The tape that sat innocently on the top shelf of Bob Cryer's locker looked about as inoffensive as any videotape has ever looked. For safety's sake he'd disguised it with the box and label of a BBC Ryder Cup video; grinning golfers beamed at him from the cover every time he opened the locker, reminding him that he had in his possession the most explosive video footage ever to find its way into Sun Hill. The blue movies in the Special Property Store - often taken out by CID who felt duty bound to review them ahead of some court case under the Obscene Publications Act, a procedure which usually seemed to require the attendance of a multitude of officers not directly connected with the case - paled into insignificance considered against the contents of Cryer's locker.
He wished he could forget the things he'd seen and heard when he watched the tape. Being a witness to somebody else's lovemaking was something he'd never quite got used to, although the job occasionally required it and there were officers who were positive connoisseurs of that sort of thing. Cryer hated it, because he knew how he'd feel if somebody filmed him with his wife.
What was more, he couldn't even destroy the tape until he knew for certain whether it would be needed again; DCI Meadows was supposed to give him the word.
If DCI Meadows could ever look him in the eye again.
It was probably Cryer's own fault, if he really stopped to think about it. He ought to have kept quiet about his suspicions and the very elliptical approach he'd received from ACC Singleton, but he'd been so fired up about the rights of gay officers after attending the conference that he didn't see why some office-jockey at Force Headquarters should go around making life hell for people simply because they had a preference for sleeping with their own sex.
That much of it he'd discussed with June Ackland, because she felt the same way about things as he did and because he and she were the heart and conscience of Sun Hill. He'd spared her the details; she didn't need to know, although he wished he could tell her. He'd told her too much as it was, and much of what he hadn't told her she'd guessed, but he had to draw the line somewhere and the fewer people who knew about the consequences of the Assistant Chief Constable's singular vendetta against gay officers on the Sun Hill staff the better.
He hadn't meant any of it to happen, of course. He'd acted for the best, anybody could see that. Besides, Meadows had backed him every step of the way and approved his suggestion that someone - and preferably someone senior - should give Singleton something to work on. That meant somebody - preferably two people - had to volunteer to pretend to be gay. If Cryer had expected the scheme to fall at the first hurdle - and he had - he was to be sorely disappointed.
"I'm glad you came to me, Bob," Meadows said, slowly, digesting the long monologue thoughtfully.
Cryer had rehearsed his anxieties in some detail - the fact that nobody had wanted to attend the MetPol Working Party on Gay and Lesbian Police Officers in case their colleagues suspected their motives, the inevitable taunts about his sexuality that had followed his own decision to go, the quiet support he'd received from officers like Ackland and Carver, the feeling that although his colleagues were making his life a misery he was doing something to help a group of people he'd always had a lot of sympathy for. Until that time, it had just been concern for the welfare of his fellow officers that had motivated him. Singleton's approach had changed all that.
"You say he mentioned actual Sun Hill officers by name?"
Meadows walked slowly around the desk and perched himself on the edge of it, his face composed into an expressionless mask.
"I'm going to have to ask you who they were," he said. "Before you answer, I want to make it clear that I don't intend to take any action against them whatsoever on the basis of an unsubstantiated allegation. I also want you to know that I'm only asking so that I can discover whether there's likely to be any grain of truth in it; it matters because I need to know whether Singleton actually knows anything about anybody or whether he's just guessing. I probably don't know about every illicit relationship going on in this nick, but I do have some information of the sort."
Cryer looked down for a moment, gathering his thoughts. At length he said; "Sir, with all due respect, I wouldn't feel comfortable giving you the names."
Meadows nodded. "Does you credit, Bob. All right then, I'll run some names past you; just tell me whether or not Singleton mentioned them in the course of the conversation. Burnside. Roach. Dashwood. Gordon Wray. All of whom have moved on from here in one direction or another."
"All of them, sir, yes."
"And the name of another officer, still serving at this station? A Detective Constable?"
"One other name was mentioned, sir, yes."
"So if we don't give Singleton something else to think about, he'll zero in on this chap and put the skids under his career?"
"That was my impression," Cryer agreed, solemnly. Privately he was wondering whether Meadows had just drawn a bow at a venture or whether he really did know the name of the person Singleton had identified.
The senior officer had returned around his desk and now sat down in his chair, one elbow on the desk and one hand supporting his chin.
"He's too good a young copper for me to let that happen," he said, bluntly. "Don't worry, Bob, I'm not about to drop his name into the conversation any more than you are, but we both know who we're talking about. I don't know what the hell Mike Dashwood thought he was playing at, but our friend got hurt when Dashwood left and he doesn't deserve this kind of thing on top of all that. If you're wondering where I get my information from ... "
"None of my business, sir," Cryer put in quickly.
"Strictly speaking, you're right - but I'll tell you anyway. Frank Burnside filled me in on the gory details. All of them. Asked me to keep an eye on ... the young man concerned. In my opinion this country's police forces have more important things to worry about than whether their officers are gay, straight, bisexual, necrophilic or anything else - as long as it doesn't get in the way of the job. Like they say," he added, with an unholy gleam of humour somewhere deep in his blue eyes, "a good man is hard to find."
Cryer did his best to ignore the twinkle. "Have you got any ideas about the decoy, sir?" he asked, cautiously, hoping it would not be suggested that he volunteer. Obviously that particular idea had not occurred to Meadows.
"Well," he said, "we need sufficient bait to distract Singleton from his intentions - another Gordon Wray or Frank Burnside, for preference. A gay senior officer would be the kind of target he couldn't afford to miss. It would probably be best to set me up, assuming I can find someone willing to be my 'other half'. At least I've got plenty of choice; Singleton'll probably play heavily on the 'coercion' angle, so it needs to be someone on a lower grade. Doesn't matter too much who it is - although I'd draw the line at Hollis. There are some things I won't stoop to, no matter how good the cause."
Cryer's mouth twisted in wry appreciation of the deadpan humour, whilst his mind was already cataloguing the possible pitfalls.
"Is that really wise, sir? It's the sort of thing that could backfire on you."
"I know. I won't make a move without Mr Brownlow's okay, and I'll document everything. I'd like to think my record speaks for itself, though. Yes, Bob, I'm aware of the dangers - entrapment is always a tricky area. Call this a 'definite maybe' for now; I'll kick the idea around a bit and see the Chief Super with it either this afternoon or first thing tomorrow. Whether we go ahead or not, though, I'm absolutely in sympathy with what you're trying to do - and I'll do everything I can to protect the young officer from any tactic Singleton might dream up."
"Is there any way of warning him, sir?"
Meadows shrugged. "And add to his worries? I'll look into it, but I'm not promising anything. Just leave it with me, Bob."
The signal that the interview was over couldn't have been clearer. Cryer took his departure, mulling over what had been said, unsure if anything had been resolved or if anything would be done, and completely unaware that he had started off the kind of chain reaction whose aftermath would be haunting the personnel of Sun Hill for many years to come.
A couple of days after his conversation with Meadows, Cryer found himself sharing a refreshment break in the Sun Hill canteen with an unusually pensive Ackland. Two tables away, Stamp and Quinnan were engaged in some kind of argument which when boiled down amounted to no more than the old nature versus nurture debate, although robbed of any potential eloquence by Stamp's persistent use of the expressions 'toe-rags' and 'scum'. June Ackland was regarding her cup of coffee and Danish pastry with undisguised loathing when Cryer wandered over to join her; she was exuding an aura which warned others to steer clear if they wanted polite conversation.
"Okay, June?" he asked, lightly.
She looked up at him with a shrug. "Probably."
He took the seat opposite her, sipped his tea, and said in a low tone; "I got the word this morning; Mr Brownlow's spoken to MS15 - we're proceeding with the Singleton thing. Jack Meadows has some plan of setting up a decoy situation and getting Singleton to over-reach himself. I don't know the details yet."
"How much did you tell him?"
"Meadows? Most of it. He seemed to know a lot more than I did, anyway. Went out of his way not to mention Jim Carver." The remark about Mike Dashwood's motives had been explicit enough, however; there had been a time when Dashwood without Carver was like Morecambe without Wise or Laurel without Hardy. Ackland and Cryer were united in a desire not to let Carver fall into the clutches of the predatory ACC.
Ackland digested the information thoughtfully. "So who's he persuaded to act as decoy?" she asked.
"I don't know yet. I only know he's going to be one of the pair himself. As soon as he's found someone to play the other part, Brownlow's going to issue all three of us with confidential pocketbooks; this is going to be one extremely undercover operation."
"Which you shouldn't even be mentioning to me," Ackland surmised, against her better judgement taking a cautious bite of the pastry.
"True. But someone has to keep a close eye on Carver, and with Dashwood out of the way and Tosh Lines in blissful ignorance you're the best person to do that. Besides, I can't very well talk to Meadows or whoever about any of this, and you're the best listener in the station."
Ackland grimaced. "People are always telling me that," she said. "I wish I had a quid for every confidence I've had to promise not to pass on. I hate having to be bloody sympathetic all the time."
Cryer grinned, acknowledging the sentiment whilst accepting that Ackland had overstated her case.
"I know," he said, "but I'm going to need somebody to lean on. I have a feeling this case is going to be a complete bastard."
Despite herself, Ackland returned his smile. "You're probably right. One day I'm going to call in all these favours, and everybody in this nick's going to be bankrupt. This Danish pastry tastes like bloody sawdust," she added with some annoyance.
His eyebrows lifted. "Oh," he said, evenly, "a distinct improvement, then?"
Meadows was deeply engrossed in paperwork that morning, having scarcely given a thought to recruitment of a third team member. He'd been impressed by the alacrity with which Chief Superintendent Brownlow had accepted the whole scenario, immediately contacting a social acquaintance with MS15 at Force Headquarters and arranging a private chat in which he'd set out the bare structure of Cryer's and Meadows' case. On his return Brownlow had laid down the ground-rules about confidentiality in a conversation which he made no bones about tape-recording, getting Meadows to sign the tape label before the cassette was locked in Brownlow's safe.
"Apparently Singleton isn't liked at Headquarters," he had said confidingly when the whole rigmarole with the tape had been completed. "Something was mentioned to me about taking an Exocet to crack a nut. His methods are not approved of. Between you and me, this will never reach a prosecution; get enough on him and he'll be retired discreetly. Not a word to Philip Cato," Brownlow added, head inclining towards the door through to his second-in-command's office. "He's never been happy with cloak-and-dagger enterprises and he'd blow this one out of the water if he knew about it. Have you found your opposite number yet?"
"No, I haven't. I'm not just looking at CID for this one, sir; it limits the choice too much. I suppose Alistair Greig would be an obvious candidate, but we can't really wait until he gets back from leave. I'd suggest we consult Andrew Monroe and see if he's got any ideas; if we're going to use a uniform we'll have to clear it through him anyway." The obvious corollary, that clearing something with Monroe that both were unwilling to mention to Cato would put Monroe in an invidious position, went unspoken.
Brownlow's eyebrows rose. "You think you'll get his co-operation?"
"Oh yes, sir, I have every faith in Andrew's discretion. He may be a bit of a by-the-book type on the day-to-day stuff but he's got enough imagination to understand that sometimes a matter comes along where the rule-books and codes of conduct are useless and we have to use other methods. He won't approve, but I think he'll go along."
Brownlow's response had been less than convinced, but he was prepared to trust Meadows' judgement. Accordingly Meadows had spoken to Monroe privately and outlined his requirement for an officer who could - and would - as Meadows' own later report would calmly express it 'simulate intimate behaviour' with another man.
Having temporarily delegated the recruitment question to Monroe, therefore, Meadows had put it to the back of his mind and was dealing with a set of crime statistics when the uniformed Inspector presented himself in his office on the same morning Cryer and Ackland had their conversation over Danish pastries in the canteen, and for a moment it was difficult to tear himself away from them to concentrate on anything else, yet he greeted his visitor civilly enough.
"What can I do for you, Andrew?" he asked, guardedly.
"Operation Other Half, sir." Monroe used the whimsical name for the case that Brownlow had suggested. "I've given your request a good deal of thought ... and decided to volunteer myself."
Startled, Meadows abandoned all thought of continuing with his paperwork and got up to close the door. Returning to his seat he took a long, appraising look at his visitor and then said, encouragingly; "Tell me about it."
Monroe sat perfectly upright in the chair opposite Meadows, looking solemn and composed. "Nothing much to tell," he said in his soft Midlands accent. "The potential dangers of a situation like this are so great I think you're going to need someone reasonably close to you in rank. When I thought about it in detail, I realised that there wasn't a Constable or a Sergeant in the place I could recommend without reservation - with the possible exception of Alistair Greig - and that the most suitable person seemed to be me."
