The call came when I was in the flat--not my flat. Doyle's--or more precisely CI5's. He was late, but that was nothing new. Those of us who work for the Cow are rarely anywhere on time (except to the job). I took a long drink of beer, picked up the R/T and thumbed the button. "3.7."

"Get over to the disused brewery in Knarlton Road," the disembodied voice of Julia told me. "Alpha will meet you there."

Disembodied or not, her tone said 'don't argue'. I didn't. I was out the door and halfway to my motor when it occurred to me that the lads Ray had gone undercover with had their HQ in Knarlton Road. Were we finally breaking the case? Or was something more sinister happening? Would Cowley blow my cover having me seen in the area if Ray was okay? I left a lot of tire on the street as I took off.

On the way through nightlit London I made my usual plea to whatever might be listening, "Let Ray be all right. Don't let anything happen to him without me...." By the time I got there I was speaking aloud. Something in my gut told me bad things were happening. The old brewery was boarded up, rackety and should have been pulled down twenty years ago. Cowley and Murphy stood together with a couple of coppers well out of any fire-line and I could pick out at least five shadows-in-shadows that held more of the squad. The barrel of somebody's shooter glinted silver in the starlight.

Ray likes me in black--I blended right into the darkness and was at the boss's side before he knew I was about--or so I seemed. He never even looked up when I spoke. "What's happenin'?"

"Marfil showed and recognized 4.5," Cowley told me and I felt my breathing stop. It was a chance we'd had to take. "Where is he?"

"Still inside."

He didn't need to say more. Ray was being held by whatever members of the gang were in the brewery. Marfil was a sadistic old mobster. A runner who had somehow, probably through sheer meanness, stayed alive about ten years too long. Ray knew him from his beat cop days, and Marfil's son was in the brewery gang. Ray was the only one with the right savvy to go in. We'd taken all the precautions, we'd hoped...but not enough it seemed. Oh Ray...he was probably already dead.

A couple of years ago I'd have shouted--done something stupid--anything to ease the sudden, overwhelming pain that raced through me. But two years of happiness with Ray had done a lot to change me. "Where are they? What've they got?"

"Ground floor. At least three Ingrams and two shotguns," Murphy said succinctly. "And of course Marfil eats gelignite for breakfast."

Of course.

He shone his torch at a paper and I recognized the lay-out. "We've got men here, here and here. McNab's on the roof opposite with the nightscope. We figure maybe three inside--including Marfil."

"Anyone talking?"

Cowley answered, "No."

I stepped aside and looked around, drifting from shadow to shadow, making contact, getting the feel of the place. It felt lousy.

Maybe Doyle wasn't dead. I mean, surely I'd know, feel something, or possibly, lack of something. A hostage was their only way out. The sane thing would be to try to negotiate. But no one had ever mentioned sanity in the same breath as Marfil. And, according to Ray, his son, if anything, was worse.

Cowley spoke through an amplified bullhorn, his burr slurring in the distortion. He said the usual garbage--we've got you surrounded, come out with your hands up. He asked if Doyle was alive. Someone inside the building laughed. It sent chills down my spine. The building sat isolated, well away from protective cover and thirty yards of open no-man's land lay between me and my partner. Even the night glow of London was enough light to make out a moving figure. Suicide land, that. If Doyle's dead, I thought, I'll risk it. I returned to Cowley's side. Murph put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. Silent comfort. I tried to smile--Murph's a mate--but my face was frozen. I suspect I wore what Ray called "that stuffed sausage look". Ironic. I felt empty.

Time slipped by unnoticed and a sickly half moon rose and didn't add much to the light. After his one attempt to negotiate Cowley was silent. Letting them talk it over, I thought. Marfil was a bloke you didn't pressure.

I glanced at my watch a hundred times. Three am. We should be sleeping now. Together, in Doyle's lumpy, too-soft bed that swallowed me up as thoroughly as he did. He sprawls in his sleep--all over me--his curls always up my nose. I stood beside Cowley and thought I'd give anything to have Ray's curls up my nose at that minute.

