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Right Down The Line

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Jill

The excitement of the afternoon, arresting a suspected murderer on a plane seconds before take- off, had left me charged with energy, so as soon as I had wrapped it up, I went home, got changed, and took my bike out for an hour. The bitter wind whipped into my face, burning as I pounded the pedals, sweating hard, fighting the gusts on the final incline before coasting breathlessly down into the village I called home in the outer London suburbs. My lungs hurt from the exertion and from past damage but I felt pleasantly exhausted. Maybe I’d sleep tonight for a change.

My refurbished terraced house felt warm when I entered, carrying my bike through and out to the conservatory. Missy, my ridiculously named cat, set up a plaintive mewling for her supper, weaving around my feet, nearly causing an accident.

“Wait your turn, madam”, I warned her as I tried to stay on my feet.

I got the bike safely stowed and came back inside, unzipping my quilted bodywarmer and tossing it onto an armchair as I set about measuring out Missy’s meal ration. The cat was fond of eating and didn’t have a “stop” switch, so her food had to be carefully measured, and treats apportioned so as not to spike her blood sugar.

After that I treated myself to a long, hot shower, dressed in old sweats and defrosted some chunky vegetable and bean soup along with two stale slices of multigrain  grilled with the last of the gruyère. Time for a supermarket run, obviously.

Suddenly I found myself with a whole evening to get through without work commitments and I wasn’t sure I liked it. It had been at least a couple of weeks since I had experienced a gaping hole like this, and the stirrings of an old anxiety began to grip my entrails. In an attempt to relax, I poured myself a glass of Pinot Noir and tried to find something on the iPlayer that could hold my attention. I ended up with Phoebe Waller-Bridge going full Fleabag on a number of unsuspecting people, and it made me laugh until her air of vulnerability began to get to me, and my empathy kicked in, which kind of killed the humour. As I was debating switching to another programme, my phone rang. The number came up as Hillingdon Central, so I knew it was work.

“DI Raymond,”

“Good evening, Jill, sorry to disturb you at home.” The voice was that of Chief Superintendent Julie Dodson, the regional head honcho.

“What can I do for you, Ma’am?”

“A new case has fallen into our lap but it involves two different forces in West BCU -Hillingdon and Ealing. The vic is a thirty-five year old female who worked at RAF Northolt, but lived in Ealing. She was found just outside the Northolt perimeter and it was called in by a dogwalker. When we got the ID, Ealing took it and are following up with the family.”

“Then I should be there”, I said, shoving Missy off my lap and reaching for the remote to blank the TV.

“Well, it’s awkward”, Dodson actually sounded embarrassed, something I would never have thought possible.

“Awkward how? This is our case, if she was found at Northolt.”

“Right, but we have a hotshot DI in Ealing who picked it up from the night duty crew and is working that end with the family.”

“What about the body?” I asked, stunned to have been bypassed.

“DC Quinn got there and has been with the paramedics, and CSIs, he’ll have full notes. I know you completed the Sue Marshall  murder case this afternoon so I thought we could pick up the loose ends in the morning. I doubt he missed anything, he’s sharp.”

“That he is,” I agreed. “But who’s this hotshot DI in Ealing I’ll have to work with?”

“DI Rachel Bailey”, she said, almost apologetically. “She joined us after a long stint with the MIT in Manchester, and various jaunts with Vice down here.”

I trod cautiously, remembering that Dodson’s background was Manchester.

“So you know her quite well? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes, pretty much. I worked with her quite a bit back up north, but there’s been a gap and we lost touch. My recollection is that she’s gung-ho in the extreme, so I want you to make sure you hold your own. Go to the mortuary in the morning for the PM- 9.00 am sharp. Dr. Surinder Kaur. Rachel will l have been up all night I expect, so you’ll have more of an advantage. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” was all I could reply as, perplexed, I put down the phone. Rachel? Seemed a bit overfamiliar for a senior police officer to use instead of her rank. Perhaps Dodson knew her better than she was letting on.

The Chief Super and I had a rather odd relationship based on the fact that I had once bumped into her in a gay bar. There was a pub in Hampstead that had lesbian nights and it was a popular place for both couples and singles to go. At the beginning of my grieving phase, when I was still in denial, I did go once or twice, trying to drown my sorrows. I didn’t really want to pick someone up, I just wanted to get that feeling when someone looks at you in appreciation and there’s a bit of flirting. I wasn’t exactly sober when I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to face my Chief Super. I’d had a feeling for a long time that she might be gay- the power suits, the stride etc. – and I never made any secret of my own orientation, so I guess it was just a matter of time. She was with her partner, a well-known black QC, who had been making waves defending victims of domestic violence. She introduced me, then, obviously seeing I was the worse for wear, asked me how I was getting home. I reassured her I’d be Ubering and wouldn’t be late for work the following morning. I cringed now every time I thought about it. Recently bereaved and getting drunk in a gay bar! I worried for a while that it might affect how she perceived my work, but she was never anything but professional and respectful. I detected no pity in her gaze but I sensed her antenna out, ready to pick up distress signals. I didn’t give any.  

At 8.45 the following morning I was pulling into the car park at the mortuary, two steaming cups from the Caffe Nero down the road sitting in the tray on my dash. DC Quinn was standing outside, holding a cup of his own. He looked tired and his eyes were bloodshot. I got out and carried the cups over to him.

“You won’t be needing this, then?”

“No thanks, boss. I’m so fuelled by caffeine that I can barely stand still,” he said, glumly, managing a small smile.

“Long night was it?” I asked, putting one cup down on the window sill and taking a cautious sip from the other.

“Very long. That DI from Ealing, she just never stops. Relentless.”

“And where is she now?”

“Went home at 7.30 to freshen up, she said. Should be here soon.”

“Right, Quinn,  I suggest you brief me now, hand me your notes and leave me to deal with DI Bailey. You go and get some rest. Come back in this afternoon.”

At precisely 8.57, a silver Lexus coupé roared into the yard and screeched to a halt. The occupant climbed out, gathering briefcase and handbag and straightening her jacket. I had the impression of quick energy and singularity of purpose. Quinn had just departed. We were alone.

I stood very still, conscious of my appearance, the black waistcoat with the silver buttons over a crisply ironed blue shirt. DI Bailey on the other hand looked to have thrown her long leather coat on over a dark green gabardine trouser suit and cream v- neck top in a mad hurry. Her shoulder-length brunette hair was mussed and still damp from the shower. As she approached me her eyes flickered up to mine and she smiled. Her eyes were deep brown with flecks of amber and I noted ridiculously long lashes and perfect white teeth. She may have thrown her clothes on, but the lipstick was immaculate.

“Good morning, you must be DI Raymond. I’m DI Rachel Bailey. Is that for me?” indicating the coffee cup beside me on the windowsill.

“If you’d like. I always bring a spare,” I said. “And it’s Jill”.

“Rachel”, releasing waves of a light floral perfume as she offered her hand to shake.

‘So  Rachel, bring me up to speed.”

The body was found at 22.15 by a dogwalker who called it in immediately. We got the CSIs* and DS Quinn here within half an hour, fenced off the crime scene, and he took the dogwalker’s details and arranged for a statement to be taken this morning at your station. We identified the vic from the driving licence and Northolt ID in her bag. Andrea Crawford, age 35, civilian clerk. Cause of death appears to be strangulation, ligature marks on the neck, time of death yet to be determined. After the post-mortem we’re going to visit the husband and parents.”.

She paused while I took in this information. I raised my eyebrows. “Did you inform them last night?”

“Yes, I talked to the husband. He said he wanted to be the one to tell the parents. They’ll be with him this morning.”

I frowned. Spouses were often the first suspects that needed to be eliminated.

“Don’t worry,” Rachel added, “I saw him alone last night and I think it would be good to observe him with the in-laws today. I’ll give you my impression of him on the way.”

 I refrained from commenting and we made our way into the mortuary where Dr. Kaur, the pathologist, was setting up.

“Good morning ladies”, she intoned, a stout Indian lady in her 50’s, an absolute stickler for detail, as I had often learned to my cost.

“DI Raymond, a familiar face around my table. And you must be DI Bailey, Ealing is it?”

“Yes, that’s right, pleased to meet you”, Rachel smiled briefly. Dr. Kaur peered over the top of her spectacles, which were perched strategically on her nose and sniffed. "Two DI's on the job. My, this must be an important case!" Then she got down to work. I suppressed a smirk at her sarcasm, but a quick glance at Rachel showed she thought it anything but funny.

“The victim is a well-nourished female in her mid-30’s, tattoo on left ankle, and another on the right forearm. No signs of abuse, no old bruising or fractures and, since I can see you’re about to ask, DI Bailey, no signs of sexual assault, at least externally. We’ll take a closer look later…..”

Forty-five minutes later, we stumbled out of the mortuary gulping in the cold, clean air. Rachel was green.

“Got to you, did it?” I enquired not unkindly, having a cast-iron stomach myself for these things.

“Sleepless night, no breakfast”, was her answer. Then, seeing my quirked eyebrow, she explained “I have a four year old son. When I got home I only had time to shower and get him up and dressed and breakfasted ready for kindergarten.”

“OK let’s grab a coffee and a breather”,  I  suggested, “there’s a Costa down the road, you can brief me there.”

I got into my well-worn Nissan Qashqai indicating for her to follow. Once there we ordered coffees- hers a tall latte, mine an americano, and toasted teacakes.

“So, the husband?” I ventured, once the colour had returned to her cheeks.

“Right, Philip Crawford, 38, manages a small indie record company. Thinks he’s the bees’ knees. Very cut up when I broke the news but I sensed it was a bit of an act.”

“Why?”

“I dunno. Something about him just didn’t sit right. Might be something there, can’t tell at this stage. That’s why I want to see how he gets on with the in-laws.” Her Mancunian accent was suddenly more pronounced. She shoved half a teacake into her mouth and chased it with a swig of coffee.

“That’s better. Ryan, my son, is a picky eater, so it can take quite a while to get him fed in the morning. That’s why I often miss breakfast. Bloody hell, kids, if anyone had warned me I wouldn't have bothered.”

“Do you have a partner, or live- in childcare?”  I asked, then, realising this might seem intrusive, I added “Sorry, that wasn’t meant to sound nosy”.

She waved her hand “No, no problem. His dad and I are not a couple, but he’s been living with us for about a year, helping with Ryan. Trouble is, he’s soon going to remarry so we have to  decide on the best solution. He wants joint custody and I kind of agree. But it depends on Ryan totally. If he’s not happy I have to find a way to keep him with me.”

“Divorce can be a bitch,” I commented.

She looked startled. “Oh we were never married. We had an affair when he was married to someone else. So the remarrying is about that…” she broke off, seeing my expression. “Jeez, you don’t want to hear all this crap”, getting up and  downing the last of her coffee. “Come on, let’s get cracking”.

And Rachel Bailey slung her coat over her arm and headed for the door like a heat-seeking missile.  I followed, somewhat bemused.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Rachel

In my 20’s I used to ride out sleepless nights and keep going. At 41 that was no longer an option. By midday I was shattered, so I left the Crawford case in the hands of DI Raymond and my no 2, DC Lisa Childs, and headed home for a rest. I should have been out like a light as soon as my head touched the pillow, but, annoyingly, I kept seeing the Hillingdon inspector in her smart waistcoat and perfectly ironed shirt. It was very classy, I had to admit, and I had a pang of envy when I thought of my wash and wear outfits from well -known high street brands. She had a typically southern air of educated authority about her, yet she didn’t come across as unfriendly or patronising. I didn’t quite know what to make of her.

In the end I got a couple of hours then the alarm woke me and I started the whole process of getting dressed and heading to work for the second time that day. At least Steve would be picking Ryan up from child care after work. That spared me having to rush back.

At Ealing station, Lisa was surrounded by files and was working on her computer. I had checked my phone and found several messages from Dodson asking to call her with an update, so my first priority was getting up to speed. 

“OK Lisa, let’s have it.”

“Right, well, after you left, DI Raymond took me to RAF Northolt to interview Andrea’s boss. I know you had a word with him yesterday to find out when she left work, but DI Raymond wanted to get access to her workmates as well. I bet you didn’t know her Dad was a retired Air Commodore in the RAF? Yeah, they all seemed to know her and asked about him. She has quite a way with people, doesn’t she? Doesn’t make any fuss but gets maximum cooperation.”

I made no comment, quelling the urge to say something sarcastic about privilege and entitlement. But that was the old Rachel. The new one would watch and wait. I indicated for Lisa to continue. When she did, making clear her admiration of Jill Raymond’s interview technique at various junctures, I eventually learned that Andrea Crawford was generally liked and trusted but that her marriage was rocky in the extreme. Her best friend, Amy Waterston, told Lisa and Jill that Andrea knew that Philip had been having an affair with a model called Gabrielle something. Andrea had finally decided to ask him for a divorce, but it’s not clear whether she had done so or not before she died.

“And what about her? Has she been seeing anyone else?”

“They say not, boss. She was crazy about Philip, but had just had enough of the humiliation.”

"Right. And is there anything else significant that we need to know?”

Lisa turned around, her eyes gleaming. “Oh yes, boss. I’ve been looking at Philip Crawford’s social media sites. It makes fascinating reading”.

I took off my coat and hung it up (as opposed to throwing it over a chair, which was what I would have done in Manchester) and got stuck in.

Steve phoned at 7 and asked me whether I planned to be home for dinner. I said probably not. He said he wanted to go to band practice at 8.30 and I swore. I’d forgotten about that. He was generally very good at covering evenings when I worked late, but I’d forgotten that Wednesdays were his night off. I paused and thought for a minute.

“Did you cook?”

“No, I can make something for myself, but what about you? Can I make something for you?”

I was assailed once again by a pang of guilt- the guy was really too good for me.

“No, don’t make a special effort. Tell you what, I’ll leave now and bring Nando’s. Your favourite? Veggie burger in a pitta with extra hot sauce and sweet potato fries?”  Steve was a vegetarian, which made takeaways challenging at times.

He sounded surprised. “That would be fantastic, Rachel, but remember they take at least 15 minutes to serve.”

“I’m onto it. I’ll be home by 7.40 at the latest.” I really meant it. Steve deserved a break. I called the Nando’s in the high street ahead, pulling rank by using my police ID, gave them my credit card details and asked for the order to be ready in 20 minutes when I would stop briefly outside the door. Yes, Ma’am! The station used them quite often as they catered to a wide range of tastes, so I got preferential treatment.

By the time we had eaten- the fillet steak roll and a salad for me, none of that vegan stuff-  and I had got Ryan to bed and read him a story, it was almost 9pm.

I went to my laptop and logged onto the system, falling effortlessly back into the enquiry into Philip Crawford’s social media activities. He was most prolific on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as one might expect, and it was the latter that yielded the richest information. There were a number of pictures, dating back about three months, of a mixed race model referred to only as “G”. In one picture, they were attending an industry awards event, and he had his hand on her waist. It looked casual, but who could tell? If the frequency of her image cropping up was anything to go on, Andrea Crawford might have had reason for suspicion.  Before I left the office, Lisa had done a search for a Gabrielle who resembled the woman in Philip Crawford’s Instagram pictures. She wasn’t too hard to find, with a Facebook profile identifying her as Gabrielle du Toit, age 29. She had had modelling contracts, I noted, with several leading designer clothes brands, although her Facebook page was only 6 months old.

When the phone rang I was surprised to see it was 10.30 and that the caller was Jill Raymond.

“DI Bailey.”

“Rachel”, came Jill’s rather husky tones, “I hope I’m not disturbing but I wanted to give you an update. I think we should meet in the morning to go over a few points and plan our next moves. There are some interesting angles here.”

 

Jill

I wanted to stay ahead of the curve on the investigation, and, seeing that we had to work alongside Ealing on this one, I wanted to make use of every available hour. It transpired that Rachel would have to drop her son at pre-school at 8, but I needed to be at the station half an hour later. I pushed her- perhaps a bit harder than I intended- to meet me at 7, with her son, who could be entertained while we talked. She finally agreed, confessing that Ryan tended to wake up at 6 anyway, so we fixed the venue at a coffee shop near his school.

In the end she beat me to it. Missy knocked over a whole 2kg bag of cat biscuits in the kitchen while I was preparing her food so I had to spend time scooping them up to keep them out of reach. When I arrived, a tad flustered, Rachel was sitting near the window with a small boy who seemed to be engrossed in colouring in  a book.

“Hi, good morning”, I greeted them, “I see you got here first.”

“Hi Jill, yeah, this little guy was keen to get moving,” she smiled.

“Did you have breakfast?”

“Not yet. His father had a breakfast meeting with his colleagues, so we thought we’d get it here.”

“So..what can I get you?” I offered, since Rachel didn’t seem about to move.

“No worries, Jill, Kathy behind the counter knows me. We’ve had many a breakfast here, haven’t we, Ryan?” She ruffled the boy’s hair affectionately, but he kept his head down still absorbed in his task.

“Er ..so what do you recommend? “ I asked, not having breakfasted myself.

“Well Ryan gets the oatmeal with banana and raisins. Kathy’s done it before, she knows how he likes it. And me, well, I’m a bacon butty gal. ‘Course, that might not be to your taste…”

I could see what she was thinking, that posh Jill Raymond might prefer organic muesli with almond milk or avo on toast. But I was having none of it.

“Well, I’m rather partial to a bacon butty myself”, I declared as she tried to hide her surprise. I pulled my wallet from my coat pocket.

Rachel raised her hand and called “Kathy, give us another bacon butty, and….”

“A medium  cappuccino with an extra shot”, I added, removing my overcoat and sitting down.

“And it’s on me….no, really, “she said, smiling. “You can get it next time.”

“Well, “ I conceded, “OK. And you must be Ryan,“  I said,  addressing the little boy opposite me for the first time. He put down his pencil and raised his head when I spoke to him.

“Yes. Who are you?” he asked, as Rachel rolled her eyes and tried to cover her embarrassment.

“Um Jill, Jill Raymond.”

“Can I call you Auntie Jill?  he asked meeting my gaze solemnly. I noticed a greenish tint in his hazel eyes that were partially concealed behind wire-framed spectacles. His pale, roundish face was earnest.

“Er…I began, quite out of my depth. “But I have an Auntie Gill already, don't I?”, he broke in, looking at Rachel.

“You do,” she nodded, turning to me “that’s my former DCI, Gill Murray in Manchester. His godmother”.

“So can I call you Raymond?”

“Why not. Yes, OK call me Raymond,” I smiled.  He smiled back, a lopsided little grin  with warmth in his eyes.

At this point, Kathy brought over our breakfasts. She put the oatmeal before Ryan and hearty- looking bacon butties that smelled divine in front of Rachel and myself.

“Sauces over there”, she said, with a faint foreign accent.

Rachel smiled and nodded, and Ryan said something that sounded like pal-dee-es.

 Kathy smiled and replied in the same strange language. Rachel ignored them, going to pick up the brown sauce and ketchup.

I looked at Ryan. “What language is that?” I asked, not knowing whether a four year- old would be able to answer.

“She’s my auntie”, he replied.

Rachel poured brown sauce over her butty and poised with it half -way to her mouth. “Latvian. His Dad’s Latvian. Kathy’s his sister, Ryan’s aunt.”

“Wow. I see. And is Ryan bilingual?” I asked, for something to ask, but genuinely curious.

“Getting there,” she replied briefly.

I understood that she didn’t want to talk about her relationship with Ryan’s father in front of him, so I poured brown sauce over my own butty and dug in. It was excellent. A chewy, sourdough roll with what tasted like unsmoked free-range bacon. The fat from the bacon had softened and seasoned the inside of the roll. I finished it far too soon and wiped my lips with a napkin, picking up my coffee to wash it down.

“That was really good”, I exclaimed, as Rachel finished hers, chewing carefully before speaking.

“Glad you liked it. Kathy’s the owner of the café so we only get the best”, she winked.

Once we had eaten and a server had cleared, we got down to work. We were so engrossed in our case that eight o’ clock rolled round unnoticed.

“Rachel”, Kathy called. “Nearly eight o’clock. Joe is here so I take Ryan to school while you have meeting?”

“Cheers, Kathy”, said Rachel, obviously distracted, as the café owner, a woman I guessed to be a little younger than Rachel, fair- haired and curvy in skinny black jeans and matching sweatshirt bearing the shop’s logo, helped Ryan into his coat, grabbed his bag and led him by the hand out of the shop.

“Be a good boy, Ryan”, Rachel called.

“Bye Mummy, bye Raymond”, the little boy replied.

“Bye Ryan”, I answered,  touched, despite myself.

“Sweet boy”, I commented, as Rachel put her pen down, frowning as she saw her coffee cup was empty.

“Two refills, Joe”, she called, pointing at her cup. I didn’t argue. The coffee was as good as the butty. This café was firmly on my map.

“Yeah, he’s a good kid on the whole,” she said. “Not easy with me and his Dad not being…..together. But I think he gets it now.”

“How did that come about” I ask, casually.

She turned her deep brown eyes to mine and for a second, beneath the cocky exterior, I got a glimpse of vulnerability. She seemed to feel it too, because she then looked down at the table before speaking.

“Five years ago I was here for a year as a DS with the Met on Vice”, she began, tracing patterns on the tablecloth. “And I met this bloke, an ordinary bloke, a CSI, one of the best we worked with actually. One night we’d all had a few with the team and well, that’s how it started. He thought it was the start of a beautiful relationship. I thought it was a shag. End of. But then it happened three or four more times, and we were by way of becoming an item. So in the end I told him straight, I wasn’t looking for anything long term. I’d had enough of men and relationships, got myself in a right mess so many times. He was upset, I could see, but he didn’t push me. We stayed sort of friends. Then when my time with Vice ended, I went back to Manchester, to the MIT, and got Acting DI, then DI. I stayed three more years. When I moved back I already knew I was pregnant but I didn’t tell Steve. Selfish maybe, but I decided to keep the baby and stay in Manchester.”

Joe brought the new coffees and I let her pause and sip.

“So what changed?”

“It was Dodson. She got poached by the Met and promoted to DCS. Someone pulled strings I’m told. She’d divorced her husband and got in a relationship with this lawyer down in London. Anyway, one day she runs into Steve on a case, they get talking, he asks her if she knows me and paf! Dodson tells him I’ve got a kid and how old he is and that’s it, he’s hot-footing it up to Manchester. Seems he’d divorced his first wife soon after he met me, though I never knew.”

“Gosh, that must have been difficult,” I said, trying to imagine the shock of finding you were the parent of a child already more than two years old.

“It was and it wasn’t”, she raised her head to look at me. “I mean, there I was on my own, almost thirty-nine, in a very demanding job and a single mother. I was exhausted. I’ve hardly any family left in Manchester. My parents are dead, my sister helped a bit but she’s got kids and problems of her own. My colleagues helped but they’re working. When Steve showed up I was nearly on my knees.”

I waited, I was a good listener, and I could see she wanted to talk. It was late and I needed to get to work, but somehow this was suddenly more important.

“He asked for a DNA test, mind you,” she said mock indignantly, “but he’s a scientist, I don’t blame him. Anyway, it came back that Ryan was his.”

“So?” I urged gently.

“So, we talked back and forth for about a month, him coming up every weekend, getting to know Ryan and all that and I let him. It was a relief to have someone to share with. And, you know, I might not want to marry him but he’s a nice bloke, a decent bloke, family values and all that. Maybe being a foreigner helps. He was brought up properly, not like a lot of the scumbags I’m used to dealing with. I asked for a transfer to the Met, Ealing, on the grounds that my child’s father lived there and would be co-parenting. And he’s good with Ryan, and Ryan loves him now, so there we are, happy families”, she ended, a little bitterly. “

“Please tell me if this is being intrusive but what happens when Steve gets married?”

“Right. Yeah. Well, she’s alright, is Michelle. She’s an IT specialist at Ealing Central, I know her. She’s OK with Ryan and that’s what matters. She got together with Steve after I'd moved down here so she knows the score.  Steve would never take him off me. I know.”

I decided to leave it there but I was moved that she felt she could tell me these things on such a slight acquaintance, and I said so.

“Well, Jill, if we have to work together, and if this is a long case, you’ll know my whole life story very quickly, so it’s best you get an idea before other people tell you, know what I mean?”  she grinned impishly.

As I drove away from the meeting I reflected that it had been a very long time since someone so outwardly tough, and apparently in competition with me, should reveal so much about herself on only the second meeting. But then, the Met was a goldfish bowl, Rachel was right, it wouldn’t be long before someone told me things about her, so better to get it from the horse’s mouth.

And I had to admit, I had never been a fan of children, but Ryan’s earnest little face with those wobbly wire glasses stayed in my mind for the rest of the day.

 

 

Chapter Text

Jill

I needed to get back into Northolt, alone. I was far from satisfied that Andrea Crawford’s line manager had been straight with me when I had gone in with DC Childs. There were many aspects of this case that perplexed me and because it was being run in two different districts I felt frustrated that I didn’t have a complete overview all the time. We had gone in with our police ID, all above the line, and so whatever people had told us was what they wanted to hear. I needed an inside contact, but I hesitated before using the one I had. It came with certain other risks, but I felt I needed to disregard them in the interests of getting further inside.

Gary Towers was understandably prickly about receiving a personal call at his work station from the police and I didn’t have his mobile number.

“Towers”, he answered, almost rudely.

“Gary, this is Jill Raymond, how are you doing?”

“Is this Detective Inspector Jill Raymond, or the Jill I used to know?” he asked coolly.

“A bit of both, but I can’t deny I’m on a job. Gary, I need some help with a case. Could we meet?”

“Is this your mobile?” he asked abruptly.

“Yes” I replied.

“Then I’ll call you”. And he hung up.

I tried to get on with paperwork but my anxiety niggled me for a full twenty minutes before Chief Engineer Towers called me back.

“Jill?”

“And is this YOUR mobile,” I asked.

“It is. Now what’s all this about? I’m on a lunch break and I’ve got 90 minutes till I need to be back.”

“The Dog and Duck”, I said immediately, naming the closest pub I could think of.

“Make that the lounge bar and I’ll grab a table”, he said, leaving no room for argument.

I snagged my coat from the coatstand and practically ran out of the door.

“Boss”, Quinn called.

“What?”

“Do you need me?”

“No, Quinn, it’s fine, just meeting a friend for lunch,” and I smiled as reassuringly as possible and ran for my car.

Dodson pulled me into her office as soon as I got back after lunch.

“Ealing want a briefing tonight at 6pm. They’re all over this case, it would seem. I want you there with Quinn. How far have you got?”

“I need to get into Northolt”, I admitted. “From our end everything begins and ends there.”

“I thought you’d been in,” she said, dropping her pen and giving me a hard stare.

“So I have, officially”, I replied, perching on the edge of a table and pushing my hands into my trouser pockets. “But you know how the military clam up when we call knocking. Not getting any cooperation there. So I’m trying a few personal contacts.”

“Of course, insider’s privilege”, she said with a wry smile, as if she was sharing a joke with herself and I wasn’t part of it.

“I’m hardly that any more,” I retorted. “My Dad may have been an Air Commodore but he retired twenty-five years ago.”

“But there are still…contacts…?” she asked coyly.

“What does that mean?”  I asked, feeling an edge of belligerence creep into my tone. Back off, Raymond, or she’ll think you have something to hide.

“Lunch dates with strange men? And I’m not thinking boyfriend.”

I sighed. “OK so someone saw me.  I went to meet an old friend for lunch. That’s true. He also happens to be a Chief Engineer with the RAF at Northolt. He was a friend of my brother.”

“Was?”

“Well he probably still would be, but Paddy was killed in the first Gulf War. He and Gary were Flying Officers. Gary was badly wounded in an explosion and gave up flying, retrained as an engineer. “

“I’m sorry about your brother, Jill. I didn’t know.”

“It was a long time ago,” I muttered.

“So did this Gary get you any further forward?”

“He told me that the RAF Police are doing their own investigation into some kind of criminal activity on base and our vic may have been in some way involved. That means they’re interested in her death as well. But they’re not about to share their investigation with us.”

“But…?”

“But there’s a Military Police officer on the base who was close to my father and still visits him. He might be persuaded to bend the rules. For me, that is.”

“I see. Not much to go on though.”

“No,” I sighed.

“Well get everything together and be prepared to contribute to the briefing tonight on behalf of our team.”

“Yes, Ma’am”.

“Oh, and Jill?”

I turned to look back at her.

“Keep the Northolt stuff under wraps for now.” 

I nodded and made my way back to my desk.

By 5.30, I’d had enough of sitting around in the office. I’d gone as far as I could go with Northolt for now and both Quinn and I felt frustrated with our lack of progress. We were silent in my car driving over to Ealing, each lost in our own thoughts.

The squad room at Ealing Central was packed. Quinn and I squeezed in and made our way to a corner from where I could get out to address the group when required. There was no sign of Rachel, but DC Childs was at the front pinning pictures to boards and writing things on whiteboards placed strategically round the front of the room. A sudden commotion at the back made me turn and see someone come in hurriedly, apologising and pushing through the crowd. Rachel. She saw us as she passed and gave me a thumbs up sign as she threw her raincoat over a chair and took the floor.

This was a very different Rachel to the one I had seen before. Instead of the  suit she had been wearing at breakfast, she was now attired in a black leather jacket and skinny dark jeans, a black scoop neck top underneath, and  black ankle boots. Her hair was tied back, emphasising the length of her neck and she looked closer to thirty than forty. As she twisted round to look at the whiteboards, I saw the gleam of a buckle and a wide belt cinching in her slim waist. She looked hot, that was the only word I could think of, but I kept my face expressionless and forced my mind to stay on the subject.

The briefing was impressive- she and her team had conducted a thorough investigation into Philip Crawford and Andrea’s family. It appeared that the parents had never liked Philip, who was too flashy for their taste. The cracks had appeared in the marriage about three years previously when Andrea first became suspicious about Philip’s irregular hours. His work as a record company owner took him all over the place and gave him the perfect excuse to be away from the marital home and there was little Andrea could do to keep track of him. The parents were also disappointed that the couple did not appear to want children, and Andrea’s mother had been pushing her to divorce Philip and make a new life for herself. A hunt for the model Philip was rumoured to be dating had yielded the most promising lead so far.

“Gabrielle du Toit is 29 years old, mixed race, and has contracts with modelling agencies both here and in the Netherlands”, Rachel explained. “She carries a South African passport and speaks Afrikaans and Dutch as well as English. The problem is that she seems to have come from nowhere. We have a record of her entering the UK on this passport for the first time about ten months ago, but the South Africans have so far failed to identify her. Du Toit is a common Afrikaans surname and will take some time to trace. The other significant factor is that her Facebook page in this name is only six months old. Therefore we suspect this is a false identity. We’ve sent her picture and all the information to ECRIS and ECRIS-TCN in the hope that she’ll surface somewhere if she has any convictions, but otherwise all we can do is keep an eye on her. “

ECRIS was The European Criminal Records Information System and TCN referred to Third Country Nationals, a separate database within ECRIS.

“What if she’s just a model and nothing suspicious?” asked a gruff sounding man I couldn’t see.

“If that’s the case we’ll eliminate her, but you know as well as I do, Dave, that the first 72 hours are vital in a murder enquiry. We’ve got to pursue all the angles.”

“Is that why you’re dressed for a motorbike chase then, boss?” piped up a cheeky female voice.

“For surveillance, yes. I’ve just come from following Ms Du Toit from Philip’s office in Central London to a West Indian café in Notting Hill where she met with an individual I suspect of being in the drugs trade. I’ve  sent the photographic evidence to the Drugs Squad and we’ll see if they can link the contact to a recognised drugs gang.”

It hadn’t occurred to anyone so far to question why a DI would be conducting active surveillance on a marginal suspect. I had my suspicions but I wasn’t going to voice them in here.

“What about the vic herself? Did she have any enemies?” asked another person.

“Right, we’re coming to that. Given that Andrea was a civil servant working in HR at the RAF base, Northolt, we’re getting only very limited cooperation from them, but Hillingdon is working on that. In terms of her friends and family this side, we haven’t uncovered anything suspicious so far. She seems to have been well liked, but we’re still digging.”

Eventually I was called to give my summary. I removed my coat as it was hot in the room, and used the back of a chair to support my hands. After Rachel’s whirlwind performance I felt self-conscious and slow. I gave an account of the steps we had taken so far to pin down time of death and the vic’s actions just prior to this. I mentioned the difficulty of getting cooperation from the military police, but that I had a couple of leads I was following up. At the end of the day it sounded pretty weak, but I had nothing else to offer. As we broke for the evening Rachel pushed her way to my side.

