My Favourite Work of Art
Epilogue is here
Most people count sheep when they have trouble sleeping. Me... I count the dead. The big bad wolves who tried to kill me. The innocents I couldn't save. Friends and lovers. Enemies and strangers. Sometimes the names blur in my mind, but the faces are always clear. I count them all. And, when I finally sleep, an army of ghosts follows me into my dreams.
So what was one more failed mission, one more face to count at night?
It was the bloody straw that broke the camel's back, that's what it was.
I'd been hurt too often, hurt too many others. I'd seen too much, lived too many years in too short a time.
I was tired, damn it.
Call it a mid-life crisis, call it a fit of pique. Call me a selfish fool for deciding to turn my back on the plight of my fellow man.
I heard this and more from my irate employer.
Nine years of my life handed over on a silver platter, and it still wasn't enough for him. Well, it bloody well was enough for me. More than enough.
I was through.
I stormed my way out of his office and never looked back.
Give credit where credit is due: the Cow doesn't like to waste any time. The wily old Scot must have limped as fast as his bandy little legs would carry him, flushed Bodie out of hiding in the Ops Room, merrily tattled on me, and then smartly stepped aside to enjoy the show.
Within an hour I heard a screech of tyres sounding over the incessant patter of raindrops on the roof.
"You fucking bastard," Bodie spat. Tossing my letter of resignation in my face, he turned from me to stare blindly out the window of my third floor flat. Grey sky over grey city; grey rain falling down; black silhouette against a rectangle of grey light. There was no colour to this desolate tableau. My fingers twitched, longing for the charcoal and sketchbook that lay carelessly discarded on the end table... dropped there, forgotten, when Bodie unceremoniously barrelled though my door.
He's damned lucky I turned in my gun. I might well have shot the stupid sod for a dangerous intruder.
"I've heard it all, Bodie," I sighed wearily. "Believe me, the Cow was very eloquent on the subject. There's nothing left to say."
"You bastard," Bodie repeated, in a slightly calmer tone and, for a moment, for a heartbeat, I thought that was to be the extent of it. My lounge was far too small to contain such seething anger. Surely, he would simply slam out the door, walk away, leave me in peace to nurse my latest wounds and find what comfort I could in a bottle of pure malt scotch.
See ya later, Goldilocks. Have a nice life.
I would have bet on it as a sure thing.
I would have been wrong.
I knew it the instant his eyes drifted back to mine. No mercy was in the gaze, no hope flickered in the midnight depths... only pain... a wordless need...
Several quick steps placed him squarely back in front of me. Two rough hands tangled in my hair, immobilizing my head at an impossible angle. And then... and then, his mouth crashed down on mine, his lips set in a tight, angry line, his breath hot and searing on my cheeks. No tender lover's kiss, this. I felt his teeth sink into my bottom lip, drawing blood as his mouth ravaged mine. No doubt about it, my ex-partner was trying to consume me. I was drowning in the utter ferocity of his relief at finding me still here, his dismay at my unexpected choice, his fury that I would chuck it all away and attempt to leave without so much as a goodbye. Beyond any semblance of sanity or control, desire pulsating in each touch of his flesh to mine, he laid his deepest, darkest secret before me. Nothing left to say? By his reckoning, the conversation had not yet even begun. He fancied me. He would not let me go without a fight. In his eyes, I was still his partner. Fuck, I was his property. His, not CI5's. I was his... his... his....
The word beat a throbbing tattoo in my brain, in rhythm with the savage working of his jaw. No answering word of protest surfaced. Yes. I was his. His... as he was mine. This was right. This was what I wanted. What I needed. I hooked an arm around his neck and pulled him in closer, answering his raw need in kind.
A surprised gasp, a whimper of painfully inhaled air... Bodie dropped me as if I were the proverbial hot potato, tore himself so suddenly from our fierce embrace that he tripped over his own feet and landed flat on his arse. And there he stayed.
Would have been funny, if I hadn't been too busy doing my own gob-smacked fish impersonation to take much notice of his. My heart jack hammered in my breast. I lifted a trembling hand to my swollen, bloodied lip. Watched Bodie watch me as I licked a drop of blood away.
"What the hell?" I murmured, and he winced, clearly expecting a quick fist to punctuate the question.
"Ah no, Bodie, no," I soothed. "It's all right... C'mere, love." And dropping to my knees before the great git, I rested my hands lightly on his shoulders and leaned in to press my lips firmly back to his.
"Christ, Ray..." His voice was rough, torn between a sob and a prayer. It was all the encouragement I needed. And so I kissed him. I kissed him as I had always wanted to do, as I had always dreamed that I might someday dare.
None the less intense for all its apparent gentleness, I began a careful, thorough exploration of Bodie's mouth, tongue savouring, probing, stroking. I could taste the salt of unshed tears, the sharp tang of wondering belief, the sweet promise of greater passion... and, over all, contentment, wave after wave of utter contentment washed over me. Mine or his? I couldn't tell. Mine or his? What difference did it make?
Bodie's arms folded around me, welcoming me home. He surged forward, pulling me closer to his chest, deepening the kiss, assuming command, taking things to another level entirely...
"Bed," I gasped, hungry for all that he offered and eager to sample more. "Bodie? Let's go to bed." My jumbled rush of words fell in the breathless intervals between blistering kisses. "Ahhhhh.... Bodie... Bodie... Bed... Bed now!"
"Bed," he growled agreeably.
We stumbled down the hall towards my bedroom, franticly trying to undress each other as we went, bumping up against furniture and the wall as our mouths collided and our bodies writhed against each other. We tumbled into my bed in a hopeless tangle of arms and legs and half-shed clothes... grunting... thrusting... grinding our lips and groins together...
It was wild... insane... intense beyond the bearing. I was on fire... flying... cross-eyed and weak-kneed from the overload on my senses...
