(Story 13 in the Building to Last universe)
Cowley is a canny old fox. But when he told me I was to be Murphy's new partner.... Well, I thought he'd gone right round the twist! Not that I've anything against Murphy, mind. 'S just that I didn't think that Cameron McKenzie was the right man for the job.
Cowley pierced me with his cold blue eyes. "Explain."
Diplomacy has never been one of my gifts, so I was blunt. "I'm bi."
"I'm aware of that. Murphy...shares your sexual eclecticism, so that should not be a problem."
I leaned forward. "I'm sorry, sir. But that is the problem."
Cowley raised one sandy eyebrow at me, so I elaborated. "Murphy's last partner was bisexual. He and Atwood were...involved." I took a quick look at the controller's face. His expression told me precisely nothing--though I'd be willing to wager my Scots grandfather's antique broadsword that Cowley knew all about Atwood and Murphy.
"What is your point?" Cowley's eyes were rapier sharp.
"Everyone knows that the last thing Murphy wants is another bloke for his partner, let alone a bisexual bloke."
"Oh?" That eyebrow made another trip towards Cowley's hairline.
"Yeah. Murphy's avoiding the other bisexuals on the squad. And he's doing his best to run through the entire female population of Greater London."
"Precisely." There was satisfaction in Cowley's voice. Evidently I'd been a clever lad. Too bad I hadn't a clue.
"Dr. Ross believes, and I agree with her, that you are the best person to team with 6.2."
The penny finally dropped. "A bit like putting a chap back on his horse right after he falls off."
"I wouldn't have put it in just those terms, but the basic principle is the same." Cowley put his eyeglasses on his nose and turned his attention to the never-ending paperwork. "The two of you report to Macklin at the Training Centre Monday morning."
I restrained a groan. I'm no masochist.
"Send Murphy in." Cowley picked up his pen and began to write.
I resisted the temptation to slam the door behind me. It was already Friday afternoon. Only the weekend stood between me and two weeks with the Wrecking Crew.
Murphy was in the restroom. "Six-two, Mr. Cowley wants to see you."
"Ta." Murphy folded the Sun and put it on the table before starting for the controller's office.
I took his place on the settee and picked up the paper. Not that I read it, mind. But it was useful as camouflage while I gathered my thoughts.
Since I usually try to be logical about my decision-making, I broke the problem down into parts. Then I turned each part into a question. The first question was How much do I like this job? The answer was Enough to put up with anything that Murphy can throw at me. As far as I was concerned it was a given that Murphy would fight this teaming.
My second question to myself was Why me? I could think of half a dozen blokes I thought would do better as Murphy's partner, and at least one of them was also bi. But I'd the lowering suspicion that I knew the answer to that one. You see, I was born with all the maternal instincts of a Welsh Corgi. Not a mother hen, mind--I don't go all broody and soppy. But I've a tendency to pick up strays, both animal and human. I tend to go all over protective; to take over their lives, chivvying and herding them in the direction I think best. A heel nipper, that's me. Having settled that to my satisfaction, it was time to go on to the next question: what do I do now?
I never got that far. My ruminations were rudely interrupted when the door to Cowley's office blew open and Hurricane Murphy stormed down the corridor. I grabbed my denim jacket and followed him.
Murphy wasn't taking this very well. I had to jog a few steps every now and then just to keep up with him. When he cooled down, we were near a small pub named the Hoof and Claw. It's a regular hang-out for CI5 agents. Murphy hesitated, then went inside. I followed him.
The bartender had only one other customer, so Murphy got served immediately. He ordered a double whiskey, and tossed it back like tap-water. Then he ordered another and took it over to the darkest corner of the farthest booth from the door.
I ordered two pints and carried them over to the table. Murphy was looking down into his scotch. His dark lashes were absurdly long for a man. I felt the warmth of incipient arousal. That gave me a jolt. This was a hell of a time to discover that I was sexually attracted to my new partner. Just what I needed, really--another bloody complication!
Murphy looked up when I put the second pint in front of him. "What are you doing here?" he demanded.
Oh, shit! I thought to myself. He's looking for a fight. Well, I just might give 'im one!
"I was following you, partner."
