Festival of Lights
One minute until the bomb went off.
Sixty seconds. George Cowley's brain did the math independently of conscious thought, calculating whether Bodie and Doyle could get up the stairs and far enough away from the basement before the device took them all to Kingdom Come. His conclusions were not promising. Not for them, and not for himself-- certainly not for himself, seeing that he was the weight on the booby-trap, lying immobile on a sophisticated overlap of pressure pads, on a cold cement floor, under a deserted and crumbling farmhouse. If his body lifted, or even moved significantly, then there'd be no more need for calculation. George Cowley would have gone to wherever it is Cows go (opinions on that abounded, depending on the speaker)... and what's more, he would have taken his two best operatives with him.
Cowley held very still. Not that he had much of a choice, not at the moment; he fancied he could feel a faint tingle in the direction of his right knee (ah yes, the leg, always the leg), but the rest, to coin a phrase, was silence. Numbness... or not precisely numbness, not even that, but nothingness. He might have thought he was a brain in a jar, if he leaned toward science fiction.
Head wound. Trauma to the cervical vertebrae. Shock. Temporary paralysis. His rational mind catalogued and filed the information along with the sure and certain knowledge that he and his ace team had sixty seconds more to live.
Every time enemies had tried to assassinate him, George Cowley had always outwitted and outfought them. But this time, one false step had made him their captive, put him foursquare into this ticking death chamber, with Bodie and Doyle only finding him through hard work and a tip from a reluctant informer. Now the smug enemies were heaped upstairs, sightless bodies gripping cold weapons. And the desperation of the rescue meant that there was no one left alive to disarm the complicated mechanism. After such effort, after defeating the many with so few, they had still come to this. One minute left.
Warm breath near his ear, warm bodies stretched out nearby, carefully skirting the edges of the pressure pads. Two sets of hands tinkering.
A faint -click-. "First red light's gone off, Bodie."
A confirming grunt. "Final countdown timer. Meant mostly for the guy setting the thing, so he can get out, but it's also for show."
Another -click- a few moments later. "Second's off," came Doyle's voice again, still calm.
"Pass the clippers, I found one that's safe to cut." A rustle, then the sharp snip of scissors through wire.
-click- went another light.
"Three down, five to go."
"Worse than the bloody New Year's countdown. Here, you cut this one." Shifting of bodies and warmth, sounds of careful breathing, another wire snipped, more rustling.
"...he'd tell us to go, y'know."
"I know. Shove over a bit."
Aye, I would. And I am. Get out, damn you, you disobedient...
After all, this wasn't the same as the nuclear device in the bowling alley. With that, there was no hope, and no choice. The unknowing citizens of London (indeed, of the world) had to be looked after, and if that meant Bodie and Doyle (and himself) ended up at ground zero, then at least they'd gone down trying. But this bomb, as sophisticated as its wiring was (not even a proper straightforward political Semtex bomb, more an American-style contraption of trickery and madness), posed harm only to the three living inhabitants of this building. Nothing nearby for miles but deserted heath. Bodie and Doyle could-- ought to-- take to their heels, get themselves well away. Cowley didn't want to die. He didn't consider himself brave. But he had taken the risk with a clear mind, and if it came down to one death or three, there was only one rational choice.
It's just that his voice didn't work. And lucky for the both of you, he thought darkly. I'd show you what I think of unnecessary heroics... There was a welcome surge of adrenaline as he concentrated on his anger, and his eyelids flickered slightly and then rose halfway. At least he could see now, even though it meant seeing little more than nearby figures through the red-gold fringe of his fair eyelashes.
Another light: -click-
A dark bulk was sprawled solidly on its belly, hands busy with a delicate tangle of wires-- Bodie. His lips were pursed, slightly agape, in that ridiculous expression that accompanied deep thought and the loss of himself in a task. Doyle wormed into view, eyes narrowed to slits, offering the omnipresent Swiss army knife the partners were forever swapping back and forth.
A row of tiny lights shone along the edge of the main shell of the device. Or, to be precise, three of them still shone... five had already gone ominously dark. For show, indeed, thought Cowley, dryly. He fixed his barely-open eyes on Bodie, bringing his will to bear in a silent and monumental effort to make the man see reason, make him get out. But the dark head stayed still and the hands stayed steady, even as another light vanished. -click-
Two more lights. What, perhaps fifteen seconds left? Not enough time for them to run, nothing for it but to let it go. Cowley watched his operatives deftly sorting through the Gordian knot, snipping strategic sections of wire. They'd done as much as anyone could have. More. And he knew they'd never have left him, even if his voice had been working. He knew that in his bones, beneath the energising anger, down where the warmth was. Good lads. I'm sorry.
