in his wake on the floor, and as Ray switched on the bathroom light, he thought the man was looking increasingly pale and sweaty.
Ray adjusted the cuffs so that one of Bodie’s arms was woven through the back of the chair – not enough to slow him down long, perhaps, but better than nothing – and then opened his bathroom cabinet, getting out the antiseptic and some cotton gauze, bandages and a suture kit. An overly thorough collection for a civilian no longer in Her Majesty’s employ, but only sensible for someone living alone, far from medical assistance. He was certainly glad of it now. Taking a pair of snub-nosed scissors, Ray went to kneel at Bodie’s side.
“You’re better off not trying anything till I fix you up, agreed?” he said, gesturing with the closed scissors.
Bodie raised his shoulders in what, unbound, might have been a wide-armed gesture of innocence. “I don’t have a problem with you, pal. I’ll admit I’m not best pleased that you’re a bloody teetotaler, but I think I may be able to keep that irritation restrained.”
“No problem with me? Even though I’ve tied you up?”
“Sensible,” Bodie adjudged, and with sincerity in his voice. Ray got the impression that Bodie would have liked less someone who did not think it merely wise to handcuff those they offered help to.
And then Ray blinked, for a moment coming back to himself and observing his situation, once again like the version of himself who had sat earlier staring at nothing and suddenly seeing his own reflection.
All of this, this intruder, this task, the conversation, it was the sort of thing that was supposed to be unsettling or upsetting, the sort of thing people dreaded, and Ray had fallen easily into it like a needle in a groove, and been comfortable. His skin was still prickling with adrenaline, his senses sharpened, his mind working, and he felt… good.
He was alert, ready to hurt this man if he had too, but a million miles from wishing him away.
Shaking his head at himself, Ray attended to the task of cutting Bodie’s trouser leg off from a spot a few inches above his wound, whilst also not injuring him any further. They were good quality trousers, Ray noted, a sturdy fabric in a dark grey colour. A side pocket on them, removed with the rest, yielded a few coins and some sticks of chewing gum, and a very small compass – those, though, Ray found later, for as soon as he saw the wound, he had to attend to the business of stemming the flow of blood.
It was a glancing injury, at least, and a lucky one, angry and oozing but not with the life-threatening bleed of a deeper wound or a nicked artery. Ray cleaned it briskly but thoroughly, giving the man a toothbrush to clench his teeth on against the burn, and, having sterilized the needle, put in nine sutures. He then packed over some gauze and bandaged the whole on, tight as he dared. The man’s skin, he noted, was basically clean and the leg muscular, healthy. Not a down and out, and not a druggie or an alcoholic, at least not regularly or for no great duration. There was another scar near the man’s knee, suggestive of a surgical procedure, and one curled around the back of his calf like a snake.
“I mean, really. No whisky? Not even for an unexpected guest?” Bodie’s face was beaded with sweat, and he was blinking it from reddened, irritated eyes, unable to wipe his face with his hands secured. “Basic etiquette is far from your strong point, my dear Raymond.”
“Here, open your mouth.” Ray fed the man two paracetamol tablets and an aspirin, and held a tooth mug of water to his mouth so he could swallow them down. There was some stronger stuff in the medicine cabinet too, in an unmarked brown glass bottle, but telling strangers where you kept your strong opiates was surely never a good plan.
Standing back, Ray rested his hands on his hips, pleased with his work. It felt like the first tangible accomplishment of weeks or even months, that clean white bandage and the neat stitches underneath.
Bodie, whoever he was, seemed to agree. “And that you have done before,” he said, looking at his leg, and in a tone not quite as if he meant it as a tease. “What next, then?” he asked, and that was a challenge of sorts. For all the casual tone in his voice, he was studying Ray, waiting for his response with fixed attention
“Well, do you want something to eat?” Ray thought over his First Aid training again. “You ought to drink, anyway. And not booze.”
“Says you.” Bodie was frowning now, looking almost puzzled. “Honestly, are you crazy or what?”
“Maybe,” Ray stepped away, went through the bathroom door and over to the kitchen – all the rooms were so small and so close that it was easy to continue the conversation. “Toast? I’ve got peanut butter or honey. No actual butter, mind.”
The honey was the stuff from the farm shop that Gregory had got him last Christmas. Ray never quite wanted to reach for it, but balked at throwing food away, and honey, after all, lasted forever.
Gregory would have called him crazy, without doubt, entertaining an intruder in this way. Ray was conscious of the danger, as conscious as anyone; it was his reaction to that consciousness that he knew to be abnormal. He felt awake now, vigorous, despite the hour. Clear-eyed.
He prepared two plates of toast and peanut butter, and two mugs of tea, adding to one place setting a large glass of tap water, to help Bodie replace his fluid loss. He unshackled Bodie from the bathroom chair, and supported him to the small dining table, clamping him on to the chair there when they reached it, but only by one wrist – after all, he didn’t intend to handfeed the man like some kind of pampered dog. Bodie still winced with every movement, but his bandages remained clean on the outside; the stitches had to be mostly in the right places.
“You’ll have to leave tomorrow morning, of course,” Ray said, after a period of mutually silent food consumption. It sounded strange, the wrong words or the wrong tone, too rude and yet not decisive enough.
“Ah yes, about that.” Bodie put down his toast and took a long swig of water. “What if I asked to stay here a while longer?”
Ray was obscurely disappointed. If this man was, after all, a freeloader, a small time criminal, it shouldn’t have been depressing – Ray had been operating all this time under the principle that he should mistrust him, after all – but this suggestion of leeching made his heart sink.
But, “Thing is, you see, I’m being hunted,” Bodie added, with a kind of smirk that said he knew how ludicrous he sounded.
“By agents of a foreign power. Oh, I know, it sounds like a cheap thriller. It sort of is, I suppose. You see, I work for the government and I’m here on an investigation. Up at Henbray House – the one down the road?”
Ray frowned, shocked. “Henbray? Nothing at Henbray House but mice and pigeons, not since Greg… since the family left and shut it up.”
Bodie held his gaze. “Well, so they’d want you think. But it’s far from empty. Went to poke about there tonight, only I was spotted – only at a distance, but they winged me, as you’ve seen.”
Ray stared at him, then twisted in his seat. “The front room. The light’s on, and the curtains…”
“Oh I lost them miles before I found this place.” The man’s grin had gone thin, calculating. “Anyway, we got out of that room soon enough and you closed the door.”
“Nonetheless, I think I’ll just…” Ray got up and went through to turn off the light and then get the curtains shut as well for good measure. He was again aware that he should be perhaps more fearful than he actually felt.
“Fair enough, I’ll believe you had a fight on your hands,” Ray said as he came back to where Bodie was, perforce, still sitting. “But how do I know you’re the one on the side of the angels?’
“Ah, angels, that’s your taste is it? Non angli sed angeli? Look in my wallet – get my jacket, it’s in there,” Bodie said. “Inside jacket pocket. There’s my ID.”
“CI5,” Ray read out. “William Bodie. Agent Number 3.7. I’ve heard of CI5 – aren’t they usually all cloak and dagger and preventing assassinations? The political angle? Just what do you think is going on at Henbray?”
Bodie raised his eyebrow. “I can’t exactly tell you chapter and verse. But everything connects, you know. What’s a straightforward crime in one country can mean a political act in another.” He spoke as if he was quoting a saying he often heard, and did not really think about, or even perhaps understand.
“How do I know the ID is real?”
“Phone my boss if you want. There’s a number on the card, or I can give you one that doesn’t go through three layers of secretarial staff. I was going to ask to use your phone in any case – I need to arrange how they’re going to extract me.”
“A national government agency can’t send a taxi?”
Bodie gave him an impatient look. “No point me escaping notice if it immediately becomes obvious that something out of the ordinary has happened, and scaring the targets away from all the nice evidence. They’ll do it subtly, get someone driving up in a normal way, unremarkable, and pick me up. Take a day or two, and I’ll need somewhere to lie low in the meantime. Countryside this deserted, there’s only two or three pubs, a few hotels near the seafront in the next town… And me a stranger in the night, covered in blood?” Bodie made a scoffing noise. “They’d find me in two minutes flat, just listening to gossip in the bakers tomorrow morning. So I thought this place, empty house – could see it had a connection to the phone line – might do me. But obviously it turns out that you’re here. Not that I’m not grateful for the surgery.” And he flashed a wide, dashing grin.
Ray folded his arms, cleared his throat. “It really takes a couple of days just to send a car?”
“It’s easier said than done. We’ve got to be subtle, get it just right. After all, as of yet the blokes up at the house don’t actually know I’m onto them - that my people are onto them – for all they know the person stumbling around there tonight was just a tramp. And if we keep it low-key, and don’t suddenly flood the place with agents in fast cars or helicopters, they’ll be lulled into carrying on what they’re doing, until we can catch them red handed.”
“But why trust me? What if I – I don’t know – what if I tell everyone in the shops? Or break down and run around screaming to the high heavens? What if I’m an axe-murderer?”
Bodie smirked again. “To paraphrase your good self, if you wanted to kill me or I was likely to let you, it would have happened already.”
“Doesn’t make me safe.”
“No, I wouldn’t accuse you of that.”
It was somehow the warmest, most sincere thing the man had said so far. Ray had received many emotions from many people in his time, but approval had very rarely been one of them – couldn’t have been, or he wouldn’t feel so stupidly drawn to this man for giving him some.
He took a step backwards, away from Bodie. “I read a piece in the paper about CI5, once. Aren’t you all supposed to be partnered up, like they do with the FBI in America? Didn’t anyone want you? Or is your better half about to spring in and break my other window?”
Bodie’s eyes narrowed, his breathing suspiciously steady, like he was taking measures to control himself.
Ray cleared his throat. “And when you talk to your boss, I do want to hear him too. God knows you might be a fantasist, but if there’s at least one other human being involved it all gets slightly more believable that there’s a logical agenda, be it the one you’ve told me about or not. And I can’t credit why you’d go to such lengths to trick me. I’ve got nothing here worth taking, you know.”
Bodie blinked, twice, and then seemed to relax, yawning widely. “I’ll sleep on the floor, if you’re worried. And you can keep me cuffed.”
Without answering, Ray gathered the empty plates and mugs and took them through to the kitchen. His mug from earlier still sat in the sink, solitary. A different reality he’d inhabited from that moment to this, from simple and straightforward to a right bloody mess.
And yet he knew he wouldn’t go back.
“You can sleep in the armchair in the living room,” Ray said, “and I’ll take the cuffs off. I’m locking my bedroom door, though.”
“Oh, sailor,” Bodie drawled, mugging his face into a hangdog expression.
“Tell me a way you can prove you’re not a serial killer and I’ll revise my strategy, no offence, like,” Ray told him, stone steady. He wasn’t going to let casual homophobia get to him, not after all he’d been through.
And that was all Bodie’s words were, all they could be. Even if the man seemed to flirt, even if his eyes got warm and wide sometimes, this was teasing in the end, and cruel at that. And dangerous - because what this situation still was, overwhelmingly, more than anything, was dangerous, and that Ray had to keep remembering.
Ray led the way to the hall for the phone.
- - -
- - -
With Bodie having explained his situation to the person on the other end of his call in quick words and acronyms – all of which was tallying with what he’d told Ray, at least as far as Ray could tell – Bodie handed the receiver to him with a look of mild amusement, as one indulging a precocious child.
Ray took it with a glare and cleared his throat. “Hello?”
“Hello, Mr Doyle is it?” asked a man with a low, steady voice and a Scottish accent.
“My name is George Cowley. I’m the man in charge of the operative currently sheltering in your household. I appreciate that bona fides given over the phone cannot ever really count for much, but all the same I will assure you that our Mr Bodie is engaged in work of importance to national security, and acting, in the final reckoning, under my orders.” The words were precise and confident, and elegantly guarded in tone.
“He’s got a nasty wound,” Ray found himself spitting out, before anything else. “Were you just going to leave him here with it?”
There was a slight pause. “I have to trust my agent’s ability to evaluate his own operational readiness and make his own decisions in the field,” the man Cowley said. Not really an answer, and that in itself swayed Ray to believe the whole story more than anything; real men of power, political types, always equivocated. A fake would have protested, rushed to some denial or reassurance.
“So when’s this ‘extraction’ happening to get him out of my hair?”
Cowley gave a short tut.
“Perhaps you think I should be leaping to serve my country, Mr Cowley? Well, I tried to once and they decided they didn’t want me, and I’m not one to take advantage. So, on that note, when’s he going?”
“As soon as possible, Mr Doyle. Not more than a week. Many thanks to you, it is appreciated. Goodbye.”
And Ray was left with the dialing tone.
“Cowley doesn’t have the most warm bedside manner.” Bodie observed, pushing himself off the wall he’d been leaning on – affecting casual ease but probably at least partly saving his injured leg. He’d stood close by throughout, and Ray reckoned he’d have heard both sides of the conversation.
“I’m sure you’ve known worse.” Ray told him dryly, and, having replaced the phone in its cradle, gave a stretch. “Right. Bedtime. Well past. See how the armchair treats you. Sorry if it’s a bit chilly in the living room – some pillock seems to have broken the window.”
Twenty minutes later Ray was settling back into his own bed for the second time that night, having furnished Bodie on the sofa with a spare pillow and a blanket and indicated the electric heater, making him the first man to have spent the night under Ray’s roof since the break-up with Gregory.
It had been pleasant, for a while - for nearly two years - to pretend with Gregory. For Ray to pretend that he could be satisfied with nice food and company, and tending a small garden, his art, local gossip, the peace and plenty of comfortable living that so many would envy. To pretend that he’d left the darker parts of himself behind when he’d handed back his policeman’s badge, and was happy with Gregory’s quiet domesticity.
Although now it would seem – incredibly – that Gregory was the one with some sort of international crime more or less on his doorstep.
Henbray House, after all, was Gregory’s ancestral home – at least in as much as his father had bought it cheap after the war, and it now belonged to Gregory. It was a white elephant of a place, full of rising damp and with a roof held together with string, at least as Gregory told it. Ray had only been inside once – all the time Ray had known him, Gregory had actually lived in a bungalow he’d bought whilst his parents were still at Henbray, and only went to the house very occasionally, to keep up to date with the mounting list of repairs he could never afford to undertake.
Gregory would have a fit confronted with someone like Agent Bodie, Ray thought, and chuckled quietly to himself. The ludicrousness of the idea soothed him – maybe, just maybe, someone was squatting at Henbray, using it for their own purposes, but there was no way Gregory could be involved, and thus no great risk that this turn of events would mean crossing paths with him again, which would be awkward for them both.
Gregory was rather sweet, in his own way, and basically well intentioned – he’d even helped connect Ray to the art dealers in London where he’d finally been able to establish enough of a constant flow of business for reliable income and stop living off his savings - but the relationship had been a mistake, even if Ray had known why he’d done it, and the break-up – Gregory horribly surprised, weeping – wasn’t a part of Ray’s memory he cared to revisit, or one he was particularly proud of.
He could do Gregory an anonymous good turn here at least; keep tabs on this Agent Bodie and help him get past Gregory as a suspect as soon as possible, steer him on the right path at Henbray, prevent him getting a wrong idea. Yes, that would be the silver lining of Bodie’s presence in his house, the only good side of it.
For the rest of it, he could only conclude that sneering, cold Mr Bodie was the last person anyone would want crashing into their lives.
- - -
“Well don’t move then!” Ray snarled, exasperated, as he tried to tend to Bodie’s wound dressing and was met with a stream of Anglo-Saxon attitude.
Coming down from his bedroom after a broken night of sleep, half filled with strange dreams, Ray hadn’t bothered to put the handcuffs on Bodie again, and now Bodie was sitting still under Ray’s ministrations only by some small measure of good sense and good will – Ray could not attribute more than a streak of either to the man. Ray knew full well he should have been nervous of hurting or angering such a person in a confined space, and couldn’t decide if he wasn’t, or if he was and just didn’t care.
But Bodie was settled back now, and merely muttering, and Ray swabbed the skin around the wound with antiseptic-soaked cotton wool, leaving the stitches dry, and then applied some clean gauze, taping it down carefully. It was the last of his supply of medical gauze, which was rather conveniently a cast iron reason that he’d need to get to the shops today.
“I have to go out to the chemist, and do some other shopping,” Ray announced casually, as they sat down to a shared breakfast of more toast and strong tea, with Bodie’s wound dressed and Bodie now wearing, rather than his own blood-soaked trousers, a pair of Ray’s jogging bottoms that more or less fit him. “Didn’t know I’d be catering for one of Her Majesty’s finest, after all, got nothing in. I don’t suppose you have any preferences as to soup flavours?”
Bodie frowned at him, fidgeting with his teaspoon handle. “I think I ought to come with you if you’re going out.”
“Really? Are you absolutely sure they didn’t see you yesterday when they chased you off? Only wouldn’t it be a bit embarrassing for you if they spotted you in broad daylight on the high street?”
“They didn’t see me.” Bodie’s iron-clad self-confidence was almost pompous, and Ray had to force himself not to laugh, or make a joke.
“Well in any case it’s academic whether they did or didn’t,” Ray pushed his plate away. “Because I’ve only got a motorbike and with that wound you can’t ride with me, even if pillion was your idea of a good time.”
Bodie gave a leering smile, eyes narrowed. “Oh wouldn’t you like to know?” he said, and then frowned. “Only a motorbike? Why?”
“Why not?” Ray countered, irritated. So unsettling, he thought, not to know if the man was flirting or teasing or mocking – or threatening, even. Stupid to try and provoke a response, and yet too easy at the same time - too easy to fall into a rhythm with him that was not safe or advisable.
“You can do the washing up, I think,” Ray said, getting up from the table. “I’ll be about half an hour, perhaps an hour if there’s a queue all chatting in the shop.”
“Which town do you shop in?”
“Henbridge, about two miles away, not that I see how it’s relevant. What, research the local bun trade too, did you?”
“Just making conversation.” Bodie shrugged.
Unsatisfied, but not quite sure how to push the issue, and far from sure he’d learn anything to the purpose doing so, Ray went to get into his leathers and locate the rucksack he always used, in combination with the lockable carrier box on the back of his bike, to get his groceries home.
The night before, whilst Bodie had been in the bathroom, Ray had hidden the empty gun – it was empty, he’d double-checked, and Bodie had no obvious ammunition on his person, but he’d thought it was worth being certain of it being out of action. The sink in the kitchen was a rectangular ceramic tub fixed onto the wall and, at the top, apparently flush with it, but if you knelt down and reached up from underneath there was actually a gap between the bottom edge and the wall for some inches as it tapered, enough space to put the gun into, secured with electrical tape. Now, Ray wondered if that would be good enough, and whether he ought to move it again, but doing so would probably alert Bodie to the place more than anything, and he couldn’t come up with a better option.
No doubt, though, that Bodie would investigate the house in Ray’s absence. He could probably even pick the lock of Ray’s bedroom door, given five minutes, but again, to say anything on the topic would only act as incentive, since it would suggest that he had something to hide. Well, on that score Bodie was in for a disappointment. Ray had learnt more than few things in his life about incriminating evidence. The raciest thing he owned was probably The Female Eunuch. Much joy might Bodie find in a row of paperbacks, some battered old Eagle annuals from his boyhood and a few intimacies such as clothes and shampoo and spare toothpaste.
So it was with resignation, but still a sense of irritation, that Ray shut his house door behind him, got his bike out from under its tarpaulin and sped off down the road to join the slightly wider, tarmac-covered route that would lead him to Henbridge, the nearest village to him that still boasted a high-street, when the supermarkets in the bigger towns were starting to strangle local trade.