“I don’t suppose you fancy a drink? There are a few things I’d like to run by you.”

“I was about to ask you the same thing”, I said. “What about Ryan? Don’t you have to get back to him?”

She smiled. “No problem. He and Steve have gone to Michelle's tonight. They'll sleep over. I'm a free agent."

“I have to drop Quinn back at the station, so if you don’t mind coming over my way …?”

“Yep, that’s fine. Do you want to give me a place to meet you?”

I thought for a minute of all the pubs in my area and of the people I knew and the opportunity for having a quiet chat.

“Well, if you’re OK with this, maybe we could just go to my place? I have to feed my cat anyway, and it’s not far from the station. Otherwise.....” I hesitated, thinking that she might prefer a more public venue, but she nodded, “Yeah, why not? Shall we order food, I’m hungry after all that chasing around this afternoon.”

“Sure, what do you like? Um, there’s Chinese, Indian, Thai, Nando’s…”

She laughed “Anything but Nando’s, we have that far too much at home. Look, you choose, I eat everything.”

“Would Thai be OK? I can order now and we can pick up on the way.”

“Go for it. I can do spicy and I’m really not fussy otherwise.”

There was no further  hesitation. I quickly phoned in an order and we headed out in our separate cars. On arrival at my place, with a bag full of piping hot cartons, I felt suddenly self-conscious. It was almost 8pm, and apart from the fact that Missy would be frantic with hunger, I was only too conscious of not having left the place too tidy that morning when I had rushed out  early for the breakfast meet.

“You’ll er have to excuse my cat. She’ll be a bit loud till I feed her- she’s a greedy little madam”.

I unlocked the door and, as expected Missy came hurtling out miaowing loudly. She didn’t even hiss at Rachel, something she had been known to do to strangers, so intent was she on getting her food. While I dealt with her, Rachel went to the bathroom. I tried not think of how messy it was. Anyway, why did this matter to me? She was a work colleague, not a journalist doing a feature for Home and Garden.

When she came back I had shed my waistcoat and rolled up my sleeves, putting plates and cutlery on the kitchen table. The restaurant always included wooden chopsticks, but I tended to prefer my own spoon and fork.

“Do you prefer chopsticks or spoon and fork?” I asked her.

“Well, Thais don’t use chopsticks for Thai food,” she replied, surprising me, “so I’ll go for spoon and fork.”

“And don’t look so surprised”, she added. “I have been to Thailand. Only it wasn’t on holiday. It was when I was working Vice for the Met. I had to go and collect a paedophile from Bangkok and bring him back for trial. The Thai police were very helpful and I got all sorts of lessons in Thai culture and food. It took a week in the end what with all the bureaucratic procedures.”

“Wow! Nothing so exciting ever happened to me”, I laughed, pulling the lids off the cartons.“What would you like to drink? I ‘m afraid I can only offer beer or whisky unless you prefer sparkling water or tea….”

“Beer’s great,” she said, looking appreciatively into the cartons.

I opened two bottles of my favourite craft ale, not bothering with glasses.

“Mm, this is delish”, she said, sampling the red curry with duck and taking a swig of the beer.

“You’ve been doing this job for longer than me, I think,” she said. “So tell me, what was the most exciting thing that ever happened to you?”

“Gosh….I don’t know…but two days ago I arrested a suspected murderer on a plane that was about to take off,”  and told her the story of my last case, after which she told me some funny stories from her own cases and before I knew it we had finished the food and I had opened two more bottles. Rachel leapt to her feet and began collecting cartons and stacking plates.

“Hey..” I protested, “you don’t have to …”

She shrugged. “Done now” and proceeded to clear away the rubbish while I stacked the dishwasher. We worked in tandem and I was conscious of her ease in fitting in wherever she happened to be. She had an energy to her that seemed to communicate itself to me, for, despite my tiredness and the long day, I was keen to discuss the case with her and to generate some new ideas to follow up. I was also trying hard not to look at her breasts, which were well defined by the clinging top. 

We repaired to the sofa and I turned on the side lamp. Missy came and installed herself on my lap, purring as I idly stroked her soft fur.

“This is so comfortable,” she said, stretching out. “I’ve always wanted a leather sofa but they’re very expensive.”

“Second hand”, I admitted, “auction”. For some reason I was anxious not to make her think I was rich and took such things for granted. I stretched out a little at my end of the sofa, pulling a battered leather pouffe over to rest my feet on sideways. Missy huffed at losing her seat and shifted to the middle. I looked at Rachel, into whose space the cat had now migrated. Rachel reached out a hand and fondled her ears affectionately. Missy moved in closer, purring with contentment, which made me smile.

“She likes you. That’s highly unusual,” I commented.

She smiled. “Did I hear you call her “Missy”? How did she get that name?”

Oh, damn, right, well that was inevitable. I paused, uncertain about where to start.

“She’s named after a singer, Missy Higgins, do you know her?”  Rachel shook her head.

“She …um….she had a song called “Your Warm Whispers”. We….um…I…my partner actually, called her Missy because she used to get on our bed at night and purr close to our faces.“

“Right,” Rachel nodded slowly. I could see her wondering how to be diplomatic about the next question. I decided to pre-empt her.

“She’s..she’s not here any more. My partner, I mean. She died. Two years ago.”

“Oh, hey, I’m sorry, that’s terrible, I’m really tactless, I shouldn’t have asked such a personal question.”

“No, really, it’s fine. Better to be clear. You’d find out soon enough anyway,” I replied evenly, echoing her words from earlier that morning.

“Right, so we’re quits,” she said, draining the last drops from the beer bottle.  Then, as if in disbelief she brought the bottle close up and exclaimed “Oh, this stuff is 6% proof. No wonder I feel a bit light headed. Maybe I’ll have to leave my car here tonight and cab home.”

“Well in that case, can I offer you a whisky? The beer’s finished.”

“Oh go on then, since I can’t even pretend I’m driving,” she said, her eyes crinkling with warmth.

As I poured I tried to bring the topic back to our case.

“So tell me about your exciting afternoon”.

Chapter Text

Rachel

The buzzing of my phone cut through the strange dream I was having.  There was a dull pounding in my head and my mouth was dry with a foul taste. I rolled over and squinted at the screen. 6.10 am. I groaned. What time did I go to bed? Then I noticed the duvet cover was a plain dark blue. Very nice but totally unfamiliar. What the …?   Ohhh…I was still at Jill’s place!

The name DC Childs flashed up on the screen. “Lisa”, I croaked, coughing to clear the mucus from my throat.

“Sounds like a rough night, boss. Sorry to disturb your slumbers but we have another body. Dodson has called us in because it looks like Philip Crawford.”

“Jesus….OK Lisa where are you?”

“Well, not far from Northolt actually. We’ll have to alert DI Raymond.”

“OK leave DI Raymond to me, I’ll get her or Quinn to join. Text me the coordinates and see you in about 35 minutes.”

I collapsed back onto the pillows, recollections of the previous night filtering through the fug. I used to be quite a drinker, of the binge and regret it variety, back in the day, but since being pregnant with Ryan I’d cut it down drastically. Two strong beers and ..how many of those delicious whiskies? and I felt like shit. Move it, Rache, I told myself, tossing back the duvet and regretfully leaving the very comfortable bed in what must be Jill’s spare room. I needed to alert Jill, and as I had deliberately allowed more time to arrive, to create the impression that I was coming from home, I could shower and change. I had the suit I had changed out of yesterday and clean underwear in the bag I had obviously brought in from the car last night; my jeans and top lay on the floor where I had dropped them. Looking around I saw a towel Jill had left for me on the chair, so I removed my underwear, scooped all the dirty clothes into the bag and hastily wrapped the towel around myself before leaving the room. Which room was hers? I tiptoed down the passage, seeing the bathroom door ajar, right there was one more room facing the front that must be hers. I tapped on the door.

“Jill? “

The answer came immediately “yes”, and a swishing sound as she came to the door. She was wide awake but still in sleepwear- a very thin white ribbed vest that left absolutely nothing to the imagination and a pair of soft cotton bottoms in pale blue. For a second I just took in the length of her standing there, pale and lanky, the firm definition of her muscles, the flat abs, pulling my gaze away and back up to her eyes, catching the telltale flicker that revealed she was looking me up and down as well. I flushed, pulling the towel tighter around my breasts, and gave her the news.

“OK, you take the bathroom first, I’ll make some tea and toast,” she said firmly, reaching for a silk robe on the back of the door and making to exit.

“Er..right, I’ll be quick,” I said, scuttling into the bathroom, feeling acutely self-conscious.

By the time I got downstairs I could hear the shower going and Missy was greedily hoovering up the contents of her bowl. I saw a pot of tea with English breakfast teabags inside and milk all laid out. I made a mug and grabbed a piece of toast from the toaster, hastily slathering on peanut butter, remembering that there might not be time later to line my stomach.

Jill was fast. As I flicked crumbs from my suit, she appeared in a natty lime green plaid waistcoat and crisp white shirt, fastening her cufflinks and pushing her feet into a pair of chunky loafers.

I offered her a mug in silence, my mouth still full, and she gave me a smile that lit up her face. While drinking, she reached into a cupboard and pulled out a box of crunchy bars, the health food type, of course. She grabbed two and stuffed them into her pocket and offered the rest of the box to me. Never one to turn down the opportunity of fending off hunger, I took one and smiled back. Then she took her coat from the hook by the door and we headed out. I zapped my key fob and was throwing my overnight bag into the boot when she called my name. 

“I’ll follow you but you’ll need to give me coordinates so I can call Quinn”.

A sudden wave of acute embarrassment washed over me.

“Um….maybe we should arrive separately? I mean, it’s fine, but no need for colleagues to know I stayed overnight with you.”

She raised an eyebrow sardonically, then gave a dry little cough. “Hmm, I see”.

My face was a dead giveaway, bright red, guilt written all over. For fuck’s sake, Rachel, get a grip!

 “No, no that’s not what I meant,” I protested, “I just mean they take any chance to gossip and it might not be good if they know we’re too friendly, if you take my point.” I was tangling myself in knots. I slammed the boot shut and advanced a few steps towards her as she opened her car door.

Not quite meeting my eyes, she said: “OK, you go first and text me the coordinates. I’ll call Quinn and arrive five minutes after you. You’re quite right, no need to set tongues wagging.” She flashed me a quick half-smile and got into her car.

Still embarrassed and annoyed with myself, I punched the coordinates Lisa had given me into my GPS and put the Lexus in drive. As I drove, I switched my brain to work mode and thought about the previous night. Jill had rightly suspected I had ulterior motives when I had set off in pursuit of Gabrielle du Toit the previous day. When I worked Vice, we had a lot of crossovers with the Drugs Squad and I had become friendly with a DS who was my liaison for a while. Justin gave me a periodic heads up when anything on his radar looked as though it was heading my way, and he had tipped me off about suspicions around Northolt some weeks ago. As RAF Northolt was technically in Hillingdon, and since it was a just a low level rumour, I had stored the information but not paid much attention until Andrea Crawford turned up dead. She worked at Northolt, her family were in Ealing –this was my business, and the first thing I did was bang it back to Justin and ask him to check his database for any information about Philip Crawford or Gabrielle du Toit. It was Justin I had gone to meet in the café, he was shadowing a major drugs dealer, looking for the link to Northolt. With the Jamaican lilt he could slip into effortlessly, and the well-worn  red hoodie, black jeans and white hi-tops, he fitted right in. The narrative called for him to greet me as if I was his girlfriend, so I had to let him kiss me. I could have done without the Juicy Fruit chewing gum and 2 days growth of prickly beard.  We sat together in a corner, his arm round me as we talked quietly, discreetly observing the targets. Justin gave me the information he had got from the South Africans on du Toit, but he couldn’t make the link to Northolt except through Andrea. It seemed bizarre to me that there could be any link between the two women since they were basically in competition for the same man. There had to be someone else involved. My theory was that Andrea had somehow got in the way.

When I had reported all this to Rachel, she had looked thoughtful. Then she had told me about the senior RAF Military Policeman who knew her father, and who might give her more information off the record than we could gain on the record. I felt frustrated- I wanted to get into that base and go poking around, but I could see I would have to concede first try to Jill. Meanwhile, Justin and his colleagues were preparing a warrant for a wiretap  on du Toit, so it was becoming a race to see who could find the link first. And now Philip was dead. This put du Toit even more firmly in the frame in my view. As I followed the GPS instructions to turn left, I saw the crime scene tape and white-suited CSIs, police cars and vans parked all around. I called Lisa, “I’m here”.

Jill

 I gave Rachel a five minute head start while I briefed Quinn and arranged to meet him there. The body had been found in a Tesco car park off the Ruislip road, just south of RAF Northolt. It had been called in first to officers at Ealing Met station, who, on being told the assumed identity of the corpse, from the car number plate traced back to him, linked it to our joint case. I hadn't been expecting Rachel to be sensitive about  where she had spent the night, but on reflection, I had to agree with her- I didn’t feel like answering questions about us socialising, not when we were on a case. But the fact was, I enjoyed her company, and I had certainly enjoyed the sight of her in a towel this morning. I had been operating on the assumption that, according to everything she had said, she was straight, but the look she had given me, no more than a downwards flicker of the eyes, told me she had been appraising me, too. I stored the information for later.

When I got to the scene, I saw  the crime scene tape surrounding a car, so I wandered over and peered inside. The body was slumped back in the driver’s seat, a neat bullet hole drilled through the forehead. There was blood spatter on the headrest behind the vic’s head which told me we were dealing with a shot at close range and not from a pea-shooter. As I stood there, I became aware of the Tyvek-suited CSI at my side.

“Is that what killed him? The bullet?” I asked.

The CSI, one I had not seen before, stepped forward.

“DI Raymond? I’m Stefan Bartulis, the senior CSI. We’re still waiting for the pathologist so I can't speculate. The bullet entered through the forehead and exited the back of the skull. It would certainly have done the job, but we can’t tell whether he was drugged first before being dumped here. We’re doing a fingertip search of the car and the area to see what else comes up."

He had the faintest hint of a foreign accent, something in the vowels, and a slight clip to his articulation.

“Right, OK, carry on.”

I turned away. There was something in the man’s open, boyish face that seemed vaguely familiar but I couldn’t think where from. At that moment, a gloved hand appeared on the white shoulder of his overall and Rachel came into view.

“Steve! They called you out so early? Where’s Ryan?”

The penny dropped. Stefan Bartulis was Steve, Ryan’s father.

“No worries, Rache. Michelle will drop him at school on her way to work.”

Her shoulders relaxed. “Ah, I see you’ve met my opposite number?”

He looked at me and back at her. “Ah yes, DI Raymond. Are you both fighting over this one?” His eyes twinkled.

“Hardly”, I said, popping an extra strong mint into my mouth and putting my hands back into my trouser pockets. “I think the term is ‘cooperating’. “

“That’s right”, Rachel nodded. “We’re working together”.

Bartulis grinned as if not quite believing us, then, shooting a glance over my left shoulder, quickly changed his demeanor. “OK, ladies, let’s get ready, I can see the pathologist heading our way. Party time.”

Once Dr. Halloran, the on-duty Home Office pathologist, had finished his examination and authorised removal of the body, we were not a great deal wiser. He resolutely declined to offer any information  as to time or cause of death until the post-mortem, which wouldn’t be until at least three in the afternoon. Rachel turned away in disgust and rolled her eyes at me.

“It is what it is”, I said quietly. “We’ve recognised him, but we should arrange for a relative to identify the body as quickly as possible.”

Rachel turned and beckoned  to Lisa and Quinn, who were standing a little way off.

“Lisa, I want you and Quinn to try to contact Philip’s next of kin if any can be found and arrange for someone to identify the body. Then go and give Andrea’s parents the news. Watch their reaction carefully and check their alibis. We need to eliminate them as suspects as fast as possible.   Work in tandem  with Quinn on this.”

“Yes, guv”, replied Lisa. I nodded at Quinn to signal my agreement.

I turned to Rachel, not exactly sure of whose jurisdiction this was in.  “Let’s get a couple of uniforms to go door to door all around this street and the next to see if anyone heard anything.? This is a supermarket car park, there may be homeless people in the vicinity or kids doing a paper round or whatever.”

“Yes, right”, she answered, snapping her fingers at a uniformed constable standing in the background.

“Lisa, Quinn, follow up with them. DI Raymond and I have other things to attend to. We’ll catch up with you later.”

She jerked her head and drew me away, towards her car, then paused and put her hand briefly on my arm.

“I need to get back to Justin and see if he’s heard anything or has tracked Gabrielle. Do you want to come with me?”

I felt the warmth of her hand through my sleeve. There was nothing I would have liked more than to go and watch her in action with the Drugs Squad but at that moment my phone buzzed with a message. I reached into my pocket as she dropped her arm. Gary Towers.

"Well, here’s progress. The RAF policeman I told you about is going to visit my father at 10 this morning. I have to go, this is a chance to get into Northolt. I’ll call you later. Don’t forget we need to be at the PM at three. “

She smiled briefly. “Sounds good. Let’s see how we go. Oh and…Jill?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks for last night. It’s good to talk to someone outside my own station.”

I inclined my head. “A pleasure, DI Bailey.”

By 9.45 I was pulling up outside my father’s retirement bungalow in St Albans after a quick visit to the nearby Tesco Express for a few items. I parked clear of his drive so that someone else could use it, and went to tap on his back door. As usual he was in his greenhouse conservatory tending to his plants.

“I wasn’t expecting you today”, he said, before turning around.

“Hi Dad,” I kissed him on the cheek. “How did you know it was me?”

“That tap on the door. Most authoritative. Who else but my police inspector daughter?”

I laughed. “Right.”

“And let me guess, this unexpected visit is less pleasure than business?”

“Well, you know it’s always a pleasure to see you, but yes, I’m actually here to talk to Wing Commander Hewson. I’ve been told he’s visiting you today.”

“Is he? Oh that would be nice? I haven’t seen him for quite a while”.

I looked at my father for a long moment. Was that a twitch of his cheek? A sparkle in his eye? He might be 84 but he was still a pro. I let it go and went to put the kettle on. Within ten minutes I heard a car pull into the drive and then another tap on the door.

“Arthur! Good to see you, you’re looking well?!” came the deep voice of the man I was waiting to intercept.

“Martin, always a pleasure. Do go into the lounge, I believe my daughter is preparing refreshments.”

They entered the room as I put down my tray of coffee and biscuits. Wing Commander Martin Hewson, head of his section of the RAF Police at Northolt, was in mufti, navy chinos and a plaid shirt under a Harrington jacket. He was around my own age, early 50’s. He looked trim and fit.

“Martin, this is my daughter, Jill”, my father said. “I don’t think you’ve met”.

Hewson looked at me steadily. “I believe I may have seen you at Paddy’s funeral, but not since.”

“Detective Inspector Jill Raymond,” I said. “Hillingdon Met. Good to meet you Wing Commander.”

I removed my coat and sat in an armchair. Hewson did the same. I poured coffee and offered biscuits. We made small talk with my father until he insisted he had to return to his plants and suggested we take a turn around his very well kept garden. Hewson acted not in the least surprised, so I assumed Gary Towers had given him the gist of what I wanted. I had expected resistance, even threats to keep out of their business. What I hadn’t expected was an invitation to join their enquiry.

Two hours later, I was back on the road south. This was now bigger than Rachel and I.

I called Dodson.

“My office, thirty minutes”, she said. “I’ll try to get hold of DI Bailey”.

 

 

Chapter Text

Rachel

 DS Justin Delgado was pacing the floor in Ealing Met station.

“We’ve got her, Rachel, I’ve got her on film passing drugs to the Albanians that control a lot of the traffic in my patch. I’ve got her on tape talking to a known hit man for the Yardies. The South Africans have identified her, she has a criminal record back there, of course. If you want her for the murders, you need to find the evidence, otherwise we might just take her out of circulation first. “

“Come on Justin, you know how long all these tests take. We can’t get results in five minutes. You need to give us another 48 hours while you track her, to give us time to cover all the bases with the forensics.”

“What about your CSI boyfriend- can’t he put a rush on things?”

I glared at him and was about to fire something back when my phone rang. Dodson.

“Yes, Chief”

“Rachel, I need you over at Hillingdon Central immediately. Where are you?”

“Ealing, Ma’am, meeting with the Drugs Squad, DS Delgado is here briefing me on Gabrielle du Toit.”

“Bring him with you, I’ve requested assistance from the Drugs Squad so I’ll clear it with his boss. I’ve ordered in lunch as well, we need to keep going.”

“Yes, Ma’am, I’m on my way.”

I looked at Justin, who had heard his name mentioned and had eyebrows raised.

“Seems you’re now in on this. DCS Dodson, who is SIO on the 2 murders, wants you to join our meeting over at Hillingdon immediately. Says she’s cleared it with your boss. So let’s get a move on.”

I grabbed my coat and headed for the door, not giving him time to speak. He gathered up his leather jacket and crash helmet. As we reached the car park, he touched my arm.  “Sorry, shouldn’t have said that. I know he’s not your boyfriend any more, I was just winding you up.“

“Well cut it out. Just because we had a one night stand five years ago doesn’t give you the right to make personal comments, OK?”

He gave a cheeky grin. “Got that, Inspector. But what about I take you out to dinner when all this is over?”

I stopped in the middle of the car park and turned to face him. For a moment I felt a surge of revulsion. Justin was a handsome man under the stubble and scruffy clothes he wore for work, and I had certainly fallen for his shtick in the past, so where did this big “No” come from that was screaming from every pore?

“Dream on”, I said and walked to my car.

Jill

 It was after 1pm when I got back to Hillingdon and I was glad to see that Dodson had had sandwiches and fruit cups brought in from M & S (no white bread and crisps for her!). I put my coat on the back of a chair and sat at the long table. A moment later, Stefan Bartulis walked in, holding a plastic folder of papers. He nodded to me and held the folder up for Dodson to see.

“Good man,” she said, having obviously asked him to put a rush on  Andrea's toxicology results.

She looked at her watch. “While we’re waiting for DI Bailey and DS Delgado, let’s have something to eat”, and she indicated the spread on the side table. Stefan and I moved towards it. I was famished. I’d been too nervous in my meeting with Hewson to eat biscuits and I had eaten only one of the crunchy bars in my pocket since getting up. I could see him reading the labels so, to break the ice, I asked “Vegan or vegetarian?”

“Mostly vegan”, he replied, looking surprised, “but it doesn’t always work in this job. Goat cheese is now a vegetable, it seems.”

My quick glance at the array of packets indicated an absence of anything purely vegan so I held up a packet bearing the label “Goat cheese, rocket and red pepper”.

“Any good?”

“That’ll do”, he smiled. He was busy pouring something from one of the urns. “Can I get you a tea or a coffee?”

“Um, tea would be good, just black, please.”

We swapped, his sandwich for my tea cup and stood companiably by the table unwrapping our sandwiches- mine something called an LGBT- lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato- and a rainbow all over the packet.

“Is that the DCS’s little joke?” he nodded at the packet.

“Er, no, it’s a real sandwich, I’m afraid. Marks had them made for Pride back in July. I must admit I’ve got quite fond of them,” I said with a smile, which he picked up immediately.

“Hmm, shame we vegans can’t have our own colour coordinated sandwiches. It would make life easier”, he smiled warmly at me.

I liked him, he was definitely growing on me. His English was perfect- fluent and idiomatic, but the tiny hint of an accent was intriguing.

“You’re er Latvian, Rachel told me.”

“That’s right. From Riga. My mum’s still there but my younger sister and I came over for studies and we stayed.”

“Yes, I’ve been to the café your sister runs. Great breakfasts, I must say.”

He smiled proudly, pausing with his sandwich halfway to his mouth.

“Katrín studied Hospitality and we thought, you know, she’d be working for a big resort or hotel, but no, she worked in kitchens for years and saved enough money to open her own café. She’s a force of nature.”

We finished our sandwiches and were just refilling teacups when Rachel arrived. Dodson waved to her and called “Grab some food and let’s get started. Where’s Delgado?”

“On his way”, Rachel answered, picking up the sandwich nearest to her on the table without reading the label. Stefan moved to the urn and poured her a coffee, adding milk, and putting it down in front of her. She smiled at him gratefully, and for some reason, I found his concern touching. I sat down next to her and Dodson moved to the front, beckoning to Stefan to join her. Before they could start, the door opened and a tall, good-looking man wearing a biker’s leather jacket and holding a crash helmet entered, apologising, and sat down at the other end of the table.

“Right, people”, Dodson began. “We are treating these two cases, the deaths of Andrea and Philip Crawford, as linked, and preliminary enquiries have revealed that there may be a drugs angle, hence our cooperation with the Drugs Squad, represented here by DS Delgado. I’ll let our Crime Scene Manager, Steve….er Stefan Bartulis start the ball rolling.”

Stefan had unpacked his documents and also a USB which he inserted into the laptop, projecting his findings onto the screen. He took us carefully through the forensic analysis of Andrea’s crime scene, and what had so far been gleaned from Philip’s.

“The two scenes are very different. The first, as you can see, seems clumsy: manual strangulation after a blow to the head with a blunt instrument. Some scratches indicating the victim struggled. No attempt made to hide the body, she was apparently killed where she was found. Toxicology found no drugs in her system, but blood alcohol levels are high.  The second victim, on the other hand, was shot cleanly through the head – we have details of the gun and bullets used- and blood spatter indicates he was shot where he sat, in the driver’s seat of the car, but the position of the limbs suggests that he was manoeuvred into the car either while unconscious or semi-conscious. We are still waiting on the post-mortem and toxicology results, so this is premature, but all the signs point to this being more of a professional hit, deliberate and planned.”  He sat down.

Dodson then took us over the victims’ backgrounds and introduced the possible drugs link via Gabrielle du Toit, Philip Crawford’s apparent girlfriend. She then asked DS Delgado to outline the information the Drugs Squad held on du Toit.

“Right, well, du Toit ties into an investigation which is still ongoing into the supply and distribution of Grade A heroin into the UK from Afghanistan or the Middle East generally. Around six months ago, we noticed a spike in supplies and have the distribution network under surveillance. But we couldn’t find out where it was coming from. Finally, about six weeks ago, surveillance picked up this woman calling herself Gabrielle du Toit, who was seen meeting with one of the key players in the distribution network, an Albanian gangster called Artan Beqiri. After her second meeting with him, we noticed that she always met someone lower down in the network. Beqiri doesn’t stick his head above the parapet too often. We tracked the woman to Ealing and logged her relationship with Crawford. We got a wiretap authorised yesterday and this morning we got her calling a number used by a certain hitman for the Yardies in North London. The content of the call didn’t reveal anything specific, but it’s suspicious in itself. Yes?”

He paused as I had raised my hand.

“Has any progress been made in uncovering Gabrielle du Toit’s real identity?”

“The South Africans believe she may be Annalie Hendricks, born in Worcester in the Western Cape. Same age as Gabrielle du Toit, just different birthday. She got involved in drugs when she attended Stellenbosch University a decade ago, and she has a criminal record in South Africa for armed robbery among other things. Her mother, apparently, had a British passport, which may be why she chose to come here. She’s disappeared off the radar in South Africa.”

Dodson then intervened. “Thank you, DS Delgado. DI Raymond, can you fill us in on the Northolt end of things.”

I stood, hands in pockets, in my thinking stance, and tried to find the best starting point.

“We’ve had nothing so far to link Andrea’s murder to RAF Northolt other than the fact that she worked there, but through personal contacts on the base, I’ve discovered that the military police are carrying out an investigation into some sort of drugs operation which started up around six months ago. When we learned of the link between Gabrielle du Toit and the recent spike in heroin supply, from the Drugs Squad, this, together with the link to Northolt through Andrea Crawford, began to come together as two parts of the same investigation. This morning I spoke in private to Wing Commander Hewson, the most senior RAF policeman running this investigation, and he has asked for cooperation from the Met- but undercover.”

“Jill, do we know what sort of cooperation he has in mind?” Dodson asked.

“He’d like us or the Drugs Squad to put in an undercover officer and for that person to report solely to him. No one else would know about it.”

“That would be me, then”, said Delgado, sitting up straight in his chair.

“Actually, er, no, he wants a woman, to replace Andrea and to get into her workmates’ confidence more easily.”

As I said this, I knew what Delgado and Stefan Bartulis must be thinking – that it would be me. But Hewson had been adamant that this was not possible.

“Your cover is too easily blown”, he had said, and it was true. Too many people knew my face, and in Hillingdon, I was known as a police officer. Total anonymity was impossible.

It was Dodson who spoke up. “Well, unfortunately, it can’t be Jill – she’s too well known.”

“So it has to be me”, stated Rachel quietly.

I saw Stefan trying not to react, but he was plainly unhappy with the idea. Delgado said nothing.

“What about DC Childs?” I suggested.

“She’s too young and inexperienced and this could be dangerous. I can’t put her in there”, Rachel replied. “Look, I did undercover when I was Vice, I’ve been on the Manchester MIT- it doesn’t get much nastier than that. This is fine, I can do it.”.

It made perfect sense, but I felt a sinking in my stomach nonetheless.

 

Rachel

I didn’t think much about the undercover op for the rest of the afternoon. We raced to Philip’s post-mortem and then, not much the wiser, back to Ealing Met for a round-up with Quinn and Childs. Dodson had asked us not to discuss the operation with anyone outside the room until I was actually in place. Jill then set up a meeting with Hewson. It seemed the Wing Commander was wary of meeting in a public place so he again requested to visit Jill’s father, which meant a trip to St Albans tomorrow.

The day passed quickly and I could feel my energy levels dropping. Thank goodness tomorrow was Saturday, and I’d get the afternoon off if nothing urgent came up. By the time we had finished for the day, I was ready to go home. I looked at Jill. Her shirt was a lot less crisp, her sleeves were rolled up, yet she seemed as mentally sharp as ever. I slumped back in my chair, idly watching her get up and walk over to the water cooler. How had I not noticed earlier that the back of her waistcoat was a deep sapphire blue? It gave me an absurd pleasure to watch her, the colours of her waistcoat blending, and her toned body beautifully showcased in the slim fitting trousers. She pushed her hair back from her face and perched against the table next to me. She radiated warmth and concern, her calm stillness an antidote to the headlong pace of the case we were working on.

“I think I’ll be heading off in a minute”, I said, yawning.

“Yep, me too,” she said, stretching while bracing herself against the table.

“It’s Friday night, Jill. You’re young, free and single. Hope you’re going out to have fun!” I said, teasing.

“Ha, less of the young. And for your information, I don’t think Friday night has been anything special for me since I was a student! Nope, cat and TV, that’s about it.”

I had a sudden realisation that I didn’t want to lose her company. What was this? We’d known each other less than three days, yet I had got so used to her being there that I wanted it to continue. She made me feel safe somehow, I know that sounds crazy, but well, there it was.

“Well, I don’t suppose I could entice you to mine for something to eat? We could discuss tomorrow’s meeting in more detail …….if you’re not too tired,” I added, hopefully.

She hesitated. “I’m tempted, you’re nearer and there isn’t much to look forward to at home, if you’re sure it’s OK, not inconvenient for Ryan…” she paused.

I shook my head. “God no, according to Steve he hasn’t stopped talking about you, he’ll love it. You might have to read him a bedtime story though“, I chuckled.

“Let me just make a call”.

I waited as she phoned someone called Jean who would take care of Missy’s evening meal. The instructions were quite detailed. I rolled my eyes.

“OK I’m clear. Shall I follow you?”

I got wearily to my feet and picked up my coat and briefcase.

“Just beep if I start weaving all over the road”, I said, as we waved goodnight to our colleagues and left the building.

 

Chapter Text

Jill

 

Rachel’s house was better organised than I would have thought, especially the kitchen, that I knew she had no particular interest in.  I guessed that Stefan was the cook- being vegetarian, he would need to have more control over food preparation. Rachel had stopped to collect Ryan from day care, where he went after school, and he seemed delighted to see me.

“Raymond, it’s your turn to read me a story”, he said, in a very grown up voice.

“OK Ryan, you’ve had your tea, and daddy will be here in a minute so he’ll give you your bath and after that Jill will help me put you to bed.” Rachel said.

He turned his serious gaze on me and insisted. “Promise, Raymond!”

“I promise”, I said solemnly, and his little face broke into a smile. To my surprise, I was actually looking forward to it.