Sweet Jesus, I've never known a lover like him. It went beyond what he was doing to me with his cock and mouth and hands -- though, God knows, that was more than enough to make me scream like a scalded cat. But, no... it wasn't just mind-numbing sex that powered this encounter. It was the look of awe on Bodie's face as he moved against me and the hot flood of my cum squirted against his belly. It was the reverent brush of his hand against my damaged cheek... the way he whispered my name as he worshipped my body and made it his.
He made it so easy for me to fall in love...
I handed my heart over into his keeping without a single regret, trusting that he would guard it well. I knew, whatever the cost, I would never willingly give him up. Not now. Not after this...
All that remained was one question. Did Bodie feel the same way?
He did. And he lost no time in proving it, either.
When we surfaced from the kiss to end all kisses, when blood finally returned to our brains, other extremities' needs having been taken care of more than adequately, we talked. We talked for hours. Said all the things we should have said years ago. Little things, like 'I love you'... 'I can't live without you'... and 'whithersoever thou goest...'
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when the old man walked into his office the next morning. For there, side by side and squarely centred on his desk, were two neatly typed letters of resignation.
Nine to five suited Bodie amazingly well. I thought he'd go haring off back to George Cowley within a week, filled up to here with living a bland life and playing by the rules. But he positively glowed with happiness. Within a year he was half-owner of an increasingly prosperous security firm. I couldn't have been more pleased and surprised. Wouldn't you know it turned out that I was the one who did the chaffing at the bit and found it hard to settle down? I drifted from one job to another: night watchman, bookshop clerk, martial arts instructor. I even pulled a stint as a cabbie for a few months. But nothing seemed to fit. Nothing except having Bodie in my life.
It was Bodie who finally steered me in the right direction. The clever sod came home one evening with a mysterious package tucked under one arm and casually leaned it up against the wall of our modest flat before taking me in his arms for a lingering kiss.
"What's that, then?" I murmured eventually. "S'not my birthday, is it?"
"How soon they forget," he chided lightly. "Happy anniversary, old son."
"Bodie! You remembered!"
"Not likely to forget, am I? S'not every day a bloke has the balls to proposition me. That kind of thing sticks in a fella's mind."
"Who propositioned who first, you randy bugger?" I chuckled.
"Does it really matter?" he answered with a cocky grin.
No. It didn't. Not in the slightest. So I dragged the sniggering bastard down the hall and threw him on our bed. Had me wicked way with him too. Quite forgot dinner was still cooking in the oven. The casserole was somewhat on the dry side, but we ate it anyway. Then Bodie dragged me back to bed for dessert.
He was gone by the time I grudgingly cracked an eyelid open and shuffled off to the loo to take a morning piss. But at least the romantic sod had taken time out in his busy schedule to scrawl me a love letter:
Milk's gone off. Your turn to empty the dust bin.
I drank my coffee black as I sat at the breakfast bar, pondering the notion of searching the adverts for a decent job. But the ruddy paper was all the way across the flat and strewn in bits on the sofa, coffee table and floor. Another hapless victim of Bodie's tender regard. His cup sat in a sticky puddle of drying coffee and sour cream, commandeering the greater portion of the comics page. So much for him keeping up with current events.
My smile faded as I supposed it was up to me to clean up after my messy mate. Wasn't like I had anything better to do...
That's when my eye settled on my unopened present. Plain brown paper, tied with a ratty bit of string. Lovely touch, that. Bet the birds missed Bodie's winning ways.
Cup in hand, I ambled over to give my pressie a closer look.
"Is it bigger than a breadbox?" I wondered aloud.
It was at that. A metre square at least. Heavy too. A familiar white-edged object poked through one corner of the paper when I gave the parcel a shake.
"Bodie," I murmured wonderingly. "You daft bugger."
With no further ado, I tore the paper away and stood gaping at the treasure spilled out at my feet: the oils, the brushes, the palette... two good-sized canvases, a carrying case, a fold-up easel...
I closed my eyes, imagining a sweeping flow of lines across the blank canvas. My sketchbook was somewheres about... I wouldn't need a reference, though. Already the picture was taking form, brought to fresh life by my memory. An image I would never forget: shades of grey... a dejected figure framed against a weeping sky...
"Bloody hell, but that's depressing," a warm voice rumbled in my ear an eon later; warmer lips nuzzled my neck, gentle hands turned me around in a loose embrace until our lips met in a tender kiss. "Kittens and puppies and sad-eyed clowns. Maybe a sunlit field of daisies. That's what sells, love."
"Is it?" I murmured absently, stepping back to view the painting from another angle. I tilted my head, studying my effort with a critical eye.
"Is it what sells?"
"Is it depressing?" I clarified.
Bodie joined me in a silent appraisal. "Nah," he said finally. "It's... It's... Christ, Ray, I don't have a word for what that is."
"Ta, Bodie. That means a lot, coming from you."
Bodie lifted the tail of my shirt and swiped at a smear of paint on my cheek by way of a reply.
"The question is," I said slowly, "Can I do it again... or is this just a fluke?"
Bodie grinned. "S'why I bought two canvases, you berk," he said cheekily.
It wasn't a fluke. And I soon found that I needed a hell of a lot more than just two canvases to capture all the images dancing in my fertile imagination. Needed an ocean or so of paint as well. Every shade... every hue... every nuance of colour...
My new hobby soon took over the spare room I'd appropriated as my studio, spilled over to line both sides of the hall, the sitting room, our bedroom...
'Course I felt guilty at first. Spending money hand over fist on art supplies. Lounging about at home all day, lost to my glorious Technicolor fantasies while poor Bodie slogged through the drab reality of his day. Most nights he cooked us dinner too. I was too far gone with my painting to concern myself with little things like mounds of laundry and dirty dishes and floors that needed a good scrubbing. A well-stocked larder and a nutritious meal plan were as far beyond me as the moon and stars. Further, actually, for they at least made the occasional appearance in a painting: a blood-red moon looming above a deserted street; stars like diamonds circling a midnight sky while a gun barrel blazed a supernova of death...