- - -
Although Ray had resisted becoming involved in the social circles of the neighbourhood, he had nonetheless become a familiar face in Henbridge over years, and he was aware that his association with Gregory Porter probably hadn’t gone unnoticed. Whether that was another reason they let him keep himself to himself, he wasn’t sure, but most of the people he encountered – and he knew several by name – were polite and friendly, at least to his face.
A Mrs Howard, who ran a small gift shop displaying her own artworks, often asked him – she had learnt by some channel that he painted – if he had anything new he would like her to display, and he did pass her some things, in honesty the works he was disappointed with, the ones that ended up too safe or obvious, and which might suit the taste of visiting tourists, ones he was embarrassed to send on to his usual dealer in London. But in the months since the break with Gregory, he’d barely completed anything, and today, meeting her, he shook his head sadly, and then dutifully asked after her dogs and grandchildren. He ought to have asked her about buying in paint supplies – Gregory had helped him with that too, making the trips to London that Ray had balked at, and now he really ought to find his own way to some sort of mail-order arrangement. But he was too distracted to focus on the merely practical.
He wondered if he should ask her whether there was any local gossip about Henbray House, any rumours of strange goings on or new inhabitants. He wondered if they would stifle such stories around him, because of his association with Gregory. When it came to it, asking seemed very awkward and strangely unreal – it was hard, here, in the same old quiet bustle of a sleepy town, to believe in plots and intrigues and shots in the night.
Hard to believe that Bodie and his bosses could be anything other than mistaken.
Someone had shot Bodie, certainly. But it might have been a poacher or some irate local farmer, possibly. Or maybe Gregory had a night watchman at the house now – odd, given his apparent lack of funds for the whole thing, but perhaps insurance demanded it.
Ray finished packing his tins of soup and fish, biscuits, the newspaper, a loaf of bread and a carton of milk into his bike box, with some fruit and a new roll of gauze, more painkillers and some chocolate going in his rucksack. He could see from the Henbridge church clock that he’d only been gone from his house twenty minutes thus far.
Plenty of time left, then, to go home via Henbray House and see the lie of the land for himself. And perhaps if it all was just a big misunderstanding he could sort it out for everyone right away, and get Bodie out of his cottage and the hell out of his head.
Putting his helmet back on, Ray climbed onto the bike and roared off down the road again, taking the fork at the crossroads outside the village that would lead him to Henbray rather than his own house. It was a beautiful day, gentle sunshine on the fields where the first green shoots of wheat and potatoes protruded from the tilled earth, birds in the blue sky and the occasional rabbit darting over the greenery. Perhaps it was because he’d been a policeman in London, and thought of crime therefore as having an intrinsically urban setting, but he found it harder and harder to believe that there were any dark forces at work here.
Unless maybe that was the point of everything up till now – to make him believe in something that was nonsense, to trick him - some sort of prank. Perhaps Bodie knew Gregory and they had decided to… But that scarcely seemed likely, Gregory didn’t go in for elaborate schemes.
Bodie might, though. Bodie had the look of a man who could outthink most people.
But then, the man had been wounded. Genuinely, if not seriously – Ray had seen it himself, at the closest possible quarters. And no one would go that far in the pursuit of some practical joke, would they?
Biting his lip, and shaking his head in frustration, Ray accelerated the bike yet faster, telling himself to wait and assess the evidence when he saw it.
As he rounded the next bend, Henbray House came into view.
It wasn’t a huge place. Three floors of imitation Tudor grandeur built by a Victorian, all strange crenellations and with no thought to the design of a place a person might actually use, at least according to Gregory. It had apparently been requisitioned during the war for the local War Agricultural Committee, and the original family hadn’t wanted it back afterwards, which was when Gregory’s father had stepped in at auction. Despite those subsequent years as the family residence of the Porters, the house’s garden and grounds still had the odd bit of barbed wire fence or rotting signpost from the government occupation, and there were no longer any gates between the ostentatious brick gateposts, just an unrestricted drive up to the house between two rows of birches planted by Mr Porter senior, still barely clearing head height.
From the gateposts, there was nothing at all to be seen out of the ordinary. Ray stopped anyway, and waited a moment, debating his approach.
He dismounted the bike, and wheeled it a little way up the drive, leaving it standing behind a wide oak tree so as not to be visible from the road – the theft of it, or of his fish tins, still seemed like the most likely threat in his environment, unless perhaps a bird in the tree overhead dropped something unpleasant on his upholstery.
Keeping his rucksack on, Ray trudged up Henbray’s gravel drive, looking carefully about him. For a small house it had a long approach – there were still about a hundred yards between him and the house – and he would be completely visible to even the most amateur watch-keeping. There seemed, however, to be no reaction at all to his presence, just the murmuring of pigeons in the trees and a distant tractor’s engine.
The gravel crunched under his feet, dust rising up in small plumes and settling on the toes of his shoes.
Ray remembered coming here with Gregory as having been in part of the pleasant haze that had been the early stages of their relationship. It had been not long after Ray had first come to the area that he’d seen Gregory the first time, shopping in Henbridge. They’d passed each other a few times there, shared a smile, a small joke, enough to mean they would wave to each other if they crossed paths walking or met at the crossroads, Ray on his bike, Gregory in his battered old Jeep. Ray had registered that Gregory was an attractive man, but not thought much more of it. He’d been raw with loss, still, and yet to realise how a relationship could in some circumstances be a way of hiding from oneself.
Their first prolonged conversation had been at the Henbridge church Christmas Carol Service, the one held during the second Christmas Ray had passed since leaving London, and when his melancholy had manifested, for once, in a wish for company. As they chatted after the service, with the smell of guttering candles and dried oranges and incense swirling through the cold stone building, Ray had had his first indication that Gregory might be interested in him with more than platonic intent, so eager as he’d been to be friendly and helpful. Ray had wanted to be certain, though, before he himself did or said anything conclusive – the last thing he wanted was to cause an offence, cause an upset and become a total pariah, maybe even have to move again - and the visit to Henbray House had been during the uncertain time, when they were dancing around each other, paying careful attention to what hints they dropped and heard, and taking particular care to be good company. There was a pleasant, rosy haze over them, as there can be with growing interest and lust scenting fulfillment, and Ray hadn’t let the lack of real, deep connection between them bother him much.
He could wish that he had been able to carry on like that. That the thing with Gregory could have been enough. That he could have wanted nothing more than agreeable company and a willing body that he found attractive.
But that wasn’t him, and, really, he didn’t want it to be. He’d been lucky to find any potential partner given the small community he’d moved to, he knew that. But that didn’t make it right for him, or him right for Gregory, to force themselves to be together when they were starting to argue and annoy each other. Sometimes though, when the nights were long and cold, Ray just wished he had someone. Anyone.
Firm muscle in a strong body, a masculine aspect, a sense of…
“Can I help you?”
Ray turned swiftly at the voice, which had come from slightly above him, and saw that a man had poked his head out of one of the upstairs sash windows. Ray couldn’t remember if the window had been open as he’d approached or not – sloppy of him, that, out of practice. Tensing, he thought for a moment about lines of sight and where the nearest cover would be
“Sorry, didn’t mean to bother anyone!” Ray shouted back. “I wanted to see how the place was. Friend of mine owns it, or did – are you the new tenant or something?”
“Surely it’s more usual to wait for an invitation? Or at least phone ahead?” The man speaking was dark-haired and handsome in a rough-hewn kind of way. He was wearing a black t-shirt, which accentuated clear-cut muscles in his arms and torso.
“Some man who says he’s your friend,” Ray heard him saying now, turning to speak to someone behind him.
A second man came to look through the window.
It was Gregory.
He was shirtless.
Ray had never been liable to blush. But he felt heat rising in his face now, and knew it as anger. Anger at himself and at whatever stupidity had ever led him to believe the nonsense Bodie had been spouting. Maybe Bodie believed his own story, but that didn’t help Ray, now, looking like some kind of stalker whilst his ex-boyfriend had a perfectly reasonable shack-up with a new man, and probably did have the light on at odd hours and make a few noises.
“Ray!” Gregory called out, looking surprised. An expression of discomfort crossed his face, and Ray didn’t blame him in the slightest. “Hang on a minute, I’ll come down!”
“No need! I’m just passing! You really don’t have to bother!” Ray called back, but Gregory was already gone, and a moment later the other man too. Soon after, the front door of the house opened and there Gregory was, all beautiful five foot four of him, a badly-buttoned salmon-pink shirt flung over his top half and not wearing shoes or socks.
“Look, I’m sorry, I had no idea you were here,” Ray said at once. “I was just passing by, on my bike, and got curious, you know how it is, wondered if the roof was still even on the place.”
“Yes. Well, um, I was meaning to call and invite you here some time for dinner, of course, but now isn’t… I didn’t think you’d…” Gregory was fiddling with a shirt cuff, and he was blushing, looking awkward, darting his eyes back at the house and no doubt his new lover, who would have every reason to wonder why Ray had shown up. “We’ve only been here a short while. Paul is – that man you were talking to, that’s Paul – Paul is in building conservation, actually, and he’s been doing some work to the place. But it’s not… I mean it’s not finished, so…”
“Yes, absolutely. Well.” Ray took a step away, holding up a hand to stem the flow of apologies he didn’t deserve. “Hello, Paul,” he added, seeing the man coming out of the front door after Gregory. They made a fine-looking couple, and Ray was glad to see it, in a way. People deserved someone they fit with, after all. “Pleased to meet you. I’m sorry to have disturbed you both. I’ll be getting back to my bike.”
“Must you go?” Paul asked, with every air of geniality, rather to Ray’s surprise. “We were going to have lunch soon anyway, will you join us?” He had a champagne-smooth accent, slightly affected, like a person from another century.
“No, sorry, I must get back. I, um, I’ve got someone waiting at home,” Ray heard himself adding.
“Oh yes?” Gregory tilted his head. “How nice.” His expression was hard to read as he took a step closer to Paul. “Well I dare say you should get back to them.”
“Oh but you wanted to see the house, you did, you said so,” Paul declared. “Why not come in and see it? I want to show off my plans to improve it to someone who hasn’t heard it all before.”
“I don’t mind you telling me,” Gregory said, with a simper, but Paul kept looking at Ray. Ray felt his hackles rising – there was something like a challenge in that gaze, and it was so unnecessary, Ray was no threat to anyone currently dating Gregory, and if he could only have come up with a way of saying so that wasn’t unconscionably rude, he would have done.
“Well, thank you,” was all he could say instead. “That would be interesting, but I have to… I’ve got milk in the bike pannier, you see.”
“Perhaps another day?” Paul insisted. “When shall we see you?”
- - -
- - -
“And he walked me back down the path to my bike, talking about ‘eggshell white’ and ‘neo-Georgian drapery’ and ‘distempering’, which I always thought was something you did to horses, and the terrible resale value on antique walnut furniture. It was ghastly and embarrassing and I never should have listened to you,” Ray concluded, slumping into a dining chair back at his cottage and pointing his finger accusingly one last time in Bodie’s direction.
“I don’t recall suggesting that you go and visit the place where I was hunted, chased and shot at,” Bodie answered, a hint of menace in his voice that made Ray look at him quickly, only to see a blank, cold face staring back at him.
Since Ray had first burst in, still full of his time at the Henbray ménage and hot with embarrassment at it – and something more, something deep and sick, something like envy – and had started explaining where he had been, Bodie had been rather quiet. He hadn’t seemed surprised – more depressed, or even angry. He had remained sitting at the dining table, where he was now opposite where Ray sat, just as they had been at breakfast, like a lord and lady of the manor. He had his fingers steepled in front of his face, and his eyes seemed not to blink.
“Listen, it doesn’t matter. From me to you, there’s nothing there.” Ray could feel his own pulse starting to race, unnerved by the chill in Bodie’s expression, and because he was almost frightened he went straight at the source, getting up from his chair and walking the length of the table to slam his hand down right next to where Bodie’s elbows rested. “Listen, will you! I don’t know who shot at you, or where you and your precious agency got your information from, but there’s nothing at Henbray. Just two blokes talking curtains.”
“The queer? Yes we know about him. All about him.” Bodie’s voice was calm, still, a nasty, slick calm like the water gliding over a shark. “Don’t recall saying it was him, either. Or his friend, whoever he is.”
Ray’s skin was heating, sweating, making his palms slide on the table-top. He didn’t want to lose his temper completely, but he’d always struggled to rein it in when he felt like this, irritated to red rage. “His boyfriend, I think you meant to say – because he is, this Paul clearly is and… and I’m Gregory’s ex-boyfriend, you might as well know, if you don’t already in all your sodding omniscience, and it’s bloody awkward for me to be bursting into their love nest apparently snooping about!”
“Well no one asked you to.” Bodie repeated. “And when did you…”
But Ray didn’t think he could stand that supercilious tone another second. And he didn’t think he should have to.
“Stop talking in riddles!” he yelled, stepping right up to where Bodie sat. “You’re hiding out in my house, I’ve a right to know what’s going on!” And Ray grabbed the man by the shoulders, heaving him up and half out of his chair. “I’ve scoped the place for you now, haven’t I? So you can be on your bloody way and leave me alone.”
For a moment, their gazes meeting, Bodie only blinked, slowly, dark eyes glinting, depthless. Ray could almost see the moment when the man took the decision to be angry in return, and had a microsecond of time to brace himself for the blow that followed, as Bodie shoved him away.
Ray stumbled backwards, then found his balance and surged forwards again, trying to grab at Bodie’s clothes and wrestle him to the floor. They were angling, twisting their feet, each trying to get a leg under the other, and after a few moments of heavy breathing and strained sinew, Ray felt his support go out from under him as Bodie triumphed, setting Ray off balance and following him down to the ground.
Ray might not have practiced self-defence in several years, but in his time he’d been more than proficient - been a part-time instructor for new cadets - and done his karate on the side. He would have backed himself to beat most men in unarmed combat, but then Bodie probably trained for this kind of thing daily, and with far more intent to wound and kill than had ever been the focus of the police force. Now, pinned under Bodie’s hands, Bodie on top of him, straddling him, trapping his legs with his own weight, Ray could only snarl and twist helplessly.
He spat in Bodie’s face. It might only invite a headbutt, but he wasn’t sure he cared. The whole day had worked him into a pitch of rage and regret, and nothing seemed worth anything any more.
Bodie’s lip curled. He didn’t make the mistake of lifting a hand to clean his face, and the saliva slowly slid down his cheek, which trembled with a spasm of violence, leaving a path over the pallid skin of the scar. He stared at Ray with dead eyes.
“None of this is convincing me of your angelic nature, by the way,” Ray bit out, hoping he sounded more contemptuous than afraid.
And, like a slide changing in a projector, Bodie’s eyes shifted. Something went away, or possibly came back, and the smirk was in his face again, the superciliousness in his gaze, and Ray knew he wasn’t in real danger any more, at least not just at present, even though Bodie still had him trapped.
It was warm, with another body so pressed against him, and Ray felt a sweat break out across his brow.
Ray himself was no longer angry. It had passed, as his fits of temper always did. Usually this left him low, out of sorts with the world, and now he did feel a sort of creeping depression. There was nothing at Henbray. So Bodie would go away, leave him alone. Everything would get back to normal. Ray could climb inside his own head again.
Bodie took a deep breath. “You really shouldn’t have gone there, Raymond. It makes things… complicated. I didn’t expect that… I hadn’t thought you would.”
“Complicated how? I didn’t do anything. And Gregory knows me anyway.”
“Yes.” Bodie shifted back a little, taking his weight off Ray’s wrists, which ached with returning blood as Bodie let them go. In his own discomfort, Ray almost missed the wince that moved over Bodie’s face as he flexed his thigh – his injury had to be incredibly painful after what they’d done, Ray realised, but he’d given no sign of it at all until now.
He might even have popped a stitch. Ray bit his lip, wondering whether to ask to examine it. That seemed rather stupid, given that he’d been the one initiating the fight. But then he wasn’t sure how much of what either of them had done in the last five minutes could be called rational.
Bodie stood up fully, and after a moment reached down his hand to help Ray up off the floor in turn. His grip was firm but there was a spasming muscle somewhere in his body that made him tremble, no doubt from the pain.
He looked uneasy. Troubled. Staring at Ray as if trying to work something out.
“Well, look, if you want to see the place for yourself under normal circumstances, there’s an in,” Ray heard himself saying. “They did invite us to dinner. I was going to call and cry off, say I had a cold or the bike was broken or something, but… Well, I could accept for tomorrow?”
“You told them about me?” Bodie frowned harder. “What about me?”
Ray winced. He’d left this detail out of his original telling of the tale, and for good reason. “I said I had someone staying. And no, I didn’t say ‘He arrived wounded and bleeding in the middle of the night saying someone here had shot him’, I’m not totally daft.”
“So who do they think I am?”
Ray only hesitated a moment, adjusting his stance, taking a deep breath, wondering if he’d need to fight for his life again once Bodie had heard his answer.
“They think you’re my boyfriend, probably. It’s… what they would assume, and I didn’t say anything to, uh, give any other impression. It seemed like the safest alibi, I thought, really.”
Bodie blinked at him for a moment, as if this possibility – to Ray quite obvious – had never occurred to him.
“And when did you,” Bodie paused, coughed awkwardly. “When did you break up with Gregory Porter?”
“New Year’s Day. This year. It was one of my resolutions, if you must know.”
A grin cracked through Bodie’s face. “Cold bastard,” he said, sounding as if he admired it. Then he drummed his fingers against the back of a nearby chair, and looked around the room, all business once more. “What about clothes?”
“What about them?”
“If we’re going for dinner I’ll need something better to wear than your old Adidas trousers, and nothing else of yours fits my manly physique.”
Ray was still trying to process Bodie’s response, but managed to keep his tone light. “Well, excuse me for having a small waist. We could get the bus over to Bristowe, I suppose, after lunch. So you do want to go to the dinner?”
“Yes.” Bodie looked up at him, blinking, as if the decision was obvious.
“I’ve told you, there’s nothing there.”
“Well, who shot me, then?”
Ray threw his hands up in the air. “I don’t know! Some poacher looking for a hare, thinking you were the gamekeeper or the police or something. Or some other agent – would they tell you if there was someone else there? Someone from another branch? Or it was a badger-trap and it grazed you and there wasn’t anyone there at all.” Even as he said it, it didn’t sound convincing.
“Listen,” Bodie said. “This is the perfect chance for me to get to the bottom of what is – or isn’t – happening at Henbray. I’d like to see it properly for myself, like you said. Then I can be certain.” He was staring at Ray again, studying him. It made Ray uncomfortable, as if he was trying to pass some kind of exam board that he hadn’t prepared for.
Ray shrugged. “I suppose so?”
“So we’ll go and have a look tomorrow night, then? Have the dinner and get some reason to look through the grounds, or at least ask them what’s been happening there – if they’ve had anyone lurking about, any strange visitors, that sort of thing?”
Ray gave a weary sigh. “Fine. And we’ll need a decent cover story for you, mind. What you do, how you got here and how we met and all that.”
Bodie made a dismissive noise. “We’ll figure that out after Bristowe. Bus, did you say?”
“You really ought to buy a car, you know.” Bodie shrugged, rolling his shoulders as though working out a strain, then flexing and extending his leg – Ray was going to have to insist on having a look at the wound before they set off. “Well, let’s eat and get going then. Did you get any tuna?”
“Buy some tuna, buy some booze, buy a car – any other changes you want to make to my life?” Ray folded his arms, eyebrow raised.
“I’ll let you know,” Bodie told him calmly, and brushed past him to unpack the bike pannier and help himself to biscuits.
- - -
Bristowe was Ray’s nearest market town, much larger than Henbridge and an hour away on the small local bus service, which had to stop, or so it seemed, on every twist and turn of the road before shuddering back into movement again.