“You’ve done it now, fan for life” smiled Rachel, parking Ryan on the sofa with some toys, and turning on the TV, which she switched to a kids’ channel.

“Let’s get dinner sorted. Steve did some cooking on his day off and put a load of meals in the freezer. All vegetarian or vegan, mind you, but …”

“I really don’t mind”, I said. I often ate vegetarian, especially at home.

“His aubergine lasagne is pretty good,” she said, pulling a container out. “Of course, he had to put cheese on top, even if everything else is vegan, or I wouldn’t eat it!”

I laughed. “I’m sure it’s delicious”.

She was right. It was very good. In the end the three of us demolished the lasagne with a big salad and some garlic bread that Rachel found in the freezer. I accepted a single glass of Chenin Blanc, relaxing after reading a couple of chapters of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to Ryan.

“He’s crazy about that Caterpillar,” laughed Stefan, popping the cap on a bottle of Stella Artois. “He gets everyone to read that to him over and over again”.

For a while we ate in silence, then Rachel said “I suppose we'd better talk about this undercover assignment. How we can make it work.”

Stefan put his fork down and looked at Rachel with serious eyes.

“You know I don’t like it”, he said. “Not just because it will upset Ryan’s routine, but because of the danger. I don’t want you to put yourself at risk. It’s not worth it.”

Rachel sighed. While I was reading to Ryan, she had showered and changed into sweatpants and a long sleeved top. Now she sat back in her chair and pulled a leg up under herself. I admired her flexibility, something I had had to forfeit a while ago following my  injury.

“Steve, I know how you feel, no, really I do, but you have to understand, this is my job. It’s what I do. You have no idea how often I did this kind of thing with Vice, or with the MIT. I’m a highly trained police officer, I know how to take care of myself. And there will be people on the base I can trust.”

“And me”, I put in quietly. “I’ll be in contact the whole time, ready to come in immediately if things kick off. We’ll have your back.”

Stefan cleared his plate and swallowed the last drops of  his beer.

“I know you know what you’re doing, Rachel, but I’ll still be anxious. You’ll be out of contact with home for ..what? A week? Ten days?”

“A week should do it,” I said. “And I’ll keep you informed every day. I’ll even come and read to Ryan if that would make him happy.”

Stefan got up and took his plate to the sink, rinsing it off and placing it in the dishwasher.

“OK, well, I’m sure he’ll take you up on that offer, Jill, and you’d be most welcome.  Now if you two will excuse me, I have some computer work to do and I’m sure you have police business to discuss.”

When he had gone to his study, and we had cleared up, we took cups of tea into the living room and made ourselves comfortable.

“Would you really?” Rachel asked.

“Really what?”

“Come and read to Ryan?”

I laughed, “It’s not everyone’s kids I take to, but Ryan seems to have twisted me round his little finger.”

She grinned suddenly, a cheeky smile. “Like mother like son.”

You got that right, I thought, seeing the way she was curled in the armchair, long legs folded and the cotton top taut against her breasts, nipples just visible through the thin fabric. I felt suddenly uncomfortable in my thin shirt, now minus the waistcoat, so I leaned forward, forearms on my thighs, to conceal the fact that my own nipples were standing to attention. The sudden movement pulled the seam of my trousers tight against my crotch. I held my breath and tried not to move any more. I hadn’t had this reaction to anyone since long before Bella died. My libido had certainly picked the most awkward moment in which to wake from its long sleep.

 

Rachel

The meeting in St Albans was timed for 11 am, so I had a bit of lie-in. I heard Ryan chirping loudly to Steve, in Steve’s bedroom, when I went to the bathroom, and I was glad the boy had such a good father. It was as if he had picked up that Mummy needed her rest, and knew to go and wake Daddy instead on those mornings when I wasn’t rushing out of the door at the crack of dawn. We were exceptionally lucky that there was no tension between Steve and I, and that Michelle fitted into the picture without any questions from Ryan. He called her Michelle (unlike Auntie Kathy), and happily accepted to sleep over at her place once or twice a week. We had been doing this to make the transition to Steve moving in with her easier. Michelle had a more regular routine than either Steve or I, so she had been very helpful on those occasions when both of us had been unavailable. Steve flitted back and forth more often now, sometimes leaving me alone with Ryan, sometimes taking him with him. I had to admit that when he left, I would miss him, but he deserved a proper family life, not to share a house with a woman who didn’t want him for anything except his domestic and parenting skills.

Another thing I appreciated about Steve- and I knew other people called him Stefan, but the nickname had just stuck from when he had been in the police himself and attached to my team on Vice- was that he had never assumed I would just go back to him because of Ryan. He had never pestered me for sex. I knew he had thought himself in love with me at one time, but he had got over it and moved on. Now we felt more like brother and sister. And that was fine. My body was giving me some strange signals these days- like the feeling I had had earlier in the day when Justin Delgado came on to me again. I had had no sexual relationships since Ryan came into my life. Oh, one very ill-judged one night stand with a cop in the MIT after Gill Murray’s 53rd birthday party, at which she had openly flaunted her younger lover. I had felt suddenly abandoned; stupid, I know, because the news about her relationship was no longer  news. Once she had taken early retirement, she’d let her hair down, and good for her. So I felt I somehow needed to compete. Bad idea, Rachel. Well that was over three years ago and just the memory of that night, and all those other nights I had wasted on useless guys, made me shudder. The only guy I had ever been genuinely, deeply in love with was the barrister, Nick. And he had shat on me from a great height, even tried to have me killed. To be honest, these days I felt a lot safer and more appreciated in the company of someone like Jill Raymond- someone who could understand my background, our shared experience of the police, but who wanted nothing from me that I wasn’t willing to give. Companionship, support….I suppose three days isn’t a long time, but I would say friendship, too. Who needed sex after all?

When I was getting ready to go out, I did a very unusual thing. Saturday was dress down day, which usually meant whichever jeans, sweater or shirt was close to hand, but today, remembering that I had to meet Jill’s father, I chose my clothes with more care. Black instead of blue jeans, my belt with the silver buckle, a soft burgundy shirt with chest pockets and a plain black zip front bomber jacket in a satiny material. I brushed my hair out and let it loose. Silver earrings, a touch of eyeliner, a swipe of lipstick- nothing too shouty, a squirt of Gucci Bamboo and I was done. As I went to pick up my car keys, Ryan came to the living room door.

“Mummy kiss”, he said, reaching out his arms. I picked him up and carried him into the room where Steve was reading the newspaper.

“Bye bye Ryan, Mummy’s going to work. I’ll be back soon”, and I kissed him.

“Mummy smell nice,” he said, rubbing his nose in my neck.

I handed Ryan to Steve, who sniffed as I bent towards him.

“Yes, she does,” he agreed, winking at me. He had bought the perfume in the Duty-Free on the way back from a business trip to the States.

“Just be good, you two,” I said, heading for the door.

I had no idea what Jill’s father would be like. I knew he was 84 and lived alone, her mother having died over 10 years before, and that he had a bungalow on a retirement complex in St Albans. I worried that he might be posh. That he might think me stupid, or vulgar with my Oldham accent. Then I laughed to myself. Jill might sound posh with her cultivated southern voice, but there was nothing patronising about her. I was getting so used to her company that I realised I would miss it terribly when I went undercover. Especially if I had to live apart from Ryan and Steve. Last night, I had felt so comfortable with her that I wished she didn’t have to go, but she was tired, and she had to do the drive home, and anyway, I didn’t have a spare room. And there was her bloody cat. A sweet cat, no doubt, but a pain in the arse all the same, if she had to tend to its needs all the time. She had assured me over and again that Dodson would never knowingly put me in danger. That she had action man Delgado on speed dial, and that she, Jill, would find a way to be in touch every day, and would make sure Ryan had his dose of hungry caterpillars in my absence.

“You’re making it seem as if I’m about to be parachuted into a war zone”, I joked, to bring down some of the emotional tension that had arisen with talk of the undercover job. “It’s not like I haven’t done this stuff before, even if you haven’t.”

She looked at me for a moment, her brown eyes soft but masking something I couldn’t quite identify. “Oh, I have, believe me”, she replied, patting my hand as she got up to leave, while I stored that knowledge for another time.

I watched as she put her waistcoat back on, noting the way her white shirt clung to her body. Then she added her coat and made for the door. I got up to let her out and as she turned and said goodnight, I suddenly reached my arms around her neck in an awkward hug, kissing her smooth cheek. She stood rigidly at first, then patted me gently on the back.

“Thank you,” I whispered, “It means a lot that you’ve got my back.”

She made eye contact for a second, her expression deep and unfathomable. Then with a soft “Goodnight”, she was gone.

I drove over to Hillingdon station where I had agreed to leave my car. We were going in Jill’s car, as if I were a friend or relative going to meet her father. When I arrived, she was there, sipping from a Caffe Nero cup. I locked my car and walked towards hers as she went to drop her cup in the waste bin. This morning she was wearing black skinny jeans, similar to mine, though I swear hers were a lot tighter, and her legs looked fabulous in them. On top she had a striped green and black rugby shirt and a bottle green quilted body warmer. Green Converse completed the look. Her hair also had a mussed look with a hint of a curl, that I assumed was the result of hasty drying and no brushing, a far cry from the usual sleek helmet. It suited her very well.

“Looking sporty, I see”, I smiled.

“Whereas you, you look like you’re going for an audition.”

“Well, I am, sort of”, I answered nervously.

"Nice shirt, by the way." I looked down and smiled. It was a nice shirt, one of my favourites. 

It was warm in the car and she shed her bodywarmer, tossing it carelessly over the back seat, releasing a vibrant, citrussy aroma as she did so.

"Right. Andiamo,” she said, putting the car in gear and heading out.

I sensed that neither of us much wanted to talk. I was comfortable with her steady, warming presence, just being there was enough. She turned the radio on low, a selection of power ballads that afforded a useful backdrop to the bland scenery of the M25.

Air Commodore Arthur Raymond was, as Jill had described him, a sweet elderly gentleman.  “Call me Arthur”, he said immediately on shaking hands. He was polite and kind, making us coffee and showing us his roses in the conservatory when Wing Commander Hewson arrived. At this point, Arthur excused himself and Jill carried the coffee tray out to the garden. Luckily it wasn’t raining, although it wasn’t very warm, but Jill whispered “Dad’s paranoid about listening devices”. This struck me as rather over the top for someone who had been retired for over 20 years, but I went along. Hewson was blunt and to the point.

“I need Monday to get Andrea Crawford’s replacement cleared with HR. I’ll say we’ve got someone transferring from RAF Halton, personal reasons. We have strong links with Halton, so I can swing it at short notice. I’ve spoken to DCS Dodson, and she confirms that suitable housing can be found to fit the legend. If all goes to plan tomorrow, you can start on Tuesday”.

I nodded. The sooner the better. In actual fact I was raring to go, but I had to keep the momentum. Two more days waiting was bad enough.

The rest of the meeting involved channels of communication, a job description, that sort of thing. Hewson was obviously efficient and made it clear that I would report to him alone on base.

“That’s all good, Wing Commander,” Jill put in, “but I will need to have an open channel to Rachel. And I’m her backup as I’m nearest. Is there some way you can issue me with a pass, so that I can come in and out as if running errands?”

Hewson thought for a minute. I thought Jill was pushing her luck- if she couldn’t go undercover, what hope did she have of getting a pass that wouldn’t raise suspicions of police involvement? But Hewson seemed to think the request reasonable.

“You’d need some form of disguise, of course.”

“What about a motorcycle and leathers?” she asked. “As if I’m a dispatch rider.”

My jaw nearly hit the floor. Hewson coolly looked her up and down.  “I think that would suit very well”, he replied. “I’ll have a pass  run up from one of our supply companies.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jill

 After our meeting with the Wing Commander, I called in acceptance of the undercover plan to Dodson and told her that Hewson would give final confirmation on Monday, to start on Tuesday. I drove Rachel back to her car, and the rest of the weekend dawned depressingly ahead-unless something happened to call me in to work. Rachel was quiet most of the time, although she seemed sceptical of my ability to pass myself off as a dispatch rider.

“Do you ride a motorbike?” she asked, incredulously.

“I do, or I did, although I haven’t ridden one for a while. I think the leathers will still fit.”

“Wow! I always wanted to ride, but never learned,” she admitted.

“Well maybe when this is all over, I could teach you?” I suggested.

“Would you? Oh that would be amazing!”

“What is it about motorcycles- and leather- that gets people all excited?” I mused. For, to tell the truth, my motorbike riding in my other, past life had been for a specific purpose, not for glamour or excitement.

“Well, it’s sexy- tight black leather, high speeds…you know”, she tailed off, blushing a little as she saw me raise my eyebrows.

Hmmm, really?

When I got home I couldn’t settle. I did some vacuuming, a supermarket run, changed the kitty litter, but by 4pm I was kicking my heels. It suddenly occurred to me that I had spent the last three days and two evenings and this morning with Rachel, and that I missed her. I missed her? How stupid was that? A woman I had only just met, a straight  woman with a child and a complicated life. A woman twelve years younger than me and from a different world to mine, the police our only shared experience. Rachel came across as hard, especially at work, although I knew a woman DI had to be tough to hold her own in a macho world like the Met. Yet there was a vulnerability about her that came through when she let her guard down, and I could see she had been deeply hurt in the past. Mostly by men, it would seem. Which may be why she seemed more willing to trust me. This left me in an awkward situation. I could feel something like desire unfurling in my belly when I thought about her, when I was near her. It was so unexpected that it had caught me off-guard. After Bella, I had very little inclination to try love again. My bruised heart had led me to think that the tap had been turned off for good, but my body was telling me otherwise. It wasn’t just that Rachel was an attractive woman; this was undeniable, and the reaction of the men around her spoke for itself; beauty alone was not something I reacted to. There were other factors - she had a spark about her, a daredevil cheekiness and drive on the surface and a deep pit of loneliness and sadness on the inside which I could see, because I had the same thing. But my mask let in no light, whereas she was still more open to the world and to other people.

Finally, I got the bike out and  my blood pumping for about 45 minutes. As I cruised back into my village, the night was drawing in, the temperature had dropped and a fine, damp  mist was clinging  to my shoulders. I shivered, and headed straight for a hot shower before my back seized up.

By 9pm I was curled up on the sofa with a hot whisky mac. I had made my favourite linguine amatriciana, packed away the extra portions of sauce in the freezer, had a couple of glasses of Merlot to wash it down and had loaded and set the dishwasher in motion. The TV was on but I wasn’t really paying attention. Missy had come to curl up next to me and I could feel my eyelids starting to droop when my phone rang. I wasn’t expecting anyone but when I saw the name Rachel, my heart leapt.

“Hey,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Oh, just bored. Am I disturbing you?”

“No, no, I was just about to fall asleep on the sofa. But it’s fine.” I didn’t know what to say.

“It’s just that Steve has to work tomorrow and I’ve got Ryan all day. Dodson has given me a day off, no on-call duties because of the job next week. I was wondering, if the weather holds, and if you’re not busy, whether you’d fancy doing something with us. An outing…I don’t know, just, whatever….” she tailed off uncertainly.

“I’d love to. What did you have in mind? What does Ryan enjoy?”

“He likes animals, all animals”, she said.

“What about Whipsnade Zoo then? It’s not so far – M25 and M1, maybe 45 minutes max. Have you been before?”

“No,” she admitted. “Though in the summer Steve and Kathy took him to London Zoo and he loved it.”

“Well, Whipsnade is owned by ZSL- the Zoological Society of London, which owns London Zoo as well. It’s a charity. Whipsnade is the largest zoo in the UK, it’s fascinating.” I was suddenly enthused.

“Wow, sounds as if you know it well,” she sounded surprised.

“Um, well, I’m er a member, actually, so I can get a discount on entry.”

“Sounds great,” she said. “So if we’re heading for the M25, I should come your way to pick you up. How about 9 o’ clock?”

“Perfect”, I said. Suddenly my empty Sunday had filled up.

 

Rachel

 Gosh, I don’t know how I’d cope if I was a primary school teacher”, I groaned, sitting back in my chair and reaching gratefully for my cappuccino.

Jill had bought the tickets online in advance with her discount, refusing to take any money, and had planned the day perfectly to keep Ryan entertained. She had listened to his chatter, talked to him, held his hand and even, when he flagged, carried him up on her shoulders. for better viewing of the elephants. She was clearly strong, but I saw her wince when he settled behind her neck and after fifteen minutes I suggested we put him back in his hired micro -trike to give her a rest.

“Raymond, I want you, I can see more,” Ryan wailed as I lifted him off.

“You’re a big boy now, and Raymond is tired”, I explained as he sulked. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Jill rotating her neck and trying discreetly to stretch. I regretted having let her take him in the first place.

“How about an ice cream?” Jill offered, and his mood changed instantly. For a childless woman, Jill had an uncanny ability to understand the mindset of a four year old boy!

Once he was safely installed in the Activity Centre with other children and under supervision, we snuck off for a late lunch. I told Jill the story of how my younger brother, Dom, had stuck his hand into a parrot’s cage when he was a toddler on a visit to Manchester Zoo, and it had bitten his finger off. He had had to be rushed into Manchester General to have it sewn back on.

“He always was as dopey as they come”, I said, a little saddened by the memory. We didn’t have many outings during our childhood.

“Where is he now?” asked Jill.

“In prison”, I stated blandly. She seemed taken aback, so I explained how Dom had beaten almost to death my former lover, Nick Savage, who had tried to have me killed after I had discovered that he had manipulated a court case. Nick had died in hospital and Dom had been caught and sentenced to ten years for manslaughter. I didn’t see the need to add that It wasn’t his first stretch in jail or that I had informed on him.  

“I’m sorry,” she said gently, putting her hand on my arm. It was a comforting sensation.

“Do you have any siblings?” I asked her. She looked down so that her hair fell over her face.

“I had a brother, Patrick- Paddy. He was two years older than me but he was killed in the first Gulf War. Flying Officer. Brought down over Iraq by anti-aircraft fire. His plane exploded.”

“Oh God, that’s terrible, I’m so sorry,” I said. “How old was he, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Twenty-five”, she replied quietly.

“That’s tragic. Are you the only child now?”

She nodded, then, tossing her hair back, she stood up and took my hand, pulling me to my feet, much to my amusement.

“Enough sadness. Let’s go and get that boy of yours. One train ride round the zoo and he’ll be worn out. “

“If we’re lucky”, I said, letting go of her hand as we headed for the exit.

 

Jill

 As predicted, Ryan fell asleep as soon as he was strapped in his seat in Rachel’s car. The drive back was quiet. Rachel put on some soothing background music and we chatted in low voices. As we neared the junction of the M1 and M25, however, Rachel apologised and said she needed to get Ryan straight home and would I mind going to her place. She offered to lend me her car to go home later, although I insisted it was OK and that I could Uber. She glanced at me.

“Well, Steve’s staying over with Michelle tonight as he’ll have Ryan all next week. And I’ve got a really nice bottle of Nero d’Avola I’ve been saving for a special occasion.”

“Oh, I see. And what’s the special occasion?”

“Our first joint operation, of course. And I get to see my opposite number in leathers riding a big Ducati.”

I laughed, trying to suppress the bubble of mirth that threatened to become a full blown honk which would almost certainly wake Ryan.

“It’s hardly that”, I managed, “something much more pedestrian”.

She gave me a wicked smile. “Oh don’t disappoint me. Delgado has a Ducati but I bet you look a lot sexier in your leathers than he does.”

I coughed now, feeling a flush come to my cheeks. “Well that remains to be seen. I don’t think a 53 year old woman can compete with a thirty-something male model ”, I said, to test her.

“Pfff,” she said, “don’t you believe it. Not everyone goes for the Neanderthal type”.

I gave her a look, but she didn’t react. Justin Delgado didn’t come across as a Neanderthal type to me, but she knew him much better than I did, obviously. I wondered if her remark was about him or herself.

Once we had got Ryan home, and Rachel had fed him, bathed him and I had helped her to tuck him in – thankfully he was too tired for a story- he said, “Kiss, Raymond,” holding out his arms, so I bent over and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“Night night, Ryan, sleep tight.”

“Night, Raymond. Thank you for today. I love eliphants.”

I had a little warm feeling in my insides as I left the bedroom and Rachel and I went back downstairs.

“He’s really taken to you”, she said, opening the fridge and taking out several dishes. “I hope you like Moussaka, I made it last night. I’m not the greatest cook, but this is one thing I can do. My sister taught me the recipe.”

“Love it”, I said, as she turned on the oven and passed me a corkscrew and a bottle.

Dinner was excellent, as was the wine, and we took it slowly, feeling the warmth of it all the way through.

“I noticed you seem to have a problem with your neck or your back”, Rachel said at one point. I knew that my discomfort could hardly have escaped her, so I suppose this was bound to come out at some point.

“Mmm, old accident,” I said. She raised her eyebrows, compelling me to continue. I sighed. How did she always make me talk about myself ?

“Ok, well I suppose you’ll find out, but I used to be in SO13- that is, Counter Terrorism, before it joined Special Branch and became SO15. I got into the Police on a Fast Track programme out of University and after two years at Police College I opted for SO13 or Special Branch. I was accepted by SO13. It took me almost 10 years to make Sergeant. That’s how I learned to ride a motorbike- at one point it was part of my cover as a dispatch rider watching the docklands area for terrorists bringing in weapons. One night there was a bust in a joint op with Customs and Excise, and I took a bullet in the shoulder, close to the neck. There were bone fragments embedded in my spine. I  was off work for close to 9 months. After that I decided to switch to CID. That was almost twenty years ago,” I added.

I turned to look at her, hoping she wouldn’t have a star-struck expression on her face, but she was thoughtful. She reached out and touched my neck gently.

“That must have been very painful- and scary. How many surgeries did you have to have.”

“Three,” I admitted. “They couldn’t get it all out the first two times and I was in a lot of pain. Finally they had to remove  a bone in the spine and put a metal rod in.”

“Does it still hurt?”

I rotated my head. “Not most of the time, but in damp weather it aches, and, as you saw today, excess stress on the neck can set it off.”

“You shouldn’t have put him on your shoulders, you know, no one would expect that. Steve does it, but he’s much stronger than me.”

I laughed awkwardly. “Well your son has a charming way about him, there’s no doubt. And maybe I was being a bit macho there”, I smiled wryly.

She laughed as she got up and I sprang to help her clear the table.

“Let’s go into the lounge”, Rachel suggested, “it’s still early, only nine o’clock.”

I turned to go and when I sat down I saw she had brought another bottle and the corkscrew.

“Is that a good idea?”  I asked, thinking about the next day.

“It’s fine”, she smiled. “As long as we take it slowly and drink plenty of water afterwards.”

I didn’t doubt my own capacity but it wasn’t me prepping for an undercover task in the morning.

She had seated herself on the sofa next to me and, bottle uncorked and wine poured, she leaned back against the armrests and faced me.

“When did you first know you were a lesbian?” she asked, looking at me over the rim of her glass with wide, innocent eyes.

The question had come  out of left field and for a moment I floundered.  “Well, um….that’s a, let me see, um,” I stammered.

“Whoops, sorry, was that too personal?”

“No, no, just that I wasn’t expecting it. Well, ah..I suppose I kind of always knew, from when I was a kid,” I replied.

“Did you have boyfriends and stuff when you were a teenager?”

“Ha,” I laughed, “I was a very awkward teenager. I hung around with my brother and his friends. So eventually one of them asked me out. He waited till I had finished A Levels and had just got accepted to Uni. He- Gary, his name was- and Paddy had already joined the RAF.”

I was silent for a moment. Rachel, of course, wanted more.

“So, what happened?”

“Well, we dated for a while. Double dated quite often with Paddy and his girlfriend, which was convenient because that minimised the time I had to spend alone with him. But of course it didn’t work out. I pretty soon realised that I wasn’t physically attracted to him. Just took him a bit longer to work that out.”

“Did you sleep with him?”

“Twice. That was enough to convince myself that I was on the wrong track. But at that age I hadn’t the words to explain it, or the confidence to be my real self. So it was all very …painful. He didn’t want to let go.”

“When did you start dating women?”

“At UCL I started picking up signals from other girls in my residence-and finally one of them, an older girl, more experienced, took me in hand, as it were. Did me a big favour, really, because although it was quite a closed world, I started to be more confident in myself in that little bubble. Finally, I told Gary why I hadn’t been able to be his girlfriend. I didn’t want him to think he wasn’t good enough for me because he didn’t go to university, or because he was black. I knew that's what he was thinking. So I had to tell him the truth”.

“Gosh, how did he take it?”

“Badly. He told Paddy, and Paddy told my parents.”

“Oh wow. I’m guessing that wasn’t the most tactful thing. In those days.”

I winced at the memory. “I was mad at Gary for quite some time. I adored Paddy and I didn’t want him to think less of me. It was a troubled period of my life, but it’s all water under the bridge. Paddy got over it and my parents never mentioned it.”  I didn’t add that my father had continued not to mention it all though my twenty year relationship with Bella, despite always being friendly towards her.

My glass was empty, so she refilled it, moving closer to me as she did so. She remained there, fixing me with those big brown eyes, her expression sympathetic and sincere. I could smell the lingering traces of her perfume. I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable. The conversation was not going the way I would have liked. Somehow, Rachel had a gift for making me open up. I wasn’t surprised that she was considered be the best interviewer at her station. I tried desperately hard not to drop my eyes to her breasts in the tight T-shirt, revealed when she had peeled off her denim shirt earlier. Or to look at her lips, pink from the wine. Her eyes were an even more treacherous no- go area. So I looked down into my glass, letting my hair fall over my eyes and attempted to change the subject.

“So..what about you? “ I asked, intending to follow up with  a question about Nick Savage, the man she claimed to have been in love with.

“Women?” she asked

“No, no..I  mean relationships, men…”

“I think I used to have a crush on my old DCI, Gill Murray”, she said, matter of factly, while I was still pink from the perceived misunderstanding and trying to recover.

“Oh..really?”

“Yeah. Godzilla we used to call her, but she was OK was Gill. Really watched out for us. For me especially. Stood up for me a few times when I should have got the rap. I thought it was more like a big sister kind of thing, but looking back, I know I was jealous when she got that younger boyfriend. And the way she used to look at me sometimes. It gave me a weird sensation inside. I’d never felt that before. So yeah, I think it was a crush.”

“She’s..she’s a lot older than you, isn’t she?”  I was still trying to process this new information.

“She’ll be, what? 55, 56 now. But what does it matter? She didn’t look or act so old. I never gave it a thought.”

“Right. Well, no, age isn’t, shouldn’t be a..a major consideration…” I tailed off.

“What about your partner? Was she the same age as you?” Rachel persisted with the questions, but this was an area I definitely had no intention of straying into. Not tonight.

“Uh five years older”, I said, and drained my glass. The bottle was now empty. I felt a little muzzy headed, warm, and knew that if I didn’t leave in the next ten minutes, this evening could end up with both of us doing something we might regret.

“It’s um..late…I should go and let you…”

“Jill”, she put her hand on my arm. “Don’t go yet. I feel so comfortable with you. To tell the truth I’m not looking forward to next week. I don’t mind undercovers, I used to like the action, but I hate leaving Ryan. He’s too young to understand. I know Steve’s a good dad, and there’s Michelle, and Kathy looking out for him. But it’s not the same. I haven’t done this sort of work since I had him so he’s not used to me disappearing for more than a day.”

I looked up at her, trying to calm her. “It will be fine. You’ll be fine and so will he. I know it’s hard, but I’ll see him every day and tell him I’ve seen you and give him messages …and read every Hungry Caterpillar book I can lay my hands on.”

She smiled then, gratefully, her eyes soft and tender. I began to feel hot and surreptitiously wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans. I wanted to move away but felt drawn in by the sweetness of her smile and the hint of vulnerability beneath.

She put her hand on my shoulder and leaned forward still making eye contact. “I think you’re the kindest, most reliable friend I have. I’d trust you with my life. And Ryan’s.”

The words touched me and I had no answer, and in that microsecond of hesitation, she moved in and brushed her lips tentatively against mine, then more firmly. I could feel my heart racing, wanting to respond yet also to hold back. I didn’t move but neither did I resist. She drew back for a second to check my expression, then, hooking an arm around my neck she went back in, deepening the kiss, until I opened my mouth and let her in. I knew this was a bad idea but I was helpless to stop this slow, sweet flood of feeling from pouring into every cell of my body. My hand came to her shoulders for support and she pressed herself against me as her tongue sought mine. When we came up for air, I moved back, out of reach of her body, while she buried her face in my shirt, still gripping my shoulders.

Eventually she raised her head. “I suppose I should say sorry, but I really like you Jill…...”

I disentangled myself from her. “And I really like you, Rachel, as you can no doubt tell, but I think I should go now. It’s late.”

Her face showed her disappointment. “You could stay the night?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. You’re tired, we’ve both had a drop too much, and tomorrow’s a big day. Let’s get this whole undercover thing out of the way, yeah?”

I fumbled for my phone and called up the Uber app. This somehow broke the bubble of intimacy between us and she stumbled to her feet and went to find my jacket. We mumbled platitudes about work until the driver was two minutes away, then I made to go outside.

“Bye Rachel, thanks for a lovely evening. I’ll see you in the morning. Sleep well.”

She looked dishevelled and disoriented as she opened the door for me. I paused to brush my lips against her  cheek, then I was on my way, breathing the night air deep into my lungs, not wanting to look back and see the hurt and confusion in her eyes.

“Way to go, Raymond”, I thought.

Chapter Text

Rachel

I got to the station in Hillingdon at 8.45 am with a suitcase of clothes and my laptop. Dodson had sent a car to pick me up as I had to leave the Lexus at home.  Steve had come in early to have breakfast with us and to take Ryan to school. Saying goodbye to my little boy was one of the hardest things I had ever done.

“When you come back, Mummy?” he had asked, pushing his glasses up his nose.

“In about one week, sweetheart.  And don’t worry, Daddy will be here with you all the time, and Michelle and auntie Kathy will be around.”

“And Raymond,” he had stated firmly.

“Yes, Raymond will come and see you every day if she can, and will read you stories.”

“Tell Raymond every day”, he had insisted. “I like her, she’s my friend.”

I had smiled and ruffled his hair, then kissed him goodbye.  As I moved to the door with my trolley, Steve had appeared to see me off.

“He’s got a bit of a thing for Jill”, he laughed. “Are you two becoming good friends?”

To my own surprise, I had blushed, and tried to hide behind the door as I opened it.

“Mmm, I think you could say that”, I had replied as casually as I could manage.

Once outside, I had turned to him again to remind him that Jill was his conduit to me. He had her on speed dial. If there was anything at all that he needed to communicate to me, it would be through Jill.

“You can trust her totally”, I had told him. He held my gaze for at least fifteen seconds, then, bending to kiss me on the cheek, he murmured. “I’m glad that you do”. I had no time to ask him what he meant by that as the police driver had already opened the door for me and Steve had stepped back. But there was a look on his face that I had never seen before, or at least, not directed at me. It looked strangely like amusement.

All the way to Hillingdon, I relived with a mixture of wonder and crushing embarrassment the moment when I had kissed Jill. What on earth had I been thinking? With men, I knew the landscape. They were so predictable, and if I had wanted something from them, I knew how to take it. If I wasn’t interested I could brush them off. Courtship, romance, sex were all just a game. But this thing with Jill, I was totally out of my depth. I had no idea how to proceed, or even, until last night, that my feelings towards her were what they evidently must be. All day, watching her play with Ryan, letting her tease me, enjoying this new feeling of confidence in a friendship growing by the minute, I had been aware of her gaze on me, the steady, calm aura about her, and I had felt my heart swell with affection and gratitude for something the hard life I had both inherited and chosen could rarely provide. The care and consideration she revealed in her gestures towards both Ryan and myself was more like something I would have expected from a family member, if I had had that sort of family, I mean. I was properly confused. In the moment when I had moved to kiss her, it was like a traffic light in my head switching from amber to green, a signal I couldn’t ignore.  And, boy, once the restraints were off, there was no question but that she was responding to that same signal. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I had no time for metaphors of waves crashing on shores or stars exploding, but if I had, that moment when she began kissing me back would have been in line for one of the corniest of those metaphors. It was totally beyond expectations.

