OAK AND MISTLETOE

 

The knife bit deeper into Lewis's flesh; the man who held it was frantic, deranged with fear, shuddering with terror where his body pressed into Lewis's back and shoulders. Even so, Lewis reckoned he had got the best of the bargain; Morse, on the far side of the soundproof glass that formed the partition between the two office cubicles, looked half-destroyed with frustration and grief, his square hands spread eloquently on the glass while the secretary fumblingly dialled the emergency services.

The wire around his wrists had cut down almost to the bone. Lewis's fingers were cold and his legs were shaking; he didn't know how he was managing to stand upright, except that the man Mills was holding him firmly and Mills was braced against a filing cabinet. Mills' bladder had released. The smell of urine and blood filled the airless little room; Lewis's own blood, soaking his shirt, tie and jacket from the three or four preliminary cuts on his neck. Mills had no idea what he was doing. He could sever the jugular vein, carotid artery, windpipe, facial nerves, anything at all - the knife gashes were totally random, as they had been on the poor little body of his first victim. A burly Detective Sergeant was a very different proposition from four-year-old Vanessa, even though he'd been ambushed and had his wrists tied just as she had done; Lewis was not disposed to beg for his life, nor to do what Vanessa had done before she died. Lewis, too, had Morse waiting for him on the far side of the glass.

Morse was mouthing something, a character in a silent movie speaking to him across the years. They both knew that the classical tactic in this situation was to keep the attacker calm and wait for backup, but there were elements at work here the tacticians could never have foreseen.

Morse's cobalt eyes never left his face. They filled the silence, distracted him from the pain and blood, drew a fine gold thread of almost telepathic communication between them. Lewis answered Morse's anguish with his own certainty, a confidence in the older man's ability to salvage the situation.

The knife slipped sideways suddenly, slithering in blood; Morse's face convulsed with empathic agony, and then the daylight shattered and hung suspended in a burning red haze. Lewis didn't understand where the pain had come from. He hadn't felt Mills move, but there was a raw horror of hurt in his neck and a violent crashing sound so loud he wondered whether a train had been derailed. There was blood on the floor, too, among the broken glass; blood down where Mills lay with his mouth open; blood fountaining from an open place in Mills's throat. Lewis didn't know why he was on the floor, or why Mills was; he hadn't been there when it happened. Then some measure of sanity returned; Morse was there, and Lewis tried to stand up, straighten his jacket and present his report, but his legs were water and he had no voice - and anyway Morse was not interested in his report. Morse ... or someone who looked and sounded very much like him ... was holding him as if he meant it and muttering deep reassurances.

"Lewis, I'm here. It's all right, I've got you. You're safe." The litany went on. "You're safe. I'm here. I'm here."

Lewis crumpled against the rough tweed jacket, feeling he should apologise for staining it but too tired even to try. Was it going to be all right, then? The buzzing in his head was growing louder; it had started as a bumble-bee and become in turn an alarm clock, a pneumatic drill, a jumbo jet. Through it he heard Morse's quiet voice insisting; "Don't be bloody ridiculous. I'm a Detective Chief Inspector, he's my Sergeant, and I'm going with him."

A coldness touched Lewis, pulled him away from Morse, ignored his plea to be left alone.

Morse said, far above him; "He's got a wife." The tone of the words spoke volumes to Lewis. Then the ambulance doors slammed and he heard the engine start ... and woke the following day in the Radcliffe Infirmary.

 

"How's Lewis?" Superintendent Strange asked, late the following morning.

"Fine, as far as I know." Morse was at his least communicative, slumped in the chair in front of Strange's desk, his red-rimmed eyes unfocused, his chin bearing a raw shaving-cut which was an odd counterpart to Lewis's wound. He looked like a man with a great deal on his mind. "I phoned the hospital half an hour ago," he volunteered, dully.

Strange fixed him with eyes that were birds-egg blue and innocent. "You know, Morse," he said, conversationally, "sometimes I feel as if I ought to use a Ouija board to make contact with you. 'Knock once for yes, twice for no', that sort of thing."

The attempted frivolity was lost on Morse. He merely stared at his superior as though the other man were speaking a foreign language.

"You had something on your mind, sir?" he prompted, sourly.

It was going to be that sort of day, was it? Strange tugged two stapled sheets of paper from a file folder.

"Shirley Tappin's statement," he said, formally. It was obvious Morse had no idea who Shirley Tappin was, or why she should be making a statement. "Barry Mills's secretary at Chlorokleen," he supplied, and saw Morse's expression clear fractionally. "You haven't read it?"

"I'm waiting for the film," Morse told him.

Strange was a patient man, but Morse had the capacity to try him to his limits. "Less of the repartee, Morse; I could do with a bit of co-operation from you. I want this business cleared up as quickly as possible. Now, the statement ... "

"Yes, sir?" Morse shifted in his seat and made a half-hearted attempt to look interested. It failed miserably.

"I just thought you ought to know - it's a bit on the graphic side. She was very upset; I think she was fond of Mills, in a funny sort of way. As far as you're aware, did Lewis know Mills had a knife before he went in?"

Morse's mouth had set into a grim, pale line. "Yes."

"And you let him?"

"I couldn't have stopped him."

"You could have waited, Morse. You could both have waited."

"Perhaps you ought to be telling Lewis that, sir," he said, with careful but dangerous politeness. "Mills was looking for a hostage - any hostage, it didn't matter who. Lewis got there first, that's all. If he'd picked on one of the typists ... "

Strange was nodding. "Yes, I know. It's a point that seems to have escaped her notice in the confusion. Now, you stayed in her office and observed the situation through the glass partition?"

"I kept my eye on Lewis and called for backup," Morse confirmed. "As long as he wasn't in immediate danger, I didn't need to act."

"Fair enough. And then, as I understand it, Mills slashed Lewis's throat - and you grabbed the nearest moveable object, which happened to be a typewriter, chucked it through the glass and followed it."

"Yes."

"By which time Mills had cut his own carotid artery?"

"Yes."

"And you made no attempt to save Mills's life?"

Morse stared at him as though he had taken leave of his senses. "No, I didn't. Mills wanted to die, Lewis didn't. And anyway, we knew by then that Mills had murdered Vanessa."

Strange swallowed back a bitter taste in his mouth. "An eye for an eye, Morse? Not as long as you're working for me."

Nevertheless, the point was well-made. Strange had seen the pathetic little bundle in the black rubbish sack recovered from the water tank at the Claverham Hotel and had been involved in the investigation that followed; he had heard Morse's impassioned speech on the subject after he'd read the details of the postmortem.

Poor kid. Poor little kid. She should have been at home making daisy chains or playing with dolls - she's no bigger than a doll herself, Lewis - but instead ... Instead, she dies - in a freezing attic, with her mouth full of semen.

Only Mills could have put the body into the tank; the firm's job sheets showed that only he and his apprentice had had access to the site at the relevant time, and the apprentice was alibied by nearly two hundred people who had been watching him play football the afternoon Vanessa disappeared.

It was going to be one of those cases nobody could ever quite manage to forget, no matter how much they wanted to - even before Lewis had strolled casually into Mills's office, knowing that somebody was going to get hurt and deciding it had better be him.

"Forensic confirmed his blood type matches the acid phosphatase residue found in the kid's mouth and throat," Morse went on relentlessly.

"Yes, I was informed. You didn't have a lot to go on when you went to his office yesterday morning, though, did you?"

"We knew he had a history of mental instability. His ex-wife has still got the scars."

Strange's jaw dropped. "You and Lewis both knew you were dealing with an armed psychopath who had already killed once?"

"Yes."

"And you let him - you, Morse - let him go in there?"

Morse made no answer.

Strange eased his massive bulk out of the chair and turned to the window, fidgeting with the Venetian blind. "I called at your house yesterday evening," he said, his tone uncritical. "I got no reply at the front door, so I came round and looked in through your living-room window. How much had you had to drink before you passed out on the sofa?"

Morse shrugged, not rejecting the implication. "Most of the bottle," he said. "I was off-duty."

"I know, I know. Even so ... " Reaching some kind of decision, he turned back. "Morse, we've known each other for a number of years and I flatter myself we're on reasonably good terms."

Cold blue eyes focussed wearily on him. "Yes, sir?"

"There's really no excuse for talking to a man of your age like a Dutch uncle, but in this case I feel it's justified. I don't have to tell you how much I've valued your ... discretion ... over the years. You've kept your nose clean, never got involved with anyone local - as far as I know, you've never laid so much as a finger on a junior officer. It hasn't gone unnoticed, Morse."

"Sir ... " There was a warning note in Morse's voice that Strange chose to ignore.

