I’ve moved house four times now and this one was a total shambles; I don’t think I’ve ever done a move that I was looking forward to more, but prepared for less. It was the sheer speed of it that did for me: Hansie and Tim were desperate to get out of the house and off to the new one, the woman who owned that was going to a new apartment and one suddenly came available so she wanted to be gone, and Fran could see no good reason for paying another month’s rent. The developer wanted my house and was quite happy to expedite everything, and the question of me clearing my desk at work before taking my transfer was rendered irrelevant because some woman called Mullins from London announced that she wanted my place and the job chain firmed up as smartly as the house one had done. So I tidied up on Friday, shook hands with everybody, left a phone number and bolted, having carefully booked a week’s leave.
And on Saturday, all my possessions went into a van and went to Tim’s house – our house. The only catch was that it had all gone through at such speed that I hadn't packed properly. By the third move I had worked out that the way to do it is by acting as a total control freak: throw away as much as you can bear to live without, pack absolutely everything you can in advance, number all the boxes, keep a huge and detailed list of what’s in every box. It’s the only way to get to the other end and have the least possibility of finding where you’ve put anything. Naturally, with the speed of this, and the fact that I was moving my job at the same time, I hadn't done it. There was only me to pack, where before there had been me and Kate, and somehow one person doesn’t have half the stuff that two have, he has two thirds of it. So I wasn’t packed, sorted, organised or any of the rest of it. I had a local removal company, and I paid the extra and had them pack for me. Nothing got broken, but as to where anything was. . .
Fran was a bit better: she moved herself, given all the distance it was. Apparently, every time she had packed a box, she had put in out in her van, taking her chances that she would be burgled again, and by Saturday pretty well all that was left was her furniture. She put in a call to Pieter de Vries and Phil for help, but they had promised to move Hansie and Tim, so she went to the cricket club instead, and a selection of large and muscular men turned up and helped her shift the furniture into the van, and then they unpacked it for her at the other end. They were great: big muscle is a huge help in that sort of thing. I mean, I’m big enough and strong enough, but I’m not far above average, and manoeuvring the bed up the stairs is a damn sight easier with somebody else doing all the pushing. I’d always had police friends to help before, but my old friends were fifty miles away and there wasn’t anybody here I knew well enough to ask.
At half seven we called a halt, and I went into town with somebody called Denis, who was apparently the cricket captain and prime spin bowler (a change from rugby players), and bought vast quantities of beer and fish and chips, and seven of us sat where we could find anything to sit on and drank the former from the can and ate the latter out of the paper, and then we showed the cricketers out with mutual expressions of goodwill, and Fran and I looked at the piles of boxes and wondered where to start.
We had made up the bed mid-afternoon, which was just as well, because we simply fell into it. My bed, because it was bigger than Fran’s, which had been banished to the spare room. Our bed. O.K., look, I’m Bottom, but I’m also a straight man, and I go a bit possessive every now and then. Our bed, with my Fran in it. And me. I woke up with my arm over her waist and my nose in her hair and I thought: I like this. What’s more, when she woke up she seemed to know who I was, which is quite good by her standards: she is not a morning person. I went to make coffee, without which Fran doesn’t start the day, and she staggered towards the bathroom. And a little later, when we were at the point of ‘what do we have to do today?’ she said, “I’ll get the notebook. We aren’t going to remember half these things if we don’t have a list,” and swung her legs out of bed again.
“Um, Fran? There are no curtains downstairs. Clothes would be a good idea.”
She gave me a Look – well, O.K., only a look, and reached for something to put on, and disappeared down the stairs, and I whimpered. It was my shirt she was wearing.
Now I’ve heard this from some of the guys at work: ‘my wife is always stealing my clothes, I hate it’. It never bothered me. Kate occasionally wore my sweatshirts or tee shirts or whatever, and it didn’t affect me one way or the other, except when I wanted the one which had gone back into the wash without me seeing it. And Kate – you needn’t repeat this, please, or I’ll think of something to arrest you for – Kate was a great deal better looking than Fran. Fran has class and style, but pretty she is not. But Fran wearing my shirt – that was the first time I realised what it did to me. Fran found out soon enough – well, Fran found out as soon as she came back upstairs, and the notebook went back over the banisters and most of the morning was – no, not a write off, it was an excellent and productive way to spend a morning but there was no unpacking and sorting done. Look, a year ago I knew all there was to know about me: I was unadventurous and I was mildly interested in BDSM but not to the extent of actually trying and I liked my women small and pretty. And clever, yes, I’ve always found brains attractive, Kate was smart too, and a bit of a clothes horse. I liked that. I liked watching Kate getting ready to go out, fussing over her clothes and her face and her hair. Kate bought designer clothes, knew the right names, never wore anything more than two seasons. And now I like watching Fran, who puts on my shirt and. . . excuse me.
We unpacked for a week, the way you do, and by Friday it was beginning to look less like a disaster and more like a home. We would need to repaint, although not urgently: Tim and Hansie had left the house in good order, and I could live with all their colours, but our furniture was different sizes to theirs and you could see the fade marks where bookcases and so on had been. We went to the pub to eat on Friday night. Neither Fran nor I care about cooking much and we both reckon there’s a lot to be said for a meal we haven’t cooked and aren’t expected to clear up. We took my car and didn’t stay late, and went round by the off-licence on the way home. I like wine well enough, but actually I prefer beer, and there wasn’t any in the house.