I had always imagined, if I'd thought of it at all, that when we went it would be together. But if one of us had to die then I was glad it was Ray. I didn't like to think of him going through the pain that was battling to get loose inside me. Dying was easy, it was living that would be hard. The blast, when it came, was sudden, deafening, and hot. The only warning was a shout, then roaring air and fire burst out of the ground floor windows, shattering what little glass was left, and someone inside screamed.

I don't remember moving. One minute I was beside the Cow, the next I was diving towards the heat and noise. Behind me someone shouted and hands grabbed at me trying to pull me back. I shook them off like waterdrops and plunged across the blown out threshold. It was like rolling into hell.

My eyes began to water immediately and I pulled my sweater neck up to cover my mouth and nose. Already the smoke was thick. The building was old and dry, it was going up like tumbleweed.

Ahead was fire and to the right. I sidled left and peered into the flames, coughing, and saw nothing but flickering timbers. "Ray!"

No answer. Smells. Of smoke and chemicals and wood. It filled the air and was eaten by the fire. I breathed in another odor and identified it with sick horror. There is no smell on earth like that of burning human flesh. Mad Marfil and his damned gelly. It was too hot. My lungs were burning, my face sweat wet and blistering. I hoped he was already dead, not tied somewhere waiting for the flames. "Ray!"

Another rafter fell, pulling half the ceiling with it. I shielded my face automatically and when my arm lowered there he was.

On the other side of a wall of fire, surrounded by licking flames, with smoke seeping about him like fog, he stood still and smiled at me.

"Ray!" I moved forward instinctively but the heat flung me back.

"Stay there, Bodie. You can't get through." His voice was completely calm. Soft even, and I heard it clearly amidst the roar--as if he stood beside me on a quiet night. I held out my hands, desperately peering through the orange haze for a way through. "Go back Bodie."

Damnit! Didn't he understand? Didn't he know that if he died I died, too? If I had learned one thing in the past two years it was that eating and sleeping and working and breathing have nothing to do with living.

A timber fell behind him and sparks showered up, falling almost casually on his clothes. His hair began to burn.

We might go down, Doyle--but not without a fight--and not alone either. I pulled my sweater off, used it to shield my face and hands and went to join my partner. "You're an idiot," he told me and I rubbed at his hair, smothering the yellow darts. "Shut up!"

"I love you," he said.

I saw what had held him still--a chain that manacled his foot to the floor. The wood was rotted but probably would have held but for the fire. I pulled and the chain came free. He smiled at me, still completely peaceful, and touched my face. "You're beautiful." I hoped whatever it was they'd pumped into him was available on the open market. I could use some of it when we got out.

"Ray! Take this! Cover your face!" I coughed again and thrust my charred sweater at him. He was obedient, thank whatever. I threw him over my shoulder, beat out the spark that landed on his arse, and plunged back into the fire.

Silence. Pain. Smell of smoke and antiseptics. Pain. Small noises getting louder. I came to in hospital with no memory of finding the door, getting out of the fire, dumping Doyle at Cowley's feet like a cat with a fat mouse before collapsing myself. Murphy told me about it much later. Ray, he said, smiled peacefully at the boss and said sweetly, "Isn't he wonderful?", coughed and passed out. I'd have given a month's pay to have seen Cowley's face. Hell, two months. Pain. I groaned before I opened my eyes and heard the rustle of movement still trying to focus. Tubes going in, tubes coming out, sounds of oxygen hissing and gentle beeps from the machines that surrounded me. My eyes eventually followed orders and cleared. A warm brown gaze met me and the nurse smiled. "Mr. Bodie?"

I tried to speak, coughed and tasted smoke. She gave me a sip of water and I made another effort. "Ray?"

"He's all right," she moved sideways then and gestured.

It was a two-bed room and my partner's body lay still on the other cot. I struggled to sit up and the nurse, bless her, helped me. Every muscle I had and a few I didn't know I had screamed, but I'm stubborn. I had to be sure.