Bristowe was on the coast and a popular holiday destination. With its prices driven up by weekenders Ray didn’t shop there in the usual way of things. It was, however, the closest source of clothes shops – one family outfitters of ancient vintage, a charity junk place and a dressmakers that also altered suits and sometimes had second hand ones to sell on.
Ray spent the bus journey feeling claustrophobic, nauseated by the ground-in smell of stale sweat and nicotine and engine dust in the bus interior, and rather self-conscious about Bodie’s presence next to him. He’d never taken public transport with Gregory - they’d always used Gregory’s Jeep - in fact he couldn’t recall ever having made this particular journey with a companion, at least besides anyone he vaguely knew from the village that he might have met already on the bus.
He wondered what the people sitting around were making of them. What did they assume the relationship between them to be?
And could Bodie even begin to convince Gregory and Paul as his boyfriend? Not that Paul knew anything at all, or Gregory knew much, about Ray’s usual type – it wasn’t the sort of thing he ever talked about with a current partner, thank goodness, because otherwise Gregory would have known that Ray favoured men like, well, like Gregory, pretty and slightly helpless, and so know that Bodie was a million miles away from everything Ray usually found desirable.
Syd had been different, of course. But Syd had been different in every way, and Bodie was nothing like he had been.
Bodie himself was staring out of the bus window with fierce attention, as if scoping the lay of the land, perhaps doing even that. Presumably having his own thoughts and calculations that Ray couldn’t begin to guess at.
Bodie was sincere about his job, Ray felt. Sincere about something, anyway. But Ray couldn’t get a proper handle on him, on what he really wanted or really thought. He hadn’t sought to get Ray’s co-operation with force, but he clearly could have done, could probably have overpowered him the night before, duff leg or no duff leg. If Bodie decided he was the enemy, Ray could be in real danger. And Gregory and Paul too, maybe, if Ray took him to them.
There was a police station in Bristowe, Ray remembered. He could ask for help, turn Bodie in somehow, refuse to be any longer a part of this. That was what any sensible person would do, particularly after a fight like that.
He could still remember it, the adrenaline, the heat of Bodie pressing him down.
“I think this is our stop,” Bodie said, and Ray blinked and stood up to exit, biting his lip.
There was not the widest range of styles and sizes at the family outfitters, but Bodie was able to get some slacks and two clean t-shirts, as well as a smarter looking jacket. Looking Bodie over as he posed in the mirror in his new get-up, Ray realised he’d have to lend the man some shaving gear, unless they could find an open chemist and get some in town.
In the long mirror Ray also saw himself. He hadn’t purposefully looked in a mirror in weeks, that he could think of, besides when turning in the road on his bike. His reflection looked pale and thinner than he remembered. No wonder Bodie had bested him when they’d fought.
He was vulnerable, he knew; vulnerable physically and maybe even mentally after so long shut up alone. He was going to take this man to his friend and his friend’s friend, with no idea what Bodie might decide he had to do when he was. If he had any sense Ray ought to go to the police.
But he knew he wouldn’t.
- - -
“Well, where would you have been likely to meet someone?” Bodie asked.
Ray frowned. They were back at his cottage, in the mossy, scrappy land directly behind the house that he called his garden, recuperating from another hour in the stinking sweatbox of a bus with a pot of tea and some digestive biscuits, and a sticky chocolate roll that Bodie had insisted on buying in Bristowe, which had not benefited from the long ride back in the warmth. Ray had at least managed to prevent it being put in the same bag as the new shirts.
Ray had bought new things in Bristowe too, in the end. Bodie had offered to pay, had said that his agency would refund all his expenses either way, but Ray had declined. He didn’t want to feel obliged.
Bodie was strangely helpless, amongst people. Ray had seen that all the way through their trip. He was like a stranger in a strange land, someone who knew a few phrases but not really what they meant, who was unsure of the customs and traditions through which he moved, and always watching to see what others might do. He looked around himself whenever he went into a new space, in a strange, all-encompassing examination, which Ray had finally concluded was indeed looking at sight lines and for safe angles, blind spots hidden from omnipresent enemies. His hands seemed to ghost at his belt and his jacket pocket, which might be looking for a weapon he didn’t have. And when a car had backfired on the Bristowe high street he’d frozen for a moment completely still, going pale, his eyes darting.
Where had Bodie been, what had he done, Ray wondered, that he saw danger in an English market town? Could it be remotely real? Or was the perceived threat from this place only the same as that at Henbray, something half a nightmare imagining?
Ray had his own demons, of a kind. He wondered if Bodie’s were in any way the same.
If that was what kept the man solo, in an organisation notorious for pairs.
Now, Ray poured them both more tea, and sat back in his deckchair – he’d bought two from a junk dealer when Gregory had been around, so that the two of them could sit out – just like this, in fact – and enjoy the sunshine and the scent of convolvulus strangling through hops back when it had summer, and life had been simple – and frowned more deeply.
“Hmmm, how would we meet? You’d have had to come round here – to the area, I mean, because I don’t exactly travel much.” Ray sat forward. “And you’re not a local, anyone could tell that, so I suppose it must be that you came here on a holiday, unless it was a business trip, and if it was that it would have to be something agricultural, and I wouldn’t go down that route unless you’re an expert, I’ve heard them at it in the pub, horribly technical.”
“Agreed. Holiday.” Bodie nodded, taking a gulp of his tea. “Say, two months ago? I came and stayed in Bristowe – got a good look at it today, which helps – and I went cycling round about, and got a flat tyre right by your door, asked for a bowl of water to fix it.”
“From Bristowe to here? On a pushbike?”
Bodie looked genuinely surprised at the question. “Absolutely. I do that and more in my training, all the time.”
“Training’s one thing. You’re meant to be a normal average Joe, not two separate gorillas.”
“Sorry. Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band? They’re a sort of comedy music act, I don’t… I’ll show you the LP sometimes. It’s a joke about Charles Atlas adverts. Point is, what explanation are you planning to give for being a physical specimen?”
Bodie shrugged, as if it was obvious. “Tell them I’m in the Army. Special Forces. Which I was, so that’s not something I’ll get wrong.”
Ray frowned. “Not sure that’ll wash. I’m in the CND, you know.”
“Oh yes, of course,” Bodie cleared his throat. “Saw a leaflet in your bookcase. Now why you would go and do that?” He looked genuinely bewildered, as if Ray had said he believed in unicorns.
“Maybe that’s how we met,” Ray suggested, not wanting to get into an ideological debate on top of everything else. “You saw me at the local CND meeting at the headquarters in the fishmongers at Bristowe – there’s that nuclear power station being planned up the coast, so we’ve got quite a group – and you came over and started arguing with me and then you bought me a drink and we took it on from there. We still don’t agree about nuclear weapons,” he added quickly, “because I can see neither of us is going to want to pretend otherwise.”
“Tree-hugger,” Bodie muttered, leaning back in his deckchair and taking another large mouthful of chocolate Swiss roll. It left dark smears round his mouth, and over his fingers, which he sucked clean in his mouth before wiping his hands on his trousers.
- - -
“Nice paintings,” Bodie called out from the living room, as Ray finished the last of the washing up, Bodie having wandered away a few minutes earlier, supposedly to wash his hands and redo his own leg dressing, a task from which he’d evidently been side-tracked.
“Thanks,” Ray called out, and stuck the last knife on the draining board and dried his hands on a tea towel. He took the few steps from the kitchen to join Bodie, who seemed to be particularly interested in the larger oil painting Ray had hanging by itself in the middle of one wall, depicting a stormy evening at Bristowe seafront.
“Very dark,” Bodie murmured, stepping closer, studying the scene – a few people walking along the front, huddled in their jackets, the sea and sky a mess of grey and black behind them, a ship a blurred shape, starred with light, tossing on the waves in the distance. Ray remembered that evening well – he’d only been able to make the briefest sketch, under those conditions, in a November gale, but as soon as he’d got back home he’d started painting, with a fervour and fury that had sustained him for three or four days. It had been at the time when he’d begun to realise that he would have to break up with Gregory; he’d been feeling sad, but not the right kind of sad, not a generous or kind sadness, not a regret for Gregory. Rather, it had been blank, like the concrete of the sea wall, untouchable and cold, a resignation to fate.
A feeling Ray hadn’t been sure he wasn’t totally alone in feeling, until he’d seen Bodie’s face reflecting it back at him the night before.
Bodie was still staring at the picture. “Lonely,” he added, and gave a kind of shudder. “And this is why I sojourn here / Alone and palely loitering.” He turned, and shot a glance at Ray. “Who’s it by?”
“I painted it.” Ray told him. “And all of these,” he indicated the walls, “except that Escher print, obviously. I should have told you that. Gregory would expect you to know that about me.”
Bodie frowned. “Did you paint anything expressly for him?”
“That lonely one, maybe,” Ray shrugged. “I didn’t give him any, if that’s what you mean.”
There was a joke to be found in those words, he realised too late, and waited for Bodie to exploit it, but the man just nodded, sharply.
“Do you ever exhibit them?”
“Used to. Gregory found me a dealer, actually, a decent one.” Ray sighed. “Haven’t done anything worth anything for a while, though.”
“Gregory hooked you up? Obliging of him.”
“And were you always a painter?”
“Yes.” It was no lie. Ray had enjoyed painting from his childhood. The idea of making a living by it had been torn apart by career guidance counselors at school, and never believed by his parents, but he’d been painting even in the police. The works from that period he would never hang on his walls. He’d destroyed most of them, burnt them. They’d been catharsis, and a brilliant one, but that left them as repositories for all those feelings he never wanted to be reminded of.
The one exception was the simple study of Syd – the back of his head and shoulders – which Ray now had in his bedroom. To a casual onlooker it would give nothing away.
In fact even to Ray, now it no longer evoked the feeling it once had. Time had passed and the hollowness scarred over, and he’d forgotten.
Bodie moved slowly from one painting to the next, frowning as if with intense concentration. Then he turned, and the look on his face was not something that Ray could interpret. It reminded him of how he’d felt the first night Bodie had appeared – as if no one had ever scrutinised him so closely in his life.
Then, quite abruptly, Bodie turned and left the room, a few seconds later closing the bathroom door behind him, apparently once more intent on his injury.
Ray wondered what to do with the rest of his evening. In the usual way of things, if he felt up to more than sitting and thinking, he would go for a walk if the weather was decent enough, or take his time preparing something nice for his supper.
He would have to be cooking for two tonight, of course. He wondered if he should enquire what Bodie liked to eat. It seemed laughably polite, somehow, under the circumstances – only that morning, after all, they’d practically tried to kill each other. Or would the man be able to do something for himself, after all that time in the army? Perhaps that would be better all round?
“For supper, yeah, I might make some sort of tomato pasta with sardines,” Ray ended up saying casually as Bodie re-emerged. “That take your fancy or do you want to cook, or what?”
“Cook?” Bodie’s eyes goggled. “I can’t cook to save my life. Never have. Set the place on fire making a boiled egg.” He sounded slightly defensive, as though the very suggestion that he could cook was an unjust suspicion, some sort of insult. Ray knew that type – hypermasculine to the point of learned helplessness, illogically afraid of domestic competence, disdainful of those who possessed it - and his irritation spurred his next words.
“Fine, in that case you can just chop stuff up for me.”
Bodie looked somewhat nonplussed. Ray was expecting a protest, but: “You’re going to let me near the big knives, then?” he asked after a moment, his tone turned teasing.
Well, Ray was ready for him.
“No thank you, I’ve had quite enough of your blood over this house already. No, you can go and get me some fennel leaves from the garden – here are the scissors – and you can cut it up with scissors too.”
Bodie narrowed his eyes, but accepted the scissors nonetheless, and went out towards the front door, Ray following a few seconds later to enquire whether, in fact, Bodie knew what a fennel plant looked like. Following a grudging confession that he did not, Ray took him to it, and directed him carefully about which stalks to choose and where to cut them.
It was turning into a pleasant evening, Ray saw, looking about, and glanced at his watch.
“Actually,” he said, “we could leave this for a bit – I really don’t need to start cooking yet. I think I’ll go for a walk, actually, clear my head of that bus.” He sighed, and ran a hand back over his hair. He was nervy and he knew it, couldn’t settle or figure out what to do with himself, or how he felt or even how he wanted to feel. There were too many questions, too much uncertainty. “Bloody hell, what a day,” he muttered, and pinched at the bridge of his nose, trying to stave off an impending tension headache.
Bodie nodded at him. He looked rather amusingly pastoral, bent over the fennel plant, scissors and harvest in hand, but Ray didn’t feel like smiling. Irritation was raising his hackles again, frustration with this man for being there, for confusing him so much.
“You can come if you want.” Ray heard himself saying - as if he could stop Bodie if he wanted to, or as if Bodie wasn’t perfectly capable of asking. As if he hadn’t been wanting to get away from Bodie’s side only minutes earlier. Or perhaps it was because of that, because he felt guilty that his own inner turmoil was making him inhospitable – inhospitable! As if he’d invited Bodie to crash into his life!
By this invitation, though, Bodie seemed rather pleased. He put down his clump of fennel leaves and brushed down his trousers, nodding his assent, and that was that.
They set off together down the road. After a short distance, Ray led them through a gap in the tall hedge that ran along the roadside, and over the stile that let them into a wide meadow where the grass was shooting up to knee-height, untrammeled and interspersed with brightly coloured flowering weeds and clumps of stinging nettles.
“Can you really make soup out of nettles?” Bodie suddenly asked him, quite out of the blue. “Of course, obviously one can eat just about anything, but is it any good?”
Ray laughed, rather amused to be now regarded as the source of all culinary information. “Well, like a lot of vegetables in soups, it’s really kind of padding out all the stuff you flavour it with, but it’s alright, yeah. Not bad. Not really worth the effort, in my opinion, though.”
“See, I knew you’d have made it.” Bodie pointed his finger at him. “Mr Hippie Tree-hugger Teetotaller Good Life.” Bodie said the words teasingly, but with a kind of friendliness that staved off what might have been a renewal of hostilities.
Ray shrugged. “Well, and why not try using the food around you? It’s free, after all. Don’t get much for free in this world.”
A cloud passed over Bodie’s face, and he looked away. “When I came back from Africa,” he said, rather quietly, “I never wanted to forage for anything ever again. I promised myself that I’d only eat stuff that came wrapped in three layers of plastic from the supermarket, just so I’d know I was home.”
Ray waited for more, but it was not forthcoming, Bodie still keeping his gaze firmly directed elsewhere. So, “I never used to be one for the country myself,” Ray told him, keeping up their slow pace as they ambled over the field. “I was born and bred in Derby, then I came to London when I still mostly a kid, lived there for years. I don’t live the way I do now out of high ideals. I live here – like this – because it isn’t how it used to be. I wanted a change too.”
A change of scene and a place to hide, but it wasn’t like he was going to mention that part. And if he’d been hiding from recognition he’d been hiding from memories too, from what the familiar would bring in associations. Syd had never been one for the country either, they had never gone anywhere that could be called remotely rural together, never really talked about it – there was nothing of Syd out in the fields and trees, whereas every street in London had seemed to be one they’d once strode down side by side.
Ray sighed and kept walking along in silence, and they reached the end of the first field and passed over another stile into a close-cropped, verdant pasture where cows gathered at one end, chewing and staring mournfully.
He didn’t fail to notice, as they moved, Bodie scoping out each new environment; the sightlines, the cover, the areas of vulnerability.
Seized with a sudden impulse, he asked. “So, then, what’s your favourite food? What’s the thing that you most like? That makes you think of home?”
Bodie blinked at him a moment, then frowned. “I don’t know. I don’t really…” and he walked ahead a little before calling back: “What’s yours?”
“Baked Alaska,” Ray told him, without hesitation.
“What the hell’s that then?”
Ray jogged a little to catch him up. “It’s ice-cream surrounded by sponge cake, and then meringue baked on top of it all. My Mum used to make it. It’s easy, you just get an Arctic roll from the freezer, and whip up some egg-white, shove it in the oven.”
“Oven? For ice-cream? You’re not pulling my leg?”
“No, I swear to you.” Ray laughed. “Hardening a meringue doesn’t take long enough to heat it through that much. The cake insulates the ice-cream too. And that’s partly why it’s delicious, you see, because it’s warm and crunchy on the outside, and cold and goopy and soft once you get in. Bloody hell, I want one now.” Ray swallowed his saliva and laughed again, because Bodie was right, it didn’t sound like a credible dish in the slightest. “I’d make it for you if I had the stuff. It really is dead easy.”
“I did try making a cake out of a packet once,” Bodie said. “It didn’t come out right – I think the oven was busted, I did it on the temperature it said in the instructions but it burnt clear across the top. Smelt nice while it was cooking, though.” He seemed slightly disconcerted to have spoken, and paced on ahead again, picking up a stick and slashing at the nettles in his path.
Puzzled, Ray followed him.
There were two gates out of the next field, one straight ahead and the other one veering to the right. It was to the right that Ray would have led them, but Bodie being in front had the choice first, and took them straight onwards and downhill, towards where the river flowed in a narrow, chalky bed, scurrying along here to join with the Brith and finally flow out to the sea at Bristowe, one journey with one direction and no confusion at all.
This wasn’t a place Ray wanted to be with Bodie. It was here, by the river, that he had – in this one place in the whole countryside - sometimes tried to conjure Syd in his mind’s eye. They had walked often by the south bank of the Thames together, so there was some analogy in the setting at least. On this ground Ray had stood and let pain shudder through him, scrunched up his eyes and let the sight of the opposite bank blur with tears, and thrown stone after stone in anger into the complacent water.
Although it was months now since he’d come to this spot, or tried to do so.
He’d put a lot of effort into not thinking about Syd, over the years, one way or another, and it had become a hard habit to break even when he wanted to. He struggled, now, to find his way back to the memories.
They’d been just another two police constables given a shared beat, assigned together back in the sixties, back in London. Syd had been friendly, gregarious, easy to be with, handsome and brave, and Ray had been young and ready to fall hard and fast for the first time in his life.
To think of more than occasional snatched hours of privacy – half-weekends, hidden kisses and coded greetings – had been impossible. Not because of Syd’s marriage – Maddie knew about Ray, and was polite enough to him; Syd said she had her own fish to fry – but because of their profession. Exposure of what they were – let alone what they were to each other – would have meant ruin.
Sometimes the very scarcity of what they’d shared, Ray supposed now, had made it sweeter. Invested in it an excitement that perhaps it might have lacked under normal circumstances.
And then Syd had been killed, shot in the line of duty, and by a criminal who apparently knew they’d been onto him, and for long enough to have done some investigative work of his own, and to have prepared quite a dossier of blackmail material to try and convince Ray to forget all the evidence he’d seen that night regarding who’d done the shooting.
In all the hideousness of sudden grief, the need for vengeance versus the need to protect and preserve Syd’s memory had warred in Ray’s heart. In the end he’d asked Maddie, Syd’s wife – now Syd’s widow - the one to whom the condolences were offered, the one who was allowed to cry in public over him. Ray had been astonished when she told him to lie, to conceal whatever he was told to, because justice couldn’t do Syd any good, and exposure would tarnish what record of service he’d left behind, and drag them all through embarrassment she never wanted.
Ray had eventually agreed, in principle. But in the witness stand at the trial, the man he’d seen shoot Syd in the box before him, Ray had opened his mouth and been unable to lie. And the next morning the photographs were with the Chief Constable, and Ray was dishonourably discharged, and Maddie dropped from her parent-teacher association and her coffee morning group, and unable to go to the Widows and Orphans of Police benefits without being stared at.
The shooter had gone to jail, justice had been done, and Ray had ruined the life of the only other person Syd really cared about. He’d run away from London as fast as he could after that, and never really known whether Syd would have approved or deplored what he’d done.