“The grass needs cutting,” said Fran, rather uncertainly, when we went home. It did. I looked at it without enthusiasm. Then a thought struck me. “Do you have a lawnmower?”
“Me? No. The flat had no garden, you know that.”
“Neither did the house. The front door opened onto a concrete patch to park on, and there was only a yard at the back. So we haven’t got a lawnmower. Or lawn edge trimmers or anything. In fact, I haven’t got any gardening stuff at all.”
“I haven’t either,” she said blankly. We were still sitting in the car, parked on the drive, and looking at the garage door. “Fran, what are we going to do with the garage?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I know it’s full of stuff at the moment, but we’ll get most of that sorted, at least I hope we will. But it isn’t big enough for the car. God knows why but all modern garages are too small for modern cars; I could get it inside, but I couldn’t open the doors. So the car will live on the drive. The bike can go inside, but it seems a bit of a waste.”
She went up the side of the house and unlocked the little door at the side of the garage, stepping inside and looking round. “I hadn't thought about anything except the bike. But there isn’t really any need, is there? And it’s inside the. . . whatever you call it, the outline of the house, so. . . That’s the kitchen through there, isn’t it?”
“Yes. And that isn’t a supporting wall. So if we got a decent builder, we could knock through.”
“And make what?”
“Utility room. Office. Office might be good, because then that spare bedroom wouldn’t have to be any more than a spare bedroom.”
“Dungeon. Playroom.” She was teasing me, but I pretended to take it seriously. “I’m for it. Only you’ll have to put the bondage kit on the outside wall because that one isn’t solid, and it’ll be cold unless you put up insulation. You don’t want me to have anything cold to rest my bum against, do you?”
She came into my arms. “No, love, when I warm your bottom, I want it kept warm. Not a dungeon, perhaps, but an office isn’t a bad idea. Maybe we should think about planning permission.”
I pondered it. “I don’t think we would need it. There wouldn’t be any change to the. . . I think they call it the footprint of the house. We’d have to wall up the door and put in a window, though, and bring the floor up to the same level as the rest, but the wiring shouldn’t be a problem. But then the bike would have to go out.”
She shrugged. “I can get a tarpaulin and it can sit outside. Or. . . it could go through the side gate into the garden. Come on, I’ll show you. . . Look, if we flagged this bit, it could sit here and it wouldn’t be too obvious from the lawn, and you wouldn’t see it from the kitchen window.”
I looked round at the garden. “Fran, how keen are you on this outdoor stretch?”
“Indifferent, mostly. Why?”
“I’m just thinking that I don’t like gardening – that’s one reason I bought a house with no garden – and I work very unpredictable hours. If you want the lawn, then we’ll keep it, but if you don’t care about it, we could lay flagstones across the lot. Put a shed on that end, for storage. Then you’ve got space for the bike, and we’ll keep the washing line but it will be useable any dry day all year. The way it is now, you wouldn’t want to come across the grass if it’s very wet. And if we buy decent flags, it should still be pleasant to sit out, and we can leave the borders planted up.”
“Sounds good to me. Do you know how to do it?”
“Actually I do, I laid a path once. It’s a heavy job and I couldn’t do it in one go, but I could do a bit every night.”
“Let’s have that then. And we’ll make some enquiries about the garage. I don’t know a builder round here.”
“I’ll ask at work. Somebody might know, and if they don’t somebody will have a contact at the council and we’ll find out who they use on nursing homes and so on. They’re not the cheapest but they’re usually reliable.”
“But perhaps an office rather than a dungeon.”
“Spoilsport. Where’s my collar? I haven’t seen it yet – have you unpacked it?”
“All the toys are in a box under the bed, carefully labelled as something else so that the cricket club guys wouldn’t get ideas, although I suppose we should check that we haven’t misplaced anything. Let’s go and look, shall we?”
We had been in the new house a week when I got as far as the box of odds-and-ends. We had just emptied a couple of drawers into it at the last minute, the way you do, and I started absently sorting through it mid-afternoon on Saturday.
“What’s the matter, Tim?”
“We’ve brought this and we should have left it.”
He picked it out of my palm and turned it over in his hand.
“What is it?”
“It’s the key to the meter cupboard on the outside wall. I’ll tell you what, Hansie. Let’s give them a call and we can take it over, see if they’ll give us coffee. We’ll do Tesco on the way home. I’ve had enough unpacking; let’s have an afternoon off.”
“Ja, O.K., call her.”
I might have – no, it’s silly, isn’t it, to think that I might have picked something up from Hansie saying ‘call her’, rather than ‘call them’. Hansie was more or less reconciled to Fran having taken up with Nick, but it was a long way from there to living with him. I don’t think he was reconciled to that in the slightest. But she seemed pleased to see us when we arrived, and amazingly, given that the point of going was to give her the cupboard key, I remembered both to take it and to give it to her.
“Where’s Nick, Fran? Is he working?”
“No, he’s outside. He’s. . . we’re taking up the lawn, Tim. Sorry, but neither of us cares about it, and we thought we would do better with it flagged. Come on, we’ll go and tell him to stop for a bit.”