But what did it mean? Did it mean that lifelong straight Rachel, always up for a shag with one of the lads, had suddenly turned into a lesbian? Did I feel like a lesbian? My head was spinning with the implications. And then there was desire. OK, desire was something I knew all about. I usually saw it as an itch that needed scratching. But all too often, once the itch had been scratched, I had no feeling left for the hapless guy I had pulled into bed. Christ, I even married one guy, Sean, because I confused lust with something deeper, more lasting. When I thought about Jill and that kiss, the look in her eyes before she kissed me back, I suddenly had a whole new panorama of desire in front of me. Even thinking about it made me uncomfortably wet and brought a blush to my cheeks. I certainly hadn't felt that way with Nick, the only man I could honestly say I had loved. And with that sudden surge of desire was also the deepest tenderness, the way she had cradled my head as our tongues tangled. I was done in. And then she had left. And now I had to see her again and work with her all day and have her as my No 1 throughout this whole undercover operation. Fuck.

Jill

It was a long and tiring day for both of us. From the moment Rachel arrived, Dodson had us in a series of meetings to go over the details.  Martin Hewson had come into the first meeting himself to go over Rachel’s legend. She was Maxine O’Donnell who had transferred south from RAF Woodvale, near Liverpool,  initially to RAF Halton, to get away from an abusive partner and a bitter divorce. When the post came up in Northolt, she had requested another move because she had been unable to settle at Halton and preferred to work closer to London. RAF Halton had obligingly produced a slim file on Ms O’Donnell, with testimonials as to her good character and efficient administrative skills. Rachel was no slouch with a computer, and had easily taken to the HR database, a sample of which Hewson had brought with him on a USB. So far so good.

It was after all the basics had been covered and Rachel was getting into Maxine’s head, learning her part, that the time came to get into Maxine’s body. And that was where I had a problem. I had gone to bed last night still angry with myself for letting her kiss me and for lowering my guard and thereby starting  something that might never go anywhere. I had thought I was tired and would sleep easily, but I was also tortured by erotic dreams, and when morning came, I had to take matters into my own hands in order to push the thoughts away before going to work. At this point, as I lay panting and temporarily sated, I realised that I was further away than ever from banishing thoughts of Rachel Bailey. The feelings I had for her were getting stronger each day, and the fact that she appeared to be feeling the same thing, to the point of initiating physical contact, had thrown me into a quandary. The timing was one thing- I needed her sharp and focused for this operation and starting a relationship was a major distraction, so we had to stop and turn our feelings off for the duration. The second thing was my own cowardice.  I knew I could easily fall in love with Rachel Bailey, but what if she was straight and just experimenting? That would be messy and painful and not something I wanted to go anywhere near. Then there was the baggage I brought to any new relationship. Plus my age. Her child. It threatened the cosy existence I had carved out for myself since Bella died, it hammered on my door. And I was far from sure that I wanted to open it.

At midday Delgado came in and we briefed on the drugs angle. Dodson once again called out for lunch and this time we got a selection of wraps – chicken or falafel- with salad, and yogurt pots. Delgado’s news was encouraging – over the weekend, the wire taps on du Toit had revealed conversations in Afrikaans with a man who appeared to be a relative. He was using a mobile and the location was close to Northolt, so this could be the link. Delgado had called for a translation of the audio file, but when it came back, it appeared that the two were using some kind of code, because the conversation appeared to be all about family events, despite the fact that du Toit/Hendricks had no family listed in the UK. Nevertheless, it was clear that something was happening, and the Drugs Squad were excited to learn that her “Oom Jan” (Uncle John) was returning from a trip in 3 days’ time and bringing her a present.

Once lunch was over and Delgado had departed, Dodson made coffee for the three of us and said  “Right, now, Jill I need your help. We have to turn Rachel into Maxine. I’m sure you’ll agree she’s far too sexy and healthy looking for the legend, so we need a bit of a transformation.”

I kept my face straight but certainly did not need the image of a sexy Rachel at that moment. Rachel just looked annoyed.  

“OK, Ma’am, you said, and I quote, ‘on the dowdy side’ so I looked out some fairly nondescript outfits that Maxine would wear to work. She’s a civilian so she wears her own clothes.”

She reached over and unzipped her trolley, pulling out four or five blouses, a couple of cardigans, some slacks and a jacket.

Dodson propelled herself to her feet, the buttons on her own silk blouse stretched almost to popping point, and bent over to rummage through the clothes.

“Right ladies, take that room over to the side there, I’ve put a mirror for you, do something about the hair, work on the make-up, try to look a little harassed, maybe shadows under the eyes sort of thing. Go through the clothes. If you need anything, there’s a selection in the trunk there that we use for undercover jobs. It’s all clean, so take whatever suits. “

And there we were: Rachel and I, locked in a small room together, close physical proximity, maybe some undressing. I clenched my jaw muscles. Fuck.

Rachel

I was furious with Dodson for putting Jill and me in this situation. On all my undercover jobs in the past I had always done my own clothes and make up. I had no need of a babysitter. Especially not Jill and especially not after last night. We went to the room anyway with my trolley and, for want of anything better to do, I located the trunk Dodson had mentioned  and started pulling things out aimlessly, muttering curses under my breath.

“Rachel.”

“What?”

“Rachel, stop, look at me.”

I sat back on my heels and looked up. Jill was pacing, hands in pockets of slim black trousers, as usual. Today she had on the black waistcoat with silver buttons and a very fetching pale blue shirt that made her look young and fresh. I felt a little spasm inside but pushed it as far down as it would go.

“Look, I know you don’t need my advice on your hair or makeup or even the clothes- which look fine to me. You’re a highly experienced officer and I trust you to get it right. So maybe we use this time instead to work out our own communication schedule for this job.”

“Right, yes, good idea”, I said, not looking up at her, but keeping my eyes at the level of her feet. Which is when I noticed the shoes.

“Good God, snakeprint trainers!” I exclaimed without thinking, immediately clamping my hand over my mouth.  I had only previously seen her in black loafers or her weekend Converse. Somehow, these outlandishly fashionable items of footwear just didn’t go with her elegant, classic outfits. Or maybe it was I who had typecast her, wrongly it would seem.

“Well, a girl’s got to have a bit of frivolity in her life”, she murmured. I looked up and caught her eye, then we both started laughing, Jill’s laugh morphing into a strange honking noise that had me laughing even harder. I got to my feet, wiping tears from my eyes.

“Dear God, where did you get that laugh from? ” I gasped.

“Same place I got the shoes, I imagine”, she quipped, leaning languidly against the table, hands back in pockets. I had this sudden, overwhelming urge to go and hug her in sheer delight at having this amazing woman as my friend. She must have picked up on my intention  because she said, in a low voice.

“Don’t. Not here.”

I stopped in my tracks, biting my lip.

“Jill, I…..”

“Let’s not do this here, OK? We need to get on with the job. I need to be sure you’re safe. When it’s done, and we are not at work, we will address the elephant in the room. There will be time. But for now, I’m your colleague.”

“And my friend,” I put in firmly, holding her gaze like a challenge. Her dark eyes softened. “Oh yes. Absolutely and unconditionally.”

No one had ever said anything like that to me. To my horror, I felt tears welling up in my eyes and fought hard not to let her see how much her words had moved me.

“Right”, I said, gruffly, turning my face away. “Let’s get this done, then”.

 

Jill

By the time I left Rachel in Beaconsfield, I was satisfied with the plan we had worked out. I had persuaded Dodson that, as Rachel’s backup officer, I would be the only person she would have contact with from the unit, so that meant following her to her new flat as I also needed to see where it was and know how to get in quickly if required. Fortunately, Beaconsfield was not a place I ever went to, and I knew no one there, so the chances of being recognised were minimal. As a basic precaution I had replaced my overcoat with a navy puffa jacket that I zipped over my distinctive waistcoat, pulling the elasticated cuffs down to cover my silver links. Rachel had been assigned a nondescript grey Honda and we set off separately, agreeing to meet at the flat.

Before leaving the station, she had pulled her hair back into a ponytail and changed into jeans and a sweater under her dark raincoat. She had left her mobile phone at home with Steve, and Dodson had given her a replacement that had been pre-programmed with a random selection of contact numbers (mostly local services), and a number for me under the name “Katie” and an emergency number for the team as a last resort. I had been given a spare phone to handle any calls or texts from Rachel.

On arrival at the address, I pulled up in the street outside the flats. Rachel would have gone round to the side entrance to park but I didn’t want my car to be seen there. It was 6pm and getting dark. Suddenly “Katie”’s phone pinged with a message “Home”, so I got out of the car and headed to her door.

“Hi Katie,” she said loudly as she came to answer it.

“Maxine”, I exclaimed, “just came to drop off a bit of shopping for you”, and I stepped inside with my Tesco carrier bag as she closed the door.

“What’s that?” she asked, peering into the bag.

“Oh just dinner and breakfast. I didn’t get coffee because I didn’t know whether there was a coffee machine or what type.”

She was pulling things out “You shouldn't have, I could walk to the shops myself. Wow, Chicken Jalfrezi, how did you know I liked that?”

I leaned back against the kitchen cupboards. “Educated guess?”

“Oh, and croissants, and milk, and no, that’s wicked, Tiramisu dessert! I love you!”

Then, realising what she had said, she flushed crimson and stuttered “I’m sorry, I didn't mean…”

“It’s OK, I know what you meant,” I said quietly. “So, come on, show me around,” I forced a jovial note into my voice, and we did a brief tour. Though hardly luxurious, the flat was perfect for the purpose. There were clean linens on the bed, towels in the bathroom, the fittings and furnishings were pleasant if bland, and it had been thoroughly cleaned. The kitchen was equipped for cooking, there was a microwave and even a Nespresso machine. She grinned and reached into a pocket of her raincoat, emerging with two aluminium capsules.

“Stolen from the nick. Just in case”, she laughed. A pause, then, “Are you going to see Ryan tonight?”

“Aye aye, Ma’am! As soon as I’ve picked up my car I’ll head over there.”

“Thank you, Jill, you know that means the world to me.”

I smiled and patted her arm gently. “This should be the least of your worries.”

She looked up at me and the tension in the room was palpable. I don’t know who made the first move but suddenly she was hugging me and we were clinging together like two shipwreck survivors on a life raft.  She was emotional, it was natural, I wanted to give her reassurance that I had her back, that I would watch over her son, but I knew I could not let her kiss me. The danger ahead if she got distracted was too great. And I doubted I would be able to stop. My heart was pounding, she must be able to hear it. Suddenly I felt her hand at the front of my jacket and the zip was pulled down. I was about to protest, then, as the front parted, she just slid her arms inside and pulled herself in closer to me. I held her tightly, stroking her hair, smelling her light, floral cologne, her breasts pressed against the front of my waistcoat.  No words were spoken. Finally, she released her grip and moved out of my embrace, her face composed.

“Thank you, Jill. You’d better be off now or you’ll miss Ryan’s bedtime reading slot and he’d never forgive you.”

I smiled, “You’re quite right. I’ll get off and leave you to your preparations.” I went to the door and she opened it. Then with a little wave, she closed it behind me and I set off into the dark evening.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 Jill

 I had not exaggerated when I had told Rachel that my motorbike was much less impressive than a Ducati. But it did the job. It was a Kawasaki Z650 which I had bought second hand over two years ago, when Bella and I had split up but before she died. I had planned to make more use of it, but in reality, it sat in the garage most of the time. My leathers were hanging in the wardrobe in the spare bedroom, so when I finally got home after reading to Ryan and reheating a quick supper, I took them out and tried them on. I had had the jacket for twenty years, since my days as an undercover with SO13, and the trousers were a more recent addition.  The helmet was new when I bought the bike, black and silver, full face. As a means of disguising myself to a casual onlooker it should be more than adequate.

I wasn’t due at the station till 10 am, so I got up early and wheeled the bike out of the garage, hoping it would start. It took a while but eventually it fired, so I rode it to the nearest service station and attended to oil, fuel and tyres, then went for a short spin to make sure I still had full control, and that the engine was running  properly. The leathers felt good although the jacket hugged my upper body more closely than I remembered, but the handling of the machine still came as  naturally to me as it had last time I rode. Evidently there were some things one didn't unlearn. I got quite a few glances as I rode around Hillingdon. I wondered how Rachel would react once she saw DI Raymond in Biker Mode.

I packed my working clothes into a small bag to change into and headed for work. As I dismounted in the parking area and pulled off my helmet, Julie Dodson was just walking past from her car. She stopped and looked me up and down, finally giving me a low wolf-whistle.

“Well, well, Jill Raymond. Quite the Lesbian Model Of The Month.”

“Only the month, not the year?” I fired back, removing my gloves and unzipping my jacket.

“Don’t push your luck, Detective Inspector. But you have my approval, in any case. The Wing Commander has sent a package over for you, so come up and see.”

I went to the cloakroom and changed into a charcoal suit over the same light grey ribbed top I had worn with the leathers. No waistcoats today. I swapped my boots for plain black pumps and headed back into the operations room. Dodson beckoned me over into her glass-walled corner office and drew a courier package from her drawer.

“I think this is your pass,” as she handed it over.

It was indeed, a laminated ID card describing me as a courier for a well -known local company. There were also some stickers for me to use on my jacket and on my delivery box. Now this was a problem, I didn’t own a delivery box, but Hewson had given me a phone number for someone called Alison at the company who would fit me with one if I produced the pass, and took responsibility for returning it after the operation.

“Good to go”, I mused.

“Right, now I know you’ll be anxious about DI Bailey but we do have other aspects of these two murder enquiries to attend to. Quinn is leading the first briefing to bring everyone up to speed in about twenty minutes.”

I took the opportunity of going to the coffee machine and, while waiting for it to produce a cappuccino, texted Maxine from Katie’s phone.

“How’s it going?”

“Straightforward so far”, she texted back almost immediately. I wonder if she had been waiting for me to get in touch, then dismissed the thought. It had been agreed that she would give us daily reports by email and Skype from the laptop at her safe flat, but if an emergency arose, if she needed support or to impart urgent information, we had a series of procedures in place for her to follow.

“Good luck!” I sent back, hoping it conveyed more than just the standard greeting.

Rachel

First days tend to be the most nerve-racking. Wondering whether I’ll bump into someone I went to primary school with or nightmares like that. Given my background, it was unlikely, but I had tied my hair back into a prim bun, added pallor to my face and shadows under my eyes and covered my eyes with a pair of plain lens specs.

The person sitting nearest me was Amy Waterston, Andrea’s best friend, who had first been interviewed by Jill and DC Childs. I tried to strike up casual conversation with her. She was friendly enough but kept a distance after asking me a few questions about my reason for transferring.

“Bad divorce”, had been my explanation, thickening my accent to leave her in no doubt that I wasn’t from around there. “My ex has a restraining order to keep away from me.”

“Violent?” 

“Yeah, and irrational, moody, all that. Glad to be away from him. Problem is a mate of his was posted to Halton so I just needed to put more distance between us.”

“Good enough reason,” she agreed.

She said little about Andrea other than that they had been friends, and she had been murdered, and I didn’t push. During the morning she had a few texts on her phone, and at lunchtime, when I asked her about the canteen, she pointed me in the direction but clearly didn’t expect to accompany me. As we got up and headed for the corridor, a tall, handsome guy a few years her junior, in RAF uniform, unpeeled himself from the wall and fell into step with her. I moved away, staying   distant but  within earshot.

“What are the specials today?” I heard Amy ask him.

“I haven’t been in yet to find out”, I heard him reply. He had an accent I couldn’t place. I headed for the Ladies to let them pass and got a good look at him from a side angle. I had developed a sixth sense on so many undercover ops about relationships and I intuited straight away from Amy's body language that this man was important to her. I made a mental note of the tabs on his uniform shoulders to check his rank later.

The rest of the day passed, I had got the hang of the system they were using and for the first few days I was just doing data inputting, so It was fairly undemanding. I didn’t want to start running to Hewson every time I had a slight suspicion, so I tried to check on Amy’s RAF friend. I wasn’t good at identifying ranks, and I could hardly ask people who would expect me to know, so unless I got another look at  the guy’s  shoulder tabs, I was stuck. My shift ended at 5.30pm  and I headed out to the car park, and there I suddenly had an enormous stroke of luck. The man himself was standing in an area reserved for smokers, puffing on a cigarette and looking around as if waiting for someone. Better still, he was wearing his uniform jacket. I pulled out my phone as if texting and managed to get a shot of him. As I passed closer to him I put the phone to my ear and pretended to be in conversation. As I got within earshot, a man in overalls approached the area, pulling out his own cigarette pack, so I quickly activated the record button and hoped they would speak.

Jill

I was still at the station when Rachel texted the code word meaning she was ready to update us.  Dodson had told me to handle it myself, but to call her if there was anything significant.

I opened Skype on my laptop and there she was. She had changed into sweats and removed her makeup and she looked ridiculously young. My heart gave a little somersault, but I tried to keep my face neutral.

“Hiya”, she greeted me, sipping what looked like tea from a mug.

“Hi, how did it go?”

“Fine, I think, they’ve got me on data inputting so that’s not something that needs great concentration. “

She then proceeded to tell me about Amy Waterston and the maybe-boyfriend.

“What alerted you about him?” I asked.

“Nothing specific, apart from the fact that he’s younger than her, but I thought I should check all relationships given that Amy was close to Andrea and could be involved.”

She explained how she had taken a snapshot of the target  as he stood smoking and also recorded part of a conversation with another smoker who had approached the area.

“Can you send me the files?” I asked.

“Sure, hold on a sec- OK there you go.”

I clicked on the files and saw the image of a handsome, light-skinned, mixed -race man in a uniform that identified him as a Flying Officer.

The conversation snippet was brief- the other smoker was clearly just that, a smoker, and they appeared not to know one another, but I also picked up that the target had a fairly a distinctive accent. I felt a tremor of excitement.

“I could be wrong, Rachel, but I think his accent is South African.”

“Well, there’s a coincidence, I knew there was something about it. OK I have to check his ID as fast as possible. I can’t access the HR database from here, so it will have to be tomorrow.”

“It may be a long shot but what if there’s a connection to du Toit? Suppose I send this image and the voice file over to Delgado and get his feeling on it?”

“Yes, do that, see if he recognises him.”

“And if he can ID him we may need to give him a tail. I’ll handle that from this end.”

“Right, sounds good.” She hesitated. “Is anyone else listening in on this meeting?”

I looked around. I was wearing ear buds and there was no one within range of my screen.

“Nope”

“So when do I get to see you in those leathers, DI Raymond?”

“Ha ha”, I honked nervously, “I’m sure it will be soon. No need to be impatient.”

She smiled and blew me a small kiss as we said our goodbyes. It could have been a comic gesture, or even sarcasm between colleagues, but the delicious feeling of anticipation in my belly was definitely reading it another way. As I closed the connection, I was aware of Dodson standing behind me. Damn, how much had she seen? I removed my ear buds and went straight into professional mode.

“Got a voice clip here of a man who may have a South African accent. Turns out he’s a friend- maybe boyfriend – of Amy Waterston.”

“In my office”, she commanded. “Bring the clip.”

In the privacy of her office, she listened and narrowed her eyes.

“I tend to agree, but I know someone who can confirm it for us. My partner, Grace, grew up in South Africa, and she studied Linguistics before going to Law School.”

She called Grace and told her she needed her to listen to a clip of conversation and to try to identify the accent of the second speaker. She sent her the clip then told her to delete it as soon as she had finished with it. Grace didn’t waste any time.

“Native Afrikaans speaker, educated, maybe Western Cape, hard to tell with such a small sample”.

With that confirmed, I prepared to call Delgado. Before I left however, Dodson said “Nothing going on between you and Rachel, is there, Jill? We do need to keep our eye on the ball here, so if there’s something I need to know, front it up.”

I paused at the door. “Just a bit of friendly rivalry, Chief, nothing to concern you”, and I left, hoping that Rachel’s track record as a man’s woman would throw her off the scent. For now, at least. The idea of being taken off the case was intolerable.

Delgado whistled as he looked at the picture I had sent him.

“He must be her twin- he’s the split of Gabrielle, right down to the grey-green eyes. Very unusual. Tell DI Bailey to get his ID and alert her MP contact that this man is most probably involved in the drug smuggling operation – and your murder enquiries as well, I wouldn’t doubt. I’ll try to get a voice match from this clip for the voice on the wiretap.”

I quickly updated Rachel via WhatsApp then dropped my motorcycle at home, changed into jeans and a hoodie and took the car to Ealing to read to Ryan. My head was buzzing with the likelihood that on Day One, Rachel had stumbled on a man who could be our main suspect’s brother.

Stefan opened the door and welcomed me inside. There was a good smell of cooking and I saw Kathy in the kitchen, no doubt working some of her magic.

“Hi Jill. Ryan’s just gone up so you’re bang on time. How’s Rachel doing?”

“She’s started well, we got some useful information today so hopefully things will move along fairly quickly tomorrow.”

“Kathy’s cooking tonight- why don’t you join us for dinner?”

“Oh, gosh, that’s very kind of you, but I really don’t want to intrude.”

“You aren’t. Seriously. She always makes too much and I’m eating leftovers for days!”

“Hey”, Kathy called from the kitchen. “Don’t tell me you don’t like my leftovers!”

Stefan grinned. “See? Look, go and read to Ryan then join us. There’s a glass of wine with your name on it.”

I could hardly refuse, although I would have preferred to go home, but it would save me having to make any culinary efforts, even if Missy would be upset with the lateness of her meal.

In fact, it turned out to be quite entertaining. Kathy was amusing and clearly very fond of both Rachel and Ryan. I discovered that Rachel hated cooking and that she had tried to hire Kathy to cook for them when Stefan left to get married. Kathy said she would never accept to be paid to cook for her favourite nephew, and besides, having a policewoman in the family could be useful. She was clearly somewhat in awe of Rachel, and I could see that that was also transferring itself to me by association. As I was leaving, feeling very full and satisfied and having thanked Kathy for the meal, Stefan came to show me out.

“I just want to thank you for doing this for Ryan, and for Rachel”, he said.

“Don’t mention it, Ryan’s a wonderful boy and I enjoy every minute. It can’t be easy having his Mum away.”

“No,” Stefan admitted, “but having his Mum’s friend here every day and telling him she’s OK is the next best thing to having her back. Not many friends would do that, especially when they have a busy job.”

“No, but maybe I’m not just any friend,” I said before I could stop myself.

He gave me a searching look.  “I can see you’re not”, he said finally.  “I hope you’ll be around for a long time”.

As I drove home I mused on his words and wondered whether he was sensing this growing hint of something beyond friendship that seemed to be happening between his ex and myself.

When I had fed Missy and showered and changed into pyjamas, I sat on my couch with a glass of whisky looking at my phone, wondering if I dared call her, and what the risks would be – not for being discovered, but for distracting Rachel. Just as I was deciding not to, my second phone rang. She was using WhatsApp, audio only. I immediately reversed my thinking and hit  the green button.

“Hey”, she said.

“Hey yourself,” I replied, in what I hoped was a fairly businesslike tone. We chatted about the case for a few minutes, then I updated her on Ryan, and having dinner with Kathy and Stefan, teasing her about the cooking.

“Well, you know, you’re also free to come and experiment in my kitchen”, she said, “If you’re going to be around once this case is over.”

“I’ll be around, most definitely, but you may be disappointed.”

“Oh I doubt that, Inspector,” she said, in a slightly husky voice that went straight to my belly.

“Mind on the job, Maxine,” I replied, forcing some levity into my voice.

“Never off it, Katie, but, you know, there are gaps in a girl’s day when it sort of wanders off, if you know what I mean.”

“I have no idea what you’re referring to,” I teased her.

“Oh, I think you do, but you just don’t want to admit it.”  She had me there. I couldn’t formulate a response.

“I..I should go”, I said, regretfully.

"Yes, you should, and so should I. But I’ll be thinking of you. Sweet dreams.”

Damn the woman, she was certainly going to make sure my dreams were anything but calm.

Chapter Text

Rachel

 I clocked in earlier than the day before and logged into the HR database. It took me around 10 minutes of zipping through male Flying Officers in the under 35 age bracket to identify Jacob Hendricks Collins (his mother’s name, I assumed). Born, as Dodson’s partner had surmised, in Worcester, Western Cape, South Africa on exactly the same day as Delgado’s Annalie Hendricks aka Gabrielle du Toit,  but holder of a British passport. Bingo. Amy hadn’t yet arrived at her workstation so I fired off a quick text to Hewson “Request urgent meeting” and waited. After 5 minutes the phone on my desk rang and a voice asked me to kindly go to the Head of the HR Dept’s office. As I rose to leave, Amy was arriving.

“Off somewhere?” she asked.

“HR- paperwork”, I shrugged and she nodded and sat down. I had made sure to clear my database search and activate the password-protected screensaver. 

The head of the HR Department beckoned me into her office and showed me to an interview room accessed from the back of the office, where I was to wait for the Wing Commander. He arrived wearing a blue air force sweater over his shirt and tie with shoulder pips but minus the distinctive red RAF Police flash on the sleeve. He sat down opposite me and removed his cap.

“Tell me, DI Bailey,” he said.

I gave him a quick summary of how I had been alerted to FO Jacob Collins, and how he tied into the wider drugs enquiry and our murder enquiries.

“That’s good work”, Hewson said. “The link is now proven to your suspect, Gabrielle du Toit, and we know from the Drugs Squad wiretap that a shipment of some sort is expected tomorrow. So now we move to Phase 2- tracking suspects and monitoring all incoming flights to find that shipment. Knowing Collins is involved will narrow it down considerably. I’ll call a strategy meeting today as soon as possible for all stakeholders and we’ll plan it out from there.”

“Can I attend?” I asked, desperate to be on the inside.

He pursed his lips and thought for a moment. “I don’t want to take you away from your station for too long, but it would be better if we were all on the same page. Let me ask the Met and the Drugs Squad if they can come here, and I’ll find a private room away from prying eyes. If this can happen at lunchtime it will be less suspicious if you are absent.”

“Thank you”, I said.

“Meanwhile, eyes on Amy Waterston and anyone she seems to be close to. I have a feeling that young woman is seriously out of her depth.”

“I’m on it. WhatsApp me where and when,” I said, getting up to leave.

I put my glasses on and headed back to my work station, throwing down the folder I was carrying and giving a theatrical little sigh.

“Bloody MOD paperwork. What a nightmare!”

“Tell me about it!” Amy said, carrying on typing something into her database.

We carried on working, me having switched my phone to silent but keeping the screen where I could see it. At 10.05 it flashed with the cryptic message “Meet Dave at 12.00 outside your office.”

I felt a tremor of excitement, finally, some action. I hoped that I would have more to do than just sit here staring at a screen all day and monitoring Amy Waterston in the hope that she would lead me to something. I was also excited to see Jill, especially if she came in her disguise. The more I thought about that kiss two nights ago, the more I knew with absolute certainty that I had to kiss her again. And as soon as possible. Jill was not exactly correct in thinking it would be more distracting to have an ongoing affair than to think about someone I wanted and was so close to the starter blocks with.  I had surprised myself- who knew that Rachel Bailey would be panting over a woman? Yes, I had had a bit of a thing for Gill Murray- a pang of lust born of the closeness between us over the years, the nature of the job. But not like this. And knowing that Jill Raymond was  decidedly not immune to my charms only made me more determined to try.

By 10.30, however, it had become apparent that the woman to my right was more distracted even than I. She kept looking at her phone, getting up and heading for the bathroom, coming back frowning, and generally twitching and muttering to herself until finally I looked up and said “Something wrong?”

“Bloody men! I’m supposed to meet him for lunch but he’s not answering his phone. “

“Well give it time. Some blokes like to cut things a bit fine.”

“Yeah, right. But I need to know where we’re going.”

About five minutes later her phone pinged with an incoming text. She snatched it and started away from the desk stabbing the buttons. I heard her say, when he must have picked up “For fuck’s sake, Jake, I’ve been calling you all morning!”

While she was out of sight I texted the information to Jill that Collins and Amy were going to lunch together and that someone should tail them. Obviously, if our own strategy meeting was at noon, it had to be someone else.

At 12 on the dot, Amy gathered her coat and bag and headed off saying “See you later”.

“Enjoy”, I called back, making for the door myself. As I stepped outside, a man in civilian dress wearing a lanyard  approached me. “Hi Maxine,” he said familiarly.

“Oh hi Dave”, I replied, hoping I'd got this right.

"Thought we’d try somewhere new for lunch”, “Dave” said in a loud enough voice that my colleagues could hear.

“Right. Well, lead on,” I said, falling into step with him.

Jill

Wednesday was one of the busiest days we’d had so far on this assignment. I’d later look back at it and marvel at how quickly we managed to put it all together. Once Rachel had alerted me to Amy’s lunch meeting with Collins, I had arranged for Quinn to follow them.

Getting into Northolt with the bike was easy. I showed my pass and explained I had a package for Wing Commander Hewson. He confirmed it with the gate and I was waved in and given a Visitor lanyard. I followed directions to where I could park and dismounted. As I made to approach the building, a car pulled up alongside me and a man in a dark suit and Ray-Bans got out, also  sporting  a Visitor lanyard. He paid no attention to me and I continued on my path, still wearing the helmet to avoid being recognised, and with a packet in my hand as if I was delivering something. The man followed me and at the door, as I held it for him, I recognised Justin Delgado. Once inside we had to pass a reception desk to get admitted to the meeting room, so it was there that I removed my helmet, shaking my hair out. He looked at me in amazement.

“DI Raymond?” removing his Ray-Bans and looking me up and down with something like admiration. Or, possibly, mirth. I couldn’t tell.

“DS Delgado,” I smiled. “You scrub up very nicely, if I may say so.”

He looked down distractedly at his navy suit and blue Chambray shirt then back up at me as I unzipped the jacket.

“Well, what can I say about you? Would it be polite to tell a senior officer she looks hot?” he asked cheekily.

“Extremely impolite”, I answered, leading the way to the room we had been pointed in the direction of.

He grinned and followed me. As we arrived I saw Hewson seated across from Rachel. I moved rather self-consciously to sit to one side of her, not so close that we could touch or that we would have to look at each other all the time.

“DI Raymond, good afternoon,” Hewson said briskly, taking me in at a glance but refraining from comment. I felt Rachel’s eyes on me as I removed my jacket and sat down. Her cheeks had gone a little pink and the look in her eye was decidedly unprofessional, but I tried to ignore it.

The strategy had to cover both the drugs and the murder investigations, and the key issue was timing. Knowing that a drugs shipment was expected the following day, Hewson was all for impounding it and arresting those who came to claim it, to shut the whole thing down immediately. Delgado had to plead for patience.

“If we can tie this shipment to the dealers we’ve been watching, we can roll up the whole network. You shutting down one shipment won’t do a thing, Wing Commander. Next time they’ll just use a different route. We need Gabrielle du Toit and the Albanian gangster Beqiri behind bars as well as any of your guys involved. That won’t happen if it all goes down inside Northolt.”

“We need du Toit to question her about the murders of Andrea and Philip Crawford as well. We’re still looking for evidence to tie her to those, so we want her in custody where we can question her,” I added.

Rachel had been quiet until now, shooting me little glances and seemingly unable to concentrate. Or so I thought. But suddenly she sprang to life. “I think we should first look at all the possible ways Collins and his buddies could get the stuff into Northolt. And use any info we can gather from the wiretaps and tails, and that will decide the way we approach the op from all our perspectives.”

Hewson nodded, tapping his pen against his teeth. Then he stood up and turned to the whiteboard behind him. Dividing it into two parts, he took a marker and began making notes.

“There are two types of air traffic at Northolt: military and civilian. Everything military and connected with royalty goes through the RAF Air Traffic Control, flight plans logged, cargo and passengers listed etc. But”, moving to the other side of the board, “civilian aircraft are mainly VIPs coming in on private planes seeking privacy and an alternative to the huge crush at Heathrow.”

I sat up in my chair. This was now getting really interesting.

“So, proceeding on the assumption that these RAF types would bring the stuff in with colleagues flying our own planes, there are three flights tomorrow from the Middle Eastern region due to arrive between 8am and 8pm. Northolt is a daytime only runway, by the way. Two of those flights are bringing servicemen and women back from overseas postings- one from Akrotiri, Cyprus, one from Afghanistan. The other is cargo only from Turkey. Only Cyprus has permanent UK RAF ground staff handling loading at the airport. The other two pickup points are temporary and staffed by a mix of UK military personnel and  civilians. I would say that Afghanistan is the most obvious departure point, but the cargo -only flight would be easier to manipulate. We can track all three flights and monitor unloading and what happens to the cargo once it’s off the plane.  However, what we can’t do is follow every single person on that plane in case they’ve stowed the drugs in their luggage.”