"No, Morse, this time I'm afraid I must insist. Your private life - gay, straight, whatever you want it to be - is your own concern, except where it has a bearing on your work. I'm not a fool, Morse; I know you, and I can read the signs. You've gone and fallen for young Lewis, haven't you?"

Morse's eyes were unreadable, cold as winter lakes. He had experienced in a mind-numbing frisson of shock a moment of clairvoyance, but even knowing what Strange was about to say had not given him the strength to prepare a defence.

"I'm sorry, Morse, I must have an answer. You know this is all entirely confidential - I like to think that you can trust me."

Morse turned away, and seemed to be studying a framed commendation on the far wall. This was probably not the best time for Strange to tell him that he had already started the paperwork to get a commendation for Lewis for this business; it wouldn't be his first, and it certainly wouldn't be his last.

"I don't know," was the chillingly simple reply.

Meaning, thought Strange, that you know as well as I do but you don't want to own up to it, you poor bastard.

"There's no future in it, Morse," he said, compassionately. "Lewis is a happily married man. If you want me to, I'll arrange to have him transferred."

Morse stood up, looking utterly drained. "No," he mumbled. "Not yet."

Strange, too, rose. "You'll get through it," he consoled. "Let me know if I can help. And lay off the booze, will you? We could have had this conversation yesterday evening if you hadn't been determined to drink yourself into a coma. Not that I blame you," he went on, with genuine sympathy evident in his voice. "It can't have been easy, given all the circumstances. Still, Lewis should be back at work in ten days or so, and hopefully things will get back to normal quickly. Just be careful, that's all; I don't want to lose either of you, but if I have to I will."

"Understood, sir." Morse had stuffed his hands into his pockets and raised his eyes to the ceiling like a schoolboy waiting outside the headmaster's study, desperately trying to be somewhere else.

"And we haven't had this conversation, but I don't expect you to forget what I've said," Strange added, opening the door and letting him out into the corridor with its smell of floor-polish and its echoing footsteps.

"I won't," Morse told him, escaping from Strange's orbit at last and plunging towards the bright square of light and the blossom-framed wholesomeness of a clean Oxford noon.

 

Lewis had been back on duty some four weeks, his scars faded to thin, pale lines on his throat, by the time Rupert Haslemere, the proprietor of Oxford's only gay bookshop, 'Toujours Gay', was found murdered, surrounded by a larger collection of erotic art than anyone present had ever seen under one roof. Standing in the wide, airy living-room above the shop with its prints, posters and framed photographs of young men in a variety of poses, Morse saw his Sergeant's gaze stray to an oil painting above the fireplace; a delicate treatment of a youth on the brink of arousal.

"Does it embarrass you, Lewis?" he asked, cynically.

"No, sir, I don't think so. It reminds me of something, though."

"Michelangelo's 'Dying Slave', I think you'll find - it's a recurring theme in gay art."

"Oh, aye, the statue. I remember now."

Morse lifted an eyebrow and half-turned; Lewis's profile was against the light, intent and calm. Morse had studied his face in detail before, but never quite so openly.

"You never cease to amaze me, Lewis," he commented, calmly. "There's nothing at all here that worries you in the slightest, is there?"

"No, sir. I don't think gay men are any different from anybody else - they're just the same as you and me, aren't they? We all deserve the same kind of justice."

"I'll try to keep it in mind, Lewis." Strolling to the window, Morse lifted the fine muslin drape and looked out onto the street below. "'He sipped at a weak hock-and-seltzer as he gazed at the London skies through the Nottingham lace of the curtains - or was it his bees-winged eyes?'"

Lewis was beside him, looking down at him with sensitive curiosity. "What was that, sir?"

"'The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel'," supplied Morse, letting the curtain fall back into place. "Oscar would have approved of our Mr Haslemere; a bookseller, no secrets, well and truly out of the closet."

He turned his head and stared up directly into Lewis's eyes. Lewis felt a sudden tightening in his chest, though whether of fear or excitement he could not have said. For a moment Morse seemed to be communicating something he could almost understand, something that made him feel alive and alert and aware of Morse with every part of his body; something was happening, and it was important, but he could not name it.

A sharp rap at the door broke the spell. Before Lewis could catch his breath, D.C. Dearden had entered the room and was engaged in a murmured conversation with Morse.

"Lewis?"

Dearden had gone. Lewis cleared his throat and turned round. "Yes, sir?" he said, aware that his face had lost all its colour and that his limbs were trembling convulsively.

"Er ... a neighbour says she often saw a man here with Mr Haslemere; he used to stop the night sometimes. We've got a description. Could you ... could you make a start on it, please?"

"Yes, sir." Lewis took the paper Morse handed him, and reached for the door handle.

"And find out if there's a next-of-kin," Morse added, dismissively. "I want to know if there's anything missing."

 

After Lewis had gone, Morse stared around him blankly for some time. It was all very well going through the motions, starting out as if it was a full-scale murder investigation, but something deep within himself told him that it wasn't a very complicated case and that they would have the murderer in custody by tea-time.

Lover's tiff, he thought, conscious of the bitter irony. There were enough precedents. The stresses and strains on a long-term homosexual relationship were much the same as those which obtained in a conventional marriage, only magnified by the pressures of an unforgiving world and in many cases the necessity for secrecy. That some such relationships erupted into violence was not really surprising; what amazed him was that it didn't happen more often.

Not that he had ever experienced a long-term relationship of either sort, he thought, ruefully, and at fifty-five his chances must be decreasing. After all, Lewis was hardly likely to want him; a contented family man with the regulation wife and two lovely kiddies could have no possible reason for wanting to kick over the traces and become involved in an affair with a man nearly twenty years his senior. Lewis had his life mapped out nicely; steady promotions, a series of good cases - up the ladders, steer clear of the snakes. Morse envied him the uncomplicated progress that lay ahead. No, even if Lewis had ever shown an interest - and he had not - it would scarcely be the act of a friend to allow him to waste himself on someone whose effect on his life could only be that of mistletoe on an oak tree.

He liked the analogy.

I'll cling to you, he thought, ruefully, but in the end I'll choke you. I'm a parasite, Lewis. Keep moving; don't let me land.

 

Morse's unspoken prediction about the murder of Rupert Haslemere was borne out with sickening accuracy. By mid-afternoon a man by the name of Clarkson had been detained for the crime, and well before tea-time he was sitting in the interview room at Kidlington weeping and smoking copiously while he related the painful details of his own life and the argument that had led him to kill his lover. He had given himself up, and seemed to regard his inevitable trial and sentence with equanimity; he was, as he admitted, his own worst enemy.

 

Lewis made it home in time for tea that evening, a rare occurrence now that he was working with Morse. The children were installed in front of the TV set and Val was in the kitchen when he arrived, but it was only after tea had been eaten and the kids sent to bed that he broached the subject that was on his mind.

"Do we know any gay people?" he asked, almost casually.

She didn't ask why he wanted to know.

"Catherine and Heather," she offered, cautiously, as if searching her memory for more.

"Catherine and Heather who?"

"Catherine Shergold and Heather Pearson. You remember?"

He looked at her blankly. "No."

"Catherine is Louise's maths teacher; Heather teaches games at Redwood. They've been together about four years."

"How do you know that?"

His wife smiled. "Catherine told me. You remember, we were on the fête committee together last year?"

"Oh aye." He digested the remark, his innocent mind boggling quietly at the concept of a school fête committee's meetings degenerating into a discussion of the lesbian habits of one of its members. Of course it hadn't been like that; Catherine and Val had become good friends, and Val had visited the all-female ménage in Headington where the two lived. Lewis had known Catherine lived with another female teacher, but he hadn't been aware on what terms. "What about men?"

"You mean, gay men?"

"Yes."

"Only your friend Morse," she said sweetly.

He stared at her across the kitchen table, his hands suddenly numb on the coffee-mug he held.

"What did you say?"

"Morse. Chief Inspector Morse." For several moments her amazement was fully the equal of his own, and then she sat down facing him and read without difficulty the legend in his troubled eyes. "You really didn't know?" she asked, finding it almost impossible to believe.

"Morse is gay? Are you sure?" No, there was no point in asking. There had been that look on Morse's face when they stood together in the bay window of Haslemere's flat which had conveyed something deep and bewildering, something meant for him alone.

Very, very slowly she nodded. "I thought you knew," she said. "I thought you realised."

He was looking down at his own hands as though wondering who could have left them there; he scarcely seemed to recognise them.

"I knew he'd never been married - that he didn't have a lot of luck with women, like. It never occurred to me ... Fine bloody detective I am," he ended up, savagely, pushing the mug from him.

"Robbie, you've seen only what he wanted you to see. He didn't want you to know."

He stood up, turned, and paused for a moment with his hands over his face. "Then how do you know?" he asked her, his voice sunken almost to a whisper.