He was willing enough to stop, to sit back onto the pile of flagstones to talk. Apparently he’d been at this since mid-morning, and it looked like heavy work. A pause and a cup of coffee was obviously welcome.
We had the usual conversation, the one we’d had with Helen. The idiosyncrasies of the central heating. Where the stopcock was. Which fence was our – now their - responsibility and which was the responsibility of the people next door. Which of the neighbours was odd about people parking in front of his house. And presently Hansie began to give those little digs at Nick again. I’ll lay the blame where it’s deserved – Hansie started it.
Fran frowned at them both, but she didn’t say anything, and with Piet’s comments about giving them space to sort themselves out in mind, neither did I. She turned to me. “While I think of it, Tim, do you know where the wiring for the outside light comes out of the garage? We were thinking of converting it and we can’t work out which way the circuit goes.”
I did know, actually, because I’d had the same idea myself, but I’d never followed it up. “It’s in the far corner, and it comes down from the upstairs circuit, not straight from the fuse box the way you would expect. I’ll show you.”
And as we came back, we both saw the quarrel spill over into plain childishness. I think, putting it together afterwards, it was an accident. Nick was kneeling down at his row of flagstones again, and Hansie was standing over him, and stepped forward just as Nick reached for something, and Hansie's weight went squarely onto Nick’s fingers. He did it to me a time or two while we were packing up the house and it hurts like fury because there’s such a lot of Hansie. Still, however much they snipe at each other, Hansie wouldn’t do that to Nick on purpose, and I don’t think that Nick accused him of malice aforethought, merely of being a clumsy lout. I suppose – well, they say that moving house is high on the stress list, don’t they, behind death and divorce? We were all a bit snippy and overtired and the rest. Which didn’t excuse Hansie putting his foot on the bag of sand, quite deliberately, and pushing it over. I’m not blaming him alone, it didn’t excuse Nick snatching up a handful of sand and flicking it in Hansie's face, either.
And Fran lost it.
She went across the remains of that lawn like the wrath of God and they quailed before her – as well they might. She looked terrifying. She had Hansie by one ear and Nick by the fine hair at the back of his neck and hauled them both towards the house, with the pair of them squeaking (as well they might again – I can remember Jim using both those grips on me and they never portended anything good. The hair one hurts like hell too) and trying to clutch her wrists. She wasn’t having any of it, though. I’ve noticed before: presumably it comes from balancing big cameras or from handling the bike, but she has terrifically strong hands and wrists. And she has an unfair physical advantage in that neither of them will actually fight her very hard. Not if they know what’s good for them: I’m not sure that the idea has ever crossed Hansie's mind as a possibility. They went in through the kitchen door and I followed in rapt fascination as she yanked them into the sitting room and across to the far wall.
It isn’t a straight wall, that one: the flue runs behind part of it, so at the other end there’s a big, shallow alcove. We used to have a bookcase and Hansie's hi-fi in it. Now it contained two men and a furiously angry woman.
“In there. Noses to the wall, both of you. I have had ENOUGH of you two bickering like puppies. Since it seems that neither of you can be trusted to behave like an adult, you will be treated like the children you apparently are. Eyes front. Don’t move. Don’t speak. And you will stay there until I tell you to the contrary.”
They seemed to get that well enough. Nick hit parade rest, hands neatly behind
him, head up, eyes front. Hansie wasn’t as tidy, but he was just as still. I flinched
as Fran looked round. She stormed back across the room and caught my sleeve, dragging
me into the kitchen and shutting the door. "What do I do now?"
I stared. "What do you mean?"
"How do I get them out again?"
"How should I know?"
She made a sound of annoyed impatience. "Tim, I don't do this. The only way I do corner time and all that jazz is as role-play. So how do you get Hansie out of the corner if you aren't going to spank him?"
"Fran, I haven't the faintest idea. I've never sent him into the corner. He's never sent me into the corner."
We looked at each other blankly. I swallowed. "How do you do it if it's role-play?"
"Spank. But Nick doesn't do this sort of role-play and I'm not spanking him with you and Hansie here."
"And you're not spanking Hansie at all," I said with rather more conviction than I felt. If she really wanted to, I wasn't sure that I was the man who would stop her.
She squared her shoulders. "Right. They can have ten minutes and then it'll just have to be good old-fashioned toppish winging it." She glanced back at me. "And you will back me up."
I nodded. I think that I said once before, over the home brew incident, that I wasn't siding with Hansie and Phil against Piet. Well, I wasn't siding with Hansie and Nick against Fran, either. The status of everybody in our group is fairly fluid, but one thing I'm damn sure of is that Piet and Fran are Top Tops and I'm not. She isn't any taller than me, and she's a little shorter than Nick and a lot shorter than Hansie and I swear the woman who stalked into that room was as tall as Piet.
"Are you two ready to behave yet?"
"Yes, Fran," came two subdued murmurs.
"If I have to speak to you again about squabbling, you will both be Very, Very Sorry, is that clear?"
Hell, I was nodding, and she didn't mean me.
"Yes, Fran," came the subdued murmurs again.
"Then you may go."
Nick half turned. "Ummm... I'll just... I can get another couple of those flagstones down, I think."
"Ja, and I will help you, hey? They are heavy, they are easier to move with two, we will just..."
They were outside so fast that I hadn't had a chance to say anything.
