James is the one having trouble getting to sleep. And it’s not Robbie shifting about that’s keeping him awake; Robbie’s feeling quite relaxed now. Even though this certainly isn’t an orthopaedic mattress, and his pillows lack firmness too. But his sergeant is tossing about every few minutes, fighting with his bedcovers, like he’s too alert to wind himself down to rest.
Robbie waits, hands clasped under his head.
“Is there light coming through those skylights? Is it bothering you?” comes James’s voice eventually through the darkness.
There are two large skylights set in the roof high above Robbie’s bed, one in the longer slope of the ceiling in front of him and one right overhead in the shorter, steeper pitch on the other side of the apex. But there’s bugger all light to speak of. It’s always easy to forget just how dark the countryside is at night when you’re used to the light pollution in Oxford. “You’re not still angling to swap beds? You can’t see them trains in the dark, you know.”
“No, I mean—I saw there was a pole with a hook for the roller-blinds above them.”
“Ah. No, you’re all right, I can see the stars here.”
There’s the sound of James rolling over yet again, presumably to face Robbie, because his voice sounds nearer this time, interested. “Can you? Which—Fuck.” The echoing thud that accompanies the abrupt end of that sentence tells Robbie what’s happened. Ah, hell. He hadn’t thought the slant of the eaves brought the ceiling down quite so low over that bed that even James could actually whack his head sitting up.
“You all right?” Robbie asks, turning rather pointlessly in James’s direction.
There’s a prolonged string of barely decipherable words from the other bed in response as James relieves his feelings about this entire set-up. If it’s not exactly a string of recognisable curses he’s delivering, that’s largely because he seems to be exercising his vocabulary in new and interesting ways in a muttered diatribe that takes in the whole concept of the not-so-charming quaint and homely English traditional Bed and Breakfast in general, people who shouldn’t be allowed to convert their attics into bedrooms without prior thought for sufficient headroom in particular, the placement of bedroom furniture being utterly discriminatory against people who are of above average height, the sheer inanity of novelty duvet covers and something to do with a mattress that must have been handstuffed from the feathers of the various farm birds to get it so sodding lumpy.
Robbie wonders why he’s not been blacklisted amidst that little diatribe. It was his hunch that’s landed them here, after all, in the first place. But when he does goes off-key on an intuition, James, even when dubious, certainly makes his thoughts known but is willing to follow too, even if he thinks it’s down the wrong road. He’s remarkably forbearing that way, even on a case like this, and that’ll be what’s really bothering him underneath it all. This one has worked its way under his skin, just as it has with Robbie, and they’ve been uselessly spinning their wheels on it and getting nowhere fast. And partly, Robbie knows, that’s why he’d let this lead assume larger proportions in his own mind than was justifiable, in the hope it’d give them something to do, something to tackle. And he’d dragged James along with him while he was at it, and in all fairness his sergeant doesn’t actually get much say in the matter.
Poor bugger. No wonder he’s had enough.
“Feel better now?” Robbie enquires.
James makes a disgruntled noise. “Which ones,” he asks eventually, resigned, “can you see?” He’s going to be shifting about all night in discomfort and probably whacking his head any time he sits up in the dark…
“Which ones—Well, I don’t know, sergeant, that one is Ringo Starr and those are his mates John, Paul and George—oh, would you get over here,” says Robbie, aiming for a long-suffering tone, “and you can do a bit of star-gazing an’ lecture me on all your ancient constellations. That send you off to sleep, would it?”
He’s expecting James to need a bit more persuasion before coming over to drop down on top of the covers for a bit of nattering and gazing at the comets or what have you that his sergeant will spot. He’s half-expecting a demurral. After all, it’s a bit—well, lying on the same bed, this should be—a line that matters to cross.
But there’s the sound of James getting cautiously out of that bed into the gap between theirs and then his hand grazes Robbie’s bare upper arm just below the cuff of the t-shirt Robbie wears at night, and James’s cautious footsteps recede as he starts to make his way around the bed, by touch.
“Turn on the light, you daft sod,” Robbie says in disbelief. “You’ll be stubbing your toe next.”
“No. You’re seeing more now because your eyes have been gradually adjusting to the darkness,” says his sergeant. And this, to him, seems to be sufficient reason to outweigh the surely obvious need for some light to guide him back to Robbie.
Robbie is about to argue further when he realises that James is over at the other side of the bed, and without further ado he’s lifting the duvet cover. He shifts himself right in underneath it, beside Robbie.
It occurs to Robbie that he could now move to the very underappreciated single bed his sergeant has just vacated, and obviously should. But James shifts, angling himself more diagonally, his head suddenly pressing on the edge of Robbie’s pillow, creating a slight imbalance, and his elbow knocking gently against Robbie’s. He must be mirroring Robbie’s position, the way he often does, but in the dark, as he settles beside him. And, as he exhales slowly, he suddenly feels like more of an easy presence to Robbie than he has been for the past while. He really hates this case.
“It’s easiest if you start with the plough,” he instructs Robbie.
“I know the plough,” Robbie acknowledges, turning his thoughts and his gaze back upwards and deciding maybe it’s just best to go with this set-up for the moment. It’s been an odd sort of a day overall, and it all feels a bit apart from Oxford, the two of them out here in the wilds of Lincolnshire, in a room at the top of this rambling old house, amidst the silent darkness of a farm at night. “Though we used to call it the butcher’s cleaver,” he adds, surprised into remembering a long-lost phrase as he finds overhead a pattern he hasn’t thought to look for properly in years. The stars do stand out remarkably clearly.
