(Story #2 in the "Land-Bridge" series)
"Ought to go home for the day," Murphy said in a tone that did not give credence to his words; he certainly did not give up his silent watchfulness at the window that overlooked the embassy.
"Mm." Doyle lay on the single cot in the stakeout room, his arms behind his head, staring up at a discoloured patch on the ceiling.
Long minutes passed, punctuated only by the distant sounds of traffic and people on the sidewalks below.
Murphy looked at the logbook; the only notations were to show where he and Doyle had traded off shifts for the day. "Nothing's happened all day," he said softly.
"Best kind of day to have," Doyle murmured from behind him.
Murphy smiled. They really must be bored to be having this type of conversation. "Big plans for tonight?" he asked absently, making sure the two people strolling by the embassy were who they appeared to be and not ready to toss anything through the gate.
"Oh, yeh, big plans. Opening a tin of baked beans and finishing up my book."
Murphy kept his eyes on the embassy guard impassively watching the people stroll by. "Could stop and have a pint with me before going home. Maybe a round of darts."
Silence from the cot. "Could. Except you don't hit the pubs."
"Not very often, I don't," Murphy agreed. "But now and then, for special occasions. And we ought to do something interesting today."
"Would be something to put in the old diary, wouldn't it." Casual coolness from Doyle's voice. "Besides 'Worked, came home, got drunk, cried myself to sleep.'"
Murphy kept his eyes on the embassy even as he set one careful foot into the mine field; over the past eight months -- including the two months of his new partnership -- he had begun to learn the layout. He knew this was a test. "Yes, it would be a change," he said firmly. "Drinking alone's not much fun."
"This won't be any more fun." There was iron in Doyle's voice. Another sense that Doyle was daring Murphy.
"More friendly, then," Murphy continued, unrelenting, letting his anger and exasperation flavor his voice. "Come on, Doyle, you haven't beaten me in ages. If you don't watch it, I'll get better than you."
"God forbid." Cool relief in that voice.
Murphy sighed to himself. So far, his ability to read the vitriolic agent had panned out. He'd passed, again, what often felt like a path between two knife-edges.
He was getting tired of Doyle's provocations. It was a constant barrage of what sounded like self-pitying statements, and something always hinged on Murphy's reaction to each one as it came. He was beginning to understand why only the unflappable Bodie had been able to remain partnered to Doyle longer than a month.
Well, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it... And up to a point, it was understandable; it had only been eight months since Bodie's death in the shootout with gunrunner Robert Townley. And Murphy had been partnered with Doyle for only two months.
Murphy had only been partnered with anyone for two months. Cowley's hand-picked successor had been solitary from the beginning, by preference. Lone Wolf Murphy, he'd been called; the island safely aloof from the messiness and emotion that partnering brought.
But it had been Murphy who, under Cowley's orders, had taken Doyle home and stayed with him the day Bodie had been killed to make sure the surviving agent -- the surviving lover -- did nothing foolish. Doyle and Bodie had hidden their status as lovers for six years from everyone; the only reason Cowley had known was because they had told him, and the only reason Murphy had known was because Cowley had told him. Murphy had tried to stay cold and aloof -- it had been the only method of living the "island" had ever known -- but finally his buried humanity had driven him into the midnight bedroom to hold its weeping occupant and say a few soft words to ease the pain. When Ray had cried himself empty in Murphy's arms, he'd finally been able to sleep; Murphy had lain beside him for warmth in the place where Bodie had slept for six years.
They had said nothing more about that night, had simply continued work as CI5 agents -- though after vicious fights with Anson and then Hicks Doyle had been allowed to work unpartnered. After that night, Murphy had made no special attempt to console Ray. There was a point at which Ray simply could not tolerate any more "comforting" and reacted badly to it. He'd already stunned people in the rest room after one too many inquiries about himself by shouting, "Of course I'm all right, I'm not the one who got his heart split open by a fucking bullet!" Because emotional displays made Murphy uncomfortable too, he hadn't yet gaffed on the side of too much solicitous behaviour. A peninsula he might be these days rather than an island, attached to the mainland, but he stayed on the peninsula.
But Ray's reaction to the opposite side of the spectrum...
Murphy winced, remembering Boswell and flexing his hand in unconscious sympathy. Acting on nothing more than the stories of the rended team's close friendship, the notorious homophobe had passed Doyle in the hall one day and said sweetly, "Well, well, well, if it isn't the Widow Bodie." Within the hour Boswell had gone to Casualty with three broken fingers. His only explanation on the accident report was that they'd gotten caught in a car door.