“Don’t you have Customs checks?” asked Rachel. I could see Delgado slowly shaking his head on the other side of me.

“We do, but they’re cursory,” Hewson admitted. Military personnel are permitted to carry only their kit so if it won’t fit in their rucksack they can’t take it. Unless they can bribe the pilot or one of the crew to store it in the luggage hold. All cargo is supervised being unloaded and is ticked off on a manifest after being checked. It’s risky for a passenger to do that. The flight crew, on the other hand, could have rucksacks but they might be empty if they aren’t staying any length of time anywhere. That’s much more difficult to police. So unless we can narrow it down, we wouldn’t have the resources to track each person who disembarks from or unloads that plane.”

There’s a silence while we process this. Hewson then continues.

“Civilian flights, on the other hand, are much easier for concealing illicit cargo. We are not authorised to search them. They request permission to use the airport and Customs and Immigration staff present handle all that. But it’s not strict. These are usually sheikhs, heads of state, very well known rich people.”

“Above suspicion, you mean,” Rachel said bluntly.

Hewson inclined his head. “Sadly, that is how it sometimes appears. They are well known to staff here, they become a common feature of civilian arrivals and departures. I’m afraid it’s much less rigorous than at the main civilian airports.”

“The Drugs Squad has strong ties to Customs,” Delgado said. “We could organise a stop and search on all civilian arrivals tomorrow. But that doesn’t solve the problem of tracking the haul once it’s out in the community if we miss it.”

“What if they plan an air drop, somewhere outside the perimeter?” asked Rachel.

“It would probably only work with a smaller plane, a private plane”, Delgado replied. “The RAF planes are on a fixed flight path and can’t just go around at low altitude dropping parcels. It would be noticed by the Control Tower. But a smaller plane could say they’re having engine trouble or something and find an excuse to go lower and delay landing, right?”

“Technically, yes, but if an RAF pilot requests a go-around because of the weather, or a faulty undercarriage or something like that, the Control Tower is not going to assume they’re dropping drugs. It could be done- difficult but not impossible,” Hewson said, adding, “air drops can be done in all sorts of ways, but it depends on the weight of the cargo to be dropped, the resilience of the container, the height from which it’s dropped etc. I agree a small plane would be more likely, but it’s not impossible to do it from the cargo hold of a Hercules or something on final approach.”

After more discussion, we came to the conclusion that the probability was that they would use an RAF flight and either bring it in hidden in legitimate cargo or luggage, or try an air drop if they thought they couldn’t get it safely out of Northolt. Drug drops from small, light planes were common in Latin America and the US, and even occasionally in the UK, but these were unregistered flights, no one knew they were coming in and they tried to fly below the radar. Why risk a registered civilian flight? And how would they persuade a VIP or private pilot to take that risk for them? If they had those sorts of connections they would hardly use an RAF Air Base as the dropping point in any case.

“What we should do is rattle their cage”, said Delgado. Bring Drugs squad officers in, dogs, have the RAFP out in force today making it clear they have a drugs tip off. Then follow Collins and see what the wiretaps produce. By tomorrow we may have a much clearer idea of the plan.

Rachel

As we left the meeting room after a quick lunch of sandwiches, tea and fruit brought in from the canteen, Jill came up to me and pressed something into my hand.

“See if you can use this”, she murmured. Enveloped in a cloud of citrussy cologne and seasoned leather jacket, I barely registered what I had in my hand. When we got outside and I looked down, I saw a tiny portable tracker, the type used to attach to clothing or luggage. I looked up as she was putting the helmet back on. She was heart-stoppingly beautiful, all long legs encased in smooth leather, her jacket moulding to her torso. I wished the world would just fade out and leave me alone with her. I knew I had never felt this way about anyone, never felt such a pull of lust that I could barely focus on anything. I had functioned in the meeting by keeping her out of my line of sight, but standing with her outside was the most exquisite torture with other people around.

“Will do,” I answered. “I’ll be in touch and I’ll keep tabs on Waterston after work.”

She saluted briefly, and that’s when I realised that Justin Delgado was standing beside me. I lifted my hand in a brief wave and watched her get on her bike and ride away.

“Wow, you’ve got it bad,” he commented. “You never looked at me like that.”

 “Well you never looked like that.”

He laughed. “No, you’re right. But I never had you batting for the other team, either.”

“Just goes to show you never can tell”, I retorted, suddenly not caring a jot.

I left him rubbing his hand over his designer stubble in wonderment and walked back towards my office, hoping I could remember the way. “Dave” suddenly melted out of a building and joined me.

“Nice lunch?” he asked

“Delicious”, I replied, the throb between my legs fading only slightly as I refocused on the afternoon ahead.

 

 

Chapter Text

Rachel

By 2.30pm, there were RAF Police officers all over the compound.

“What’s going on?” asked Amy, peering out of the window as officers with dogs passed by, entering and leaving buildings.

“No idea,” I said, “but when this happened up north it usually meant a drugs sweep or something.”

She said nothing but I sensed anxiety from her. We carried on working for a while, then an RAF Police officer with a dog entered our open plan office and was seen at the front talking to the Head of Department. He was gesticulating and she was nodding. I knew what would happen next. The dog would be walked up and down the row of work stations sniffing for drugs. Amy had her head down, seemingly not noticing. Then she suddenly stood and took her handbag.

“Toilet break”, she smiled, walking away. There was nothing I could do but my suspicions were alerted. I thought for a minute. If she was using, there was no point in arresting her because that would end our investigation into her role in the murders. If she was calling Collins, this might trigger a reaction on his part that we would be able to monitor by following him or from calls to his sister. I thought of following her but that might make her suspicious. I waited. After five minutes or so she returned, smoothing her hair. She put the bag back down on the floor and her phone on the desk. As I had guessed, the MP with the dog walked slowly through the office. We didn’t move, continued working and tried to ignore them. When the dog got to our desks, it sniffed and whimpered around Amy’s bag, but eventually moved on, much, I suspect, to her relief. At this point Amy was summoned by the Head of Dept, so she got up, leaving the bag under the desk. Quick as a flash, I had a tracker in my hand and unzipped the bag searching for an inside pocket. I affixed the tracker to the material, rezipped the bag and put it back.

Jill

While we had our meeting, Quinn had followed Amy and Collins to a Costa not far from the base, and had tried to record their conversation. It was mostly muffled, but there was clearly some sort of dispute. The images were clear enough but the audio was hard to follow. At one point Amy said “You promised me this would be the last time…..” and Collins was heard to say “…will soon all be resolved”, but we had no further clues as to the subject of the discussion. Amy seemed upset and anxious, but Collins was cocky and dismissive. I wondered how the events of the afternoon would change his attitude.

I had a couple of quick messages from Rachel telling me that Amy was nervous when the dogs came and that she had put a tracker in Amy’s handbag.  What Rachel didn’t know was that Quinn had managed to put another tracker on Collins’ car before he entered the coffee shop behind them.

At 4pm, Delgado reported that the lines were abuzz. Gabrielle had received several calls from Jacob to discuss a change in plans. They were still using Afrikaans, and a code, but it wasn’t so hard to decipher. Delgado had a pal in the Drugs Squad who was fluent in Dutch and he could get the gist of it before they had it officially translated. They didn’t think the plan would be spelled out over the phone, so the guess was, Collins would try to meet his sister later that evening.

At 5, I was preparing to leave Hillingdon when my phone beeped with an incoming message. Gary Towers. Urgent. Call this number. Intrigued, I called. It was a secure line in the police office, Towers told me, but he had just had an important message from a friend on the ground in Turkey and Hewson had authorised him to tell me directly. His friend, an RAF ground engineer, due home on the transport the following day, had been unexpectedly bumped for a guy with a “family emergency”. He let Towers know because they had been planning to go out to celebrate the man’s birthday on his arrival. If this last minute substitution meant anything, it tightened the noose even more.

Rachel

At 9pm I was dozing in my car, parked on the other side of the road from Amy Waterston’s flat in Hayes, where she appeared to have stayed all evening. I was hungry and bored. Jill had sent me a couple of messages to say that she was following Collins, and that Delgado was monitoring Gabrielle, so I should stay on Waterston. I was about to give up and go and get a burger when I saw headlights in my mirror. A car was pulling in behind me, and behind the car, a way back, was the single headlamp of a motorcycle. The motorcycle rolled past the parked car, and I looked carefully as it rounded a corner. I heard someone shut the car door behind me and the whump of a key fob as he crossed the road at a run and went to ring the doorbell. It was Collins. He was in leisurewear, but I recognised him immediately. I waited, then messaged Jill. The motorcycle returned and she stopped next to the car.

“Park up and get in”, I told her.

She dismounted and pushed the bike a few spaces on, parking and coming back to me, pulling off the helmet. She settled in the passenger seat of my car, the leather creaking, her warm scent filling the space as I breathed her in. It was a tangled story, involving pursuit by Quinn in a car to some fields near Northolt, and Jill on her motorcycle, to various places, including one where Gabrielle du Toit lived, and a few other addresses. We had trackers and wiretaps but we couldn’t hear what was being said inside the buildings. What was sure was that the plan for the following day was having to be adjusted in the light of the drugs raid on Northolt base today. My stomach chose this moment to protest that I had not fed it recently.  Jill laughed.

“I know exactly how it feels. Hopefully we can grab a snack shortly.”

As if he had heard us, Delgado called Jill and told her that Collins had phoned his sister to say that he would be staying with his girlfriend tonight. Delgado then suggested we stop the surveillance, put a fresh team on it early in the morning and rendezvous at a late night Turkish kebab shop somewhere on the A40, a convenient location for all of us, and less chance of being spotted and identified.

Jill got back on her bike and I followed her out and onto the highway. Seeing her like that, all taut black leather and long limbs made me long to  climb up behind her and wrap my arms around her.

In the busy café, Delgado was back to his usual scruffy self- beanie, ripped black jeans, grey hoodie, white Air Max shoes.

“What can I get you, ladies?” he asked

“I could eat a horse”, I said.

“Do you want chips with that?” Justin joked.

Jill squinted up at the board where the menu options were listed. “Have you been here before?” she asked him.

“Many times. And I suggest you let me order. I promise you won’t be disappointed. You’re not a vegan or anything…?”  She smiled and shook her head.

While Delgado went to the counter, I reached out and took Jill’s hand. Something had been bothering me.

“Jill, about Ryan. I totally understand if….”

She whispered “Shhhhh” and stroked my hand. Her eyes were sparkling.  “I made Quinn cover the surveillance for me while I went to read to him.”

“In your leathers?” I couldn’t help asking.

She honked a little, “Yes, but only the trousers. I took the jacket and boots off. I was a little early, he hadn’t had his bath, so we sat on the sofa and I read to him. It’s all fine, no need to worry.”

“Thank you,” I breathed, letting go of her hand as Justin came back, stuffing his wallet into the pocket of his jeans.

Over delicious chicken kebabs, pitta, hummus and salad, we refined the plan for the following day. Delgado had updated Hewson hourly and we agreed that the incoming cargo flight from Turkey was the likeliest bet. Collins’ little trip to the fields around Northolt was most probably the place for a drop. Hewson was measuring it all out and had put markers on places on the flight path from where cargo could be dropped. He would have his RAF Police all over the area, and would also watch the other flights in case it was a red herring.

“OK,” Jill said, wiping the last piece of her pitta round the hummus dish. “Suppose they do drop the stuff, and someone collects it, then what do we do?”

Justin swallowed the last of his mint tea. “Then the ball, Inspector, is very firmly in the Drugs Squad court. I’ll let you know tomorrow. We get first dibs on the terrible twins, but you’ll have your chance to question them for murder. Same with Waterston, unless it’s clear she’s not involved in the drugs thing.”

Jill

Once we had eaten, I suddenly felt the exhaustion of the last sixteen hours. Riding the motorbike all day had made my back and shoulders ache, and  a long bath with some Epsom Salts was beckoning. Justin Delgado had impressed me more this time. He was sharp, focused and I liked his sense of humour. I felt him warming to me a little as well. As for Rachel, well, it was torture having to work with her in such close proximity when things were unresolved between us. Seeing her lick salt from her lips I had a sudden urge to kiss her, to taste her again. And the things she was doing to me with her eyes should have been illegal. I also had a lurking suspicion that Delgado was well aware of the tension between us.

So I was tired, yes, my defences down, but still, I should never have accepted the invitation to sit in her car once Delgado had departed. I had to ride back down to Hillingdon. She had to drive to Beaconsfield. It was 11.00 pm, both of us dead tired and with another demanding day ahead tomorrow. But I went.

As soon as I got into the car, which was parked in a shady side road, no sign of anyone around, Rachel turned to rub her cheek against mine.

“I’ve wanted this all day”, she said simply, turning her head and planting her mouth firmly on mine.

Despite knowing exactly why she had asked me to sit in her car, I was taken aback at the speed of her move on me. I genuinely thought there were things she still wanted to discuss. I held myself rigid for a few seconds, then, helpless to fight the rising desire, I kissed her back. The kiss was much deeper than before, more seeking, I felt her body move against mine and I squirmed in my seat. She took my hands and moved them to her breasts, not that I needed much encouragement. Her nipples pushed against my palm as I pressed, and her moan as I began rolling  them under my fingertips was feral. Suddenly  she pulled back and shrugged off her jacket, lifting her top. The blood was pounding in my ears and my body was on fire as I moved my mouth to those hard peaks inside the bra, skimming my teeth over the fabric, then pushing down roughly with my hand to capture a creamy handful and pull it free. She was arching under me whispering “Jill, Jill, please…”. I moved back to kiss her again, all open-mouthed desire, and growled “What? Please Jill what?” She took my hand and pulled it down to her waistband, wriggling to undo her trousers and make space for my hand to find its way under the elastic of her knickers and into incredible warmth and wetness. I felt my breathing stutter, and an answering wetness in my own underwear. I couldn’t stop now if someone had put a gun to my head.

My hand was trapped at an awkward angle, so I impatiently pulled back and bent to release the catch on my seat, indicating for Rachel to do the same, and suddenly we were in a semi-prone position and afforded more space to manoeuvre. I wrestled free of my jacket as Rachel pulled me back down into another kiss, grabbing my hand to return it to where it had been, and I pushed the tiredness of the day away and concentrated on mustering all my skills to bring this to a speedy conclusion. I might be overwhelmed by desire, but a tiny part of me was looking over my shoulder, terrified of being caught in this situation. Rachel had clearly been in a high state of arousal because it took just a few thrusts of my fingers and my thumb rubbing gently on her clit to feel her exhalation of breath on my cheek and her body go rigid under my hand, pulsing around my fingers. 

"God, Jill, I needed that", she breathed, when she had stopped shuddering. I eased my hand out from her underwear and grabbed a tissue from a box on the dash. My fingers were soaking. Just that prosaic act of wiping off her juices brought the reality of it crashing down. Far from feeling elated, it was as if  what we were doing was something sordid, humping in a parked car like randy teenagers. We were grown women with houses and beds and all the time ahead to explore each other and find our way forward. 

"Rachel", I whispered, kissing her briefly, " I need to go, and you need to sleep. We don't want anyone to find us here, after all."

I was praying she wouldn't sense my deflation and feel upset, but her eyes were still shining. She smoothed a hand tenderly over my hair.

"You're right as usual,  Inspector. I'll let you go, but you'll be in my dreams." 

Chapter Text

Rachel

The day began slowly, which was not entirely unwelcome as I was still muzzy from not enough sleep and the shock of what had happened between me and Jill last night. In the cold light of day it seemed preposterous, almost unbelievable. I wasn’t sure how I could face her in a professional situation with such a vivid memory of her fingers inside me. In fact, I was still reeling from the whole experience. I’d expected some snogging, some petting, but I hadn’t expected things to accelerate in the way they had.  I was still a bit sore from the thrust of her fingers and the angle we’d had to adopt in the car, but it was a pleasant soreness attached to a memory that brought a stupid grin to my face. The grin vanished when I let my car stall at some lights and had to endure a hooting from an impatient driver behind. I almost gave him the finger, but restrained myself. I didn’t want any trouble.

The tracker in Amy’s handbag showed that she was heading into work as usual, so I did my thing, put my plain glasses on and adopted the persona of Maxine O’Donnell.

“Morning”, I said, trying not to sound too cheery.

“Um..oh,  hiya”, Amy said distractedly as I sat down and swivelled my chair to face my screen. There was a subdued note to her voice, and a quick sideways glance revealed red-rimmed eyes and a sickly complexion.

“Are you OK?” I asked with apparent concern. “You look a bit peaky.”

“Yeah, feeling a bit shit. I think it’s a cold coming on. I’ll see how it goes and beg off at lunchtime if it gets worse.”

“Right”. Right. The Turkish flight was due in at around 3pm, and I wondered if Collins had ordered her to be at home at that time to avoid any potential problems she might cause him. Or was she involved? Going to receive the shipment? This seemed unlikely. Amy was emotionally tied to Collins, anyone could see that, and her inability to conceal her anxiety and worry over the last few days told me that she was unlikely to be a player in the drugs scene herself. But she knew something, that was for sure.

I got her a coffee and we worked normally until lunchtime.  At some point in the morning I snuck off to the smoking area, an unlit Silk Cut between my fingers in case another smoker showed up, and called the team number. It was Dodson who answered.

“Listen, chief, seems my friend is begging off this afternoon, says she’s ill, but looks more like the boyfriend has been having a go at her. My guess is he wants her out of the way so she’ll go home to wait for him. I’ll keep the tracker on her but if she does just go home I’d be free to join the team. My cover is going to be blown after today anyway I reckon.”

“Hmmm. For now just keep eyes on her and update me. If I need you elsewhere I’ll let you know. This is a massive operation, we’ve got the RAF Police and Delgado’s bunch onto the drug end of it. Our concern is to find out more about the murders of Andrea and Philip Crawford. That is our priority and its why I want you to cover Waterston. She knows something and she’s the weak link.”

“Right, chief, yes, I’m on it. What will Jill be doing?”

“She and Quinn are on alert to scoop up and question anyone else that pops out of the woodwork. We just don’t know how this afternoon will go down, so we have to be ready for anything. DC Childs and DS Dave Roberts are on alert at Ealing too.”

Once disconnected, I was tempted to call Jill, but my knowledge that this would be a breach of the rules if not connected to the case made me put it off, stifling my impatience to hear her voice, and that delicious ripple of anticipation I got every time I thought of her. I’d call her at lunchtime when I knew where Amy was going.

At ten to twelve Amy disappeared in the direction of the HR Director’s office, so I guessed she was calling in sick for the afternoon. I closed down my computer and waited. When I saw her coming back, I asked “Going home?”

“Yeah, I feel rotten. The boss said I could take the afternoon off. “

I smiled and gathered my bag and coat as she did the same.

“You going out?” she seemed mildly surprised. I said the first thing that came into my head.

“Yeah, gynae appointment.”  Damn, why did I say that? I mentally cursed my overactive imagination.

“Right, well good luck. See you tomorrow probably.”

“Sure, get some rest. Hope you feel better soon.” The usual platitudes. I moved slowly, to let her go first, fiddling with something on the desk.

“Bye then.”

“Bye Amy”.

I was maybe twenty feet behind her, keeping a polite and unconcerned distance. She reached her car, unlocked the doors and threw her coat and handbag onto the back seat. Before she could turn to close the door, a figure suddenly sprang up from behind the car and grabbed her. At first I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. I stopped dead. Did he know her? Christ, no, he had a knife in his right hand. As I watched in disbelief, he swung her round and I saw that his left arm was around her neck, hand holding a pad over her nose and mouth. She barely struggled, then went limp as he pushed her onto the back seat of the car and slammed the door. The whole thing had taken no more than about ten seconds. Ten seconds in which I froze as the scene unfolded. Now, instinctively, the policewoman in me reacted.

“Hey,” I yelled, running towards him, hoping to stop him from driving off. As I moved, time suddenly slowed down. I saw his arm come up with the knife and realised that the momentum of my run would send me right into the arc of his swing. To correct it, I ducked and leaned sideways. I felt something swipe the top of my arm, but I ignored it and crashed into his mid-section, hoping to throw him off balance. The force of the collision propelled him back against the car but before I could raise my knee to his groin, he had shoved me away and jumped into the driver’s seat. He had put all his strength into the push and I fell to the ground, off-balance. Furious with myself, I jumped up, but he had got the engine started and roared off across the car park. I was all for giving chase in my car, then realised two things: firstly, the tracker in Andrea’s bag would lead us to them more effectively than if I gave chase. Secondly, a red stain was seeping through the sleeve of my viscose jacket and my arm hurt like hell.

Swearing, I pulled out my phone and called the emergency team number, giving them a description of the car and of Amy’s abduction. Dodson was on it immediately, pulling up the tracking screen and calling Quinn to monitor it.

“Have you any idea of the identity of the abductor?”

I had seen him only briefly but I had a clear image of his face. Cropped fairish hair, narrow dark eyes, broad cheekbones, a boxer’s broken nose, stocky. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on the image of him holding Amy and brandishing the knife. As I did so I recalled a tattoo on his right wrist where the sleeve of his jacket had ridden up. It looked like the end of a snake.

“I have a feeling he may be one of Beqiri’s Albanian thugs.” I explained how, when Delgado and I had sat in on du Toit’s meeting in the café with Beqiri, I had noticed a tattoo on the gangster’s right forearm arm and wrist of a snake curled around a sword. Delgado had told me the gang used that as their identifying mark.“Maybe check with Delgado, see if he can describe the gang tattoo or send us a picture. But if it IS Beqiri’s lot, then something is going on between du Toit, Collins and him. Is anyone tailing du Toit? “

“DC Childs is watching her. She hasn’t moved yet today.”

“Chief, I’m coming in, I want to be in on this. Oh and if Beqiri’s lot are involved, we’ll need armed backup.”

Jill

I had nipped out to get sandwiches for the team when Rachel arrived. The first thing I saw as I entered with my bags of food was Rachel, dressed in tight jeans, a black windbreak and blue baseball cap, leaning over Quinn’s laptop where they were watching the tracker screen.

“Did I miss something?” I asked, putting everything down on the table.

“You certainly did,” Dodson, jacket off, striped sleeves rolled up, raised her head with a grimace. “Rachel here witnessed an abduction in the Northolt base car park. God only knows how the thug got in, but he grabbed Amy and we’re tracking her on this screen.”

Then she turned her attention to the room and said “Get some food inside you, it will be a busy afternoon. I’m calling for an Armed Response Team to support us as we try to get Amy released.”

I opened the bags and pulled out sandwich packs, wraps and drinks. Rachel came over to me.

“Who grabbed her?” I asked, “Did you recognise him”

She told me about the tattoo and her suspicion that it related to Beqiri’s gang. She looked very pale under the baseball cap and as I watched, she took a bottle of water and uncapped it, searching in her bag for something and emerging with a foil-wrapped capsule that she popped and swallowed.

“You OK?” I enquired, thinking that maybe she had been more shaken by witnessing the abduction than she had let on.

She screwed up her face and said “Headache. Not enough sleep, but I’ll get over it.”

I felt my cheeks redden, a sudden memory of what we had been doing late last night flashing across my vision. I couldn’t meet her gaze.

“Eat something”, I murmured, patting her on the forearm, then I moved away.

“Where’s Amy?” I asked Quinn, who was eating his sandwich while tracking her on a laptop. He pointed at the screen. “They stopped five minutes ago, so this may be the destination”. I didn’t recognise the address. I called Delgado and asked him if it rang any bells, thinking  Beqiri’s gang may have used it before, if it was indeed his gang that had abducted Amy.

“First, tell Rachel she was right about the tattoo,”, he said, sending an image of it to my phone. “Regarding the address, Beqiri uses warehouses on industrial estates for his operations and different ones all the time. It’s impossible to say if this is one of his, but it sounds familiar. I have to go, it’s about to kick off here so we ‘ll be moving out shortly.”

At one thirty, our lunch now finished, Quinn called out to me. “Collins is moving, boss.”

I joined him and Rachel came and stood beside me. The dot which represented his car was moving away from his residential address and heading towards Northolt. Delgado was tracking at the same time, so I knew his people would be following closely.

“Looks like this is the start of the drugs op”, I said. I could hear Dodson’s phone ringing behind me and a moment later, she came out of her office and called out to us.

“DC Childs reports du Toit is moving out, and judging from the direction, it would appear she’s following Collins. Childs and DS Roberts are in pursuit.”

“You know what I think?” Rachel murmured. “Gaby doesn’t trust Jake, she thinks he’s going to fuck it up. I reckon she’s working with Beqiri and they plan to grab the drugs and cut him out. They can’t use this route again anyway now that the RAF Police are suspicious. That’s why Beqiri grabbed Amy, to threaten Jake. We need to warn Delgado she may be on the scene and to look out for her.”

I looked at her, the pieces coming together, aware that we were speeding towards a totally unpredictable conclusion. Her eyes had regained some of their spark and I felt an electric buzz coming off her, as if she was just waiting to spring into action.

I called Delgado again. “Justin, it seems du Toit is heading in the same direction as Collins and your team. We have two from Ealing following and they’ll make contact by radio and keep you informed. We’ll leave her to you while we go to find Waterston.”

“Roger that. Take care, Beqiri’s guys are animals, and if he’s there, which I seriously doubt, we need you to bring him in as well.”

“We have AFOs accompanying,” I reassured him.

Rachel

I had changed into my spare clothes in the car before heading for Hillingdon nick. Luckily I had on a long sleeved cotton top under my cheap jacket and slacks, so I all I had to do was put on jeans and the jacket. The kidnapper’s knife had cut through two layers of fabric and made a deep gash in the top of my left arm. It was seeping blood rather than gushing, so I used some tissues and wet wipes to clean it as best I could, and ripped the other sleeve from the now ruined jacket, tying it round the arm with more tissues underneath, putting my black windbreaker over the top. It hurt like hell, but I had no water and couldn’t be bothered to stop and rummage through my bag looking for a painkiller. I needed to get to the station as fast as possible, and they didn’t need to know about this injury yet or I would be whisked off to hospital and miss all the action.

Jill was in biker mode again today, but I was amused to see she had retired the leather trousers (would last night have anything to do with that I wondered?) in favour of sturdy black jeans. She still looked breathtaking standing there with her coffee mug in hand, leaning against the desk with that oh so sexy slouch, a ribbed charcoal turtleneck tucked into the jeans, and the black biker boots.  If I hadn’t been in so much pain I would have murmured a compliment in her ear, but for now, I had to get myself together and prepare for action.

At 2pm we got the call- an Armed Response Vehicle with a team of Authorised Firearms Officers (AFOs) would rendezvous with us near the place where we believed Amy was being held. Jill, who was the designated officer in charge, picked up her jacket and helmet and raised her eyebrows at us. I was relieved that I had been issued a taser and  baton, although I would have much preferred to have a gun. I was firearms trained from my previous stint with the Met but my licence was not current. Watching Jill as she left the room, putting on her helmet, gave me a strong urge to jump on the back of her bike, but I had to resist. I threw my car keys to Quinn. “Let’s take my Honda, and you’re driving”.

The throbbing in my arm was constant, and a quick bathroom visit had revealed that blood was still seeping out. I had used up a whole pack of tissues cleaning it up and replacing the sodden ones, then I retied the sleeve and eased my arm back into my jacket. There was nothing more I could do for now. I forced down another high strength paracetamol and hoped for the best.

The address was on a trading estate somewhere between Hayes and Southall, a stone’s throw from Heathrow Airport. Amy’s car had been parked in a line of others in front of what looked like a warehouse with offices on the ground floor. Jill told Tom, the Armed Response leader, to stay out of sight while we did a reconnaissance. There seemed to be an office in front and I sauntered past to see whether there was anyone on duty. There was no one in sight. I tried the door and it opened. Beckoning Jill, who told Quinn to stay and keep watch, we crept in to see how the land lay. In five minutes we were outside again, Jill radioing Tom to join us. All the interior doors were locked and we would need to force our way in.

The longer it took to break the locks as quietly as possible and creep along corridors into the main part of the building, the worse I felt. I had started to sweat and my teeth chattered. At moments I thought I might faint, but somehow I kept it together. The inside of the building consisted of a reception area, then a door leading down a long corridor. As we advanced, Tom and his crew in front, I could see another corridor going off to the right.  We were almost level with it when suddenly a man appeared from around the corner, obviously not expecting to see anyone, and, startled, began shooting before we could react. Luckily the shots were wild, but the noise alerted his colleagues, and after that it was mayhem.

We dived for cover as bullets started to fly. Jill pulled me down beside her, close to the corner of the second corridor, Quinn crouching on the other side. The first thug had been easily immobilised, but at least three other armed thugs appeared and started shooting. While this was going on, I was looking around and saw that the corridor to our right, from which two thugs had emerged, was now unguarded as they had advanced to meet the threat from the AFOs. I touched Jill’s hand and pointed, moving towards the corridor. She looked over at Tom, but all the AFO’s were engaged in the battle with the thugs and no one was looking our way. “Come on,” I hissed, moving at a crouching run, while she and Quinn followed. I had to hope there would be no more armed men and that they had all run out when the shooting started. There was one door off the corridor and it was shut. This seemed to be the only corridor, so if Amy was in here, there was a chance to get her out while her captors were engaged with the Armed Unit. I was shivering, my forehead was wet with sweat, but I was desperate to get this over with.  I had been in many such situations before so without thinking too much about it, I grabbed my baton and indicated for Jill to draw her taser. “Cover me”, I whispered, and twisting the door handle I sprang into the room. I sensed them close behind me as I looked left and right to check we were clear but as my eyes came to the front, the vision of Amy Waterston, trussed like a chicken to a chair, a gag over her mouth, rose up before me.  Before I could reach her, I heard movement behind, and Jill’s exclamation. I turned to see her falling under the weight of a man I recognised as the one who had cut me in the car park. He had the knife in his hand and was swinging for Jill. There was no time to aim and fire the taser. The next few seconds were a blur as adrenaline rushed into my system, then everything went black.

 

Chapter Text

Jill

I had no time to alert Tom to our whereabouts as they were fully engaged in the gun battle. Rachel was right to make the dash when she did, reckless though some might call it. As she advanced into the room I could see her checking each side carefully, but the gangster hiding behind the door was in her blind spot. I caught sight of Amy, tied to the chair, in the same moment that an arm came out to hook around my neck and pull me down. I could see Amy struggling against her bonds and trying to speak into the gag. Her warning, if that’s what it was, came too late. I crashed to the floor with the weight of the thug on my neck and my involuntary exclamation must have alerted Rachel. I could hardly believe my eyes at what happened next. I was being held down in a firm grip while the thug swung his other arm around. I caught a glint of metal above me, coming closer, but for just a few seconds; suddenly a foot appeared next to my head, expertly kicking the knife away, then reappeared to kick the thug in the face, two sharp kicks in rapid succession, causing him to fall back, loosening his grip on me.

I struggled to free myself and tasered him hard in the ribs, kneeling on his legs to keep him still. The thug twitched violently for a few seconds then slumped. I saw Quinn running towards me but shouted at him to free Amy as I reholstered the taser and handcuffed the thug, getting to my feet, breath coming in gasps at the shock. My brain had hardly had the time to process the sequence of events, but I knew it must have been Rachel who had jumped and kicked the knife away. I looked around, wiping my face. Quinn, his back to me, was cutting Amy’s bonds, reassuring her that he was a police officer and that we were getting her out of here. But as I looked round for Rachel, I realised that she was lying on the ground, apparently lifeless.  I dropped to my knees. Her breathing was shallow and her head felt clammy. She was very pale. I pulled out my radio.

“Officer down, officer down. Room off corridor, three officers inside, one suspect neutralised, target found. We need help to get out. Over.”

“Roger”, came the reply. “Hold tight.”

I turned back to Rachel on the floor. Her baseball cap had come off and she lay with her hair fanned out. I felt for her pulse, which was fast. I was confused- she had led the way in and no one had assaulted her. In fact, she had saved me with her martial arts kicks. How had she been injured?

“Rachel”, I whispered, “wake up.” She stirred, and in a few seconds her eyes opened. She looked confused.

“What happened?”

“It’s OK, you fainted. Everything’s fine. Amy’s here, the man who was guarding her is incapacitated, thanks to some smart work by you. Someone is coming to help us.”

She sat up groggily and I took her arm to help her, but she let out a yelp that was of pure agony. Under my fingers I could feel a thick mass.

“What it is? What happened to you?”

