(Story #5 in the "Land-Bridge" series)
Murphy rose fifteen minutes before the set time on his alarm; he was in and out of the shower and drinking his first cup of tea before it went off. He straightened his rumpled bed, determinedly feeling neither a physical nor emotional ache at the solitary job. He chose a suit of a sober conservative grey, his camouflage for the upcoming day of moving amongst the ministers in the high halls of power. Today he was to play the part of Cowley's personally- picked successor, a role he played to perfection and one of the many he played in his CI5 work, as Cowley moved through Whitehall on a funding crusade, cruising like a well- dressed shark among other well-mannered sharks waiting for the first hint of weakness to begin a feeding frenzy.
Murphy nodded at his image in the glass as he straightened the dark blue tie; he was now the very model of the silent and deadly intelligence vector who could chat with the vicar over tea even as men killed and died in another country on his orders.
Doyle had been out and far for a fortnight, making himself useful to Jarlath Connoll's operation and gathering information on an imminent drug shipment. He was most likely just getting ready to turn in, considering his undercover persona; drug traffickers tended to keep vampire's hours. He'd be doing it up druggie style -- fast cars and women, horrible clothes, loud rave-ups every night -- on the surface, living in a manner to make him the envy of the hoi polloi.
Murphy did not envy him.
Ray Doyle was the best undercover man in CI5, and one of the best when it came to dealing with the druggie mob. Tonight, he'd laugh louder and dance with more birds than on previous nights, wear gaudier suits and visibly have a good time. Today was just another day, one of waiting, watching and listening for any information that would lead to three or four key arrests in Connoll's operation.
Just another day.
Impeccably groomed and reeking of respectability, Murphy did not look at the snapshot tucked into a corner of his desk blotter -- green trees, granite heights, and painfully blue sky framing two dishevelled and grinning men in climbing gear -- as he passed the desk on his way out of the flat at precisely 6.15. The sky was overcast, suggesting rain later, a day like most this past week. Remember that. It's just another day. Stay cool today, and don't think about him. He'll get through this -- none of his new pals will see anything different. It's an ordinary day.
There had been a time when Murphy wouldn't have had to think about keeping aloof and emotionally apart for the day's duration, any more than he'd have had to think about breathing. He'd been destined for aloofness since childhood and beyond -- Lone Wolf Murphy, the unpartnered agent, the island that stayed safe when disaster struck those on the mainland.
All that had changed three years ago today. The change was entirely Doyle's fault.
Well, to be precise, it was Bodie's fault.
"Murphy, come," George Cowley's voice rapped.
Murphy looked up from his desk, knowing instantly that he was to accompany Cowley in the capacity of his second; had Cowley wished his skills as a rank-and-file member of A Squad, he'd have used his RT frequency.
And one look at Cowley's face told Murphy that it was bad. Disaster had struck an op, an assassination, a dead agent or three, a bomb had gone up. He did not ask questions; he merely followed Cowley to the car-park. When he heard the directions, he did not speak.
Only when they were well on the way to the hospital did Cowley break silence. "It's the Townley operation, Murphy."
Murphy nodded. "Four-five and three-seven," he replied as if being quizzed; as Cowley's successor he often felt as if he were back in First Form being asked to recite the previous night's schoolwork by rote. "Townley's gun-running to Derry, looking at getting into the drug business to finance the operation. Doyle and Bodie were to observe and arrest if they caught him with the goods." He froze himself even harder inside, in preparation for bad news.
"Aye, well they caught him dead to rights. It went up today. There was some heavy shooting. Four of Townley's men were taken into custody, but Townley himself got away." He was silent for a longer period of time, his face old beyond his years. "Bodie went down. He's in surgery now. It's very bad, Murphy."
Murphy nodded and realised why they were going to the hospital. Bodie was beyond their help. They were to get hold of Doyle before he stormed out on a rampage of revenge or made himself permanently redundant.
I thank thee O God that I am unpartnered--
Murphy was so used to making that silent act of gratitude whenever a partnership was violently sundered that he hardly thought about it. It didn't matter how close the agents had been to him -- never very close, Murphy was always careful to maintain a distance between himself and his colleagues -- or how recent the loss was -- always as near as the next assignment, one tended to lose the concept of "inappropriate thoughts" when death was a regular meal served to you. He was glad to be the lone wolf, tending his own wounds and staring in polite non- comprehension when a paired wolf howled for the loss of his partner.