The words held no trace whatever of egotism; Monroe had simply summed up the requirements of the case and logically decided that he would be the best man for the job. The dispassionate nature of the decision bewildered Meadows; he could not understand how any man could volunteer for something so intimate and revealing and still remain so calm about it.
"You do realise what's likely to be involved?" he asked, anxiously. "We'll have to be seen in some extremely compromising situations - seen and photographed. What we do can't be faked; it will have to be real."
"I realise that, sir."
Again that monumental calm. Meadows took advantage of the hiatus in the conversation to look Monroe over very thoroughly, engaging the man's brown eyes with his own blue, assessing the potential of the supposed connection. They were both dedicated family men with careers they cared about and excellent records; from a blackmailer's point of view, they both had plenty to lose. It was pretty close to being the ideal arrangement, if the barrier of formality between them could be broken down enough to make the playacting convincing.
"Call me 'Jack'," he said, hoarsely.
"Jack." An unexpected fondness in the tone; Monroe the martinet was in temporary retreat.
"Have dinner with me this evening," Meadows suggested on the spur of the moment. "If this is going to work, we'll need to be a lot more relaxed around each other than we are at the moment. We'll go out, eat, unwind a bit - and make a firm decision tomorrow morning. Agreed?"
"Whatever we decide, Andrew ... thanks for volunteering. You don't seem to be afraid of ... compromising your masculinity."
Monroe returned his stare with equal frankness. "I know who I am," he said, bleakly. "Neither you nor anyone else can change that."
"Good. That's what we need."
When his visitor had gone, Meadows put through an internal phone call to Chief Superintendent Brownlow.
"Operation Other Half, sir," he said, marvelling at the calmness in his own tone. "I've just made a date to take Inspector Monroe out to dinner."
The gasps of astonishment at the other end of the line gave expression to Meadows' own feelings perfectly.
The basement dining-room of the Cornwallis Hotel was for the most part brightly lit and seemed a most unlikely setting for a secret tryst of any description. It was also bustlingly busy and redolent with Mancunian accents; a 'Wallace Arnold' coach party of senior citizens from that city, most of whom seemed to be called 'Dot', 'Glad' or 'Vi', were making whoopee on a budget excursion to the capital. Meadows and Monroe had found themselves in an isolated booth separated from the rest of the room by a trough full of tall artificial plants. In a dark corner, the table was lit by a lamp which looked like a candle enclosed in a brandy glass and had a natural flame which flickered merrily in the breeze every time the servery door was opened. Next to it a small bud vase contained incongruous pink flowers.
"An interesting choice." Monroe was still in uniform shirt, trousers and shoes but had discarded his uniform tie and sweater with its tell-tale shoulder tabs and donned instead a round-necked pullover with a vaguely Celtic design in deep blues and greens.
Meadows, still in the suit he had worn all day and half-mast plain blue tie, eased himself onto the hard bench at one side of the booth and smiled winningly at Monroe who was perched on a cane chair opposite.
"This place?" A casual shrug and wave of the hand. "The owner's Barry Francis; name mean anything to you?"
"There was a Barry Francis who played for Sunderland."
"That's the one. He may have spent his playing career in the North but he's Sun Hill born and bred, our Barry. His father was Ted Francis who used to be involved with George Cornell. Barry's a good friend of ours; in particular he owes Frank Burnside and Gordon Wray a number of favours - which is one reason we're here. The other is that thirty years ago Ted Francis used to make blue movies upstairs; there's a linen closet on the third floor where they used to have the cameras, and I'm reliably informed the two-way mirror's still in place. This'll be where we do the filming - if we get that far."
"With Bob Cryer setting up the camera, I presume?"
Meadows grinned. "You don't miss much, do you Andrew? Bob's on the team so he can see this through to the bitter end - and so we can keep it all as confidential as possible. What I don't understand," he added softly, "is why you volunteered."
Monroe regarded him levelly, refusing to be disconcerted by the gimlet stare of the powerful blue eyes.
"I've seen how poisonous and divisive witch-hunts for gay officers can be," he said, slowly. "When I was a PC there were rumours about a young lad on the same relief as me. This was over on the other side of London at Gold Lane. He wasn't a lad I was particularly close to, and as a matter of fact I have no idea whether he was gay or not. Probably he didn't know himself. Anyway the rumours got to the ear of his Inspector, who started hounding him mercilessly - all the 'poofter' jokes and the rubbish about not wearing lipstick on duty, no intimate searches, you know the sort of thing. The lad felt he'd got something to prove, so he started working out, exercising, building himself up a bit - and the day inevitably came when he thumped the stuffing out of a suspect and put him in hospital. He was suspended on medical grounds - stress - and he just fell apart. The next stage was in-patient treatment in a psychiatric hospital, and while he was there he decided to go for a walk on the District Line. He ended up as what our colleagues in the Transport Police call a 'one under'. He was still on suspension; he would probably have got his job back, but the rumours - the whispers - were enough."
Meadows had listened sympathetically, and at the end of the monologue he leaned across the table and said softly; "Andrew, you do realise he was probably unstable anyway to fall apart like that?"
"Of course I do." An unaccustomed hoarseness in Monroe's normally even tone alerted Meadows to the presence of a deep emotion. "And I'm quite willing to concede that the Force probably wasn't the right place for him. But he didn't deserve to end up wrapped around the wheels of a train, Jack! If his Inspector had been up to his job in the first place he'd have noticed the signs of stress and got the lad out before things went that far."
"This is painful for you to talk about, isn't it?" With typical bluntness Meadows cut through to what he saw as the important question.
Perhaps in the uncertain light it was pure imagination but Meadows thought he detected a sudden brightening in Monroe's eyes, although whether of fanaticism or grief he could not be sure.
"You know," he said smoothly, "Assistant Chief Constable Ronnie Singleton used to be an Inspector at Gold Lane." It wasn't really a question.
"Yes, he did." Nor was Monroe's reply an answer.
"We can do this, Andrew," Meadows breathed at him intensely across the candle-flame and the flowers. "We can put this bastard out of business forever, you and me - can't we?"
"It's not a vendetta," Monroe insisted. "I don't hate him."
"I understand that. But we're not going to let him have any more young coppers. In particular, we're not going to let him have Jim Carver - are we?"
It was the first time that name had been dropped into the conversation between them. The merest flicker of surprise crossed Monroe's expression, and then he said firmly; "No, we are not going to let him have Jim Carver - or anybody else. And yes, we can do it."
Taking a hell of a risk, Meadows dropped one hand onto Monroe's wrist and stroked gently. "Get used to me touching you," he said, breathlessly. "I'm going to be doing a lot of that over the next few days."
Monroe covered the hand with his own and squeezed. "I'll do whatever it takes," he replied, and his brown eyes locked with Meadows' blue in an affirmation of commitment that Jack Meadows found no less than awesome.
In a deep corner of the Sun Hill local, 'The Grapes', Cryer and Ackland spent their lunchtime the following day hunched over halves of lager and packets of crisps.
"It's on for tomorrow night," Cryer said, grimly, staring at his packet of Roast Chicken crisps and wondering which part of the chicken actually went into their manufacture. He had a nasty feeling that if he knew he probably wouldn't go within a mile of them. Ackland had the right idea - Cheese and Onion was always a safe bet.
"He found a volunteer, then?"
"Oh yeah, he found a volunteer. And surprisingly this time it wasn't Reg Hollis."
Ackland's face twisted into a wry grimace. "Hollis has his moments," she reminded the Sergeant.
"Yeah, I know. Pity he's such a prat, though. No, it's not Hollis," he said, sipping gratefully at his lager which at least tasted like lager. "It's Monroe."
"No, Andrew Monroe. But I can understand the confusion."
Ackland was looking at him with eyes like saucers, her mouth open in astonishment. "You're pulling my leg, Bob."
"Not this time, June. Monroe volunteered, don't ask me why, and they've got it all set up between them."
An evil thought crossed Ackland's mind. "You mean you've got to sit in a linen closet at the Cornwallis Hotel and watch Meadows and Monroe doing it? Are you getting danger money for that, Sarge?"
"Fortunately I haven't got to watch," he said, not looking in her direction. "I've just got to set up the camcorder on a timer and then go back in the morning to collect the tape. I'm only the Evidence Officer on this shout."
"But they've got to do it, haven't they?" The thought had obviously seized hold of Ackland's imagination and wouldn't let her go. "I can't imagine either one of them stripped for action! I didn't even think they liked each other ... "
"I don't know that they do," Cryer whispered, enjoining her to keep her voice down. "For God's sake, June, we could both lose our jobs over this. No, I don't think they do like each other much and yes they have got to do it. At any rate they've got to come up with a better performance than the average gay porn movie; enough to convince Singleton he's found a better target than Jim Carver."
The said Carver was even now in the same bar of the 'Grapes', perched on a stool at the counter and morosely tucking into pie and chips with fellow Detective Constable Tosh Lines standing beside him and holding forth on some subject Carver did not seem particularly interested in.
"If he only knew," Ackland murmured softly, "how far some people are prepared to go to save his career ... "
"It's not just him, though, is it?" Spoken from around the lip of the lager glass Cryer's words had an ominous hollow resonance. "He's just the latest; he might not have been the last. Singleton's had his hooks into every male officer in this nick who ever went over the side with another bloke; he managed to get rid of Burnside, Roach, Dashwood ... even Gordon Wray."
"Gordon?" Ackland's own brief and unhappy relationship with their former Detective Chief Inspector surfaced too late in Cryer's memory. "You're telling me he was gay?"
"Well, not exclusively ... "
Her mouth closed like a trap over the word, and for several seconds Cryer watched her face anxiously. If there was ever going to be a moment of carelessness from him that could sabotage Operation Other Half beyond recall, this was it.
"June, I ... I didn't mean to ... "
She shrugged, her eyes bleak deserts of lost emotion. "That's okay; I always had the feeling he only got involved with me on the rebound from somebody else. Who was it - Burnside?"
"I think so."
"Yeah, I can see that. Pair of arrogant bastards, both of 'em. 'My turn on top tonight, Gordon.'" A bitter laugh as she mocked Burnside's abrupt style.
"I don't think it was quite like that, June."
Carver, Meadows and Monroe were temporarily forgotten. Ackland was looking inside herself, at her memories of a relationship that had briefly been wonderful and had come crashing down around her ears all too soon.
"Come on, June," the Sergeant encouraged softly, "don't do this. I need you."
She made a supreme effort and looked him in the eye. "You're right," she said. "You need me inside the tent pissing out, not outside the tent pissing in. It's okay, Bob, I won't spoil the party. I never had any rights over Gordon anyway; I always felt I was only borrowing him. But why are all the best blokes married already?"
It was an unanswerable question, and Cryer didn't try. He just contented himself with another swig of lager and another mouthful of crisps, well aware that he had reopened a wound that would never fully heal and had twisted a knife in it without ever meaning to, and that he had come very close to alienating his closest ally at Sun Hill. Operation Other Half was getting to him; all of a sudden the known was becoming unknown, and ground that he had thought safe was beginning to shake beneath his feet. He wondered how many more cherished preconceptions would be dynamited before they had managed to throw Ronnie Singleton out on his ear.
The bastard has it coming, he thought savagely. I'm on your side, Carver. Looking at the way some heterosexuals treat their partners, maybe you guys have the right idea.
The discreet removal of several piles of towels and sheets from the third-floor linen closet at the Cornwallis Hotel was accomplished by the co-operative Mr Francis during the following day on the pretext that an inventory of all the hotel's linen was required. It meant, unfortunately, that he would actually have to produce such an inventory in order to satisfy the curiosity of his staff, but as Cryer diplomatically pointed out it was an exercise that might well pay for itself in the long run anyway.
Cryer moved in to install and test the video equipment during dinner on the day he'd unwittingly upset Ackland. Unable to do otherwise, he set up the camcorder and left it running while he let himself out of the linen closet and into the bedroom next to it - Room 31 - and made ridiculous faces at the camera. He also recited the first verse of the poem about the green-eyed yellow idol to the north of Katmandu before inspiration deserted him and he went back next door to check the recording.
"Three minutes and four seconds of an idiot in a striped shirt talking to himself," he muttered critically, playing back the VHS-C tape through the VCP/monitor set-up he'd brought in. The wiring in the linen-closet was in remarkably good condition for a system that supposedly hadn't seen any action in thirty years; mentally Cryer noted the suspicion that maybe Mr Francis Junior wasn't quite as squeaky-clean as he'd like his many friends at Sun Hill to believe. Or maybe Frank Burnside had been turning a blind eye to a lot more than was generally reckoned. Either way, whilst Operation Other Half was using the Cornwallis Hotel's facilities, Cryer wasn't prepared to take official notice of anything else whatsoever.