“That’s—well, I suppose if you squint at it a bit…” James considers this. “I can see why ever-pragmatic northerners would do, so, sir,” he decides. “Although, strictly speaking, the plough is an asterism and not a constellation—”
“Or on second thoughts, you could send me to sleep,” mutters Robbie.
James ignores this, settling comfortably deeper into the bed. “There was a bloke in the seminary who knew a lot about astronomy,” he confides. “He was a smoker, too. And after you see a pattern once that you haven’t seen before, it’s easier to find it again—one star leads to another and then there’s key ones. Pointers. Like clues. We can use the first two stars in the handle of the Plough that point directly towards Polaris—these two. So—see, if you follow the line they create over to here—” His arm brushes against Robbie’s. And then his shoulder presses firmly against Robbie’s shoulder as James must be pointing and gesturing, despite the darkness.
But it’s enough of a signpost that he’s giving Robbie with touch. Robbie adjusts the angle of his head to follow the trajectory that he can feel that arm must be making across the sky.
“And now imagine a line dropping straight down towards the horizon—not that we can see the horizon,” James muses. “We should really be outside. You’ll only get two large snapshots here inside the frame of these windows and, because of the angle of them, the way they’re set into the slope of the ceiling—”
“If you think I’m clambering out of any skylights to sit on a roof doing some star-gazing, Sergeant, you have another think coming. I’m not freezing me bollocks off sitting on an icy slate roof for anyone.”
There’s a chuckle from James. “Duly noted, sir,” he says gravely. “All right, a line down from Polaris to where one would see the horizon if one were freezing one’s bollocks off outside. That’s due north, so if you use that imaginary line as your reference point whenever I refer to east or—”
“I’ve got you.”
“Now look back here out of the other skylight. That looks south.” And as James turns onto his side to get a better view out of that other skylight, almost right above their heads, Robbie boosts himself back on his pillows beside him, gazing upwards. James has somehow landed up very near… “You can see Orion’s belt?” he murmurs, his voice close to Robbie’s ear. “The three stars so close together—”
“Follow the line of it downwards to find the brightest star of all. That’s Sirius. Even though it looks like one star, it’s actually a binary star system—Sirius and his fainter companion star.”
“Yes. Like an inspector and his sergeant who has to be relegated to the child’s bed,” says James in disgruntled tones.
“Ah, away with you. You’re not anyone’s fainter companion, man. You’d be too bloody hard to eclipse.”
“Yes. Well—” He sounds pleased despite himself, though. He doesn’t even tell Robbie that one star probably can’t eclipse another one. And he’s getting well into it now, getting caught up in the distraction. His tone is properly relaxed as he resumes. “Sirius is known as the Dog Star because it’s part of Canis Major—the large dog—see? Sirius forms his nose, and then you follow his body on a diagonal, to the southeast… ” His arm jostles companionably right against Robbie again. Warm. There’s the friction of warm bare skin. James’s T-shirt, when he’d pulled on his nightwear earlier, had been sleeveless. That firm warmth that’s pressing briefly against Robbie’s upper arm, each time his sergeant points, is James’s bare, lean, lightly muscle-defined upper arm, imprinting its own warmth partly into Robbie’s shoulder, right through Robbie’s T-shirt sleeve, partly pressing right against Robbie’s upper arm where there’s no intervening barrier. “See?” his sergeant asks.
Robbie realises that he should be coming up with something here, and turns his head back to look upwards again, turns his straying focus back to those stars. “It’s like lookin’ at an ultrasound in the old days and squinting till the shape of a baby starts to emerge.”
“The heliacal rising of Sirius—when it seems to rise on the eastern horizon just before the sun—it used to coincide with the most sultry days of summer back in the time of Ancient Rome—the dog days. Hence the name.”
“They used the phrase ‘dog days’ in those days? Are you havin’ me on? That’s what me nan used to call the worst days of a hot summer. An’ global warming aside, I’ll tell you that—”
“Summers were longer an’ hotter back when you were a lad,” James says gravely. “Yes, I know.”
Robbie elbows him neatly below the ribs, causing James to jerk in involuntary protest, and now his thigh twitches over for a moment to brush against Robbie’s, too, also warm and lean and very firm…
“Well, the Romans would have phrased it as diēs caniculārēs, to be accurate,” James allows.
“That sounds a lot less like something me nan would’ve said, all right,” Robbie says after a moment. He’s now thoroughly distracted by that brush of thigh against his own leg. It must be something to do with the way that they’re both wearing the thin cotton of pyjama bottoms. Because James’s thigh will often brush against Robbie’s as they sit on a bench for a lunchtime sandwich in summer, or on Robbie’s couch when James sprawls down a bit, and it’s comfortably, familiarly James, but it doesn’t normally cause quite that sort of a reaction when Robbie’s pulse quickens like that or—Christ, this is his sergeant that he’s—he must need a decent night’s kip even more than James does.
“No, even before the Romans,” James is insisting now. “Aristotle uses the term in Physics. And in the King James—”
The bible, the Greek philosophers, the Romans and their Latin and a bit of word origins thrown in for good measure. It’s like some sort of perfect storm to keep James happily musing to himself all night long. The case is well forgotten.
That’s the ticket, thinks Robbie. This pillow is more comfortable now, straightened out by the counterbalance of James’s elbow leaning on the edge of it. And the bed has become comfier, a better support, with the weight of two bodies levelling out the mattress. Physics, like James just said, that must be it.
Apparently this companion star burnt out years ago and isn’t really there, it’s an earth-sized ember or somesuch, James is going on about it now. Its luminosity comes from stored thermal energy. And this bed is definitely warmer with the presence of James’s body, it’s like being within the radius of a gentle fire, so it must be like James after all, that star, Robbie thinks, pleasantly confused. Robbie would tell him that, if he wasn’t entirely too contentedly drowsy to move or make the effort required to speak—
“What the hell?”