"Don't be an idiot," Bodie chided. "I'm making good money, Ray. I can keep a roof over both our heads. Just don't forget me when you hit the big times."
"Small chance of that, you dumb crud," I whispered, brushing a hand against the front of his trousers, rejoicing in the welcoming swell of his warm flesh. "Where do you think I find me inspiration?" I teased the zipper down and reached inside.
"God, Ray..." he moaned, head lolling back against my shoulder. "I never would have thought the scent of turpentine could be such an aphrodisiac. It turns me on something chronic each time we visit the paint shop."
"Is that my cue to go take a bath?"
"That's your cue to come here and let me fuck you," Bodie murmured. And he did. Quite thoroughly. I saw more than a few stars wheeling about me head... and the pale, full moon of me partner's arse to boot.
"Time to shift some of this lot about," Bodie grumbled one fine summer day, no doubt in ill humour from stubbing his toe on a lurking canvas for the umpteenth time. "Better yet, what say I put a few in storage?"
"Mmmm," I answered absentmindedly. "Whatever you say. Pass me that rag, will you, Bodie?"
It took awhile for me to notice that he was still prowling up and down the room, thumping paintings against one another, pulling this one and that seemingly at random from their pile and stacking them anew several feet closer to the door.
"Oi! Not that one!" I argued, finally laying my brush aside and hastening over to stop the whirling dervish from lifting my first painting down from its spot of honour above the hearth.
"Why not? Turning sentimental on me, are you, Doyle?"
"Yeah," I admitted sheepishly. "Think that one might well be my favourite. I really captured the moment, I did. Darkest before the dawn, and all that rot."
"True love waiting in the rain," Bodie teased.
"Whatever you want to call it," I shrugged carelessly.
Bodie smiled and patted the frame back into place, neatly relieving it of its drunken tilt.
"What about this lot, then?" he asked, gesturing to the stack of thirty or so paintings he'd carted over to the growing pile.
"No problem," I confirmed, quickly flipping through the canvases. That should save your toes a knock or two."
"For a week or so, anyway," Bodie laughed. "Maybe I'd do better to nab the whole lot."
"Where you going to stash them, mate?"
"There's a new storage facility just opened up 'round the corner from the office. We provide security. No doubt I'll get a discount rate, seeing as I'm about to become their best customer. Bloody hell, but you're a prolific son of a bitch."
"Mmm... Sounds like a plan." My eyes drifted back to my current project. Something was off... something... something...
"There's a purple hippopotamus standing behind you, Ray," Bodie advised me. Or maybe his comment was more along the lines of 'the square of the hypotenuse'? Was that it? Did I have the angle wrong?
"I'm having an affair with Princess Di."
"That's nice, Bodie." Yeah, the perspective was definitely off. Damn! I'd have to repaint that area, drop the shoulder down a bit and...
"Fancy a blow job?"
"What!?" My head shot up, full attention directed to his smiling face.
"Thought that might garner me some notice," he smirked.
"Then it's not really on offer?"
"Oh no, the offer's quite valid." And Bodie took me by the hand and led me down the hall.
Bodie's storage facility turned out to be one of the hottest new art galleries in town, specializing in showcasing fresh local talent. But my first inkling of this incredible, unsuspected fact came only as we stepped up to what I thought was the entrance to a trendy new dinner theatre. The sophisticated-looking woman who handed me a programme did a comical double take when she laid eyes on me. I glanced down to see if me fly was zipped; shifted my gaze over to the paper I clutched in my hand, only to see my smiling face looking back up at me -- in living colour, no less! Raymond Doyle, the caption read, in case I should entertain any lingering doubts. Life on the Streets... A pithy commentary on the seamy side of London, with brilliant flashes of insight into the way that things could be... The words blurred and ran together.
"Bodie..." I whispered urgently. "Bodie, what have you done?"
"Only discovered 'the brightest new talent to grace lamentably stagnant halls in many a year,' " Bodie replied smugly. "Look sharp, old chap. Here comes your adoring public." And the rotten bastard stepped aside and left me to them.
Although I didn't spot a single familiar face in the crowd, the same could not be said about them singling out me. I was chatted up every which way I turned, my back pounded, my arms squeezed, and my hand made so tender from being grasped and shaken that I strongly suspected it would be one massive bruise come tomorrow. Good thing I had Bodie to do me, more than likely I wouldn't be up to the task of tossing meself off for a week after this evening was over.
"Doyle, me lad!" A bell-tone cry rang across the room, and I turned in time to see a very fit body cutting a quick, determined swathe through the milling throng. With no further warning, I found myself wrapped in a bear hug so tight that I feared a rib would puncture a lung. Never did know his own strength, did he?
"Murphy!" I greeted happily, wheezing slightly as he set me free. "How are you, mate? Christ, it's been what? Two years?"
"Closer to three," he corrected, a maniacal grin splitting his handsome face. "You're looking well, Ray. Civilian life must be agreeing with you."
"I can't complain."
"It hasn't put much meat on your bones, though, has it? You're still a scrawny little thing. Right, lads?"
"Thin as a post," Jax agreed. The hand he clapped to my shoulder almost bowled me over with its impact. Stuart and Malone snorted in amusement. Anson settled for rolling his eyes.
"Still looks spry enough to give Macklin a decent run," Charlie chipped in. Lucas and McCabe nodded.
"Don't mention that sadistic bastard in polite company," Benny shuddered.
They all burst into raucous laughter at that display of wit, jostling me around in their tight circle and jabbering at me all at once. It was quite like old times and I basked in the easy sense of camaraderie, so at odds with the surreal formality of the evening at large.