The following day was tense. Knowing that as soon as he got off duty he had to head for the Cornwallis to recheck the equipment and set the timer, Cryer could hardly help looking at his watch every few minutes. Meadows was noticeably anti-social, at one point unleashing a lung-burster of a diatribe against Tosh Lines on the subject of a backlog of reports that all seemed to be urgent but which never seemed to get further than Lines' already cluttered desk. The remarks were only partially deserved, but Lines seemed to accept them with a better grace than most officers and Meadows secretly despised himself for letting off his tension in what seemed to him a rather mean-spirited manner. He resolved to buy Tosh a drink at the next available opportunity and blame his irritability on toothache or migraine or not getting enough or whatever seemed appropriate at the time. Monroe kept such a low profile throughout the day as to seem almost invisible. He made periodic swoops through the custody area to review the paperwork on the prisoners currently being held, and to run through various bail arrangements and to scatter a few well-chosen words in the direction of the duty solicitor, but otherwise he was to be found in his office devoting his attention to such riveting matters as the annual leave roster, essential maintenance, reviews of safety procedures and a great many more of the kinds of job he had been studiously putting off for some weeks. Even the most devoted of bureaucrats occasionally comes up against a task he cannot possibly take any interest in, and Monroe - like the famous historical lady who, on feeling the pangs of labour, sent for her physician and had her teeth pulled too on the basis that she could not possibly be in any more pain than she already was - used the one unpleasant chore to offset the overhanging menace of the other.
Not that simulating sex with Meadows worried him, exactly; neither the simulating, nor the sex, nor Meadows held any terrors. He had confidence in his ability to deal adequately with any situation that presented itself, and it was for this reason that he had stepped forward when Meadows needed a volunteer; Monroe knew exactly how the task should be handled, and he knew that he was one of very few people at Sun Hill capable of doing it. He knew also that once his shift was ended he would be able to relax and allow himself to concentrate on the role he had chosen, but for the time being he was required to fulfill his normal duties without arousing suspicion and it was this - the very normalcy of it - that he found so difficult to sustain. It was as if the extraordinary was a simple matter to deal with, but the ordinary was almost beyond his capacity.
Although the day dragged by on crippled feet the time eventually came when Meadows, according to plan, installed himself in Room 31 at the Cornwallis Hotel. His slightly heady sensation of unreality was heightened by a long, steady pull from a whisky bottle he had carried there with him; he was a great believer in whisky as a remover of inhibitions, and although he had no intentions of acting out the gay seduction sequence from 'My Beautiful Launderette' he was firmly convinced it would speed things up wonderfully.
He may have been right, for the surge of delighted anticipation that ran through him at Monroe's discreet knock on the door some ten minutes later was certainly not the kind of thing he had experienced in past encounters with the man. Andrew Monroe was a colleague, part of the fixtures and fittings at Sun Hill, almost on a par with the fire extinguishers and the recharge rack in that he really only became noticeable when something went wrong. Meadows had never known this kind of thrill at the prospect of any meeting with him before, yet he could hardly get the door open quickly enough.
As he operated the latch he spared a brief prayer that Cryer had the video equipment up and functioning. This was going to be a one-take movie, and it was far too late to worry now about whether the thing had thrown a temperamental fit. Lights kept on in the bedroom would at least halt proceedings in the unlikely event of a power-cut - otherwise, the roller-coaster was already rolling.
Meadows opened the door and Monroe stepped inside quickly. He'd taken Meadows' remarks about casual dress rather literally and was wearing a white tracksuit and grey trainers, with a designer sports holdall slung over one shoulder. Meadows noticed too some delectable cologne wafting into the room with the man, and momentarily the scent filled his nostrils and bewildered him.
"Andrew," he said, weakly. "Christ, you look incredible."
The sportsbag was dropped abruptly onto the floor by the door. "I said I was going to play badminton." Monroe did not resist as Meadows seized his arm and pulled him into the centre of the room, holding him at arms' length to get a good long look at him. "It was the best way to get out of the house." Noting that his senior officer and supposed lover seemed temporarily at a loss for words, Monroe slid one lazy arm around Meadows' neck and reeled him in, taking the initiative very firmly by kissing him on the mouth.
Meadows was shaking uncontrollably as they parted, something akin to virulent stage-fright palsying his limbs. He managed to fix his distressed gaze firmly on Monroe's passive expression and said unsteadily; "Coffee."
"You've been ... drinking coffee."
"And you've been drinking whisky, I can taste it on your mouth. Is there any left?"
Meadows grinned. The slightly arch question had hit just the right note; Meadows the raffish and unreliable was established in so few words.
"Most of the bottle. Want a glass?"
"In a minute." Monroe's fingertips were stroking the nape of Meadows' neck, just lightly exploring the darker undergrowth of his brown-blond hair. Meadows shuddered as sensation zinged through him; one little intimate touch that was barely noticeable when a woman did it but which coming from a male colleague normally so austere and correct as Monroe sent liquid dynamite coursing through his veins.
They stood for a moment trading glances, equal now and confident, and then Meadows' square hands buried themselves impulsively in the snowy fabric of the tracksuit top and he hauled Monroe closer to repeat the kiss, nibbling hungrily at Monroe's mouth, amazed by how familiar and yet how outlandish and exotic were the sensations produced. The mouth beneath his responded avidly and Meadows took full advantage of it, sinking himself hungrily into Monroe's warmth and enjoying himself outrageously, letting the reality of making love to Andrew Monroe steal upon him slowly and beginning to his own surprise to revel in it.
He detected the merest hint of resistance, strong fingers clutching at his biceps gently easing him away as Monroe broke the kiss.
"Gently, Jack. We've got all night."
Suitably admonished for his forwardness, Meadows replied with a wry smile. "I wish we had," he said, the wistfulness in his tone not entirely feigned. The warning had been timely, however; nobody in his right mind would believe that secret lovers would go to so much trouble merely for a quick fumble and grope and a hurried climax and then go back to their everyday lives without a backward glance. They'd savour each other; they'd make the most of every minute they had.
Meadows dragged at his half-mast tie, hauling the knot down until the length of dark green silk untwisted and he threw it thoughtlessly onto the floor. Then he shrugged out of his much-abused suit jacket and dropped it onto the back of a small upright chair in front of the two-way mirror.
"Is it me or is it hot in here?" he asked, making a feeble joke of it.
"It must be you. I'm not hot."
"You are." Deliberately Meadows twisted the words. "You're the hottest bloody thing I've seen in years, Andrew. I can't wait to find out what you're wearing under that tracksuit."
"Why didn't you say so?" Monroe's fingers flickered to the zip of the tracksuit top and seconds later it was unfastened to reveal a plain dark red singlet and what looked suspiciously like an SOS medallion.
"A non-regulation item of jewellery, Inspector?" Meadows caught the little silver locket and held it up to the light. "I ought to put you on report for this."
"Go ahead," Monroe told him casually. "It should make interesting reading. I think I'll have that drink now, Jack."
Another timely reminder, Meadows realised. There was a world of difference between making it last and spinning it out so that they never got to the good stuff. He had believed this was his movie, but it seemed clear that Monroe had cast himself not only as romantic lead but also as director. All Meadows needed to do was follow the cues the junior officer was throwing out - like a TV presenter blundering from one idiot board to the next - and he'd be steered through the production without fluffing his lines or bumping into the furniture.
"Make yourself comfortable, Andrew," he said, softly, reaching into the anonymous carrier bag he'd brought with him for the whisky and two Sun Hill canteen disposable paper cups. As Meadows poured, Monroe seated himself on the end of the bed and discarded his trainers and socks and the white tracksuit top, and when Meadows turned to recross the room he found Monroe spread out languidly across the dark blue bedspread and waiting for him with a look on his face so enigmatic it made the Mona Lisa look like a grinning circus clown. "Carry on like that, Andrew my boy," Meadows told him past a sudden constriction in his throat, "and somebody around here is gonna get raped."
"Wasn't that rather the idea?" A hand lifted like that of the Lady of the Lake and graciously accepted the cup of whisky Meadows thrust into it. Monroe sipped appreciatively, his dark eyes above the rim of the cup catching Meadows' blue gaze and returning it with interest.
Meadows lowered himself on to the edge of the bed and polished off the contents of his paper cup in one long draught, exhaling contentedly and dabbing his mouth with the back of his hand. Had that been what they decided? He didn't remember them discussing who was going to do what to whom; all he knew was that they'd concluded by agreeing just to turn up on time and make it up as they went along. They'd both known from the word 'go', however, that a few maiden-aunt kisses and a little extremely obvious groping through clothes wasn't going to do the trick; Singleton was a connoisseur, and if they wanted to crowbar him out of Force Headquarters they'd have to put on a better show than the average gay-porn movie with its limp penises and its whisked egg-white masquerading as cum.
Intellectually he knew all that well enough. Emotionally he'd never asked himself how far he could go with Andrew Monroe. The answer surprised him.
All the way.
And then some.
He was brought back to reality by Monroe leaning across to place his empty paper cup on the bedside cabinet. Meadows deposited his on the floor, and as he was turning back towards the man on the bed he felt fingers fasten onto his shirt front. Monroe had reached out to undo the buttons, and was making a big production number out of it with something very like a roguish expression on his face. Not to be outdone, Meadows leaned forward and temporarily halted operations by placing a soft kiss at the angle of Monroe's neck and collarbone, just above the neckline of the singlet. The warm skin beneath his lips tasted wonderful, and for a rash moment he wanted to gorge himself stupid on Monroe, smother him with greedy, frantic kisses and nibbles. He reined in the desire with difficulty, realising belatedly that he was becoming very, very aroused by the man's mere presence. It was a topsy-turvy world all right, when he could get so turned on by wrestling on a bed with Andrew Monroe. Whatever it was that was happening to him, Meadows wanted more; he wanted it all; he wanted it now.
He swayed back and Monroe completed the unfastening of the shirt, opening it wide and baring Meadows' chest to inspection. Meadows wasn't quite sure if he had seen or imagined that tiny compression of Monroe's lips which seemed to indicate approval of what he saw; no expression of opinion was forthcoming, since they were supposed to be perfectly well acquainted with one another's nudity and incapable of surprise at what they saw. Meadows was desperate to ask, to have all his questions answered, but he bit down firmly on the words and freed his hands long enough to unfasten the shirt's cuffs before allowing Monroe to slide the shirt from his body and throw it somewhere halfway across the room with sublime disregard of its fate.
Not to be outdone, Meadows hauled at the red singlet and lifted it until it was trapped in Monroe's armpits, leaning in to kiss the dark-furred chest revealed as fingernails dug randomly and excitingly into his shoulders.
"God, Andrew, I could eat you," he confessed, his lips grazing across warm flesh.
"You must do whatever you want, Jack."
The serene response rocked Meadows' composure still further, and momentarily he buried his face in the warm pulse over Monroe's heart and took huge, deep breaths in an attempt to re-orientate himself.
Monroe affected to take the brief pause in Meadows' attentions as evidence of weariness. Sympathetically he eased upright and stroked the broad back and shoulders.
Grateful for the guidance, Meadows turned to face the other man and offered a tight smile of thanks. "It was an absolute bastard, if you must know. Who the hell do those prats at CPS think they are? Some of the bloody comments we get on our paperwork are absolutely out of this world. Did you know ... ?"
Fingertips on his lips silenced him. "Relax. Forget about Sun Hill. Forget about everything but what we're doing here ... together."
The very edge of passion gilding the words alerted Meadows to the moment when the masquerade took on a darker and more dangerous character. He had known that he himself was losing control of the situation but had been quite confident that Monroe would keep his feet on the ground - or, as in the old Hollywood romantic movies, one foot on the floor - yet unless he was a consummate actor that sibilance in his tone had given him away. Andrew Monroe, the one man of all those on the Sun Hill strength who could be guaranteed to keep his head in a crisis, seemed to have lost his anchor to reality. It was as if a switch had been thrown; suddenly they weren't in Kansas any more.
That was enough for Jack Meadows. Chances like this didn't come along more than once in any man's lifetime, and if he was going to have the most uptight of his colleagues handing it to him on a plate he would never forgive himself if he didn't take full advantage of the offer. He drew a dominant and demanding hand down Monroe's side to his thigh, drawing the man closer and into another and yet deeper kiss. This time, with the last barriers of inhibition removed, there was real passion on both sides. Meadows threw himself into the kiss with enthusiasm, the hungry response of the mouth beneath his all the encouragement he could have wished for.