“Make it stop,” groans James, flouncing onto his side to face Robbie and reaching up to curve his pillow round his head, holding it in place with both elbows jammed in. Then, as the unholy noise starts up again, he yanks the pillow over, right on top of his head and rolls onto his back, underneath it.
Robbie huffs a laugh, despite the rude awakening, at the sight of him. “What d’you want me to do, Sergeant, arrest it for a breach of the peace?”
“That’d be a good start,” comes a muffled voice.
“Be a bit tricky getting me handcuffs tightened round the legs of a rooster—what’s up with you this morning?”
“What d’you mean what’s up with me?” says the voice from under the pillow, all blunted consonants. “That’s a worse noise than a bloody siren.”
“Thought you were a morning person?”
There’s a pause while Robbie regards his sergeant’s still and currently headless form. Then—
“I am,” says James agreeably, coming upright and dropping the pillow into his lap to reveal a bright expression that somehow doesn’t look all that convincing. “Can’t go for a swim here, though, of course.”
“Maybe we could find you a duck pond if you fancied a quick dip.”
“What? Oh, funny. I’m just going to get a shower—unless you want to go first?”
“No, you go ahead.” What was all that about? Must have stayed up too late watching stars. Robbie will be all right to linger in bed a few minutes longer. That was a comfy night’s sleep. He’d know nothing from the time he’d drifted off to the sound of James murmuring about his constellations until their wake-up call just now. Apart from a half-dreamt impression of rolling over within the depths of the bed and the night and briefly encountering a warm tangle of long limbs in the darkness. Robbie had shifted back to his own side as James had muttered something sleepy and yielding and indecipherable back at him.
“That’s made me thankful there were no chickens on Lodge Farm when I was growing up,” James says when he eventually reappears, all half put together, hair still damp, barefoot, and shirt tails untucked but dressed otherwise apart from the formal framework of tie and suit jacket.
Robbie tries not to betray his surprise. Or at least to make it seem like it’s purely about the lack of chickens in a farmyard.
“Just the horses, eh?” he asks casually, getting up with a pleasantly deep stretch.
“Not just, but they were certainly the main focus, yes,” James agrees, rummaging in his bag.
Permeating the steamy air of the bathroom, the almost-visible clouds of moist mist, is a scent that part of Robbie’s mind automatically associates with James, a certain sharp leafy note that comes from some cologne. There had been the faintest impression of it last night in the dark in that bed looking at the stars. It’s part of James’s own particular mix of scents that have in turn been part of Robbie’s unexamined background for years now, although it’s in more condensed form than usual. And it makes Robbie realise that—
“Lend us your shower gel, would you?” he asks, sticking his head back into the bedroom. “Forgotten mine.” The rumpled duvet, turned back on both sides, brings home to him how James must have simply settled himself to sleep in the bed after Robbie had dropped off, without apparently considering returning to the single, and James turns now, considering.
“I think you’ll find the selection our hostess has left in there would suit you well,” he says casually.
“Ta.” Robbie reaches for one of the miniature bottles in a little straw basket, wondering if they’re supplying ones that advertise Bed and Breakfasts now too, or do the folk running them just get little bottles in Boots these days and—oh, for Christ’s sake. He belatedly registers that over-casual tone of James’s.
“I’m a patient man, sergeant,” he says leaning around the doorframe and discovering James is now, for reasons best known to himself, tugging on his socks while leaning against the wall, in stork-like fashion, instead of sitting on the bed as any reasonable being would do.
“I think crème de rose with an underlying hint of honeysuckle would suit you down to the ground. Could become your signature scent, sir.”
“I’d be the talk of the nick if that’s what you mean. Smelling like a rose garden in February,” Robbie says, holding out a hand firmly for James’s own shower gel. His sergeant leaves off his acrobatics to produce it with a grin. They do have to get back to the nick some time this morning. Maybe it’s as well they’re getting more of a head start than planned on the day.
The white-painted attic room has grown increasingly bright in the last few minutes as more light spreads in to every angular corner of it, and it seems to be one of those February mornings that you can’t really take for granted, the ones that remind you that Spring is an actual possibility. The sky right overhead is pale blue, shot through with long trails of clouds in mainly pinkish hues. James, standing there under those big skylights, starting to knot his tie now, has a bit of a burnished glow about him, his hair and his skin, from the softness of the sun before it makes its way all the way up. And, Robbie reflects, shaking his head as he heads back towards his shower, he’s apparently chosen his shirt to match the sunrise.
Whatever about their hostess’ shortcomings on furniture arrangement and scented toiletries, she does an excellent breakfast. A proper fry-up, Robbie is very pleased to see. And James seems quite happy to join him in one.
They’re the only guests at this hour in this room that runs right along the back of the farmhouse. The other tables are empty. But that’s all right. It’s bright and peaceful, they’re left to their own devices after they’ve been served and they have a view across a grassy stretch at the back of the farm to fields receding towards a gentle rise of the land—a view which does include a duck pond, Robbie notes with amusement, nodding sideways at it suggestively. James rolls his eyes at him and nurses his coffee cup, leaning back in his chair with his long legs stretched under the table, gazing out at the early morning scene and the colours that still linger in the sky, deeper now. There’s a bit of a reluctant smile lingering at the corners of his mouth too. And the light is doing odd things to his eyes, as they shift from grey to light blue, just like, Robbie is further entertained to see, the way the colours on the surface of the water in that pond shift with the ripples spreading across its surface.