"Well, that seemed to go all right," said Fran in a satisfied tone. "Want another coffee, Tim?"
Actually, I thought I did. She gave me one and poured another for herself, and we sat in the kitchen and watched Hansie and Nick lay a neat row of flagstones, and then Hansie got up and started pointing at various spots, and talking very earnestly, and Nick was nodding, and then they both came over. Nick only opened the door half way.
“We’re just going to the garden centre, we won’t be long.” Really? Together? I looked at Fran and she looked at me, and we both shrugged. They were gone an hour and a half, and neither of them thought to turn on his mobile; we were beginning to worry when they reappeared.
“Hansie, where have you been?”
“Ach, we bought some more flagstones, and some plants, and there was a special offer on disposable barbecues so we got some of those. And then we thought it is a nice day, we could braai, so we went to Tescos. I bought all our stuff too, Timmy.”
They looked hopefully at us, and Fran began to laugh. “What is it about men and barbecues? They’re three times as much trouble as cooking sensibly indoors in your kitchen which was, after all, designed for it.”
Hansie and Nick exchanged glances, and Hansie grinned back at Fran. “Ja, well, like you say, it is a man thing. You would not understand. But here is your choice: you cook indoors for yourself, or outdoors and I do it for you.”
“No contest,” said Fran cheerfully. “I’ll get you some matches. Tim, who’s driving home?”
“I suppose I’d better,” I conceded. “Hansie can have a drink.”
“Excellent,” said Nick. “He’s going to learn about real ale. I bought some. Bottled, but better than nothing.”
Is he indeed? And how long has Hansie been with me, and I couldn’t persuade him even to try English beer? He lit the barbecue and while it burned down, he and Nick worked out placings for half a dozen more flagstones, and then put a variety of herbs and lavender where a couple of them would otherwise have gone. House warming present, Hansie said. I said nothing. I said it very loudly: Hansie cast me a half panicked, half laughing glance which told me that he knew I would have things to say when we went home. Presently, no doubt, I would work out what they were. I was reasonably sure that he ought to be spanked for quarrelling with Nick; I was also reasonably sure that if Fran putting the pair of them in the corner had worked, I wasn’t interfering. And I had a vague suspicion that Hansie had found it sufficiently undignified that the spanking might be delivered to me for having seen it, and to allow him to recover his pride. Oh well, either should make for an entertaining evening when we went home. And there he was, with three different types of real ale in glasses in front of him, tasting them as carefully and seriously as he would taste a claret he had never encountered before.
They gave me Bateman, or gave me to Bateman, depending on your point of view. Bateman is a career sergeant. He has the brains and the ability to look for and get promotions that would take him a lot further, but he doesn’t want them. He likes being a sergeant and he’s a damn good one. Having Bateman is a big plus for any inspector. He had done the really useful things before I arrived, like sorting out an office and a desk, getting rid of everything DI Greaves had left in her in-tray (I knew she had – I had left a load of tut in mine) and reminding everybody else that I was coming so that they didn’t look too bewildered when I arrived. I’m not stupid. I know that technically I’m his superior officer, and I also know that only a fool would discount anything he says. A sound sergeant can make life much easier – or much harder – for his inspector. Then he took me round and introduced me to everybody and found me a mug and showed me where the coffee came from and told me the things I really needed to know, like where you get a bacon sandwich at all hours of the day and night, and a young constable (you know what they say about when the policemen begin to look young? It happens to other policemen too) rather apologetically brought me a pile of post and a bigger pile of case files and I sat down and dug in.
I’ve heard people complain that they start work and it’s a month before there’s anything to do; that doesn’t happen to me. One of the things about crime is that somehow there’s always enough to go round, and standard practice when somebody new comes is to dig out all the unsolveds and see if new eyes spot anything. I had plenty to do in my first few days, and a deal left over. And then. . .
Then I went to the supermarket with Fran, and we met Constable what’s-his-name, the one who was fascinated by Fran’s cleavage. He said hello and had another good stare, so Fran gave him a toppish Look, and I managed a Look of my own, and he absorbed the fact that we were sharing a shopping trolley and his eyes went wide. Well, with something to start from I don’t think he found it difficult to discover where I lived and who with – and by eight o’clock the next morning, I had been outed. Living with that photographer, the one we had in as a consultant. Yes, the kinky one. The one who knew about the clubs. Yes, her.
I’m not stupid, O.K.? I knew it would come sooner or later, and sooner was likely. I had told myself I wasn’t bothered about it. Fran’s FeLine photos are a bit kinky, yes, but there’s nothing nasty about them. And the clubs and so on, it’s not illegal. We had talked about it when we first thought about taking the house together. It would not be possible for me to disguise that I was living with someone known to the police locally, if not to the general public, as a player. I said I didn’t care.
I don’t. I don’t regret anything I’ve done. Understand that very clearly. I do NOT regret moving in with Fran. I do, a little, regret the reactions I got to it.
I guessed he wouldn’t be able to keep it to himself; he didn’t. I think he was first in the next morning, and everybody on the night shift knew before they went home, and everybody on earlies knew within five minutes of reaching their desks. I walked through the door and the place went silent. I had been telling myself all the way into town: it’s nobody’s business but your own, you haven’t done anything to be ashamed of; I was still scarlet by the time I made it to my office.