"I want you, Andrew," he shuddered, breaking free only with difficulty. It didn't seem fair to leave Monroe in ignorance of his feelings, when the man was becoming more desirable by the minute.
"Yes." One slim and well-kept hand moved slowly and confidently towards Meadows' groin, stroking through the layers of clothing with a touch that brought sizzling awareness to the heated flesh within. With a growl Meadows asserted himself, rolling over on top of the smaller-built Monroe and tugging at the elasticated waist of the tracksuit trousers. It was only with difficulty that he drew them down over the man's thighs, revealing tight white briefs beneath.
"Whatever you want, Jack. Whatever you want is fine with me." The unsought permission given, Meadows still could not resist a tiny suspicion which wormed into his mind.
Did you want this all along, Andrew? Is that why you volunteered, because you wanted me to screw you? If that's what you wanted, my lad, it looks very much as if you're going to get your wish.
He bent and buried his face in the warm bulge at Monroe's groin, lightly biting down through the briefs and eliciting soft whimpers from the other man. Then, when he had reduced Monroe to a state of quivering anticipation, to a lust-hazed loose-limbed sprawl of semi-coherence, Jack Meadows drew back, sat up, and under Andrew Monroe's intense and questioning scrutiny, drew down the zip of his trousers and opened his fly.
For the life of him, Cryer couldn't see what Faldo, Langer, Olazabal and the rest had all found to smile about. Ian Woosnam at least had the decency to be grimacing in pain, probably because he had Tony Jacklin sitting on his shoulders whilst simultaneously trying to strangle him.
Cryer supposed it all qualified as some kind of obscure male bonding ritual; he knew people who had studied group dynamics and they would probably have been able to tell him all about the relationships of the people in the picture. It didn't matter; it could just as easily have been 'Driller Killer' or 'Thomas the Tank Engine'. Cryer had bought the most harmless-looking video he could find on the shelves of the local Smiths branch, taken the tape out and brought the box, receipt and bag to the Cornwallis Hotel. Even if some nosey bugger saw the disguised tape in its hiding-place in Cryer's locker, the explanation that it was faulty and was on its way back to the shop the moment Cryer got around to it should deter any attempts to borrow it. Anybody warped enough to be interested in 'Victory in America' could always borrow the real thing when Operation Other Half was over.
Opening the linen closet door quietly, Cryer stepped into the little room. The bedroom beyond was now in natural daylight, the curtains having been thrown open at some stage, but the bed was considerably rumpled as if someone had spent a rather active night in it and there were two recognisable paper cups from the Sun Hill canteen placed in a position of honour on the bedside cabinet and an empty whisky bottle on the floor beside them.
Would Meadows and Monroe show up at the office today? Would they brazen it out? The pair of them had more front than Selfridges, more brass than the Black Dyke Mills Band; he'd put money on them to sail through a day's work as if nothing extraordinary had happened.
Maybe nothing extraordinary had happened. Maybe they'd chickened out. He'd have expected one or other of them to call him if that was the case, and there had been no phone call, but it was still possible that when it came to the crunch they hadn't been able to go through with it. Cryer doubted he'd have managed a convincing performance in the circumstances. Maybe with somebody he knew and liked they could have made a joke out of it, put on some kind of display, but with an officer he only knew as a colleague, just someone who was part of the background ... say Tony Stamp or Barry Stringer ... He knew it wouldn't have worked.
The tape had obviously run itself through and run back to the beginning, as it had ejected from the machine and sat waiting to be checked. Cryer snapped the small cartridge into the converter cassette, shoved both into the VCP, and switched on the monitor. Maybe if he ran it on fast picture-search and didn't have to listen to the voices of the two senior officers he wouldn't care too much about what they got up to.
He watched a speeded-up version of Monroe's arrival and the frenzied, fast-action way Meadows had gone to work on him. He got to the point where Meadows had joined Monroe stretched out on the bed, then he fast-searched it back again just to make sure he hadn't imagined what he saw.
He was stunned, taking the rewound tape from the machine in something like a daze. He'd known all along that whatever they did was going to have to look good, but he hadn't figured on it looking quite so good. If he didn't know better he'd have been convinced he'd just watched a slice of Sun Hill's best-kept secret.
They'd convinced him they were lovers. Convinced him to the point where he was beginning to question everything he thought he knew about them, and about Operation Other Half. How could two people who didn't care about each other put on a show like that? Two ordinary average people, not two highly-paid actors; two police officers with a case to make and a career - each - to lose.
Unless the unthinkable had happened and they'd been carried away, forgotten entirely that they were filming a faked encounter, and had real plain honest sex. Could that have happened to two such level-headed and intelligent men? Only, he supposed, if they both had a predisposition to fancy their own kind. Only if they had a predisposition to fancy each other.
He should have cleared the room quickly and efficiently, but once he had stuffed the disguised tape into its Smiths polybag and tucked the whole bundle into his jacket pocket he perched for a moment on the edge of the strong wooden shelving where the equipment had been set up.
How did it happen? How had Burnside and Roach happened, or Dashwood and Carver? Was it just a question of being in the wrong place at the right time, or with the wrong person on the right night? And what was right and wrong about it, anyway? Burnside, Roach, Dashwood and Carver were all single, so there was no reason why they shouldn't have relationships with one another, with the Dagenham Girl Pipers, or with the Kings Troop complete with horses if they felt so inclined. Meadows and Monroe were both very married and devoted to their wives and kids - at least, that was the impression he'd always got. If it could happen to them …
And where the hell was this line of thought leading him, anyway? He was only a Sergeant, he wasn't paid to think.
That wasn't going to stop him, though.
Puzzled, and with more ideas floating around in his head than he knew what to do with, he let himself out of the linen closet and headed off out of the hotel. Today, he decided, for all sorts of reasons, was going to be rather interesting.
He wasn't wrong. Arriving for duty half an hour later, three people had told Cryer that DCI Meadows wanted to see him almost before he'd got his civvy jacket off. The third of these was DC Lines who snagged him in the corridor just as he was leaving the locker room.
"My guv'nor's looking for you," he said, chirpily.
"Yeah? What sort of mood's he in?"
Lines shrugged. "Christ knows. I think his bunion's playing up or summat; if they brought back hanging this morning Jack Meadows'd be first in the queue for the executioner's job. Whatever you've done, Bob, consider resignation or suicide before you go anywhere near CID."
"Cheerful as ever, Tosh?" Cryer's eyebrows lifted cynically as he made light of the detective's words, but inwardly he was in turmoil. What the hell had gone wrong? Had someone made an almighty fool of himself last night? Had Meadows and Monroe chickened out? Or had they done it and regretted it afterwards?
"You're a brave man, Bob. Personally I wouldn't go in there without a riot shield. I'm off to relieve Jim Carver on that stakeout at the bookies' in Brewer Street; four hours sitting on me Jack Jones in an unheated Metro sounds like Paradise compared to five minutes with Meadows in his present mood. Good luck, mate."
Cryer shrugged aside these pleasantries casually. "Yeah, see you later Tosh." He was halfway up the stairs in the direction of CID when he met Superintendent Brownlow's secretary, Marion, who became the fourth person that morning to inform him he was wanted in the DCI's office.
Meadows was seated behind his desk looking as if he hadn't slept much and had been only too grateful to get to the office.
"You wanted to speak to me, sir?"
The senior man glared at him. "Yes, Sergeant. Close the door. You're late; where have you been?"
"My duty shift starts in exactly three minutes, sir, and I've been at the Cornwallis Hotel collecting the video tape."
"Is there anything on it?" The way Meadows didn't meet Cryer's eyes when he asked the question spoke volumes.
"I only checked the first few seconds. It seems to have recorded all right."
"And it's safe?"
"Where no-one would think of looking, sir, believe me."
"Good. Right." Meadows seemed to be collecting his thoughts; his eyes held a nasty, devious glitter Cryer had rarely seen before, and then only when Meadows was on the track of some particularly noxious scumbag he was intent on locking up for several years. "Bob," he said, surprisingly calmly, "I want you to do a little checking up for me - very, very discreetly. You must have a contact of some sort over at Gold Lane?"
Cryer thought about it a moment. "If DS Marley's still there, sir, yes. She was a WPC here about ten years ago."
"Look her up," Meadows ordered, stopping any further reminiscences before they started. "I want to know everything there is to know about a young copper who suicided there about fifteen years back when Mr Monroe was a PC at that nick. Can you do that?"
"Yes, sir, no problem. Can I ask ... ?"
The sergeant grimaced. "Fair enough, sir. I take it this is urgent?"
"Today would be nice," Meadows told him, drily. "Yesterday would be even better."
"Understood." Cryer put a hand on the doorhandle. "What do you want me to do about contacting Mr Singleton?"
"Nothing yet. Hold on till I've had another word with the Chief Super and I'll let you know. Get on to this other matter immediately. Have you seen Mr Monroe this morning?"
The question was thrown out so casually Cryer was almost fooled by it.
"No sir." Monroe was one of the few people at Sun Hill who hadn't been queuing up to tell Cryer Meadows wanted to see him.
"Right, well, if Mahomet won't come to the mountain ... I'd better get down there and see what's going on. Okay, Bob, do what you can."
Trundling back down the stairs with the intention of phoning Alison Marley at Gold Lane and suggesting a private chat at her earliest convenience, Cryer ran into Ackland emerging from the LIO's office.
"Sarge ... "
"If you're going to tell me Mr Meadows wants to see me, you're too late," he told her, crisply. "I've seen 'im. And I wish I hadn't."
She had grabbed his arm and hauled him out of the traffic stream in the corridor.
"What happened?" she asked, in low tones. "Did they do it?"
He looked up and down the corridor before answering. "I don't know," he confided, "but if you want my opinion - they did it and one or other of 'em didn't like it much. The knives are out for Andrew Monroe this morning, June; just stay out of the way and keep your nose clean, okay?"
Ackland's eyebrows rose, but she didn't need to be told twice. "I'm history," she said, with a puzzled frown. "See you later. Keep your ear to the ground!"
"Oh, yeah," he told her retreating back as she took her departure. "With my shoulder to the wheel and my back up against the wall, that should be a doddle!"
As it turned out, however, keeping his ear to the ground would not have been necessary. The next development in the saga would have been difficult to miss, and indeed became a talking-point throughout Sun Hill for some time afterwards. Meadows, setting out from his office to track down the elusive Inspector Monroe, had the good - or bad - fortune to meet him head-on in the ground floor corridor close to the lavatories.
"Ah, Andrew, I want to talk to you!" An expression like the wrath of God did not make Meadows an inviting prospect for a little light conversation. Monroe, however, was unable to decline the invitation.
"Sir, I ... "
"In private," Meadows insisted, slamming the door open and pushing Monroe ahead of him into the toilets. Tony Stamp was just drying his hands and pitching a paper towel into the bin as they entered, but one look at their intense expressions was enough for him to make himself scarce. One cubicle was locked, however, and Meadows thumped on the door. "This is DCI Meadows; I want you out of there now." A startled expression, a muffled curse, a hasty pulling of the chain, and George Garfield emerged looking nothing short of terrified. "Out," Meadows said, without elaboration - and Garfield fled, still gathering his uniform around him. The moment the door had closed behind Garfield Meadows leaned on it to keep intruders out. He had thought the initiative was very firmly with him, but had reckoned without Monroe's sense of fair play.
"What gives you the right to treat people like that?" the Inspector demanded sharply. He was cornered by the washbasins and the paper towel dispenser and as a trapped animal will he responded by fighting back.
"Me? I'm not the one who goes around manipulating other people's emotions. Just what the hell did you think you were playing at last night, eh, and how long did it take you to talk Bob Cryer into setting me up?"
"Setting you up?" Monroe repeated the words through what felt to him like a fog of stupidity.
Meadows' voice lowered to a deadly thread of menace. "If you wanted me to screw the living shit out of you, Andrew, you only had to ask. I don't go in for all this cloak-and-dagger crap, and involving Brownlow was a pretty bloody sick tactic even for you."
"What in god's name are you talking about?" Even furious, Monroe was still gentleman enough not to resort to the kind of language he heard around the station every day, but the mild blasphemy was the more extreme coming from him. "I didn't set anything up. You were the one who asked me to find you a volunteer; it could have been anybody ... "
"Yeah? Could it? And how many of the supposedly heterosexual males at Sun Hill would have got turned on the way you did, eh? How bloody stupid do you think I am? Or are you telling me it's doing your duty that gets you so worked up?"