He blends in so well with these early-morning surroundings that it seems sort of natural that he’s looking almost content, out of the city for once. Because he’s looking more properly peaceful this morning than Robbie can recall seeing him before.
Robbie sits and watches him for a moment. They may have made bugger all progress with the case, but he reckons this whole trip wasn’t such a bad idea. They’re both heading back to Oxford in far better form than when they left it less than twenty-four hours ago. When his phone starts up, it takes him a second to snap back into mode and reach to silence its harsh tone with an answer. He barely has time to process that it’s too early for this to be anything routine and then the realisation comes, a mere dispiriting second before the confirmation.
There’s been another break-in, someone else silently terrorised in their home.
James sips his coffee silently, his expression setting in a still resignation as Robbie makes short replies into the phone, asks a couple of questions and ensures Innocent will be told to send their team to the scene, that it’ll take him and his sergeant quite a while to get back to Oxford.
By the time he terminates the call, James is rising from the table and lifting his chair back in, while he turns his head to take one last look out of the window. From this angle, that light in his eyes seems to have dwindled a bit already, and his bearing is taking on that tension that you don’t really notice until it subsides again, but that comes with him needing his usual defences intact as they head back into all this.
“That website you showed me yesterday—d’you remember the name of it?”
“Didn’t you save it?” James asks, glancing up.
“Aye, but…” Robbie gestures frustratedly at his computer.
“Whatever has it done to you this time, sir?” James asks gravely, getting up nonetheless and coming over to lean over beside Robbie. “What on earth…”
“I saved it as a bookmark,” Robbie tells him, running the cursor down the screen, “the way you suggested before.”
“Yes, but—” James stares at the list that runs from top to bottom in a sidebar on Robbie’s screen. “Have you saved every website you’ve been on since I showed you how to do that?”
“Should be easier than googling again,” Robbie asserts.
The cheeky bugger actually closes his eyes for an instant, as if he thinks he’s ruddy well unobserved, and inhales. “Only if you organise—” He sighs. “All right. I’ll find it here and then show you how to create folders in the bookmark tool.” And he bends to frown at the screen, taking possession of the mouse and sliding it away from Robbie’s unresisting hand. “There, you see—” His shirtsleeved upper arm brushes against Robbie's, as he makes a small adjustment to get the cursor to halt at the little symbol that’ll identify the website for him. “That one, I think.” He leans in closer still, absorbed, and there it is again, that sharp leafy scent that keeps emerging more strongly and suddenly at odd moments now. “There.” But Robbie is back to a fortnight before and the warmth of his sergeant’s arm pressing against his own as they’d lain there in that attic room in the Bed and Breakfast and James’s words and the soft brushes of his touch had drawn out the patterns in the stars overhead in the dark sky of the Lincolnshire countryside.
There’s a slight noise from the doorway, and James’s head lifts in unison with Robbie’s. James’s hand slides forward off the mouse and he spreads a palm briefly on Robbie’s desk, propelling himself upright. “Ma’am,” he says politely.
Robbie looks at Innocent. How long has she been standing in the corridor not saying anything? It occurs to him that he could have simply relinquished his chair and stood to give James free rein at his computer, rather than have James leaning close beside him like that—
“Gentlemen,” says Innocent, eyeing them with an unreadable expression.
“Ma’am.” Robbie inserts a query into his own acknowledgement. But she’s headed off down a track of her own making now.
“For the sake of the accountants’ blood pressure, Robbie, any extra expenses incurred on overnights at conferences need to go on a bill separate to the accommodation invoice, please do remember. I don’t have to tell you why we all need to be open and transparent in our record-keeping to avoid any suggestion of impropriety in the current climate. Everything needs to be firmly above board for the audits.”
“Right,” Robbie agrees with a sigh. It’d be a ruddy odd choice to use a cafetiere of coffee for a case of police bribery, after all. Although maybe it’d work on James. But it seems a bit much for her to have called into their office to remind him of that.
Innocent frowns at him, still looking a bit torn. Then she glances down briefly at her tablet she’s holding. “Well—I’ve approved your request for extra manpower on this case. Two of the new DCs are being allocated to your team for now.”
“Ah. Thank you, ma’am,” says Robbie relieved. The break-in that had occurred so early in the morning while they were up in Lincolnshire has gone nowhere fast. The latest this week had taken place while a couple were out at work and a Mrs Travis, the husband’s elderly mother, had been the only one home. It had initially seemed to offer some clues which had had them run ragged the last two days chasing up potential leads before any trail grew cold. But fairly fruitlessly. They’ve hit a dead end here. It’s getting hard to see the woods for the trees with frustration on this case.
The victims seem to have sod all in common with each other, other than being in no real physical shape to present any sort of treat to an intruder. Even if they weren’t terrified. They’re reliably home alone at the time of the break-ins, suggesting that each of them have been watched for the pattern of comings and goings in their households. The type of homes and the areas they live in vary in seemingly random fashion, but presumably in a pattern that their perpetrator’s movements hold the key to. Any potential links between victims or overlap between the people in their lives are tenuous are best and so far seem to lead absolutely nowhere. And yet everything about the deliberate, silent intimidation described and the odd choice of items taken continue to suggest to Robbie’s intuition that there is something not at all random but very personal at the heart of this.
It’s the sort of case that needs feet on the ground and will probably be solved with good old-fashioned grassroots detective work. The clues have to be there in the evidence, after all—if they could just see what the pattern is within all the white noise and paperwork that surrounds any crime these days.
“Hooper is updating them on events so far, as we speak,” adds Innocent, casting a glance out at the incident room. Robbie’s eyes follow her automatically to spot Hooper and the two newest DCs who have recently made it out of uniform. Colton and Truong. Both young and keen, and Truong had rather distinguished herself on a case with Grainger while still a PC, noticing what had turned out to be a crucial piece of the puzzle at a scene. Good.
