Nicholas Angel knew it was going to be a bad day when he woke up on Christmas Eve face-to-face with a dead body.
"Shit," said Nicholas, and went from sitting down to standing without any of the bits between. This was probably a metaphor for Nicholas Angel's life right now, because as far as he knew he'd gone from pub-with-Danny to waking-up-next-to-dead-body without any in-between bits. "Shit," Nicholas said again for good measure, and took a look around.
The former occupant of the body was a Mr Dick Mason. He'd started working at the pub after Roy and Mary Porter's arrest, but he never went in weekends. Nicholas was sure Mr Mason hadn't been at the pub last night. He'd have been right ... here, in his own home, with a collection of carved sheep on the shelf above the fireplace, and blood all over the carpet. Nicholas didn't run a hand through his hair in agitation, because it would be very messy. Instead he rubbed the blood off his hands onto his own trousers as best he could, went to Mr Mason's phone, and called the station.
A Turner answered the phone. "Sandford Police."
"It's Angel, Sergeant," Nicholas said. He sounded breathless and hated it. "You'll need to get a forensics team down here -- fourteen Honeysuckle Lane -- fast as you can."
"Right you are, Inspector," Turner said with the cheer of obliviousness, and hung up on Nicholas. He set the phone very gently back in its cradle and breathed in and out a couple of times, just to make sure he still could. Mr Mason's sightless blue eyes stared at him accusingly.
Forensics arrived five minutes later, a curious Danny in tow. He went to stand by Nicholas in the doorway and watched the careful cleanup process. Nicholas felt a little better with Danny there; better enough, anyway, to start talking and be sure he would sound fairly normal. "This is terrible," he said.
"I know." Danny gave him a sympathetic smile. "'s a shame for this to happen on Christmas."
Nicholas stared at Mr Mason's face until the zip of the body-bag closed over it. "No," he said, quietly enough forensics probably couldn't hear him, "Danny -- I'm not sure who did it."
"Yeah. Never mind though, hey?" Danny bumped shoulders with him gently, one of a hundred bits of casual contact Nicholas had grown used to over their months working together. "We'll find out who did it in time for Christmas dinner."
"No, you don't understand." Nicholas found it necessary to take another one of those deep breaths. "I don't -- I don't know for certain it wasn't me."
Danny gave him a look of pure honest astonishment. "Course it wasn't!"
"Really? Right. What time did we leave the pub last night?"
"Dunno," Danny said. "Listen, Nicholas, you can't think you did anything to Mr Mason."
"Danny." Nicholas took his arm and pulled him out into the front yard. It was bitterly cold and Danny's breath puffed out in little clouds. "The best thing you can do for me right now is tell me exactly how I got from the pub last night to here this morning, because I don't remember a damn thing and anything you've got would be helpful now." Danny's face fell with awful swiftness, as though he'd hauled off and punched Danny without warning, so Nicholas added, perhaps a little pleadingly, "Anything you've got might help."
"We left around ... eleven?" Danny hazarded. "Yeah. You left me at my place and went right to yours. That's all." He wouldn't meet Nicholas's eyes.
"That's all," Nicholas pressed. "You're absolutely sure, Danny?"
"Mm-hm," Danny said unconvincingly.
"Get statements from the neighbors, then," Nicholas said, "and make sure to go round the pub. I'll get the Andys on it." He saw the look on Danny's face and added, as gently as he could, "This can't be my case, Danny, not while I'm a suspect."
"But you found the body," Sergeant Fisher protested ten minutes later, frowning. "Don't think you'd be reporting your findings if you did do it."
"I don't know if I did it," Nicholas explained yet again, and ignored the twin looks the Andys shot him on their way out. Instead he gritted his teeth and sat down at his old sergeant's desk. Far be it from him to go into the inspector's office right now.
"Well," Sergeant Fisher said, and ran out of small talk.
"Listen," Nicholas said, "you have a family to be getting back to, don't you, Tony? It's Christmas Eve. Go home."
Which left Nicholas alone in the station. Technically this was very unprofessional. He could tamper with evidence. The temporary station didn't even have a proper evidence room; they kept any impounded articles locked in the broom cupboard while the old station was rebuilt. Just now a gun with Nicholas' fingerprints all over it was sitting on some shelf in that broom cupboard, and while the Andys were out asking questions, while Danny was taking statements and Fisher was home with his family and Doris was on holiday, Nicholas was sitting here with his hands metaphorically tied, doing nothing. So. Last night.
He'd been in the pub, yeah, with Danny, as usual. Mr Mason hadn't been bartending that night; it was the new girl who was in on weekends. Ginny, that was it. Couple pints of beer for both of them, and then ...
That was all. Nicholas was on his feet and radioing Danny before he remembered any involvement with the case was strictly off-limits; but by then Danny had answered. Nicholas listened to the crackle and the expectant silence, and said, "Bring me a sandwich or something when you come back to the station."
"Right," said Danny half an hour later, sitting down across the desk from Nicholas and handing him the requested sandwich. "Don't look so down. You're in the clear!"