"Just a minute, what are you saying here? That there's something wrong with me because I enjoyed it? Only I'd call that a double standard, wouldn't you?" Monroe stepped nearer, his face menacingly close to Meadows', his brown eyes darkened with passionate anger.
Meadows caught him by the uniform sweater, a hideous parody of the gesture he had used the previous evening in hauling Monroe in to kiss him. This time he merely snarled at the shorter man as he reeled him closer.
"Are you going to stand there and tell me you were only doing your duty?" he spat, consciously ignoring Monroe's barbed remark.
"I was doing what was necessary," was the bitter response. "I may remind you, sir, that I wasn't the one doing the fucking."
Thunderstruck, Meadows released Monroe's sweater from nerveless fingers and merely stared at the man as he brushed himself down and straightened his clothing. He might very possibly have spoken, have added to his earlier tirade, but a thumping on the door choked off the words unspoken.
"It's Cryer," a voice outside informed them. "Let me in now."
So authoritarian were the tones Meadows almost fell out of the way and allowed the door to swing open.
Cryer stepped into the little room with a grim expression on his face. He looked from one of them to the other, and then took a deep breath.
"Sirs," he said, "with all due respect, I don't want to hear about it. You're causing total bloody chaos out there and if you don't stop this minute there's going to be questions asked upstairs that you won't be able to talk your way out of. May I suggest that if you really want to have this row you get out of the station and off in the middle of a field somewhere where you can't be overheard? There's fifty pairs of ears here flapping like mad waiting to catch any word you might drop. If this is about last night - well, I reckon you both ought to know better." He stopped himself, just in time, from adding the words which leapt to the forefront of his mind.
Now kiss and make up like good children.
Monroe was regarding him, flabbergasted, livid spots of embarrassment touching his usually pale cheeks. Meadows had decided to retreat into a huff and was not meeting anyone's eyes.
"I've said all I'm going to say on the subject," the DCI told them both, firmly. "I get the feeling I've been used, and I don't like it."
"You've been used ... ?"
"That's enough," Cryer said, firmly. "From both of you. Grow up and start acting like senior police officers."
It was the last straw for Meadows. With a muttered oath he broke away from the bizarre confrontation and slammed out into the corridor. Cryer was left with a disconcerted-looking Inspector Monroe and no very clear idea of what he should say or do.
"Andrew ... ?" he began, rather uncertainly; he had known DI Frank Burnside long enough to address him by his first name occasionally but had never ventured to try a similar informality with Monroe.
Monroe filled a basin with cold water, splashed it on his face and wrists, and then dried himself off on a paper towel.
"I don't want to discuss it, Bob," he said, with a remarkable effort at calm. "If Mr Meadows has a problem, he'll have to sort it out by himself. There's nothing you or I can do to help. Is the tape safe?"
"Yes, sir," Cryer assured him bleakly. "The tape's safe."
Safe as houses. Which was just as well, as it looked as if those few feet of video footage right now were about the hottest ticket in town.
"Good," Monroe said, straightening his uniform and running a hand over his already immaculate hair. "Now let's get on with some work, shall we?"
Cryer was glad enough to get out of the building for his discreet meeting with Alison Marley at Gold Lane. He returned to find a perilous calm descended over proceedings at Sun Hill, with Meadows and Monroe making such rare appearances among their fellow-beings that the already busy rumour-mill was working on overtime. As he passed through the front office he caught wind of Hollis's latest speculations on the subject, delivered to a singularly unreceptive Loxton, and dropping into the CAD room he discovered Sergeant Boyden and Garfield and Datta similarly preoccupied although with less leisure to discuss it. It was time something was done to end the station's obsession with the morning's argument - the details of which, mercifully, did not seem to have filtered out past the closed cloakroom door - and turn everyone's attention to less sensitive matters. By the time he bumped into the bulky figure of PC Tony Stamp, Cryer had his explanation ready.
"Sarge." Stamp looked as if he was going to exchange greetings and pass along the corridor about his business, but stopped as if on a whim and said casually; "By the way, Sarge, what was it all about?"
"What?" Cryer affected to be trying to concentrate on more important matters.
"World War III this morning - pistols at fifty paces." Getting no ready response, Stamp elaborated; "Mr Meadows and Inspector Monroe."
"Oh, that. You mean you didn't notice? Bloody hell, Tony, you must walk around with your eyes shut or something!"
"Notice? Notice what?"
Cryer gave him his heavily tolerant expression reserved for PCs who were being preternaturally thick. "Mr Monroe," he said, in his best Janet-and-John explicatory style, "parked in the DCI's space this morning. Mr Meadows wasn't in a very good mood anyway, and that was enough to set him off again. If you've got any sense you'll stay well clear of both of them."
It was a subterfuge Cryer was rather proud of, and as he had expected it was all round the canteen within half an hour. It would probably have held water, too, except that when it reached the more observant PC Kathy Marshall she assumed a puzzled expression and said slowly;
"Yes, but the DCI was here long before Mr Monroe - and Monroe arrived on foot."
Stamp, Quinnan and Datta, sharing her table in the canteen, gazed at each other with a wild surmise.
"Cryer's telling porkies," Stamp concluded, with a grimace.
Marshall grinned at him. "Well, you know what they say about us plods, Tony; we should be treated like mushrooms."
"Eh? How's that, Kath?"
"Keep us in the dark and feed us shit," Marshall observed brightly, before changing the subject.
"That information you wanted, sir." Almost nervously Cryer tapped at the door of DCI Meadows' small office and leaned in.
Meadows looked absolutely shattered, about as tired as Cryer had ever seen anyone look. He had heavy shadows under his vivid blue eyes, his clothing was crumpled, and his expression betrayed a level of preoccupation with an insuperable problem Cryer had rarely seen in any officer outside a murder enquiry.
"From Gold Lane? Come in."
Cautiously Cryer edged into the lion's den, and as he was not torn to shreds within the first few seconds he gained confidence gradually.
"Shut the door. Tell me about it."
Meadows' simple commands were rapidly obeyed.
"Alison Marley, sir. She'd heard vague rumours about a suicide, but she checked up on the details for me. It was seventeen years ago, and the lad involved was one Richard Martin Innes - a constable with about eighteen months' service. Quite a promising lad by all accounts."
"Except for one little flaw," Meadows told him, acidly.
Cryer shrugged. "Nobody seems to know for sure whether he was gay or not. What seems to have happened is that Inspector Singleton - as he was at the time - decided that he was, and the boy was too vulnerable to resist. Innes was put on suspension for using unnecessary force while making an arrest, but while the case was still being investigated he killed himself. The enquiry was a bit of a whitewash; it didn't get in the way of Mr Singleton's promotion."
Meadows pushed back from the desk, looking up into Cryer's anxious face with haunted and desolate eyes.
"Thank god they're not all as fragile as the boy Innes," he said, softly. "Or maybe Singleton learned his lesson. Maybe he got a bit subtler - just manoeuvred them out of his way after that. I wonder why he picked on Sun Hill?"
"I think it was something to do with DCI Wray, sir. He made some reference to 'one rotten apple'."
"He saw Wray as a spreader of contagion, you mean? Yes, I'll buy that. This is all a lot more complicated than it looked at first, Bob," he added, wearily. "I don't know whether we can go through with it as per the original plan. To be specific, I don't know if we can use the tape."
Cryer moved closer. "Sir, in seventeen years this is the closest anybody's got to curtailing Singleton's activities. One man's dead and four good officers have either resigned or been transferred because he didn't approve of their personal lives. What'll it be next? Choosing officers by the colour of their eyes or the football team they support? Only if we're going to be limited to blue-eyed Millwall fans it's not going to do our operational strength a lot of good, is it?"
"Hanging isn't bad enough and flaying would be fair For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair," Meadows muttered, almost under his breath. "All right, Bob, before I change my mind - show him the tape. Don't let it out of your possession, but let him see it - all of it, if you have to. I ought to warn you ... the situation got out of control."
"Oh." With all his years of experience in the Force Cryer had firmly believed he was well past the age of blushing, but he felt himself colour at the implication of the words. As Ackland had suggested but he himself had only half believed, it appeared that they had indeed, as she so elegantly expressed it, 'done it'.
"Bob." Meadows' voice was quieter, more intense than ever. "I'll be perfectly frank with you; if that tape can prevent another young officer from walking head-on into a District Line train it'll be worth all the embarrassment and all the hassle with Mr Monroe. I'd do it again - with Reg Hollis on prime-time television, if I had to - to get that bastard Singleton removed. You ought to know that before you watch the tape; I don't regret one second of it."
"No, sir," Cryer said, because a reply seemed to be in order - but he doubted very much whether Meadows actually heard him.
The following morning Cryer was sitting alone in a corner of the canteen morosely stirring his coffee when Ackland wandered over.
"So what's happening?" she asked, sitting down opposite him. "Still doing your contortionist routine?"
"Ear to the ground, back up against the wall," she explained. Her tone was chirpy enough, but as soon as she caught on to the sombreness of Cryer's mood it altered and became more serious. "Something gone wrong?"
It would be a relief to tell her, he realised. Ackland could be trusted to keep what she knew to herself.
"Last night," he said, very softly, leaning towards her, "I had to show ACC Singleton the videotape from the Cornwallis Hotel."
"Yeah?" Her sculptured eyebrows rose in enquiry.
"Yeah. Which meant I had to sit and watch it with him, 'cos my orders are not to let it out of my sight unless it's locked away somewhere."
"So did they? Do it?"
Cryer shook his head slowly, not in denial but - as Ackland realised when he spoke - in plain bewilderment. "They did it all right. I'm amazed Monroe could walk after what they got up to. Singleton was positively salivating; he couldn't wait to start putting the bite on DCI Meadows."
"So everything's working out the way it's supposed to, yeah?"
"Not exactly." A more recognisable shake of the head this time. "June, people can't fake that kind of thing. You don't let somebody do that to you unless you really want him to."
"They didn't have sex," Cryer said, spelling it out in words of one syllable.
"But I thought you said ... "
"They made love. There's a difference."
Ackland was silent a long time, digesting the information. She was silent so long that Cryer became anxious, wondering if he hadn't made himself clear.
"June? Are you with me?"
"Just about keeping up, Sarge," she said, pensively. "It doesn't change anything, does it?"
"Not for the rest of us, no." Cryer paused, considered, and then said deliberately. "June, I need a favour. Put the tape in your locker. It would be just like Singleton to order my locker opened if the mood took him; he couldn't check them all without alerting Mr Brownlow, but he could always decide to throw a snap inspection and choose mine at random. The worst that can happen to you is Mr Monroe doing one of his routine sweeps, and although that could be embarrassing for you both it wouldn't be anything like as bad as it would be if Singleton got hold of the tape."
"What, just keep the tape? Not watch it?"
"Just keep it until Meadows says we can ditch it, and then you and I can take a walk down to the Embankment and chuck it in the water. I promise."
She nodded, accepting the suggestion. "Okay, Bob, I'll do it. Any idea how I'm going to explain the sudden appearance of a videotape in my locker?"
"It's disguised as the Highlights of the Ryder Cup," he informed her. "You can always say you've developed a grand passion for Seve Ballesteros."
Ackland's mouth twisted wryly. "Now that," she said, "I could almost believe myself."
Had Cryer and Ackland but known it, significant steps were being taken in Operation Other Half at more or less the same time. Meadows, aware that he could not put off the evil day any longer, had conquered his reluctance and made the pilgrimage downstairs to the Duty Inspector's Office to speak to Andrew Monroe.
"Sir." Monroe was civil but distant, very far from the utterly abandoned and almost wanton being who had so entranced Meadows' bedazzled sensibilities only two nights before. There was no trace whatsoever of any emotion in his dealings now with Meadows, and the senior man was well aware that the glass barrier that had separated them before their dinner at the Cornwallis Hotel had returned stronger and thicker than before.
"A quick word, if I may." Meadows stepped inside swiftly and closed the door, not waiting for an invitation. "Cryer's seen Singleton," he said, almost breathlessly. "We're waiting for an approach to me. I've drawn the listening gear we need from stores; I'll be wearing a radio-mike and you and Cryer will be monitoring every word."
"I'm glad it's all proceeding to plan, sir," Monroe told him, bleakly. Meadows, somewhat more relaxed than during their last confrontation, leaned against the wall and folded his arms. "It's not, though, is it? Andrew, I owe you an apology for yesterday. I hadn't slept and I was in a filthy mood. Some of the things I said were quite unjustifiable."