Innocent is still gazing thoughtfully out at the everyday mild clamour of the crowded incident room. Then she seems to reach a decision, turning to close the door firmly behind her.
“Stay here please, Sergeant,” she tells James. Who hasn’t actually made a move to leave.
James’s eyebrows climb towards his hairline, the only comment he apparently feels able to make on this. But it’s not James who Innocent is levelling her straightforward gaze at now. “Look. Robbie. There’s a charge for breakfast via room service on that bill—”
Bloody hell, they’re back to this? “An’ I settled that, ma’am,” Robbie objects, letting a note of annoyance creep into his voice. Well, James had technically been the one who’d negotiated their checking out, but Robbie had reimbursed him for all their extra charges, despite his protests.
“Better coffee, ma’am,” explains James, talking over him. As if that’s sufficient answer in itself, Robbie thinks, amused in the midst of his impatience. It might be to James, come to think of it.
Innocent continues as if she hasn’t heard him, her own decidedly unamused look still directed at Robbie. Current climate or not, she’s making a complete mountain out of a molehill here. “There’s also a late check-out fee—”
“Which we also took care of. Ma’am, the department’s not getting charged for anything—”
“Lewis. If you want to forego breakfast downstairs and assure me you were both out sightseeing or taking advantage of an on-site gym on the Saturday—”
“Excellent set of cardiovascular equipment,” James intones gravely. Innocent’s gaze barely flickers sideways towards him and this further effort at diversion. She’s still intent on Robbie. Who is getting a sinking feeling now…
“—I’ll be quite happy to accept any honest reassurance from you. But I need to ask—” Dear God. Robbie stares at her. “—whether there’s anything I need to be aware of here with you and your sergeant that should have been openly declared by now, as you both know, from the guidelines—”
“No, ma’am,” Robbie cuts her off abruptly. And much more sharply than he maybe would have if she hadn’t come far too close to shining a light on those odd half-guilty remembered sensations that he’d just been experiencing when James had leaned in close.
“No, ma’am,” James says, a beat behind Robbie, a fainter echo, suddenly making Robbie think of Sirius’s fainter companion star, of Lincolnshire again, of James lying in a bed beside him pointing out those constellations—but in that moment of stretching silence before James had backed him up, there had been a small release of breath from him, barely more than an exhale, and Robbie had felt…he tries to work out what exactly that was—
Innocent doesn’t react much. “You’ll understand why I had to ask,” she says, opening the door to leave them be again.
Christ almighty. As the controlled clamour from the incident room, their own accustomed background noise, starts to filter back in, Robbie half-turns his head to look at his sergeant, since there’s no putting it off. James has bent to study the computer again as if their chief superintendent’s questions were merely routine. But as Robbie stares at him he looks up, a sudden keen-eyed glance and gives a shrug. “Honestly, sir, I doubt Innocent thinks you’re—well, I think we’ve reassured her that your honour is intact.” And he starts to scroll through the bookmarks again. “There,” he says after a moment, coming to a halt. “That one at the top now. I’ll sort them into some sort of system later, if you like.” And he straightens up to head back over to his own desk.
Robbie sits and watches as his sergeant drops back into his own seat, pulls himself into his desk, and reactivates his own computer. He supposes Innocent has to follow up on all sorts of—things—like that, these days, that might look suspect, but he finds himself wondering unreasonably why she felt she had to do that, if she ruddy well felt she had to at all, with James right there? Because James now looks a bit—
“Better coffee?” Robbie enquires after a moment.
James huffs a small laugh and looks over at him. “Should I have told her how good the dill butter was when we were sharing our brunch for two?”
“A late lie-in brunch for two. That’s what it was listed as on the menu. And on the bill, I suppose,” says James thoughtfully.
Robbie groans, picturing Innocent moving rapidly and efficiently through these minor bureaucratic interruptions to the brisk pace of her day, picking up the memo from accounts, and then her all-seeing glance honing in on that particular detail of the bill attached to it, of bloody course.
“You’d had a lie-in. It was a late breakfast option. You liked the salmon,” James says, with a shrug, “And—there were two of us.” He’s deliberately missing the point with a certain imperturbable grace in the way he tends to do at moments like this that makes you feel a bit—daft, a bit like you’re letting him down if you don’t rise to the occasion with him.
And that’s what it had felt for a moment there with Innocent. In that moment of pause before James echoed Robbie’s words. Like Robbie was somehow letting him down.
“A bit of damp never hurt anyone?” James repeats in disbelief as they both arrive into the foyer of the building that houses the morgue, later that afternoon, with far more haste than dignity. It had initially seemed like a good idea to divert while they were in the neighbourhood of the Radcliffe and call in to Laura to pick up the final report they need from her for an unrelated, mercifully closed, case that Robbie wants off his desk pronto. They’ve more than enough to be going on with at the moment.
Robbie had said that, dismissively, a few minutes previously when James had eyed the sky dubiously, hesitating, his hand on the interior handle of the car door. And then James had turned up the collar of his coat and got out anyway. Come to think of it, he could’ve waited in the car if he’d wanted. Robbie is now mildly soaked, bone weary and more than a bit fed up. “Didn’t know it’d start raining cats and dogs halfway between here and the car park,” he says in disgust, catching hold of the fire door at the top of the staircase that his sergeant is making a long arm to hold open for him, reaching back from where he stands, a couple of steps below Robbie already.