Well, there was, I kept assuring myself, nothing I could do about them talking. Leave it alone for twenty-four hours or so. If the gossip went on past that I would have to go and shout at people, re-establish my authority, but my experience is that anything out of the ordinary (Inspector Gillan and his partner the actor, the discovery that the hands in that nail polish advertisement belonged to WPC Parry) lasts a day as a source of gossip. Live it down. The first constable to make a smart remark would get his head in his hands. Her head. Whatever. There would be somebody who would assume that they could be less than properly respectful of rank: there always was. I could deal with that. My guess was that it would be what’s-his-name, Cullen. I’d seen Fran deal with Cullen, and I could deal with him myself. No problem. The problem would be upwards.
Half past eleven and Superintendent Graham sent for me. I’d been waiting for the call for three quarters of an hour.
“Inspector Maitland.” Oh, that was so not good. “Come in. Sergeant, shut the door.”
Bateman there as well. Really not good.
“Inspector, you must be aware that there is a certain amount of speculation about your private life going on downstairs.”
I nodded. I didn’t offer anything. Wait and see precisely what is going to be put up.
“You are living with Frances Milton, I believe.”
“And Miss Milton is FeLine the photographer.”
“She is known to the police.”
I got a good tight grip on my temper. So far we hadn't gone anywhere that wasn’t public knowledge. “Miss Milton acted as a consultant to this force earlier this year when we were investigating the drugs trade. You met her then. So did the Sergeant, who had dealt with her before over the vandalism of her business property.”
The Super nodded. “She was very helpful; I remember that. We went through Miss Milton’s background at the time and found nothing suggesting illegal activity. However, she acted, as you say, as a consultant, in the matter of the rather. . . specialised. . . evenings at a couple of nightclubs.”
Temper, Nick. “That’s right.” Offer nothing.
“Does she make you vulnerable?”
It was such a badly worded question that I gave an unwilling snerk of laughter, and bit my lip. “Vulnerable to what, ma’am?”
She sighed pointedly. “Blackmail, Inspector. Blackmail.”
Tight grip, Nick. “On what grounds? Not being married? I doubt it. Living with a photographer? Unlikely. The fact that she occasionally attends – what did you call them? – specialised evenings at private clubs? That depends on the support I get from the police force, ma’am. I’m not making any secret of it.” Shut UP, Nick, that’s enough.
“Do you attend these clubs?”
“With respect, ma’am, that’s not your business.”
“It’s my business if one of my officers is susceptible to external pressure.”
I nodded. That was true. “But that’s up to you, ma’am, not up to me. Are you going to want to make something of an officer attending a private club, as a member, when you have no evidence, nor any reason to suspect that there might be evidence, of anything illegal happening in those clubs?”
“Inspector, I haven’t the least idea of what does happen in the clubs. Nor, particularly, do I want to know. I want to know if the press is likely to be interested and if so, what I can do about it. I don’t want to see headlines that one of my Inspectors is involved in odd behaviour, wearing odd clothes and belonging to an odd private club.”
Behind me, Bateman shifted slightly. “Of course we’ve got that already, with Chief Superintendent Worrall.”
Dead silence. CS Worrall? WORRALL? I couldn’t help myself. I turned to stare at Bateman. So did the Super. He smiled at us blandly. “The Chief Super is a Freemason.”
Right. I didn’t know that. Nor, obviously, did the Super. “Are you sure?”
“Oh yes, ma’am. He asked me years ago if I was interested. I wasn’t. And Inspector Tell, and Sergeant Black.”
“I’ve never heard anything about it.”
“Well, no, ma’am. Likely not. It’s not something they would discuss with a woman.”
And he knows how to stop, Bateman does. When to shut up. The Super gave him a hard stare. She can do a lovely Top’s Look herself, although I don’t think she knows that’s what it is. “Very well, Sergeant, you obviously have an opinion on this. Tell me what it is.”
“The Inspector’s quite right, ma’am. His private life is none of our business. We have national policies on inclusiveness which cover a variety of lifestyle choices, and I wouldn’t swear that they don’t cover his. The clubs are respectable enough, inasmuch as we don’t get called out there to break up fights or whatever. Private clubs, members only, and the owners were helpful when we did have to go in. Nothing illegal there. And the question of blackmail only arises when somebody has something they don’t want known. When they have something to lose by having it known. Now the Inspector and his. . . and Miss Milton may or may not go round these clubs. If they do, then if there’s any illegal activity going on inside, the Inspector will see it. And as I understand it, they’re commercial enterprises, not secret societies. No reason why he can’t take action on what he sees, tell us what’s going on.” Smart man, Bateman. Too smart to say anything about the Lodges. Much, much too smart to say anything more about a Superintendent being left out of the loop because she’s the wrong sex. “He can’t be blackmailed if his superior officer knows about it and thinks it irrelevant to his job, and if his subordinate knows about it and doesn’t care. Who’s to tell, then? So you know and I know. The top brass won’t take any interest if you say you know all about it, and the boys and girls downstairs will shut up in a day or so anyway, specially if I tell ‘em to. No problem.”
She considered it for a moment, and agreed. “I expect discretion, Inspector. And I expect you to remember that you’re a police officer. If you come across anything naughty going on in those clubs” – it’s just our rather old-fashioned slang and I was nodding, but she heard what she was saying, and lost her train of thought. I thought it was time to help. “If I come across anything in which I should be taking a professional interest, I will.”