"Yes. They were."
"It's not going to be put right in a hurry, is it?"
The frankness of the question was almost disarming. A lesser man than Andrew Monroe might well have weakened at that point, but the Inspector was not disposed to let the previous day's scene pass into history without a protest.
"As a matter of fact, sir, it isn't. As far as I know it isn't yet a crime to enjoy certain aspects of one's duty, and whether or not I took any pleasure in what happened is my business and not something I feel inclined to apologise for. In the circumstances criticising me for it makes you very little better than ACC Singleton. Sir."
Meadows winced. The belated term of respect had hurt just as much as the words that preceded it, especially as he had a very clear recollection of the particular way that same voice had handled his given name. He preferred the way Monroe said 'Jack'.
"As it happens I agree with you," he conceded, his tone rueful. "I wasn't being very intelligent there, was I? I don't especially want to discuss this with you while the Singleton matter's still outstanding, but I'd like to think that when it's all over we'll have a chance to ... get things in perspective again."
Monroe had been about to answer that he had not been the one getting things out of perspective, but he could recognise an olive-branch when he was offered one. It occurred to him also that he had hardly done himself justice during his encounter with Meadows the previous morning.
"It does no-one any good if we lose sight of our objectives and get enmeshed in a conflict of personalities," he observed, some of the harshness fading from his voice.
"No," Meadows agreed. "It doesn't. Right, Andrew, I'll keep you informed. Judging by what Bob Cryer said about Singleton's response to the tape, we shouldn't have too long to wait before he makes an approach."
"Cryer's seen the tape, then?" All things considered, Monroe's question was remarkable for its apparent disinterest.
Meadows was turning to leave, but he paused with one hand on the doorhandle. "Yes. And I'm not ashamed of one second of it, Andrew."
Dark eyes like flint blades turned sharply in his direction. "No, sir. Neither am I."
The quick defiant response confused Meadows still further. Just as it had shocked him to discover that Inspector Andrew Monroe was not simply a part of the furniture but was a living breathing human being with thoughts and opinions that did not always accord with those of his superior officers, now it jolted him still further to find the man for whom he had felt such enmity only the day before voicing feelings that matched his own.
Framed in the doorway, Meadows found himself grinning hugely.
"Okay. Let's just try not to kill one another over the next few days."
Monroe's eyebrows lifted, but he was unable to summon a smile. "I should think we could manage that, sir," he conceded.
Meadows paused, a hundred more things that he would like to say running through his mind; he had sense enough to realise, however, that he was incapable of thinking in a straight line and he would do well to quit while he was ahead.
"I'll see you later," he said, and found he was looking forward to doing so.
"Sir," said Monroe gravely, as Meadows took his departure.
"Go right in, sergeant." Chief Superintendent Brownlow's secretary barely glanced up as Cryer passed through her domain, knocked on the inner door and entered Brownlow's office. The Chief Superintendent was sitting behind his desk looking more than usually grave, and Meadows and Monroe were disposed in chairs opposite him with an empty chair between them. Their partial reconciliation of the previous day, about which Cryer had been informed by a less discreet than usual Monroe, obviously did not extend as far as being seen to sit side by side even in the most respectable of company. Cryer could well understand that the issue of their being together anywhere was a particularly sensitive one at the moment, and he wondered briefly how much Brownlow knew or guessed about what had happened between them. Not much, if he knew his Chief Super as well as he thought he did.
"Sit down, Bob." Brownlow's manner was uneasy, but he had never been particularly comfortable talking to the lower ranks on equal terms - which was odd, since he had worked his way up from the beat like the rest of them.
"Thank you sir." Obediently Cryer sat, fully aware that some unpleasant bombshell was about to burst over the four of them; aware, too, that his positioning in the room made him a physical barrier between Meadows and Monroe.
"Right, now that we're all together ... " Brownlow glanced around them all briefly, "we have a problem on Other Half. Andrew, perhaps you'd like to fill in the details?"
"Yes, sir. It's quite simple; up to now we've all been assuming that when ACC Singleton wanted to make his demands - whatever they may turn out to be - he would get in touch with DCI Meadows."
"It seemed logical," Meadows put in. "I've got the rank; he'd expect me to be more vulnerable. Are you saying he's approached you?"
"I had a phone call at home last night," Monroe responded, coolly. "He suggested it would be - in his words - a good career move if I met him somewhere private to discuss certain information he'd received. I had to make it up as I went along," he added, apologetically. "We settled on 1.30 this afternoon; the car park on the canal towpath near the Thomas Street allotments."
Meadows ignored this last, cutting through to what he considered the vital question. "Why's he picked on you, Andrew?"
Across Cryer, Monroe met the other man's gaze levelly. "Presumably because when I was a PC on his relief we didn't always see eye-to-eye," he said. "It would amuse him to think he'd got something on me."
"I wish you'd mentioned this at the outset," Brownlow put in, testily. "It could have made quite a difference."
"It didn't seem important, sir. Besides, I don't think you were in any danger of being swamped with volunteers."
"He did mention it to me, sir," Meadows was quick to point out, instinctively leaping to Monroe's defence. "Frankly I didn't consider it was relevant."
Brownlow was thoughtful a moment, considering Meadows' words. "You're probably right," he conceded. "So, how does this affect our plans?"
"As far as I can see, sir," Monroe rejoined smoothly, "not at all. It simply means that instead of Mr Meadows being wired up and meeting with the ACC I'll be doing it. Operationally it makes no odds which of us goes."
Meadows was pensive, but nodded his head in agreement when Brownlow turned to him. "I agree, sir. I'll take Andrew's place with Bob in the bug van, and it should all be relatively straightforward from there on."
"Good. Well, just so long as you all agree on what you're doing. Andrew, you'd better not go in uniform. Have you any civvies with you?"
"Yes, sir. I'll need to borrow a coat from someone, but that's all."
"I'll lend you one," Cryer said, feeling it was about time he made a contribution.
"Thanks, Bob. No problems, then, sir."
Brownlow looked sceptical. "I wish I was as sure of that as you seem to be," he said. "Very well, you'd better get the gear set up. Be careful, Andrew."
Dismissed, the three of them took their departure and left Brownlow sorting out the chairs. They passed through Marion's room in silence, but in the corridor outside Meadows spoke.
"He's right. Be careful."
"I'll be keeping an eye on you, Andrew; if anything goes wrong, I'll be right there."
"I appreciate that, sir," Monroe said, both eyebrows lifted in bemusement, "but nothing is going to go wrong."
"Hold that thought," Meadows instructed him, before striding away down the corridor.
Perhaps predictably in view of the state of mind of the various parties involved, it was raining by the time the bug van - subtly disguised as a council Direct Works van - pulled into the area of rough ground between the allotments and the canal towpath that was used as a car park by all those having business in this area of Sun Hill. One of the less troublesome council estates ran close to the canal at this point, and the railway line ran diagonally across it leaving odd triangles of space at either side which were utilised for various kinds of marginal or temporary purposes; it was a depressingly impermanent environment. Apart from a couple of optimists forking through the heavy clay soil of the allotments, there was nobody about.
Cryer looked at his watch. "Half an hour. Bit more."
They were in borrowed Direct Works overalls, but the pair Meadows was wearing had been obtained with Monroe in mind and were slightly too small. He wriggled uncomfortably in his seat.
"Best get in the back right away," he said. "If Singleton spots either of us, we've had it."
"Sir." Cryer had been all prepared to do his best impersonation of a council workman sitting in his van eating sandwiches and reading The Sun, but he moved into the rear compartment of the van with Meadows close behind, well aware that the DCI had no intention of risking this operation on any little oversight.
There were several hundred questions Cryer would have liked to ask Meadows in that half-hour. They ran through his mind as he checked and re-checked the sound equipment. As Monroe was supposedly off duty he would not be making any radio call to announce that he was on his way; the most they could expect was that if something went wrong they would get a call from MP cancelling the operation. They had no reason to suppose that Singleton would be thorough enough to monitor Sun Hill's radio frequencies, but as Meadows had painstakingly pointed out they also had no reason to suppose that he wouldn't. They had to assume the worst and hope for the best.
Almost exactly half an hour later the radio-mike Monroe was wearing arrived within range and crackled into life.
"I'm just pulling into the car park," he said. "Wind down the window of the van if you can hear me."
Cryer's eyes flickered in Meadows' direction, and Meadows reached over and wound down the passenger-side window a few inches.
"Understood," Monroe said, briefly. He had brought his own car, a small red hatchback, and carefully reversed it into the opposite corner of the plot from the one in which the two officers were sitting. Several other vehicles were also present; one, with a trailer full of garden rubbish behind it, obviously belonged to one of the allotment holders, and there was also a pathetic-looking Cortina resting on three wheels and a brieze block.
ACC Singleton, when he wasn't being driven around in an official car in an official capacity, drove a Volvo of the shiny crimson variety. It trundled down the rutted drive from the road a few minutes later, and with supreme disregard for other car park users he stopped it right in the middle of the available turning space and got out.
Singleton was a man in his late fifties, tall and cadaverous-looking, with a fringe of iron-grey hair around a balding pate. He was wearing a lounge suit with a sheepskin jacket over it which made him look like a racecourse tipster or an unsuccessful double-glazing salesman. All business, he slammed his car door behind him and glanced around brazenly looking for Monroe. Obviously his idea of a secret rendezvous did not accord with those of his observers.
Monroe got out of his car, locked it carefully, and drew the tan-coloured raincoat he had borrowed from Cryer more closely around him. He strode across the uneven ground to where Singleton waited, maintaining the customary aura of quiet competence which had become legendary at Sun Hill. Quinnan and Hollis were both fond of telling the story about Monroe discovering a body in the boot of a car some months before. 'Whose foot is that?' he had coolly asked the suspect, lifting the cloth that covered the remains. Nothing ruffled the Monroe equilibrium, was the popular belief - now amended to 'nothing but Jack Meadows'.
"Good afternoon, sir," Monroe said, civilly. In the bug van, Meadows could not suppress a grin as the calm greeting spooled onto the tape. Singleton looked him up and down appraisingly. "Andrew bloody holier-than-thou Monroe," he said, with lip-smacking relish. "I'm going to enjoy this."
"Yes. Ever since your pansy friend Innes topped himself I've been looking out for some dirt on you. Took a bloody long time, but I've got it at last."
"What have you got?"
"Careful, Andrew," Meadows whispered, although only Cryer could hear him.
"Film. Video tape, to be precise. You and your boyfriend having the time of your life in a hotel bedroom."
Monroe shook his head decisively. "No. I don't believe you."
"No? You were wearing a white tracksuit with a red vest underneath - at least, you were at the start. By the time Meadows had finished with you, you were wearing nothing but a smile. I'd never have thought you were the type that like it up the arse, Andrew - and from Jack Meadows, too." Singleton finished off his accusatory statement with a scandalised 'tut-tutting'.
"You leave Jack out of this," Monroe told him coldly.
"Why? You didn't leave him out, did you? 'Anything you want, Jack; take me, I'm yours.'" He misquoted Monroe's words maliciously, a twist of evil humour crossing his face.
"What do you want?"
The abrupt question caused Meadows, a dozen yards away, to recoil in shock. "Gently, Andrew, gently."
Singleton leaned back against the roof of the Volvo. He smiled. "I'm enjoying just watching you squirm," he said, delightedly. "Sun Hill's Mr Clean turns out to be a dirty little queer just like all the rest. I must admit you covered up better than Burnside or Wray or Meadows ever did; took me longer to suss you out. When you transferred out of Gold Lane I thought I'd missed my chance with you, but I had my suspicions about you even back then. You didn't like what happened to Innes, did you?"
"No-one deserves that kind of death," Monroe told him, acidly. "No matter what they may have done. And you drove him to it with your taunting," he added, glaring.
"Balls. You'd have a job proving it. Innes was just a bloody weakling; no good in the Force, weaklings. Anyway, that's ancient history. What matters now is what we're going to do with you and your boyfriend. The way I see it, you've got a choice - you get out of Sun Hill, one way or the other, or you stay there and work for me. You get me information. You tell me who is doing what to whom. You name the other queers for me, Andrew, and maybe I'll leave your precious Jack Meadows alone."
"Bastard," Meadows whispered. "So that's how he's doing it!" It made sense at last; Singleton was pressuring the gay officers by threatening dire consequences to the careers of their partners. Each man had been quite willing to fight on his own account, but had not dared risk the career of his lover. He'd got rid of Wray and Roach by threatening Burnside, Dashwood by threatening Carver, Burnside …
But that meant that he'd known about Carver all along …
A chill ran through him.