James perks up a bit immediately, glancing back up as he rounds the bend in the stairs. He’s been pretty quiet most of the afternoon. “That,” he informs Robbie, “is a saying that may well stem from the combined traditional depictions of the Norse God of Storms, Odin, with dogs and also from witches flying through storm clouds on broomsticks with cats—”
“Did Santa Claus give you a book on the history of daft sayings for Christmas?” Robbie asks him, as he falls back into step beside his sergeant, making their way along the corridor to the morgue, “Cause I know it wasn’t me.”
“There may be an etymology app downloaded on my phone,” James concedes, shooting him an injured look at this casting of aspersions upon his own mental stock of knowledge. “But that’s more to do with the origins of individual words…Doctor,” he breaks off, inclining his head gravely at Laura as she appears in the corridor. “How are you?”
“I,” says Laura, halting in her tracks to take a hard look at them both, “am fine. Whereas the two of you,” she continues, displeased, “You’d both blend in far too nicely with the other occupants here.”
“She’s sayin’ we look like death warmed up,” says Robbie in injured tones to James. It has been a bloody long week so far, in fairness, when they’re only three days into it.
“Yes. Thank you, sir,” says James in long-suffering tones, stopping just short of an eyeroll at his guvnor’s helpful explanation. “And thank you so much, Dr Hobson.”
“Not much warmed up either,” Laura tells them frankly. “Patchily reheated, at best. You’re looking tired again, Robbie.” And just like that she’s ceded straight into direct concern in that way that she does. “Are you putting in late nights on this case? And James, you’re—are you feeling okay? Are either of you getting enough sleep? I heard about the latest—well, you know this one could be a long haul.”
Robbie knows that all too well. His sergeant—who’s not exactly more idealistic or hopeful about these matters any more in the way that he maybe used to be, but is just less well able to handle the thought that they may not actually crack this before another elderly victim has their peace of mind destroyed in their own home, stiffens a little in protest.
“No use you both running yourselves into the ground just when we need our best pair of detectives,” Laura says, tilting her head at James.
James gazes back at her and then gives a soft sigh, as if relinquishing something, Robbie’s not sure what. But he wonders, as he’s wondered a couple of times recently, just how much James has worked out about how things are now for Robbie with Laura.
Laura’s turned her attention back to him now. “And to what do I owe the pleasure of being ambushed in my workplace, anyway?” she asks. “Because, not to be inhospitable, Robbie, but—”
One quick internal phonecall to her department’s secretary later, and she’s arranged for a copy of the report to be waiting for them upstairs.
“Look after him, why don’t you,” she advises, turning her attention back to the file she’s holding that represents in paper form her own most pressing current concerns—and leaving Robbie wondering just which one of them she’s addressing. Then he finds himself wondering further whether that actually matters. Laura raises her head to give him a brief smile as he frowns at her. “And stop cluttering up the morgue before my new overeager student mistakes one of you for a cadaver to practice on.”
Robbie comes to a halt outside the main doors of the building, once they’ve secured the report and silently negotiated corridors and stairs back into the outside world. He’s thinking. James stops beside him without protest.
The worst of the rain has spent itself for now. The chill damp air of the carpark is nearly welcome after the close air of the hospital building, even if the day is already yielding to dusk after an unremittingly grey afternoon. The security lights are warming up into a harsh halogen glow. And James is looking pale in this unflattering light. All hollows and shadows. And pretty much as weary as Robbie feels. It’s not knocking-off time yet, but—
“Time to call it a day,” Robbie decides. “And take ourselves back to mine for a bite to eat. Because according to our good doctor, the look of both of us is enough to scare the horses from their feed.”
James looks momentarily relieved. “Speak for yourself, sir,” he objects. But then he grimaces in frustration. “I’ve still got those case summaries to do,” he admits. “I haven’t exactly made much progress on them today.” That is a bit unusual for him. Must be in need of refuelling.
“Case of two heads being better than one, then,” Robbie tells him. “Come on. Dinner first. We’ll stop off back at the office and you can get them.”
“Come and get it while it’s hot,” Robbie instructs. The two plates of pasta that he’s just set on his kitchen table have a far more appetising appearance and aroma than usual. James had steered him in the direction of a fresher basic type of sauce to use. Well—if you can call it steering when your sergeant removes the jar of sauce you’ve just added to the basket he’s holding, regards the label, absently says “no,” and just puts it back on the shelf before heading off down a different, refrigerated aisle. They’d landed up with more veg than Robbie would normally bother with, too, but James had made himself useful chopping and sautéing the various additions until the one-pot stage of the meal preparation when he’d wandered off to drop down on the couch, surprisingly leaving Robbie to it.
He’s slumped down now, leafing through a file. “This isn’t even one of ours,” he complains, dropping it and getting up. “Someone’s filed it with current cases by accident. It’s from Grainger’s case last year when that gang’s modus operandi was to hack into hospital waiting lists and send those fake appointment letters to get people out of their houses.”
“Aye,” remembers Robbie, tasting the sauce with appreciation. He thinks it’s the fresh herbs James had had him tear up and put in that are making this taste so much better. Basil leaves. “They were ruddy realistic-looking, though, those letters. What they needed to solve that one faster was for their burglar to be using a typewriter that had a dodgy key for one letter of the alphabet.”
James holds his fork still, looking at him in disbelief. “A typewriter? Yes, or they could have resorted to traditional methods of delivery while they were at it and then Graigner’s lot could have questioned the telegraph boy. Should just call you Miss Marple, sir.”