She nodded once, sharply – she could be a really good Top, I’m sure she could – and it was plain that we were expected to go, so we did. Bateman headed past my door, but I wasn’t running with that.
“A word, please, Sergeant.”
He came in, and shut the door.
“Sit down, John. And then tell me, unofficially, what this is going to cost me.”
He didn’t pretend not to understand. “It’s not quite like that.”
“Come on. I know the way you looked at Fr. . . at Miss Milton. As soon as she began talking about the clubs, you got all twitchy and uneasy. You weren’t keen at all. And now suddenly you’re saving me from the Super? I don’t think so.”
He snorted. “Gloves off, then, is it? Right. I don’t like the sound of your relationship with her at all. I think it’s faintly sick. Perverted. I also think it’s not illegal and not my business, and it’s something that a lot of people do to some degree. Perhaps not as far as Frances Milton does, and I’m not asking how far you go because I don’t want to know. I think you’re a good copper and a good detective and we haven’t got enough of those. I don’t like those clubs, I don’t like what they do, but I like blackmail even less, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s somebody outside the force trying to do us all down, or maybe somebody inside in a year or so who thinks you got his promotion or who’s got shirty because you tore him off a strip for something he did and shouldn’t have, or should have done and didn’t. Personally, I don’t care about Nick Maitland and Fran Milton; they aren’t my problem. But I do care that we’ve got Inspector Maitland on our manor now and I don’t want him leaving the force and going to work in private security, see? Yes, I protected you, not for your own sake, but because I think the advantages of us having you, of having you in the police at all, and having you here, outweigh anything else. And that being said, you’re my immediate superior and we haven’t had this conversation and we aren’t having it again.”
I nodded, and he got up and went away, and I don’t know if he said something downstairs, but ten minutes later Diana arrived with coffee for me and another armful of files, and managed to meet my eye and take the message that I had reviewed the files I was sending back down, and these ones were in my opinion dead, and those ones would bear further investigation along the lines I had noted. I did a good day’s work, I know I did, but the effort was killing. I liked John Bateman – he is a damn good policeman. Did I say that before? And under other circumstances I would have been elated that he thought the same of me. There’s greater value in praise from some people than from others. But he thought that what I did with Fran was perverted.
This far past the event, I reckon that I was at least slightly in shock. There had been a lot of adrenaline in my bloodstream for that meeting and having no outlet left me shaky. I wonder if. . . I’ve heard that Tim had a lot of trouble outing himself to his mother; I wonder if it felt like this to him? Am I. . . is that vanity? Trying to make it sound important? Tim had no choices, he is what he is; I made lifestyle choices. And I’m grown up, I’m the wrong side of forty, I’m too old to complain if the consequences of those choices weren’t all pleasant.
Fuck, it is vanity, isn’t it? Because Bateman didn’t like it. Bateman thought less of me for the choices I had made. And I liked Bateman, I admired him, and he had thought well of me, and now he didn’t. Or not as well as he had done before. Get over yourself, Maitland. You want everybody to say: oh, well, Nick’s one of the good guys so whatever he does must be O.K. It’s not an option. Never has been. Make your choices, see where they’re going to take you, and then take the kicks as well as the kisses.
God, though, I was in no sort of state when I went home. It was as well I didn’t meet Hansie, because I’d have taken a swing at him for the sake of taking a swing at somebody and then neither of us would have sat down in a week. And that would have been just Fran, God knows what Tim would have done to Hansie. I was in a temper. That sentence doesn’t begin to convey the dimensions of the temper I was in. I was – angry isn’t quite it. I was certainly angry, but who with? Bateman? Bateman had dealt with me honestly. I knew where I stood with him. Superintendent Graham? Hardly. She had made proper enquiry as to whether one of her officers was at risk, not of doing something illegal but of having something illegal and damaging done to him. Cullen? Maybe. He might have held his tongue but even in a fury I knew that if it hadn't been him it would have been somebody else. I had a mass of rage, so strong that I could taste it in my mouth like blood, coppery and hot, and nowhere to go with it.
I suppose it was in part that I had spent the whole of the previous week with Fran, and the only other people I had seen for any length of time were Hansie and Tim. Who did this too, although not quite in the same way. That was the point: they did it too. Nick wasn’t the pervert here because they did it. And Pieter de Vries comes into this somewhere – he and Hansie have occasional dealings, or so Hansie has told me, and if you spend too much time with that foursome, there’s a link all ways. There’s something not quite the same but not that different between de Vries and Phil, and unless I’m well off course, between de Vries and Tim. I’m not sure what there is with Phil and the other two. What I’m getting at is that they understand. They don’t think it’s odd that Fran is my Top. I was just beginning to get my head comfortable with the detail of it all, with admitting to it, because I could admit it to them and they understood. And I suppose I didn’t think that it would be different somewhere else. That I might be asked to justify what I did.
Well, and fuck them all. This, I thought, was what Nick is, what Nick does, now. Nick is half of Nick-and-Fran and the rest of the world could take it or leave it and I didn’t care. I was home before Fran and by the time she came in, I was showered, and dressed in clean jeans and a button up shirt and I had my collar on.
