By Any Other Name
With no other distraction, his circling thoughts were taking on the step-hop rhythm of the old long-case clock in the corner.
...tock, tick-tock, tick-tock....
His fingers tapped a restless counterpoint as each swing of the pendulum knocked another second on the head.
Goaded into movement, Doyle jerked to his feet, chair legs scraping carelessly across their hosts' gleaming parquet.
"I think we should go in."
"Aye, I dare say." Cowley's eyes rose to meet his, unmoved, "But I believe I still direct this operation, four-five. Have you checked with Staples and Lewis?" "Yeah. Still nothing."
"Then we wait."
"Oh, right, we wait. For how long? It's been two days, Mr Cowley. Sir. You know what that lot are capable of. We have no idea--"
"And no reason to believe Bodie is in immediate danger. 'That lot', as you call them, have a healthy respect for McDonough and McDonough is not interested in damaged goods."
"Oh yeah? Bet your life on that, would you? Bet Bodie's?"
Cowley matched him stare for stare, unsettling Doyle with the understanding tempering his steady gaze. Understanding, but no yielding.
A breeze lifted the curtain at the open French window, stirring Cowley's papers on the table and teasing the damask roses arranged with artful carelessness in a bowl at its centre.
The snowy petals were crisping at the edges after days in the dusty warmth of the room, blossoms hanging tiredly on thirsty stems. As the breeze died, a single petal detached itself and see-sawed softly to the floor.
Bodie had laughed when he'd claimed a flair for roses.
"Green fingers? Come off it, Doyle. Even the mould in your fridge dies of neglect."
It was true, though--in theory at least. He could still reel off the old-fashioned names from his mother's remembered country childhood: Buff Beauty, Meg Merilees, Maiden's Blush. A wistful armchair gardener, his mum, adrift in the hated city. Not like Mrs Grant last spring with her arbours and trellises.
Nice woman, though, Mrs Grant. Nice daughter too; Bodie's imperviousness to her thoroughbred charms the last straw to the camel's back of Doyle's insecurity, sealing the trust between them.
He started for the door.
"I'm going upstairs. Don't worry," he assured mockingly, "I won't make a nuisance of myself."
Betteridge, on watch in the upstairs playroom, glanced round as the door opened.
She shook her head.
"Nope. Quiet as the..." she winced. "Sorry."
Doyle almost smiled. "Yeah."
He leaned in beside her, parting the slats of the blind. The street was Sunday-morning quiet, the boarded windows of the house opposite unrevealing.
Must be bloody dark in there.
The first night, ordered upstairs to rest, he'd stared from the window of the kid's next-door bedroom trying to project himself into that darkness; to reach for some awareness of Bodie, perhaps transmit some reassurance of his own. They were so close--always aware of, almost a part of, each other--it disturbed him to feel now, where that awareness should be, not even an absence, but...nothing.
Surely he'd be able to sense it if....
No. Don't even think about it.
Still, Cowley was taking one hell of a gamble. Christ, with McDonough's reputation....
He'd made himself turn from the window, concentrate on the room around him. A small boy's room: football posters on the walls, Meccano littering the floor, Star Wars duvet-cover and photos of the family dog.
Odd, these clandestine glimpses into other lives.
Back from their weekend away, while his parents composed angry letters to their MP and dickered over compensation, would the boy savour the excitement; thrilled to imagine real-life secret agents here in his home?
How old would he be? Eight? Nine? Of an age for secrets.
Yes, there. In the little bedside cabinet, a battered Startrite shoebox, scrappily decorated with Superman stickers. Fierce black lettering on the lid: 'Top Secret. Keep Out!'
A trusted charm; powerful protection for a child's treasures.
Doyle supposed there must once have been a long-ago time when he too had believed without question in his ability to keep safe what was precious to him.
He wished the boy a gentler disillusionment than his own.
Betteridge jumped as he released the blind with a snap. She seemed on edge; tense shoulders protesting his simmering presence at her back.
Doyle took pity on her and went to prowl elsewhere.
In the kitchen Turner and Evans were eating sandwiches; laughing over some showbiz scandal in the Sunday papers. They looked up as he came in, expressions wary.
Turner silently held up a flask.
"Nah," Doyle shook his head. His body was tight with exhaustion but the smell of stewed coffee turned his stomach. "Gonna get some fresh air."
The scented peace of the tiny courtyard garden soothed him, though the air was cool enough to raise a shiver; the sun not yet reaching this side of the house. Flowers were everywhere: hanging baskets of fuchsias and trailing geraniums, pots of aromatic herbs, and tubs filled with vivid pansies; scarlet, gold and deep violet-blue encircling hearts of inky-black.
His mum had loved pansies; the courage and the colour of them. In a bravely defiant gesture she'd grown them on the windowsill at home for a while--until the kids on the estate trashed them once too often, extinguishing even that small spark of hope.
Angry with her for drawing their attention, giving them yet another excuse to single him out, he'd been glad. But the taunts of 'pansy boy' had stuck.
Funny then that he should still find their beauty comforting. Or maybe not. He remembered now his mother calling them by an older, kinder name that--
The RT jolted him shrilly from his memories, and he was on his feet and moving even before he fully registered Betteridge's voice, clipped with excitement.
"Car just drawn up. Two men. One of them.... Yes, it's McDonough. They're going in."
And Cowley cutting in to override her. "Now we move."
After that it was almost easy. Twenty minutes of frightening, adrenaline-fuelled chaos and it was over.
Careful in the dim light, he crouched to saw at the packing tape binding Bodie's wrists and ankles.
"Bloody hell, Doyle!" Bodie's fingers tightened convulsively on Doyle's thigh as the tape covering his mouth was ripped away.
Doyle grinned at him, exuberant with relief, and covered the grimy hand briefly with his own.
Turner was tearing down boards from the windows, letting in bright daylight that made Bodie blink and swear.
He struggled to focus on Doyle, knelt haloed against the light.
"You took your sweet time, didn't you?"
Startlingly blue in the sunlight, pupils still blackly dilated from too many hours in darkness, Bodie's eyes, Doyle realised delightedly, were the precise colour of--
He grinned to himself at the thought of his partner's likely reaction to that comparison. Nothing pansy about Bodie.
"Ray?" An indignantly-raised eyebrow reproached his amusement, and his smile softened.
No, he amended, greedily absorbing the angry, bruised vitality of his mate, not pansies; heartsease.
-- THE END --
Originally published in Discovered in a Letterbox 14, June 2000