"You stay away from Jack," Monroe was saying, softly but dangerously.
"Stay away from him? I wouldn't touch him with a bargepole," Singleton smirked. "Unlike you, of course. I'll stay as far away from him as you like, Andrew, as long as you come across. As long as you help me out. I can rely on you, can't I?"
"And if I don't? What then?"
Singleton grinned. "Two careers down the drain," he said, happily contemplating the havoc he could wreak. "Two marriages, two families; I wonder how your kiddies would take to the knowledge that you'd been getting screwed by Jack Meadows on a regular basis? They'd wonder what sort of creature Daddy was, wouldn't they? And when the stills from that video hit the 'News of the World' ... There's enough right-thinking people left in this country to make your life a misery, Andrew. You'll go right to the bottom of the pile, and you'll take your bloody boyfriend with you. The District Line'll seem a positive relief after all that."
Monroe stepped away, hands in pockets, contemplating the grimy grey water of the canal only feet away. He had always wondered how Richard Innes had psyched himself up to step out in front of that train, but he was beginning to get some idea of the pressures that drove a man to take such a drastic way out. The canal was shallow, muddy and hideously polluted, but compared to the taint of Singleton's presence it seemed like a clear mountain stream and he felt a twinge of desire to throw himself into it and be purified.
"I'll consider it," he said, briefly. "I'm not prepared to give you an answer immediately; I need time to think."
"Don't take too long." The false bonhomie disappeared instantly from Singleton's manner. "I'll ring you this evening; you'd better have an answer for me by then." He was opening his car door, getting in, starting the engine.
In stunned silence Monroe stepped back and watched the Volvo execute a fierce, crunching three-point turn, scattering loose stones from beneath its fat tyres, and jolt off in the direction of the road through a steadily-falling shroud of rain. It was only then that he realised he was cold and wet and sick at heart, weary of the mindless prejudice he had been encountering for the past twenty-odd years, turned to stone by the thought of the corrupt power wielded by one man which had destroyed lives and careers and families and hopes for the future. It was only then, too, that the full magnitude of what he and Meadows were trying to do - and what they had already done - struck him, and he shuddered under the weight of it. He was still shivering bleakly when Jack Meadows, in his borrowed overalls, bounded across the makeshift car park to his side.
"Andrew? Are you all right?"
But one glance at the troubled dark eyes had shown that it was a fatuous question, and Monroe clearly was not.
"You did well - in fact you were bloody brilliant," Meadows enthused. "Cryer's got it all on tape; every word. We've got enough to hang the bastard higher than Haman! We've done it, Andrew. We've bloody done it!"
Monroe turned to him, meeting his genuine delight and relief with a look of subtle and refined misery.
"Jack," he said, wearily, "exactly what have we done?"
Alarmed by the tone, Meadows spun away immediately. "Bob?"
Cryer left the bug van and advanced towards the pair.
"Get back to the factory," Meadows instructed crisply. "I'll look after Mr Monroe."
"Sir." Whatever was going on, Cryer knew he'd rather not be around. He'd done more than enough eavesdropping on the private transactions of these two for one lifetime.
"Car keys, Andrew."
The altered timbre of Meadows' voice when he turned back to address Monroe was a graphic illustration of the confusion between duty and personal feelings that had characterised every moment of this case. Nevertheless he was somewhat surprised when the keys were placed in his hand and he caught Monroe's arm and led him across the rough ground, unlocking the passenger door and all but helping him in. Then he opened the driver's door and sat himself down behind the wheel.
"We've got some fences to mend, haven't we?" Meadows said, carefully. The rain was heavier now, and through the wet windscreen they stared out unseeingly as Cryer manoeuvred the grubby yellow bug van out of the car park and started on a bouncing progress up the access road. Inside the car the air was chill and damp, Monroe staring straight ahead and not turning in Meadows' direction.
"I was so sure we were doing the right thing," he said, slumped in his seat and ignoring Meadows' opening gambit. "All the reasons were the right reasons. Yet it's been poisoned."
"It was always going to be," Meadows told him, sadly. "That was the reason we needed volunteers who weren't lovers - weren't even gay. You don't risk something that's important to you on a scrote like Singleton."
"I know. It made perfect sense to me at the time," Monroe admitted, confusedly. "It doesn't now, though. He knew about Jim Carver all along."
Meadows nodded gravely. "We couldn't have guessed that, Andrew; we didn't know how he'd set it all up."
"Have we gone through all this for nothing then?"
"Nothing? We've got Singleton on the ropes; one more punch'll finish him. All we need to do now is wind up Mr Brownlow and send him into action; he'll do the rest for us. It's all over. You can stop worrying about it." Resolutely he slotted the ignition key into the lock and turned on the engine. "We need to get in out of the rain," he said, distractedly. "You did brilliantly - I don't think I could have kept my dignity in the circumstances. I'm proud of you, Andrew. I don't know what else to say."
Arriving back at Sun Hill shortly afterwards, they were met by an out of breath Cryer in the car park.
"Chief Inspector Cato threw a snap inspection of the male officers' lockers while we were out of the building," he said without ceremony as soon as they stepped out of the car.
Monroe blanched. "And?"
A reptilian smile. "He didn't find anything. Interesting, though, isn't it?"
"Where was Mr Brownlow?" asked Meadows, handing the car keys back to Monroe as they headed into the building.
"At lunch," Cryer supplied.
"Well, I'm not prepared to consider any of it a coincidence," Meadows responded, sharply. "Where's the tape?"
"Safe. June Ackland's got it."
"Ackland?" echoed Monroe, stunned. "How the hell did she get involved?"
"Guesswork, sir," Cryer told him, with a shrug. "It occurred to me something like this might happen - although I didn't reckon on Mr Cato being involved - and I wanted it well out of the way. June won't touch the tape, sir, if that's what you're worried about," he added hurriedly in the face of Monroe's obvious alarm.
"You're right there," Meadows said, encouragingly. "I'd rely on Ackland to keep her word. Good move, Bob, even if you should have checked it with us first."
"I know, sir. I'm sorry."
"No harm done. Any sign of Mr Brownlow?"
"He's apparently still at lunch, but Marion's expecting him back in a few minutes. What are you going to do about Mr Cato, sir?"
Meadows shrugged. "Nothing ... at the moment. I think I'll leave that to the Chief Super. Meanwhile, I suggest we all change our clothes. Andrew - you've had a rough time, haven't you? Are you going to be okay?"
Steadfastly Monroe blocked out all knowledge of Cryer's presence and any suggestion that he himself might be considered in any way unfit for duty. "Perfectly, sir, thank you," he said, as if the intimacy between himself and Meadows had never occurred, and departed - leaving Meadows once again cursing himself for his tactlessness.
"I never seem to say the right thing to that man," he complained, softly.
"He's just worried, sir," Cryer told him, hastening to Monroe's defence. "It makes him a bit brusque sometimes."
"Yeah? Well, he's right to be worried. I'm worried too. If Brownlow blows it this afternoon, this thing could explode in all our faces; you, me - and Monroe and June Ackland too. We've done our bit, but now we have to wait around while someone else takes over. That's never easy."
"No. Well, whatever happens, Bob - what we were trying to do was worth it, wasn't it?"
"Yes, sir. Yes, it was."
Tension thick as toffee coagulated in the offices and corridors of the Sun Hill nick that afternoon, although few of its inhabitants could have named the cause. Rumours spread like wildfire; Meadows, Monroe and Cryer had gone to a lot of trouble to spend an hour on the towpath in the rain waiting for a flasher who never showed up; Brownlow had roasted Cato over the locker searches. This last had some substance to it as, goaded by Cryer, Barry Stringer in his capacity as Police Federation rep. had put forward a formal complaint about the incident and Brownlow had done little during that interview to conceal his own displeasure with Cato.
Then Brownlow disappeared again, and the canteen gossips had a field day. Meetings the Chief Superintendent was supposed to attend went ahead without him; his telephone went unanswered; his secretary fobbed off callers with increasingly feeble excuses. Only three people knew, and they kept it to themselves, that Brownlow had gone to Force Headquarters to confront ACC Singleton with the audiotape of his meeting with Monroe and the other evidence of his blackmailing activities - and in these three people the tension was almost unbearable.
Jack Meadows in particular was restless. He paced his office, wandered in and out of CID, looked over people's shoulders and got in their way and generally made an almighty nuisance of himself. His own office, the small territory where he was absolute ruler, became for him an intolerably small cage within walls that closed on him by the minute. The view from his window of rooftops, streetlights and the tower blocks of the Jasmine Allen estate seemed in fancy to be hemmed in by barbed wire and searchlight towers; he was a prisoner under sentence until Brownlow got back and told him of his fate.
He thought about Monroe a lot during the afternoon, endlessly touring his territory and wearing holes in the carpet. Until this case he'd never much cared for the man, although he had recognised Monroe as an effective and valuable officer - a little hidebound by the rules, perhaps, but a colleague to be relied upon if not precisely a friend. Never, in his wildest imagination, could he have dreamed that he could be so turned on just by Monroe's presence - by the memory of his unexpectedly enthusiastic lovemaking.
It had gone way, way too far. Meadows had been carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment and had gone further than he had ever intended. His ideas for the scenario had never included actual penetration; he'd thought they might play around with one another for a while, jerk one another off - he knew a lot of men didn't consider that sort of thing counted as homosexual activity, a piece of naïve double-thinking that always amused him.
"Make it with another man and you're gay," Frank Burnside had said to him once. "I don't want to hear about bi-sexual and tri-sexual and any other fancy definitions. You break the law and you're a criminal - right? You fuck a man and you're gay. End of story."
Frank's forthright assessment of the situation had stayed with him. He quirked an eyebrow philosophically as he considered Burnside's likely reaction to being told that Meadows had remembered his teachings in connection with the unlikely personage of Andrew Monroe. More to the point, perhaps, what would Monroe make of Burnside's maxim?
You're gay, Andrew, he thought, wryly. Did you realise that?
There was no gainsaying that Monroe had enjoyed their time together. They had enjoyed each other, revelling in their situation, relishing every moment and missing nothing in their quest for mutual satisfaction. Meadows doubted whether that abandoned enthusiasm for one another could possibly have been generated between two people chosen at random, two people who had no previous emotional context for their sexual activities.
He had never been aware beforehand of an attraction to Andrew Monroe and the thought surprised him slightly - but then, when he thought about the way Monroe had conducted himself throughout Other Half he realised that his surprise did the man a dis-service. Why should he not be attracted to someone who was willing to go to such lengths, make such sacrifices, for something he truly believed in? Monroe's dedication was attractive in and of itself; the man wasn't the office-bound martinet he had seemed on first acquaintance. Under that placid, formal exterior smouldered a man of strong ideals; Meadows had been privileged to witness an occasion when those banked-down passions had broken through to the surface, and he had been all but scorched by the contact. More than that, he had himself been the object of that passion. The very notion still confused the hell out of him.
The knowledge made him unwilling to consign this relationship with Monroe to some musty file archive. If there was something salvageable from it, something that could even for a moment rekindle that electrifying energy between them, Meadows wanted it - even if it meant a long, long wait. He wanted another chance with Monroe: one that wasn't burdened down with the weight of someone else's expectations: one that lacked the contrivance and artificiality of their first encounter.
He wanted it to be real.
He wanted Monroe to be there out of choice, and not just because it seemed like a good idea.
When it was all boiled down, what he wanted was for Monroe to want him. If there was the least, the most tenuous chance of that being the case, he would hang on and wait for as long as it took - because in the turbulent and traumatic days since the Cornwallis Hotel he had decided that Andrew Monroe would be worth waiting for.
Back in uniform, hair tidy once more, Monroe still managed to look pale and perturbed when he, Meadows and Cryer found themselves summoned to Brownlow's office at the end of the afternoon. Meadows cast a worried glance in his direction, then mentally corrected himself for the instinctive desire to offer comfort. Monroe could take care of himself - he'd proved that often enough. He didn't need Jack Meadows guiding his footsteps and picking up after him. Not that it stopped Meadows wanting to.
They sat looking at Brownlow like children awaiting exam results; like talent contestants waiting to know which of them had won. His manner told them precisely nothing; he was as grim and unsmiling as they had ever seen him, and he didn't exactly look at anyone as he began speaking.
"What we undertook with Operation Other Half had a very serious purpose," he said, slowly. "Prejudice - whether racial or sexual or with any other basis - between officers is completely counter-productive. 'A house divided cannot stand', you know. Junior officers can be corrected; officers with the rank and seniority of ACC Singleton are usually considered above criticism." He paused, taking a long and appraising look at each one of them in turn. "I have to inform you that ACC Singleton has tendered his resignation on health grounds, with immediate effect. In fact he's already cleared his desk and gone. I'm not prepared to say more than that about it, but I hope you'll all consider it was worth your very considerable efforts."