“Him,” she gestured, “the guy who took Amy. He got me with the knife. In the car park. Just a slash, but hurts like hell.”

“OK hold on, we have paramedics on the way.”

Amy and Quinn had crossed the room to join us.

“Maxine?” Amy said. “What….what on earth are you doing here?”

“Sorry, Amy,” Rachel said, getting slowly to her feet. “I’m a police officer. I don’t have my ID on me, but my colleagues can vouch for me. DI Rachel Bailey, Ealing Met”.

Amy looked hard at me. “I know you”, she said. “You came to Northolt to interview us about Andrea.”

“Correct”, I said. “DI Raymond, Hillingdon Met.”

“What’s all this about?” Amy asked, clearly shaken, and starting to cry. “I don’t understand anything”.

At this moment one of the armed officers appeared in the doorway and beckoned to me.

“Paramedics on the way, Ma’am, ETA eight minutes. We’ve cleared the building. One suspect dead, two with non life-threatening flesh wounds, and your man there,” nodding to the man on the floor who was writhing in pain and glaring at us. “They can be treated at the scene and we’ll take them in. What about your colleague? “

“DI Bailey needs to have her wound treated, maybe in hospital. I’ll take care of that. You focus on the suspects.”

“And the victim, ma’am, the abductee?”

I turned and looked at Amy. She seemed fine now the restraints were off, no sign of injury.

“The paramedics should check her out and if all is well, DS Quinn will take her back to Hillingdon Met. There’s a risk others may be looking for her, so I’d like one of your officers in the car, but I don’t want her travelling with the suspects, OK?”

“Understood, Ma’am.”

Amy approached. “Where are you taking me?” she demanded.

”Amy, we need to take you somewhere safe. There are people who may wish to do you harm. We also have quite a few questions for you ourselves about your boyfriend Jake Collins. If you consent to come with us and cooperate, that’s best for you. Otherwise we have to arrest you and handcuff you. Your choice.”

“I have no idea what’s going on. I’m innocent, I haven’t done anything,” she said sulkily. “And I don’t know what you think Jake has done either.”

Rachel came over to join us, still very pale but now steady on her feet. “Amy, Jake is part of a massive operation that’s going down today. Those men who abducted you are connected to that and it’s why you’re safer with us. If you’ve done nothing you’ll be fine, but you may be able to answer some very important questions.”

“So why were you spying on me then?” she burst out. Rachel exchanged a brief glance with me.

"DI Bailey wasn’t spying on you, Amy, she was part of this larger operation. Let’s talk about this when we get back to the station, OK?”

Some time later, I stood by while the paramedics unwrapped Rachel’s arm. There was a large, ugly gash with slowly congealing blood, but it was obvious that the slightest jolt would set it off again. She shivered when they touched her.

“This needs to be stitched in hospital, Detective,” said the paramedic, “You’ve lost a lot of blood and you’ll need antibiotics and painkillers. Your colleague tells me that you were doing martial arts kicks a while ago. That didn’t help.” She grinned.

Rachel pouted. “Do I really have to go in an ambulance? I’d rather go on her motorbike”.

I felt the warmth come to my cheeks and looked down. The paramedic was unmoved.

“Ambulance one way. Then I’m sure your colleague can give you a lift home from there.”

She winked at me then put antiseptic and a temporary dressing on Rachel’s arm, immobilised it in a sling and led her to the ambulance.

“A feisty one this,” she commented. “Will you follow?”

“I will”, I promised. 

Rachel

I was riding around some hilly country on Jill’s motorbike, holding her tightly round the middle, pushing my nose into her neck and feeling the wind in my hair, just relaxing, when Artan Beqiri came over the crest of a hill  on a bigger, meaner machine and headed straight for us.

“Look out…!” I started to shout

“Rachel, sshh, it’s me, Jill, stop struggling. “

I opened my eyes to a calm, white world- white screens, white walls and ceiling. And the beautiful, concerned face of Jill Raymond leaning over me.

“Where am I?”

“In a cubicle in A&E at Hillingdon Hospital.  You’ve been asleep for a couple of hours. They’ve stitched your wound, and put you on AV painkillers and antibiotics. Probably time to come off them now.”

I felt like a small child again, the guilty feeling I always had that people thought I was making it up, that I was just trying to get attention. But the way Jill was looking at me told me that she cared, and that she’d been concerned. It was a new and very strange sensation.

“Jill,” I began, hoping she wouldn’t think me foolish.

“What?” she smoothed my hair from my face.

“Just…..just hug me, please, I want to feel that this is real, that you’re here.”

Wordlessly she reached over, an arm each side of my chest, avoiding touching my bad arm and the hand with the cannula, and her lips settled softly on my cheek as her upper body covered mine. She smelled like Jill, her hair tickled my face, her cotton top was soft and comforting. I was in heaven. But when she pulled back, the spell was broken and a new panic struck me.

“What’s the time?”

“Six forty-five,” she said.

"What about Ryan? Don't you need to go?”

“I’ve had a thought, OK, just hear me out and tell me if this works.” 

I nodded, although the panic in my throat made me swallow hard.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go home tonight. Firstly, you need real rest, and more importantly perhaps, you don’t want to upset Ryan by letting him see you with your arm strapped up.”

My what?  “But it’s just a scratch”, I protested.

“Um, it’s actually a bit more serious. The knife missed major arteries, which is why you didn’t bleed to death, but it nicked the triceps muscle in your upper arm. They want you to keep it strapped up and immobilised for the first 24 hours at least to give it a chance to start healing. That’s why it hurt so much.”

“Oh”, my memory of recent events was beginning to come back, including the stitching part. The doctor had been explaining it all to Jill but I had been too dazed to take anything in.

“So I suggest you come back with me tonight. I’m just five minutes away. However, what I propose is that we call Stefan, tell him the situation and see if he agrees that you could talk to Ryan on the phone and tell him you’ll be home tomorrow. “

“But I won’t…and you won’t be there to read to him,” somehow this was worse than just being absent with a promise to return.

She gave a little cough. “I ..um..I have one of the Caterpillar  books in my pillion box. I was going to take it to start reading tonight if we had time. Maybe I could read it to him over the phone? “

The thought that she was carrying a child’s reading book around with her when she was on a major case was so touching that I thought I might cry.

“Then call the nurse and let’s get out of here,” I said, struggling to sit up.

Jill

While Rachel was still resting in A & E,  I had called in my report to Dodson. She told me that she was still waiting for the full report from Delgado on how the drugs operation went down before starting questioning the remaining Albanian thugs, none of which, it appeared, was Beqiri. This confirmed what Rachel had told me earlier as she could identify Beqiri and he certainly wasn’t there. Delgado and the RAF Police had apparently been successful in confiscating the drugs and in arresting Jake Collins and the crew of the Hercules carrying the drugs, but Gabrielle had managed to get away and her whereabouts were now unknown.

“So let’s leave them all to stew until morning”, was her assessment. “Delgado is interviewing Collins as we speak and he will have a full report to me first thing, which will give us a direction for questioning Amy, and also for determining whether she’s still in danger.”

“OK, chief, that suits me. Rachel needs to rest tonight, but I’m sure she’ll be hot to trot tomorrow for the interviews.”

“I’ll leave her in your capable hands then, Inspector,” the Chief Super said in a dry tone. I had the unmistakeable feeling as I hung up that she knew everything that was going on between us.

I put Rachel in a taxi, unprotesting, with her arm strapped up, and a bag full of painkillers and antibiotics, while I followed on the bike. Within five minutes we were home and she was on the phone to Stefan. She downplayed the injury but explained that it would be better to return to her own home the following evening because we had follow-up work to do tonight and she didn’t want to disturb Ryan’s routine. As soon as he had passed the phone to Ryan, my own mobile rang with a landline number.

“Just how bad is this injury?” Stefan asked in a low voice. I told him, and also that it was strapped up but that it would soon heal.

“Don’t worry,’ I added, “She’s at mine and I’ll take good care of her. A good night’s sleep and she’ll be as right as rain.” I suggested that I could read to Ryan over the phone, but he said maybe that would be too much for one evening, and that Michelle was there with him and they would both read to him instead.

I was in some measure relieved as it was already 7.30 and there were things to do. Missy was whining around my feet and I needed to think about dinner. I also desperately needed a shower, and I expected Rachel would need help with her own washing arrangements. Anxiety flooded me.

Once Missy was placated, I said, as cheerfully as I could manage. “OK, DI Bailey, decision time. Food first or bath first?”

Her eyes widened as she realised her predicament. “I really need a bath or shower, but as you can see, it won’t be easy.”

I perched on the arm of the sofa where she was sitting and, trying to keep a matter of fact tone. “What about if I run you a bath, we take off the external strapping, cover your arm with a plastic bag or cling film or something, I help you with the bits you can’t manage and I leave you to soak with your arm up in the air. You can wash yourself with one hand, right?”

“Yes, but I can’t wash my hair and it’s horrible.”.

“I can help with that once you’ve had the bath.”

I sensed her relief that I wasn’t proposing to strip her off myself and wash her down. Rachel Bailey was far too independent to consent to that. I had seen  from her behaviour last night – and was it really only last night? -that she liked to be in control of what was happening, and the current scenario didn’t exactly match up.

We went to the bathroom and I started running the bath, adding some Epsom Salts, plain old unscented,  but my favourite muscle relaxant. I left her to go into the bedroom and find a robe, some more towels, and some sweats and underwear she could put on afterwards. I knocked on my return to give her some privacy, and she told me to come in. On the whole we managed OK. First I did the socks and jeans, then, once the strapping on her arm was temporarily removed and the dressing covered, she only needed help in lifting her top over her head and undoing the back fastening on her bra. I tried not to look as she pulled it off, and made to back out, leaving her to deal with her knickers.

“Can you manage now?” I asked, and she nodded.

“I’ll just be in the kitchen, so shout if you need anything,” and I bolted like a skittish pony.

Of course, in my nervousness to be gone, I had forgotten to put the towel within reach, so she had to call me to go up and help her. I averted my eyes as I held up the towel for her to step out and wrap herself up in it. It wasn’t just for her modesty either. I needed to keep my mind on the task at hand.

The hair washing was easy as she kneeled over the bath and I used the shower attachment to wash and rinse her hair. I was reminded bizarrely of how I had occasionally bathed Missy like this and how, unlike most cats, who react violently to water, she sat uncomplaining while I massaged her fur with soap and rinsed it clean. Finally I stood back and rubbed Rachel’s hair with a towel.

“Um, come into the bedroom when you’ve dried off, I’ve got some things you can put on.”

How we got through the next ten minutes I don’t know as we danced around the redressing business. I handed her some clean knickers and she turned around, dropped the towel and nonchalantly started putting them on. My heart nearly stopped. I tried to appear unaffected but my eyes gave me away.

“See something you like?” she asked cheekily, reaching for the long sleeved T-shirt.

“I…uh… that is…” I stammered, like an idiot.

“Well don’t just stand there gawping, give me a hand will you?”

I moved to her side and helped her ease the T shirt over her head and pull it down. As I did so I got a wonderful view of her breasts, fuller than mine, with small dark brown nipples just puckering slightly in the cooler air of the bedroom. I gulped and tried to put last night out of my mind. I could tell Rachel was still in pain and tired, anything else had to wait.

Finally we got her arm strapped up again and I helped her brush her hair out. She looked softly beautiful in the light from my bedroom lamp and I could see her looking at me in a way that melted my insides. She was trying her best to be tough but her hard outer shell had receded, leaving her with an air of vulnerability that cut me to the core.

Rachel

Sitting on Jill’s leather sofa, Missy’s soft fur under my fingers and her purring relaxing me more than all the drugs I had had pumped into me, I could almost believe this was what life could be like. A simple supper of French onion soup, bread, cheese and pâte, herbal tea, and the adult I wanted more than anyone in the world to be at my side. Jill had showered, her hair still damp and fluffy. I could smell the clean scent of her shampoo and shower gel all around us both. She had poured herself a whisky, apologising that she couldn’t offer any to me because of the painkillers. Watching her sip and sigh and relax into the sofa cushions was a kind of magic. I leaned over a little so that my head was almost on her shoulder. Missy gave a cross “prrrp” and shifted to avoid being squashed. I reached out and took the whisky glass, bringing it to my lips where hers had just been, and taking a sip while looking up at her.

“You shouldn’t, you know. Those painkillers have codeine in them.” But her voice held no real conviction.

“It’s a sip, that’s all. I want to taste like you.”

She gave a strangled laugh and I set the glass down, leaned further into her and touched my lips to hers. There was no pressure this time, no demand. This was about me thanking her for being there, for being her. She returned the kiss sweetly but I could sense her holding back. I knew she wanted me, of course, I wasn’t blind, but in that simple contact I felt something in me give, something I hadn’t felt for years and years as I went on kissing her, just enjoying the softness and tenderness that had been so absent from most of my life until my son came along.

Finally we came up for air. She smiled at me tenderly and stroked my hair and I put my head on her shoulder. I knew I had only about half an hour before my eyes started closing, but there was still this shadow between us that I needed to deal with.

“Jill, about last night….”

She turned to look at me, her hazel eyes dark and deep, a hint of sorrow or something I couldn’t quite fathom.

“Yes, I suppose we should talk about that,” she said quietly.

“ I..I’ve never done this before. With a woman I mean. I’m not sure how these things are done, how it’s supposed to happen.”

“In pretty much the same way as you would with a man, I would imagine”, she answered a little tartly.  I sensed an implicit judgement, that I was such a serial shagger that I just threw myself on whoever and expected to get my own way. I flushed.

“Look, I have a pretty awful track record”, I began, moving back to maintain eye contact.  “I realise now - realised some time ago, in fact, that I was using the men I slept with. Though we never usually got as far as the sleeping part”, I added, with a small snigger.“I haven’t had a proper relationship for years. In fact I haven’t even had sex with anyone since that night at Gill Murray’s birthday party. I told you about Nick, and how he tried to kill me. And then I married Sean, although that was a disaster. I didn’t love him, and moved out pretty much as soon as the wedding was over. What I’m trying to say is that I’m not good at this, I’m totally crap at relationships full stop.  But I feel something for you that is different from all those guys. Something like friendship but much more than that.” I was struggling to find the words. She remained silent, waiting for me.

“I want to have a real relationship with you and I want …I want to make love with you, I think about it all the time. But I went about it the wrong way. I pounced on you and… thrilling though that was, I can feel it’s not what you really wanted. That you maybe thought I was using you, like I used to use them…” I tailed off, helplessly, language deserting me.

She looked up sharply then as if she was about to say yes, that’s exactly what I thought you were doing. But she hesitated and sighed.

“Rachel, this is difficult and maybe not the time or place. There’s a lot of background I need to tell you before you decide whether getting into a relationship with me is a wise thing to do. You….jumped the gun rather last night. I’m not blaming you, but I wasn’t strong enough to stop you because what I feel for you is much more than friendship, too. I don’t think you were just using me, let’s be clear. I was an equal participant. I felt that I had let myself down because we – you and I and where we both are in our lives- were not ready for this, even if we feel we want it.”

I reached out and touched her hand, interlocking her long fingers with mine.

“I know I’m ready”, I said softly. “And I can wait until you are too. But nothing you tell me will change the way I feel about you. And you’re amazing with my son, and he adores you, and that is just the most ..well, the best thing ever.”

She looked anguished and conflicted. I could see the desire in her eyes, mirroring my own, but there was something holding her back.

“I’m very fond of your son, that’s true. But I think we have a lot of ground to cover before we discuss what kind of relationship we’re going to have. It’s too complicated to discuss here and now. You’re tired and in pain. We should sleep.”

And she got up and carried the tray out to the kitchen and began stacking the dishwasher while I sat thinking about what she said. I could see there was no point in pushing her, that I had to be patient. I let out a huge yawn which she caught as she came back into the living room with fresh mugs of herbal tea. I could see from the look on her face that she was trying to distance herself. I was beginning to understand what made Jill Raymond tick. She was trying to be noble, thinking that she might hurt me when all I wanted was the comfort of her presence, the absolute security I felt in her arms.

“Jill”, I said softly. “Please let me sleep with you tonight. Just to be near you. You make me feel so safe.”

Her eyes softened and she smiled.

“Come on then,” she said. “You’d just better not do those martial arts kicks in your sleep”.

Jill

Rachel crashed out almost as soon as she got into bed, as I had predicted. Which was a blessing. Just having her near me was  torture. It would be so easy to fall into this, to let myself be carried along until … until she realised that she could do so much better than a 53 year old woman with a broken heart and a ton of guilt? Until she found a man who would be a perfect stepfather for Ryan? Or until I realised that a younger woman with a small child was too much of a burden to carry into middle age? A little voice in my head was saying Go for it, you’ve done your penance, now is the time to enjoy what’s left. You may never get another opportunity like this. What held me back was knowing that I could end up being badly hurt again, or I could hurt Rachel, and, worse, Ryan, who deserved only the best because he had his whole life ahead of him.

We lay in the darkness on our backs, her head on my chest, my nipples hard and sensitive from the puffs of air she was sending over them. When she shifted I turned her carefully onto her right side, and spooned her from behind, my arm locking around her midriff, our bodies touching and spreading warmth all the way down to our toes. A creak of the door being pushed open alerted me to the fact that at any second a small furry body would land on the bed. There it was. I felt paws kneading the duvet as Missy circled her favourite spot and settled down, purring with contentment. I fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Rachel

My body clock woke me at 6.15 am- usually Ryan’s time to come to find me. But the room was quiet and dark. I heard gentle breathing close to my ear and felt an arm around my middle. It was immensely comforting and peaceful.  From a little further away I heard purring. So Missy had found her way in as well. Cosy. I relaxed into the bed, rolling backwards into her a little to get more of her delicious warmth. She mumbled in her sleep and her grip shifted. Without thinking I put my hand over hers and moved it upwards to cover my breast. At the touch of her fingers on my nipple, it sprang to life, and I couldn’t resist squeezing a little. My heart beat faster and arousal flooded my body. I let go of her hand and held my breath. The hand remained still.  Seconds later, her body went rigid and the hand slipped off as she moved discreetly away. I rolled onto my back careful not to jolt my injured arm, and turned to face her.

“Good morning, Inspector.”

“What time is it?” she asked, batting a furry paw away, as Missy came to make her presence felt.

“Six fifteen,” I replied.

“The briefing’s at 8.30, I need to get you over to Beaconsfield first to clear your flat and pick up some clothes.”

Clearly, Jill Raymond was a morning person. I sighed.

“No, I don’t suppose Dodson would be impressed if I swanned in wearing yours. Especially not one of those sexy waistcoats.”

“Ha, no, that would never do,” she responded nervously, jumping out of bed as if something had bitten her. I watched her move, a little stiffly at first, but she reached her robe in a matter of seconds and wrapped it around herself no doubt for protection from my penetrating gaze. I wasn’t sorry. Just the sight of her in that vest sent shivers down my spine.

She showered and then prepared breakfast while I had a quick wash down and brushed my teeth with the new toothbrush she had left for me, putting on my jeans and bra from the previous day with a borrowed sweatshirt and socks. For the sake of speed I had pulled the sweatshirt on with one hand and left the strapped up arm inside. I’d soon be changing anyway. Jill was in the kitchen in her black waistcoat with a deep indigo end-on-end shirt that I coveted the hell out of. As we were about to leave the house she popped something into her mouth.

“Let me guess, ex-smoker?” I teased her.

She pulled out a tin of extra hot peppermints and offered them to me.

“Long time ago. Then I vaped for a while. Now I just suck mints. Helps me concentrate.”

I smiled and shook my head, “Give me a cigarette any day, even if that’s a no -no these days.”

 When she had put the tin back into her pocket and had her hand on the door, I moved in front of her and pushed her against the wall with my right hand

“You need to know that I’m waiting, because I know you want me as much as I want you. But patience isn’t my strongest suit,” I whispered against her lips before claiming her mouth with mine. It was brief, sweet and deep, mint and all.  When I pulled away she looked shell-shocked and not a little aroused. I winked and moved forward and out of the door.

Jill

 The morning briefing revealed more about the previous day’s events. Dodson had called DC Childs over to work with us, and Delgado bounced in sporting a cut above his eyebrow that he claimed to have sustained tackling Jacob Collins to the ground during the drugs grab. It had done nothing to dent his cocky bravado, I was pleased to see. Hewson’s predictions had been correct- once the team on the Hercules out of Turkey knew there was a reception committee on the ground, they had switched to attempting a risky drop on final approach using fuel canisters that were easy to jettison but which would protect the drug package inside. Hewson had arrested the crew of the Hercules on landing and Delgado had bagged Collins, who, after an uncomfortable night in the cells following his first questioning, now sat in our own station awaiting questioning on charges of murder.

“The downside”, he concluded, pacing, hands in the pockets of his ripped designer jeans, is that Gaby du Toit got away. And there was no sign of Beqiri. She’s ditched her phone so we can’t listen to her any more and she’s abandoned her flat. She’s in the wind. We suspect she’ll head either for the Netherlands or South Africa, so we have alerts at all the airports, ferry ports, rail stations, and have notified Europol and Interpol. No sightings yet of Beqiri - he’s most probably still here and lying low. My gut tells me they were working together, but now that the drugs have gone, she might be hiding from him since he might see her as a liability.”

“How much did you sieze?” Rachel asked, tapping a pencil on the table in front of her.

Delgado grinned. “Fifty kilos of top grade heroin. That’s a street value of almost three million quid.”

Everyone clapped, and Delgado bowed, very pleased with himself.

“So, bottom line,” Dodson tried to bring the conversation back to our current task, “one of our key suspects in the deaths of Andrea and Philip Crawford has done a bunk and two others are in cells awaiting questioning.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Inspectors Raymond and Bailey, get to it.”

I started, having been lost in a fantasy which included pinning Rachel to the wall, much as she had done to me, and having my wicked way with her. I really, really wished she had not pulled that stunt before the day had even got going. Especially when I had had to help her get redressed in the flat in Beaconsfield. Now here she was, attired in a cream blouse and grey slacks with a red cardigan that looked more Maxine O’Donnell than Rachel Bailey, but was a step up from the dirty jeans and old sweatshirt that she had left the house in earlier. I was constantly on edge around her, trying to keep my distance so as not to be pulled into her aura. She was flashing me looks with those wide brown eyes that did nothing to help. I needed to get my head back in the game.

“So how shall we do this?” Rachel asked as Dodson went back into her office.

“Well, you know Amy already, so I’m not sure you should question her. What we need to do is play one off against the other. How about DC Childs and I take Amy, since we were the officers who interviewed her previously, and you and Quinn tackle Collins. You have quite the reputation, DI Bailey, so go give him hell. Break for a discussion in about 45 minutes?”

“Sounds good to me”, she replied.

Rachel

Flying Officer Jacob Hendricks Collins had lawyered up with the aid of the RAF but had decided to go down the “No Comment” route. I could see that his lawyer had advised this as a way of avoiding complications while he was only being interviewed in relation to the murders of Andrea and Philip Crawford, but not yet charged. They could see we didn’t have any evidence and this was basically a fishing trip.  But he was a poor actor and his eyes gave him away, so I noted the areas to push harder on in the next round.  I called a break and we huddled with Jill and Lisa to exchange information.

Jill leaned her lanky form back against a table -dammit, why couldn’t the woman just sit down, instead of treating us to this languid sprawl that pushed my mind in completely the wrong direction? She popped a mint, flashing her silver cufflinks on that gorgeous deep indigo shirt.

“Well Amy is singing like a canary – she’s terrified. As far as we can make out, she was aware of Collins’ drug dealing activities, but she herself was not involved. She says she knows Gabrielle du Toit and that she was Collins’ sister, and blames her for everything, claiming that she pressured Collins to bring the drugs in through Northolt and that he was afraid of her and some quote East European thug unquote who she was working with. She didn’t react to a picture of Artan Beqiri, so chances are she’s never seen him. With regard to Andrea’s murder, I think she’s lying to protect Jake. She says Gabrielle did it out of jealousy because she was involved with Philip. But she claims to have no knowledge of Philip’s murder. It makes no sense, so we still have a long way to go.”

We talked this around, tossing ideas back and forth for a while then went back in with a revised strategy, and this time I got a reaction from Collins despite his brief trying to shut him up. The long and short of it was that he categorically denied any knowledge of Philip’s murder or of his sister’s contact, Beqiri. Which suggested that he did have knowledge of the other murder. By drip feeding him information about what Amy was saying we got him admitting he knew what had happened to Andrea. But he went “no comment” when I asked him where he was at that time. He clearly wasn’t the smartest cookie in the box – by partially admitting or denying things, he gave us a rather more complete picture of what had happened, and some gaps that we could fill with intelligent guesses. But both he and Andrea were adamant in pinning Andrea’s murder on Gabrielle.

I wasn’t happy.

“We really need to find that woman,” I said, slapping my good hand down on the table. Collins was already in custody for the drugs charges, which meant we had ongoing access to him for questioning, thus relieving the pressure to get a quick result. Amy was a different matter. She appeared to be cooperating but Jill was sure she was lying about Andrea’s murder to protect Jake. We also had the problem that in another 24 hours we would have to release her but she would need protection from Beqiri, if not du Toit.

With that weighing on us we went to lunch. Quinn opted to order food in and get on with the  paperwork, and Lisa was heading  back to Ealing, but Jill quirked her eyebrows at me and said “Sod this for a game of soldiers, let’s get out of here.”

My arm was annoying me more and more. The wound was starting to itch and the one handedness was slowing me down. As we headed out to Jill’s car, she saw me wrestling with the strapping to make it more comfortable.

“Leave it alone. We’ll go to the hospital this afternoon and see whether the strapping can come off. In the meantime, I’m treating you to a nice lunch, so try not to think about it.”

She drove a few miles out of Hillingdon, away from the semi-industrial sprawl of the base and surroundings and into a greener area, pulling up in the car park of a pub I had not known was there. It was heaven to escape the pressured environment of the station. The pub had a small dining room with excellent home-made fare, and over delicious freshly made quiche and salad we had a relaxed chat about the cases and got time just to catch up with each other. I wouldn’t normally bother with dessert, but Jill was hankering after the signature chocolate tart with salted caramel, crème fraiche and pistachio crumbs. It sounded very rich to me, but she persuaded me to share one.

“I don’t have such a sweet tooth, but this is exceptional. Once you’ve tasted it, you’ll want to come back time and time again”, she said, grinning and taking up her fork in readiness. I watched her face as she dug into a piece and put it slowly into her mouth. She chewed with her eyes closed, intense pleasure radiating out of her. I put a piece gingerly into my own mouth and oh boy, she was right. The chocolate was dark but not overly sweet. The crème fraiche very light and the salted caramel layer between the chocolate and the thin biscuit base– well, I thought this might be the best dessert I had ever had. With the mix of flavours in my mouth, taste buds exploding, I watched Jill go back for another forkful. As her slender fingers carried the fork to her mouth, her silver cuff links caught the light and a sudden realisation hit me with all the force of a freight train. I was in love with Jill Raymond. All she had to do was raise that fork and I was overcome with emotion. I was comfortable with lust, but this was on a completely different level. The curl of her fingers around the fork, the delicacy of her movement- something so simple, yet it filled me with warmth, and a sense of familiarity.  I felt it in every cell and pore, a certainty and rightness I could neither deny nor turn my back on.

“You’d better get a move on or I’ll have more than my fair share”, she said, her eyes twinkling. I needed no further encouragement, but for the remaining time, and all the way back to the station, this unfamiliar feeling kept jolting me into awareness. I was in love. I was totally in love. I kept thinking it would pass, like the hiccups or something, but each time my mind returned to it, I felt this warm wave of emotion. It was real.

As we approached the station, Jill’s phone rang. She glanced down and said, “Get that, would you, it’s Stefan.”  Of course, my Rachel Bailey phone was still with Steve and he didn’t have the other number so it was probably me he wanted.

“Hey, it’s Rachel, Jill’s driving, how are you?”

“You’d better put this on speaker”, he said. “This is for both of you- we have had the tox results back from Philip Crawford, and I’ve asked the CSI’s to go over Andrea Crawford’s scene evidence again with a fine toothcomb. I think we have something for you. Could you head over here this afternoon?”

Jill pulled into the station car park and switched off the engine. She looked at me.

“Sure,” she said. “What time?”

“I’m tied up for a few hours with another scene but I should be back by 5. Rachel, are you coming home tonight?”

“That’s the plan”, I replied. “After having this strapping removed from my arm so that I look a bit more human when Ryan sees me.”

“Right. OK we’ll talk later but I may have to be at Michelle’s tonight. Her mother is visiting and wants to talk about the wedding. Is Jill coming back with you?”

“I can do that”, Jill said. “I was going to drop her off anyway and say hello to Ryan.”

“OK that’s fine, see you ladies later. Have a nice afternoon.”

I rolled my eyes. Nice afternoon indeed.

When we got inside, Jill went to report to Dodson. She was not pleased by all accounts.

“She wants the crime scene stuff immediately to give us fuel for the next interviews. But I think it works in our favour to let them stew until tomorrow. Another 24 hours may bring us info on the whereabouts of the other two as well.”

I agreed, but I really wanted a crack at Amy. I was sure that with the threat of some unspecified crime scene evidence, I could break her. I wondered how Jill would react to me hijacking her interview.

 

Chapter Text

Jill

By the time we reached the hospital at 4.30 pm, Rachel was ready to tear the strapping off her arm herself, so I was a little apprehensive in case the doctor insisted she wear it for another day. Fortunately, Rachel was a fast healer and after inspecting the wound and testing her mobility, the doctor deemed her good to go. The nurse changed the dressing and told her to be very careful not to flex the muscle by lifting a weight or applying pressure, or doing  anything to break the stitches. Otherwise, back in four days to have the stitches out. Rachel had insisted I accompany her, so while she removed her blouse for the doctor to examine her arm, I had to watch her sitting there in a lacy black bra, quite unselfconscious. She was beautiful, and natural, and she knew it. I was well aware that this view was my punishment for delaying the physical continuation of our relationship, and I made up my mind that this weekend would mark the change. I needed her to understand exactly what she would be getting into. Then there were the consequences of bringing a small boy into my life on a permanent basis. Watching her smile at the nurse and joke with her, then catch my eye across the room, the wave of love that surged over me left me almost breathless. I knew that this would most probably be the last relationship of my life. I had to get it right, for all our sakes.

I had already had one pleasant surprise that dull Friday afternoon. I had let Rachel persuade me to have another go at Amy, and we had, between us, achieved more than expected. We put it to Dodson that it was best to make use of Rachel while she was in Hillingdon, and, with  DC Childs back in Ealing, and Quinn off on another enquiry, we paired up to have another crack at Amy Waterston. She was already comfortable with me, maybe too comfortable, and thought she had convinced me that her story was genuine. But bringing Rachel in had definitely unsettled her, especially since she had known her as a work colleague until yesterday.

“Great work, you two,” Dodson had surprised us by exiting the viewing room as we came along the corridor practically high fiving.

“I knew she’d crack,” Rachel had said. “I could just tell. Once we mentioned forensic evidence there was no way she wanted to be carrying the can for Jake. There must be something there that places him at the crime scene. Or her, or both.”

“Which we will, hopefully, be about to discover,” I had added, with a measure of satisfaction.

Dodson had given us a look I couldn’t quite interpret and said “You two really make a great team.”

“I know”, Rachel had replied cheekily, blowing her a kiss once we had turned the corner and were out of sight.

At the lab, Stefan went over the evidence they had turned up. He had a copy of the PM results.

“Andrea had quite a lot of alcohol in her system according to the post-mortem results, and the blood results confirm it. Recently imbibed, too. This would suggest she had gone for a drink after leaving work somewhere nearby. Her stomach was almost empty so there was no food involved,”

Rachel looked at me “Did you check the pubs for sightings?”

“I’m not sure, but if we did it obviously wasn’t done carefully enough.” I called Quinn.

“Pubs and bars, Quinn, within walking distance of Northolt base. Andrea and possibly Amy Waterston and Collins.”

“He’s onto it”, I told her. “What else?” turning back to Stefan.

“There was a cigarette stub found with the crime scene evidence, but a few yards away. Impossible to know whether it was part of the scene or not. However, The Drugs Squad have sent samples of Collins’ DNA for testing and we got a match to saliva on the filter tip.”

“Perfect. Oh, we’ve got him now!” Rachel clapped her hands. “Any other DNA you picked up?”

“Apart from Andrea’s, no. We know she was strangled and there are bruises on her neck and arms, so she was restrained. Whether one man could have done it alone, it’s hard to say, but we have no other evidence.”