"So," Murphy said, winning the bid for my attention by the simple expedient of possessively draping an arm across my shoulders and drawing me away. He led us over to stand before a painting. "Our Ray is a dark horse. Never told us you had talent, did you?"
"Didn't know it meself, did I? Never had the time. Hadn't put brush to canvas in fifteen years... and what came out when I did was never there in the beginning..."
"Mmmm," Murphy agreed. "Real life experience makes a world of difference in how you see things, doesn't it? Oi! I remember staring at that web of cracks in the off duty room ceiling. If you looked hard enough, you could see the old man's face... and Marilyn Monroe's body. Was more than passing glad when they plastered it over." He shivered dramatically. "Still gives me the willies, it does. Even without the bloodstains and bullet-riddled wall. Is that our Bodie sleeping on the couch?"
"The lazy sod always could sleep through most anything."
That he could. It was a talent that never ceased to amaze me. No matter how dire the circumstances, my Bodie could close his eyes and nick a few moments rest. It was a gift that had long served him well. A knack that I both admired and found irksome at the same time.
Murphy studied the painting a moment longer, a smile quirking at the corner of his lips. "Nice bum," he murmured finally. "You really captured his best feature, Ray."
"Charming as ever, I see." A soft drawl cut off my appreciative laughter.
"Bodie!" Murphy spun us around to face my mock-stern partner. "Speak of the devil!"
Murphy's free arm drew Bodie into a three-way embrace that mashed my face up against Bodie's collar and pressed his nose into my hair.
"Sorry to break up the reunion," Bodie said when he finally got his sneezes under control, "but you're needed over at reception, Ray. Seems you need to sign some kind of a release form."
"More like a bill of sale."
"Bill... of... sale..."
"Isn't he cute when he does his angelfish impression?" Bodie said fondly.
"Adorable," Murphy nodded.
"Congratulations, Ray," Bodie smiled, his teasing demeanour fading to a look of obvious pride. "You've just sold a painting."
As chance would have it, I sold all but four. The lights were low now in the gallery. The staff had moved off to celebrate in a room just down the hall, the guests trailing behind hoping for champagne and a bit of a nosh. Bodie and I sat quietly at the far end of the otherwise abandoned long room, letting our comfortable silence banish the chaos of the night.
"S'highway robbery," I murmured, scrubbing a fist across my eyes. "£225 for a fourteen inch square... Close to £2000 for some of the larger ones... Who the hell do they think I am? Bloody Picasso?"
"Never cared much for him, meself. He's passť. I prefer you, my little avant-guard golliwog."
"Careful, Bodie, you'll give me a swollen head."
"Really?" Curious, bright eyes made the journey from my lips down to my groin and his eyebrow arched suggestively.
"Prat!" I said, choking back a fit of giggles. "Can't take you anywhere, can I?"
"Can take me home, sunshine. Can take me to bed."
"I plan to," I said softly, and the look I gave my lover turned his blue eyes molten with desire. "Soon as they tell me that I'm free to go," I added somewhat petulantly.
"I rather think, love, that after tonight, you're the one calling the shots, not them," Bodie assured me. "You're the golden goose... The fair-haired lad who can do no wrong..."
"Then I say let's shove off. I'm knackered. And there's something in me eye. I can't see a bloody thing. God, that smarts..."
"Here, let me, Ray." Bodie stood, bending over me and peering into my watering eye. I tilted up my face, welcoming the careful fingers bushing across my lowered lids, the gentle thumbs moving in slow circles at my temples...
"Christ, Bodie, are you two at it again?"
"Can't get enough of him, Murph. I'm mad for the little beggar." Bodie's lips crushed mine, his hands imprisoning my face as he straddled my lap and set about reacquainting himself with my tonsils.
"Gerroff!" I grumbled, bucking up with my hips and throwing the tactless oaf to the floor.
Bodie just sat there, laughing up at me, an eyelash held triumphantly aloft on his upthrust middle finger. "Make a wish," he said.
"God keep me from ever having a partner," Murphy chuckled, and blew the eyelash away.
"Was nice seeing the old gang," I yawned, eyes at half mast, a colourful blur of street lamps and tail lights painting neon ribbons on the night as Bodie smoothly piloted our second-hand DeLorean up Waterloo Road.
"Mmm," he agreed. " 'Specially Murph."
"I miss the daft sod."
"I think the feeling's mutual." Bodie slanted an amused look my way. "You two made a lovely couple. Too cosy by half. Should I expect me walking papers, ducky? I know how tall, dark and handsome sets your heart aflutter... and I must be yesterday's news by now."
"Nah," I waved a dismissive hand, not bothering to cover the second yawn which split my face. "Wasn't my arse he fancied tonight, was it? Positively drooled on me painting, he did."
"Can't fault the man for his good taste."
No, I couldn't could I? But as fine as Bodie had looked in those old ivory cords he used to wear, they had nothing on his sartorial elegance tonight. Always did have a soft spot in my heart for Bodie in dress togs. Missed his calling, he did. He could have been a fashion model... or the next James Bond... How all that power and charm and beauty came to be at my beck and call was a mystery to me. Not that I was complaining, mind, but it set a man to thinking about what might have been... if only...
"Do you miss it, Bodie?" The words slipped off my tongue and hung between us as the ghostly chill of doubt crept up my spine.
"There were a few good days mixed in with the bad," he admitted quietly.
"Yes, there were," I agreed just as quietly.
"We were good, love. We were the best. And seeing old mates from our glory days was a treat for us both, a reminder of what we had. But if your real question is do I regret the choice I made," he continued placidly, "then the answer is no. I've no regrets. I'm where I want to be: with you, Ray."