After finishing the paperwork for Boswell's "accident," Murphy had tracked Doyle to the otherwise-deserted rest room, sat down with his tea and said casually, "Surprised you left him a finger and a thumb."
"Youngster. First offense," Doyle had replied coldly, his shoulders still knotted with murder. Neither Doyle nor Bodie had been able to keep his cool when the other had been threatened or viciously maligned.
"Just so you know, Ray," Murphy had said just as coldly, "if anything like this happens again, you're out on the street looking for work. Bodie is dead -- it doesn't matter a fuck what people say about him now." He'd finished his tea, risen and left the room as if they'd been discussing nothing more exciting than the weather.
As Murphy suspected, nothing more happened to Boswell -- or anyone else on the squad, for that matter -- and Boswell had been remarkably subdued in his opinions on male friendship ever since.
Ray still displayed the knife-edge at times, seeming to test Murphy on how he reacted to his comments, making sure the quiet dark-haired man was neither too solicitous nor too callous. He seemed to find Murphy's feigned indifference more soothing -- feigned more and more these days. Before, Murphy would not have needed to feign indifference. Where had the cool and rational lone wolf gone? When had the island grown a land-bridge to the continent to become a peninsula?
Then, two months ago, Doyle had needed backup on a hostage case, and Cowley had sent Murphy. With the understanding of naturally silent men, they had read each other perfectly; Murphy had come in when Doyle had needed him to, had spoken when words had been needed at a certain place and time. The situation had concluded with the hostages freed and their captors in custody, without a shot fired or a casualty on either side. The next day Cowley had ordered the two out on an assignment together, and as smoothly as wading into a warm pool their partnership had begun.
Murphy sneaked a look back at the supine Doyle, who now seemed to be dozing, before continuing his watch. He still didn't know why they worked so well together, why they seemed to read each other so well. They were both taciturn, which might explain the former; neither was inclined to start arguments. Murphy's very difference from Bodie could have been why Doyle had accepted him so readily as a partner after his vitriolic reaction to both Anson and Hicks. That, and the passage of time healing the loss, and perhaps the memories of Murphy comforting him that first night after the shooting--
Ah, something. Murphy peered closely. That car, the shiny black one rounding the curve, going too slowly, too slowly. Every other car whipped around that corner and wove and dodged through traffic.
"Murph, what is it?" Doyle appeared over Murphy's shoulder. Some change in the man's body language or posture had alerted the agent.
"Six-two to 2.9, black sedan approaching," Murphy said into the RT without looking away from the image of the car going too nicely down the street, obeying the laws too perfectly--
Doyle was gone; he'd seen what Murphy had seen. Murphy pulled his Browning and fled after him, out of the room.
It could be the ambassador, of course, his chauffeur instructed to scrupulously obey the rules of the road to ensure no accidents, or someone trying out his brand new car who didn't want any dings or dents on the first drive. But better to look the fool rushing in for no need than to arrive a split second too late.
They did not look like fools.
Murphy burst out onto the street to shots and the car's windows coming down to reveal more guns; the embassy guards were running, pulling out their weapons. He ducked behind a parked car and crouched down. The car windows shattered, showering broken glass over him; Murphy grinned, exultant with the taste of solitary danger the way a child enjoys a stolen treat. Oh, they knew their drive-by was routed, and now they were taking out their fury on the spoilers.
Pedestrians screamed and scattered, clearing the way; the smart ones hit the ground and flattened.
Other shots rang out close by. Doyle was behind another car, shooting back -- aiming at the windows and tires. Murphy lay down flat and fired from under the belly of the automobile. The wounded car screeched, spitting glass and swaying violently, trying to make its escape on two unpunctured -- good shot Ray! -- one unpunctured tire.
More gunfire. More guards were out now, more armed agents aiming through the shattered windows; and the car was surrounded. It would have been suicide for the men inside to continue shooting. Fanatic they might be, but not suicidal; the gunplay stopped. Not 15 seconds had passed since Murphy had come out onto the street. It was over.
Murphy stood up, gun still aimed over at the battered pockmarked car, and looked over at his partner. "Ray--"
At the same time he said "Ray," Doyle fired his gun nearly straight up in the air. A hot wind stung past Murphy, followed by a loud report that instinctively sent him down again. More people screamed as a rifle crashed to the sidewalk.
Then Ray's hands taloned into his forearms, shaking -- not simply shaking Murphy, but shaking in horror.
Murphy looked straight up into green eyes that saw only death. And beyond them, on the roof of a building abutting the one where he and Ray had been stationed, was the slumped figure of a solitary man draped over the rooftop. They'd had a linchpin man, so close...