That had been the starkest revelation, the worst of all. That Ray had never really known Syd, not properly. That for all the heat of their affair, they had been lacking in true understanding of each other.
Ray never had found a way to feel closer to Syd by the river either, only managing to dig out and re-break his own wounds. He’d always felt alone. Even with Gregory, even when that had been at its best, he’d still felt it, the emptiness, the lack of connection to anything or anyone. The aching certainty of isolation.
Staring now at the flowing river, he bit his lip hard.
He watched as Bodie went to kneel down by the water, cupping his hand and bringing some to his mouth, small streams escaping in the gaps between his fingers and from the edges of his wide palm. Bodie kept looking to left and right – dangerous to be at a drinking-place, where he’d been, Ray supposed. Sighing, Ray went down to crouch next to him and splash his own hands and face, trying to clear his mind, to get some sense out of his tired, over-worn, overemotional brain.
Then, standing up, he wiped his hands against his shirt. “Come on then, sous-chef,” he said, and turned, and started to trudge back across the field the way they’d come, leaving the memories squarely behind him.
As the evening drew in, the insects had come out, and a swarm of black dots pursued him some way from the water.
Perhaps Bodie had sensed some of his mood, or perhaps he’d simply felt he’d said enough himself for the while, but he stayed silent on the way back to the house, and Ray was grateful for it.
- - -
- - -
“I thought you were bonkers talking about putting sardines in pasta. But this is pretty good.” Bodie leant over his plate and brought another forkful to his mouth.
Ray couldn’t help smiling, pleased. He was feeling calmer now. Preparing the meal had had a soothing effect, and familiar routine of chopping, cooking and stirring had eased away the sense of the strangeness of the day, of something impending like thunder out of all that had happened and was still happening.
He could slip, again, too easily, into feeling like Bodie was his guest, or a friend.
“I didn’t come up with it, the Sicilians did. Pasta con le sarde, they call it.” Ray put on his thickest Italian accent to pronounce the name and Bodie chuckled. “I mean,” Ray continued, “I don’t do all the bells and whistles – supposed to have saffron in it, chance would be a fine thing in the shops here – but I’ve always liked the basic flavours.”
Bodie nodded in acknowledgement, but was too busy eating to make a verbal response, which Ray took as something as good as another compliment.
“Been to Italy, have you?” Bodie asked a mouthful or two later, before taking a long gulp of his water.
“Once. Holiday, you know, very quick.” Ray licked his lips, looked away.
It had been a trip he’d taken with Syd, their one getaway together. They’d had sardines then, grilled, fresh out of the sea, eaten on the beach with the morning sun coming up after a night of dancing. And Ray hadn’t even thought of that association till Bodie’s question had brought it to his mind. “Anyway,” he continued, striving to change the subject, “how’s your leg doing now?”
Bodie blinked at him slowly, apparently registering his discomfort. “Not bad. Not bad at all. You’re a decent field surgeon at that. Artist’s hands, I suppose?”
“What? Like Doc, can I play the piano now?”
“Because I couldn’t before!” Bodie finished off the punchline with him, and they both chuckled again, and Ray tore his eyes away, feeling heat rising through his face.
Bodie wasn’t his friend or his guest or anyone but an intruder. Bodie was a man who’d had enough amateur field surgery practiced on him to be able to compare and contrast. A man with a past, and Ray ought to know how fraught that could be. A man whose life was no doubt outside anything Ray had experienced or could imagine, and who had apparently been sent out to kill and be killed.
If he could make jokes, if he could dice vegetables to order, that changed nothing.
After the pasta Ray produced live yoghurt and some dried fruit – Bodie expressed opinions about this, somewhat stifled when Ray then revealed two bars of Cadbury’s fruit and nut chocolate – and then Ray boiled the kettle and sent Bodie into the living room, where he found him some minutes later having built and lit a fire in the grate, and now sitting staring into it.
“Cheers,” Ray muttered, setting the drinks down. Bodie, he noticed, built a fire in the camping manner, with the sticks and small logs arranged in a kind of teepee, all sloping towards the middle. He tried to picture Bodie huddled by a fire in a jungle – or perhaps a desert, he’d yet to discover which part of Africa the man had been in – cooking something foraged, and dreaming of plastic wrapping like some people in Britain dreamt of organic farm-fresh food with the dirt still on; as a sign of the wholesome, of the reassuring.
Bodie took his coffee with plenty of milk and three spoonfuls of sugar – Ray wondered if that too was part of the ‘knowing you’re at home’ phenomenon.
It had now, Ray felt, been quiet a little too long. They were sitting in an armchair each, close to the fire, not quite facing each other. Bodie had gained some deeper tan to his face and hands during the day, and looked significantly healthier than he had nearly twenty-four hours previously (and that was so little time to have passed, really) when he’d first crashed in.
Ray had put this man in handcuffs, and now they were calmly eating and drinking together, and planning to go to dinner as purported partners, and although it was foolhardy, not to mention downright rude to Gregory, about whom Ray ought to care far more one way or another, he couldn’t stifle this growing feeling inside him, something that had manifested in several ways over the day, but which he was starting to have to admit was excitement.
Sitting back in his chair, Bodie drained his mug and put it down on a nearby table, carefully placing it on a coaster – Ray was struck again with the sense of the traveller observing a custom to him apparently without function, but which he is prepared to indulge to maintain civilities.
“I suppose,” Bodie was saying slowly, dark eyes looking up through dark lashes, “that if I’m going to be saying I’m dating you, and to a bloke who has done, I ought to see your bedroom at least once.”
Mouth going dry, Ray stared at him. He had to be sure what Bodie was asking, was suggesting here. Trying to get a read on him was like looking at one of those optical illusion images that were two pictures at the same time, leaving your perception flipping from one to the other without any certainty at all. Was Bodie asking a sensible, practical question? Or did he have another agenda, and was it something Ray should fear?
Regardless, he ought to fear it, no doubt, but the speeding of his heart beat and the rush of adrenaline through him felt like something else.
He thought of earlier, trapped under Bodie’s weight, the blankness that had come into Bodie’s eyes.
And the heat Ray had seen there later, and then the uncertainty, asking about food he’d never heard of, curled vulnerable by the river, and apparently letting Ray in.
This was what the atmosphere had been, Ray realised. This was the storm breaking, the lightning coming in to strike.
It made sense, it wasn’t so surprising. Ray was alone, hungry and too long untouched, and Bodie probably had someone in every port, and a libido fed by danger, and even if he did joke and talk about ‘queers’, he’d not be the first to cover appetite with disdain. Or even if he wanted to experiment, what did it really matter?
Why not do this?
Ray could almost feel his own eyes, the echo of his own self from the night before, sitting in the room contemplative and alone, warning him to think, to wait and reflect.
But he stood up anyway, and walked closer to Bodie’s chair, keeping the height advantage, looking down at him, hands on hips and knowing it drew attention to his groin, the tight fit of his jeans and the flat plane of his stomach.
“You’re not getting in my bedroom, mate,” Ray said, keeping his voice casual. He was standing close, too close, up in Bodie’s face, and he watched with a thrill as Bodie’s eyes raked over him, gaze moving up and down before coming to rest staring straight ahead and at Ray’s crotch, where a definite stirring was straining the trousers even tighter than they had been.
Slowly, Bodie stood up, almost having to slide along the length of Ray’s body given how close they were. It almost felt like he had.
They were face to face; warm, coffee-scented breath against each other’s skin. Bodie was breathing through his mouth; he licked his lips.
“I’m not just showing you a good time while you lie there and don’t touch me back because that’s too queer for you to cope with,” Ray muttered. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but…”
Bodie kissed him. Sudden and hard, lips pressed firm against his own, and Ray felt Bodie’s hands coming up to frame his shoulders and with a light grip hold him still.
Ray pushed back, opening his mouth, relishing the groan that it wrought out of Bodie, and held on in reply, both of them now steadying each other as they kept kissing, Bodie standing too close to the chair to be able to move his feet for proper balance, Ray with too much of his weight tipped forward; they were off-kilter and uncoordinated, and Bodie did start falling backwards, half back into a sitting position, and Ray retreated, pulling him along, and got them both on the floor, in front of the fire like the cover of some Mills and Boon novel, only his battered old rag rug was scarcely a bear skin, and besides they’d knocked the last of Bodie’s coffee onto it.
Ray swore at the stain, and then met Bodie’s eye and laughed at the look of apprehension there, Bodie looking as though he was concerned Ray might genuinely be now distracted by domestic concerns. In response Ray reached for him, drew him in close and kissed him again – they were both sitting on the floor now, their legs out sideways, leaning towards each other – and put one hand to the bottom of Bodie’s t-shirt and started yanking it up, trying to get it off him.
Bodie pulled back, raised his arms, and then Ray could run his hands over the planes of muscle, feel out more scars and wonder about them, at least until he brushed on Bodie’s chest and felt the man shudder under him at the touch.
“Like that, do you?” Ray asked, his voice gone hoarse. “But you don’t ask women for it – you don’t like to, makes you feel self-conscious. Whereas with a bloke…” and he reached for Bodie’s left nipple, pulled it taut and pinched it hard, getting a choked-out moan in response and a hint of teeth in the kiss that kept on going in waves, together and apart to breath, to swear, and together again.
Ray paused to rip off his own shirt. “Seriously, have you ever been with a bloke before?”
Bodie stared back at him, that contemplative, deep, dark stare that seemed to mean that he’d heard and considered what had been said, but wasn’t about to offer any response at all.
“I probably shouldn’t trust you, should I?” Ray observed, and undid his jeans, starting to slide them off.
“Probably not,” Bodie agreed, and went for his own belt, unbuckling and pushing his trousers down, then making quick work of his socks. The dressing on his leg looked clean, still, though not as neat as when Ray had been doing it, and then Ray’s gaze travelled up, along Bodie’s thick, powerful-looking thighs and to his crotch, where his cock was rising, fat and darkening, the sight sending a sharp rush of aching blood to Ray’s own groin.
Bodie did just lie there for a moment, propped up on one elbow, looking a little uncertain, his eyes examining Ray’s body in turn, and Ray wondered what he made of it, of a shape so much rangier and hairier than his own, whether it was too masculine, or even not masculine enough for whatever his desire had been.
Ray lay down so his pose mirrored Bodie’s – both of them resting on their sides, facing each other – and reached out to touch the inside of Bodie’s knee, and ran the flat of his palm all up and along the inside of Bodie’s leg, until at the top he cupped and gently squeezed his balls before pausing to spit in his palm and then returning to grasp Bodie’s cock, rippling his fingers expertly and gratified with a bubble of fluid from the tip and a gasping curse from Bodie’s mouth as the man tilted his head back and gritted his teeth.
“Look at me,” Ray told him. If they were doing this, they were doing it on his terms.
“Fuck that,” Bodie muttered, and reached out his own hand, placing it on the curve of Ray’s buttock, trying to drag him bodily in closer, his grip strong, the blunt ends of his fingers digging into the muscle and sparking all sorts of nerve endings, making Ray shuffle forwards instinctively just to get away from the urge that wanted Bodie’s hand to touch him more fully, more intimately from behind.
Their cocks pressed together now, awkward but arousing, and Ray took them both in his hand, stroking, as Bodie kept his palm on Ray’s behind, pressing them together, his eyes fixed on Ray’s handful, his mouth open as he panted, his chest flushed with heat.
Bodie didn’t just want this, he needed it. Ray knew that with as much conviction as he knew anything in that moment, saw it in Bodie’s eyes and held his gaze despite the cold flame burn of it.
It didn’t last long. Adrenaline and abstinence – at least in Ray’s case – set the trigger low, and soon he was grimacing and clenching his teeth as his balls emptied, sending everything between them slick and hot, and Bodie followed at more or less the same time, leaving Ray shuddery and sticky, his hand covered in mess, his back too hot from the fire, his front cooling uncomfortably and – he noticed with resignation – his rag rug most indubitably ruined.
Bodie’s eyes were closed, his head tilted back again as he regained his breath. His stomach was streaked with white, and rising and falling rapidly with his breathing, tender-looking, speckled with hairs that led from navel to groin. Ray wondered if he’d ever see the man naked like this again. Probably not, but then that had always been the way of it.
It had felt inevitable, but now Ray wished they hadn’t, or at least that they’d waited until closer to Bodie’s departure, which would have to come without much more incident tomorrow, once Henbray was shown to be the unexciting pile of brick and interior décor that it now was.
Standing, he went to reach through the drawn curtains and open a window – the room stank of sex and sweat, muggy in the fire’s warmth.
“I’m going to wash,” Ray announced, and Bodie’s eyes opened to look at him. “And then you can use the bathroom if you like.” He walked straight out of the room and went to the sink to wash his hands, watching the congealing mess disappear with the soap down the whirling drain, as if it had never been.
As Ray left the bathroom some half an hour later, Bodie was there waiting to go into it and they passed without comment. Ray then went upstairs to his bedroom, locked the door behind him and then threw open the windows, leaning out into the darkness and the cool air, watching the faint shapes of trees in the moonlight, listening the nighttime noises.
He waited, but there was no further sound from Bodie, or anywhere else; no knock no his door or summons from his isolation.
Eventually he made himself get up and stretch out his cold limbs, and climb into bed to try and sleep.
- - -
The next morning, when Ray came down just after eight for breakfast, he found a note from Bodie on the kitchen table, propped against a half-empty tin of baked beans:
Gone running, back soon, why don’t you have any jam?
Ray couldn’t help a wry grin, and went to make himself some toast and tea, pouring the rest of the beans into a small saucepan to heat up on the hot plate.
Bodie returned within the hour, out of breath and sweating, carrying a bundle of sticks which he tossed into the bin by the grate in the living room before disappearing for a bath. He re-emerged wrapped in a towel and nodded in response to Ray’s questions about a cup of tea. Ray could not pretend that the sight of him half-naked, water running down the indentations of muscle on his torso, did nothing for him; Bodie caught his gaze and raised an eyebrow, smirking, and Ray could only just resist the temptation to go over and do something about it.
Once dressed, Bodie came to sit at the table opposite Ray, and nodded his head in greeting. He looked like he might be about to say something, but apparently thought better of it, looking down and into his drink instead.
The silence stretched out, with each passing second becoming more acute, and Ray more uncertain what to say. His physical consciousness of Bodie rammed up, this morning in the light of day, against a regained sense of how out of place the man was in a domestic ritual in a small house. And in succumbing to temptation last night, Ray had, he knew, lost one more protective layer against this interruption of his routine.
Ray said nothing, and Bodie drank his tea whilst gazing into the middle distance, and was once more apparently immovable and unmoved, his expression blank, his eyes watchful, his whole body flexed and tense.
They couldn’t spend the whole day like this.
“I have to get on with my work,’ Ray found himself saying as he eventually rose from the table, though he was far from in the mood for painting. Not pausing to hear an answer, he strode into the living room and got the dust-sheet off his easel in the corner, pulling the thing out into the room and opening his paints up, taking the lid off the box of charcoal. This canvas was one he’d been very intermittently working on earlier in the week – it felt like another lifetime, that stagnant inaction – and he’d had a vague idea of a rural scene in the twilight, a field with the hedge coming across the centre, perhaps an animal caught in the dusk.
He didn’t think inspiration would come, not as pre-occupied as he was, but for something to do he rubbed down the surface quickly with a rag and picked up his charcoal in hands that were trembling with suppressed tension. Then, in quick, bold strokes he outlined the figure of a man, lying down, curled in on himself, trying to capture precisely the appearance of captive, potential strength that was in his mind.
It had been a long time since he’d painted that way – as if the image couldn’t get out of his head and onto the paper fast enough – and when he stopped to take a step back and really consider the work, he found that it was nearly twelve noon on his watch.
On Syd’s watch.
Emerging, Ray found that Bodie had set up a deckchair again at the back of the house, and was sitting reading yesterday’s newspaper, or at least had been until he’d fallen asleep in the warm spring air.
Ray threw together some sandwiches for himself, left the bread out on the counter for whenever Bodie wanted it, and went back to his canvas.
He wasn’t sure if he was avoiding Bodie, or Bodie avoiding him, or which of the two would reflect worse on them both.
Across his skin, he could feel it still, the echo of Bodie’s touch, his heat – Ray kept catching the scent of him in his nostrils, spread over the house, intrusive and inescapable.
He wondered if Bodie was troubled in the same way, if it registered at all or was for him just another event in an unremarkable series.
If Bodie would find any of this worth remembering, worth chewing over in another place some other time in the future, with or without regret.
In such fits and starts of awareness the day passed, until Bodie knocked on the door of the living room – startling Ray from mixing paint colours – and cleared his throat and remarked that they ought to be changing if they were going to get to Henbray on time.
- - -
They walked two miles to Henbray – Bodie had said he would prefer it, though whether that was for the benefit of his leg wound, or because he wanted to scout the grounds stealthily or simply because he really didn’t want to ride pillion, Ray had no idea.
It was a pleasant late spring evening, and the recent good weather meant the ground was firm underfoot, with no risk of covering their new clothes in mud.
“So,” Bodie said after a short way. “Let’s get this story completely clear. We’ve known each other two months and we met…”
“At my house when you wanted to fix a puncture.” Ray supplied. In the matter of their fictional relationship, at least, he felt confident of details and truths. He could almost wish that they had met that way, two blokes happening to cross paths, casual and easy.
And yet if they’d met casually, they might both have made more pretense at normality, and hidden the depths of themselves that, Ray couldn’t help but believe, had begun the spark between them.
For it the good it would do them.
Soon enough they approached the gate-less gateposts as Ray had the previous day. Ray was looking carefully around him, but he could still see nothing at all out of the ordinary, and in the grounds sheep were grazing peacefully, and certainly not as if disturbed by men with guns running secret missions between the crumbling buildings of the grounds.
The outbuildings – the loci, apparently, at least in Bodie’s mind, of the real criminal enterprises: Ray counted three visible from this side of the house; a stable block with a large barn, a summerhouse out away over the lawn and, practically part of the house, a garage building with a small flat over it, which Ray recalled Gregory saying had been added by his father for storing the much-fetishized Rolls Royce. Gregory had never really explained where the family money had drained away too – Ray had vaguely assumed inflation and bad investments – but clearly there had been much more, once upon a time.
“Should I be holding your hand?” Bodie asked, suddenly, giving Ray a start, so focused as he’d been on their surroundings.
“What? Fuck, no.” Ray frowned, and scoured Bodie’s face for signs of it being a joke, and one in poor taste.
But Bodie just nodded, quickly, and looked away. “If you say so.”
Ray bit his lip. “Honestly, what has your experience of gay men been? I mean besides…”
Bodie took a breath, staring at him. “Incomplete. That was,” he shrugged. “Last night was about as far as it’s got, to be honest.”
Ray felt his skin heat, felt a consciousness of the imprint, still, somehow, of Bodie’s hand curling around his arse cheek. Bodie looked confused, all of a sudden, vulnerable in his uncertainty.
It had been Bodie’s first time with a man, Ray thought, and couldn’t help a thrill running through him.
He sighed, and adopted a conciliatory tone. “Well, listen, just forget about the whole ‘queer’ issue, if you can, OK? Just behave normally around me, they’ll only think you’re non-demonstrative. Because if you’re… if you’re trying to feel your way into it, you know, and I’m jumping like a maiden aunt, we’re not exactly going to convince anyone.”
“Should I touch you at all, then?”
Ray felt his mouth go dry. He was still suspicious that on some level this whole conversation was a wind up, but Bodie looked intense, professional and – persistently - slightly lost.
Ray sidled slightly closer to Bodie as they walked, and took his hand by the wrist, guiding it round himself and down, so that Bodie’s hand rested against the lower curve of Ray’s arse, back where it had been, where it fitted too well.