They reached the hospital and made their way to the Casualty area, toward the bloodied and distracted man huddled on a chair outside the operating theatre. Doyle did not acknowledge their presence until Cowley spoke to him. The blood around Ray's mouth showed that he'd given Bodie the kiss of life in the field. It was not a good sign.
Minutes later a doctor emerged bearing the inevitable news. Doyle flung himself down the corridor on his way out of the building. And Cowley ordered "six-two" to go after 4.5 and stay with him, to prevent the surviving partner, friend and clandestine lover of six years from causing CI5 to lose its two best agents in one day. Murphy obeyed, and went after Doyle to rein him in.
That order had never been remanded. Three years had passed, and Murphy was still with Doyle.
Yes sir. No sir. Three bags full sir.
Murphy kept his distance, and his tongue, and nodded and said "Sir," whenever Cowley said something to him. Yes, this was the Honourable So-and-so, representing Such-and-such District, his predecessors having done such-and-such a thing and having enacted such-and-such legislation, currently heavily involved in Thus-and-such affairs of state...Murphy knew them all and could rattle off their political and family histories by heart -- knew the official and the CI5 biographies on each one. Minister Such-and- such, aka George's Old MI6 Chum, a primary reason that CI5's funding outlook brightened just at those times of the year that coincided with certain golfing holidays Cowley took. The Right Honourable Such-and-such, good and snug in their pockets what with those unfortunate photo-negatives liberated from a small-time pornographer during an investigation on smuggling charges... It was all very complicated, it all turned on various factors, the factors waxed and waned in potency at any time due to any of a dozen different variables -- and it all had to be done with a bland face, a sincere handshake, and the superficial appearance of business-as-usual every time the forces were united. Triple-think.
Murphy's mind was good for such intricate dealings, twists and turns in relationships and their logical extrapolations. He had started his career in the Diplomatic Corps and had made his way through that to the attention of George Cowley.
Murphy's earlier life had prepared him for Intelligence work as well. His cool impersonal upbringing by a reluctant aunt after his parents' disappearing act had resulted in a cool impersonal agent who relied entirely on himself, and who could cold-bloodedly congratulate himself on his singularity every time tragedy befell his fellow agents.
"Sir," he said again, restraining the urge to touch his forelock -- Dammit Ray get out of my mind! -- and followed at Cowley's heels, leaving some Right Honourable Thus-and-So pleased at having one-upped old George so thoroughly (at least in his own mind; later he would not be able to recall if Cowley had, in fact, agreed to a single one of his proposals -- but only much, much later). Murphy never stopped looking and being properly respectful before a number of Ministers who deserved neither respect nor their current offices. This part of the job was just as important as stopping a drug shipment or ferreting out a Soviet spy, and far more delicate.
This politely poisonous game had once been Murphy's whole life, bringing with it the cool-blooded satisfaction of being able to outthink opponents and let them think they'd outthought Murphy. A game for cool heads and cold blood.
But now something hot burned beneath Murphy's heart that had stirred it into a warmth and life it had never known. Wryly, he thought that the source of that heat was eminently skilled at lighting fires in cold people.
Bodie hadn't looked any different the day he died from the day he'd joined CI5; but his superficial bonhomie had become a glow of genuine pleasure, his callous shrug at death had become a quiet regret, and the grin of the soldier camping it up with his best mate had become a steady beacon of attention aimed at his partner. That had only ended three years ago today, with one of Townley's bullets.
Murphy should have taken Bodie's change as a warning. If he'd adhered to his philosophy, he should have sat tight in the flat and let Doyle cry all night in his room alone. But the one atom of his mind that refused to remain island-bound had gotten free, and had taken Murphy with it into the bereft bedroom to hold Doyle against the pain. First mistake. He'd even found a few words, dusty and cobwebby from non-use, intended solely to comfort the grief- stricken man. Second mistake. The third and fatal mistake had been to sleep beside Doyle in the bereft bed that night -- again, strictly for warmth and comfort. His shrivelled heart had blossomed and thrived on those small deeds.
"Very good, sir." Bite my bum, you pompous git. Murphy dammed back the Doyle-ism in his mind and stayed where he was, his polite smile frozen into place beneath his direct stare. Part of him was gratified to see the chinless wonder hesitate and give him a single unnerved look before vanishing from his direct vision -- no doubt worried about the complete sanity of Cowley's young thug.