She returned honesty for honesty. "I can't tell you, love. Intuition? Guesswork?" She saw his glance stray to the kitchen window; his car was parked in the drive, and the same intuition translated the look and the intention without flaw. "Go on," she said.

"What?"

"I can read you like a book, Robert Lewis. Off you go - I'll see you later."

He snatched up his keys and was gone before she had a chance to change her mind.

 

Transparent as a glass of water, he thought, easing the car onto the forecourt of a riverside pub half an hour later.

He wasn't quite as innocent at Val might like to believe, though; a childhood on the wrong side of the tracks in Newcastle had left him with very few illusions. Shy and sensitive as a boy, he'd found out early on what sort of reputation attached itself to any lad whose life did not revolve around beer, birds, betting and football; he'd been beaten up for being 'different', beaten up and called 'queer'. Lewis, the wide-eyed innocent, was everybody's punching-bag until he left school and joined the Force; 'Cry-baby' Lewis, who'd spent his formative years labouring under the epithets of 'jessie' and 'nancy', and who'd been beaten half to a pulp by a crowd of drunken soccer fans who decided without sufficient cause that he was a 'faggot'. It had made him at least sympathetic - at most, open to an opportunity to learn. Until now, however, no-one had come into his life who had what it took to divert him from the safe, easy path of what most people would consider 'normality'.

Now, though, there was Morse. Morse had been there for a long time on the edges of his consciousness, gradually demanding larger and larger slices of his life, his soul. Morse and he had been there for one another time and again, becoming in the process linked quite inextricably. That Morse might be gay had never entered his calculations. When it did, he was unprepared for the power of the response it provoked in him.

He'd wondered - of course he had. He didn't know many men who hadn't wondered, whether they admitted it or not, just what it would be like …

Morse's Jaguar was parked under a tree. On an evening like this, there was only one place the older man was likely to be.

 

Morse was at a table close by the water's edge, watching as the sky turned a slow indigo and tiny bats hardly larger than bumble-bees emerged from a hole in the pub's pantiled roof and circled in search of late-flying insects. Water-boatmen danced on the surface of the river, midges by the cloud hung above the elderflowers. The windows of the pub were alight with the low gold of the vanished sun and a motley collection of bespectacled morris men, resting from their labours, occupied the long wooden benches set closest to the building's wall. Glancing up at them, half-curious about grown men who could dress up in such extraordinary costumes and then allow themselves to be seen in public, he was astonished to see Lewis, in jeans and a blue striped tee-shirt, bearing down on him carrying a pint in each hand. He was smiling his somewhat vacant-looking shy smile.

"Lewis?" The slightly slurred, befuddled diction confirmed the obvious - that Morse had been here for some time.

"Evening, sir. Thought I'd find you here." Without waiting for an invitation Lewis sat himself down and placed a pint in front of Morse.

"What's this?" Morse eyed the beer suspiciously, sniffing it before he took a cautious sip. It was a murky brown colour and had a pungent odour.

"Throstle's Old Backstabber, or some such. It's Real Ale, like; a dead rat in every barrel."

A swallow swooped low over the water, hoovering up insects. Lewis's eyes followed it.

"Not bad, Lewis." The older man delivered his verdict on the beer. "We'll make a connoisseur out of you yet."

"Don't hold your breath waiting," was the wry response. Lewis turned slightly, deliberately shattering the barrier of normality they'd built between themselves since the incident at 'Toujours Gay'. "You knew all along it was Haslemere's lover who killed him, didn't you?"

The bluntness of the question startled an answer from Morse.

"Yes."

"How did you know?" Enquiry elongated the Geordie vowel sound so that the word became almost disyllabic.

Morse glanced at him sideways and took a long draught from the pint. "'Each man kills the thing he loves, By each let this be heard, Some do it with a bitter look, Some with a flattering word. The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword!'" he recited, wearily. "In this case, Lewis, cherchez l'homme."

"That was Oscar Wilde, wasn't it?" Lewis asked him calmly. "From the 'Ballad of Reading Gaol'."

"A brave, bitter man who was the architect of his own downfall," Morse said, vaguely. "Find a gay man murdered, and ask yourself who loved him. Nine times out of ten you don't need to look any further."

"That's a nasty, cynical observation, sir," was the quiet criticism.

"I'm a nasty, cynical man, Lewis. Life does that to one."

"Clarkson was afraid of exposure," Lewis told him. "He killed Haslemere because..."

"Because he couldn't live with him and he couldn't live without him," Morse put in, unexpectedly. "It's never as simple as the handbooks would have you believe. Clarkson has the satisfaction of knowing Haslemere can never leave him for anyone else."

Lewis looked up into the sky. The morris-men's accordion-player was tuning up, and there were ominous clatterings of sticks and cleated shoes, threatening tinklings of tiny bells.

Morse looked over at him, studying him acutely; he liked the straight, clear line of Lewis's throat tautened against the mossy backdrop of the trees, but he liked even better the brilliant blue of the eyes that smiled on him when the head was lowered.

"Wonderful evening, isn't it?" Lewis asked, grinning.

"Yes, it is." Morse finished his pint with appreciation, then appeared to reach some kind of decision. "Go home, Lewis," he said softly.

"What?"

"Home. Go on."

"But - why?"

"I know why you're here. Don't think I don't appreciate it. I like your company, Lewis, and I'm happy to have your friendship, but - well, we're not all as lucky as Mr Haslemere."

"Lucky?" Uncomprehendingly Lewis repeated the word. He had drained the last of his beer, and now set the glass down and regarded Morse with eyes darkened with concern. "But he was murdered."

"By someone who loved him," was the bleak reminder, "but at least he didn't have to hide what he was. Some of us, Lewis, will never make it out of the closet."

"Then you are gay," Lewis breathed, awed by the scale of the grief Morse's words revealed. "If that's the right word. It doesn't seem to have made you very happy."

"No. And you are now one of the privileged few who know; I'm relying on you to keep it to yourself."

"Aye, you know I will. You didn't really have to ask, did you? Want another drink?"

Morse shook his head.

"What, then?"

The older man sighed; the departing sun had left a chill in the air which not even Lewis's half comforting, half disturbing presence could dispel.

"I want you to get in your car and drive home to your wife and family, Lewis," he said with a shudder.

"Why?"

Morse's gaze turned to stone; cold, blue, adamantine. "Go home," he said, with the last remnants of his willpower, "there's a good boy."

Lewis searched his face for what seemed a millennium, then got to his feet in obedience.

"I'm not a boy, sir," he said. "I'm a man."

Morse turned his back, so that he did not have to watch the younger man's departure. "I know that, Lewis," he said, through an unyielding barrier of pain. "My God, I know that."

 

The summer rolled on unrelentingly, a parade of the sights, sounds and smells only the warmer weather could inspire. A plague of ladybirds stripped the aphids from the rosebushes; rowing youths in shorts, trainers and scorched skin crowded the pavement outside Blackwells; parties of misty-eyed ladies demanded to be shown the place where Lord Peter Wimsey proposed to Harriet Vane. Days were conducted to the mellow underscoring of the cricket commentator's voice chronicling yet another massacre of the England bowling; evenings carried the reassurance of suburban lawn-mowing and the brittle laughter of children with garden-hoses.

In early July, on an evening exactly like every other that week, Lewis moved his belongings into the microscopic third bedroom of his semi-detached house. He scarcely understood the reason himself, but he knew it had a lot to do with the evening he'd gone chasing off to the riverside pub to find Morse. He hadn't even questioned what he was doing then, and why, but over the weeks it had gradually come to him that he had intended to offer himself to Morse as a lover; that the knowledge that Morse was gay had stirred in him something he would have preferred not to acknowledge.

The memory of how much he had wanted Morse then, how close he'd come to asking for what he wanted, brought a blush to Lewis's cheek. Just thinking about it made him realise how the intimacy between them had built up gradually over their partnership.

At first Morse had resented him slightly, he felt; passed over for a Superintendent's post, Morse had inherited Lewis from the successful candidate. He hadn't worked with a partner since Desmond MacNutt retired, and most people found him difficult to get along with. Lewis had succeeded by being what Morse wanted him to be; a combination of assistant, stooge, manservant, pupil and wife. He'd started by submerging his own personality in the job, waiting for Morse to take the lead and show him how he wanted their working relationship to develop. It wasn't until Superintendent Strange congratulated him on surviving a year as Morse's partner that Lewis realised there was anything unusual about their teaming. Now, he knew, they were almost legendary - a pair of mavericks who got results, who took extraordinary shortcuts and not inconsiderable risks; Morse the enigma, Lewis the ordinary copper who had adapted, learned, become the perfect and indispensable right-hand-man.