“That’ll be Poirot to you. You’re one to talk, you’re the one gettin’ yourself poisoned with flaming arsenic. And you needn’t think I’ve forgotten you were carrying smelling salts around, my first case with you. Don’t knock the typewriter, it served us well enough for years. Although I’ll have you know that I was one of the first in our nick to be trained up on a computer when you were still—” On second thoughts, it’s really best not to think about what age James had been back in the late nineteen-eighties. Not even into his ruddy teens... “—reading a book,” Robbie finishes ruefully.
“What happened to you, sir?” asks his sergeant sadly. “In your admirable quest to embrace that new-fangled technology?”
“You came along and made me all me efforts in that direction redundant,” Robbie tells him. “Stop picking at that now and eat up.” Because, rather disappointingly, his attempt at cooking doesn’t seem to be tempting James’s appetite as much as Robbie’s. Best have a go at coaxing him a bit under the guise of grumbling orders at him. “Not too often you’ll get a homecooked dinner here, Sergeant, make the most of it when it happens.”
“I know there’s a proper pattern somewhere here too, probably staring us in the face—if we can just see it.” Robbie has been sitting on the edge of the couch, shirt-sleeves rolled back and elbows on his knees, examining one file after another, as they lie open on the coffee table in front of them. James has been sitting further back, beside him, presumably going over his notes but he’s been quiet for a while. And it hasn’t escaped Robbie that his posture is far stiffer than it usually is when they sit together on the couch. He’s been hoping Innocent hasn’t somehow introduced any ruddy awkwardness, after all, making James feel uncomfortable… He glances back in enquiry now when he doesn’t get a response. James is rubbing hard at his temple with the knuckled fist of one hand, his eyes screwed shut.
“Yes,” he says suddenly, his eyelids lifting as he seems to feel Robbie’s scrutiny. He blinks rapidly at Robbie.
“You can barely see the pages at all, can you,” Robbie realises. “You that tired?”
“It’s Colton’s writing,” grumbles James, pressing his head back against the top of the couch, “and the way he’s transcribed every word of this statement from the Travises’ next door neighbour. He’s been spending far too much time with Hooper. He notes that she was home at the time but can no longer see into their back room out her kitchen window after she was persuaded to put in proper wooden panelling since good neighbours make good fences.”
“Aye, well, Colton’ll have checked if that’s true, hasn’t he? That her line of sight would be blocked.” That’s just like this ruddy case, Robbie thinks unreasonably. People are that set on privacy these days that you can’t even catch the break of a good old-fashioned nosy neighbour peering over her fence at the comings and goings next door.
“It’s good fences make good neighbours, not the other way round—” But even James’s grumbling doesn’t hold much bite to it somehow.
“Ah, don’t start that, now. Come on, what’s up with you?” Robbie considers the look of him properly. He’s still pale, even for him. And now that Robbie comes to take it in, James’s forehead seems to have been etched with semi-permanent furrows all evening. “How long have you had a headache? You’re all eyes.”
James makes an effort to narrow said eyes at him reproachfully. “I don’t get headaches,” he tells Robbie.
“All right, sergeant. Have it your way. On a scale of one to ten, where one is that you could still enjoy your beer an’ ten is that the pain is now makin’ you feel ill, just where does this non-existent headache fall?”
James lets his eyes wander to the untouched open beer bottle sitting at his end of the coffee table. “It’s hard to quantify that which does not exist,” he says. But his expression lets Robbie know he’s giving in.
“When did it start?”
“Since—I dunno, soon after Innocent visited us this afternoon.”
Huh. Robbie puts the file aside and shifts back to sit against the back of the couch too, his head resting close to James’s. James looks at him without moving. “I’ll tell her she’s bein’ a pain in the neck, will I? If you have to take a sick day tomorrow. What with all her enquiries about what we had for our brunch…”
James huffs a small laugh. “I’ll be fine. It’s just getting a bit worse at the moment so—if you had anything along the lines of pain relief…”
That does it for Robbie. “I’ll hunt you out some Nurofen, I use it the odd time for my back. C’mon now, you go on into the bedroom and get your head down for a bit in the meantime.” He certainly doesn’t look fit to drive. And Robbie’s had a beer too many. What James needs is a darkened room for a bit while the painkillers kick in, and he should be all right to head home then.
“It’s too early to go to sleep,” James says, but he looks overwhelmingly relieved at the offer—even if he seems to have sort of misunderstood it.
“Aye,” says Robbie, trying to play catch-up here and unable for some reason to clarify that he hadn’t actually meant that as an invitation for the night. “Just—you go ahead and get your head down, then. I’ll be in to you in a bit.” He means with the painkillers but James nods at him trustingly and then winces looking as if he regrets that impulse. His movements seem quite slowed as he stands. Robbie frowns after him as he disappears from the room.
And this case is going to be the death of them, if Robbie doesn’t keep a better eye. Which is ruddy odd for a burglary case but then there’s all sorts of oddness going on around this that Robbie can’t quite put his finger on.
James is lying in the bed by the time Robbie goes in with painkillers and water. Well, Robbie can hardly kick him out now, he reasons. Do no harm for just the one night. Was all right in Lincolnshire, wasn’t it? And James does look shattered. Like raising his head, now that he’s given in to lying down, could be painful in itself. Robbie considers him and then lowers himself to the side of the mattress right beside him, passing him the tablets. He hands him the glass of water as James props himself up on his other elbow and palms them into his mouth, then reclaims it as soon as James has swallowed a gulp to chase the tablets down. James seems grateful to sink back down without having had to sit up properly.
Robbie leans back, regarding him. “You should’ve said something sooner. When it started.”
“Mmm. Like you. And your insomnia,” James agrees.
He’s got Robbie there. Robbie shakes his head at him and puts a hand to his sergeant’s forehead. Cool enough. Maybe too cool. James is wearing only a very fitted undershirt, and his boxers and the duvet has slid down with his movements to rumple over his narrow waist on this side. “You warm enough? Want another blanket?”