He'd been doomed from the start. In six months he was Doyle's partner, the pair of them silent but deadly and effective. Murphy's very differences from Bodie were probably what saved that partnership from suffering the fate of Doyle's vitriolic pairings with other luckless agents not long after the Townley shootout.
Two months after their first job as partners, a near-fatal confrontation outside an embassy had dredged up a violent reaction from Doyle -- Ray's terror at the thought of losing a third partner had finally opened all emotional floodgates between himself and Murphy. In that raw and painful atmosphere, Murphy realised exactly how he felt about Doyle -- and sensed the other man's attraction to him. And with no hesitation, he had acted on that attraction.
For the second time in his life, Murphy woke up beside a sleeping Doyle. There were differences. Now they were both naked, their bodies limp in the aftermath of powerful release. Murphy winced as movement called attention to several tender spots that would show as bruises. Now he was emotionally limp as well; it is not easy to have something inside you made suddenly clear. All this time he'd thought it was concern for a friend that had drawn him to Doyle.
Bodie had probably thought the same thing.
He smiled and his hands stroked the dozing man grumbling awake beside him, thinking about the biggest change from that first night to this one. Last night the overriding concern in the joining had been life, not death.
"Wha fuckin time zit?" Doyle growled.
Murphy grinned at the dulcet tones of his lover and responded non- verbally, his tongue and his fingers bold. Doyle grunted and grumbled like a reawakened bear.
Gradually, still grumbling a little from time to time, Doyle rose from his torpor and began to respond in kind.
But Murphy saw a new difference from even the previous night's sex. The tender gestures that had been eagerly accepted last night were now batted away with Doyle's trademark brusqueness even as the stronger, wilder motions were accepted. Perhaps Ray preferred the rougher stuff in the morning. Perhaps he was coming out of his cocoon of grief. Perhaps he was trying to separate the love he'd shared with Bodie from a friendly fuck with a mate. At the moment, Murphy gave not a damn.
Looking back, Murphy would say that what he and Doyle had together was friendship, partnership and sex. For Murphy it was more than that, but he'd known from the beginning that there would be no contesting for the place in Doyle's heart where Bodie had taken root.
And even if Ray had been able to return the emotion in an intensity to match Murphy's, he still wouldn't be able to say the words. He hadn't said them once to Bodie while they'd lived, as he'd confessed brokenly that terrible night. It was still Doyle's greatest regret of his personal life...
Enough, that was the past. What they had was enough. And from the night when they'd joined physically had come the important milestones of their time together.
The New Year's roll call, the grim CI5 custom of tolling the year's dead and officially burying them. By tradition, all public grieving for someone had to stop after that person's name had been called. Murphy had stood with Ray as he'd shouted Bodie's name, offering moral support -- and had held him that night as the tearful Ray had plunged himself into sex to drown out the pain in his heart.
Murphy's birthday the next March, the usual cheery knees-up and gag gifts at The Hoof and Claw with all the other off-duty agents, and a private ritual enacted between the two men in his darkened bed that night -- marred only slightly by Ray calling out the wrong name at an important moment. Murphy had instantly cuffed the stricken Doyle and sternly ordered him to keep his mind on his work, which had kicked the man into laughter rather than tears as they made love again.
The first anniversary of this day, Doyle snarling through the day and refusing all sympathy as Murphy remained his coldest- blooded. Ray's near-fatal wounding that had put Murphy into precisely the situation he had tried to avoid for so long -- the fretting partner, waiting on tenterhooks for the word from the doctor. What he had gotten instead was Cowley, quietly explaining why he had never remanded the "stay with him" order.
And of course the foray that had resulted in Murphy's blotter photo, their climbing holiday up a mile of Yosemite granite. Murphy surreptitiously touched the small rough spot on his chin, all that remained of a good hard bang on the side of Three Brothers 800 meters above the ground. For some reason Ray liked to lick it.
That had been six months ago. Today they were both working.
And on the anniversary of Bodie's death, Ray had to pretend he was living it up and enjoying every minute of it. At a gesture from Cowley, Murphy approached and stood silent at his shoulder while the Old Man traded idiotic banter about golf with a financial bigwig. He had the better job today.