Doyle had both hands buried among the wires, following a crucial juncture with swift passes of his fingers. As the seventh light softly clicked off, he pulled a wire to the surface-- and without needing to be asked or directed, Bodie had the little scissors there to cut at just the right spot. Shoulder pressed to shoulder, dark head bowed close to auburn, working as the one turbulent mind George Cowley had seen them become in their time together.
"Last one," Doyle said, finger twined with a slender wire among the jumble. Perhaps seven seconds left. Bodie's hands were on Doyle's, scissors sliding home, a tight snip.
The final light went off. And time slowed, stretched, and ceased to have meaning... the next few seconds distorted like an elastic band twisted into a Möbius strip.
There was a purr, deep inside the pressure pads, rumbling from the centre of the mechanism. Cowley felt it (the right leg felt it, anyway, buzzing and humming at what seemed to be a great distance). And two sets of reflexes exploded at that moment, fighting to outrace time-- outrace the bomb-- outrace white-flash death. Two sets of arms-- brawny and wiry-- grappled, each trying to fling the other out of the way. Two bodies collided, rolled, each trying to cover the other in a protective shielding embrace. Protection turned into struggle, which turned into... something else. Just for a moment, straining turned to friction turned to fire. Arms tightened convulsively, bodies twined and writhed. Mouths met in blind hunger and they drank each other's breath, forgetting all else. Every fraction of every moment promised death, finality, and silence... But after those first few amazing, distorted seconds, when they should all have been dead... time stuttered, wavered, and resumed its normal flow.
Cowley still lay, quiet as death, yet not dead. A tangle of Bodie and Doyle huddled askew against the wall, chests rising and falling in jerky, horrified rhythm. Time was still moving, though all the red lights were out. The purr continued through the pressure pads, through Cowley's far-off leg, and his heart was thrumming in his ears trying to match it.
Hanging fire, he thought wonderingly. My God, it's hanging fire. And then, immediately upon that thought came a renewed sense of energy and hope, taking refuge in ferocity. Can't you see it's hanging fire, man!
Bodie and Doyle struggled apart, scrambling back to the mechanism, both whey-faced and avoiding each others' eyes. Doyle's voice caught in his throat, and he coughed as he grubbed up the knife from where it had dropped to the floor next to the pressure pad. "Dud?"
"Nah." Bodie was curt, peering into the depths of the wires' mysterious nest. "Hanging fire."
"It's gonna go, then?" Defensive, that tone? Cowley wished he could open his eyes a bit wider, could see the subtleties of Doyle's expression.
Doyle flicked the scissors repetitively open and closed with one hand while he too looked over the mechanism. "Thought we got all the crucial bits," he said tightly. "Should be disarmed." The steady purring of the machinery put the lie to that statement... the bomb was still very much alive.
The apocalyptic surge of adrenaline was slowly seeping out of Cowley's body, and with it he could feel his energy and consciousness ebbing. No sound came from his men apart from an occasional scuff as they moved to examine a particular knot of wires. His eyelids flickered weakly closed, and he fought to stay awake.
Doyle's uncertain murmur finally gave Cowley a thread of sound to hold on to. "Look... Bodie, I..."
Bodie cut him off smoothly. "Don't worry about it, all right?" His voice became muffled, as if he were burrowing into the guts of the device. "It was nothing."
"Nothing? Don't give me that." Cowley was pleased to hear an edge of temper replacing the quaver in Doyle's voice. He concentrated on opening and focusing his eyes again, and watched Doyle examining a suspicious patch of wires while Bodie wordlessly poked around behind the main casing.
"Bodie," Doyle finally growled, his eyes on the bomb but his anger very much elsewhere, "We could get blown up any second, you great ox! So move your bloody mouth and talk to me!"
Blue eyes peered coolly over the casing for a moment before Bodie dove back down to ferret out another potentially crucial wire. "Nothing to say."
Another stretch of silence, but now the undertones of suspense and the edged anticipation of death were giving way to seething frustration. Cowley watched Doyle's profile, and only he saw the despair settling there.
Bodie crept on his elbows back into sight. He squinted at an object hidden far back among the wire maze, and wriggled his black-clad arm in to grasp it and pull it to the light. "Screwdriver."