Not without cost, though. Val had seen it even before he had. Being so closely involved with a man like Morse had its price-tag. It was already the deepest and most intimate relationship Lewis had known in his life; then the Haslemere case had come along, and with it those reluctant confidences in the twilight beer garden, and from that moment on Lewis knew, knew for certain, that Morse loved him and wanted him. All the half-formed dreams and wishes coalesced into a desire for Morse so powerful it robbed him of sleep; a need that became a rodent gnawing at his sanity. He was permanently alert for a touch, a look, a word; some signal that Morse might want to take it further: aware, too, that Morse was fighting it out within himself, trying not to need him, trying not to want to touch him.

 

"Do you want me to apply for a transfer?" he asked Morse, out of the blue one afternoon when they were finishing up the paperwork on the Haslemere case.

"You don't want a transfer, do you?"

"Not really."

"Then perhaps I should go. Take early retirement. Live in Tuscany, write my memoirs."

"Leave Oxford? Are you mad, sir?"

"You know, Lewis, I'm not at all sure I'm not. I do know, though, that I've never had the destruction of anyone else's career on my conscience."

"You let me worry about my career," Lewis told him, aggressively.

"Oh, for God's sake, Lewis ... "

"My name's Robert Paul," Lewis told him suddenly, sharply. "I don't care which."

Those world-weary blue eyes stared sadly across the room at him from beneath shaggy white eyebrows. In the silence Lewis held the gaze confidently, chin lifted, returning with interest the concern in Morse's expression. Whatever it had been before - desire, curiosity, friendship grown beyond all normal bounds - now, at last, it was love.

"Oh, Lewis," Morse said, almost inaudibly and with a despairing shake of the head. "Oh, Lewis."

The following morning Lewis found an envelope in his in-tray. His name, in Morse's handwriting, was on the outside; inside, nothing but a single freshly-cut Yale key.

 

It was more than a week before Lewis summoned up the courage to make use of the key. He chose an evening when Val had gone to dinner at Catherine and Heather's and the children were with Val's parents, and he left it so late he almost didn't set off at all. He sat through a mindless TV drama about a financier with an unfaithful wife, and when the news came on at 10 o'clock he got to his feet with no very clear idea what he intended.

He'd driven from his house to Morse's so many times he felt he could have done it blindfold; every gear-change, every traffic-light was ingrained into his memory. He made the moves automatically, only pausing to think when Morse's gravel drive crunched under his wheels. It was a colder evening than for many weeks; spots of rain touched him as he locked the car, and before he had reached the porch his hair was damp and his skin chilled.

He hadn't brought a jacket; he shivered a moment on the top step, although whether from cold or anticipation he didn't know. Then, with barely a thought for what he was doing, he let himself into Morse's house.

The building was dark and silent; nothing stirred. Lewis didn't switch on the light but stood inside the front door, trembling.

"Sir?" he called out, unaware of the incongruity of the word. "Sir, are you here?"

A small choking sound reached him from the living-room. He stepped across to the door and threw it open. In the darkness he could just about make out the slumped form on the sofa. His hand went automatically to the switch.

"Oh, no."

Morse lay on the couch, eyes barely open. An empty whisky-bottle on the floor testified to his occupation for the evening; a rather bedraggled newspaper, folded in four, was clutched in his hand.

"Jus' doin' the croshword, Lewis," Morse vouchsafed, unsteadily.

"Oh, yeah," was the sarcastic response. "In the dark, without a pen. Come off it, sir - not even you are that clever."

Morse made some attempt to sit up. "Ushed your key?" he asked. "Never gave anyone a key before, Lewis. You must be a bit speshial. Are you speshial, Lewis?"

Lewis crossed the floor and crouched down in front of him. "Well, you seem to think so, anyway. I reckon it's about time you were in bed."

The Chief Inspector shrugged. "Can't," he said. "'I may vomit'," he added, grandly. "That's a line from a film, Lewis."

"I know, sir. It's 'The Man Who Came To Dinner'." Carefully he threaded an arm around Morse's waist. "Come on, now, I'll help you."

Befuddled, Morse allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. "What are you doing watching old Monty Woolley films?" he demanded, obscurely.

"It was on when I had the 'flu," was the dismissive reply. The arm that was around Morse's waist tightened as he took the older man's weight; Morse flopped against him like a rag doll - there was nothing in any way attractive or desirable about him in his present state, and yet Lewis held him carefully and with something very much like pride. "I've got you," he murmured, unconsciously echoing Morse's own words of some weeks earlier. "You're safe now, I'm here."

"Are you shtaying?" It was the plaintive question of a child who expects to be denied; who seeks out the hurt in order to face it on his own terms.

"If you want me to, like."

Morse swayed dangerously. He seemed about to say something, but his face drained of colour suddenly and he clamped a hand over his mouth. Somehow Lewis succeeding in half-dragging, half-carrying him up the stairs and propping him against the lavatory pan before he vomited. While Morse hung there, eyes closed, guts heaving, Lewis picked up a small hand-towel and thrust it under a running cold tap, returning to crouch beside the lavatory and wipe Morse's face with the cold, wet cloth.

"Don't," Morse told him, raggedly; his skin was the colour of clay and a sheen of cold sweat stood out on his brow. "It's degrading."

"Not to me," was the firm reply. "I like taking care of you."

"Are you ... " Morse broke off, retching emptily. Lewis wiped his face again, this time lingering over the task. "Are you in love with me, Lewis?"

The younger man smiled shyly at him, conveying a warmth that was simultaneously knowing and naïve, depraved and innocent. "I think I must be."

"Oh, God." A further convulsion distorted Morse's face and body. Lewis held him lightly, cool fingers brushing back the silver strands of hair plastered to his throbbing forehead. When it was over Morse fell back, drained, his colour healthier. Lewis flushed the lavatory, then helped him to his feet.

"Bed," he said, wiping the saliva from around Morse's lips. "I'll stay with you, don't worry."

Morse surrendered himself to the younger man's care, allowed Lewis to lead him to the bedroom and sit him down on the bed.

"Where does your wife think you are tonight?" he asked, swallowing the bile that rose in his throat.

Lewis paused in the act of removing his senior officer's shoes, and looked up. "She knows where I am," he said, softly. "She knows about you, too. Do you know a woman called Catherine Shergold?"

Morse sought his memory. "Teacher? Hillbrow Middle School?"

"Gay teacher," Lewis amended, setting aside the shoes and reaching up to unfasten Morse's shirt. "Seems she knows all about you, sir."

"Catherine ... We told each other our life stories, about nine years ago. Her lover of the time had just walked out on her and stolen her car." Absent-mindedly he lifted one arm and Lewis, as competently and unobtrusively as any male nurse, helped him out of the sweaty, stained shirt.

Morse's chest was broad and muscular, well-covered in springy grey hair, but pale-skinned and distorted as he sat, round-shouldered with misery, scarcely looking up at his companion.

"Trousers," Lewis said. "Or d'you want me to do them?"

"No." It was a faraway sound, a haunted syllable of despair. Fumblingly Morse unfastened his belt and fly, then allowed Lewis to help him to his feet. Somehow he managed to wriggle out of the dark trousers and black socks, and as Lewis pulled back the bedcovers for him he slumped down dizzily onto the mattress wearing only a pair of off-white Y-fronts. Lewis draped the sheet and blanket over him, then turned away. "Where are you going?"

"To get you a glass of water. I'll be back in a minute."

Morse suspected a polite rejection, a face-saving lie. He closed his eyes, waiting to hear the front door open and re-close and Lewis's car start up - but the footsteps never went near the stairs. There was the sound of running water in the bathroom, the lavatory flushed again, and then the bedroom door re-opened and Lewis set a glass of cold water on the bedside cabinet. He parted the curtains slightly, opened the upper light of the bedroom window, and admitted the comforting sound of the rain. Then he reached for the light-switch and allowed the merciful dark to flood the room.

"What are you doing?" Morse sounded to himself like a querulous, demanding child.

"Getting undressed." Lewis's tone was so normal he might have been answering some everyday question at work. The soft sounds of shoes being kicked off, a zip being unfastened, a shirt falling to the floor confirmed his words.

"I wish I could see you."

The bedcovers lifted. Lewis, wearing only his underpants, slipped into the unoccupied half of the bed.

"Why?" he asked, so close that Morse could feel the benison of his cool breath on eyelids that burned and ached.

"Because you're beautiful."

In the darkness Lewis's hand stretched out and wrapped itself around Morse's fingers. "And you're drunk," he chided softly.

They lay like that a long time, face to face, only their hands touching. Morse's breathing slowed, eased, became languorous and peaceful, ushered in the sleep he so desperately needed.