Back to Headquarters. Back to the cabinets and drawers and shelves full of endless files to be taken down and pored over, pictures studied, m.o.'s considered and compared, connections postulated. A good part of Murphy's training was simply long hard hours of hitting the books. Someday he must know every denizen of this office as well as Cowley did, if not better.
How many joined CI5 for the fast cars and the excitement? This morning it had been stand and nod and not look bored; this afternoon it was studying.
And all day it had been not getting worried. All fortnight.
Worry was a major drawback to the changes within Murphy. He'd learned that not all the poring over files would erase the nervous knot in his stomach, the urge to chew his lower lip, and the uncertainty that kept him dangling between skyhooks, unable to reach either one to pull himself clear. Not even the sure knowledge that Doyle was the best at what he did helped. Bodie had been the best, too, and--
Angrily Murphy worked through the pain, shuffling and opening and closing and staring and reading and committing to memory. Only when the day was well given over to night did he start up from the desk with a sheaf of files, prepared for some more intense at-home study.
Even Cowley was gone; there was only the night watch and a pair of agents dozing in the rest room. He went into Cowley's office to refile his packet -- and stared at a single bottle of Guinness atop the Old Man's desk. It wasn't Cowley's, he never touched the stuff. There was no note attached, but Murphy didn't need one. Linda Keogh and Sally Woolridge had been staking out a disco pub today (one known to harbour bombing experts), probably spending the whole day slapping faces; they knew Murphy worked late; they knew Doyle was in the danger zone, out of his partner's reach; they would know Murphy's usual tipple from the few get-togethers he'd attended with other agents. Warmed by this off-the-wall gesture of respect for their future boss by the Sisters of No Mercy, Murphy filed his armload and took up another one for home study.
Home without mishap, his stout and a bag of takeaway curry riding atop his files, Murphy did the sweep and found nothing new. After dinner he worked on the files with the Beatles' "Rubber Soul" album playing softly in the background, the only aspect of his work environment not identical to Cowley's. He worked steadfastly and in a straightforward manner. And he was not worried for Doyle. Nor was he lonely, nor homesick (how could he be homesick when he was in his flat for the evening?). He did not listen to nonexistent rustles in the kitchen, heard no tuneless humming, smelled nothing delicious wafting through the small place. There wasn't even anything left in the freezer -- it had all been eaten.
It was another late night.
At one a.m. his RT went off. Instantly he was alert and thumbing the connection open. "Six-two."
"Give your report." His heart was beating faster because the ungodly sound of his RT had snapped him from a sound sleep.
"Cooper time tomorrow, Aunt Lucy's."
"Understood, 4.5. Other?"
"'Sall. Out." And the RT was still.
Doyle couldn't get away from his new friends, then, if that terse report was all he dared.
Murphy called in to Headquarters and let Cowley know the time and place of the drug exchange. Then he got up to start the day, early though it was. He'd be needed at HQ to supervise the planning of the denouement of the Connoll case.
It was all but done now; the vital information had been exchanged. All Murphy needed to prepare for now was the possibility that someone had listened in to Doyle's phone call or was about to lift his cover.
They'd know soon enough. Tomorrow at noon at Paddington Station CI5 agents would either stop a shipment of heroin or find a body stuffed in a suitcase--
This is the way it's always been! I've got to control myself. Goddammit, Ray, why'd you have to go and do this to me!
The denouement was anticlimactically clockwork.
A day and a half later Murphy surveyed the scene with a quiet cold satisfaction at having done the job well. After only a minor scuffle, the three drug conveyers had been taken into custody along with their luggage even as the operation's headquarters was being cleaned out at the other end. Doyle himself appeared, dishevelled and all business, leading a cuffed and bloody-nosed Connoll. "Wouldn't sit still while I read 'im his rights," he said.
"You're fucking dead, Duncan," snarled Connoll as Keogh and Woolridge took him in hand.
"Threatening a law enforcement official," Woolridge said blandly.
"That's another charge, Connoll," Doyle replied in an identical bland tone. "Warned you what you say can be used against you."
Connoll, still furious, was hustled away before he could add any more charges to his tally.
"That's the lot," Doyle said, only now addressing Murphy, the inside man reporting to the outside one. "Jax and Anson are cleaning out his home base. Cow was right about him, he's dirtier than a fleet of druglords. Shipping guns, bomb parts, cocaine, everything but white slaves."