Doyle slapped the knife into the outstretched hand, screwdriver pulled out from the multiple folded tools. "What's that? A junction box?"
Bodie spun the screws out one by one, his mouth set in a compressed line, not answering. Doyle shifted and half-turned; his broken cheekbone was starkly pale along the sharp line beneath the skin.
Cowley's thoughts drifted like river currents for a moment as dizziness fluttered through him, but by sheer force of will he kept himself conscious. Ah God... Part curse, part supplication. This isn't how it ends, is it? This isn't how they end...?
As usual, God must have been busy, for there was no answer. No apparent answer, at any rate.
"All right, you bastard. Die angry," Doyle said, tugging experimentally at a faintly loose wire. "Die silent. Can't make you talk. And hand that bloody knife over, I think I've found the bypass for those circuits."
There was a small clatter of plastic, probably the tiny junction box being disassembled under Bodie's ruthlessly talented hands. And a choked mutter Cowley barely caught: "Leave it, Ray, will you?"
Doyle plucked the knife from Bodie's outstretched palm and snipped at a wire. "Maybe we can just grab the Cow and run."
Bodie ran a fingertip over the tortuous paths of circuitry inside the open junction box. "We're lucky the timer's hanging fire. But lifting him off those pads'll make sure we don't have time to congratulate ourselves. That's the way these things work. Pressure fuses don't miss unless you uncouple them."
"You always know what to say to cheer me up." Doyle scratched at his tumbled curls, eyes flickering intently across the ridiculously baroque mechanism. The quip had a hollow ring to it.
They worked in silence for another handful of seconds. Cowley concentrated on the tingling in his damned leg. The old wound was coming in handy this time; perhaps the tingling could be coaxed into full feeling. At least then he might be able to do something besides sprawl here like a swooning damsel in distress.
Do what, Morris, kick them upstairs? His mind mocked him with the old nickname.
Bodie apparently had had enough of Doyle's meaningful silence. He looked up from the junction box for a moment. "I'm not going to apologise," he said forcefully. "So forget it."
Doyle bared his teeth mirthlessly. "I'm not gonna forget it. Might be the last thing ever on my mind, right?" He mimed an explosion with his artist's hands and then clipped through another wire with a flourish.
Bodie held the junction box to his ear. "Make me apologise later. After we're done getting blown up."
Shaking the knife at Bodie, Doyle bellowed, "I don't want to make you apologise!"
"Then you can hit me. But later." Bodie snatched the waving knife and tried to use it to dig a thin stamped piece of circuit board out of the little black box. His voice was returning to flippancy, old don't-care, look-after-number-one Bodie. But Cowley, who was trying very hard to wiggle the toes on his distant right foot, was not fooled. And, he suspected, neither was Doyle. Too late for that, he chided Bodie silently. It won't work. I don't know if it ever has.
Doyle moved to crouch with Bodie over the junction box, his thin frame bridling with emotion but his eyes on the task. "Here, let me. Fingers like sausages, you have." He deftly worked two fingers in to bring the suspect circuit board from among the other gadgets inside. "And if I wanted to hit you I'd do it without your permission, thank you very much."
Bodie frowned at the circuits. "If you don't want an apology and you don't want to thump me, then what the hell do you want, Doyle?" he grated.
"Want you to admit it."
"Admit what?" Bodie slipped the knife's tweezers from their slot and flexed them. "Hold that still."
Doyle's fingers were steady on the edges of the circuit board. "You're going to make me say it, aren't you? You coward!"
Bodie's eyes went dark as he carefully tinkered with the circuit board, wielding the tweezers like a surgeon. "The coward who's sitting here on a live bomb with you."
"We've always been sitting on a live bomb, don't you get it?"
A snort. "You're so poetic." The hard man again, dark brows lowered.
Doyle gritted his teeth. "I mean it, Bodie. You felt it too, I know you did. You're just afraid."
The truth hung in a charged silence, underscored with the slowly increasing purr of the mechanism. At last, Bodie made one more attempt to deny, to shrug it off: "Just don't want you making something out of nothing."
Within himself Cowley couldn't help but feel amused, predicament or no-- Bodie's attempt at blitheness had been a resounding failure. Then all at once the amusement blossomed into wonder and certainty: This is what we're here for. If it goes right, this isn't how they end... it's how they begin. Isn't it? His question went unanswered again, but this time he didn't need an answer. This time he simply knew.