“You could do that, now and then, you’re not bad at it,” Ray told him, voice as level as he could make it. “I’ll smack you away, of course, but that’ll read right.”
“Oh yeah?” Bodie murmured, words coming out under his breath. His mouthed crooked into a smile, and his hand lingered against Ray’s body for a long, warm moment.
Ray pulled away, closing his eyes as he saw their stupidity. They should have raked over the rehearsals of these physical intimacies at some point before now, before going into a fraught situation with all this unresolved tension between them.
But all they could do now was continue up the drive, until eventually they reached the front door and found Paul coming out to greet them, all firm handshakes and self-deprecating noises as Ray made the introductions.
“Of course it’s not half-finished yet, not how I want it,” Paul was saying, leading them through and into the house, and through several rooms to come out at the back and into the garden. “But I think one can start to get at least a sense of everything at this stage.”
A table had been set on the lawn with a white cloth on it, and there was a jug of Pimms waiting for them, with Gregory getting up from a wrought-iron garden chair to come and greet them, hugging Ray and then smiling and nodding during his introduction to Bodie, all perfectly genial, enough to make Ray feel ashamed, again, of his own apparent inability just to be happy that Gregory had found someone new.
“And how do you like our part of the world, Bodie?” Gregory was asking, and Ray was aware of Bodie making some noises about excellent footpaths and the beauty of the countryside, whilst Paul questioned him about his bike with an interest that seemed much more polite than genuine.
Before the conversation had had a chance to become more general, Gregory excused himself to return to the meal preparations in the kitchen, turned down their offers – from Ray quite sincere, from the other men perhaps less so – of assistance, and disappeared back into the house.
Paul eyed them both up, and launched with some glee and no little self-importance onto his pet subject. Ray had braced himself for questions about Bodie, and their supposed relationship, but it seemed that all Paul really wanted to talk about was upholstery, and the failing market for toile de joie fabric, and Ray couldn’t help shooting a look at Bodie expressive of his feeling that having to suffer through anything this boring made its own punishment for having crazy ideas about gangsters and hideouts.
If it was really all some ridiculous misunderstanding, Ray reflected, then Bodie’s mission here would be complete, but perhaps he wouldn’t have to report in person at once. Perhaps he could linger a while longer, and give them time to explore a little more, try and understand each other better.
“…don’t you agree, Ray?” Paul was asking, and Ray jumped and frowned, trying to look intelligently engaged and not as if his mind had wandered into a distinctly X-rated dream sequence.
“Anyway, Bodie,” Paul continued, without missing a beat – politeness, probably, and Ray ought to credit him for it – “what about you, eh? What’s your interior design history been?”
Ray watched tensely as Bodie took a slow drink from his glass and put it down again before he spoke. His dry lips had left a mark on the rim.
“Not had a lot of my own places, really,” Bodie said, voice skirting the edges of gritted. “I was in the armed forces young, and accommodation tends towards the basic. Doesn’t do to want much in the way of comforts there.”
“Bodie’s been in Northern Ireland up until quite recently,” Ray chipped in to explain with part of the cover story, feeling that he still needed to establish more firmly that they were well known to each other.
“Has to be hard,” Paul said sympathetically, inclining his head. “Policing in your own country, that way.” He waved his hand vaguely. “So many… grey areas.”
“Someone had to do it,” Bodie said, smartly. “Nothing I can really talk about though, you understand.” And he smiled. It was an easy, casual smile, and his eyes were utterly blank, and it made a shiver go down Ray’s spine. He could imagine what Bodie might have ‘had’ to do, and it made nothing about sorting out how he felt about him easier.
“You must think I’m some sort of fool,” Paul said.
Ray stared at him, tightening his grip on his own glass reflexively.
“I mean, I promised you a tour of the house didn’t I?” Paul slapped Bodie’s shoulder and laughed. “That was the whole point after all, and here we are,” he glanced at his wristwatch, “probably barely fifteen minutes left till we eat, and I haven’t even started. Well, I’ll do what I can. Come on.” And he beckoned them to follow him back inside.
And Ray felt Bodie’s hand on the small of his back, ushering him after Paul across the lawn.
Once more inside the house, blinking in the relative gloom after the sunlight, they were making their way along the wide corridor back to the hall and the main staircase when Gregory reappeared, an apron tied round his waist, looking rather flushed.
“Oh Paul, I say,” he said earnestly. “Would you go and take down the big roasting tin for me? The one on the high shelf? I can’t find the step-ladder.”
Paul gave an indulgent laugh. “Ah yes! I pilfered that for my own projects I don’t doubt. I’ll go and get the dish now. Excuse me,” he apologised in Ray’s direction, and went off down the corridor towards where the kitchen was situated in the old servants’ quarters.
“Oh Ray, by the way, I was just thinking,” Gregory said now, coming to Ray’s side and holding out a small, wrapped package. “This book you wanted, about wild mushroom picking. I never remembered to lend it to you, and I thought… Well, anyway, here you are.”
Ray frowned as he took the book, which was neatly done up in brown paper for no reason he could account for. He was going to ask a question – he couldn’t recall talking about wild mushrooms, either – when it suddenly occurred to him that it might be some piece of mild erotica or vaguely embarrassing diary, something that Gregory didn’t want Paul to see and had no other means of getting rid off. In any case, if Gregory had gone to the trouble of keeping the exchange private, Ray wasn’t going to go out of his way to sabotage him.
“Cheers,” was all he said, in the end, and he put the package into the inner pocket of his jacket.
“Now my dear, while you are busy cooking up your delights,” Paul said, reappearing. “I was just going to take our friends for a quick tour of the house – you don’t mind that, I trust?” He reached Gregory’s side and leaned in to kiss the side of his neck; Gregory made a small noise and Ray turned away, embarrassed.
He caught Bodie’s eye. Bodie was staring ahead coldly, his face gone blank. Ray frowned at him, trying to remind him to stay in character, and Bodie turned his back to them all, looking at something on the corridor wall and perhaps, Ray thought, composing himself.
Had it been disgust at seeing Paul and Gregory being physically affectionate? Ray wondered, and winced.
“Feel free to go wherever you like, I’m sure you know exactly what you want to show them,” Gregory was saying. “The food will be another ten minutes at least, and I could…”
“That sounds perfect,” Paul told him, and turned to them. “Right, gentlemen. This way if you please.”
He led them into a reception room on the ground floor, where Ray was all too ready to admire the fireplace and the new wallpaper and the curtains – anything neutral, anything safe and bland to look at, to occupy them all.
He had been such an idiot, he thought now, bringing Bodie here this way, bringing all this pointless suspicion into Gregory’s house, putting himself into such an awkward situation.
Bodie himself still seemed a little detached, but kept close to Ray’s side and murmured his responses to Paul’s endless monologue just as Ray did.
By the second reception room, Ray’s temporary enthusiasm for interior décor had dimmed, and when, following a view of the drawing room, Paul started to lead them towards the main staircase, Ray lagged back a little, vaguely hoping Bodie might offer an excuse, or Gregory appear to signal the start of the meal. He just wanted the evening to be over with as soon as humanly possible.
Up the creaking wooden stairs they went, though, and started in on the guest bedrooms, the first of which Paul turned out to have decorated using a maritime theme, the second ‘woodland’ and the third something to do with Belle Époque Paris. Ray found the decoration over-fussy, and the contrasts between the themes in the rooms jarring, but Paul seemed content to just keep talking fabrics and glues and the stories of the finding of objects in junk shops, and needing no more than the occasional nod or ‘oh really?’ from his audience.
“You must excuse me, but this is my passion, truly my passion,” Paul was saying, going to adjust the hanging of the tassels on one curtain cord. “And to have a canvas like this to work on – well, you’ll understand?” And he smiled at Ray, who felt forced to grin back weakly.
Unless there was a way of theming a room ‘international crime’, Ray thought bitterly, nothing sinister would be allowed to invade here. He couldn’t help but be impressed in how much had been achieved in what must have been a relatively short time – unless Gregory had known Paul whilst he and Ray were still together, and the relationship only latterly turned romantic? But that seemed unlikely – surely Gregory would have told Ray about any project to do up Henbray as ambitious as this?
Between the viewings of the third and fourth bedrooms, Paul excused himself to visit the bathroom, leaving Ray and Bodie standing in the corridor, which had panelled walls painted a pale mint green which Ray considered unfortunate, and lined with framed prints of butterflies in acid shades.
“Well, I hope you’re satisfied that nothing…” Ray began in an angry whisper, turning to Bodie, only to see that Bodie was standing with his head slightly tilted, as if listening carefully for something.
“Shall we carry on looking?” Bodie asked suddenly, his expression hard to read. “I don’t think we’ve seen all there is to see, do you?”
“He’ll drag us round anyway, might at least retain the element of surprise, don’t you… Oh hell, not frogs.” Ray looked through the door Bodie had opened and winced. “I hate frogs. Stupid bug eyes. How on Earth does Greg hope to sell this place if he’s let the man do all this to it?”
Bodie, who had stepped into the room, took a quick appraising look round it and then sighed, drawing back and closing the door again. “Not in there. Right. Upstairs again.”
“We can’t just…”
“Your friend’s house isn’t it? Of course we can!” And Bodie was striding away without waiting to discuss it, and climbing quickly upwards, managing to tread on the stairs without causing much creaking at all. With a roll of his eyes Ray followed, trying to place his feet in the same places and even occasionally succeeding.
The ceiling was lower on the second floor, and the corridor not yet decorated, the walls only painted plaster, and that all stained and peeling. The window at the far end had a pane missing and had been patched up with tape and a bit of cardboard box. This was more of the decaying grandeur that the whole house had been the last time Ray had seen it, and he found it a great deal more appealing that the tarted-up smartness on the floor below. So what did that say about him?
As Ray watched, Bodie opened the first door they came to, and through it Ray caught a glimpse of what looked like an abandoned nursery, with an old Kate Greenaway ABC frieze papered around the walls and a battered rocking-horse sitting by the window. That was a room he had gone into with Gregory, all those months earlier – they’d gone to look out of the damp-frosted window across the park, and Gregory had talked a little about his childhood, stroked the rocking-horse and sighed. Ray had warmed Gregory’s hands between his own and kissed him between the eyes. The thought now only increased his agitation.
He’d known he wasn’t happy, but had Gregory been? Something was making Ray uneasy about this whole set-up, and he only wished he could put his finger on it.
Bodie closed the nursery door again almost at once, making a frustrated noise and going on the next one. This opened into a bedroom in which some work had apparently been done, with fresh cream flocked wallpaper surrounding the bare planks of the floorboards and the empty frame of the four-poster bed, which looked heavy and antique, impressive despite much evidence of woodworm. There was a chest of drawers standing against one wall and some framed pictures stacked to lean against it.
“Maybe…” Bodie muttered, and went to kneel over the middle part of the floor, scrabbling at the board beneath him with his finger-tips.
“What are you doing?” Ray hissed.
Bodie ignored him, and at last levered up the short floorboard altogether, pushing it aside and then plunging his hand into the darkness underneath, grunting as he leant right down against the floor to improve his reach.
“We’re not going to be able to explain… Wait!” Ray froze. “Someone’s coming!” He could hear from behind them the sounds of the stairs creaking under a tread.
Bodie, his shirt covered in dust, all too obviously having been on the floor, looked up at him and then made a quick beckoning gesture.
Furious, but intuiting and agreeing with the plan as the only option, Ray went over to him.
“Shut up,” Bodie told him, fiercely and unnecessarily and grabbed his shoulders, clearly intending to roll him over. But, despite the footsteps drawing ever closer, Ray was in no mood to tolerate that. Instead he wrestled back against Bodie, using the man’s bulkier weight against him, and got him flat on the floor and under his own body before coming down to meet him, chest to chest, in a rough, angry kiss.
Bodie twisted a little and Ray pressed down harder against him, aware of his own heart pounding, of the storm of anger and anxiety and arousal making adrenaline course through him.
“I would say get a room, but it seems you already have done,” Ray heard Paul say – laughing - from the doorway, bare seconds later. “Sorry to interrupt, boys, but Greg says the food’s ready.”
And then Ray heard Paul walking away and down the corridor, presumably to give them the benefit of privacy in which to sort themselves out, and tidy themselves up.
Ray slumped for a moment in sheer relief, but instantly Bodie was pushing him up and hissing instructions:
“Go after him, quick!” Bodie told him.
“Go after him, apologise or flirt or something! I need to get this floor board back in and he mustn’t hear it. You need to distract him!”
Ray did his best to brush the dirt from his own clothes before realising he would have to ask Bodie to help clean his back. Bodie’s broad hands swept quickly and firmly over him, and Ray felt another sweat break out over his skin, dissolving the dust into an itching paste. His mouth was dry and tacky, and somewhat bruised. And still Bodie looked cool. Cold. Collected.
“Go!” Bodie hissed again.
Ray went out and saw Paul at once – he was lingering at the top of the stairs, apparently adjusting some vases on a table, but Ray wondered if he had indeed been listening and couldn’t really blame him. It was no kind of manners to go fucking about on the floor of someone else’s spare room like a couple of pole cats in heat. If Ray didn’t have much of an opinion of Paul, he doubted Paul had much of him by now.
“Sorry about that,” Ray began, “didn’t mean to…” and launched into a rambling speech of apology, waving away Paul’s gestures of acceptance and keeping talking, intent on providing the noise barrier Bodie needed.
After an impressively short space of time, Bodie re-emerged looking somewhat disheveled, but somehow, Ray thought, as suave as ever.
“He’s a bit shy, wanted to get decent,” Ray found himself muttering, which had to be the least convincing lie of all time. He hoped, though, that Paul might take it that Bodie’s… excitement had needed a little longer to abate before he could be seen in company.
For himself, Ray half wanted to punch Bodie in jaw, half wanted to push him down onto the floor again and keep going, and to hell with everything else.
He clenched his fists at his sides, and told himself the evening could not go on much longer.
- - -
Gregory was a marvelous cook, and Ray didn’t doubt that what was being put before him at dinner was some of the best food he’d had in months, but he couldn’t seem to taste anything, nor shift the sensation of Bodie’s dry lips chafing against his own. The pan-fried scallops and a rocket salad were followed by duck with orange glaze and risotto, and then came delicate crème brulees, and the conversation ebbed and flowed, largely meaningless and carried mostly by Bodie and Paul, who covered Britain’s Olympic prospects, the Common Market and whether the Star Wars films qualified as proper drama.
Ray did his best to interject, although he’d always had a low tolerance for small talk. He was conscious, too, that Gregory was not speaking much. But then, Paul and Bodie were both being so gregarious and easy – Ray could scarcely believe it was the same man who’d growled at him over a bandage, or ordered him about with blank-faced calm not half an hour earlier.
Bodie was clearly nothing if not an accomplished actor. Some of this was real, perhaps, some of it was just a way to manipulate others and get what he wanted. How much of what he’d done with Ray was in the latter category? A deception as straightforward as faking an embrace to hide from Paul?
Ray bit his lip and told himself again that, attraction or no attraction, this whole ridiculous business must finish after tonight and Bodie must leave, and he must get out of being any further entangled in this mess.
Eventually, dessert was finished, and Gregory away in the kitchen making coffee, whilst Paul had temporarily vanished in the cause of carrying away the last of the used bowls and glasses.
“So, what now?” Ray asked in a low tone. “Do you want to see the rest of the house somehow?”
Bodie frowned at him, and shook his head quickly, gesturing for Ray to be quiet, which made Ray irritated all over again – it had been a sensible question, and something Ray needed to know if he was to help, there was no need for Bodie to treat him like an amateur.
He hadn’t told Bodie that he had been in the police. Perhaps he should have done. It had felt like he’d shared too much of himself already without that too, but even so Ray now rather wished he’d been frank – that he had laid out his own cards on the table, and perhaps therefore provoked Bodie to do the same. There were currents passing and interacting beneath the surface here, Ray knew, but he could not identify them.
Not everything of the past forty-eight hours fit together or made sense. He was convinced of this without being able to put his finger on why, exactly, he felt it to be true.
The party moved to the drawing room, and Gregory appeared with the coffee on a tray, and proceeded to pour out from a cafetière into elegant, small porcelain cups.
“You get many day trippers round here?” Bodie asked after a slightly stretched silence. “Hikers? Campers?”
“Occasionally,” Gregory said, after a brief pause. “We had some about two weeks back, wanted to sleep in the tithe barn, but we weren’t sure it was safe – you know, with fires and things. Why, are you a hiker yourself?”
Bodie smiled serenely. “Not really. Army was always enough walking for me. But now, out of it, one does start to miss the exercise. Mustn’t get out of shape.”
“You seem to do well enough,” Paul observed, with a slightly leer, and Bodie inclined his head to acknowledge the compliment.
Gregory met Ray’s eye and gave a nervous giggle. Ray winced and took another sip of coffee, desperate for the evening to end.
- - -
Paul insisted on driving them back to Ray’s cottage, and since he seemed sober enough, Ray couldn’t come up with any solid excuse to prevent it, Paul having brushed aside his objections that it was far too much trouble and that they’d be fine walking anyway.
There was therefore no question of making any search in the outbuildings that night, for which Ray was frankly grateful – he could imagine no worse sequel to the evening that being caught snooping round rotting hay-bales at one in the morning by their concerned hosts.
He really couldn’t give credence to what seemed to be Bodie’s theory – of some criminal operation using Henbray’s grounds under Gregory and Paul’s noses. And yet the idea of Gregory being knowingly involved in anything sinister was ludicrous. How, then, did one account for the information Bodie was acting on? Could a national agency of such intimidating reputation as CI5 be so totally wrong? Surely they would only send their agents to jobs that were clearly in need of them, to sure things?
As they sat side-by-side, silent in the back of the car, Ray couldn’t help shooting glances at Bodie – his profile silhouetted against the window - and wondering.
Finally they arrived at Ray’s cottage, and were deposited, and as Paul’s car vanished into the night, the glow of the headlights disappearing round the bend in the road, Ray let out a deep breath and slumped forward, exhausted.
Then he put his hands on his hips and turned to Bodie.
“You put on a hell of an act, don’t you?” Ray heard himself saying.
Bodie turned towards him. “Excuse me?”
“Just admiring your work, mate.” Ray shrugged. “I mean, I can’t figure out who you really are at all. Who would you be around someone you actually trusted? I’m not sure even you could say.”
Bodie looked at him. In the light of the mostly full moon his face was all shadows and angles. For a moment he looked almost uncertain, and then the barrier came down over his gaze again, and he took a step away and towards the house.
“No point standing out here in the cold.”
“Fine,” Ray followed him. “Let’s have some tea. And then you can tell me if you found a single suspicious thing in there beside Paul’s godawful taste.”
“You don’t like him, do you?”
“No, as it happens. I don’t think he’s the right person for Gregory.” Ray hoped the flush that had come to his face wouldn’t be visible in the moonlight, and he looked down at the door as he fumbled with his keys.
“Whereas you would be?” The question came quickly. Bodie had moved in close again, almost boxing Ray in with his back to the door.
Ray made himself hold Bodie’s gaze. “No. No, I wouldn’t be right. I wasn’t. Nor him for me. If I thought otherwise I’d still be with him. I couldn’t be with him. He wasn’t… But whatever my faults were I didn’t talk over him, push him about the way Paul does.”
“But you weren’t expecting Paul to come onto the scene, were you?”
Ray frowned. “I don’t know what you mean. I thought Greg would date again – I wouldn’t have guessed so soon and I would have preferred if it was someone I thought was better for him, but yeah, I didn’t… I don’t even know what you’re asking. What I was asking, if you’ll cast your mind back, is whether you feel there’s a shred of suspicion left worth investigating, or whether this whole thing’s been a bloody wild goose chase.”