Lewis listened to the sounds of the darkness; cars in the rain-soaked street, the supernaturally loud dripping of raindrops onto the thirsty shrubbery, the unfamiliar creaking and groaning of the fabric of the house as it settled down for the night. After some minutes of this peaceful preoccupation, Morse's hand still caught warmly in his own, he stretched out across the gap between them and with eloquent simplicity kissed Morse's forehead.

"Sleep well, sir," he said, lovingly.

The only reply was a non-committal grunt. Lewis closed his eyes, let out a long, deep sigh, and allowed himself to fall towards sleep.

 

Morning crawled slowly through the gap between the curtains, dropping a pool of golden light at the foot of the bed well before 7a.m. Lewis lifted a heavy head, eyes barely open, managing only to understand that he was not at home and that he was alone. No Breakfast TV, no creaking of bunk-bed springs assaulted his ears, only the almost hysterical ticking of the bedside alarm clock. Focusing on it uncomprehendingly, he also saw the empty tumbler on the glass top of the Lloyd Loom cabinet. He had slept so heavily and so well that all awareness of where he was had gone from his mind, but that empty glass brought back the previous evening's events with bewildering clarity; this was Morse's bed, but Morse was not here.

The door opened slowly, quietly, and a shabby figure appeared in the opening. Morse had obviously washed and shaved, but his hair was a silvery tangle and he was dressed in a royal-blue bathrobe which looked like something the cat dragged in. His battered slippers were equally disreputable, fit only for the dustbin. He was carrying a cup and saucer.

"I wasn't sure if you'd be awake," he said without preamble. "I've brought you some tea. It's milk and no sugar, isn't it?"

Lewis sat up and reached for the cup, noticing how much difficulty Morse had in meeting his eyes. For himself, he was determined not to be embarrassed or ashamed, despite his own near-naked condition.

"Thanks," he said softly.

Morse chuckled briefly, a bitter sound, but he sat himself down on the bed and allowed his left hand to trace an abstract pattern on the thin blanket.

"It's like the old music-hall joke, Lewis," he said, his tone full of irony. "The newlyweds, on their honeymoon. They're determined to pretend they've been married a long time. Everything goes well until they're sitting at breakfast in the hotel. Then the husband spoils it all by saying 'Do you take sugar, darling?'"

Lewis swallowed a mouthful of tea and smiled across at him. "Well, you got it right," he informed the other man.

"Yes. I ... wanted to thank you for last night, Lewis. I don't know if you have any idea how much it meant to me. I appreciate everything you've done, everything you've tried to do. It couldn't have been easy; I know I'm a difficult man get along with. I think now you realise why."

His chin lifted defiantly, and Lewis took a moment to study Morse with an intensity he rarely permitted himself. White-haired, overweight and not precisely handsome, Morse had a curmudgeonly reputation as an embittered old bachelor who had missed out on the things in life which made other people happy. Lewis didn't see him like that, though. He saw an intelligent, sensitive man with a well-concealed vulnerability; a man who got hurt time and time again because it was the only way he could prove to himself that he was still alive, that he could still feel. He was a man with a long-unsatisfied hunger for love; not sex, not romance, accept no substitutes - it must, for Morse, be real and true and lasting.

And in that moment Lewis knew that it was.

He set the cup and saucer on the tiny remnant of space in front of the alarm clock, and seized the wandering hand. The movement made Morse turn and look at him with a kind of startled honesty.

"Are you," Lewis asked, with heartbreaking delicacy of tone, "in love with me, sir?"

The blue eyes watching him seemed to fill from some concealed reservoir of emotion. Slowly, shaking, Morse's right hand lifted and came to rest on top of Lewis's head. the older man ignored the question completely.

"Have you any idea how ... how wonderful you look with your hair all rumpled, Lewis?"

Lewis trapped the other hand too, holding it lightly but firmly. "I asked you a question," he prompted.

"I asked you one." Morse's voice had found a deeper register, one which threatened to turn his bones to water.

"I asked first."

"I'll answer if you will."

Laughing softly, amazed at his own courage, Lewis pulled the other man closer. "All right," he said. "No, I haven't."

Morse's mouth was drawing close to his, narrowing the gap between them, tilting upwards to him. "Yes," he responded. "I am."

Lewis released his hands, needing suddenly to wrap his arms around the man and hold him with all his strength. Somewhere in the confusion, in the reaching for one another, their mouths touched and held, joined them together, sealed them one to the other just for this moment. Morse was stronger than Lewis had realised; the arms that tightened on him could have broken his back. He gripped back powerfully, using strength that was normally cloaked by his mild nature, wanting to fold Morse into himself and keep him there forever where no further harm could touch him.

Slowly the panic died away; the need to consume one another in the first few seconds metamorphosed into the certainty of belonging, the comfort of truth.

Morse's lips, unbelievably soft, left kisses along the line of Lewis's jaw then lowered to the hollow of his throat and the sharp angle of his collarbone, returning to claim his mouth again not in passion but in contentment. Lewis's hands loosened the tie of the bathrobe and slid around Morse's bared body, tightening the man against him so that skin touched burning skin, smooth and rough together.

He had never known a sensation like it; arousal, certainly, but never this unconquerable hunger to encompass a lover and shield him from the world. Morse's deep voice, incomprehensible and close, might have been reciting poetry or reading him his rights for all he understood. Morse's hands stroking his shoulders and throat so possessively merely added to the ache in his groin and drove him further and deeper into the older man's arms.

Lewis found himself comforting Morse, holding him and stroking his hair, rocking and soothing.

"Hush," he heard himself say. "Hush, it's all right."

"Oh, Lewis, I've wanted you for so long ... and so much ... "

"I'm here." His words were firm and calm, and surprised him.

"You frightened me, love - you terrified me." Morse drew back, and his stubby fingers flew to the pale scar-lines on Lewis's neck; four parallel lines of healed tissue that only showed when the light was at a certain angle. "Never do that again."

Lewis laughed affectionately, kissing him on the cheek, the chin, the side of his neck. "Oh, that's nothing," he said, his tone full of promises that were yet to be made. "Nothing to the times you've frightened the shit out of me. When you went in alone with Hugo de Vries and I heard the gun go off, remember? When you told me you were going to arrest Patrick Dawson?"

"When you found MacNutt dead?" Morse came back, stroking his face consolingly. "You were frightened then, weren't you?"

"After that, it was personal," Lewis told him, resting his forehead against Morse's.

"This is personal."

"Oh, I know that, sir. I do know that."

Morse's mouth was only an inch or so from his. "Are you always going to call me 'sir'?" he asked. "Even when we make love?"

"I expect so, sir."

"Oh, Lewis ... "

Lewis gave him no opportunity to complete the sentence. Whatever Morse had been about to say was lost forever, borne away on a purifying tide, scoured from his memory by the waves of knowledge that washed over him; Lewis was his, and he Lewis's. It was the only thought his flagging brain could hold.

 

"Oh, God ... " Ghastly awareness seized Morse some minutes later as he lifted Lewis's left hand to his lips. The watch on the inner face of the younger man's wrist was a horrible reminder that the world was waiting for them.

"Twenty to eight?" Lewis groaned. "How the hell can it be twenty to eight? I won't have time to get home and get changed - we're supposed to see Strange at nine o'clock!"

"I know." The silver head turned, and Morse surveyed the crumpled clothes Lewis had taken off the night before; grey-blue cotton trousers and a red polo shirt with grey loafers. "I've got a trouser-press," he volunteered. "And I could lend you a plain white shirt."

"I've got a jacket and tie in my locker at the station," Lewis supplied gratefully. "I'll need a shower and shave, though."

"I'm afraid this establishment doesn't run to a shower." There was a rare gentleness in Morse's tone. "But there's time for a bath, and you can use my razor."

"I'll need to press me trousers." Agitation was bringing out the Geordie street-kid from under the civilised Oxford veneer.

"I'll do that," Morse told him, with huge tolerance, and received a dazzling smile for his efforts.

"People are going to notice," Lewis said, ruefully.

"They'll know you haven't been home," conceded his lover. "They won't know where you spent the night - or why. You can be a man of mystery, Lewis."

 

The bathroom was an echoing cavern, reminding Lewis of pictures he had seen of the bathrooms on the 'Titanic'. He shaved quickly, wondering why Morse had never seen fit to invest in a proper electric razor. The old-fashioned chromed-steel monstrosity of a safety razor was like something out of a museum, but it was Morse to the letter.