“Any more on Philip?”

He shook his head. “Tox screen not until tomorrow, all we know is that he wasn’t killed in the car, he was placed there later. The techs have gone over the car with a fine toothcomb, but whoever did it was careful not to leave any evidence. Probably wearing overalls and gloves.”

“Right, so then we’ll be off,” Rachel put her coat back on, careful with her injured arm, and Stefan moved to help her into it.

“I can give you a lift if you like? I’m leaving in about 20 minutes.”

“No, it’s fine. Jill will drive me and we’ll get Ryan from day care. And if he’s good she might even give him a Caterpillar story”, she looked at me for approval.

“Absolutely”, I nodded.

“So you just carry on and do whatever it is you’re doing. I’m fine tonight and I’ll get Ryan to school in the morning.”

“Oh, I forgot- I’ve had Kathy picking him up every morning at 7.45 and she’ll do it tomorrow. It’s Saturday but I asked her to take him to day care till I get back at lunchtime. So don’t worry yourself. Take care of your arm and go at your own speed. She’s happy to do it. I’ll go directly to Michelle’s then if that’s OK with you. And here's your phone.”

“It's fine, Steve, you’ve been brilliant. Thank you for everything, really.” And she pocketed the phone while leaning over and kissing him on the cheek. He patted her shoulder awkwardly, just that small gesture showing how much he cared about her.

“You’d do the same for me”, he said roughly, then coughed as if clearing his throat and turned back to his computer.

We set off, Rachel calling the childminder to warn her we were on our way to collect Ryan. When she hung up, she looked at me and the tension in the air rose a few notches.

“You can stay over, you know. “

“Is that a good idea?” I asked, my heart racing.

“It’s a very good idea. Ryan will be happy, and I don’t want to be alone. Correction- I don’t want to be away from you. There’s unfinished business we have to deal with.”

As she said that a stab of desire hit me low in the belly, and I gasped a little. What she didn’t know was that the uncertainty of the situation had meant I’d packed an overnight bag and left it in the boot of my car. All I had to do now was call Jean to feed Missy and change her litter tray. She was an older lady who lived next door and had helped me with Missy ever since Bella left.

Rachel put a hand on my thigh. “What would you like for dinner? We can get delivery.”

“Stop that,” I said through gritted teeth, removing her hand. “Let’s look at the menus when we get back.”

Ryan was predictably overjoyed to see me when Rachel brought him to the car.

“Raymond! You didn’t come yesterday”, he said.

“Raymond was helping me”, Rachel said. “Mummy hurt her arm and Raymond took me to the hospital to make it all better”.

“Are you hurt, Mummy?” he asked, as she seated  him next to her in the back , belting him in as best she could. I hadn’t got a child seat, but at four and a half, Ryan was almost able to sit by himself. Thankfully the distance to their house was short.

“Not any more. Not since seeing my best boy,” she said, kissing him.

Once inside, we got organised. Rachel took Ryan upstairs to the bath and I was charged with food ordering. I wondered how she would cope with her arm, but she said it was fine, she would put him under the shower and he could help wash and dry himself. I would then go and read to him before he went to sleep.

And that’s what happened. Rachel came down showered and in her pyjamas and took charge of the food while I went to read to Ryan.

“Raymond, will you stay with Mummy to take care of her?” he asked as I closed the book.

“Of course I will,” I said, brushing his hair from his forehead and kissing him goodnight.

“I love you, Raymond,” he said sleepily. “Don’t ever go away”.

I had a huge lump in my throat when I went downstairs to join Rachel. The kitchen was warm and the Thai food smelled amazing. I had ordered different things this time because everything the restaurant did was delicious. I removed my waistcoat and cufflinks and rolled up my sleeves.

“Have I told you I love that shirt?” Rachel asked, pointing a fork at me.

“What, this?”

“Yes, that. And one day I’m going to borrow it.”

“Right…well you can go right ahead. I’m not territorial about my shirts.”

“Just as well,” she winked. “Now let’s eat”.

 

Rachel

 If I had thought Thai food couldn’t get any better than what I’d had before I was wrong.

“This is new to me, what is it?”  I asked.

“It’s laab neua– a kind of spiced beef salad with roasted rice powder and fresh herbs and chilli. It’s a northern speciality.” Jill said. She picked up one of the little baskets of sticky rice and showed me how to eat them  together.

“Yum….so good”, I said, piling the salad onto flattened balls of sticky rice, and helping it down with bites of raw cabbage and aubergine dipped in fish sauce.  She’d also got Tom Yam Goong, the fiery prawn soup, and water spinach tossed with garlic. I found a bottle of a rather nice dry French cider that Michelle must have brought, and we ate and drank until nothing was left. To round it off I found some mango yogurts in the fridge, sending a silent thanks to Michelle for shopping so competently and leaving stuff there. We didn’t get into any heavy conversation over the food, just talked about the case and our plans for the next day.

Once we had cleared everything away, I made a pot of green tea and we went into the lounge. Jill sprawled back on the sofa.

“I’m stuffed”, she said.

I went over and planted myself astride her legs, my arms going round her neck.

“What’s this?” she said wearily.  “We need to talk first.”

“No, we don’t. I need to kiss you. I’ve been waiting all day and I can’t wait another second.”

And I bent my head to claim her mouth, weaving my hands into her fine hair, pulling her head towards me. I felt her hands come up to my hips to hold me there and then I was lost. Finally, we had arrived where I wanted us to be. I knew her resistance was low, she had been twitchy around me all day, she was as aroused as I was. Talking could wait, nothing could hold me back now.

“Mmmm..” I said, coming up for air. “You taste of salted caramel,” and I bent to kiss her again, taking her bottom lip gently between my teeth and sucking before going back in with my tongue.

“Not fish sauce or garlic?” she asking, teasing, as we pulled apart.

“No. You’ll always be salted caramel for me now”.

I sat back  and began unbuttoning the shirt. She looked at me helplessly, her eyes betraying her weakness. I wasn’t taking no for an answer and she knew. Pulling open the shirt revealed a simple white sports bra, her nipples already visible through the fabric. I reached behind her and unhooked it. As I pulled it down and away she closed her eyes. I cupped one perfect breast in my hand and squeezed, rubbing a thumb over the nipple as she arched towards me exhaling in a rush. Lowering my mouth I performed a gentle dance on the other nipple and sucked gently. The sounds she made and the way she moved under me excited me even more. I remembered what had happened two nights ago and how it had accelerated, from zero to a hundred miles an hour in twenty seconds. Faster than a new Audi. The same thing was happening again.

I pushed my lower body hard against her  as she reached out blindly, stroking my back and hips, holding me tighter in place, but it wasn’t enough. I sat back again and this time unbuttoned my pyjama top, then climbed off her and gestured for her to lie flat. Her pupils were enlarged and she was panting, cheeks flushed. She looked adorable. I quickly divested myself of the pyjama trousers, and moved to lie on top of her in just my knickers, the open pyjama top meeting the edges of her shirt as our breasts came together, skin on skin, and my lips found their way back to hers, back into that deep, deep kiss.

I had never felt such a bond to a lover before. The softness of her skin, the press of her breasts against mine, the thump of our heartbeats; it was a totally new but at the same time familiar and comforting sensation. I was already so far gone that I could have come just from a little friction against her leg, but I craved a deeper connection. I Iifted my mouth, hearing her disappointed gasp and, rolling sideways, began tackling her trousers, a difficult job with a dodgy arm. She moved her hand impatiently to unbutton them and pull down the zip, and together we tugged them off. Her knickers were simple black hi-legs, emphasising the slimness of her hips and thighs. I reached down to cup her, finding the fabric as damp as my own. She was moaning now and pulling me back onto her, my leg sliding easily between hers as we rocked together, mouths reconnecting as if by homing signal.

“Touch me”, I murmured, “like you did the other day.”

Her eyes were almost black as she held my gaze, sliding one arm down between our bodies and navigating a path for a finger under my knickers, then another. It was so quick, and her aim so accurate that I cried aloud, smothering the sound at the last minute in her shirt so as not to awaken Ryan. As she moved her fingers in rhythm with my hips, her knuckle brushed my clit and that was it. I rode her fingers urgently, tearing my mouth away to pant against her shoulder. As the waves of orgasm began to crest I was dimly aware of her pushing harder against my leg and when my contractions gripped her fingers, she shuddered against me, a few seconds later, exhaling hard into my hair, while I got a mouthful of her shirt to stop any noise leaking out.

“Ohhhhhh,” I breathed, my pulse still racing as my muscles relaxed. She discreetly slipped her fingers out of me and withdrew her hand, lying back panting. I realised then that my leg was covered in her wetness. I adjusted my position to lift my thigh back from her crotch and, looking into her eyes, I stroked a finger over her, her knickers were soaked. She twitched, and I raised my eyebrows.

“Did you come as well?” I whispered, and she nodded. I raised my fingers to my nose. “You smell so good. And  I still owe you.”

“No one owes anyone”, she said smiling. “but I’m afraid Ryan might come down and find us like this. Can we move to the bedroom?”

 

Chapter Text

Jill

 “You did it again”, I said.

“Did what again?”

“Used your initiative.”

Rachel dropped her hairbrush and came over to the bed, getting in with one fluid motion and snuggling up to me.

“I prefer to think I encouraged you to drop your resistance”

I held up my hands. “I surrender!”

The scene on the couch had reduced my legs to jelly. It was a very long time since I had felt anyone else’s touch on me, however fleeting. As soon as I could stand, I had pulled my trousers back on, buttoned my shirt and went out to the car to get my overnight bag, glad that I had included a whole new set of clothing for the following day. On the way back in, I had nearly tripped over my bra lying next to the sofa.

“I need a shower”, I had said to Rachel, who was dropping her clothes into the laundry basket.

“Carry on. Do you need something to wear?”  I had shaken my head, taking shorts and T shirt out of my overnight bag with my toiletries.

Now I was fully relaxed for the first time that day. Rachel fitted so perfectly against me, a little shorter and with softer curves. She smelled divine. I wrapped my arm around her and she dropped her head and began teasing my nipple with her teeth.

“Rachel!” I said in a warning voice.

“Was there something you wanted to tell me?” she asked, fluttering those long lashes, knowing perfectly well that a nudge would be required.

“I wanted to tell you about Bella. So you can understand how I got to where I am. And why I’m hesitating before committing to a new relationship.”

"Is this what you call hesitating?” she teased.

“You know what I mean. I know we’ve gone a bit further than I intended before we had this conversation…”

“A bit?”

“Yes,” I said firmly. “A bit. There’s a very long way to go if we want to see this through. Good and bad.”

“How do you know I’m about to commit myself ? That I didn’t just want a new experience? A diverse shag?”

“I don’t, I just have to take your word for it.” I replied.

“Well the shagging is non-negotiable now I’ve found out how delicious you are, but yes, I’m also talking about commitment. Honestly, I’ve never felt like this before. I just want to be with you all the time.”

“I’m the same”, I admitted. “I so want to do this properly. But I’m maybe not your best bet. You need to know why, and to think hard about whether this is what you really want.”

“Jill,” she said gently, “look at me. I am totally, seriously crazy about you and whatever you tell me won’t change a thing. But you obviously need to get it off your chest.”

I saw in her eyes how serious she was and how honest.

So I told her. All of it. Well, most of it. The main points of the last 22 years. The highs, the lows, the rows. Bella leaving, moving to another town, then having a stroke and dying. All that. As I reached the final part, I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks, something that never happened in front of other people.

“I wasn’t there when she died”, I said, wiping my eyes with my T-shirt. “I didn’t know until the hospital called me and by the time I got there, it was too late. Her family blamed me, I know they did. They think I drove her away. And maybe I did. And the stress caused her to have a stroke.”

Rachel got a tissue and tenderly wiped my tears.

“So you feel guilty, is that it?”  I nodded.

“And you’re afraid you did something to hurt her and that’s why she died?”

“I don’t know. I can’t answer that. The breakup was a long time coming. It was, I suppose, inevitable. I had thought about leaving myself, but we lived in my house. And I couldn’t bring myself to throw her out, I’m not even sure that’s what I really wanted. So I made it unbearable for her and she left of her own accord.”

“How long had she been gone when she had the stroke?”

“Less than a month.”

“Has it not occurred to you that the stroke was already in process before she left? These things don’t come out of the blue you know. They develop over time.”

“I suppose. But it doesn’t help. I made her unhappy.”

“But you were unhappy, too, otherwise you’d never have let her go like that.”

I nodded. “We had reached that stage where it was impossible to have a conversation about what was wrong. Whenever I tried to broach the subject of why I was unhappy, she would turn it back on me and dredge up stuff from years back to hurt me with. I don’t know why she stayed so long. But in public she liked to give the impression that nothing was wrong, that we were still happily married. And sometimes, we were happy. That’s why it was so confusing.”

“And feeling guilty doesn’t change anything. We can’t know why she died like that, but you’re here now, it’s been two years. I can’t tell you to move on. But you can move forward. Nothing that happens with me will dishonour her memory. You keep that always. And if you need to talk about her, that’s also fine. But most importantly, I’m not Bella. I’m not saying we’ll never have rows, but they won’t be the same rows and I won’t react in the same way.  This is a new relationship. You deserve it.”

“And what about you? Can you see yourself in a long term relationship with a woman? Can you accept being called a lesbian? Or will you go back to the guys once you’ve had enough?”

“I’ve had enough guys to know that not one can hold a candle to you. I’ve never felt so turned on in my life, or so cared for.”  She hesitated, trying to find the right words. “I’m a bit younger than you. I think people in my age group aren’t nearly so concerned about those things. I don’t care what label people want to put on me, if I’m happy and with the right person, that’s all that matters.”

“Ah yes, the age gap. I’m what?  eleven, twelve years older than you? I’ll age faster, I’ll hold you back. You might get bored and want someone younger.”

She sighed. “And you might get bored and want someone older. Or you might run off with the woman who owns the Thai restaurant. How do I know? Right now, Jill Raymond, you’re the sexiest, kindest, most amazing woman I know.  It would be an honour to get older with you.”

Her words sank into me, and I thanked my lucky stars for having met someone so understanding and down to earth.

“And what about Ryan?”

“Ryan already loves you. Unless you’re planning to love me and leave me, in which case you’ll break his little heart. “

“No, not at all. It’s just…….. I’ve never had a child. I don’t really know how to be around them.”

“Rubbish”, she smiled. “You’re a natural. And there’s a bonus for Ryan. He’s about to lose the security of having his Daddy around all the time, but if you step in, that will give him three parent figures- well four, including Michelle. He gains, every way we look at it.”

I had to concede she was right. But then I did what I always do and started overthinking things.

“But what about our jobs? And being located in two different districts?”

“Jill, as you said, we have a long way to go. So let’s not worry about that now. What matters is that we know we want to give this a go.”  She raised those wide eyes to mine “And I’m in love with you,” she whispered. “I love you, Jill, I’ve never said that to a man, but I love you so much it hurts. And right now I need to make love with you again because I just can’t get enough of you.”

The look in her eyes nearly took my breath away. I turned to kiss her gently, then my desire to show her exactly how much I wanted her took over. She began running her hands under my T-shirt and down to the waistband of my shorts.

“I want you naked”, she whispered. “Let me see you.”

I sat up and pulled the T shirt over my head, wriggling out of the shorts while she stripped off her pyjamas.  

“I know how fast things accelerate with you, so I’m prepared”, she said, looking me up and down with obvious desire.

“There’s no hurry this time,” I replied, taking in her nakedness in the lampglow. She was breathtakingly beautiful. I started with little kisses around her neck and across her chest, moving down to her full breasts. I took my time, despite her moans of encouragement, one breast, then the other, sucking and rolling the nipples, which had her bucking into me and practically begging me to go faster.

“Shhh…” I said, moving down her body, one kiss at a time while she writhed and hissed. Down over her well -toned abdomen, kissing each rib, down to her navel, swirling my tongue inside, then down, down to the well -trimmed pubis. I scooted down the bed to make myself comfortable and began nipping her inner thighs while she rolled her hips in frustration. Finally I kissed up as far inside her thigh as I could go and raised her legs around my shoulders while I knelt on the floor at the end of the bed, in position, discreetly dragging a stray cushion under my knees which were not as young and supple as I’d have liked them to be.

I paused, inhaling her scent, seeing her eyes open wide at the sight of me there, then I lowered my head and swiped gently with my tongue.

Rachel

I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Why had no one ever told me sex could be like this? All my experience of it until now had been a sort of race to the finish where I tried to get as much satisfaction as the situation would allow before the guy collapsed on me. Sean had been different, had tried different things, including this, but I got so impatient with him that I just couldn’t bear waiting for him to give up, and usually faked it. With Jill there was no pretence. It was as if every nerve ending in my body had been exposed. Clearly, either the guys were doing everything wrong, or I was not as straight as I had assumed myself to be. Jill took her time, teasing, provoking, driving me to the edge then backtracking and starting again. She didn’t tire or show impatience. In fact it was so good that I was having to imagine being encased in a huge block of ice in order to hang on. And when she finally let me come, the climax was like total submission to a giant wave that carried me far, far up the shore before I could catch my breath and take in my surroundings. I had to put a pillow over my face to block any sound, so as not to wake Ryan, but as soon as I pushed it off and regained awareness of where I was, I saw Jill still down there, resting against my thigh.

“Come here”, I whispered, needing  her beside me. She crawled back up the bed and pulled me tight so that our breasts fit together and kissed me deeply.

“So that’s what I taste like”, I smiled against her mouth.

“You taste delicious”, she said, “divine.” She kissed me again, and I held her firm buttocks hard against me, desire beginning to uncoil itself again in my belly.

“My turn”, I said, taking a hard nipple between my teeth. There was a sharp intake of breath. I was learning that her breasts were more sensitive than mine, and her reactions quicker when I touched her. The sound excited me and I started rolling my pubis gently against her, setting up a gentle friction that soon had both of us gasping. But I wanted more than anything to taste her and give her the same pleasure she had given me. Conscious of the limitations of my injured arm, I couldn’t flip her over as I wanted so I had to tell her to move onto her back. She complied, but there was a wariness in her eyes I wasn’t expecting.

“It’s OK,” I whispered, “I’m not as experienced as you, and I’ve never done this before, but I so want to taste you. Just tell me if something’s not right or comfortable.”

“No, there’s no need,” she replied, with a hint of anxiety. “Let’s leave it for another time. You must be tired.”

I thought perhaps she was worried that I would find it distasteful, so, knowing how turned on I was sure she must still be, I dropped my hand to her sex and cupped her gently.

“Well at least let me touch you.”  And I began stroking through her wetness with a finger, the evidence of her arousal unmistakeable. This was still so new to me, the first time I had touched a woman intimately like this. It was like touching myself but not quite. I tried to feel my way, responding to her sounds and movement until I had set up a rhythm that seemed to be working. Unable to use my left arm, I lowered my mouth to her breasts and sucked and rolled her nipples while working with my right hand. She seemed to be completely passive under me, not guiding or instructing me so I just carried on until, very soon, I felt her go rigid and grip my fingers, hearing her exhalation of breath. When her muscles slackened I removed my hand and brought my fingers to my mouth.

“Mmm, salted caramel”, I said. She just looked at me in a kind of blank amazement. I thought she might still be pole-axed from the orgasm, so I cuddled up to her and put my head on her shoulder.

“Thank you”, she whispered.

“Thank me for what? After what you did for me? I’m just looking forward to returning the favour.”

There was a silence. Then she said. “I love you too. I haven’t said this many times in my life, and God knows I wasn’t expecting this, but it’s true.”

I raised my head and kissed her again, a soft, sweet, sloppy kiss, while she stroked my hair.  When we pulled apart, still giving each other soft little pecks of affection, I said: “Much as I want to sleep naked with you, I’m afraid my son may come and disturb us early in the morning.”

“Is that ..OK? If I’m in your bed?”

“He’ll think it’s logical. I don’t have a spare room and you’re my friend. But maybe I should change the sheets in case he climbs in. I haven’t set any boundaries yet and we were a little overenthusiastic back there!”

“Yes, yes, of course,” she mumbled and leapt out of bed pulling on her T shirt and shorts while I found a clean sheet and duvet cover and she helped me change the linens. Then, rather like a long married couple, we each used the bathroom to clean up and got back into bed with glasses of water, ready to sleep.  I folded my body into hers, inhaling her clean, safe smell, and pulled her arms round me until she was spooning me.

“Goodnight, darling”, I whispered.

Jill

The two orgasms, both quite unexpected, had relaxed me to the point that I was sure I would sleep, but as Rachel lay unmoving in my arms, the sweet smell of her hair in my nostrils, the feel of her warm body welcoming my embrace, I found my thoughts spilling over. My  reaction to her wanting to do the same to me as I had done to her was instinctive, and I wasn’t yet ready to talk to her about it. I knew it was an obstacle I would have to overcome, but I thought we could cross that bridge when we came to it. The fact that I was able to satisfy her, that I enjoyed doing that and had lost none of my stamina was a relief. But I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt aroused like this. It was both exhilarating and terrifying. I had nothing to compare it with in my recent past, and I had kind of assumed that at 53 I was on a downhill slope. But this woman 12 years younger than me was going to make sure that didn’t happen. Or not yet. Hope that the future would be brighter was hovering on my horizon. All I had to do was reach out and grasp it. If I could.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Rachel

 Ryan made his usual appearance just after six the following morning. Luckily, Jill and I had each migrated to opposite sides of the bed in the night, perhaps a reflection of the fact that we both usually slept alone, so Ryan didn’t surprise us in an embrace. Jill was still fast asleep but I woke as soon as I heard the door click open.

“Mummy,” Ryan whispered as he climbed up on the bed, “why is Raymond here?”

“Shh, don’t wake her, she’s very tired”, I whispered back. “She stayed last night to help me with some work, and as my bed is very big I asked her to stay with me. You don’t mind, do you?”

He looked at her sleeping form for a minute, then shook his head and clambered in between the two of us, snuggling into me.

“Will she stay tonight too?” he asked, forgetting to whisper. Jill stirred and turned over.

“She can stay any time she likes. She’s Mummy’s best friend,” I said, winking at Jill, who had opened her eyes and was taking in the scene.

“Good morning, Ryan,” Jill yawned.

“Hi Raymond. Can I snuggle you?”

I mentally cringed, although part of me was touched that he had at least asked permission. How would Jill react to that? But she gave a little nervous bark of a laugh and said “sure”, so my precocious son then rolled over, away from me and into my lover’s arms.

“You smell nice. Like Mummy,” he said. I saw her cheeks start to go pink, but she stayed where she was, letting him cuddle her. He was a very sweet boy, it was true. As a single mother I had tried very hard to surround him with love, to compensate for the absence of a father, so all he had known till Steve came along were motherly northern women who swamped him with affection. This helped me a lot when I had had to absent myself for long periods for work, Ryan had adapted to having these surrogate mother figures- my sister, “Auntie Alison”, Gill Murray “Auntie Gill” and my former police partner, Janet Scott “Auntie Janet” constantly on hand. Since we moved south, he had become more of a daddy’s boy, and although both Kathy and Michelle were affectionate with him, they didn’t overwhelm him to the same extent. Jill was totally different to all the other women in his life, yet he was forging a very special bond with her.

Eventually we got up and I remembered that Kathy was coming to pick Ryan up at 7.45, so I got him ready while Jill showered, then we all had breakfast. If Kathy was surprised to see Jill at our breakfast table, and me still in pyjamas, she didn’t say anything, just collected Ryan and waved goodbye. Jill was stacking the dishwasher, and I was enjoying watching her. Today she had on slim navy trousers with a pale lemon shirt, sleeves rolled up.

“What time do you have to be in?” I asked, calculatedly.

“Well no one’s called yet, so any time between 8.30 and 9. What about you? Can you drive or do you need a lift?”

“I can drive. The Lexus is automatic. And I’m five minutes from my station, I’ll have to check in at least until we get a briefing on our joint case.”

She closed the dishwasher door and lolled back against the kitchen units with that sexy slouch I couldn’t resist.  I got up and covered the distance in seconds, winding my arms around her neck and pulling her into a kiss, which went on for quite some time, my hands mussing her hair, hers roaming under my pyjama jacket and up my back until, pulling apart, panting slightly, she said “We’d better stop, before we can’t.”

I took her hand and pulled her towards the stairs. “Too late”.

In the bedroom, I unbuttoned her shirt, and unzipped her trousers. She stood unresisting, her eyes showing the conflict between giving into desire and the need not to be late for work.

“We have time if we’re quick”, I said, indicating for her to remove her clean, pressed clothes and hang them on a chair. She did as I asked, watching as I stripped off my pyjamas and dropped them into the laundry basket. Her hands were trembling as she removed her knickers and bra and we moved towards each other, melting into the mattress, groaning as skin met skin, kissing passionately, writhing to find our best fit. Once again I was amazed by how quickly the heat built between us, by how my need for her forced every other thought out of my head. I could see it was the same for her, that wetness on my thigh when it slipped between hers, the staccato breathing, as if she was trying to hold back. There was no time for finesse. I moved to one side a little and insinuated my right hand between our bodies to feel her silky warmth. As my thumb slid over her clit I felt her twitch and heard her gasp. I slipped two fingers straight into her and whispered “Touch me”. She shifted a little to find space, then, as her fingers sank into me, our mouths met once more and we worked together, feeling each other moving inexorably towards the summit. Just the sounds she was making and the clenching of her muscles around my fingers was enough to bring me to the brink of orgasm, but her clever fingers were pushing me on even faster.

“Slow down a bit,” I panted but she didn’t reply, and seconds later she was coming, her muscles contracting hard, crying “Rachel” as her back arched towards me and I tipped over the edge at the same time, clutching her shoulder and shuddering as the force of it overtook me.  Jill flopped back against the sheets, eyes closed, cheeks flushed. Her muscles relaxed, allowing me to slip my fingers out as she did the same. We lay still, side by side, our heart rates slowing and the ripples of pleasure subsiding. I propped myself up on one elbow to look at her, glowing in the morning sunlight. She was so beautiful, and emotion rose in me until I felt I might cry. She opened her eyes and looked into mine. I knew my lip was trembling, and she put a finger there, asking “What? What is it?”

“I love you,” I said, my voice breaking, “I just ….love you so much.”  And I felt the rogue tear escape and make wet tracks down my cheek. Her eyes were soft as she pulled me into a hug, rocking me like a child. No one had ever made me feel so safe.

“I love you too. Never doubt it”, she whispered.

Jill

 Dodson called as I was racing to get to Hillingdon.

“Where are you?”

“Ten minutes away”, I replied, gritting my teeth.

“You’re late, and we have a briefing at nine.”

“I’ll be there”, I replied shortly. Every set of traffic lights had been against me, but at least I had used them to fish my cufflinks out of my coat pocket and thread them through my cuffs. I felt guilty for abandoning Missy, but when I told Jean I’d be away overnight and maybe not back till the following evening, she had said she would take the cat into her own house to keep her company. I was pleasantly sated but every thought of Rachel had me squirming in my seat again. How on earth was I going to get through the day?

I burst into the briefing room at nine -o-two, Dodson’s displeasure evident on her face.

“Carry on, DS Quinn”, she said.

Quinn was standing at the front with a map projected onto the screen. He was talking about the hunt for Artan Beqiri. The thug who had assaulted Rachel and abducted Amy was finally talking and had identified some more of Beqiri’s warehouses in our district. Quinn was assigned to shadow the officers from Central Task Force who dealt with drugs networks, while I and DC Childs, who I spotted across the room, were back on interviews with Collins and Amy after receiving the evidence from the CSI’s the previous day.

Quinn’s briefing was soon over and Dodson called me into her office.

“Amy’s solicitor is already here so I‘d like you and DC Childs to get started on her. We got most of the picture yesterday, but tie up the loose ends, get it all in a statement, then we’ll arrange for her to be taken to a safe house until we know whether she’ll be charged and until Beqiri is under wraps. “

“What about Collins?” I asked.

“Ah yes, his RAF brief is coming in at 11, so we’ll go back at him with the evidence and see if we can pin Andrea’s murder on him. DI Bailey is  coming in for that. I thought the two of you together might be able to crack him in one go.”

She sat back in her chair, twiddling her pencil.

“There’s something else I want to tell you before Rachel gets here.”

I shifted uncomfortably, willing my face to stay neutral.

“Du Toit has been spotted in the Netherlands. The Dutch police are keeping tabs on her and are waiting for Delgado to get there to arrest her. ‘

“Why can’t they do it themselves?” I asked.

“Because she’s mixing with some characters they’d quite like to bring in and charge over there, so with any luck they’ll do something to attract attention and we and the Dutch can bag them all at once.”

“Right, I see. And how does that involve me?”

She fixed me with a steely look.

“When Delgado gets her I want you to go and help him escort her back. We’ll need a female officer, and there should be two of you. Delgado’s lot want her for drug dealing but we have other potential charges, so both of you should be involved.”

“Hmm. Why me? Why not Rachel?”

“This is Hillingdon’s case, DI Raymond, we want her for involvement in both murders in this district. Ealing is a partner but I can’t risk sending a police officer who may not be 100% to bring back a dangerous and slippery criminal. It wouldn’t be fair to her in any case, it could put her even more at risk.”

I wasn’t at all sure that Rachel would see it like that.

“So when is Delgado travelling?”

“He’s on his way, he’ll be with the police in Rotterdam early this afternoon. When you finish with Collins I want you to go home, pack an overnight bag and be ready to leave as soon as we get word.”

 

Rachel

 I checked in at Ealing only to find that Lisa Childs had already left for Hillingdon, so I had a quick look at the other cases on the board and made sure DS Roberts was on top of it before heading out myself. Dodson had left me a message, but as Collins’ brief wasn’t due till eleven, she had told me not to rush.

I had been hoping for a half hour to grab a coffee with Jill, but when I arrived, she was nowhere to be seen. Finally, Lisa Childs appeared from a meeting room and told me she was heading back to base.

“DI Raymond is coming to join you for the Collins interview,” she said, so I made two coffees and sure enough, at ten minutes to eleven, Jill appeared.

“The hunt for Beqiri”, she explained, nodding in the direction of the meeting room she had come out of. “Quinn’s on it”.

“Not you?”  I was surprised. She wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“Seems not. Quinn’s shadowing Delgado’s lot, they’ve got first claim on him. But they’re searching his warehouses in this borough. No, you and I have to get Collins for Andrea’s murder.”

She produced a slim file. “The forensics, and,” producing another one, “eye witness reports collected by Quinn. I’ve only just got these because someone had to bring a couple of people in to make the statements earlier this morning.”

“OK”, I indicated the coffee. “Shall we? We’ve got a few minutes before we need to go to the interview room.”

If I was surprised by how she had deflected my question about her being involved in the hunt for Artan Beqiri, I had put it to one side, but her air of evasiveness and unwillingness to meet my eye disturbed me. We went through the folders as I tried to push it to the back of my mind, and both agreed that the evidence was all there to put both Amy and Collins on the scene of Andrea’s murder. We had forensic evidence of Collins’ DNA on the cigarette tip, although, by itself, it would not be convincing enough for the CPS, but Quinn and his colleague last night had interviewed the bar staff in several pubs and had identified the one where Amy and Andrea had gone for a drink, getting tipsy, until Collins had come along and there had been an almighty row. There were three witness statements from inside the pub, and one from a patron who was locking his car prior to entering when they emerged, still arguing.

We had Amy’s statement from this morning claiming that Andrea had discovered that Collins, her friend Amy’s boyfriend, was none other than the brother of the woman her husband was having an affair with, and who had got him involved in drug dealing. She had tried to dissuade Amy from continuing a relationship with Collins, believing him to be implicated in his sister’s drug business, but Amy had stood up to her. Both were more than a little drunk, and when Collins came to pick up Amy, Andrea had started hurling insults at him. He had manhandled her out of the pub, calling her a “drunk bitch” and denying any connection to his sister’s drug dealing. However, Amy had previously shared with Andrea her fear and suspicion that Collins was mixed up in something illegal, so it was hardly rocket science for her to join the dots. According to Amy, Andrea began threatening Collins that she would report him to the RAF Police, and at this point, Collins obviously panicked. Amy claimed that she had left them arguing and walked away, telling Collins to follow, and she didn’t see what happened next. She also claimed that she had no idea that Andrea was dead until news of her body being found broke the following morning. They had been unable to shake her on this statement, so had let it stand for the moment. But it left us with a clear motive for Andrea’s murder and put Collins squarely in the frame. I couldn’t see him wriggling out of this, and Jill agreed.