I had a cannula in my nose, his face was obscured by a mask, but he was breathing, on his own, and didn't seem to have any more tubes than I did. "Still out?" I croaked. The nurse, her name was Jenny she told me later, smiled again. "He'll be out for awhile yet. The drugs clearing his system and all."

I didn't feel up to coping with anything technical. Ray's head was swathed in white and I waved a bandaged hand at it.

"His hair's burned. Not badly, his head's all right. You two were very lucky. Mostly first and second degree burns, not extensive. It's amazing from what I've heard. How do you feel?"

"Huh?" I was drowning in the sight of him, still alive. Open your eyes, Ray. Tell me you're all right.

She repeated her question and moved to stand between us.

"I hurt," I said. I've found it's always wisest to be honest in times like these. Most of the time they know anyway, they just ask to be polite.

She picked up a filled syringe and fiddled with one of the tubes going in. Immediately the pain eased and I just had time to swing back into bed before I slipped into a drug induced chasm. I didn't fight it, maybe Ray'd be awake when I came back.

He did wake up, but not until late the next night. By that time I had lost one tube going out (I could now pee for myself) and one going in (never did figure out what that one was for). Cowley had been and gone, and Murph, and Ray's mum who never liked me much but thanked me anyway for saving his life. Cowley muttered about 'stupid bumbling idiots' but got rid of her just the same.

My dad came right at dinnertime and someone let him past. He hemmed and hawed and generally bumped into everything, but that was okay. He likes Doyle and understands me. What more could I ask?

I heard the Ward Sister tell Cowley Ray would be waking soon and so refused the nice syringe with its liquid yellow oblivion. The Night Sister, Karla Something, got called away on an emergency down the corridor and so we were alone when Ray opened his eyes. It pissed me off he didn't have the decency to groan first.

His voice was as hoarse as mine had been. "Bodie?"

"Right here, mate."

"I don't...." He coughed and tugged at the oxygen mask.

I managed to untangle my tubes from the sheets and hobbled over to help him sit up and take a drink. He sipped and lay back, asking all the questions with big green eyes. So I told him what I knew between sips of a shared glass of tepid water and he breathed the oxygen from behind the mask, letting me lift it out of the way. He looked exhausted. "You look terrible," he told me.

"You, too," I smiled and his eyes crinkled as he grinned back.

"Mr. Bodie! Get back in bed this instant!" Karla was shocked and appalled by my flagrant disobedience.

"Jenny," I told her, "would understand."

But she ignored me to tend to my partner so I crawled back into my plastic jungle and when she picked up her syringe I made no more protest.

We spent two weeks in hospital letting Jenny get rid of tubes, then three more at home. Well, we started out at home, but between Doyle's mum and the lads there was no peace and quiet at all. I called my dad finally, got use of his boat and took Doyle out on the canals. No one knew where we were but Cowley. Heaven.

Our third night out on the boat with one whole week to go Ray made love to me slowly, passionately, completely, and when he was done and I could hear something besides cannons he said, "Thank you."

"For what?" I was touching him, watching him react to my hands. I still had trouble believing he was alive and I found myself touching him a lot. As always, he was wonderfully responsive.

"You know. Saving my life and all."

"Anytime, mate." Mushy scenes embarrass me.

He snuggled against me, mindful not to touch any of the still tender new skin patches. "It's like a second chance or something."

I snorted.

"Bodie! You dumb crud, will you listen?"

"No." I opened my eyes again and stared into his, wrapped my fingers into what hair he had left. Someday, I thought, I'll tell him that I was only returning the favor. Someday, when I could find the right words I'd explain about how he'd pulled me from my own private little hell and given me a reason to live when it seemed that the only other person who believed in me was a stranger named Cowley. Someday. But not now. "Don't talk. Just...oh God yes...." Perhaps, I thought much later when he was asleep and sprawled across me, his curls up my nose, I wouldn't have to tell him. It was just possible he already knew. We each in our own way have risen from the ashes.

-- THE END --
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