And this coming-home-to-someone looked a great deal more promising than I had thought. Nick was home before me and ready to play, from the look of things, and I had no objection. I had no objection until he kissed me, and he kissed me all wrong. Nothing wrong between him and me, precisely, but I could feel his heart hammer against his ribs, and his breathing was way too fast and shallow and he didn’t know what to do with his hands. I pulled away a little and cupped my hands around his face and stroked his throat, and his pulse leapt under my fingertips. I would have said that he had been waiting for me all afternoon to get in this state, except that when I put the bike away, I had peeled my gloves off and dropped them on the bonnet of the car to search for my key, and when I picked them up again the bonnet was warm. He hadn't been home that much longer than me. I know that response time is shorter in men than in women, but let’s face it, Nick and I aren’t twenty-one any more. No, this wasn’t right. Not the way it should be.
“What’s happened to you today, Nick?”
“Never mind,” he said into my neck. “Nothing important.”
No, excuse me. I’ve been a Top since never mind when. I know a lie when I hear one, and that was a whopper. I gave him a Look. “Nick? What happened?”
“Only what we knew. What we talked about last night. Cullen had told everybody about you by the time I got into work.”
Ah. “And what was said that upset you?” I was pushing him back towards the sofa, to a place where we could sit together, tangled up, and I could hear all about it. He gave me the bones of it swiftly enough.
“So the Superintendent is O.K. with it. Not happy but O.K. And Bateman doesn’t like it but he’s willing to reach an accommodation with you. So why are you upset?”
“They judged.” That sentence came fast, faster than I think he expected. I don’t think he had known until he said it, what the problem actually was. “They judged me without knowing anything about what mattered. . . Fuck. Fran, I thought I knew. I thought. . . Is that what it’s like to be different and have people think it makes you, I don’t know, less in some way?”
He wasn’t really asking me, he was frowning and working this through. “It is, isn’t it? Here I am, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and. . . and male, that comes into it too, and straight, and middle class. . . And suddenly I’m doing something that takes me out of the right box and. . . Fuck. This is what Hansie gets, isn’t it, when he tells somebody he’s gay. This is why Phil can’t tell anybody he’s gay, not and go on playing international rugby. This is what you get when you turn up for a shoot and they’ve been expecting a man. Or WPC Singer when the Welsh accent isn’t enough to disguise the fact that she’s black.” He pulled away from me, got up, began to pace. “It’s not even the. . . it’s not what we do. I heard them, today. Every time I went past, they were talking. They’d shut up and then when they thought I was gone, they’d start again. It’s not the clubs or the play or anything that’s throwing the guys on the ground floor, they think it’s kinky but some of them are a bit. . . not quite jealous, but maybe a little interested. It’s that I’m not Top. The Inspector makes the operational decisions and all the rest and then he goes home and she’s in charge. And I ought to be because I’m a man and because I’m in the police and because that’s what a proper macho man does.”
“Does he?” I put in quite gently. He’s not the first man to struggle with this.
“No.” He was quite definite there. “Doesn’t have to. We’re allowed to kiss babies and cook and keep house and all the rest of it nowadays. So if I don’t want to be Top, I don’t have to be.” Oh. Well, that was easy. He didn’t seem to have a problem with that bit. “I thought. . . I thought I understood. When Hansie said I was prejudiced against him, I was quite proud of not being. Because I Understood. I didn’t understand a bloody thing, did I? And now I do.”
He came back to me. “Bateman said the guys downstairs would get over it. That he’d shut them up. And if he doesn’t I will. And the Super was pissed off about not knowing that Worrall’s a Mason so she’ll be all right. And it’s my choice and I’ll do what I bloody please. Nobody else has the right to ask me to change what I do!”
That last was shouted.
“And we’ll go to the clubs. I want to. You can take me. We’ll go together. And there’s that shop you showed me, too; I know I said I wasn’t ready to go in but I am. We’ll go and see what we fancy. Everything. And we can. . .”
I had to stop him. He was working himself into a complete state. “Nick, calm down. Calm down. This is not the time to be making decisions like that. Now we can. . .”
“I bloody want to! That one you told me about, the one you used to go to, you can take me!”
And that was shouted again.
“Nick, we’ve got time enough for that when we’ve worked out how far you want to go.”
He stared at me. “You don’t think I can. You think I’m. . . I haven’t got the bottle. I have! I want to! You’ve got to take me! I can do anything any of your other. . .”
No. Absolutely not, I am not getting into competitive BDSM. And, dammit, I’m not going to be shouted at by a Bottom. Not ever. Serious Top time, Fran. I got up quite slowly, but I must have been doing a good Look because his sentence ground to a rather shaky stop, and as soon as I pointed at the floor he was on his knees, fingers linked behind his head, and mouth, thankfully, shut. I left him there for a good five minutes, and then I reached over and removed his collar.
“Fran. . .” That was rather shaky.
“No. You seem to have forgotten” oh, you could have chilled a case full of wine just from the temperature of my voice, “that wearing my collar is a privilege, not a right. You do not shout at me, Dominic. And you do not tell me what to do, not in these matters. If I think you fit to take to a club, I may decide to do it. I may decide, Dominic. Not you. Is that clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he whispered. His eyes flickered up to meet mine, but he couldn’t hold my gaze. I nearly gave way: the poor man was so completely thrown by everything that had happened to him today that if I didn’t take charge he was going to lose it completely.