“Oh, we do need to look at those outbuildings.” Bodie said, calmly, easing back a little and letting Ray get back to opening the door. “That barn in particular. They did talk about having hikers there.”
“For all of two minutes! And how are we going to justify that? Because I don’t think even Paul has design innovations for cobwebby old bales of hay.”
“We don’t have to justify it.”
“Breaking and entering? Really? Because they won’t believe we did that just to shag on the floor.”
“Got to be done, sometimes. Honestly, Ray. It’s just the way it is. Sometimes for this job, this racket, you’ve got to do things… things you wouldn’t usually, or things you don’t want to do. Can you believe that?”
“I dare say,” Ray said, and pushed his door open, finally going inside. He went straight to the kitchen and filled the kettle, his pulse racing. Despite all the reassurances he was trying to offer Bodie, he felt as though nothing had been resolved. And yet there was no sense in further investigation here - and if Ray had a shred of decency, a shred of feeling left for Gregory, he’d help speed it, and Bodie, on their way.
“How about a real drink?”
Bodie had come to stand behind him, and Ray thought he could feel the disturbance of the air as he spoke, his breath rustling at the nape of Ray’s neck.
Turning, he saw Bodie drawing a flat bottle of some dark brown spirit from his jacket. Bodie passed it over, and Ray saw the label of an excellent malt whisky, the bottle full, the seal unbroken.
“What? Did you…” Ray looked up at him. “Did you steal this from Henbray?”
“They can afford it.”
“Gregory can’t.” Ray snapped back. “I’ve no idea how he’s paying for any of that nonsense, and no one wants their booze nicked. You’ll have to take it back, explain somehow.” He thrust the bottle back into Bodie’s hands, hard enough that it set them both a little off balance. Ray grabbed into space to prevent the bottle falling, and Bodie did something similar, and suddenly their hands were touching over the glass, and Bodie’s leg wedged against his own.
“Turn the kettle off,” Bodie said now, low and silky, with just that hint of menace behind his grin that Ray had no business responding to with heat. “And have a bloody drink.”
Ray stood for a moment looking at him, feeling the susurration of his own breath. The kettle was hissing with steam, and when he did reach to turn it off, it left a thick silence between them.
Reaching into a cupboard, Ray brought out two tumblers for the whisky, holding them up whilst Bodie opened the bottle and then poured two generous measures. The rich, sweet, nutty scent of the alcohol rose in the air.
Ray felt like a man on the edge of a cliff, waiting to see which way the wind would buffet him, to safety or to certain destruction.
“Who are you, Agent Bodie?” Ray heard himself asking, as he cradled the glass against his chest, watching the liquid swirl round and then looking up to meet Bodie’s eye. “What are you here for?”
Bodie met his gaze for a long moment.
“I told you. To catch criminals.”
Ray sighed, rolled his eyes. “Oh I know you can evade a question. You could probably even do it better than that, tell me something that sounded like a fact even if it still wasn’t one.”
“That’s it, isn’t it?” Bodie raised an eyebrow. “I could tell you anything – everything – and if you didn’t want to believe me, you wouldn’t. I suppose everything you’ve told me has been the truth?” His tone was light. “No, of course not, and for good reasons I don’t doubt.”
“Ah, I get it now,” Ray gave a wry smile. “You’ve been sent here to torment me. You’re from the government bureau for missed parking tickets of 1967 or something, and my punishment is your angelic presence.”
Bodie’s lips twitched slightly. He held up his glass. “To revelation,” he said, and dinged his glass off Ray’s before taking a swift gulp, closing his eyes against the burn.
Ray followed suit, but kept watching.
“For what it’s worth,” Bodie said now, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, “you’re the first person I’ve met that I’ve wished I could tell some things. Some things I reckon you’d understand. Don’t thank me,” he added, as Ray opened his mouth. “That isn’t really a compliment.”
Then he made a sudden choking sound and bit his lip, staggering a little where he stood.
At once Ray went to help him, taking his arm in support.
“My leg,” Bodie was muttering. “Bloody thing.”
Ray felt a brief stab of guilt. “I’d forgotten about it. Is it alright after all that time sitting on those dining chairs? God, or rolling about on the floor? What were we thinking? Do you need more dressings?”
Bodie gave a heavy sigh, and shrugged Ray’s arm off. “Probably.” He started limping towards the bathroom, opening the door and for once leaving it open behind him, despite his dismissive attitude.
Ray swallowed the last of his drink, and hesitated only a moment before shaking his head and following.
He found Bodie in the midst of removing his trousers in economic, brisk movements, wincing as he went. Bodie then sat down on the chair, and leant forwards to study his bandage. There was some seepage of blood now – more than Ray would have expected, a worrying sign – and Bodie hissed quickly through his teeth and then gingerly began to tear away the medical tape holding the dressing onto his skin, wincing some more as he did so.
“Well, do you want some help or don’t you?” Ray asked, standing in the doorway and folding his arms, trying to give off the impression that he was more than ready to keep up with Bodie’s moods, with the strange course of the evening, with the buzz of the alcohol going through him, with the reckless rush of staying involved with all this strangeness, with letting it lead him on.
“I can manage,” Bodie snapped.
“Yeah, well, you don’t have to though, do you?” Ray told him, and went to wet a flannel at the sink, then turned round to kneel at Bodie’s side and use the flannel to moisten the tape, helping it finish coming away without pulling half the skin and all the hair with it.
The wound didn’t look too bad, mostly crusted old blood and the beginnings of scarring over, with just the one end gaping slightly, a thin trickle of mostly clear fluid oozing out. Ray couldn’t make out how the bandage how become so badly stained, but relief pushed the question to the back of his mind.
He made up a mild phenol solution with some water, and washed the area around the wound gently, lifting some of the dry blood and apologizing when his actions made Bodie grit his teeth. It was simple enough to fashion more gauze into a dressing and tape everything down again, but Bodie didn’t ask him to stop, and Ray found, as at the first time, a certain quiet satisfaction in it. Indeed, once he’d finished, he found himself getting out the box of paracetamol and getting out two tablets, handing them over to Bodie as if the man couldn’t perfectly well dose himself. Bodie nodded his gratitude, and knocked the medication back with the last of his whisky - against all the instructions on the box but not likely, Ray reckoned, to do him any real harm.
There was nothing more to be done, but Ray knelt down at Bodie’s side again, pressing down the tape at the edges of the dressing a further, unnecessary time.
He couldn’t help wondering what it was that Bodie was thinking of telling him.
And if he were to to tell Bodie some of his own stories, his own throughts – could those dark, apparently unshockable eyes be made to look startled?
Ray looked up at Bodie’s face, and started to move, making himself rise up from the floor.
But Bodie’s hands came, just slow enough to give Ray every opportunity to push back, and halted his progress, one hand resting on each of Ray’s shoulders. And then, gently, slowly, almost with a question, Bodie started pushing him down again.
And Ray did not resist.
He kept watching Bodie’s face. Bodie looked as serious as Ray had ever seen him, that intense, layer-stripping stare, as if Ray was everything in the world.
Bodie’s fingers were slipping under the collar of Ray’s jacket, and he started to ease it off Ray’s shoulders, and now Ray closed his eyes and hissed at the sensation of Bodie’s touch, with only the thin cotton of Ray’s shirt dividing them.
Bodie was hard, Ray saw when his eyes opened, finally letting himself look where he’d been averting his eyes from throughout the treatment. Bodie still hadn’t put his trousers back on, and his snug underwear strained away from him now, a growing bulge between his legs. Ray’s eyes flicked up to meet Bodie’s, and found them unreadable, very dark, his pupils dilated.
“Still hurting, then?” Ray said, and choked, and had to cough and swallow to clear the phlegm which had gathered in his throat. He put his hand on Bodie’s knee, feeling the heat of Bodie’s skin under his palm, the smoothness and the hairs interrupting it, the edge of the scars already there, and rubbed his thumb on the knee’s inside plane, thinking of the night before, of all they’d done and all they still hadn’t.
Bodie was dangerous, and Ray was angry with him, afraid both of him and for him, and still Ray wanted this. And what should it matter anyway? Soon Bodie would be gone, and Ray would be alone again, and nothing they did now would make any difference at all in the grand scheme of things.
It was that thought – the thought of so soon being alone again, trapped only with himself – that moved Ray more than anything.
He pushed his hand slowly once more up the inside of Bodie’s leg, feeling the muscle shiver under his touch. He looked back at Bodie’s face and saw the man breathing open-mouthed, tongue flicking out to lick his lips, which threatened to break into a slight smile. Ray sighed and shifted his own kneeling posture, then pushed his hand the rest of the way, till his fingers were grazing the edge of Bodie’s blue cotton briefs, and paused a moment, listening to the raggedness of both their breathing in the still air, feeling droplets of sweat rise between his shoulder blades and then trickle down his back.
Ray put his hand over the contours of Bodie’s erection, palmed it, and Bodie moaned.
Ray knew he was never going to be able to forget this. The least he could do was try and curse Bodie with a similar intensity of memory.
Bending his head over, Ray moved swiftly to pull away the briefs altogether, and put his mouth to Bodie’s cock.
It wasn’t an act he’d always preferred to perform for his partners in the past, but right now he wanted to take Bodie apart – wanted it with an intensity he could scarcely understand – and it seemed like the best, the quickest way to undo someone. Ray could feel the muscles in Bodie’s legs trembling as he rested his hands on Bodie’s thighs, but it was the smallest of details compared to the heat and weight of Bodie’s cock between his lips, full and flushed and firm against his tongue. Ray moved his hand and found Bodie’s balls full and straining, drawn up tight and probably aching – Ray angled his head and tongued at them, loving and hating the sour/salt taste, and Bodie moaned.
“Fuck, I shouldn’t let you…” Bodie began, his hand going to Ray’s head and pushing him back a little; his hand was clammy with sweat against Ray’s temple and when their eyes met Ray thought he saw it again, something almost like fear.
Ray felt a thrill, one that shouldn’t be pleasant, and turned his head to suck Bodie’s fingertips into his mouth, moving from one to the next, mouthing at them, letting them slide over his tongue.
“You ‘let’ me do fuck all,” Ray told him. “I want to be here or I wouldn’t be.”
“You don’t know me, Raymond Doyle. Remember that.”
“Who says I want to know you?” Ray retorted. “Who says I want any part of you but your cock?”
Bodie moaned again, and gasped, moving violently to get a hand to his own groin, and Ray realised the man was coming, striping it all over his own chest and spilling out of his cupped fist.
Bodie’s face was red, whether with the exertion or ashamed of having finished so quickly, Ray wasn’t sure. For himself he felt exhilarated, more pleased to have broken the man down than he might have been to see any longer display of prowess - more pleased to have brought pleasure than annoyed that he’d not yet received it. He didn’t like feeling that way, didn’t want to examine it, but there it was all the same.
For a moment they were frozen, staring at each other, breathing hard. Ray’s pulse seemed to be going so hard through him that he felt he was shaking; he began to wonder what Bodie might do for him, and whether he’d offer or need to hear a demand.
Then, so sudden it made them both jump, Ray’s telephone started ringing, violently loud in the silence.
Ray closed his eyes. “Bloody hell!”
Almost no one knew his number. But all who had it were people whose calls he would need to take.
Rising to his feet, he couldn’t help swearing again as his knees protested – he was getting too old for cold cement floors. Grabbing onto walls and furniture to keep him moving, he stumbled out of the bathroom and through to the corridor to pick up the receiver.
“Yes? Hello?” Ray asked, breathless still.
“Gregory? Is that you? What’s up?” Ray tried to keep his tone even, but turned to thump his head slowly back against the wall. The last thing he felt like doing right now was trying to mend bridges with Gregory. Or thinking about Gregory. Or being involved in anything in any way at all other than getting back to Bodie and touching him again.
Gregory’s voice was hushed, an urgent whisper, and Ray realised – surprise cutting through the fog of arousal in his brain – that he too was panting, with quick, anxious gasps of air.
He sounded terrified.
“What is it?” Ray asked, tensing.
“You’ve got to help me. You’ve got to understand. I didn’t… I didn’t mean you to be caught up in it, I didn’t want it to go that far, do you see?”
“What? Gregory? What are you talking about?”
“I’ve given you the evidence!” Gregory was still whispering, that insistent hiss that most people didn’t realise was actually more likely to be overheard than simply quiet talking.
“What? I still don’t…”
“The parcel! The book!” Gregory said. “In the parcel, I’ve put a tube of it, it’s inside the book in a hollowed-out space. So you can take that to the police, but you mustn’t come back here again, it isn’t safe. I was just going to let it end Ray, I was, I told him you’d never speak to me again, I didn’t…” his voice trailed off.
“Gregory? Who? Who did you tell? Is it Paul? Are you afraid of Paul? Tell me! What has he done?”
“He’ll be back any moment,” Gregory’s voice trembled. “I thought I heard him there. No! There he is! I have to go! Ray, listen, please, you must…”
With a click, the line went silent.
“Gregory!” Ray shouted, then shoved the receiver back down and spun round, striding back to the bathroom.
He needed to look at the book that Gregory had mentioned– the so-called guide to mushroom picking which Ray now recalled being handed. He’d put it into the inner pocket of his jacket, he remembered now, and promptly forgotten all about it, including when Bodie had stripped the jacket off him minutes earlier. It must be even now on the bathroom floor.
“Bodie, you’ve got to hear this, I don’t know what’s up but Gregory’s just…” Ray stopped talking as he found the bathroom empty, even the discarded clothes gone.
Well, perhaps Bodie had tidied up, folded the things and taken them somewhere. Perhaps he’d gone to Ray’s bedroom, perhaps that was his idea of a joke – and at another time, without that phone-call, Ray reckoned he might not have minded.
“Bodie!” he called out, and went through to the kitchen, then to the living room, then up the stairs, still not finding the clothes anywhere. He unlocked his bedroom door, still half expecting to find Bodie reclining naked on the bed dangling a bunch of secret-agent skeleton keys.
But the room was empty. No jacket. No Bodie.
Heart pounding, a sense of dread rising, Ray ran back downstairs and round the ground floor again, and out into the back area despite the dark and the cold, but there was no one.
Bodie had disappeared.
Ray almost missed it for the lack of light, but found his jacket when he trod on it where it had been left, balled up on the ground outside, next to where he’d left his motorbike.
The bike was gone too.
And the jacket pockets were completely empty.
Ray, stumbling, barely able to think, went back into the house and to the kitchen, getting down so that he could twist and look at the hiding place under the sink.
But Bodie’s gun was nowhere to be seen.
- - -
- - -
In the first horrid moments of realization, it was all Ray could do to keep focused, to keep himself from sinking down into a morass of cursing and self-recrimination. He made himself turn on the kitchen tap and run a glass of water, then made himself drink it down, hoping it might clear his head.
An evening of heavy food and wine, followed by the whisky Bodie had brought back, was not helping him work his way through the situation. Had that been the point of the whisky all along, then? To make Ray pliant, to blunt his awareness?
Ray kicked out in sheer frustration, and rammed his foot hard into the edge of a kitchen cupboard, pain shooting up his leg and all his crockery set shaking.
Gripping the edges of the sink, he panted through the last of the pain, letting it sharpen his mind.
Bodie was gone. Something had happened which had meant Bodie – whether by long plan or sudden impulse – had left him and taken the gun and whatever was in Gregory’s parcel.
But Ray didn’t know what the trigger had been, or where Bodie had gone to or why. He could think the worst or the best of it, but he didn’t know.
And his own humiliation, his own sense of having been used, that was – for all practical purposes – entirely beside the point.
No matter what Bodie had done or was doing, Gregory was in trouble, Gregory clearly had something serious going on, and he was alone and scared, and had called for Ray’s help.
Without the bike it would be no easy or quick then to get back to Henbray, but Ray had to go there. Even alone. Even unarmed.
He’d not been able to save Syd. He wasn’t going to live through that again.
As for the rest of it; he was more than used to swallowing regrets.
- - -
Ray slowed his run as he came into sight of Henbray once more, the house a stark white box on the hill in the moonlight.
He’d had to resist the temptation to run flat-out. There was no point arriving slightly earlier if he was exhausted when he did so. A steady jog had brought him here in just under half an hour, and he’d not seen anyone else, on foot or by vehicle.
From the rucksack on his back, he took a bottle of water and drained half of it, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and keeping going, hoping the final walk would be a sufficient cool-down for his tired muscles and keep him from cramping later. He was scarcely out of shape, but it had been a long time since chasing criminals had been a regular part of his week, and he was older now.
The rucksack also held his trusty wooden mallet – anything was better than nothing – and the handcuffs. He put them in his back pocket now, hefted the mallet in one hand and stowed the rucksack behind a tree near the Henbray gateposts.
He should have kept Bodie handcuffed to a chair. Should have called the bloody police on him, refused to have anything to do with him and his schemes and whatever mess of misdirection and lies that had been.
Or maybe Bodie had been telling the whole truth. Even so, Ray had trusted Bodie, and Bodie hadn’t trusted him. Hadn’t bothered to explain anything or apologise or even ask to borrow the bloody bike. He’d got whatever he wanted from Ray and jettisoned him like something used-up and useless.
Ray shook himself, and tried to keep his focus solely on the dark driveway ahead.
After this, he wasn’t sure he could bear to live in this area any more. He ought to move, to move even further into the wilderness, to some island where nobody could touch him.
He gulped the cold air and blinked, his eyes stinging.
Several windows on the ground floor of the house were beaming electric light into the darkness, but there was no illumination any closer and beyond the gravel drive the lawn stretched away into a impenetrable gloom, where anyone might be waiting. Carefully, Ray crossed to walk along the very edge of the grass, muting the sound of his footfalls. As he made his way towards the house, he kept looking around him even though the house windows were now all he could see, their brightness ruining his night vision.
When he finally reached the front door, there was no one there waiting for him. The door was not locked and opened easily, and he stepped cautiously into the brightly lit hall, trying to examine all angles of the room quickly, but still seeing no one.
All, as far as he could see, was just as it had been when he’d left the place perhaps an hour and a half earlier. Ray was struck all over again with a sense of displacement, of the unrealness of it all, of himself being here like this and with such fears as he had. He half expected Gregory to emerge laughing and telling him it had all been some huge misunderstanding.
But he kept his grip on the mallet tight, and went slowly and as quietly as he could from room to room, still failing to discover anyone or anything remotely suspicious.
The coffee cups from after dinner were still sitting on their tray in the drawing room, the fire in the grate there burnt down to embers, unattended.
So where was Gregory?
Ray was starting to feel distinctly unsettled. Pushing through a swing door to the old servants’ wing, he padded down the stone steps to the kitchen, where he’d never been before. Here the dirty dishes and remnants of the dinner were waiting, yet to be washed up, piles of scummy saucepans and used cutlery gathered together, the plates stacked neatly by the sink which was full of grey, tepid water with a roasting dish soaking in it.
Having looked behind the door and in all the large cupboards, Ray started to walk back towards the main hall, intending to climb the master staircase.
As he was approaching the hall he thought he heard a sound - a sharp echo that seemed to ricochet like something being dropped - but when he got there it was still empty as it had been.
Heart pounding, he began to make his way up the creaking stairs. If anyone was awaiting him up there, they’d know he was coming.
If only he’d thought to try and open that parcel before Bodie had distracted him so efficiently. Then he might at least have some idea of what was going on, of what type of mess he was getting himself into, rather than this search into the dark.
Acting on impulse, he skipped searching the first floor and went on up to the second, to the corridor leading to the room where Bodie had pulled up the floorboard. There was nothing Ray saw along the way that was out of the ordinary.