"Good work, four-five. Report to Headquarters, write up the report, and watch out for Connoll's hit men."
Doyle snorted and made a rude gesture at the thought. "Any of his thugs who escaped'll want to work for someone who's free to pay their salary -- and none of the other rats are sorry about losing a member of the competition." He heaved a sigh and looked toward the blocked-off part of the station where curious travelers tried to see what the police had been doing there. "Look at them. They probably think some old dear passed out without her medication."
"We fight off the wolves," Murphy said calmly. "And the sheep just keep grazing. They never know, Doyle."
"Not even when one of the dogs is killed defending them." Doyle's voice was level and quiet, almost emotionless. His eyes were directed at the crowd, but they were looking at someone else. There was no bitterness or grief in his voice. Only acceptance and peace.
"No," Murphy said in the same quiet voice, "not even then." He patted Doyle's shoulder. "When you've finished your report, four- five, go home and stay home for two days. You've had enough riotous night life for a while."
Doyle nodded and moved off the station, looking to cadge a ride to headquarters from one of the other agents.
Murphy watched him go, then went to his own car. He did not drive directly to CI5 headquarters.
It was another ordinary day, an afternoon too cool to be perfect, with a clouded sky. But the grass was dry -- for now -- and the sun gleamed fitfully off polished granite and marble. Murphy bypassed the impressive cenotaphs and made his way to the newer section of the yard, to the flat brass plates tamped into the ground -- and beyond that, the smaller plates denoting even smaller sites.
The proper date was two days past. But Bodie had been a professional. He had known the job always came first.
He knew the site well by now. He rounded one last marble arched stone, the bouquet of roses extended--
And stared at the splash of gold blanketing and surrounding the marker where Bodie's ashes were buried. Full round stemless flower heads of a dazzling yellow were laid close as stones in a drywall over the whole site to create a blaze of beauty.
Marigolds. The flowers that covered the dead in India before they were cremated. And not lowered down, or stuck in the sunken vase provided, either; this was the careful considered work of an artist. Somehow, during the op, Doyle had managed to make his way here without being seen, perhaps even scaling the wall after hours, to pay his respects to his partner, friend and lover in a way that honoured Bodie's travels in exotic lands. And it fit with the mode of burial; Cremation, Bodie's will had practically shouted in panic. The man had seen too many rotting bodies in his career; it had been clear he'd wanted a quick clean end to the business.
Hesitantly, wary of marring Doyle's offering, Murphy lowered his own bouquet into the exact center of the marigold blanket. When he stood back and saw what he'd done, he caught his breath.
It was perfect. From a shield of gold blazed a blood-red heart.
Or, a coeur gules.
Murphy stared, awed at this creation of a blazon worthy of the soldier it covered. Nothing he could say, think or pray would approach it. So he only stood in silence before it, for much longer than he'd intended.
Only when he'd finally stirred himself to leave the site did he say, "He's happy. He's all right. And so am I."
Home. The home that had merely been his flat two weary nights ago.
Murphy did the check before entering. Procedures.
But now the room was lit, chasing away the long hard days' worth of work and worry. Delicious smells wafted from the kitchen to fill his nose; warmth surrounded him.
And Ray was before him, robed and clean and fresh-shaven, and his eyes were warmer than the room.
Murphy met the green gaze with his own warm look. They both knew where they had been and what they had done there; this too was the result of the shorthand of partnership.
And for the first time, Murphy understood that it didn't matter that Doyle didn't match his own feelings. What they shared was strong and powerful, something incomprehensible to the sheep. It might not be what he wanted from Ray, but it was still enough--
"I love you."
He stared. He'd heard. He'd seen the lips move. He'd heard Doyle correctly.
It was seeing the roses and marigolds all over again, that sudden and unexpected blaze of beauty that had pierced his heart into stillness and awe--
"Love you, Murph," Ray said quietly. "Love you so much."
The future head of CI5 found himself unable to speak.
"It's a little past," Ray continued, picking up a filled wineglass and offering it to Murphy. Wine the colour of roses. "But it's the anniversary of our first night together."
Murphy took the glass. Then he set it down. And he took his future into his arms.
-- THE END --
Originally published in Chalk and Cheese 18, Agent With Style, 1998