Murphy scowled, the vein in his temple throbbing as his hand tightened on the pint of ale. For a moment I thought he was going to heave it at me, so I prepared to dodge. Instead, Murphy closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His body relaxed and he let go of the pint. "This is not going to work."
"Tell Cowley that," I said wryly.
"I did." Murphy opened his eyes and glared at me.
"So did I."
Murphy wasn't expecting that. His eyes searched my face. "You don't think it'll work, either? Then why did you accept it?"
"Since when does the old man give us the choice?" I tried for a light note, but Murphy would have none of it.
"There are always alternatives." My partner's voice was sullen. He was back brooding into his ale.
That sort of moodiness drives me round the twist. "Sure," I drawled sarcastically. "There are always alternatives. I see two--we can either take our best shot at making it work or we can resign. Which is it going to be for you, or need I ask?"
That certainly woke him up. Murphy gave me a murderous glare. I decided that, on the whole, I preferred him angry to apathetic. But if those were my only two options, the next few months were going to be a right pain in the arse.
"There are other choices!"
It crossed my mind that he might be thinking of suicide. I took a good look at Murphy and decided that he was too bloody narked to be suicidal. But I'd best keep my eye on him, in case that should change. "Such as?"
"We could both refuse the pairing. Maybe Cowley will change his mind." Murphy suddenly realized what he'd said. His ears went pink.
I decided to drive the point home. "You know Cowley. Once he makes up his mind, only God or the Home Secretary can change it."
"Every partnership is re-evaluated in the sixth month. If it doesn't work, the team is split," Murphy argued stubbornly.
"Yeah. And if the Cow finds out that it didn't work because we didn't try, we could end up out on our ears. Well, mate, I'm not going on the dole just to make life easier for you. If you decide that you don't want to make this teaming work, do me a favour and resign now. I don't want to waste the next six months." I hoped I'd played that right.
Murphy looked up at me. His eyes met mine. "We need to talk. There are some things that need to be said before either of us can make any decisions."
"My place or yours?" I knew that I'd been too flip when Murphy flinched and dropped his eyes. But it was too late to call back the words.
"Yours." Murphy took a long gulp of the dark ale, then stood up and waited for me.
The walk back to the CI5 car-park was just as rapid as the walk to the pub. And just as silent.
I gave Murphy directions for getting to my flat in case we were separated by traffic. However, all the way cross town I could see Murphy's Rover in my mirror.
I nicked the piece of kerb nearest to the door, so Murphy had to park beyond the next turning. That gave me enough time to disable the CI5 security system before my partner caught me up.
"Tea or coffee?" I threw my jacket over the straight-backed chair just inside the door.
"Tea." Like any good agent, Murphy was giving my flat the once over lightly.
"Make yourself to home." I left him to it while I switched on the electric kettle and prepared to brew up.
When I carried the tea into the lounge, Murphy was investigating the contents of my bookcase. A good way to get to know a bloke, that. Going through his reading material, I mean.
I settled on the settee and kept half an eye on my visitor as I played mother. Won a small wager with myself, I did. Murphy took the chair cross the table from where I sat--just as I'd bet he would. "Black or white?"
"White, one lump."
I'm a patient man, when I have to be. To my mind, the next move was up to Murphy.
Not that he wanted to make it. Murphy was just as determined to wait me out. In the end, his nerves weren't up to it.
Murphy slammed his empty cup on the table as he leaped to his feet and began a nervous pacing. "I don't want another partner."
"That's not exactly a hot news flash. I should think the entire staff of CI5 have figured that out."
"I worked solo before. I don't see why I can't do it again."
"Cowley has decreed otherwise." I took another sip of tea.
"He's no right--"
"He's every right," I broke in on what looked like the beginning of a lengthy harangue. "He's the controller--the head of CI5. Besides which, Dr. Ross agrees with him."
"How do you know?" Murphy's body language was pure aggression. I gave a silent prayer that our argument wouldn't turn physical. That's a lousy way to start a partnership--Hollywood flicks not withstanding.
"It came up during my interview with Cowley this afternoon." I kept my voice dry and neutral.
"Oh? The conversation just happened to get round to Dr. Ross and her opinion, did it?" The words dripped sarcasm.