Back in that dusty, half-renovated bedroom, he easily got the floorboard up for himself and spent some minutes feeling around in the space underneath, trying to determine if there was anything there to discover, even if only a sticky residue on the underside of the remaining boards from something having been kept taped to them. But there was nothing, still nothing at all.
Sitting back on his heels, Ray let out a sigh of frustration, and had to stifle an impulse to thump his fist down against the floor, hard.
Should he start shouting for Gregory? Should he go back downstairs, find a phone, call the police? True he had nothing to go on, no evidence of anything, but he was getting more and more uncomfortable.
Getting to his feet, he went to look round the rest of the room, making a last effort to figure out what had drawn Bodie’s attention here earlier. The chest of drawers, he found, was empty except for one drawer containing some folded, mothballed sheets - with nothing interleaved between them - and there didn’t appear to be anything concealed in or around the bedstead or at any point in the walls or skirting board.
Finally, Ray pulled back the first of the paintings stacked against the chest of drawers, which had been arranged with their faces to the wall, offering only plain brown backs to view.
And then he stopped and did stare.
The painting he was looking at was one of his own.
It was an oil study of a vase of grasses and half an apple, set on a table under a naked light bulb with a drizzling November sky visible through the window beyond. It had taken him two long, hard months of near-constant work and he’d sent it to London getting on for a year ago.
Gregory, he supposed, must have secretly bought it from the dealer there – after all Gregory knew the man, there was no reason they wouldn’t communicate occasionally – and then must have hidden it here at Henbray. Ray didn’t quite know whether to be touched or insulted – he’d never asked Gregory to spend money on him, and never thought Gregory had the money to offer anyway.
That was part of what didn’t make sense about the whole renovation project, come to that.
He was doubly unhappy to see that the picture had been damaged – a piece about two inches square cut out of one corner of the canvas. It seemed senseless, but perhaps it had happened in transit or at the gallery, perhaps that was why Gregory had it.
Ray put that painting aside, and turned to the next picture.
It was also one of his - a picture of a deer in the moonlight, and one he’d also sold through the London gallery to which Gregory had introduced him.
It too sported an ugly gap in one corner between the canvas and frame, this one more ragged and uneven, and taking out part of the deer’s antlers, which were the focal point of the entire image.
Ray was dumbfounded, but a cold wave moved through his gut as he brought the next picture into view.
It was also his own, and also mutilated. And so was the fourth in the pile, and the fifth too.
He thought the last of the stack was his own work as well – he recognised the frame – but it had been completely butchered, the entire canvas cut roughly out of the frame leaving only frayed edges and the merest hint of paint colour behind.
It was utterly nonsensical. But as the only unusual thing in the room, this must have been what occupied Bodie’s attention after he’d sent Ray to go and distract Paul. But what would Bodie want with one of his pictures? It was insulting enough that his entire wage-earning history from them seemed to be merely Gregory doing him a favour, but why would it be of interest to anyone else?
A noise broke into Ray’s thoughts.
Someone was coming along the corridor, soon to reach this bedroom.
Ray pushed the paintings back quickly into place, and moved to stand behind the bedroom door. He wondered whether to switch the lights off – he’d been the one to turn them on, and their being on would give evidence of his intrusion in the house. On the other hand, plunged into darkness he’d be unable to see who was coming after him and he needed – for so many reasons – to be clear about that.
He waited, holding his breath.
The handle turned, and the bedroom door was slowly pushed open into the room.
Ray saw a gun, and then the hand that held it and then the sleeve, the arm; he knew who it was.
Ray surged forwards, grabbing from behind and using the mallet he still carried for leverage, holding it horizontally across the incomer’s throat to make an effective and very dangerous choke-hold.
This was serious now.
“You’ve got some explaining to do,” Ray said.
“Well,” – the voice was strained by Ray’s hold, but still steady, still sardonic. “If it isn’t my little Ray of Sunshine.” And Bodie gave a heavy sigh. “So I suppose you are involved after all?”
- - -
“Involved with what?” Ray demanded. “What the hell?”
Bodie wasn’t fighting Ray’s hold on him, which probably meant that he’d try something suddenly, and soon, and Ray tried to be watchful for it, even as his mind whirled.
“Your little arts and crafts project here,” Bodie sneered, and waved a hand at the paintings stacked by the chest. “Here checking them out were you? Well you’re too late, I’ve got my samples sent off.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” Ray insisted. “I haven’t seen those since I packed them up and sent them to be sold. They went to the gallery I use in London – Now Modes, or something – and I got a receipt to say they’d got there and everything. And then, later, one by one, they sold and I got paid, cheque in the post, all proper. But I suppose Gregory was… was buying them up out of pity for me or something. Either way, I can’t see what business it is of yours!”
“Quiet!” Bodie hissed. “Did you hear that?”
Ray waited, listening. But there was nothing that he could hear but a rising wind in the trees outside.
The pause made him conscious that he was still holding Bodie tight, that they were close enough in places for Ray to feel the heat of his skin.
Only hours earlier he’d been in this room with Bodie and they’d been kissing, he couldn’t help remembering. Ray had been so full of wanting then, of readiness of every kind, of trust…
“You disappeared,” Ray said, with more hurt in his voice than he wanted to convey. “You fucking disappeared – if you’ve hurt my bike I’ll… What was in the parcel anyway? It wasn’t yours to take.”
Bodie tensed in Ray’s hold. “You know about the parcel? What was in it?”
“No! But it was Gregory who rang me. Which gave you your chance to escape – what were you planning, otherwise? Punch me out? Drown me in whisky? It can’t have been to wipe me out with sex because you are not that good, mate, even you have to know that.”
It was a low blow, and too personal, revealing as much about Ray as anything, but he was still hurt, still so angry and the words slipped out. He couldn’t see Bodie’s response to them but the man was still tense as whipcord.
“Anyway, Gregory did phone,” Ray continued, “and he was spouting some guff about a tube in a parcel and needing help and being afraid, and I raced up here – or at least I would have done, if someone hadn’t stolen my sodding bike.”
Bodie took in a deep breath.
“How about letting me move?”
“How about an explanation? What’s this tube, then? Some engineering part, is that it? What the hell is this about?”
“Let me breathe a minute and I’ll tell you, OK, sunshine?”
Warily, Ray moved back, loosing his grip. Bodie stumbled forwards at once, gasping, and didn’t move to turn the gun on Ray in reply, although he kept it in his hand and at his side.
“Those paintings of yours?” Bodie began, still breathing heavily. His throat was red, and Ray felt a pang of guilt. But Bodie didn’t deserve that from him.
On the other hand, Bodie hadn’t hurt him. Hadn’t laid a hand on him – or at least never when it wasn’t wanted.
“Those paintings,” Bodie was saying, “Gregory helped you sell them, you said?”
“Yes. He knew people in London in the art world. I hadn’t a clue.”
“And let me guess, he knew where to get the paint too? Offered to pick it up for you? Gifted you with a good brand even though you’d have ordered the cheap stuff?”
“Yeah, sometimes. I told you I didn’t… What are you trying to say?”
“Simply this: Gregory Porter was supplying you with a very particular type of paint, mixed in with the normal stuff. The paint that he was given to pass on to you had been used to conceal a mixture of miniscule magnetized particles that… well, the science is complex, but essentially the particles could be coded to carry information, and that information would be collectable by anyone with access to the paint, including anyone owning the end painting. And the information at stake was vitally important to this country’s security.”
Ray shook his head. “So the tube in the parcel was a tube of paint? This… this coded paint?”
“Exactly. And there’s a confession in a note along with it, which confirms as much as I’d already guessed when you told me he handled moving the paintings for you. Seeing them stacked here…” Bodie gestured at them and shrugged. “My thought now is that with you and Gregory broken up, and them needing to keep the supply line open, they had these here to study, so they could keep moving them on to the dealers and passing them off as yours, maintaining a very neat piece of sleight of hand.”
“But you thought I had something to do with it, at first?” Ray frowned. “You sound like you… You knew my paintings were coded! You knew that before you even came here! So, what? You came to spy on me? You thought I was your traitor?”
“You thought that of me,” Ray continued, feeling sick. “You thought I was some criminal mastermind, some… and you did… you asked me to…” Ray stepped backwards, shaking.
Bodie didn’t meet his eye.
“Did you shoot your own leg as well, then, you bloody fool?”
“Needed a way in,” Bodie said, voice matter of fact, face blank. “I’d staked out the area, considered the possibilities and I decided…”
“Staked out? Staked out? Nice. So you were going to be the honey-trap were you? Or did that come later, a nice perk on the job? I suppose none of it was true – Africa, Northern Ireland, your fucking anecdotes about baking, I suppose that was just a set-up. Well bully for you, you almost had me fooled.”
Bodie bit his lip. “That’s not important now. You have to get out of here, this place is dangerous. Paul must be here somewhere.”
“You think Paul’s the one making Gregory get involved? Come to that, how did your lot know about my paintings, but not about where or how I was getting the paint?”
“That’d be thanks to your friend Mrs Howard in Henbridge. With the gift shop?”
“With my paintings,” Ray let out a sigh. “I was using the paint for them too! I never bothered telling Gregory about what I sent her – it was the second class stuff after all, and… Oh tell me you’ve not sent some injured James Bond type through her window?”
Bodie gave a short laugh. “No, she checked out. But if she hadn’t been selling them, and if my boss hadn’t happened to buy one and happened to bring it near the only equipment that would detect that sort of thing, well, the scheme might have stayed undetected for decades. Anyway,” he straightened up. “Listen, you need to get out of here now. I’ve left the bike round the back, you can be on it and away in five minutes, get to a phonebox and ring the police.”
“No way.” Ray folded his arms. “I came here to help Gregory and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“Even knowing he set you up?”
Ray felt another wave of horror and disgust at the thought – all those false moments, all those lies, all those manipulations – but nodded. “Even then. He’s scared of Paul - scared of his partner – I saw enough of that in the police, and it’s something that no one deserves.” He paused, raised his eyebrow. “You know I was in the police, I take it, then?”
Bodie gave another quick nod. He had the grace to look a bit uncomfortable.
“So why on Earth would you think I was crooked?”
“They tried to blackmail you once, they might try again.” Bodie spoke the words carefully and levelly, stripped of feeling.
Another wave of disgust rose in Ray’s gorge. “What did they have left to leverage me with? After that?”
“Only you would know. There’s no particular reason to assume that Syd Parker was your only sexual partner in the Metropolitan… Now watch it!” Bodie finished, startled, because Ray had seen red and stormed over towards him, ready to knock him down, gun or no gun. “You want to help Gregory or not?”
“Syd Parker was worth ten of you. Ten thousand of you,” Ray spat out, and made himself back down and walk away again. If Bodie was right in no other way, he was in this; they had to concentrate.
- - -
A search of the rest of the second floor revealed nothing and no one. Ray and Bodie moved through the rooms together, and whilst Ray kept an eye on Bodie’s movements and didn’t doubt the same was happening in return, he certainly had faith in the man’s skills to investigate a space.
They went down to the first floor, struggling to keep their movements silent on the stairs, and Ray was struck again with the horribly déjà vu of their passing this way again so soon together, and with so much changed – with so much revealed, not least his own idiocy.
He couldn’t believe he’d let himself trust anyone, anything, the way he had with Bodie and his stupid cock-and-bull story. That he’d let his vulnerability make him foolish, his loneliness make him weak.
At least he’d never have to see Bodie again after today. He was certainly under no illusions that Bodie would ever want to see him, not after seeing what an idiot he’d allowed himself to be.
On the first floor they looked in each room again, not pausing long.
“I looked through the place when I arrived, and that was probably a while before you did,” Bodie said. “It was deserted, just like this. I mean, it’s worth double-checking no one’s come in behind, but I’m starting to doubt they’re still around here.”
“What about your precious outbuildings?” Ray asked, unable to keep the venom from his voice. “Come to that, if my connection to Gregory was a surprise to you, why did you mention needing to come here and search in the first place, that first evening?”
“Seemed like a convincing cover story – you’d never believe how many isolated mansions end up having something nefarious going on in them,” Bodie said with a shrug. “But I suppose I may have to chalk it up to my awesome intuition.”
Ray shot a glance at him and frowned. He had the oddest feeling that – despite everything – Bodie was rather enjoying himself.
“And you realised that this place was genuinely involved, when?”
“When he gave you that parcel I had suspicions – you have to admit it look dodgy from any angle. At least he had the horse sense not to do it in front of Paul but it was dangerous and fairly stupid. And then we found that room with the paintings, and…”
“And you created a little diversion so that you could study them better,” Ray finished for him, cheeks burning.
Bodie cleared his throat, and went ahead to go down the last flight of stairs and back to ground level. Ray followed.
“What’s that?” Ray asked, a few steps from the bottom. “Stop a moment.”
In the silence it came again, the faint echoing clang.
“That direction.” Bodie said, and pointed.
“I did look through the kitchen.” Ray said, confused.
“So did I. But…”
They listened, but the sound did not repeat itself. Nonetheless, Bodie moved on again down the corridor towards the servants’ wing, gun in both hands and ready before him, and Ray followed.
Slowly, Bodie pushed the kitchen door open. The room was still empty, the washing-up still in its piles.
Bodie shot a look at Ray, then went to check – as Ray had done earlier – inside all the larger cupboards.
“Hey,” Ray called, having gone over to the far wall, near the old stone sinks. “What’s this?”
There was a long curtain hanging against the wall, a highly patterned piece of fabric that Ray had assumed at first glance to be there merely as decoration, part of the interior revamp. But this time he’d noticed that it didn’t hang entirely flat, and when he pushed the edge aside he could see the lump in the line had been a handle to the door which the hanging concealed. There was a keyhole under the handle, but when Ray studied the architrave he couldn’t see that the door was locked.
“Nice one,” Bodie muttered, coming over.
Suddenly, the clanging noise started again, this time unmistakably on the other side of the door.
Ray’s eyes met Bodies’. Bodie reached out for the door handle and nodded quickly, Ray going to the other side of the frame, mallet in hand, hoping to cover the view Bodie would be unable to see.
Bodie opened the door, revealing a dark, dank space that seemed several degrees colder than the room leading into it.
“Ray?” a voice called out.
As Ray’s eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, he saw him – Gregory, bound hand and foot, and tied up to some sort of apparatus fixed to the wall.
“Ray?” Gregory called again. “Oh thank goodness. Ray, I’m so sorry. It was never meant to be like this.”
“Gregory!” Ray went over to him, reaching for his bindings – thick rope, with chains holding the wrist bindings to the wall bracket, which connected to what he thought might be a mangle. “What happened?”
Gregory was trembling, whether with fear or cold or some mixture of both, Ray couldn’t guess. He ought to feel angry with Gregory as he did with Bodie, he knew, but the simple fact was that he didn’t. And not because he thought what Gregory had done was more forgivable – by all rights it was many times worse – but because, he had to admit, what Gregory did and what Gregory thought simply didn’t matter to him that much any more. Really never had.
“I didn’t want to do it, Ray, you have to believe me! I didn’t want to be involved and I certainly didn’t want you to be.”
“So he’s telling the truth then, Greg?” Ray pointed back at Bodie. “When you were helping me with my art, you were really just using me to provide a way to smuggle national secrets about? That was why you came and chatted me up?”
“No!” Gregory squirmed and winced, apparently as uncomfortable to be confronted as Bodie had been at some pains not to be. “I liked you. I wanted to talk to you. It was only when… I just mentioned it, I didn’t think anything of it – that you were a painter, I mean.”
“Mentioned it to who?”
“To Paul. Paul’s always…” Gregory licked his lips, swallowed hard. “Paul’s always been around. Well, for years anyway. It was my father who started it. He had these debts – gambling debts at first and then debts to the bank for loans and then debts to the loan sharks, and they were getting worse and worse… it got to the point where they owned him hook, line and sinker, three or four times over. And then I inherited and they owned me. It’s more than I could ever dream of re-paying, and they gave me a choice, co-operate with them when they wanted or… well, there wasn’t a choice. And then one day Paul turned up – this was five or six years ago. He knows the lenders somehow, I suppose. They must have told him I was an easy touch. Anyway he basically moved in here.”
“But we came here that time!” Ray protested. “You showed me around.”
“Not all the house,” Gregory pointed out. “You didn’t think that he’d done all these renovations since January, did you?”
“So the whole time we were together, you were…?”
Gregory chewed hard on his lip, and looked past Ray’s shoulder before hanging his head. Ray spun round and caught Bodie with a look of such contempt on his face that it almost made him shiver.
And made him softer than he might have been.
“But he made you help him?”
Gregory nodded. “He didn’t… I wasn’t here often, at first, and he didn’t seem to care to see me much. He just wanted somewhere to decorate, honestly I think that’s all. A blank canvas and all for free. But then, like I say, he found out that you were a painter and… actually I think I might even have said something, asked him something about finding a good paint supplier after you asked me – I mean, he’s in the decorating trade, I thought he might know! And then a few weeks later he gave me that first box of oil paints and told me to pass them on to you. I didn’t know what they where or what it meant. I was just so used to doing what I was told by then…”
“So I painted,” Ray murmured. “And they got carted off to your friend’s place in London – did that ever even exist?”
“Oh yes,” Gregory nodded. “It’s a real business, a respectable one. The pictures went there and a third party bought them, I think, and shipped them abroad and that was that.”
Bodie came up behind him and cleared his throat, then handed over a knife that Ray recognised from the kitchen.
“And then,” Ray supplied, starting to work on Gregory’s bindings. “I broke up with you, and I stopped painting. And you were in hot water.”
“Paul was furious.” Gregory admitted, and winced as if at the memory. “He was going to try and produce the pictures himself, but he’s not got the talent for it, not really. Not good enough for a highbrow gallery, which is what they wanted all along, for the respectability of it. I was hoping he’d go to London to sort things out but he’d stayed on here, and he likes me living here now. He likes having everything under his control,” he added and shuddered again.
Ray had got Gregory’s legs free, now he moved to work on the rope at his wrists. “But you decided to tip me off tonight?”
Gregory gave a small smile. “You’re the first people to have come here in weeks. It was now or never. I knew you’d hate me, but… And then he overheard me – he came back, he was back from dropping you off and he heard and then…”
“What you did took bravery,” Bodie said suddenly, stepping forward. “And presumably Paul figured it out – what did he do? Where is he?”
“What?” Gregory boggled. “You haven’t…? I assumed you’d knocked him out or tied him up or something! He was just going to sit and read his magazines, that’s what he said.”
“Unfortunately,” said a voice from the door, “but really, only like all the rest of you here, I lied.”
- - -
For a moment there was silence, Ray, Bodie and Gregory all staring at where Paul was silhouetted in the doorway, a gun in one hand.
“Paul!” Gregory cried out. “Please!”
“Shut up,” Paul snapped. “Well this is a mess, isn’t it? Over there,” he ordered Bodie, gesturing. “Put that gun down and kick it over. No, don’t even think about it. I can shoot either of them before you get to me, you want to take that risk?”
As Ray watched, Bodie shot a glance at him, bit his lip and then surrendered his weapon.
“Why’d you have to go and shack up with some special forces meathead like this, eh Ray?” Paul was saying now, shaking his head theatrically. “I mean, Ray, honestly, we could have worked out a deal, couldn’t we? You were onto a good thing, when you think about it; a steady flow of cash, messing about painting and no one to bother you? Fair enough you got tired of shagging Gregory, but that didn’t have to matter. If you’d come here on your own we could have worked out a nice bargain. But him,” he gestured at Bodie. “I’m not taking the risk on him not selling us out to the authorities, and now I’m going to have to kill him, and that’s just tedious.”
Ray tried to keep his breathing steady as his mind raced, processing Paul’s words.