“Good. I am going to change. And then we will have something to eat. Get up.”
I didn’t look back. He was close to breaking, and he wasn’t anything like ready to break for me and let me help, without feeling himself belittled by it. He wants to submit, and he’s a natural, it comes more easily to him than to any Bottom I’ve ever had, but partly because of that he wants to go on too fast, and it’s my responsibility to stop him. We’ll circle a lot before we get to where we’re going, I think. He was very subdued when I came down again, and he rather pushed his food around on his plate, Brat style. I have trouble with that: I can’t really insist on anybody finishing anything I’ve cooked, I’m not good enough in the kitchen. But he was quiet and afterwards he helped me clear the table, and made me coffee, and sat down with the paper to drink his own. I let him finish it before I came up behind him and slipped the collar round his neck.
“Want to play?”
He tipped his head back, and looked at me, inverted. “May I?”
“Are you ready to behave?”
He shut his eyes. Poor lamb, he didn’t know what he was at. “Sorry.”
“Who’s in charge here, Dominic?”
“You are.” It was hardly breathed.
“When we’re settled here, when it’s all calmed down a bit, we’ll find a club we like. We can go to Saintfields again, that’s fairly tame for us to start with, and if your colleagues get to hear about it, it won’t frighten the horses. And if you want to do more, we’ll go further afield. Not somewhere local, we’ll go to the city. I can think of two or three within fifty miles where you’re less likely to meet someone you know. That will be easier for us, and if your Super gets to hear about it, or Bateman, then you look as if you’re exercising discretion too. And we’ll agree the rules before we go.”
“The important one is that I don’t share. You’re with me, Dominic, and nobody else.”
He smiled at me, still a little shakily, but recovering. “Exclusivity. Does it go both ways?”
“Absolutely. One to one. Nobody else for either of us. And now, mister, there’s a strap with your name on it, and you can just trot up those stairs and fetch it.”
He brought me both – the little lightweight strap with the clip which I used to wear on my belt, and the heavy harness leather strap. And he brought me the crop. He was a bit wary of putting it on the table, obviously in case I thought he was pushing his luck again in bringing me something I hadn't asked for, but actually it wasn’t a bad choice. It’s not the short jumping crop of the Dom in the pictures I take, it’s a longer, thinner schooling whip. You need to know what you’re doing to use it. It makes a lovely noise and if you use it very lightly, it packs a ferocious sting without doing any lasting damage, but swing it like a cane and it will break the skin.
I pushed him further than I ever had before. It was quite the balancing act: he needed something heavy to reassure him that I was taking him seriously, and that I thought. . . how can I put it? That I thought him a real Player, if an inexperienced one. I aimed to leave him about two strokes short of using his word. I used both straps, slowly, accurately, and hard, including half a dozen across his shoulders, as he knelt with his hands on the back of his neck. I trusted myself to avoid the dangerous places at the nape if he kept still – I wasn’t quite sure that I could trust him to keep still. He did though; like I say, he’s a natural. And I finished him off with the crop, just flicked at his skin until he squirmed and panted and yelped with each blow, with six proper cuts hard enough to make him howl.
I set the alarm a little early in the morning, so that I could have a good look at Nick before he went out. The strap had bruised, but not badly, and he still had the lines of the crop, but he didn’t flinch from my hands. That was a good piece of work. He would be aware of himself (and of me) all day, every time he sat down, but he wouldn’t wince when he did sit. There would be nothing for his colleagues to notice. And there was five minutes in hand when we were both ready to go out – long enough for me to take him over my knee and spank him lightly, just enough to send him out flushed and laughing.
“There. Now, go on, save the world, one arrest at a time. See you later.”
All right, it’s not saving the world; it might be making one small bit of it better. Another day of file review, another day of the conversation dying when I came into the main office. And just before lunch, something in one of the files sat up and waved at me.
I’ve got a perfectly good telephone on my desk. We all do. And in moments of stress we all revert to opening the door and yelling.
“Those files I gave you yesterday to put away. One of them was Harmison, Harrelson, some name like that. Get it.”
Two minutes. “Hodgkinson, sir?”
“Thanks. JOHN! Somebody find Sergeant Bateman for me. . . Diana, somewhere in that file there’s a witness statement from a shopkeeper about being offered cut price cigarettes; find it for me. Ah, John, come in. This statement in the Burwell file, here. And. . . yes, thanks, Diana, that’s the one. Now, look.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
“Can’t both be true, John. Not possibly. I think we need to talk to both those witnesses again. Now would be good. We’ll both go. Diana. . .” She was already on the phone ordering us a car. The paperwork of two big arrests took most of the rest of the day – is there any job where the paperwork doesn’t overshadow the work? – and every time I went into the main office there was some copper grinning at me shyly and offering congratulations. No mention of Inspector Pervert, no jokes about the photographer with the whip, nobody anything other than respectful. Well, except Diana.
“Sir? You didn’t have any lunch. I’m going up to the canteen so I’ll bring you a sandwich. Beef or tuna? There won’t be any chicken left this late.”
“I don’t generally bother, thanks, Diana.”
“It’s not good for you to skip meals, sir. You’re too thin. I’ll bring you tuna.”
Bloody toppish women.
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