Sometimes, 'I love you' is an inadequate reply. It certainly didn't come anywhere close to expressing all I felt for the incredible man who shared my life. The weight of my emotion spilled over in a single tear that trickled a slow path down my cheek. Silently, I rested my right hand on Bodie's thigh and gave a little squeeze, then let my fingers linger there, curled against his warm flesh, tangible proof of the bond we shared.
"Silver-tongued, green-eyed siren, you are," Bodie teased. "Lured me away, didn't you? Captured my heart, right enough. Must have made a lasting impression on Murphy and company as well. Never saw them as the artsy-fartsy types... so it had to be you they wanted to see."
"Guess Cowley's invite got lost in the mail..." I said wistfully.
"No... He was there."
"And he never said hello?"
"You know the old man. He likes to keep a low profile."
"Still... would have liked to shake 'is hand... let 'im know there are no hard feelings. Our last words to one another weren't exactly kind."
"No worries... all is forgiven."
"What makes you say that?"
"Who do you think set the ball rolling tonight? He was first in line to buy a painting, Ray."
My second show outsold the first. The third and fourth firmly established that I was not just another flash in the pan, I was a definite presence on the art scene. It all snowballed from there. Hounded by reporters and well-meaning fans, we said goodbye to our humble little flat in Chelsea. Moved uptown to more posh accommodations. Acquired an unlisted phone number and a stunning view of London from a high-rise point of view.
I took front cover of Art Vogue two months running. Landed radio interviews and guest spots on the telly. I won't say that I became a household name, but I will admit to needing dark glasses whenever I appeared in public.
Bodie took it all in his stride. Screened my callers, managed my appointments, provided bodyguard services as he deemed necessary. A bloody full-time job he made of it. He could have delegated me to his lads and put his talents to better use, but he swore he was happy with things just the way they were.
"Not entrusting your safety to some wet behind the ears prat," was his oft repeated refrain.
"I'm not exactly helpless, you know, Bodie," I snapped waspishly. "We're cut from the same cloth, mate. I can break heads with the best of them."
"Know you can, sunshine. You're not just a pretty face. But you have to admit you let yourself get... um... shall we say 'distracted'? Lost in your paintings, you are. A bloody marching band could invade the flat and you wouldn't notice till they got between you and the canvas."
He had a valid point.
Besides, I never knew when I might need a dose of his special brand of inspiration, now did I? Not a service either of us were about to let other lads provide... or stand about and watch.
Inspiring... now there's a word to describe my Bodie.
Not a canvas I painted that didn't contain that beloved, dark-haired figure: here, kicking his way across a beach, feet poised between land and sea; there, casually reclining in a chair; here in easy motion, running down a darkened alleyway; there camouflaged against a wall of jungle green...
But in any canvas that found its way to a gallery, always, always, the face was turned away from the viewer. It was as much a Ray Doyle trademark as the unintelligible flourish of my name. Sometimes, the dark figure was in a corner, sometimes he filled the foreground. Sometimes, the merest brush stroke of dark pigment suggested a presence in the shadows. Sometimes, a lone figure boldly strode across the canvas or leaned against a wall. Sometimes, back to the viewer, he stood looking in a shop window, a blur of darkness against the kaleidoscopic swirl of a passing crowd...
But always he was there.
Just as Bodie was always present in my life.
The portraits I kept carefully hidden away from all eyes but his and mine. They were too personal to share. And, what's more, somehow they never seemed quite finished enough to me. Only my black and white one came anywhere close to the degree of perfection I was searching for.
As for my other attempts...
The mouth wasn't right. It didn't properly express that familiar, supercilious smile. The eyes were wrong: the blue too light, too dark... the gaze too flat and empty on the canvas. His damnable sense of humour was absent. There was no glint of the love that always spilled over when he glanced my way.
I sighed and set my latest canvas aside. Perhaps tomorrow I'd get it right. Never mind that I'd been saying that for half a decade. Never mind that there was a touch of grey at his temples now, a slight deepening of the crinkles at the corners of his eyes. To me, it always had been and always would be a beautiful face. The face of the man I loved.
No painting -- no photograph -- could ever capture the elusive essence that was Bodie.
God knows I tried...
The telephone rang as I was cleaning out my brushes and happily contemplating an evening dedicated to a shower, dinner, a movie and Bodie -- not necessarily in that order. I almost let the answering machine take the call. Bodie always makes a fuss whenever I drip paint all over the handset... but, then, thinking that it might be him calling to alert me to a sudden change of plans, I finally nabbed it on the fifth ring.
It was Bodie.
"Ray..." The voice was slow and slurred. Had he been drinking?
"Ray. Don't give in. Don't listen to the bas--"
The sickening sound of fists hitting flesh filled my ear. I'd know that sound anywhere. I'd heard it often enough, hadn't I? Had smacked and been smacked around more times than I cared to count. It was a sound that haunted my dreams. Wasn't anything I had ever thought to hear again. Not in this lifetime.
"Bodie..." I whispered, ear pressed tight to the receiver, hoping, praying that I'd heard wrong. That the muffled thumping and low moaning that currently filled the line didn't mean what I thought it meant. Someone was hurting Bodie...
I closed my eyes, held my breath... and waited.
"£500,000." A stranger's voice murmured dispassionately. "I'm sure you know the drill? You have 24 hours. We'll be in touch."
I stood there as a dial tone replaced the operator's mechanical directive that I 'please hang up now.' I stood there as night's shadows crept across the room and the paint that coated my fingers welded the plastic handset to my skin. I stood there as tears streamed down my face, and I stood there when my eyes ran dry and no tears were left to fall. If I hung up, I'd break the only link I had to Bodie. If I hung up... he'd die.
I'm a dead man anyway, Ray.
God, how I hated it when he used that cold voice of reason.
You know the drill...
Yes. I knew the drill quite well. I knew the damned statistics. I knew how often a satchel filled with cash and hope changed hands and yet a corpse was all the bastards left behind as their part of the trade.
