Taming a Sea-Horse


E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop.

--Robert Browning, "My Last Duchess"

A day of Macklin's fond attentions, a night's plain and fancy drinking, passing the bottle back and forth and vowing to get the bastard--tomorrow, that prick'll get his tomorrow, see if he doesn't--rolling out at sparrowfart, glass-headed and stumbling, to do it all again: day after day of that, and somewhen in all the chest-beating, muscle-displaying, boasting, bullshitting, officially interdicted but tacitly tolerated boozing, bruising, bleeding, aching, and cursing, two men united in their desire to see Brian Macklin burn in hell became two men against the world: a crash course in partnership, CI5-style.

That was how it was supposed to work. Marsh didn't know the failure rate and couldn't have cared less. Only one failure concerned him. If he'd suffered ten days' sweating, stinking misery for nothing, he was going to beat the irregular edges off his unsatisfactory new partner with a hammer.

Bodie stood on the pavement, held the passenger door open with the cold rain coming sideways, the fool, and peered in at him with red-rimmed, exhausted eyes. "Coming up for a drink, Jack?"

He was, not that it'd do any good, no more than it had so far done a scrap of good telling Bodie he was John, damn it, John, not Johnny, not Jack-o, not Jack-me-lad, not any of the half-dozen labels pasted on him in the last ten days. Starting Monday they were Cowley's, but this weekend was their own. He'd best put tonight to good use since--starting Monday--he was expected to trust his life to a man he didn't trust at all, a man who didn't seem to give a toss for anything or anyone. What the hell, he was wiped out anyhow, wasn't like he was good for anything else, so this free Friday night wasn't much of a sacrifice. Might as well make one last attempt to see beneath Bodie's surface anger, surface boredom, surface affability--


He switched off, got out, followed Bodie inside and upstairs, first floor front. First time in his partner's flat and he stood dripping on the mat and looked around with interest. Nice place. Open, spacious. "Luck of the draw, or a benefit of seniority?"

Bodie, who'd dropped his bag at the door, slapped on the lights, and made a beeline for a bottle-furnished cabinet, glanced over his shoulder. "What?"

"My flat's like a biscuit tin."

"Oh. Luck, I think--my last was weathertight and that's all you could say for it. Planning to drink and run?"

"Suppose not." He shucked his jacket, hung it up on the floor, sleeved the last of the rain from his face, hesitating over the choice of seats. Might never make it up off that sofa again, the way he felt, but it beckoned, roomy like the flat, and comfortable-looking. Screw it, Bodie could pull him up off the thing if it came to it. He lowered himself with care, misjudged the distance and dropped the last few inches, felt his every joint and muscle give tongue--heaved a sigh of gratitude for the quiet that followed the chorus.

"All right?" Bodie stood over him, unexpectedly close; he accepted the glass he was offered, settled back against the cushions to give his neck an easier angle.

"Ta. Yeah, not bad, considering."

"Wait," Bodie intoned in a voice of awful portent, "until tomorrow," and he flashed a slaying smile. It was broad, bright, and uncomplicated; Marsh wondered what he'd look like if the expression in his eyes matched it.

Bodie backed off and made a circuit of the room, twitching the curtains closed, straightening a picture already straight. Not nerves, Marsh thought, not Bodie, so it was the animal thing, renewing faded sign, re-marking territory. He slugged back his Scotch: misty over his tongue; smooth all the way down; smoky and warm in his belly. "Break out the good stuff in my honour?"

"Nothing but the best." Bodie's prowl ended beside the bottle. He collected it and his own drink, and confounded Marsh by sitting on the coffee table, knee to knee with him, not touching but near to it. His object proved to be refilling his guest's glass, and when he'd done that he set the bottle between his feet. "Right then, Jacky-boy. Whatever it is, let's hear it."

"D'y'reckon we're ready for Monday?"

"Monday," Bodie echoed, blank incomprehension. Then, bland as porridge, "Oh, Monday. Course we are. Got Macklin's seal of approval and all."

