The whole team was gathered at their usual pub, celebrating DC Mansell’s engagement to a woman named Shirley or Cheryl; Joe hadn’t been able to catch her name earlier when she was introduced to him. Later, he would look back and think, ’that’s where it all began’, but sitting there clutching his first pint while the crowd around him got more drunk by the minute, he only wondered if someone had taken the bride-to-be to the side to warn her that in Mansell’s case, third time didn’t necessarily have to be the charm.
The whole evening was one long déjà vu. Joe had the sinking feeling that he had seen the future Mrs Mansell at the constable’s last engagement party, held at the same location. Just like last time, Miles was keeping him company while the rest did their best to drink as much and as fast as they could. Miles was quiet, though, and staring into space.
“You can say it, Miles.” It was better to give his sergeant the chance to berate him when nobody else was sober enough to notice.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Joe wasn’t fooled by his innocent air. Only a few hours ago, Miles had glared daggers at him when a violent witness had tried to take Joe’s eye out with a spoon. “Oh, come on. You think that I was reckless.”
“That I wasn’t careful enough.” Joe carefully shoved his glass aside before he rested his elbows on the table and leaned over to his sceptical sergeant. “You would be wrong, though, I assure you.”
Miles snorted and finally looked at Joe. “You just had to stand so close to that nutcase.”
“There had been no reason to assume he could be dangerous,” Joe tried to argue.
“We’re coppers! We always have to be prepared for violence.”
Joe began to arrange the coasters on the table in one neat line. “So you saw it coming, then.”
The last coaster was abandoned before he could join his straightened brethren. “Then what are you on about?”
It had come out louder than Joe had planned. Even though nobody in the loud pub could have possibly heard him, Joe pushed his chair a bit closer to Miles’s and bent his head forward. “I didn’t put myself into danger knowingly.”
Miles leaned forward, too, and held Joe’s gaze. “I know.”
Miles put his hand on Joe’s arm. “It’s simple, really.”
“You worry about me.” Joe understood that much, at least, and after their last row about that topic, he had been careful not to act recklessly and put himself unnecessarily into danger.
“If you did something stupid,” here Miles rose his eyebrows to stop Joe from interrupting him, “if you got yourself hurt or even killed, then I would have to do something stupid in turn. Like having a chat with that bloke from earlier, with me wielding the cutlery. That would get me fired or worse, and that would make Judy and the kids unhappy. And you wouldn’t want that.”
Miles’s gaze had never wavered during his little speech, and Joe found he couldn’t look away. Miles’s words soothed and scared him, because he sensed the truth in them. He’d never felt their connection, Miles’s and his, as strong as at that moment. There was more to it, though, something new and exciting. Electricity. Fire. A soft, understanding smile that took Joe’s breath away played around Miles’s lips, and still he couldn’t look away until he was jostled from behind when Ed Buchan led a conga line around their table.
That had been the beginning.
Joe tried to act normal around Miles after that, but something between them had changed. He couldn’t even say if it was for the better or the worse, or why he was loath to bring it up. His coping strategy was to keep his distance, but that proved difficult when the man he tried to keep his distance from had invited the whole team to his birthday party. Difficult, but not impossible, if you knew there was a carp pond back in the garden.
“Here you are. Hiding out in the dark?”
The pond was one of Miles’s favourite places. Good thinking, Joe, no wonder you made Detective Inspector in record time. “I just needed some fresh air.”
“Yeah, it’s a bit noisy in there.”
To Joe’s dismay, Miles stopped next to him, hands in the pockets of his jeans, and stood there looking at the fish.
“You don’t have to keep me company. Why don’t you go back to your guests?”
“You’re my guest, too. And I like being here.”
There was nothing Joe could say to that; he didn’t want Miles to leave, anyway. Not really. It was late, but the soft glow of the garden lights created a peaceful atmosphere. A comfortable silence settled over the two men, the kind you only share with someone you know and trust. Maybe Miles was thinking along the same lines, because he said, “You can always bring someone with you, you know.”
“You know that I have no time for a woman in my life,” Joe said with mock indignation. Miles’s meddling had annoyed him at first, but he had come to recognize it as a sign of the sergeant’s affection for him and considered it a harmless game they played from time to time. It was Miles’s turn.
“A man, then? I don’t mind,” Miles shot back, predictably.
“I’m not gay.”
Joe opened his mouth, but nothing came out, so he closed it again. That was not supposed to happen. Miles couldn’t just deviate from the script. Joe frowned and stared down at his shoes.
“You don’t have to answer, forget that I—”
“I don’t know. Maybe?” Strange, that. Only a month ago he would have known the answer.
“I didn’t want to put you on the spot, I swear,” Miles said in a low voice.
“Actually, I have no idea if I am.” Joe looked back at Miles, who had taken his hands out of his pockets and sported such a worried and guilty look on his face that Joe had to laugh.