"He didn't get me, Ray," he said calmly, with only a hoarseness to betray his realization of how close his death had come. "You got him, and he missed me." But not by much. He firmly shut off the memory of the stinging wind before his face. Control yourself and you will be able to control others, Cowley had told Murphy. Time enough for him to shake and vomit with terror at his near-death when he was alone...
The taloned grip on his arms loosened from their digging pain; but Murphy still felt the tremor in them a second before Doyle let him go and spun around to join the other CI5 agents and guards in apprehending the men in the ruined car.
Murphy stood, shaking the spilled glass from his hair and clothing and then unable to stop shaking. He looked at the bullet hole in the car, angled downward just at the level of his head. If Ray hadn't shot the sniper when he had, Murphy's skull and brains would have been plastered on the destroyed car as well.
He knew he hadn't imagined the look of rage in Ray's eyes. He knew the source of that anger, and it was up to him to dredge it. Murphy exhaled in weariness.
As Doyle spread and cuffed gunmen by their sedan, Murphy pulled out his RT and reported the denouement of the incident to Cowley; he hoped his trembling hand would not cause the signal to waver.
He walked over to his partner, who was now standing off by himself in the road, staring up at the dead gunman, at the bullet-riddled car that had been Murphy's shield, at his own hands. "Pub it is, Ray, let's go."
"Get the fuck away from me, Murph," Doyle snarled, whirling and striding away toward the parked Capri and leaving a trail of sparks.
Murphy had learned a thing or two from observing Bodie's handling of his vitriolic partner, and from eight months of dealing with the bereft Doyle. He ran alongside, then in front of Ray, blocking his furious charge, forcing a confrontation.
Wild green eyes, unfocused and insane with a combination of emotions, snapped up to stare. "Goddamn you--"
Murphy laid down a backfire that met the inferno flame for flame. "Ray, you son of a bitch!" he shouted in the stunned man's face, "whatever's eating you alive is bloody well going to come out -- and whether it takes three pints or Kate bloody Ross to do it is up to you, isn't it!" Bantam stance, spraddled legs, head forward, eyes flashing. "What'll it be?"
Doyle stood stock-still, trembling, eyes blank with shock as if he'd been slapped. Murphy readied himself for a bout; after all this time, it looked as if it was going to come to blows between them.
Then green eyes dropped to glare at a spot on the pavement between the two men.
Green eyes glared at a ring-mark on the table as the third empty glass thumped down to the wood. Murphy eyed him quietly over the lip of the nearly-full glass of his own second bitter. It was three pints later and Ray had the gates locked as tight as before.
But Murphy was not worried. He was a peninsula now, not an island. He knew the way into the country behind those walls.
"You did well today, 4.5," he said coolly. "If you'd left the stakeout room a split second later, the car would have gotten through the embassy gates. You fired in the correct locations to stop the car, tires and then windows. No civilians were injured."
If anything, Doyle became more rigid of face.
Murphy sighed mentally. The man could feel guilty about stepping on a beetle. "If you're upset about killing the sniper, stop it," he said sternly. "I'm not saying that just because you saved my life. It was the only way to stop--"
The chair's scraping drowned out Murphy's voice as Doyle flung himself upright and headed toward the door.
Murphy ran after him, but not in time to prevent Ray colliding with someone else and spilling his beer; someone bigger, broader, and even shorter-tempered than Doyle. "You little barstid," the lummox growled, raising an enormous fist to flatten Ray.
"Outside," Doyle snapped as if he'd just declared a formal duel, and charged past before Murphy caught up with him.
"Look, my friend's had a rough day, let me buy you anoth--"
The door closed on the lummox, then opened as a few interested people went out to watch the fight.
Murphy stood where he was for a moment in thought. Then he took a deep breath and exhaled it to loosen every muscle. He walked to the bar and held up a hand to stop the nervous bartender from heading toward the phone. "It'll be over very soon, and they've gone down the alley so they won't scare your customers away." He held up his badge and let the man read it. "Be assured that any damage will be reimbursed." He walked back to the vacated table, and forced himself to sit down and take up his glass again. Let me be doing the right thing, letting him fight this out of his system. Bodie, if angels watch over us, you keep an eye on that idiot!
"Well, you look lovely right now," Murphy said sarcastically, applying a dressing to abraded knuckles. "And intelligent."
"Fug off, Burphy," Doyle managed through the cold wet bloody cloth clamped to his nose. His unblackened eye glared at his stolid partner.
At least Doyle's training hadn't left him. Anyone else Ray's size and weight would have been sent to the hospital by the walking pile of bricks -- who luckily had been dumber than a bag of hammers. The lummox had given Ray a good workout, though, before deciding to lie down for a while in the alley. Had Ray been sober, he would have emerged from the fight unscathed. Now they were back in the flat that was now only Doyle's; any trace of Bodie's presence was long gone. Definitely messier, a place that echoed for all its small size.