"And how do you figure that?" Nicholas asked, unwrapping it. Corned beef and lettuce.
"Cos I got time of death!" Danny said triumphantly. "Mrs Cocker said she heard a shot roundabouts ten-thirty. We weren't out of the pub until eleven. And," he added when Nicholas opened his mouth, "Jeannie's sister's brother's boy saw us go." He gave Nicholas a soft crooked smile. "Told you you didn't do it."
"Well," Nicholas said. Something tight in his chest quietly released. "In that case --"
"I want to know who set you up," Danny said. "Reckon they were the killer."
"Mmfl," Nicholas started, and swallowed the sandwich bite before trying again. "Tell me absolutely everything that happened between our arrival at the pub and when you left me in front of your house." He saw the objection start on Danny's face and said, "Please, Danny. I must've drunk something spiked or I'd remember, and from the way you're carrying on I expect I did something really embarrassing, but don't spare me."
"No, it wasn't bad," Danny protested.
"Two years ago I had a few too many eggnogs and ended up wandering shirtless around the station quoting the handbook at everyone," Nicholas said. "It could be bad, trust me."
This wrung a little smile out of Danny. "Weren't nothing like that," he said. "Anyway, Doris wouldn't've missed that for the world."
"Mm," Nicholas agreed, going back to his sandwich to avoid pursuing this line of thought too far. "So. What happened?"
"We just had drinks," Danny said. "Ginny Porter pulled the pints. Is she a suspect, then?"
"She's top contender for the one to spike the drink," Nicholas pointed out. "Mine, specifically, since you seem to remember everything just fine. Was she there when we left?"
"I think so," Danny said. "Hey, I'll tell the Andys to find out how late she was in. You finish your sandwich."
Five minutes later, outside the station, he reported: "She was there 'til closing. She's not our murderer." He looked up and down the road and added, "But the Andys found a whole box of pills in the back, so we're taking her in for questioning."
"Good work," Nicholas murmured, frowning. Because -- it had been the fourth beer, he was counting, he'd been counting to make sure he didn't get too drunk and say anything stupid, but Danny was saying something very earnestly and he couldn't quite focus any longer -- bright little fragments of the previous night were starting to filter back through. "Danny," he said, "what did you say Ginny's last name was?"
"Porter," Danny replied, and his eyes went very wide. "She's only Roy and Mary's daughter back from university! Do you think it's revenge?"
"Frankly I'm surprised supporters of the NWA haven't taken some sort of action sooner," Nicholas admitted. He glanced sideways at Danny and saw the awful closed-in look he'd thought they'd banished months ago; and for the hundredth time Nicholas hated Frank Butterman for hurting Danny like this. "Come on," he said, at a loss for anything else. "Pub."
At the pub they found Ginny Porter sitting at a table, looking angry and bookended by an Andy on each side. "It weren't me, Inspector!" she burst out the moment she saw Nicholas. "You think I would've kept pills right in the back if I had?"
"Could be trying to throw us off the track," Wainwright said darkly.
"No, she has a point," Nicholas said. "Miss Porter, did you notice anything suspicious last night?"
"I did notice something a bit queer," Ginny said; Cartwright made a noise like a cough and Danny went pink. Nicholas tried not to look bewildered. "What about Johnny Tiller?" Ginny offered after a moment. "He never used to come to the pub, and he's been here every night for a week."
"It couldn't've been Johnny, though," Danny protested. "The NWA murdered his mum, didn't they?"
"Unless he was closer to his uncle," Nicholas suggested. "What time did Johnny Tiller leave, Miss Porter?"
"Round ten, I think," she said.
"Thank you, Miss Porter," Nicholas said, "you've been very helpful. Danny?"
"It's perfect," Danny said a minute later in the car, over the sound of Nicholas shutting his door. "Your place is about halfway between Johnny's and Mr Mason's. Wouldn't be that difficult to find you after I left and bring you down, would it?"
"Suppose not," Nicholas agreed, frowning, because -- there on the lane in front of Danny's cottage, where Nicholas was still standing warm and a little shaky on his feet, the boy had come up to him; You'd better come quick, Inspector, there's been a murder! -- "I saw him, Danny," Nicholas said. "He was smiling."
Danny gave him a quick sideways look before focusing on the road again to take a turn. "You're starting to remember stuff?"
"Just fragments, but -- enough." Nicholas rubbed his forehead, frowning. "Nothing conclusive, but I think we have enough for an arrest. He was very sure of himself."
"Thought it out, didn't he," Danny said, frowning too. "Framing you and Ginny Porter."
"Well," Nicholas said as the car screeched to a stop in front of Johnny Tiller's house, "he didn't think it out well enough." They got out and walked up to the door together, and for the first time that day Nicholas felt something approaching calm: he hadn't killed anyone, and Danny was here at his side, Danny who'd never for a moment even entertained the faintest supposition that Nicholas might have been the murderer. Danny raised his hand to ring the doorbell, and Nicholas said, "Danny." Danny turned to look at him, and Nicholas took a deep breath, unsure what to say. He settled for, "Thanks, partner," but he was perfectly understood; a smile spread like sunrise across Danny's face. He rang the doorbell.