“I’m fine,” says James, dismissively, his words thoroughly at odds with the look of him. But as Robbie removes his hand, James turns his head a little more towards him. “Don’t sleep on the couch,” he says, suddenly intent.
“I’ve no intention of doing any such thing, sergeant,” says Robbie, firmly.
James makes a noise of amusement.
Robbie looks down at his sergeant and James looks back up at him, still blearily entertained by that. He must have taken his contacts out, the way his eyes aren’t quite focusing. And it must be that that does it, that summons up a sudden memory of James smiling up at him from a hospital bed after he’d emerged dazedly, still intact, from one of the longer nights of Robbie’s life. You saved me. And then, as now—well, Innocent may see James as the one in the vulnerable position, the junior officer in a partnership; and he is, of course, and the memory of her glances at Robbie this afternoon is rising up too now in the confusion of Robbie’s mind and colliding with that mental image of James in that hospital bed but—if James is the one in the vulnerable position here, then how come it’s something within Robbie that seems to take a battering?
He gives a sigh, pressing his hand to the mattress beside James’s hip and the rumpled duvet, preparing to leave him in peace. But James just keeps gazing up at him, somehow keeping him there a moment. Robbie feels his features soften into a rueful grimace at him. How’s James do that? Just by looking at Robbie like that sometimes, make him feel as if whatever guards Robbie might put up simply don’t apply to him. It pulls Robbie down in another direction entirely from the path Innocent’s warning glances are meant to keep him on. The path of straightforward reason.
“Talk to me?” James asks suddenly as Robbie still sits there on the edge of the bed. Oh. Well—he’s done that for Robbie, after all. No harm in—that. And the case files aren’t going anywhere. Robbie thinks for a moment, then gets up. He takes James’s suit and shirt from the chair they’ve been haphazardly draped over on his way back round the bed and folds them with long-practiced ease over a hanger, pushing them in amongst his own clothes in his wardrobe. Then he sits on his own side to toe off his shoes and pushes himself back against the headboard on top of the covers. By the time he’s settled comfortably and turns his head to look down at him, James’s eyes have closed.
“What d’you want me to tell you about, then?” Robbie asks.
“Tales from your days of solving crimes in the Agatha Christie era,” his sergeant mumbles.
“Cheeky sod,” says Robbie without heat.
James rolls his head slowly a bit towards Robbie now despite his eyes looking weightily shut. “She was a pharmacy dispenser, you know. In the first world war. Agatha Christie. That’s how she knew so much about poisons. And one of the theories for her fascination with writing about them is that her fear of making a mistake with potentially deadly mixtures had just played on her mind so much—”
“All right. Hush, now.” He just doesn’t know how to stop his own brain, does he? Goes too fast for him sometimes. And Robbie may not have the wealth of knowledge that James has at his fingertips, but he reckons he has a few tales that might provide a gentle distraction for his sergeant in his pain.
“Tell you about two cases, then. Along a musical theme. One is about me infiltrating a rave back in the nineties with me baseball cap on an’ all.” Although Robbie might just leave out the events that had led up to that one. “An’ the other one led to me landing up at the opera—well, when you worked with Morse opera tended to be involved more often than you’d’ve ever believed—but I did get to hear Puccini sung in the Roman Amphitheatre in Verona. Did I ever tell you about either of those?”
“I think you know you didn’t, sir,” James mumbles. “We both know I’d remember a baseball cap…”
After a while, Robbie works out that it’s the bedside lamp that’s bothering him. He keeps turning his head in Robbie’s direction and frowning further. Robbie reaches out and clicks it off, barely pausing as he warms to his tale. He’s unable to glance at the facial expressions James had been making in response to his words any more; the pathway of light coming through the half-open bedroom door from the hallway doesn’t reach James’s side of the bed. But the odd weary chuckle from his sergeant lets him know he’s still listening.
At some point, when James has been properly quiet for a bit, Robbie reluctantly levers himself up off the bed to go back to the files. He’d been getting so relaxed there, talking to the friendly presence beside him, that he feels an odd yearning for an early night himself now. As he sits on his couch and runs an unenthusiastic eye over the paperwork, there’s a nagging sort of awareness of his sergeant asleep in his bed. He doesn’t feel like disturbing his own more settled frame of mind now by putting on the television for background noise after the still and quiet of the bedroom. He’s left his bedroom door ajar, anyway, in case James needs anything else. But nor does Robbie feel like disturbing his peace of mind with the content of these files, when it comes right down to it.
The flat is warm. There are odd random clicks from the heating and more regular deeper ones from the kitchen clock, punctuating each passing minute, and there’s no sound from James who must be out of action for the rest of the night. So once Monty decides to make his presence known at the back door a bit early this evening, and has been let in for the night, there doesn’t seem to be all that much point staying up any longer.
It’s not something he’s had to consider before in this flat, an actual need to keep noise muted as he moves through the routine of getting ready to turn in, rather than the unbidden quiet of solitude. It’s rather nice, that certain relief that descends as he finally heads back into the dimness of his bedroom. The feeling of night time quiet and anticipated rest is far more palpable when there’s two of you, when there’s that warm, peaceful body in his bed.
He clicks the bedroom door shut gently to make his way over to the bed in darkness, then pushes back the duvet and slides in, settling himself with the minimum of shuffling about.
James, on the other side of the bed, turns towards him with a soft grunt of approval.
Best thing for him, really, sleeping it off.
Which is why his early morning disappearance comes as a bit of a poser.
Continue to Chapter Three of Five