That was too bloody much. I've a temper of my own, and I was fast losing it. "No. It didn't just happen to get round to her. I told the Cow that I'm the last person you'd like to see as your new partner. He assured me that both he and Dr. Ross were confident that I was the best man for the job. God knows why I'd even want to try it, the way you've been acting!"
"What d'you mean?"
"You've been letting the side down, old son."
"Letting the side down? What are you on about?" Murphy demanded.
"You're bi; I'm bi. Ever notice how many of us there are in CI5?" I waited patiently while Murphy thought that over.
"There are rather a lot of us," Murphy said cautiously.
"Particularly for a security agency."
"It's not just a coincidence."
"How do you know?" he asked suspiciously.
"Because I had a little talk with my superior at MI5--just before I was seconded to Cowley's command." I sat back down, as I knew that Murphy was properly hooked.
"And?" Murphy absent-mindedly sat down as well.
"Major Nairn called me in to his office to tell me that he'd heard whispers that my sex life was something less than perfectly straight." Murphy and I exchanged wry looks.
"He proceeded to give me the standard line about 'sexual deviation' being 'an unacceptable risk' for any of Her Majesty's forces. Then he said that I was a damned good agent and that he'd hate to lose me."
"Where's this all going?" Murphy interrupted.
"Be patient. I'm getting there." I took another sip of tea to lubricate my throat. "The gist of his message was that he wasn't in a position to buck the system, but he knew a man who was. George Cowley of CI5." Murphy looked a bit startled.
"Does that remind you a bit of your transfer to the squad?" I asked him.
"Not exactly. I mean, no one spelled it out quite that way. But I got the message. Then, during the interview, Cowley asked me if I was gay."
"And you told him the truth, else you'd not be here."
Murphy nodded his agreement. "Yeah. Told him I was bi. Shocked the hell out of me when he offered me the position."
"Know what you mean."
Murphy looked up at me. "You still haven't explained that bit about me letting the side down."
"We're an experiment. Cowley has deliberately accepted a number of bisexuals being transferred to his organization. They're all trained, experienced people. You notice, none of us are obvious, and none of us are exclusively gay--at least, not to the point that we're anti-female."
"Or anti-male, if you're talking about Susan and Betty," Murphy added.
"Right. And there are no Mary Whitehouse clones in the organization. In fact, all of CI5 is tolerant, adaptable and, above all else, stable."
"Stable?" Murphy turned the word over on his tongue. "You think I'm not?"
"Not lately." Murphy opened his mouth, but I help up a hand. "Hear me out." I waited until he nodded. "Once you were the most laid back operative in CI5. But lately you've had the temperament of a rabid badger. You've cut yourself off from everyone...except for Bodie and Doyle, that is."
"No, I haven't. I've a very active social life."
"Yeah. So active, in fact, that the squad's taking up a pool on how soon it'll be before you've run through every bird in London." I waited until he looked up at me. "We've all noticed the way you avoid the other bisexuals on the squad."
"It's none of your business."
"It is if I'm to be your partner--"
"And I keep telling you, I don't want another partner!" Murphy was on his feet again, shouting at me.
I stood nose to nose with the aggravating little git and shouted right back. "It's not up to you, is it? It's up to Cowley, and he's made his decision! I'm it, mate. I know I'm not Chris Atwood--"
Murphy took the direct route to shutting me up, a right cross that made everything go dim. I don't think I passed out, but there are a few minutes in there that I don't remember.
When I managed to open my eyes, the first thing I saw was a fuzzy Murphy holding a cold cloth to my head. A few blinks helped put things back into focus.
"I'm sorry," Murphy muttered.
"What did I say that set you off?" I asked wryly. "Just so that I can avoid a repeat performance." At least the jaw still worked.
"I don't like talking about...my former partner." Murphy wouldn't look at me.
"There are too many bloody things you don't like talking about. And don't think that Cowley and Ross aren't aware of it. I think that's why they've assigned me as your new partner." I managed to get myself heaved upright, but it took me two tries.
"Because they think I'll talk to you?" Murphy was hovering like a hen with one downy chick. I found it annoying, as that was more my role in this farce.