That, in turn, seemed to worry Miles even more. “Why don’t we go back inside and I’ll get you a beer.”
Joe had no intention of going anywhere. He knew that he was probably grinning like a madman, but he had just had an epiphany, and Miles was the only one he could talk to. Joe ran his fingers through his hair. “Why didn’t I realise sooner?”
“You’re not asking me, are you?”
He was forty. Why hadn’t he realised that the admiration and respect he had felt for a few, special men had gone beyond friendship? Joe couldn’t remember feeling a spark like he had felt with Miles—
Joe swivelled around to face Miles.
“You’re not panicking, are you? I don’t want to slap you. That could be construed as attacking a superior officer.” Miles eyed him suspiciously and then straightened. “No offence, sir.
Joe smiled. “You’re really something, you know that?”
“I’m a lot of things. Hopefully, by tomorrow morning I’ll still be a sergeant.” His tone was playful, but he was looking ready to give Joe a bath in the pond if he kept acting strange.
That wouldn’t happen, now that he had a moment to come to grip with his feelings, but Joe’s usual demons came out to play. “You don’t mind, Miles, do you?”
“Of course I do, I quite like being a sergeant.”
“Sorry. Of course I don’t mind, how many times do I have to tell you?”
Joe wished he had taken the tiger balm with him, but he had left the tin in his jacket in the house. He massaged his temples with his index fingers. “It’s not like anything will come of it, anyway. Just look at how much success I had with relationships with women. Who would take me seriously? ‘Hi, I’m Joe, I’m forty and have never even kissed a man’, that would go down well.”
“I would take you seriously.”
Joe let his hands fall to his side. “You would?”
Miles tried to avoid Joe’s gaze and shifted his weight.
Joe couldn’t help it; he needed to ask. “What would you do?”
Miles looked up again, straight into Joe’s eyes. “I would come over, like that,” and he took a few steps forward to close the distance between them, “and do something about it.”
“Why don’t you do it, then,” Joe whispered, his heart beating in his throat.
Miles looked up at him with wide eyes and gave a helpless shrug. “You’ll have to meet me halfway.”
This couldn’t be happening, only that it was. Joe bent forward awkwardly and drooped his head. At the same time Miles craned his neck and straightened, until their lips nearly touched. It was Miles, bless him, who had the courage to close the gap; he put his hands on Joe’s waist and then his soft and dry lips grazed Joe’s before they pressed down with gentle force.
Joe wanted to grab Miles by his hideous shirt and deepen the kiss, wanted to run his hand through Miles’s hair, to press his thigh between Miles’s legs, to shove his tongue into Miles’s mouth and let the five o’ clock stubble raking over his chin remind him that he was kissing another man, but Joe did nothing of the sort. He stood still and waited, because surely, Miles would come to his senses soon and pull back, because there was no chance that this meant as much to him as it meant to Joe. When that moment came, Joe mourned the loss of those warm lips on his. He had missed his opportunity and regretted it instantly.
Joe cleared his throat and hoped he wasn’t too late. “What else would you do?”
Miles startled, opened his eyes and took a step back. The spell was broken. “I’m sorry, I—”
Blood surged to Joe’s face. He raised his hands as if to ward off a blow, then forced himself to smile at Miles. “No, it was my fault. I have gone too far.”
“—listen, I’m a married man—”
“Of course.” Joe’s heart ached at the mention of Judy, Miles’s wife. She was a friend to him, too; Joe should be ashamed of himself.
“—it doesn’t matter what I want, there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed.”
“I understand.” Joe tried to regain his composure and act as a responsible adult. “I think I’ll have that beer now, if you don’t mind,” he said and hastened away back to the house as fast as his long legs could carry him.
Only later did Joe realise that Miles had closed his eyes during their kiss. It seemed important, somehow. Joe regretted that he hadn’t closed his eyes, too.
It wasn’t the only thing he regretted.
A string of seemingly random murders had kept the team busy, and Joe was grateful for the distraction. After a twelve hour work day, everyone was so tired that they didn’t notice how strange their superior officers were behaving. Joe tried not to stare at Miles too often, but when he couldn’t resist the impulse, he often found Miles watching him back from the corner of his eyes. They still worked well together, but when they found themselves alone by chance, they kept the conversation purely work-related. The silence wasn’t comfortable anymore, either. Maybe that was the reason that Joe went alone this time and didn’t call Miles.
All three victims had been elderly men with a criminal record, but none of them were still active. There was no evidence to suggest that they had known each other; at least, there hadn’t been until Ed had presented him an old photograph in a forgotten file down in his archive. It showed two of the victims. Joe had to sit down when he saw who they were with: the original Kray brothers.
After that discovery, it was easy to make a list of potential future victims. Half an hour later, he had narrowed the list down to one name, the only man that was still living in Whitechapel. Joe tried to phone him, but nobody answered. It was late, Miles had gone home to his family, and it seemed only sensible to order surveillance and drive over alone to warn the man.