The bathwater was hot. He made short work of washing himself, then reached down Morse's 'Insignia' shampoo and lathered his hair enthusiastically. Eyes and ears full of water, he reached out for the towel, only to have it slip away from his grasp. He half-levered himself out of the water and felt around on the cold lino, swearing softly under his breath. Then his hand was gripped and turned over and the palm kissed, the towel placed in it and his fingers folded over the fabric. Wiping his eyes, he opened them onto Morse's level gaze. The older man, fully dressed and groomed for work, stood a few feet away looking down at him with an austere expression mid-way between criticism and tenderness; at first Lewis did not fully understand, and then he realised that he was looking at the everyday Morse, the exterior personality he presented to the world.

Lewis twisted a smile at him and stood up, towelling himself down.

"Thanks," he said.

"My pleasure. Your clothes are on the bed. I don't think we should arrive together, so I'll set off first. Do you think you could ... stay here tonight? Bring some clothes, leave them here."

"Yes," Lewis told him, gripping his arm in reassurance. His damp hand clung to the fine-woven fibres of Morse's jacket sleeve. "I finish at two today; I'll be seeing Valerie this afternoon."

Morse nodded. "At work ... " he said, tentatively.

"I won't crowd you," was the loving reply.

"Thank you, Sergeant."

"Any time, sir." Lewis kissed his cheek in passing, and hastened to the bedroom to dress. Morse watched the bathwater drain away, and then went out to start the Jag.

 

By the time his car turned into the drive of Morse's house that evening Lewis was a hundred years older. The day had been a long series of frustrations and awarenesses he could scarcely cope with; he had never thought of himself as a lover of men, and had had no time to adjust to his new personality. At first he felt sure people were looking at him, as if they could see through his clothing and inside his mind and knew without question how he felt about Morse, how his body had reacted to Morse's. There had been no time to make love, but they had both needed to - and they would, soon. Tonight.

The thought kept creeping back to him at moments when his attention wandered; queueing in the canteen for Morse's mid-morning coffee he had suddenly remembered the look on the older man's face as he handed him his tea that morning, and then knew the sudden and terrible conviction that he would give himself away somehow. Filling in routine forms in the office, he had glanced up and seen Morse's profile against the window and caught his breath with difficulty. Morse had turned and smiled at him, an unguarded moment broken by the merciful ringing of the telephone. The day had become a minefield of possible exposure, with every word guarded, every look and gesture considered two or three times in advance, the freedom of the morning seeming several lifetimes away.

At least Valerie hadn't been a problem. He had told her everything, without fear of hurting her. They had managed to return some honesty to their marriage in recent years, and since she was no longer sexually interested in him - had never really wanted him except as a respectable means of acquiring children - she had accepted almost with relief the information that he was now, as she put it, 'involved' with Morse. She had been expecting it, and had her terms worked out all ready for him; an amicable divorce, the house, ample maintenance, and uncontested custody of the children, in exchange for which she would blame the pressures of being a policeman's wife for the breakdown of the marriage.

Absent-mindedly he hooked his holdall out of the back seat. Just a few things, for emergencies; a cheap battery-operated razor, some shirts and underwear, a pair of shoes.

Morse came out of the kitchen as he let himself in. He had discarded his jacket and tie and unfastened the neck of his shirt and his hair was awry. Unlike Lewis he had put in a full day at the office and had not been home more than half an hour. Most of the worry-lines that had been present during the day had left his face, replaced by a mild good-humour which rarely found expression except when Lewis was present. It made him seem ten years younger.

"Had anything to eat?" he asked, solicitously.

"Not hungry," was Lewis's reply.

"What? Lewis, the man with the copper-bottomed stomach, isn't hungry? I think I'll write that in my diary, Lewis, so I don't forget you said it."

"Sarky," chided Lewis, dropping his holdall by the kitchen door.

Morse was smiling at him, a half-shy, half-devilish smile he found unreasonably seductive.

Lewis stuffed his hands into his pockets and flexed his neck muscles comfortably. He still wore Morse's shirt, open-necked and with the cuffs turned back just once in that insouciantly casual style that had been brought to perfection in Oxford; he also wore faded jeans and trainers without socks.

"Christ, you look about fifteen," Morse told him, unsteadily. "Am I going to get done for corrupting a minor?"

"I doubt it, Chief Inspector," Lewis told him, rocking on his heels in his best P.C. Plod manner.

Morse was watching him with undisguised adoration. "Hell of a day, eh?"

"It was an absolute bastard, if you really want to know, sir. Still, I got Val sorted out - no problems there."

One white eyebrow rose, as if Morse could not quite credit what he was hearing. Nevertheless he did not question it; Lewis's relationship with his wife was not something he felt an overpowering urge to interfere in.

"So ... " breathed Lewis, bringing the conversation onto a different level altogether, "what happens now, like?"

Morse shrugged. "You say you're not hungry?"

"No. Not at the moment."

"Well ... do you want a drink, or shall we go straight to bed?"

Lewis grinned at him happily. "Could we not take the bottle up with us?" he asked.

"Oh, I think we probably could, Lewis, don't you? Come on, we'll need some glasses. I don't know about you, but I'm not prepared to drink a decent wine straight from the neck of the bottle. There are some sacrifices I won't make, Lewis, even for you."

"Suits me fine, sir," was the genial reply as Lewis was handed the two wine-glasses.

 

The sun had moved around to the other side of the building, and the bedroom was cool, slightly airless, and dim. The bed had been made and the room tidied; Lewis's red polo shirt was now draped over the back of a chair.

"My housekeeper's been in," Morse supplied, following Lewis's gaze. "I'll have to get a shirt like that and let her see me wearing it. I hope it didn't have your name inside?"

"No."

"I've told her not to come in tomorrow. I may ask her to leave altogether."

"Why's that?" Lewis levered off his trainers and sat down on the bed, his left foot resting on his right knee, watching Morse.

"Dark hairs on the pillow," Morse mused, sitting down beside him. "And on the towel. And then, of course, there are the sheets ... She's sharper than any detective. Besides, she only lives down the road - she probably saw your car here. Are you scared, Lewis?"

The change in direction almost caught Lewis unawares. He had to make a monumental effort to catch up with Morse's train of thought.

"Uh-huh," he conceded. "Just as scared as you are."

Morse poured two glasses of the pale, greenish wine and carefully placed one in Lewis's hand. "'There are five reasons we should drink,'" he quoted. "'Good wine, a friend, or being dry - or lest we should be, by and by - or any other reason why.' This is Chablis. I hope it's cold enough for you - I only bought it on the way home and I had to chill it rather quickly under the tap. There are some grapes, if you change your mind about being hungry." There were indeed - freshly-washed and with drops of cold water still clinging to their skins - in a glass dish on top of the bedside cabinet. The alarm clock had been banished to the floor.

Experimentally Lewis sipped from the glass; the wine was cool without being icy, and its flavour was as delicate as its colour.

"This is great," he said, enthusiastically - then laughed at himself. "I'm supposed to say something about it having a pleasant bouquet and an invigorating after-taste, aren't I?"

Morse sighed, relaxing, smiling up at him with eyes that seemed bluer than they had ever been before. "As a matter of fact, Lewis, I think it's great too. It could have something to do with the fact that we're drinking it together."

"I can't believe you went to all this trouble," Lewis told him, seriously. "Chilling the wine, buying the grapes ... it's like real five-star treatment."

A distressed expression found its way across Morse's face. "Why not? Aren't you worth it? Or do you have some idea that when men love each other it has to be sordid and disgusting? We're not all like the pathetic queers who get arrested in public toilets, you know; some of us have a little class."

"Some of us," was the gentle reply, "have a lot of class."

"Thank you."

"No ... thank you."

"What for?"

Laughing softly, Lewis set his wineglass down. "Don't you mean 'for what', sir?" he asked, putting an arm around Morse's shoulders. Morse slumped closer, burying his face in Lewis's muscular neck.

"For what?"

"For caring about me. For ... wanting me."

"I'd be mad not to want you, Lewis - just as mad as you must be to want me."

"I probably caught it from you." He took Morse's wineglass from his hand, and waited until Morse's gaze lifted to meet his. Then, with every movement absolutely deliberate, Lewis took a sip of Chablis and set the glass down safely, placed his right hand on Morse's cheek and drew him into a kiss, transferring a trickle of warmed wine into the older man's mouth. He heard with delight the soft groan of pleasure that started deep within Morse's body and escaped him as they drew apart again.

"Lewis ... "

"Sir?" Even with his lips touching Morse's forehead it was not possible to call him anything else; the original meaning of the word had long been forgotten between them - it was Morse's name, and Lewis made it sound both intimate and affectionate.

"I ... I think it's time you gave me my shirt back." The words were accompanied by a series of tiny bites on the soft skin of Lewis's throat as Morse's fingers reached for the buttons. "You undressed me yesterday," Morse added, tenderly. "I wish I'd been in a condition to appreciate it."