Bodie knew the drill too. He knew I'd pay. He knew it wouldn't help him in the end.
White hot rage exploded in my breast. I smashed the phone against the table edge. And then I smashed the table against the door frame. And then, and then, I sank down to the floor and sobbed until the sky turned from black to shades of grey.
Portrait of the artist as a desperate man...
It had been over five years since I last had the occasion to use it, but I easily dialled the number from memory and stood anxiously listening to the brusque, chirruping ring at the other end of the line.
I couldn't find the voice to speak. A tight ball of pain was knotted in my throat, like a ruthless hand clenched around my windpipe and, for a few panic-stricken heartbeats, I actually thought I was going to black out.
"It's me," I croaked. For an instant, I thought I was too late, that my only reply would be the angry slam of a receiver back to its cradle.
"Yes... Yes, sir."
"What is it, lad?"
"Bodie," I managed, undone by the concern in the warm Scottish burr. "They've taken Bodie."
I had no right to ask the old man for his assistance, no expectation that he'd agree, no hope that he could deliver Bodie safely back to me.
It wasn't within CI5's jurisdiction.
I was no longer a member of that close-knit tribe.
Cowley had every right to tell me off good and proper. Sod off, Doyle. You and Bodie made your choice. Live with it.
But I never did forget that little speech he gave me all those years ago. A cow gives milk. A cow looks after its young...
Bodie was the closest thing to a son that Cowley would ever have. I liked to think I didn't lag too far behind my partner in the old man's high regard.
Cowley patiently listened to me ramble, asking a question now and then to steer the conversation back on the proper track. Then the line went silent as he mulled over the little that we knew and I prayed that it would be enough to set the wheels in motion.
Our first point of agreement was that it was for the best if, to all intents and purposes, I appeared to be floundering through this on my own, the helpless victim willing to do anything to get his mate returned to him in one piece. That wouldn't be a huge stretch of my acting abilities. I was beyond scared. I was bloody terrified. I was perfect for the role.
The second agreement was that our flat would be bugged, the phone line tapped, my every move kept under constant surveillance.
We'll be in touch.
'We' not 'I'.
That meant Bodie's kidnapper wasn't working solo. No doubt I was being watched by his friends. Friends whose presence would hopefully be difficult to conceal from keen-eyed professionals. If they were out there, the watchers would be watched in turn. Maybe one would slip up and lead us back to Bodie? In the meantime, while we waited for such a break, CI5 had resources the likes of which few outsiders to its ranks could imagine in their wildest dreams. Instant access to police records. Vast data banks of knowledge. Comprehensive, up-to-date news reports. Perhaps a name would stand out? Someone with a grudge? Someone recently released from prison? Some nutter from Bodie's past?
Anson slouched against a corner of a news stand as I left my flat that morning. His face was buried in a rack of papers as I walked by. He didn't offer me so much as a glance, just laid some coins down on the counter and strolled off down the street in the opposite direction to the path I took.
Jax was a vagrant, bumming cash from passers-by, as I entered the bank at precisely 10:01.
Susan was a harried customer with two screaming kids in tow.
Benny was distributing religious pamphlets as I exited the bank a few hours later. He pressed one in my hand as our paths crossed... I crumpled the paper up and threw it away. Later I found a tracking device neatly tucked in my overcoat's side pocket. I carefully transferred it to the briefcase full of cash.
And then I sat and waited by the phone.
It rang an eternity later, at 4:45.
I answered before it had the chance to ring a second time.
"Victoria Station, Main Concourse. There's a phone kiosk near the Grosvenor Gardens way out. Be there in an hour."
"Let me talk to Bodie."
"Let me talk to Bodie or I swear I'll set fire to your damn money and throw it out the bloody window!"
Another eternity of silence...
"Hullo, Ray." Bodie's familiar chuckle turned into painful cough. "Don't play with matches, old son. Just do as the nice man says."
"Bodie..." I wailed.
But he was gone.
"Fifty-five minutes," an icy voice informed me. And the line went dead.
So began a game of cat and mouse across the greater part of London. Each checkpoint led to another, in a zig zag random trail. In every location I saw a familiar face... and some that weren't familiar to me at all. Obviously CI5 had more than a few new recruits... or were they the kidnapper's pals? No way I could tell. No way... no time... no time...
"Golden Pagoda Restaurant. Corner of Gerrard and Macclesfield. There's a bin at the rear. Leave the money in it. Go home, Mr. Doyle. Wait for my call."
Oh-god-oh-god, this was it then. I tucked the briefcase in with all the spoiled cabbage and greasy cartons... and quietly shut the lid on the reeking mess.
Go home. That's what Cowley had told me too. Go home. That was the third and final directive the old man had given me. The final condition. I was a civilian. I had played the part that I was meant to play. It was over for me now. All over... except for the waiting.
And so I went home.
I dressed myself in my rattiest pair of jeans and one of Bodie's black T-shirts which I dug out of the dirty laundry. It smelled like him. I resisted the urge to bury my nose in the cloth and weep. Instead, I slipped into a black leather jacket that had seen better days and dunked my head under the tap to flatten and darken my hair. Then I pulled a knit cap well down over my ears and made my way out of the building, exiting through a utilities door into a narrow back alleyway.
"Hullo, Ray," a dark shadow greeted me, no surprise in its level voice. "What kept you? The Cow said ten minutes... it took you almost twice that time. You must be getting slow."
"What's happening, Murph? Has the bait been taken?"
He nodded. "Two heavies picked it up shortly after you left. They tossed it in the boot of their car, then tore off Holborn way. After gadding about a bit, they eventually ended up at the docks. Go back inside, Ray. Let us take it from here."
"I can't... You know I can't, Murphy. It's Bodie's life we're talking about. I can't just sit around and twiddle my thumbs."