The atmosphere in the room suddenly lightened. There was no outbreak of rejoicing - Brownlow's expression would have forbidden it even if they had felt like indulging themselves in a celebration, and they were all too well-disciplined to give vent to their feelings in front of him. Meadows' heart leaped, a triumphant chorus running through his mind.
We did it, fellers. We did it.
"I've turned the audio-tape over to MS15," Brownlow was saying. "You'll see to it that all paper records are destroyed and no copies made. And for god's sake somebody get rid of that bloody videotape, will you? Just the thought of a thing like that even existing does my blood-pressure no good whatsoever."
"Sir," Cryer said, smiling, "I'll volunteer for that. It would be a pleasure."
Meadows nodded his agreement. "Fine with me." A heavy weight had lifted from his shoulders; without the burden of Other Half pressing on him he felt ten years younger and able to cope with anything.
He glanced sidelong in Monroe's direction and briefly took in the grave profile etched against the evening light.
"Good. Now, after today there is to be no mention of this case at all. None of it ever happened. Is that clear?"
Their assent reached him as a ragged chorus.
"I will, naturally, deny knowing anything about it. You must understand, all of you, that shaking the foundations of Force Headquarters the way we've just done is only to be attempted in the most extreme of cases; I won't, for instance, tolerate a series of campaigns against senior staff officers. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity," he added, more whimsically, looking to them for agreement.
"Very well. Now that's out of the way I also want to add that as far as I'm concerned you have all acted with the best interests of the Force in general at heart and I hope that at some future date you'll be able to see the rewards of your efforts in a more intelligent attitude towards gay and lesbian officers. This has been a rather grubby business all round, but hopefully some good will come of it in the long-term. Thank you all."
That was it. They were dismissed. The three of them stood, feeling incredibly light-headed, and found that Brownlow was ushering them towards the door.
"Well, Jack ... Andrew ... " The senior man's false bonhomie grated on their stretched nerves; he had been with them all along, yet he could have had no conception of how delicate a matter this was for them. How it had affected all of them emotionally. "I suppose you'll both be jolly grateful this is all over and you can get back to your wives? That kind of play-acting can't be very pleasant - wouldn't suit me, that's for certain. Try to put it out of your minds quickly, if you can."
To Brownlow, it was obviously as simple as that.
"Yes, sir," Monroe said, a little too quickly for Meadows' comfort. "We'll try."
Meadows heard himself mumbling something non-committal about getting back to normal before he hurried through the outer room in pursuit of Monroe.
"Andrew? Bob? Just a moment."
They both turned, and although he made a point of looking into Monroe's eyes he saw nothing there other than a perfectly ordinary expression of mild enquiry - yet their relationship had changed irrevocably, and they both knew it.
"Look, I need a drink," Meadows said, putting into words the first thought that popped into his head. "What say we round up a few bodies and all go round to The Grapes? Let our hair down a bit? We could all do with a bit of a break. Andrew?"
The silence before Monroe answered was interminable, and Meadows had the distinct impression that in Monroe's mind both the question and the answer were something other than they had at first appeared.
"Yes," he said distantly, after what seemed a century or more. "That's a good idea. Bob, see if you can persuade June Ackland - and what about Carver and Lines?"
"I'll issue an engraved invitation," Meadows grinned. "Bob, you get to work on uniform and see how many takers you get."
Cryer laughed. "You try keeping Garfield, Quinnan and Hollis away from a boozer if someone else is paying. And that goes double for Tony Stamp! I'll get started right away."
"Good. Andrew, what about your sergeants? Can you talk Matt Boyden into coming along?"
"I shouldn't think I'd have too much difficulty," Monroe told him, quietly. "If you'll excuse me, I should just catch John Maitland too."
"The more the merrier," Meadows told him expansively, and watched the dark-haired man hurry off down the corridor with an expression on his face which came very close to being unmitigated delight.
"Is this seat taken?"
Sitting in what passed for a quiet corner in the bar of 'The Grapes' Andrew Monroe was shaken out of his reverie instantly by the warm tone in which the question was asked.
"No." Despite his best intentions, he smiled.
Meadows lowered himself onto the bar stool opposite and grimaced across a few feet of smoke-laden air. A good half of the relief was packed into the bar; Kathy Marshall and Norika Datta had taken possession of the jukebox and were fending off advice from Hollis and Stamp; Quinnan and Garfield were playing pool; Lines and Cryer were at the bar, and Ackland and Carver were deep in conversation with Loxton. The atmosphere was already relaxed and friendly although it was still only early evening; this had the makings of being one of the all-time great Sun Hill binges, although most of those present had very little idea of that at the moment.
"Half these people don't know what they're celebrating," he said, "and the other half wouldn't consider it a victory."
"And we do?"
A huge grin broke across Meadows' face. "Yes. We do." He sipped at his pint in silence, uncertain when he had last been as happy as he was at this precise moment. "Andrew, I think I owe you another apology. There's something you don't know that I should have told you right at the beginning."
Monroe's eyebrows rose. "It wouldn't be anything to do with your relationship with Frank Burnside, by any chance?" he asked, archly.
Meadows stopped with the glass halfway to his lips. "How the hell did you know that?"
"Singleton hinted as much in the first phone call - and then he mentioned your name when we met. However discreet you thought you were being, Jack, he knew all about it."
"Maybe it was just guesswork." He was troubled by it, nevertheless. "Frank wouldn't have talked - and I know I didn't."
Monroe shrugged. "Then perhaps you were seen together somewhere, and somebody started adding two and two. It doesn't really matter whether he guessed it or knew for sure; it only matters that it happened. Tell me, is there any man in this nick who hasn't slept with Frank Burnside?"
Meadows winced. "One or two," he acknowledged, knowing he deserved the rebuke. "Carver, for sure. Mr Brownlow, presumably."
"And you, of course. It was your first time, wasn't it?"
A slight flush passed across Monroe's features. "You know it was."
"Then you and Richard Innes weren't lovers. When you told me that story, it crossed my mind that you might have been. There was more to it than just friendship, though, wasn't there?"
The dark-haired man shook his head. "It wasn't sexual - far from it. It's a lot simpler than that. In actual fact we were distantly related - our mothers were cousins. I was a few years older and when we ended up on the same relief I was supposed to keep an eye on him. No-one in the family actually blamed me for not being able to save his life, but ... "
"They didn't need to," Meadows surmised. "You blamed yourself enough."
"Yes. Even now - every Christmas, every birthday, every big family occasion - there's a gap where Richard should have been. We weren't close, I don't know if he was gay, but I still feel ... responsible for what happened to him."
"You weren't. You said yourself that mentally he was too fragile for the job. A good Inspector would have spotted that and weeded him out, but he didn't have a good Inspector - he had Ronnie Singleton. He needed an Inspector like Andrew Monroe. I don't think there was anything more you could have done at the time, Andrew. Give yourself a break, eh?"
A long pause; to Meadows, an eternity. "I don't know if I can," Monroe told him, with a grimace. "But thank you. I appreciate what you've said, Jack. And the reason you said it."
Meadows leaned forward, minimising the distance between them and somehow managing not to drag Monroe across the table and debauch him in public although it involved a supreme effort of self-restraint.
"Andrew, we're busy skating around a very important subject here. You know that, don't you?"
He waited until Monroe's eyes had fastened on his, reading the answer before the other man spoke.
"Yes. I suppose we are."
"I'm only going to ask you once. If the answer's 'no', then we'll forget all about it." Meadows gathered his courage together, visibly steeling himself for rejection. "I won't lie to you, Andrew; it was great with you. The Earth moved ... all that sort of stuff. I could get very fond of you and I'd really like another chance to ... to be with you. Would you ever consider ... I mean, not immediately, obviously, but maybe at some future date ... Could you bring yourself to ... ?" He trailed off, desperately entangled in a maze of half-formed questions, unable to bring himself to put into words the single desire that had coalesced out of the confusion of his feelings. "Christ, this is pathetic!"
A long way back, deep behind Andrew Monroe's eyes, there was a sparkle which suddenly reduced the room and the people around them to the same significance as the threads of smoke curling through the air. He didn't speak, but then he didn't need to; the look said it all, and Meadows read it as though it was written in letters of flame twelve feet tall.
"Tell me there's a chance," Meadows whispered softly, urgently. "Just a chance!"
"Jack ... " Monroe said, on a note of wistful regret, and answered all Meadows' questions in that one word.
Meadows leaned back in his chair, pink-faced, grinning, unable to take his eyes off the flushed face of Andrew Monroe.
"You think we could start at the beginning again, Andrew?"
Monroe's rueful expression spoke volumes. "Right at the beginning?"
The fair-haired man grinned and held out his right hand as though introducing himself to a stranger.
"I'm Jack Meadows," he said, cheerfully. "How do you do?"
"Seems to be going well, doesn't it?" Ackland looked tired, most of the colour stolen from her face by a bright yellow sweater which was a wonderfully cheerful colour but made her look much older than she was.
Cryer pushed a dry Martini in front of her. He followed her glance to the table where the two senior officers were sitting.
"What's the betting they leave together?" Ackland asked, mischievously.
He shook his head. "No way. In fact, if they don't it's a good sign."
"You'd like them to get together for real, wouldn't you?"
"What, and have them tearing the station apart every time they had a domestic tiff?" He grimaced, then creased his face into an apologetic smile. "Okay, maybe I would."
"Aaaaaahhhh," she teased. "You're just a big softie, Bob. You really care about them; I know that. You know what occurred to me just now? That there were three Sun Hill officers at the Cornwallis Hotel the other night - only one of them stayed in the closet."
Cryer almost choked on his drink. "God, June, don't broadcast that kind of thing! Some people might believe you!"
"Do you honestly think after this anyone's going to care what kind of reputation you've got - or me, or Jim Carver, or anybody else? Wasn't that what it was all about?"
"What what was all about?" Carver leaned over, slightly the worse for wear, Tosh Lines supporting him by the elbow. They both looked rather out of it, but Lines was obviously more compos mentis than his younger colleague. "Taking my name in vain, June?"
"Some other time, Jim," the woman said, dismissing his enquiry as though completely indifferent to it. "I'll explain it all one of these days. For now, just take it from me you owe those two a drink."
"Which two? Meadows and Monroe? What the hell for?"
"It's thanks to them you've still got a job, mate," Cryer said, mildly. "Take our word for it; you owe them."
"It's a wind-up," Carver said. "It's got to be a wind-up."
"Put your hand in your pocket, Jimbo, and pay up like a man," Lines put in, cheerfully. "There are wheels within wheels. Right, June?"
"Something like that, Tosh."
Carver looked around at the three friendly but suddenly serious faces, and knew that they meant business.
"Okay, I give in. I'm buying them drinks, but I don't know what for. What are they on?"
"Pints," Lines said. "Come on, I'll help you fight your way through to the bar. Promised Mike I'd keep an eye on you."
"Bloody Dashwood," Carver muttered, turning away. "Never could leave well alone. Alright, Tosh, I'm here, okay?"
Cryer was taking a long draught from his pint. He swallowed, returned the glass to the table, and glanced across at Ackland.
"That's it, then," he said. "Finished."
She quirked an eyebrow in the direction of Meadows and Monroe, lodged in their corner and talking quietly about some subject of mutual interest. "Oh yeah?"
Cryer held up both hands in a gesture of surrender. "Okay," he laughed, letting her optimism affect him. "Maybe it isn't. Maybe it's not quite the end. Not yet, anyway."
"Not for them it isn't. I'll bet you, Bob."
The sergeant shook his head, smiling back at her. "No takers, June," he said with a shrug.
* * *
I have an idea this story is cursed. Not only was it the subject of a threat from someone with the same name as one of the minor characters who obviously had nothing better to do that Google herself - I rather hope she spent a lot of money consulting a lawyer and being told that she didn't have a case, the silly tart - but it is also the only one of mine, so far as I know, to have been plagiarised. Rather improbably it was turned into a 'Starsky and Hutch' story and posted on an archive under the title 'In Through The Out Door' by someone using the name 'Debs'. I have saved a copy of it in that form and I am sorely tempted to make it available at some stage, just for a laugh. After all, with the thing having first appeared in print back in 1995 there can be no possible doubt who owns the copyright!
* * *
Click here for the sequel: DARK BLUE REFLECTIONS by Tarlan