"Think about it. We both come from a military background; we're both male; we're both bi; there can't be more than a year or two's difference in age; we enjoy a lot of the same activities--"
"Such as?" Murphy was sarcastic. At least he'd quit hovering.
"Mountain climbing, motorbikes, skiing," I named off a few.
"And that's supposed to make me open up to you?"
"It's a start, innit? But it's really up to you."
Murphy looked at the rug again. "Yeah."
The man was totally exasperating with his sudden changes in mood. I decided to spell it out for him. "Right now, you're a liability to CI5. You're a withdrawn, moody, anti-social bastard, certainly not the picture of a stable personality. What happens if you're thrown into a situation that goes rotten? Our enemies aren't stupid. They're sure to find out about your bisexuality and use that against you, against the squad and against Cowley. Even if the foul-up isn't your fault, it could be enough to destroy CI5. It's sure to be enough to start another witch-hunt to drive bisexuals and gays out of the service."
"Damn," Murphy said with feeling. "You certainly know which buttons to push."
"Yeah," I agreed. "Me mum always thought I should be a psychiatrist."
"God! They've partnered me with Dr. Ross in y-fronts!" Murphy gave a theatrical shudder.
"That's up to you, mate. If you want to give the partnership a try, I'll back you all the way. And I can give you some guarantees."
Murphy looked at me and raised one eyebrow. He must've been taking lessons from Cowley because it was very like.
"For one, I'll never come on to you. We've enough problems without dragging sex into it. For another, I won't lie to you. Third, I won't pry into things that are still too painful for you.... Unless I think it's adversely affecting the partnership. In that case, you either talk to me, or you go to Ross."
"Some option," Murphy said faintly.
I grinned at him. Insults like that I can handle. "A partnership doesn't just happen, mate. It takes a lot of hard work. We've both got to give it our best."
"'Building to Last,'" Murphy murmured. I could almost see the quote marks round it.
"Yes," I agreed, and I wondered what that phrase meant to my partner.
Murphy looked up and swallowed nervously. "I need...." His eyes dropped to the carpet. "I need a little more time...to think about it."
"We're due to report to the Training Centre Monday morning. You've the weekend to think it all over. I'll abide by what you decide."
Murphy looked up at me.
"If you decide to give it a try, be here at 5 am. If you haven't arrived by half after, I'll assume it isn't on."
Murphy nodded, and met my eyes briefly. Then he was on his way to the door.
The weekend seemed to last an age. It gave me too much time to think. I couldn't decide whether I was wishing that Murphy'd resign or hoping that he'd give it a try. Either way, there were problems ahead.
If he resigned, I'd a feeling that Cowley wouldn't care for it. Not that the old man would take it out on me, but it was bound to affect the way he thought about me. And who knew what I'd get as a partner next time out.
On the other hand, working with Murphy wouldn't be a lark, either. He was volatile as gelignite. Despite that, I found him attractive. And that was the last thing I needed. Sex would only complicate the situation--which was too damned complex as it was.
Anyway, I'd done my bit to persuade Murphy that we could and should give partnership a try. It was out of my hands. All I could do is wait. Unfortunately, I'm no better at that than I am at diplomacy.
By a quarter till the hour, I was convinced that I'd failed. I was rehearsing what I was going to tell the Cow when I caught sight of Murphy's Rover pulling up in front of my flat. It was right on the stroke of 5.
For a moment, I thought I was hallucinating. Then it dawned on me: we'd taken the first step. We were committed. Now, the really hard part started--making the partnership work.
I grabbed my duffle, checked the locks on my door and headed for the Rover. As I got into the passenger side seat, I turned to Murphy. "What do I call you, anyway? I prefer Cam or Cameron."
"Murphy." My new partner cleared his throat, then said, "I prefer Murph. And if you call me Smurph, I'll do you!"
I nodded in approval. "I agree. Nasty buggers, those blue things. Should all be euthanised painlessly before they give British youth a massive saccharine overdose."
It was the first time I'd heard Murph laugh. I hoped it wouldn't be the last. At any rate, the next six months certainly wouldn't be boring.
-- THE END --
Originally published in Chalk and Cheese 12, Whatever You Do, Don't Press! (Agent with Style), 1993