"I'm under strict orders, Ray."
"Do those orders include taking me down? Shooting me? That's what you'll have to do, you know. I won't let anyone stop me. Not you. Not the old man."
"Docklands is a big place."
"And I'll check every building, every dark and dusty corner. If I have to... But I won't have to, will I, mate? Because you already know exactly where they are..."
"Yes. I know."
"I love him, Murphy."
"I know that too."
"Get in the bloody car," he growled.
I had my seatbelt fastened before Murphy managed to sit himself down in the driver's seat.
The first half of the drive was devoted to a heated discussion about the possibility of Murphy lending me a gun. I lost that argument. The remainder of the seemingly endless journey was made in angry silence.
"I suppose there's no chance I can convince you to wait in the car?" Murphy sighed as he parked a few feet from a line of official-looking vehicles. The lads were out in full force. I desperately hoped they didn't manage to trigger a gun war and get Bodie killed in the crossfire.
I didn't deign to answer, just quietly fell in step as he trotted towards the decrepit building which currently housed my world.
"How many inside?" he whispered as we came up beside McCabe and Lucas.
"Three that we know of... and Bodie. Lucas caught a glimpse of him a few minutes ago. A tall, blond bloke had him on a pretty tight leash."
"This bloke have a name?" I inquired.
"Donald Jamison," McCabe replied. "What are you doing here, Ray? The old man said--"
"I know what he said. What's the plan?"
"Swat team's in place. They'll neutralize the muscle. They're in the front, keeping watch for the night guard. A couple of us will slip in the back and take down Jamison. He's holed up just to the left of those windows. No doubt happily playing Midas and counting his gold."
"Right, then," I nodded. "Who's tagging along with me?"
"Hang on, who said you're going in?" Lucas growled.
"I will," Murphy said quietly.
"Good lad, Murph."
"Bloody, hell! What are you thinking, 6.2? You can't--"
Murphy jerked his chin my way. "You want to be the one who tries to come between him and Bodie? S'not a pretty sight. I've seen the Cow himself stand down, mate, and that was back in the day before 3.7 and 4.5 started fucking each other's brains out."
McCabe's R/T beeped softly.
"Swat team's ready to go in five... four... three..."
I nodded. And as a serenade of gunfire sounded from the front of the building, Murphy and I crashed through the window, slipping on diamonds of shattered glass as we wheeled about to deal with Jamison.
The son of a bitch was quick, I'll give him that. He had Bodie up from his chair and clutched in front of him before we had time to take more than a half a dozen steps his way. I dived to the left, seeking the dubious cover of a stack of mildewed crates, Murphy dodged right, taking up position behind a support beam.
"Give it up, Jamison!" Murphy roared. "Cut your losses, man. You're surrounded."
The gun Jamison clutched in his hand wavered between the two of us. He fired off a shot at my head, the bullet winging its way past me with but an inch to spare.
The bastard laughed and danced himself cleverly back behind Bodie. "But I still hold the winning hand, don't I?" he taunted. "Back off! Clear out! Or lover boy here's a dead man."
"Murph?" I mouthed, "Can you take him?"
Murphy shrugged, though his gun didn't falter from its target.
I swallowed nervously, praying for a quick, successful resolution to this deadly stalemate; longing to simply cross the little distance between us and gather my partner into the shelter of my embrace.
Bodie was in pretty rough shape. Bruises and contusions marred his creamy flesh. His eyes were dark smudges on the damaged canvas of his face, tight slits narrowed from severe swelling and sealed shut with traces of dried blood. I very much doubted that he could see a foot beyond his broken nose. My partner was barely conscious, could scarcely stand. No doubt Jamison had been drugging him to keep him quiet. He was alive, though. And somehow he knew that I was there. I could see the disapproval in the tight set of his mouth, the considering tilt of his head.
Jamison's next shot took Murphy in the left shoulder and brought Bodie's head up like a foxhound scenting its prey. He half-turned at the racket Murphy made as he fell to the floor, toppling a wobbly pile of boxes, and Jamison angrily tightened the choke hold his arm had on Bodie's windpipe.
"Ray?" Bodie whimpered.
"Ray!" Murphy echoed the cry.
Murph lobbed his gun in my direction, the perfect arc of its slow motion trajectory traced against a backdrop of stained walls and shattered windows, the twinkle of a streetlight on the dull metal strangely hypnotic as the weapon tumbled down, down, down and dropped into my waiting hand.
Jamison had ample time to hitch his human shield a little closer... to swing his aim away from Murphy. The barrel of his gun began a smooth ascent to Bodie's temple...
It never reached its mark.
My incoherent scream of rage drowned out the doomsday sound of a single, gunshot blast. Jamison and Bodie crumpled to the floor, my partner cushioning the dead man's fall.
I carelessly tossed Jamison's body aside, knelt beside Bodie and reached out to stroke his hair with a suddenly trembling hand.
"You kill the fucker, Ray?"
"Yeah. S'like ridin' a bike, innit?"
"The Cow is going to be very displeased with you."
"Let him be. Wish I could've killed that worthless piece of shite a hundred times over."
"How's Murphy doing?"
"Don't know. Murph, you still alive over there?"
"Barely... Ta for asking, mate. Don't suppose you could give HQ a call?"
"Stay put, sunshine." I brushed a kiss across Bodie's battered brow. "I'll be right back."
"Take your time. Not planning on going anywhere, am I?"
I quickly crossed the room and slipped the R/T from an unconscious Murphy's hand.
"It's over," I stated succinctly into the open channel. "Two requiring transport to hospital. One dead."
"4.5? Doyle! What the hell is happening there?"
"It's a long story, sir," I sighed, and set about to do what I could for Murphy until the medics arrived.