"We didn't exactly distinguish ourselves."

"Because he had us for breakfast, you mean?" Bodie shook his head. "Means nothing, Jack. It's expected. Brian's accustomed to making meals of better men than you'll ever be."

"We don't click," he snapped, and regretted letting himself be goaded when he got back one of Bodie's more infuriating tricks, a tight smirk and a quick upwards flick of the brows, meant, he was sure, to convey exasperation at the absurd baselessness of his concern: if Bodie, atop the lofty pinnacle of his vast experience, wasn't fussed, well, why should his wet-behind-the-ears partner be?

He was all of two years Bodie's junior, he'd seen the sharp end of the street with Special Branch, had six months' open duty with CI5. One failed partnership. No secret, that--regrettably far from it. But his ears were his own frigging business and none of Bodie's. "We don't--" Damned if he'd say "communicate." Hell if he would.

"Click?" Bodie offered in the snottiest manner imaginable, and, "Christ," Marsh said, "how'd your last partner put up with you?"

"That's nothing to do with you." The eyes matched the face at last, and Marsh didn't like the looks of it. If he had to move fast, the bloody sofa had him surrounded. "But if we're talking of partners--"

Perhaps Bodie noticed his jaw tense, his knuckles go white; whatever the reason, he seemed to decide that particular pit of snakes was best not blundered into. "Oh, shit. Look, forget it, shouldn't've said that. I'm the last--" He gave an impatient shake of his head. "I don't care what's been said, all right? Much ado about sodding nothing. The idiots on the squad'll find something else to occupy 'em before long. They always do."

And that was another snakepit. He could make a fair guess what shape the next sensation would take. What Cowley could be thinking, pairing him with Bodie...though it could be no one would have had either of them without a fight. Anything for a quiet life, then? Knowing Cowley, it was more than possible.

"Tell me about him." He was already parked on a double yellow, but Bodie was halfway to being conciliatory, and he very much wanted to know. "Not what they're all saying, I've heard all that. Tell me about him."

He saw more than surface then. Bodie's eyes gave him away, and the tightening of his mouth. For a moment every emotion a man could feel was written on his face. Marsh wanted to leave, he'd made a mistake, he couldn't get out of Bodie's vicinity fast enough...his estimate of the partnership's chances went up a notch.

A quick recovery, a credible attempt at lightness. "Uncool. Hot temperament," Bodie said, with a loose, easy shrug. "An idealist. They're the worst, you know. They give a damn. Makes them hesitate." A silence, slightly unnerving and maybe unnerved. If he was waiting for a comment, Marsh had none to make. "Well, that's all, really. Not much to tell. Another?"

He picked up the bottle, and Marsh discovered his glass empty again; he didn't remember finishing his second shot. "I should go."

"No need to hurry off."

Bodie must have asked him up here for a reason, after all, besides sounding his doubts; he could have done that in the car. So he wondered if that were the sort of suggestion it might be. On reflection, he thought not. They were unlikely to do each other much good and likely to do their fledgling team much harm, and Bodie had conclusively proven CI5's priorities his own.

And if it ever were that sort of suggestion, he'd be as oblivious, or as blunt, as he needed to be. Not that he was looking for tender feelings, but Bodie's sort.... Cold even on heat, he'd lay odds, and hard of spirit. It'd be "Brace yourself" before--if you were lucky--and "Don't let the door hit you in the arse" after. Not a man to get involved with, his new partner, not even casually. Not a man to fuck with, in any sense of the word. But to work with, yeah, he was worth a try. Marsh could do that.

On the whole, Friday wasn't a total washout. He imagined himself recommending to Cowley that CI5 dispense with the services of Brian Macklin, replace the sadistic son of a whore with a few belts of good Scotch.

"Another, then." He held out his glass. When Bodie grinned and tipped the bottle up, he smiled coolly back.

-- THE END --

February 2004

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