Lewis didn't require further prompting. His hands went to the fastening of Morse's shirt and slowly opened it, alternating button for button with his lover, until he was able to ease the shirt off the older man's shoulders and drop it to the floor before allowing Morse to do the same for him.

Morse was looking at him hungrily, studying his bared chest and strong arms as though trying to memorise every square millimetre of skin, every pore, every hair.

"You're pale," he said. "You don't tan."

"I burn," Lewis confirmed.

"Me too."

A restful silence fell; they sat a little apart, looking at one another, knowing the relaxed pleasure of a slowly building arousal. Frantic grappling, desperate bedroom gymnastics, were for other people. There were no imperatives, there was no pressure; all that mattered was that they gave one another comfort.

"Lewis ... "

"Mmmmm?"

Morse slithered back into the strong arms and rested against Lewis, chest to chest, skin to skin.

"You've never done this before, have you?"

"No ... but I have got some idea of the basics, like."

"You probably know more about it than I do; it's been so long I think I've probably forgotten everything I ever knew."

"No." It sounded like 'now'.

"Don't expect too much."

"Sshhh." Lewis made the next move, and made it positively. Tilting Morse's head back he captured his mouth with exquisite tenderness masking unmistakable strength, allowing his tongue to slip between Morse's lips and dip deeply into the back of his throat, drawing from him a gasp and a response that was suddenly and unexpectedly passionate, pushing him down with quiet determination onto the piled pillows and stretching out on top of his willing body to deal with him at last only and exactly as he chose.

 

Of the next few hours only fragments remained in Lewis's memory; jewel-like tesserae which shifted and fell into different patterns every time he looked at them.

He remembered being delighted at the smooth softness of Morse's skin and the silkiness of its texture as he allowed his hands a thorough and complete exploration of the other man's body, and the competence of the hands that made their own tantalising patterns on him.

He remembered being bewitched by Morse's crisp grey-white body hair, stocky, muscular torso and strong thighs; really he was in pretty good shape for his age and despite his misgivings did not seem to have forgotten anything about giving another man pleasure.

He remembered words and half-words muttered and cried into the gathering dusk; words that seemed to have no origin in anything that was said between them yet which belonged in the private space they had created for themselves; endearments gentler than he had ever imagined men exchanging.

He remembered waking beside Morse - that grave face composed in sleep, worries banished during the hours of darkness. He remembered reaching out and wrapping himself around his lover, cherishing a quality of closeness nothing in his life had shown him before this moment. Morse had turned, sleepily, into his embrace, head on his shoulder, hand on his chest - and Lewis had fought to suppress a cheer of illimitable and quite inexpressible joy.

Above all he remembered, with a clarity that brought flushes of hot and cold shivers to his entire body, that Morse had shown him things about himself he had never expected to discover, compressing him between a finger thrust like a bar of red-hot steel into his anus and a milking hand on his genitals, talking to him softly about how it would be - the next time - when it would not be merely a finger inside him, wringing him until he cried and came into the mouth that was suddenly there to receive him. Images of little Vanessa had filled his head then and he'd found himself sobbing against Morse's warm shoulder as he thought of that tiny, flower-like child being forced at knifepoint to do for Mills what Morse had just done willingly for him; and then in the aftermath of both climax and emotion he'd asked to be taught how to please Morse - and the deep, quiet, reassuring voice had promised him that they would learn about that together.

 

Adjustments were difficult to the point of near impossibility; cases came and went, and with them days when Morse could barely manage a civilised word which alternated with nights when he buried himself in Lewis's body with a frenzy that bordered on obsession. There were times when Lewis could not bear to look the older man full in the face, knowing how much honesty was exchanged at such moments and afraid, in the presence of others, to unleash it. He noticed that Morse seemed younger, but had not noticed it of himself; noticed that the hours when they were together flew past like minutes and the minutes when they were apart dragged like hours. There were nights in North Oxford with Morse - rare and always attended by the fear of discovery; there were nights in the narrow single bed in his own spare bedroom with the children asleep on the other side of the plasterboard wall - endless nights with Morse in his thoughts every waking moment.

 

The summer was jaded and had already begun to fall when Lewis drove the Jaguar down the quiet country lanes; the two front windows were wide open, a concession to the heat of the day, and his hair was blown into a tangle that had drawn a smile of secretive pleasure from his companion. Travelling to Swindon to consult with detectives there on a series of cases that might or might not be connected had seemed like a pretty good waste of time when it was originally suggested, but it had offered an opportunity for a diversion on the way back - partly to avoid the traffic on the A40, but mainly to take lunch at a favourite pub of Morse's, with locally-brewed real-ale from an oaken cask. Lewis was beginning to appreciate the difference between the traditionally-brewed product and gassy imported lagers, although he had yet to be infected with Morse's enthusiasm for the stuff. Knowing Morse, however, it probably wouldn't take him long to remedy that omission.

 

The beer-garden was deserted; popular at weekends, the pub did only slow trade on weekdays. Collecting food and drink from the bar, they carried their trays to a table close to the children's play area. As Lewis sat down he cast a glance over the swings, climbing-frame, sandpit and a slide disguised as a whimsical red elephant.

Morse followed the glance.

"I envy you, you know," he said, soothingly. "I've never had much to do with children, really."

Lewis's eyes turned back to him. There were times when the man was so heart-breakingly open it was a wonder he had ever achieved a reputation as a difficult colleague. He risked touching Morse's hand briefly.

"Maybe we could take my kids out somewhere together," he offered, the insanity of the idea far from his thoughts. "Val wouldn't mind."

Morse stared into the distance. Himself and Lewis, and Lewis's children? And their mother wouldn't mind? What kind of mother wouldn't mind them spending a day with their father's homosexual lover?

"Where would you suggest?" he asked, mildly. "The Old Bailey, perhaps? Or what about the Black Museum?"

"No, I think they're a bit young for that. What about a funfair? The seaside?"

The mental vision of himself at a funfair was almost too much for Morse. He shook his head, chuckling.

"What about a Safari Park?" he asked. Despite himself, Lewis's enthusiasm for the idea had fired his imagination; somewhere they weren't known, maybe it would be possible. "We could take them to Longleat. In your car," he added. "I can just imagine explaining to the garage that I need a respray because a lion has clawed the paint off the Jag."

Lewis joined in the muted laughter. "Aye," he said. "Perfect. Reckon we could fit that in before they go back to school? End of next week, maybe?"

Morse was scarcely in the mood to refuse him anything. "It'll be a disaster," he warned. "They'll probably hate me."

"Oh, aye, I wouldn't be surprised," was the cheerful response. "They'll have to get used to you, though, won't they? If you're planning on us staying together, like."

Morse raised a hand to his head, pushed back the silver tangle of hair from his brow, and looked up at Lewis almost shyly.

"We haven't really discussed it, have we?" he asked. "Whether or not this ... relationship ... has any future."

"No." Lewis took a deep draught of his beer and wiped his lips on the back of his hand. There was a wasp investigating their sandwiches, and Morse flicked it away impatiently. "We don't have to, if you don't want to," Lewis added.

"No, no, I think it's time." The concession was weary, resigned. "I think we owe it to one another." Morse paused, examining Lewis's face intimately. "It worries me, Lewis," he said. "I've never ... been married ... before. I want to be with you all the time, but I'm frightened of smothering you. I used to think of you as being like an oak tree and myself as the mistletoe; I was sure I'd strangle the life out of you. I'd forgotten ... how strong oak is."

"That's lovely, sir. It's like poetry."

Morse grinned wickedly. "You inspire me," he said. "You're like a tree in other ways, too," he went on, thoughtfully. "Dependable ... sheltering ... you give me a place to hide."

Lewis didn't answer. He was trying to control the tears that had sprung up behind his eyes. There were times when Morse made him see the world in astonishingly different ways, redefining his place in it constantly. Morse was like a Pied Piper, leading him through a magic land. He never wanted the journey to end.

"Tell me," Morse was saying, "do you think we've given it a fair trial?"

"Two months? Oh, aye."

"Will you divorce Valerie?"

Lewis nodded, not speaking.

"I think I'm probably asking you ... to stay with me, Lewis."

"Aye, I know you are."

"And?"

"You didn't have to ask. I want what you want; us to be together."

"Even if ... ? It could mean your career."

"I'll take up busking."

Morse shot him a look that was unalloyed adoration, the closest he could come in this public place to reeling him in and kissing him passionately. That could wait; it could always wait, and be savoured.

"I love you," Morse said, blinking in the sunlight.

Lewis grinned at him; it was a moment of transcendental joy. "Yes, sir," he said, happily. He knew Morse's Christian name now, but he had promised himself never to use it. Morse, however, was under no such constraints.

"Paul ... " he said softly, for the first time.