A long pause. Danny rang the doorbell again.
A faint slamming noise reached them. "Back door," Nicholas said, and shared another swift glance with Danny; then Danny was heading for the car and Nicholas was running full-tilt through Johnny Tiller's garden and out the back.
Nicholas liked chasing suspects. There was something very simple about it: he, the law-abiding officer, pursuing the guilty and bringing justice in his wake. He leapt over a hedgerow and started across the field after the shape of Johnny Tiller, hoping very fervently that his foot wouldn't go through a gopher- or rabbit-hole. The air started burning though his lungs. Nicholas went faster. And maybe it was the cleanness of pursuit, clearing his mind, or maybe whatever Johnny had slipped him was wearing off, but without warning --
"No, I can't have another, Danny, I'm trying to tell you something," Nicholas said. He had another. Danny gave him a huge affectionate grin and Nicholas felt stupid and happy and tried to stop feeling stupid. "I'm trying to tell you I'm really glad you didn't die," he said.
"So'm I," Danny agreed, looking puzzled but not put off by this line of conversation.
"You know when I was stabbed," Nicholas said. "What I said?"
"Single most painful experience of your life," Danny quoted knowingly.
"Not true anymore," Nicholas said, privately blessing his beer. It wasn't hard to say. "The hour when they weren't sure you'd make it, Danny." He looked up and Danny was staring back at him with wide eyes, like he got it, the way understood every confession he'd gently unwittingly dragged from Nicholas. "Well," Nicholas said, a little embarrassed despite the inebriation, "it's late. We should be getting home."
"Yeah," Danny agreed. "No film tonight, eh? Don't want you to see the Christmas decorations before it's time."
"I like the decorations here," Nicholas said as they left the pub. "In London there are the same five songs in every department store and you wouldn't believe the shoplifting, but here --" Here kids cut out snowflakes in school and stuck them to the windows of their cottages; here white lights were strung up down the main street; here Danny had apparently shifted his cardboard boxes enough to fit a tree into his house so he could have a nice Christmas Eve dinner with Nicholas. He leaned on Danny and Danny leaned on him and they walked together towards Danny's cottage under the white lights.
"Well," Danny said, "this is me." They stood in front of the gate. "See you tomorrow."
"Wait," Nicholas said. He was still leaning on Danny's shoulder, and if he just turned a little and leaned forward, he could press his mouth to Danny's, so he did. It wasn't a proper kiss, but Danny held onto his arm and gave him a dazed grin anyway. "When I'm properly awake, we'll --" He wasn't sure what. "Okay?"
"Yeah," Danny agreed. "Just you remember this tomorrow."
"Of course I'll --" Nicholas started, and Danny kissed him again, properly this time --
"Oh," Nicholas said, and didn't trip over a rabbit hole or miss a step, just kept running; and in front of him Johnny Tiller did trip up over something, and went sprawling. Nicholas didn't laugh, because Nicholas never laughed while he was running, but Nicholas did grin a huge grin that almost hurt his face, and went for the handcuffs.
Danny appeared with the car a minute later. Johnny went into the back, scowling.
It took them until dinner to get Johnny Tiller processed, but it was worth it for Danny's pleased, "Told you we'd find out in time for Christmas dinner, didn't I?" as Nicholas clicked his pen shut.
"So you did," Nicholas agreed, and clapped Danny cheerfully on the back. Danny was very warm. Nicholas started grinning again and tried not to panic and followed Danny home.
Danny's idea of Christmas dinner probably left something to be desired, being very strong on fried food, but he'd remembered the eggnog, the Christmas tree was lovely, and it was miles better than Nicholas' previous Christmas. They watched It's A Wonderful Life pressed together on Danny's couch; Danny's present was a bigger pot for Nicholas's peace lily, which, despite its encounter with Lurch, was thriving.
"Danny, this is --" Nicholas rubbed his thumb along the ceramic edge of the pot and took a deep breath. "I think I bought you a jumper or something, but forget that." He looked up at Danny, who still looked happy despite the news about the jumper, and said, "I remember."
"Yeah, that's how we got Johnny Tiller," Danny agreed.
"No, I mean," Nicholas said, and gave up completely. There was no space between them anyway (hadn't been for months) so he just kissed Danny, the pot for the peace lily pressed a little uncomfortably between them and some ad playing Deck the Halls blaring from the telly.
"Wait," Danny said a little breathlessly, and tugged at the pot. "Don't want it to get broken," he explained, setting it gently on the floor, and Nicholas did start laughing then, in relief and astonishment.
"I don't care," he said. "I really don't care."
"Oh," Danny said, and, bless him, he understood that too, and kissed Nicholas again. So, safe under Christmas lights and wrapped up in Danny, Nicholas switched off, just a little. This time he wouldn't forget.