To put a positive spin on things, at least this time I didn't have to type up a detailed report in triplicate. My fingers thanked me for that small blessing. Of course, the bad news was that I still had to give a statement and then sit though an interminable cross-examination and debriefing. Trust me, being put under under the CI5 microscope is no picnic at the best of times. Every minute away from Bodie's hospital bedside was bound to seem like an eternity to me. And the old man knew it!
Fortunately, Cowley was in a generous mood. He agreed that I might see Bodie settled and then report to HQ for a grilling. By that time, Murphy had been released from Casualty and was also called in to testify. His left arm was in a sling, but the smile he gave me as I slipped into a chair in Cowley's office was typically sunny. Could have been the painkillers kicking in, I suppose, but the liberal dose of scotch the old man poured us probably had much to do with Murph feeling good.
It all went swimmingly, right up to the final few moments of the meeting. I took in more information than I gave over. Little pieces of the puzzle clicked together, like how Jamison had a long history of targeting the nouveau riche. Nine kidnappings to his credit, including Bodie. Close to £6,000,000 in a Swiss bank account. Eight families left to mourn the corpses he left behind.
"Jamison stood in line behind Bodie in a coffee shop," Cowley said, almost admiringly. "Broad daylight, dozens of people milling about. He jabbed a needle in Bodie's arm, then acted the concerned friend when Bodie passed out."
"Ah, Bodie, Bodie," I sighed. "Might have known a swiss roll would be your downfall."
Cowley's glare silenced Murphy's unkind snicker.
"If you're quite finished, gentlemen, I have just one more wee question before I close the file on Donald Jamison..."
"Sir?" Murphy and I chorused, and I felt a spark of apprehension tingle up my spine. Murphy also stiffened in his chair.
"Who fired the killing shot?"
Silence was his reply.
"Well?" Cowley growled. "I do expect an answer."
My tongue flicked out to lick dry lips and I swallowed nervously. This was it. This was where the shit would surely hit the fan. But as I opened my mouth to humbly confess, Murphy beat me to it.
"I did, sir," he said.
"You? You shot him?"
"I shot him. Ray was unarmed, as per your orders."
"You shot him?" Cowley repeated, giving Murphy his famous, patented 'I don't believe a word you're saying' glare. "Writhing in pain, a bullet in your shoulder. Flat out on the floor, 25 yards from a target in motion with a hostage standing in between... And your bullet took Jamison squarely between the eyes."
"Yes, sir. That's the way it happened."
"My God, man. That was one hell of a shot."
Murphy's gaze met mine across the polished length of Cowley's desk. "Yes," he said soberly. "Yes, it certainly was."
I matched my steps to Cowley's slower pace as we walked down the hospital corridor, trying hard to conceal my impatience to be with Bodie.
"Murphy's a good man," Cowley said, apropos of nothing.
"He is that," I agreed warmly. "A good man. A good mate."
"He knows when to play by the rules... and when to break them. That's a handy thing to know in our business. I've been thinking of grooming him to take my place."
"I can't think of a better choice, sir."
"I can. I can think of two... But I suppose that's just an old man's foolish hope. Isn't it, Ray?"
I stopped dead in my tracks to pull my dangling jaw back up in place. "You called me 'Ray'..."
"Aye, that I did. I think I've earned the right."
"Does that mean I'm to call you 'George' now, sir?"
"Don't be impertinent!"
I laughed and hastened to catch up with the sly old fox.
"Well?" he demanded, looking at me expectantly, his light touch staying my hand as I reached to open the door.
"I can only speak for myself," I said carefully. "I'm out, sir. There's too much blood on my hands. I don't think I could bear more..."
"And if Bodie feels differently?"
"I won't stand in his way." I gazed through the little meshed window, my eyes caressing the bandaged figure in the narrow bed. "He's wasting his talents, sir. He's so much more than what he's letting himself be."
"Don't sell yourself short, lad. He's what most of us would give a king's fortune to be."
"And what's that, then?"
Cowley's hand was warm on my shoulder. An answering warmth flooded my heart and, for a moment, I couldn't speak for the lump that filled my throat. Thank you," I managed finally. "Thank you... for everything."
Cowley gave my arm a pat and reached for the door handle. "Shall we go in now? Your Bodie's watching us... dying of curiosity, I'd say. Any second now, he'll drag himself out of that bed to come see what we've been talking about so earnestly."
"Hang about, sir. There still one thing I have to say. One condition I'll insist upon, if he decides to rejoin the team."
"Only one, Doyle?"
"Yes. And it's not negotiable."
"Nothing is carved in stone, lad."
"Go on," Cowley nodded.
"Bodie and I will be living together. If our Knightsbridge penthouse is too flamboyant for CI5, one of those nice married-quarter flats over in Chelsea will do."
"Ach," Cowley sniffed disgustedly, "is that it? Is that all? I'll carry you over the threshold for him myself if that's what it takes."
My bark of laughter startled a passing nurse. "An' what makes you think that I'm the blushing bride?"
Amaranth... Vermilion... Crimson... Never knew the Cow could turn so many shades of red, now did I?
"So..." Bodie greeted us, a sharp, appraising glance travelling from my face to the Cow's and back again to me. "Have you two sorted it all out to your satisfaction?"
"Eh?" Cowley raised an inquiring brow.
"My future," Bodie elaborated. "Have you quite decided what I should do with the rest of my life? Or are you going to pretend to ask me for my opinion?"
"Oh, that," I smiled. "Don't bother your pretty head about it, Bodie. It's all settled." I took his hand and hung on tight. "You're going to live happily ever after. Isn't that right, George?"
"Quite correct, Ray."
"I've died and gone to hell," Bodie moaned theatrically. "Either that, or I'm hallucinating... No! I've got it! Pinch me, Doyle. I must be dreaming."
I did better than that. I woke the blighter with a kiss that curled his toes.
-- THE END --