 

Threading through the narrow roads north of Witney they might have been driving through a Constable painting; hedgerows of vibrant green, their lower leaves splashed grey by passing cars, stood beside yellow fields of stubble; myopic cattle turned expressions of utter stupidity towards them as they passed. There were plans and schemes spinning through both heads but neither man spoke, preferring to enjoy one another's company in silence.

A jumble of shabby caravans on a wide grass verge was visible as they rounded a bend. Automatically Lewis slowed the Jag, and the two inspected the encampment with experienced eyes.

"Travellers," Lewis said. "What d'you reckon they are? Tinkers? Or real Romanies?"

Morse shrugged. "Horse-dealers," he said, indicating three scruffy-looking nags tied to stakes on the verge. Already each one had cropped a circle of short grass corresponding to the length of its tether. "We're a bit close to Minster Lovell and Blenheim here - I'll report it when we get back, just in case there's anything going on."

"Another misunderstood minority, sir? Like us, I mean?"

"Not quite the same, Lewis."

"Hmmm, that's odd. Look over there."

Morse followed the direction of Lewis's nod. A fourth stake and chewed circle; a fourth length of frayed rope.

"I expect they've sold it," Morse told him.

"Aye, probably."

 

Five minutes later Lewis's foot slammed down hard on the brake pedal and he swore beneath his breath. Wrapped around a tree at the left-hand side of the road was a dark blue Mini Metro which had obviously just come to rest after some horrendous accident. The driver's window was shattered, a dark-haired girl impaled on the glass.

"Oh, Christ."

Morse had turned pale; his stomach had begun to heave already.

"Call it in," Lewis told him, reaching under the driver's seat for the First Aid kit that was patently going to be hideously inadequate. He was out of the car almost before the wheels had stopped moving, leaving Morse to haul on the handbrake and cut the engine even as he opened up the radio link to their base at Kidlington.

"This is Morse; RTA on the road between Swinbrook and Minster Lovell, one person seriously injured. Get me an ambulance, quickly."

He barely waited for the response, launching himself out after Lewis.

 

His lover had managed to open the passenger door of the Metro and was carefully disentangling the semi-conscious girl from her seatbelt and the glass of the window. Lewis was kneeling on the passenger seat half-braced across the girl, lifting her tenderly and drawing her inwards. His left hand flicked open the lid of the First Aid kit and he pulled out a roll of gauze, using it to dab blood from her face.

"You keep distilled water in the boot, don't you?" he asked Morse, sharply.

The older man didn't answer, but in a moment had sprinted to the rear of the Jag. He pulled out the bottle and a warning triangle which he dumped down in the middle of the road, then hurried back ponderously to where Lewis waited. Lewis damped the gauze and washed away blood from the savaged face; the girl's eyes were closed, their lids gashed, the flesh of her cheeks torn to ribbons.

"Anything I can do?"

Lewis looked over at him. "She's in shock, lost a lot of blood, but there's no glass in the wounds as far as I can see. She needs to be in hospital. Pity we don't carry a car rug, she ought to be kept warm."

"Our jackets?"

"Aye."

Morse was back in a moment, helping Lewis spread the two pale-grey summer-weight jackets over the girl; she was groaning pitiably, her lips swollen and blackened with blood.

"Anything broken?" Morse was never very good in the presence of blood or illness; he felt particularly helpless.

"Oh, I can't tell." Lewis sounded close to despair. "I don't know. I hope the ambulance isn't long, though."

"Ten, fifteen minutes," Morse supplied. "Let's find out who she is." He picked up a blood-spattered white handbag and delved into it for identification. "Heather Pearson," he said, locating the driving licence. "Address in Headington."

"Heather Pearson?" Lewis's face creased in an effort to recollect where he had heard that name before. "Why does that ring a bell?"

Morse looked from him to the stricken girl and could only shrug and shake his head in apologetic pity; if he had ever known her, he had forgotten - but he thought not.

 

It was what Morse called 'the time of evening when cars run sweetly and syringas blossom by Oxford gates', a line he admitted culling from the work of a deceased Poet Laureate. Lewis lay stretched out on the couch in Morse's living-room, absorbing, rather than listening to, the duet from 'The Pearl Fishers'; it had become a favourite of his in the weeks that he and Morse had belonged to one another and its soothing notes were a balm after the day's business of heat and blood and ambulances and grief. Morse was stroking his hair comfortingly; soft reassurance in the touch and the music lulled away the images of the wrecked car and the wounded girl and restored the mood of earlier in the day - the overwhelming appreciation of one another's company.

Absently he stroked Morse's left hand, circling the third finger at its base. He couldn't, Lewis supposed, be expected to wear a ring. Not yet, anyway. Not until Valerie had her freedom and her generous settlement.

He blessed her, silently. If she hadn't clung to him so resolutely he would never have come to Oxford, never have met Morse. He might have stayed up in Newcastle, hacking away year after year at an unsatisfactory marriage and a career firmly settled in the doldrums, drawing his pension in the end an embittered man with a life of unfulfilled promise behind him. Val had insisted on a change of scene; Oxford had been an accident, but the kind of accident that brought unexpectedly welcome results.

The Greeks, he thought, probably had a word for it.

Valerie wanted her own life back, and he wanted Morse. Morse, who had finally admitted that he loved him; Morse who had been so alone and so hurt in the past, and who had ended up turning to ordinary, boring, everyday Sergeant Lewis for comfort. And Val, who had held on to him exactly as long as she wanted to, had known when and why to let go. He thought he should probably feel used, but he didn't; he couldn't help being grateful to her.

 

Footsteps on the gravel heralded a ring at the doorbell. Morse got up, reluctantly, to answer it. Lewis caught the words 'Val Lewis's husband' spoken in a female voice, and then the door opened and Morse ushered in a woman in her forties with ash-blonde hair and a pleasant if not beautiful face wrecked by evidence of recent grief.

Lewis stood up quickly.

"Lewis, this is Catherine Shergold. She wants to talk to you. Sit down, Catherine."

The woman appeared not to hear the invitation.

"Catherine Shergold? Oh, aye, you're Louise's maths teacher." Bewildered, Lewis couldn't imagine why she wanted to see him. "What's the matter, like? Is it Val?"

"Mr Lewis ... " the woman started uncertainly, then stopped herself again. "They told me at the hospital it was you who took care of Heather," she said, stepping closer. "I came round to thank you, and to say that if I can ever do anything ... anything ... to repay you ... You see, Heather and I ... "

"Catherine and Heather!" Lewis exclaimed, feeling monumentally stupid. "Catherine and Heather. I'm sorry, Miss Shergold, I just didn't make the connection."

"Please call me Catherine. Val said I'd find you here ... but of course, I know Morse, from when Sonya walked out on me. Mr Lewis ... "

Lewis took her hand and drew her down onto the couch, sitting beside her. Morse occupied the armchair opposite, watching them both with concern.

"Just call me 'Lewis'," he said, softly. "He does."

"Does he?"

"How is Heather?" Morse asked, leaning towards them.

"She'll be fine." Tears were rolling from Catherine's eyes, carving a pathway of distress down her face. "We've only got each other," she said, painfully. "I couldn't manage without her. It was such a stupid thing to happen; there was a horse on the road, and she swerved to avoid it and just lost control. I don't understand how anybody could leave a horse running around loose."

Lewis's memory supplied the image of a brilliant circle of nibbled grass, a stake, and a frayed rope; he saw the certainty reflected in Morse's compressed lips and full blue eyes.

"They said ... you did the right thing. She would have lost a lot more blood ... she would have died if you hadn't been there, Lewis."

"You say she's going to be okay?" Awkwardly he changed the subject. He wasn't accustomed to having his praises sung quite so emotionally.

"She'll have scars ... they might be bad. A few days in hospital, then I can have her home. I wanted to say ... will you ... will you both ... come to dinner when Heather's out of hospital? We owe you more than we can ever repay, but ... "

"You don't know what you're asking, Catherine," Morse told her, reaching out and taking her hand consolingly. "Lewis will eat you out of house and home."

"And he'll drink you dry," was the affectionate rejoinder. "You lock your booze cupboard when Morse is around."

"Heather makes her own wine," Catherine offered, collapsing against Lewis's shoulder, exhausted.

He wrapped an arm around her. It was as if there was enough love in this house now for it to spread out and draw other people in towards it. Catherine and Heather were the first beneficiaries; perhaps there would be others.

Morse squeezed her hand tightly - and then, almost casually, lifted his free hand and placed it on Lewis's shoulder, binding the three of them into a tight little circle of mutual protection, their thoughts as if by consent dwelling on the young woman in the hospital.

"I think that's the nicest invitation we've had in a long time," Morse told them both. "We accept - don't we Lewis?"

"Aye, sir," Lewis said. "We do."

 

* * *