Paul didn’t know that Bodie was CI5, which meant he hadn’t realised he was under investigation prior to, presumably, overhearing Gregory’s phone call to Ray and finding himself betrayed. He thought Bodie was a risk because he was a former soldier.
Ray met Bodie’s eye. Would telling Paul about Bodie’s CI5 connection make the situation better or worse?
Very slightly, Bodie shook his head. Ray looked down and then away, and tried to think.
“Which just leaves the question of where that paint tube is,” Paul said. “I know Gregory passed it over, so where did you put it? There’s no point lying – I can do a lot of things to one of you before the others won’t be able to tell me anymore.”
“I’ve got it,” Bodie said, drawing himself up. Ray tensed.
“You do?” Paul said. “OK, where?”
Bodie’s voice was calm, cold. “Outside. In the bike.”
“Where’s the bike?”
“I can’t remember exactly. It’s jolly dark out there, you know. But I might know if I went looking.”
Paul gave a derisive snort. “I don’t think so. Ray can show me.”
“Ray didn’t come with me. He doesn’t know where the bike is. A lot of ground to search, really, and in the dark, if you don’t know where to start. And something tells me you want to be gone before morning – what have you been doing all this time since you tied up Gregory? I’m betting a long phone call, and I’m betting the plane they’re sending is coming soon, and that you don’t want to meet the people coming for you without that paint tube.”
Paul stared at him, then turned to look at Ray, his gaze directed near Ray’s behind. Ray realised that the handcuffs he’d stashed in his back pocket had come loose, one cuff dangling out.
“Put them on your friend,” Paul instructed, the gun held to cover both of them. “Tight now, properly. Either of you makes a false move – boom! The other one gets it, understand? No, not like that!”
Ray had been putting Bodie’s wrists in front of him, trying to take his time, trying to read the other man’s expression, see if there was instruction or inspiration there. Now he stopped.
“Put one hand up and over behind his shoulder, yes, like that. And the other round behind his back, now fasten them like that. Yes.”
Ray winced to see the discomfort on Bodie’s face from the awkward hold, and tried to fasten the cuffs as loose as he thought he could get away with. Then Bodie went forward, stumbling a little as the odd position of his arms threw off his balance, and coughing again, muttering under the strain.
Paul backed out of the laundry room, and pulled Bodie roughly out after him. Then Ray cried out as he saw Bodie kicked to the floor.
“Don’t think about trying anything,” Paul hissed, and slammed the door shut, leaving Ray and Gregory in almost total darkness. There was the sound of a key turning in the lock.
“Bodie!” Ray called out, running to throw himself against the door, banging at it, wanting to see more, needing to know if Bodie was OK. He must be - Paul must need him to show the way to the bike. But the paint wasn’t with the bike, Ray knew that somehow – Bodie would have deposited it somewhere with the ‘samples’ he’d taken of Ray’s paintings, and when Paul found that out, would he shoot Bodie in his frustration? Or bring him back for leverage?
“Oh Christ,” Ray muttered, and kicked the door again. He could just about hear voices the other side – Paul instructing Bodie how to leave the kitchen, no doubt – and then there was silence.
“I’m so sorry, Ray,” Gregory repeated. “You really care about him, don’t you? I’m glad you’ve got someone new, someone you care about.”
“If he’s still around after tonight,” Ray spat, thinking only afterwards that of course he didn’t really ‘have’ Bodie at all.
“Isn’t there anything we can do?”
Ray sighed and looked round in the slight illumination from the windows high up near the ceiling of the room, too small to get through even if they opened, even if they weren’t barred over. The great copper-lined sinks had to drain somewhere, but that pipe would be ridiculously small too. If they got the mangle off its fixings and managed between them to bring it to the door they might use it as a battering ram, but that would be audible for a long time before it was effective, and only bring Paul to wait the other side for them.
Ray hung his head.
Then a glint caught his eye. Something on the floor in front of the door, something small.
Ray dropped to crouch by it and pick it up. A small silver rod – several together, in fact, very thin, fixed together at the base and fanning out like a Swiss Army Knife.
He thought back to Bodie’s stumble, to the noise and complaint he’d made – enough to mask the sound of a small item falling to a stone floor.
“I haven’t picked a lock in years,” Ray said slowly, “but let’s hope I still can.”
- - -
Once more Ray was creeping through Henbray House, this time with Gregory’s rapid, anxious breathing announcing his presence beside him in the dark. Ray was desperate to go to the back of the house and look out of the windows for any sign of where Bodie had got to, but he knew that entering a lighted room was too risky – none of the curtains were drawn – in case Paul happened to be looking that way and realise they had escaped. And switching a light off could draw attention even more easily.
“Which way is it through to the garden?” Ray asked in a hushed voice. “Could I get out to the main grounds from there?”
“Yes,” Gregory whispered back. “There is a wall but it’s quite low, we can climb it easily.”
“I’ll go,” Ray told him. “You phone the police.”
“I can’t!” Gregory protested. “Paul cut the phone wires when he caught me trying to talk to you! That’s why he had to go to the phone box down the road to make his call to his bosses, like Bodie said.”
“OK, fine, well you stay here then and wait for me.”
“Oh Ray, no.” Gregory’s eyes were wide, imploring. “Please don’t leave me alone. I’m so sorry for lying to you, I want to help, please don’t leave me behind.”
Ray couldn’t quite bring himself to say he didn’t mind what Gregory had done, but he did feel for him. From the sounds of it, after all, he’d never had much choice in what he’d been doing or much chance of one, and no safety-net or support to fall back on.
If Ray had taken a deeper interest, back when they were together, if he’d wanted to know Gregory on a deeper level, perhaps then the confession might have come. But they’d never been so very close, and there was nothing to be done about that now.
“Fine then,” Ray said. “But don’t make a sound, got it?”
Gregory nodded rapidly. “The garden’s this way,” he whispered, and led on.
Ray could scarcely control his own breathing as they made their way out onto the lawn and then around to where a low brick wall marked the boundary between regimented garden and the meadows of the grounds beyond. His mouth was dry, his hands sweating. Anything could be happening to Bodie right now and Ray was powerless to help – and he shouldn’t care so much, but he did. There was nothing to be done about that either.
He could not easily forgive Bodie, any more than Gregory – in fact he wanted to talk to him, to interrogate him, try and understand not only what he’d been sent to do but the man himself. Ray wanted answers to all the mysteries that were Bodie, and there was no point denying it.
He could get lost in Bodie further and faster than he’d ever lost himself in his own head.
Clearing the garden wall, the brick rough beneath his hands, Ray stopped on the far side and paused.
He’d heard a noise coming from the trees.
Gregory came down with a thud beside him, and Ray turned to ask if he’d heard anything, but Gregory was doubled over, breathing heavily, and clearly hadn’t noticed.
The noise came again. Voices. Raised voices.
Ray crept forwards, trying to move as fast as possible, whilst keeping his footsteps light.
Then he saw them.
Paul was holding a torch, and the beam was shining straight at Bodie, who appeared to be working on the catch for the box on the back of Ray’s motorbike.
“I said get a move on!” Paul shouted. “Or you can do that with half your foot missing!”
“Just a second,” Bodie told him, one hand raised in appeasement, the pair of cuffs still dangling from the other. “Bloody thing – I need… you’ll have to help me, I need three hands.”
“Oh no!” Paul kept his distance. “You won’t fool me. Get it done!”
“Well give me a chance then!”
Overhead there was a rumbling noise, too steady for thunder. Ray craned his neck and thought he saw a dark shadow on the horizon, coming closer.
Paul’s bosses, his pick-up, it had to be. They were running out of time.
“Hurry up!” Paul yelled, and Ray saw Bodie making a good show of trying to operate the two catches – which were supposed to spring free at a touch, but were the kind that could stick – one hand to each catch and then not able to move quickly enough to actually lift the lid whilst the thing was unlocked.
“Give us a hand!” Bodie insisted again. He was playing a dangerous game, risking everything on one gamble.
But Paul was having none of it. “Oh no indeed,” he said, shaking his head. “No, you stand back. Back some more. Yeah. Stay there. I’m going to blow the damn thing away – should have done that from the start.”
Paul chucked the torch to the ground where it lay, still more or less illuminating the bike, Paul and Bodie dark shapes above. Ray could see Paul raising his gun in both hands, leveling it to aim at the top of the bike box.
Bodie was still in Paul’s line of sight, but off to the side – a wild shot would be unlikely to hit him, Ray reckoned.
Ray hefted the wooden mallet in his hand, ready to throw at Paul’s head. He’d get one shot at this.
Overhead, the rumbling intensified, the ground seeming to shake with it.
Ray lifted the mallet, aimed…
And suddenly Paul was flung to the ground, collapsing under the sideways assault from a figure who’d come up behind him unnoticed.
“Gregory!” Ray called out, and ran forwards. The two men were wrestling on the ground, the gun somewhere between them, the details hard to make out in the pale light and the one slim beam from the torch. Ray rushed to try and intervene, and saw Bodie do the same, both of them trying to get Gregory free and Paul subdued, but it was impossible to see and so hard to figure out whose limb was whose in the melee.
It seemed to Ray to go on forever – the struggle, the tangle of them, the confusion, someone moaning, harsh breaths and curses and his own continual fear of feeling the nose of the gun come up hard and snub against his ribs.
Then came the shot. A sudden, shocking, awful sound that made them all shudder with recoil.
Ray froze. He felt fine. No pain anywhere. Who had been hit? The noise had been a thud, a sick slow noise of bullet hitting flesh.
“I’ll shoot again!” Paul was yelling, and he lifted his head clear to make himself heard, his profile suddenly clear against the light. “I’ll do him again! Move or I’ll…”
Ray punched him in the jaw. His head snapped back and he fell away, unconscious.
Ray scrambled up, pushing at the limp weight that was now Paul’s body. In the darkness the blood on his shirt looked black, but there was no wound, no break it the shirt - it wasn’t his own.
“Gregory?” Ray called out – he could see Gregory’s face now as they all moved, and his look was one of horror.
“No,” Gregory was murmuring. “No, it was…” and he pointed at Bodie, who was, Ray saw now, still hunched over on the ground.
Frantically, Ray grabbed the torch from the ground and got the light onto him, onto his middle where he was holding his arms tight around himself.
Blood. Too much blood. Bodie had a wound in his side. He’d been gut-shot.
“Don’t you fucking dare!” Ray told him, reaching for him, somehow moving on knees and hands and getting to his side, pulling Bodie’s shoulders up so that he could rest against Ray’s lap rather than the muddy ground. “Don’t you fucking dare think you can get away without explaining yourself to me.”
“The plane…” Gregory was saying, and the noise was getting louder still, passing above them, perhaps looking for a place to land.
“Get Paul tied up. Secure him,” Bodie muttered, and then coughed hard.
Gregory moved at once, getting his shirt off and going to start tying it round Paul’s wrists. Ray was conscious of registering a faint surprise at his initiative, but he was too busy looking at Bodie to take in much else. Bodie was getting pale, his skin clammy.
“It’s bad luck to fucking shoot yourself, you fool – didn’t you know that?” Ray gave him a little shake, and started getting his own shirt off, balling it up to press against Bodie’s abdomen and try and stem the loss of blood from the wound. “You brought this on yourself, it’s bloody karma for your leg!”
“Everyone else gets to shoot at me, I was feeling left out.” Bodie gave a small laugh, and coughed wretchedly again. “I did get those scars in Africa, you know,” he added, more quietly. “Angola, actually. None in Northern Ireland, though. I mean, I was there, but I didn’t get a mark on me. Not on the outside, at least.”
“Oh? So now you want to tell me things?” Ray bit his lip, looking around. There was no sign of anyone coming. Could he carry Bodie back to the house? But what would he do with him there? It would take an ambulance far too long to get out here, he knew that much well enough.
Bodie looked up at him. “I always wanted to tell you things,” he said. “Like how happy you are in all this nonsense, chasing villains, making plots. Anyone can see this is what you want – why can’t you?” And his eyes slowly drifted closed.
“Don’t you dare, you son of a bitch, don’t you dare!” Ray was aware that he was shouting and didn’t care. He lifted Bodie up as best he could, shaking him again. “Stay with me, you hear?”
Now there was a sound of voices, of gunshots beyond the trees. Ray looked round. He still couldn’t take anything in. There were men coming, men with lights and large weapons and Ray blinked his eyes as they threatened to blur and held on tight to Bodie – let them take Paul, take the paint, anything, but not Bodie.
Then came the voice, in a Scottish lilt that was vaguely familiar.
“It’s alright, lad. We’re CI5. Let me help you with him. Let me, now.”
- - -
It was now nearing seven o’clock in the morning, and beyond the windows in the hospital corridor, Ray could see the sun starting to rise, yellow and orange flame creeping through the sky. He pressed his head against the glass, hoping the cold would soothe, and sighed. He could feel his pulse still racing, never having stopped, it felt, since the day before. He was exhausted now, adrenaline-weary and sore-eyed, but still the fear wouldn’t ebb.
Anything to occupy his mind for even a minute or two away from what was happening elsewhere:
“So why would Bodie come to investigate me by telling me he thought there was something dodgy going on?” Ray asked. “I still don’t get it.”
Ray turned round and looked at Mr George Cowley, who was sitting in a low-slung hospital chair, his Barbour jacket falling out round him like some kind of plumage, stirring a polystyrene cup of coffee which one of his underlings had brought him, and adding a nip to it from a flask in his pocket. He offered the flask to Ray, who after a moment took it and downed a swig, handing it back with a grateful nod.
“Our theory was,” Cowley continued, “that by alerting you to observation, whilst making you think that you yourself had been undiscovered, it would lead you to rash action that would expose more of the plot and demonstrate the parts of it we had yet to understand.”
“Well, I suppose that happened. In a way.” Ray went to sit in another of the chairs, and folded his arms. “Sending him in, though, no back-up, no nothing?”
“Well, this Paul Barrow doesn’t seem to have worked out that Bodie was an agent, does he?” Cowley raised his eyebrow. “Sometimes it’s the most unlikely things that are the most convincing – as you say, no one would think we’d send an agent in under those circumstances. Not, I might add, that he supposed to shoot himself in the leg. That was his own bit of theatre. Not always easy to guide, that man.”
Ray rubbed at his eyes, and couldn’t stifle a yawn. “Thank goodness he managed to contact you before searching Henbray, at least.”
“Yes. Mr Bodie can be a bit of a lone wolf, but I’m glad that on this occasion he saw the importance of reporting in. He was lucky, though, that that phone box was in repair.” Cowley tilted his head on one side. “It would have been much simpler to phone from your cottage. He really was taking every precaution to prevent your following him to that house. But all the same, you did.”
“No, I didn’t follow him!” Ray snorted. “I went to help Gregory. For all I knew Bodie had buggered off into the wide blue yonder, I mean why wouldn’t I think…?” he trailed off, aware of his voice going scratchy, and gripped tightly at the arms of his chair.
He looked down the corridor. Bodie had been in surgery for over three hours now. CI5 had brought a medic with them, and an ambulance swiftly in their wake, but even that might not be enough. Nothing might be enough.
“What will happen to Gregory, do you think?” Ray asked, clearing his throat.
Cowley leaned forward, tenting his fingers. “Well, I can’t give any guarantees. He did handle the stolen information. But since he seems more than willing to give evidence against his one-time associates, and without any personal gain from what was going on, given the duress he was under… Oh, I might see him getting some sort of suspended sentence. And if you were willing to testify on his behalf?”
Ray nodded. “If it would help.”
“Some wouldn’t be so generous. He did lie to you.”
“Bodie lied to me,” Ray retorted. “So did you, come to that.”
Cowley sighed. “Well, that can be the nature of the beast in our line of work. But you’d know that, with your background.”
“What about my background?” Ray asked, tensing.
“You had an impressive record for a police constable of your age when you left the force. Have you ever thought of going back into the field?”
“No. And you know why.”
“Not every organization in this country is as… blinkered as the police. You are an exceptional man, Mr Doyle, in many ways, and in CI5 I’m always on the look out for that.”
Ray gaped at him. “You can’t be serious?”
“Oh, I assure you I am. Think about it a wee while before you say anything more.”
“But Bodie and I….” Ray stopped, biting his tongue. If he couldn’t believe that CI5 would tolerate him being homosexual, then admitting what he and Bodie had done couldn’t be good for Bodie’s career either.
Cowley coughed, and took a last swig of his coffee. “Think it over. And do let me assure you that I never make any suggestion without being fully cognizant of the facts.”
Ray was going to speak again, but a movement caught his eye, the sound of a door swinging open, and then he turned to see a man in surgical scrubs pacing down the corridor towards them, a green gown still loosely tied round his waist, stained with blood.
“Well then?” Cowley asked, standing up and stepping forward to address the man.
Ray froze, his whole body tense.
The surgeon gave a weary grin. “I think he’ll make it.”
- - -
“Those for me, eh? You really shouldn’t have.”
Ray ignored the words, and lifted the bouquet of stinging nettles – some of stems bearing miniscule white flowers – out of the plastic bag he’d brought them in, carried on the back of his bike from his cottage garden here to the hospital in Grantham where Bodie had been recuperating for the past two weeks.
“Touching gesture,” Bodie added, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah, well, let’s just say my feelings about you remained distinctly mixed,” Ray told him, and drew a chair up by the bedside.
It was the first time he’d visited, the first time he’d seen Bodie – at least while Bodie was conscious – since the shooting. He’d kept phoning in for progress reports, but until today he’d not felt equal to a confrontation.
Paul and the surviving passengers of the private plane that had come to collect him were behind bars awaiting trial. As indeed was Gregory, but in a different – and much pleasanter – institution. Ray had visited him, heard about CPS bargains and future plans, group therapies and hopes. But that all faded from his mind now; it had always been too easy for him to take or leave Gregory.
“I did tell you not to trust me,” Bodie said now.
Ray glared at him. “You might as well have been the sodding riddle of the Sphinx. You talked a lot and said very little.” He took a deep breath. Bodie was trying, he thought, to compose his face in the cold blankness of indifference. He wasn’t quite succeeding.
“Mind you,” Ray continued. “Sometimes actions speak louder than words.”
He put his hand out, and tentatively held onto Bodie’s fist where it lay, tense and clenched, on the bedclothes.
He saw Bodie relaxing, fractionally. And then Bodie smiled. A small, uncertain grin, but a genuine one.
“Your boss wants me to stick around,” Ray said. “He, um… When you were in surgery, before, I think he asked me to apply to CI5. He told me to think about it. Well, I have been, but I realised I needed to know what you thought, perhaps even more than what I do.”
Bodie bit his lip, and shuffled in the bed. He was, Ray realised, trying to sit up more, and Ray went to help him, getting his arm around Bodie’s back to lift him. He smelt of sweat and cheap soap, but it was still a thrill to be near him again, a sudden intrusion of sound and light into Ray’s existence that he couldn’t ignore.
Not unless Bodie told him he had to.
“So, what do you think?” Ray prompted, trying to keep the nerves from his voice.
Bodie stared at him for a long moment. “I think,” he said, slowly, “that sounds pretty good.”
“Would it be? Really? You don’t mind me being in your life?”
“If you can stand having me in yours,” Bodie pointed out, and with something intense in his tone, something vulnerable. Something Ray wanted to notice and ask about, to diagnose and soothe.
“Mind you,” Bodie continued. “Wouldn’t be as quiet as life in the country. Not so much peace or time to yourself.”
Ray grinned, and took his hand again. Bodie’s answering grip was warm and firm.
It was an English sort of midsummer day – overcast and cloudy – and with the stark hospital fluorescents on them they were easily reflected in the windows of Bodie’s room, side by side and shining.
“I think,” Ray said, and felt his mouth working into a smile, “that I could probably stand a bit of company.”
- - -