Doyle tilted the circuit board slightly, to give Bodie a better angle, and said slowly, gravely: "You can bet I'm going to make something out of it. If you give me half a chance."
Cowley's vision was sharpening; he could see the shadows of Bodie's throat shift as the man swallowed repeatedly.
"So you are going to make me say it," Doyle continued remorselessly. "Big tough merc. Fine, I will." His voice was rough, taunting, daring Bodie. And as Doyle drew breath to finish his statement, Bodie suddenly interrupted him, answering the challenge. His voice wasn't loud, but nevertheless it cut through the air like the low peal of a bell.
"I want you."
Doyle watched Bodie work for a moment more, then gave him a small, gentle smile. "We're even, then." His eyes coaxed an answering smile out of Bodie, a smile with the genuine sweetness that might surprise those who didn't know him well.
Bodie gave the circuit board one last tweak and tucked it back into the junction box. The purr from within the pads beneath Cowley faded, although the main timer device was still giving a disconcerting soft rumble. "There. Better now."
Doyle's smile spread, slowly. "You bet your arse it is." Turning aside from Bodie's increasingly dazed and delighted grin, he began to run his fingertips over the disarmed pressure pads on which Cowley lay.
"Maybe we could use one of these to get him up and out of here. Like a backboard. We could put--" Doyle's face, close to his searching hands, moved right into Cowley's direct line of sight, and green eyes met Cowley's own. "--Christ!"
Blasphemy, Cowley thought absently, pleasantly, enjoying the fact that he was still well able to surprise his men even without being able to move or speak. He watched Doyle's pupils constrict to near-pinpoints.
Bodie's voice came reluctantly, soft and gruff, after a pause. "...he die on us?"
Doyle's gaze searched Cowley's, and Cowley looked back, steady, clear, aware. "No," Doyle managed. "No... he's awake."
"Awake," Doyle said, putting a peculiar emphasis on the word: half-relieved, half-choked. "He's awake. You can hear me, can't you sir?"
Cowley concentrated, and blinked slowly. Not much, for a man whose iron constitution was famed throughout the home counties and far beyond... but it was enough.
"He can hear me," Doyle said. "Can see me."
Bodie came on hands and knees to Doyle's side, peering uncertainly down at Cowley. "Thought you were out, sir. Been awake long, have you?"
Cowley blinked again, carefully.
There was a strangled exhalation from Doyle. Embarrassment seemed to flow invisibly from him like streams of water. Bodie read this silent language as well as he read his partner in the midst of a firefight, and he shifted himself stiffly so that his shoulder no longer touched Doyle's.
Cowley's fair brows drew together. He wondered if the fledgling bond he had seen between his men was destined to die aborning. Could it survive so soon in the open air? Not for me, lad. Don't kill it for me. You don't know yet how precious it is. Thoughts he would probably never speak aloud, but he thought them all the same, watching Bodie's face.
Doyle's eyes darted sideways and flickered uncomfortably over Bodie. "Come on, let's get going before our luck runs out," he said irritably, moving to grab one end of a pressure-pad.
Bodie remained still for a moment, seemingly transfixed by Cowley's urgent gaze. Finally, the vulnerability on his face gave way to certainty, and then to dawning determination. Cowley saw this, and rejoiced. His eyes crinkled at the corners. Bodie tipped him a wink and moved nonchalantly to help Doyle ready the impromptu backboard.
"What?" Doyle asked, distracted.
"Our luck ran out. But something kept it going until we were finished," Bodie said simply. "Happened for a reason." They lifted the pad with Cowley on it, steadying him for the steep ascent up the stairs.
Doyle looked a warning at Bodie, eyes flicking to Cowley quickly and meaningfully. But Bodie only grinned. "Happened for a reason," he insisted. "And when we're out of here and he's tucked up safe in hospital with his pure malt IV, I'm taking you home and showing you what that reason is."
A deep flush coloured Doyle's cheeks, but at last he smiled despite himself, leading the way up the stairs. "You do that."
And Cowley, finally managing to move his toes as sensation returned, looked peacefully up at the ceiling. Well done, Sir, he thought humbly, conspiratorially, not minding the apparent lack of reply. Very well done indeed.
-- THE END --
"Barukh atah Adonai
Eloheynu melekh ha-olam
ve-higi'anu la-zman ha-zeh."
"Praised are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us in life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season."
- Blessing recited on the first night of Chanukkah