Joe knocked, but nobody answered. He listened and thought he heard a faint noise. “Hello? I am DI Chandler. You might be in danger,” Joe shouted and took a step back. He hadn’t forgotten Miles’s lecture about being prepared for violence.
“Come in,” he heard a muffled voice say.
Joe pushed the door open and couldn’t believe his eyes. “Miles?”
“Could you close the door, please?”
Joe came in and closed the door behind him. Right there, in the semi-darkness in the middle of the shabby room stood none other than his sergeant with his back to the door looking at something not visible to Joe behind an armchair.
“What are you doing here, did Ed call you?” Joe took a few steps further into the room, until a pair of legs in gent’s shoes entered his line of vision. “Is that—”
“Yes. And yes, he’s dead. I checked.”
“What happened?” Joe looked down at the obviously dead elderly man lying in a pool of blood. There was a bloody knife next to him.
“Just like the others. He tried to attack first.” Miles’s voice sounded strained and brittle.
Joe turned to Miles. The first alarming observation he made, and at the same time the thing he should have noticed the second he came through the door, was the knife in Miles’s hand.
“Good God, Miles, what did you do?”
“Did Buchan tell you about my father?”
The second unsettling observation was the sad smile on Miles’s face. Joe couldn’t make sense of it all. This was Miles, his Miles, but at the same time he wasn’t.
“Buchan found my father’s grave.”
“I don’t understand. Miles, give me the knife.” He held out his hand and that’s when he noticed the dark blotch of blood that spread over Miles’s shirt. “You’re hurt.”
“My father was trying to protect me. Ronnie took a shine to me, and my father told him no. That’s why they killed him, because of me. And my dad’s associates were only too happy to help the Krays.”
“So you knew them? The victims?” He didn’t want to believe it.
“The first one was an accident, I swear. I was only looking for answers, but he attacked me. I won, he was dead; I wanted to call it in, but then I hesitated.” The bloody patch spread further and spilled over to Miles’s trousers. “I searched the flat and found a letter in which he boasted how he had killed my dad. He listed his accomplices, and that’s when I knew that I had to find them.”
“Why didn’t you come to me?”
“I couldn’t.” Miles was looking scared and vulnerable. “It’s my fault, only mine. You’ll take care of Judy and the kids for me, won’t you? I know I will hurt them terribly, but it was already too late when I left the crime scene.”
The knife fell from Miles’s hand to the ground. He made one shaky step into Joe’s direction before he collapsed.
Joe was at his side at once. “We have to get you to a hospital.” He pulled out his mobile and called an ambulance. Why did it have to be Miles? Why did it have to happen again? Joe paid no attention to the words that left his mouth, and as soon as he had ended his call, he pressed both his hands on Miles’s wound.
Miles grunted. “I didn’t go to them with the intent to kill. I didn’t bring a weapon. They all attacked me first.”
Joe didn’t say that all men had been a good fifteen years older than Miles; what would be the point? Why should he care abouth them, when Miles was injured and needed his help? “You shouldn’t talk that much. Save your breath.”
Miles ignored him. “I was getting cocky. Thought I would deal with the last one over there and nobody would ever know. Now my family will suffer.”
“We’ll see about that,” Joe was surprised to hear himself answer. Did he mean that? How could they possibly hide this? He had a pounding headache and couldn’t think straight.
Miles grabbed Joe’s arm. “I have a confession in a sealed letter for you in my desk. Judy will give you that after my death.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“Use it, if there’s a suspect for the cases.”
“It won’t come to that.” It wouldn’t, Joe’s treacherous mind added, because it would be very easy to make it look like Miles had come here to confront a murderer.
“I should’ve listened to my own advice: some lines shouldn’t be crossed.”
“Oh, Miles.” Joe looked down into the ashen face of the man he cared for and respected, even after his horrendous confession.
There was that sad smile again. “I can’t stop thinking about that night in the garden. About us.”
Joe swallowed and tried hard not to cry. “The ambulance will be here soon. We’ve been through this before, just hang in there. Please.”
Miles grimaced. “We never catch them alive, remember?” He coughed, and a fresh surge of blood gushed from the wound and spilled over Joe’s hands.
“I don’t want to catch you, I want to save you!”
“I’m sorry, so sorry.” Miles shuddered and went horribly still under Joe’s fingers. His open eyes stared up into the twilight of the room.
“Miles? Miles, please. Talk to me.” Joe lifted one sticky hand from the wound and reached with trembling fingers for the base of Miles’s throat. “Stay with me, Ray.”
From outside came the sound of heavy boots marching up the stairs, but Joe didn’t notice. His fingers abandoned their unsuccessful quest. He reached up and ran his fingers through Miles’s soft grey hair, not noticing how he was smearing blood all over it. Next, he leaned down and gently kissed Miles’s brow. As the paramedics burst through the door, Joe pressed his cheek against Miles’s and closed his eyes.