"Proud of yourself, I see," Murphy continued as he finished bandaging.
"Shud the fug ub!" Ray yanked his hand from both of Murphy's.
"I thought the fight would help you," Murphy continued, glaring right back at Ray. "You wanted to hit somebody and found someone willing and able. Hasn't improved your temper -- and you still haven't told me what the shit is so fucking awful about you killing a sniper today," he snarled in Ray's face. He felt himself marching across the peninsula into dangerous territory, making an assault on the mainland.
Ray was trembling. Slowly, as if under iron control, the hand unclenched around the bloody cloth. Ray took an experimental sniff. Then again. His one unswollen eye looked around wildly, looking around the flat. No white sweater draped over the kitchen chair now, Murphy saw; no motocross magazines scattered across the couch; one leather jacket hanging on the door.
"Ray, you shot that man so fast I didn't have time to be scared."
Glaring, wild green eye; clenched fist trembling. He knew, Murphy did; oh, he knew. And now he let his sorrow show in his eyes and face as he looked at Ray. Let Ray reopen his own septic wounds and expose them to healing...
"Faster." Almost a creak in Ray's throat. "F-faster." A shaking breath. "If I'd been faster..." Slowly, a grief- quake began. Murphy almost fused their bodies together as he held Ray tightly. The man whimpered, "could have saved him..."
"When you shouted to Bodie." Murphy kept his voice as iron as the arms that clutched Doyle. "When he didn't duck fast enough to keep a bullet from tearing open his left ventricle."
The body didn't stop shaking. "I didn't-- I just shot today. Didn't shout."
"And if you hadn't wasted breath warning Bodie..."
A horrible keening sound from the shaking body. Not a human cry; the high-pitched sound of iron walls tearing apart.
An iron lance for iron walls. "Doyle, if you second-guess everything you ever do, you'll second-guess yourself to death," Murphy snapped, hands gripping Ray's shoulders and holding him eye to eye.
"I let him die and I saved you."
For the second time that day Murphy looked into green eyes that saw death. But the first time it had been Murphy's death Ray had expected to see. Now...
No, he's dead you're alive you infuriating miserable twit keep it that way for Christ's sake--
No, Ray was alive, it was there, his desire to live buried under the shattered iron wall. Pry up the wall, free it. Feather words and feather weapons would smother it forever...
Why was it so hard for Murphy to take up his cold iron weapons? They'd fit him so well all the years before. They'd fit beautifully eight months ago. It hurt to wield them now -- but he knew how to wield them, and that was the important thing. Open the wound...
"So you lied on the Townley report, Doyle." Voice of ice. Aim for the vitals... "You didn't do everything possible to avert tragedy during the shootout. Your negligence caused the death of your former partner, is that what you're saying? Your latest former partner. With Syd Parker, Bodie makes it two-for-aught, Doyle!"
Murphy was CI5-trained and Cowley's groomed successor. Furthermore, he was sober and considerably smarter than a bag of hammers. That was all that saved him for the next ten minutes as he parried, ducked and dodged the maddened Doyle lunging at him, howling in rage and pain. The innocent couch took the worst of the blows; Murphy did his best to guide furious fists into cushions and winced as he heard his handiwork come undone on brutal surfaces.
"You fucking prick you shit!" were the first coherent shrieks out of the man as his pile-driven arms thudded elbow-deep into sofa cushions instead of the solar plexus they'd been aimed at. "I was holding off three fucking gunmen when Townley raised his gun and I screamed at Bodie but the bastard went over like a duck in a shooting gallery! By the time I fired again he was gone and there was blood and Townley was gone and I killed them cos they killed him I couldn't save him!"
"Yes!" Murphy roared into Doyle's face, stunning him as if with a slap. "YES!"
Stock-still. Trembling. "I. Couldn't. Save him."
"Yes," Murphy whispered, pain lancing through him at those staring, vulnerable green eyes looking... looking away from death.
He could almost hear the tight iron bands snap as Ray sagged against him again. Not crying; simple devastation at his loss.
Murphy stroked the hair off Ray's forehead, kissed the revealed spot. His cheeks itched and his eyes stung -- but that was stupid, impossible; they hadn't done that since he'd been eight. Loss, grief; they were too normal a part of CI5 life to make that happen to him... "You weren't holding off three gunman when you saw the sniper today, Ray, it was different from the Townley shootout. You didn't need to shout a warning. It was different." Over and over he chanted the repetition, breathing on the flickering ember he held cupped close in his arms, the ember of Ray's desire to live. Ember growing stronger, glowing brighter.
And Ray pulled away from Murphy, shaking his head in simple bewildered grief. Now the other eye was nearly as swollen and red as the one he'd gotten in the alley.
"We are soldiers, Ray," Murphy said softly. "We're fighting a war out there. And the first rule in war is that no matter what happens, no matter what you do to stop it, no matter what ties of love and companionship tie us together, soldiers die."
Doyle turned away and sat on the couch he'd been battering, his far-more-battered hands resting loosely in his lap; if he felt any pain from them, he probably welcomed it as a distraction. The voice that rose from him was a moan of pain. "Would have been better if we'd never gotten together in the first place."
Natural protection from pain; now that Ray could no longer blame himself for Bodie's death, he was trying to distance himself from the closeness and warmth that had shattered with Bodie's heart.
Pain nearly choked Murphy -- pain at recognition of his own way of thinking in that dead-voiced phrase. Hadn't he spent his whole life living precisely that way?
And he could no longer advocate that life for Doyle. Not after the last eight months; not after that night. Warm dry land stretched between him and other people now, not cold and featureless ocean.
"Would any of the people whose lives you two saved think that? Would your country think that?" He was stumbling, awkward, still unused to this new land he walked upon. "Ray, your face and hands will heal and stop hurting, you know that." He eyed the blood seeping through the bandages of the shaking hands. "Please, just give yourself enough time. Townley shot six years away from you, and eight months isn't enough time for it to stop hurting."
"Would have been better," the hoarse voice whispered from the bowed shoulders. "Would have been better."
Despair. Grief and overwhelming need; the need to stop the pain, stop it no matter what it took. Death would end the pain, Ray was thinking; sweet quiet dark death. Or worse...
"Want to live like me, do you?" Murphy said. "Away from everyone, not giving a damn if people live or die? Eh? Well, you can't live that way and still be like me, Ray, because I stopped living that way eight months ago."
Ray's shoulders went still. He did not look up or turn around.
"I was grateful I had no partner," Murphy said harshly, his eyes hot. "Especially when someone got killed and his partner fell apart. I was glad I was a lone wolf. I only stayed with you through that night because I was ordered to by Cowley, to make sure you didn't blow your brains out. And I kept telling myself I was only doing it to follow orders, that I was only holding you as tight as I did to warm you up and stop your shaking. That I told you what I did to calm you down." The hot stinging pain in his eyes was suddenly gone, and two cool lines ran down his cheeks instead as he said, voice strangling, "That the only reason I kissed you back when you kissed me was because you'd taken me by surprise."
Ray's head lifted. His shoulders shivered, just a little, as they straightened. And looking at that slender back beneath the white shirt, Murphy suddenly felt a rush of warmth and pain that had nothing to do with Bodie.
"Bodie could have stayed away from you, couldn't he? He'd been alone before, he'd seen what happened to mercs who got too close and lost each other. Have you asked yourself why he took that risk -- why he chose to swim to your shore instead of staying by himself?" It was certainly the first time Murphy had thought to ask. "Maybe he thought--" His voice cracked; he cleared his throat angrily, embarrassed. "--that being together was better."
Ray's head turned just enough so that Murphy could see a partial profile. Wracked by the stressful day, grief, alcohol, and the fight, Doyle had never before looked so astoundingly ugly. There was a pleading in his look, a desire for understanding.
Understanding? That infuriating, bad-tempered accident of a partner of his--
The iron lance turned in Murphy's hands, drove deep.
That word, that word he'd never used before about himself, the word he'd never had the right to use before--
Murphy was swept away in the onslaught of warm pain that inundated his island, swamped it, washed it away, left him foundering, gasping at the immensity of this unnamed force, flailing for something solid to stand upon, anything--
There, beneath his feet. His land-bridge. Small and straight, and it led in one direction. It was not safe, that continent; but there was the only path to sanity, to wholeness, to the controlled understanding of these monstrous waves of fellow-feeling that had washed away his solitude and compelled him to the shore. That path led to the understanding so inadequately described as love; these waves threatened to drown his unless he pulled the other free as well.
Such a small bridge, to lead him to safety...
Murphy crossed it in four steps. He wrapped his arms around Ray's bony back and laid his damp cheek against Ray's neck; he kissed the shoulder under his mouth.
The exhale of relief and pleasure was profound; and it took Murphy a moment to realize that he had not made that sound.
Understanding. Fellow-feeling. The final piece of the puzzle falling into place. Water receding.
And both of them were on dry ground.
-- THE END --
Originally published in Professional B & D, Satyr D'Nite, 1993