We went in, folders in hand, and found Collins deep in conversation with his brief. When we had sat down and started the tape, the RAF lawyer had announced that Collins would make a statement admitting to killing Andrea “by accident and under extreme provocation.” As a result of the other enquiry into the drug case, his client was, he said, severely stressed and under threat from the gangs that had been pressuring him to use Northolt and the RAF to bring heroin into the country. He was equally afraid of his sister, he claimed, and had offered the Drugs squad full cooperation in the operation against her and Beqiri in return for protection. He insisted he knew nothing of Philip’s murder.

Jill and I exchanged looks and sat back in our chairs. Then she went out to grab a junior officer to complete the statement process, and we left the room. It was not yet midday.

“Lunch?” I asked as we re- entered the main office. But before she could answer, there was Dodson, hands on hips, standing in front of her office.

“You two,” she called, “in here.” I looked at Jill but she didn’t return my glance. I had a funny feeling I was about to find out what was going on.

“Close the door and sit down”, Dodson said, positioning her solid bulk in her chair. “That was quick. Have you nailed him?”

I gave her a summary of what had happened and she nodded in satisfaction.

“Right. Although that was a serious oversight not to check the pubs shortly after the body was found. You’re lucky these people are regulars and could remember.”

We sat silently cursing ourselves, knowing she was right.  

“But we’ve got him now, so let’s move forward. Philip Crawford- we need a few more people in play to clear that up, so that’s our next priority.”

She paused. Jill was looking straight ahead. Dodson regarded for us for a few seconds then pressed on.

“So, the news this morning is that du Toit has been located in Rotterdam and is under surveillance by Dutch police. Our man Delgado is arriving in Rotterdam as we speak and will be involved in her arrest. And once that happens, DI Raymond will travel to Rotterdam to assist and bring her back to London.”

Silence. I looked at Jill. She looked acutely uncomfortable.

“And what about me?“ I burst out, stung. “All the hours we’ve put in on this job, and even being fucking stabbed by one of her cronies? I thought I could at least be there to see her get arrested.”

“Watch your language, DI Bailey”, Dodson snapped. Then she softened a little. “You know as well as I do that I can’t send an injured officer to deal with someone as dangerous as du Toit. It puts both you and the operation at even greater risk.”

“But if Delgado is there too, where’s the risk?”

“We need a female officer, Rachel, because Delgado can’t follow her to the bathroom or into a changing room or stand by while she gets dressed. You know that perfectly well. We have to play it by the book, and we’re on foreign territory. Never underestimate someone like du Toit. She’s vicious, totally without mercy and very smart. Both officers will have to be 100% on their toes to get her back here and incarcerated.”

I fell silent. Her words made sense, but the burning injustice of it still stuck in my throat.

“You knew”, I accused Jill, turning to stare fiercely at her. “You knew and you didn’t tell me.”

Her eyes gave her away. “The Chief told me before you arrived but there was no time to discuss it before the Collins interview.”

Two spots of red colour burned brightly in her cheeks, but she met my gaze and held her ground.

“Well, then, there’s nothing more to say”, and I got up from my chair, preparing to exit.

"Sit down, DI Bailey, I haven’t finished.”

I returned sulkily to my seat. I knew I was behaving like a petulant child, but what I saw as Jill’s betrayal hurt worse than being sidelined for a major op.

“Your task, Rachel, is to assist in the hunt for Beqiri. You’ll be seconded to Central Task Force, the Drugs Squad as they used to be known. They will have first bite, but our aim is to get to the bottom of the murder of Philip Crawford. The lab has sent in more results this morning. I want you to go through them and get yourself down to Task Force HQ for a briefing at “– she looked at her watch- “2pm with DI Costner who is coordinating the operation in London”.

“Is that all, Chief?”

“Yes, for now. Keep me posted and don’t do anything foolish to injure yourself further.”

I got to my feet, followed rather slowly by Jill.

“DI Raymond, a word if you please.” Jill looked helplessly at me as she returned to her seat, but I just walked past her and out of the door. I had a meeting to get to.

 

Jill

 “Is there something going on between you and DI Bailey?”

“What do you mean, Chief?” I asked, trying not to give too much away. Dodson sighed.

“That little performance. I mean, I know Rachel can be a bit of a firebrand, it’s one of the things that makes her such a bloody good, instinctive detective, but I’m getting a sense of something else under the surface. Are you two an item, aside from in the professional sense?”

I was cornered. I had no wish to lie but I had been hoping we could hold off the inquisition until this case was over.

“It’s …in process,” was all I could find to say.

“So are you sleeping together? That’s what I need to know. Not because I have a prurient interest in your private lives, but because it makes a difference to how we assign tasks.”

I looked down for a second then raised my eyes to hers. “Yes, Chief. But it’s only just started. We wanted to be sure this was something ...that would be more serious before we informed you.”

“And is it, do you think?”  Her eyes were warmer now.

“There's a strong possibility it could be”, I said warily.

“Then I’m happy for you Jill. You deserve it,” she said warmly. “I’ve known Rachel since she was a rookie PC and I’m actually very fond of her. She’s grown up a lot since having a child. But she always did have terrible taste in men- Stefan Bartulis aside, but she wasn’t interested in him long term. A shame really, the guy was absolutely smitten, but he can see she’s not for him. Now it seems the mystery of what Rachel Bailey really needs is solved.” Her smile was sincere.

“Hmmm…I’m not so sure after her reaction to your instructions today.”

“Her pride is hurt, Jill. That’s all. She’ll get over it. But I’ve seen the way she looks at you. There’s no mistaking it. I’ve certainly never seen her looking at a man that way.”

I blushed and lowered my eyes.

“But come now, we’ll need to have the big discussion about how this affects your job roles later, once these two ops are over. And I need you sharp and strong, not distracted. Go and pack, get back here and we’ll wait for news from Rotterdam.”

I left the room and, collecting my coat, went out to my car. Rachel’s Lexus was nowhere to be seen. I curbed the instinct to call her and have it out with her. It would be better to wait, I thought. So I drove home, dumped yesterday’s clothes and the contents of the laundry basket into the washing machine, made a sandwich and a cup of Oolong and sat waiting for the quick wash cycle to complete so that I could stick them in the dryer. Then I looked at my watch. 1.15. Rachel was either eating lunch somewhere or she had already arrived at Central Task Force HQ. I called her number.

“Hey”, I said quietly, when she answered. I wanted to say I was sorry, but that would not solve the problem. And I wasn’t sorry. Dodson was absolutely right that she couldn’t send an officer with an injury on a mission like this. So I opted for a different approach.

“Have you had lunch?” I asked in as normal a voice as possible.

“What did Dodson want with you?” was all she said.

“She asked if we were an item.”

“And? You told her?”

“No point in denying it but I emphasised it was early days, which is why we had not told her already.”

“How did she react?”

“She seemed happy about it. For now. Of course, after this op, there will be decisions that have to be made …..if we’re still on, that is.”

She sighed, her breath making the speakers on the phone crackle.

“Of course we are. I was just……disappointed. I so wanted to be in on that arrest.”

“I know. I totally understand. But I think Dodson’s right in this case. And hey, what about you, getting seconded to Central Task Force.? That’s quite a compliment.”

“Yeah. I suppose it is. I’m glad, I always like to be closer to the action. It’s a bit like my old days on Vice.”

“Do you miss that?”

“Actually, yes, in a way. I went back to MIT in Manchester, and that was really full on as well, so when I moved back to London it seemed a bit dull being stuck in CID at Ealing.” She laughed.

“Oh I don’t know. Some people would think that was thrilling enough. People working in ..I don’t know… somewhere quiet.”

“The Shetlands or the Orkneys maybe?”

“Yes.”

“Ah  but they get TV series made about them, whereas, Ealing? ”

“OK, I get it”, I laughed. “So, look, I have no idea when they’ll ask me to leave for Rotterdam, and I know you’ll be tied up this afternoon, so I just wanted to say …”

“That you love me?” I could almost hear the smile down the phone, which sent a warm tingle all the way down to my toes.

“Something like that,” I was smiling back. “And I’ll miss you and I’ll be back as soon as possible.”

“Me too. I’ll miss you. So much. Just stay away from those foxy Dutch ladies.”

“You have nothing to fear,” I assured her. “I only have eyes for this bolshy Mancunian detective.”

“Good. So let me know when you arrive. And that you’re OK. All that.”

“I will. Kiss Ryan for me. Tell him I’ll read to him when I get back.”

“Sure thing, Inspector. Love you, bye.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Rachel

DI Michéal Costner was a Task Force Central legend. A foul-mouthed Irishman from Crossmaglen, just inside the Ulster border, he had earned his spurs on Merseyside between 2008 and 2012 when crack cocaine use was exploding in the UK. I had run into him when I was still a rookie DC in Manchester, and he hadn’t changed a bit. Known as “Mickey C” in the drugs unit, he was a few years my senior and always wore black shirts without a tie (unless he had to go to court) and dark grey or black suits. He had short, brown curly hair that he shaved up the sides and let run riot on top and a broken nose. And he took no prisoners.

“Rachel Bailey, who’d feckin’ believe it?  Last time I saw you was in Manchester, pregnant out to here!” he gesticulated with his hands.

“Good to see you again, Mickey”, I smiled, letting him squeeze the bones in my hand until I almost cried for mercy. “Ow! And that …” I mimicked the pregnancy bump “is now four and a half years old.”

“Is it indeed? Boy or girl? “

“Boy”, I replied.

“Congratulations. So now we’re equals, or so it would seem. And you’re joining our team in the hunt for the elusive Mr Beqiri.  What have you got on him? “

“Don’t you know? I thought you had requested me, not the other way round?”

“Surprise to me, Rachel, my boss told me he’d been instructed by a certain DCS Dodson to bring you into the team. Now tell me, would that be the one and only Julie Dodson who we both knew as a plain vanilla Super back in the day?”

“It would, Mickey, yes”, I said, unconsciously imitating his discourse pattern.

“Alright then. Well doubtless DCS Dodson has her own reasons, but do please enlighten us poor ignoramuses here.”

I gave him a précis of the situation regarding Beqiri, our wish to question him about the murder of Philip Crawford in Ruislip, and the gang abduction of Amy Waterston. I didn’t mention my own injury at that point.

“Right, right,” he said, rubbing his jaw and pacing. “So how does all this connect to the drugs network we’re trying to bust?”

I then filled him in on the Northolt drop, on Gabrielle du Toit and Jacob Collins, ending with “and if we don’t get Beqiri behind bars, there’s a real risk he could attack one of these witnesses.”

“Oh, you’re absolutely right, absolutely right… the man’s a beast. I curse the day we let these feckin’ Albanians into the UK. Don’t tell her goodself I said that, of course, but the level of violence they’re prepared to use is beyond anything we’ve previously seen. And don’t be thinking I’m racist or anything, Rachel, my own wife is from Bosnia. But some of these guys we’re seeing nowadays, it’s like they’ve had an empathy bypass.”

“So I’m learning”, I said carefully. “So, tell me, Mickey, how can I fit in with you?”

By 3.30pm, I was bedded down in a surveillance flat with two Task Force officers, Mark and Roopal. They had a camera trained on a flat in Islington that Beqiri had recently been spotted using. The only problem was that they suspected he spent nights in different locations, and his last night there had been 3 days ago, so what were the chances? I couldn’t see the point of this and said so.

“The thing is, DI Bailey,” said Roopal, “it’s Artan’s brother that rents this flat. He can’t know we know, but the owner is an informant, and he told us who the tenant is. Off the books, of course, cash only, but we’re watching him. If Artan comes back to any one of his properties, this is more likely than the others. “

“I see.”

“And something else- the brother, Drit, has some kind of learning deficiency and doesn’t seem able to make decisions for himself. Artan is very protective. That’s why we think he’ll come back. If he’s thinking of fleeing, he’ll want to take Drit, for sure.”

I was beginning to get the picture. It would be a long day. I called Steve and explained the situation. I might not be back in time to collect Ryan from day care, could he help? He reassured me that while I was on this operation he would step into the breach. Then he asked where Jill was, which I thought odd. “On her way to Rotterdam shortly, I expect”, I said.

“OK, just in case Ryan asks. Michelle and I will stay here for the weekend and plan some family time with Ryan. I know this is a big op for you, so you carry on and don’t worry.”

“I’ll be back tonight. That’s non-negotiable”, I replied.

“Dinner will be waiting”, he said.

I was deeply touched. Steve had been my rock for almost three years now, and he had been the best friend a girl could have. I knew his concern was mainly for his son, but the respect and care he showed me was beyond anything I had been brought up to expect. That I could not return his affection had been a massive source of guilt until Michelle had come along, and now even she was on Team Ryan. I thought then of Jill, of how much I wanted her as a life partner as well as a lover,  someone to take up the slack, smooth over the cracks and help me keep everything on an even keel. I had that old scary feeling I used to have nightmares about as a child, that I was drowning and someone had thrown me a stick, and I couldn’t quite grasp it and pull myself up. I shook myself back to the present.

“Let’s keep watching then,” I told Roopal cheerfully.

 

Jill

 I got the summons at 3.30pm to head for Heathrow to catch the 6.00 pm flight to Schipol.

“We couldn’t get a flight directly into Rotterdam/Den Haag,” Dodson’s assistant explained, “but we can use Met privileges on BA. The Dutch police are arranging a pickup.”

I had changed at home into jeans, roll neck sweater and puffa jacket, but I had one of my signature outfits in my bag for when we brought Du Toit back to the UK. I appreciated the fact that Justin Delgado had used my personal mobile to fill me in on exactly where they were at in the arrest scenario, so by the time I landed, I knew Du Toit was safely under wraps. The Dutch police were courteous and whisked me through customs and immigration and down the motorway into central Rotterdam. I briefly messaged Rachel to let her know I had arrived. She answered “Talk later”.

“You’re lucky”, Casper, the hoofdagent (senior police constable) accompanying said. “Tonight is Saturday and it’s after 8pm so the peak hour traffic has gone down.” 

Compared with the UK, the traffic seemed pretty tame, but I resisted commenting. I checked into the Holiday Inn Express hotel at 8.55 pm and Delgado was there to meet me. He looked chipper, dressed in smart casual attire- tight black jeans, brown suede jacket, fashionably striped shirt- that was a far cry from his usual working self. 

“Got her?” I enquired.

“All tucked in,” he replied, with an air of satisfaction. “Can I tempt you with some dinner, Ma’am?”

I gave him a look that said, “Drop the Ma’am” but my stomach was rumbling so I said “Why not? Just give me 5 minutes to dump my bag then we can go.”

Delgado had clearly been here before. He called a taxi and we headed for a Vietnamese restaurant near the river.

“I love Turkish and Middle Eastern food,” he confessed, “but I know too many people and tonight I need to be incognito, so a colleague recommended this. Run by his sister-in-law.”

“So you’re a regular in Rotterdam?”

"Not really, but I’ve been over a few times. The police guys are friendly.”

“Hmm.”

Once inside, I again let Delgado order. He seemed to know what he was doing and I knew nothing about Vietnamese food.  The waitress brought two bottles of beer with a distinctive red label.

“Bia Saigon”, he smiled, tipping the bottle at me. “Cheers”.

“Cheers to you”, I clinked companionably.

The food was actually delicious. Light, spicy without being too hot and very moreish. The little crunchy spring rolls dipped in fish sauce, chilli and garlic  with fresh herbs and the caramelised pork and prawn claypot and veggie side dishes were spectacular.  I found myself wiping the claypot round with a spoonful of steamed rice, much to Delgado’s amusement.

“New thing for you, Vietnamese?”

“Yes, I guess so”, I admitted.

“Good choice then,” he smiled, snapping his fingers for beer refills.

“So what’s the deal with you and Rachel?”

I sat back in my seat, stunned.

“Unfair, DS Delgado. I’m here on business, and my private life is none of yours.”

He grinned, his handsome face glowing in the candlelight as the waitress brought two more beers.

“No, you’re right, boss, it’s not. But just for tonight we’re Jill and Justin. And, I hope, friends, or soon to be. I have an interest, I declare that upfront.”

“Which is?” I knew my tone had turned frosty.

He leaned forward in his seat, his eyes turned serious for once.

“I had a relationship- of sorts- with Rachel, back in the day.”

“And?”

“And I was hoping we could resume at some point. I really like her. But it seems she likes you more.”

“Wow!” I exclaimed. “Is this where I find out you’ve poisoned my dinner?”

He snickered. “No, of course not. You may not believe this, but I like you, Jill Raymond. You’re a great cop, too. When I saw how Rachel feels about you, I just wanted to be sure it was reciprocal. ‘Cos then I’d have no chance.”

“And if it is? Reciprocal?”

“Then I will politely back off. All I’m saying, Jill, is that I had no idea Rachel might have ….romantic or sexual feelings for another woman. It was just a surprise when I saw how she looked at you. To be honest, I looked at you, too, even if it’s fairly obvious you wouldn’t be interested.”

I laughed, and it turned into a full scale honk, which made Delgado join in, and then there were other people in the restaurant turning their heads to look at us.

“OK Justin, I get it. I’m not going to talk about either my or Rachel’s private life, but your interest is noted. And you can definitely back off. No offense, and I’d really like to stay friends, if that’s OK.”

“I know you probably have me down as some kind of macho man,” he said, eyes downcast, “but all I want to be sure of is that Rachel is OK. ‘Cos she was a mess back then, and I let her down. Everyone did. The guys she had flings with, you know, they didn’t give a shit. But I do, I always did. She’s a champ. She deserves something better.”

I was strangely touched, and I patted his hand.

“I promise you, Justin, she’ll be taken care of. And, no, I didn’t have you down as a macho man if that’s any consolation.”

He bounced back up in his seat. “So how about a nightcap at a really nice bar I know?”

Rachel

By seven pm, Beqiri had not made an appearance. I was hesitant. I needed to stay on the case, but my own domestic arrangements were calling me back home.

I called to Roopal. “If nothing is happening I need to head home for a few hours. But if he does show up, do you have a way of tracking him when he leaves?”

“That depends,” Roopal said.  “If he comes in a taxi and leaves in one we can follow. If he uses one of his cars we can also follow and use APNR. But there’s no certainty.”

“Right. Well this could go on for days, so here's my number. Let me know the minute he shows up, we’ll take it from there.”

I took the underground back to my local station and picked up my car. At home, dinner was in full swing.

“Hi Rachel”, Michelle called, as I glimpsed Steve in an apron doing something with the oven.

“Mummy!” and Ryan was hurtling towards me.

“Hey, little man, why aren’t you in bed?” I swung him up into my arms, kissing him.

"Waiting for Raymond”, he said.

“Oh, Ryan, Raymond can’t be here today, but I’m here. Will that do?”

“Yes! Read to me, Mummy!”

So I read to my son and got him off to sleep, then joined Michelle and Steve for what was actually an amazing dinner.

“God, this is so good,” I said, licking cheese from my fork.

“This is sinful”, Michelle said, hitting Steve over the head with her napkin. “Four cheese lasagne should be illegal.”

“Just once in a while,” he said, the man who had no weight problem and seemed to flit between being vegan and vegetarian on a whim.

Michelle refilled my glass with the Sicilian wine that went so well with the lasagne.

“Rachel, we’ve been thinking,”

“Yes?” I said, half prepared all these months for something like this.

“When we get married, in three months’ time, we need to decide on where we all live. I mean, there’s no hurry, no one is pushing you out. But I was just thinking that my flat would be too small for both Stefan and Ryan on a future basis, so one option is we buy you out of this house.”

I dropped my fork, suddenly panicked. I gulped, but before I could speak, Steve covered my hand,

“Rachel, this doesn’t mean anything right now. All we want to say is that if you would ever consider moving, we could purchase your share. But if not, we could find another place.”

I stopped and considered. Although my first reaction had been to panic, I now had more secure ground on which to plan.

“I don’t have a plan right now, but it would make sense, if I wanted to sell, to let you buy me out”, I said slowly. “And my own circumstances are changing anyway.”

Steve smiled and sat back in his chair. “Jill?” was all he said.

I nodded. Michelle looked at him questioningly. I decided to come clean.

“DI Jill Raymond from the Hillingdon station. My colleague. We’re ..well, we’re embarking on a relationship it seems.”

Michelle raised her eyebrows. “I didn’t know you were bisexual”, she said. Being an IT geek, she had an unfortunate tendency to be on the blunt side when it came to dealing with people.

“Neither did I”, I chuckled.

“I’ve had an idea for a while,” Steve said. “Then Ryan said she was in your bed this morning, so I guessed things had, er, progressed.”

Michelle burst out laughing and I joined her. It seemed so ridiculous somehow, when we were practically family, to be tiptoeing around the subject.

“Well, if you call shagging each other’s brains out ‘progressing’,” I said, feeling colour come to my cheeks. Then I added, “but I changed the sheets and we were wearing pyjamas when Ryan came in, don’t worry.”

“Oh”, Michelle said, “interesting. I’ve often wondered what it would be like with a woman.”

“Meesh!“  Steve protested, looking uncomfortable.

“Don’t be such a prude, Riga-Boy,” she teased him, turning to me to explain that when they went to Latvia to meet Steve’s mother, he had suddenly got all strait-laced and uptight.

“So tell us, Rache, what IS it like?”

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” I replied honestly. Michelle’s eyes grew round.

“Better?”

“Well my sex life was never what I would call spectacular- present company excepted of course,” Steve rolled his eyes, “so maybe it's not much of a comparison, but yeah, ‘better’ doesn’t really do it justice.”

“I don’t know this woman- do you have a picture of her?”

Of course I did, I had a particular favourite I had taken at the zoo. Jill was in her skinny jeans with a plaid shirt unbuttoned over a T-shirt. Her glasses were perched on her head, hair mussed, and she was laughing at something Ryan was saying to her.

“Bloody hell, I see what you mean. She’s gorgeous, wow, I could almost fall for her myself.”  She gave Steve a sly look and a dig in the ribs. He was laughing to himself.

“You know Kathy fancies her?” he asked me.

“What? Kathy? I had no idea.”

“Oh yeah, she’s always talking about her. She’s bisexual herself, or so she tells me although I’ve never seen her with a woman.”

“Better watch yourself, Rache, or she could be trying to steal her,” Michelle said as we all laughed, the atmosphere now lightened and the warmth of our friendship filling the room.

“But the main thing is,” Steve said, “Ryan adores her. So there’s your biggest advantage right from the start. Oh and I like her too, very much, it goes without saying. Especially in those leather trousers she was wearing the other day!”

Well that was a thought that wouldn’t go away. As soon as we had cleared up, I said goodnight and headed for my room. It was around 10.30 pm and I wanted to call Jill before going to bed,  bearing in mind she was one hour ahead of me. When she answered she sounded a little breathless.

“Hi, Rachel, sorry, I’m out of breath, I’ve just this minute got back to the room and took the stairs.”

“Where have you been? Out with Mister Delgado?”

“Yes, he took me to dinner in a Vietnamese restaurant. It was fabulous.”

“Lucky you. Should I be jealous? “

“What, of him? Ha ha…no. Although he did invite me to a nice little bar for a nightcap, but I declined. Actually he asked me if we were together, said he had had a relationship with you in the past and was just checking on your availability.”

“Jesus, what is it with these guys? I had a one night stand with him over five years ago, before Ryan was conceived. They think one shag gives them rights forever!”

“I see. Well I didn’t get the impression he was over-assuming. He was quite nice and seemed genuinely to care about you. I assured him you were being well taken care of.”

“You can say that again. God, I miss you. I just had dinner with Steve and Michelle and they know. Ryan told his dad you were in my bed this morning.”

“Ohhh!”

“It’s fine, really. They were very interested, we had quite a laugh.”

“Now I’m embarrassed!”

“Don’t be. I didn’t share any details, although Michelle would have definitely been up for that! And it seems you have another admirer- Kathy!”

“But I hardly know the woman- oh wait, I did have dinner with her and Stefan one evening when you were under cover. She was charming, I have to say.”

“You’re mine Jill Raymond, no one else’s. So keep your hands off Steve’s kid sister. She’s way too young for you anyway.”

“Some people would say you are, too”, her voice was husky with desire.

“No way. We’re perfect for each other. Just…just come back as fast as possible so that we can get on with our lives together. If you only knew what your voice is doing to me……”

“Oh I think I have a fair idea. Because I’m having the same problem here.”

“Right, change of subject – we are not having phone sex. It’s just one night, I can cope. It IS one night isn’t it? I’m assuming Delgado’s got Gaby all locked up.”

 Yes, it’s just one night. We’re collecting her first thing. The flight’s at 11 from Schipol. So I’ll be back with you tomorrow all being well.”

“You’d better be. So I’ll let you go to bed now. Try to imagine me there with you.”

“It will be hard not to,” her voice, lower, was full of innuendo.

“Stop it!  I love you, see you tomorrow.”

“I love you, too. It’ll be a long night.”

You can say that again, I thought, as I hung up the phone. Now I definitely needed a cold shower. Or just a long shower.

Chapter Text

Jill

 The Dutch police picked us up at eight and took us to the custody suite where Gabrielle was being held.

“What’s she like?” I asked Justin on the way.

“How you’d imagine. Beautiful, smart, bitchy, stroppy, not very cooperative.”

“Are we going to have problems with her?”

“Shouldn’t think so. A fifty minute flight, in handcuffs, we’ll be accompanied onto the plane and escorted off. The staff have been warned. They’ll put a beefy cabin crew member in our section. They’ve reserved the last two rows in Economy for us, just in case. “

“And on the ground, where’s she going?”

“Even I don’t know that. It’s deliberate. Got to keep the press away in case any of her little druggie gangster pals get wind.”

"Right."

We were escorted to the custody suite and Gabrielle was brought out by two female warders. She was readily identifiable- as a model she certainly looked the part. Taller than me, very slim but toned, with dark brown oiled hair in tied- back ringlets. Like her brother, who was lankier, she had distinctive blue-green eyes, almost turquoise. She was dressed in black leggings, a pale yellow tunic and flat pumps, a jade quilted jacket over her arm. Her face bore an expression of utmost boredom.

“Well fuck me”, she drawled insolently, “a pretty boy and a dyke. Is that what they send to ‘escort’ me?”

I didn’t react to the jibe. I was in my green plaid waistcoat and white shirt combo today, onyx cufflinks. I had no make- up on and I had brushed my hair to hang straight down so that I could push it behind my ears.

“DI Raymond and DS Delgado, Metropolitan Police.” We held out our IDs.

“Oh I know him” she simpered. “Always hanging around London wherever I go.” And she spat on the floor at Justin’s feet.

“Hands up”, I said, unmoved, as I cuffed her hands together and added the link that would cuff her to me.

“Hope you peed, Gaby”, Justin said, “’cos those aren’t coming off now till we get back to London.”

“And if I need to go?” she asked sarcastically, “what happens then?”

He shrugged. “Cross your legs or wet yourself. Your choice.”

We took her to the car, and the warders released her luggage, a handbag and Louis Vuitton carry-on.

“It’s all been checked”, the Dutch warder said. “Nothing missing- passport, mobile phone, wallet, credit cards.”

 “OK Gaby let’s hit the road”, Delgado said as we got into the police car.

At Schipol we were escorted through security to the boarding gate ahead of other passengers. There were two Dutch police officers with us. I suppose it looked quite serious, a handcuffed prisoner and all these police types. As we headed down the corridor towards the plane I caught a flash out of the corner of my eye from behind. I twisted round, but couldn’t see anything.

The flight was uneventful. Du Toit had clearly calculated the risks of making a fuss and decided it was better to do that back in London where she could get a lawyer. As we prepared for landing, she suddenly turned to me and said “Where are they taking me?”

“I don’t know”, I replied. “Neither of us do. We’ll be met”.

“Cos you know, you do know, Dyke, that if anyone sees me I’m dead meat.”

“If who sees you?”

“Any of the Albanian gang. Why the fuck do you think I hopped it to Rotterdam? To see the fucking tulips?”

“We’re aware, Gaby”, Delgado said from the other side of her. “And we don’t want any attention any more than you do. So trust us, our aim is to get you into court, alive.”

For the first time, she looked vulnerable, as she said. “Look, I know you guys are gonna pile in as soon as you get me in front of a judge,  but believe me, I’m in deep shit once I’m back in the UK. I’m willing to cooperate, spill the dirt on Beqiri but you have to protect me.”

“Once we get to the designated custody suite you can have a lawyer, and we’ll both be handling interviews. You’ll have ample time to explain it all and we can work something out. So relax. It won’t be long.”

The wheels hit the runway at Heathrow and we taxied to the gate at Terminal 5. The other passengers deplaned ahead of us and as we got up to leave, Delgado fished in his pocket and brought out a blue baseball cap, jamming it on Gaby’s head. She fitted sunglasses over her eyes, and as we entered the airport, Delgado threaded his arm through hers as if we were friends. There was nothing we could do about the handcuffs in front, so I hooked her handbag over her wrist to cover the links. I had my own bag on my left shoulder and Delgado carried her designer holdall on his right shoulder and had his own stuff in a small daypack on his back. When we reached Immigration via the interminable coorridors, Delgado steered us off through a side door where 2 plain clothes Met officers were waiting and ushered us out to the kerb where a car pulled up almost immediately. We had an anonymous 7 seater Toyota with smoked windows, and headed out into the lighter Sunday traffic.

Gaby pulled off the cap and said “Got a smoke, Dyke?” I shook my head and she rolled her eyes.

We were taken to Wood Green Met Station in north London, one of the newest and best custody suites with high security. Gaby was checked in and the handcuffs removed. I rubbed my wrists where the chain had dug in and went first to the bathroom, texting Rachel on the way in that I had arrived back. All I knew was that Gaby would have a chance to call a lawyer, or one would be provided for her, and we would start interviews a soon as they had arrived. I wandered back to the reception desk, where Delgado was checking our bags in for safekeeping. He turned and said.

“I reckon we have an hour, minimum.  Police canteen or Caffe Nero?”

“Need you ask”, I laughed.

We had no sooner installed ourselves in a corner of the café than Delgado’s phone began to ring. “Rachel?” he said. My ears pricked up. He didn’t say much except, at the end of the brief call “Leave it with me”, and hung up. I raised my eyebrows.

“Rachel’s been tracking Beqiri. They’ve had her on surveillance and he showed up at a flat early this morning but managed to lose them after a few hours. She sounds fed up and thinks she should be with us, questioning Gaby.”

“And what do you think?”

“I agree. So I’m gonna pitch it to my boss and pull her off surveillance. I think we have a new level of danger now, with Gaby. I want Rachel in on the plan to shield her when we go to court, and also with me to question her about Beqiri and the drugs thing. If he’s been seconded to us, I should make proper use of her, don’t you think?” And he winked as he  tapped out a message on his phone.

"OK, she’ll be here in a few minutes. I’m going outside to call Mickey C. “

I sat keeping the table, weariness kicking in, and as I mentally replayed the events of the morning I had a sudden recollection. Oh shit.

Delgado was soon back with a thumbs up and I went to place our orders. I tried not to think how what I was about to tell him might affect our operation tomorrow. When I returned to the table with a tray of coffee and panninis, Rachel was already there. In her leather jacket and tight jeans she looked young, but her bloodshot eyes told a different story. She was complaining to Delgado about her morning.

“…and having me hare all over London following men who look like Artie when the man’s an experienced undercover artist is a complete fucking waste of time.”

I sat and she squeezed my knee. I covered her hand with mine for a brief moment and we exchanged looks that said “I want to kiss you right now”.

Delgado groaned. “Oh jeez, don’t tell me you two are now an ‘item’”, he made air quotes. “And I have to watch you making heart eyes at each other all afternoon.”

Rachel laughed. “Now who’s jealous, DS Delgado?  But even though I’d like to, I promise not to ravish her in front of you.”

I felt my cheeks go pink, but Delgado took it in good humour.

“Actually,” he observed, putting his head on one side as if seeing us for the first time, “you do make a very attractive couple.”

I cleared my throat. Niceties now out of the way, I had something to impart. “Sorry to burst this happy little bubble, but there’s something I’ve just remembered. When we were leaving the departure lounge in Schipol I felt a flash go off behind me, just out of the corner of my eye. What if Artie has an informant in the tabloid press, or worse, the Dutch police?”

“Christ, Raymond, you might have mentioned it before,” Delgado protested.

"I put it out of my mind but now it’s alarming me”, I admitted miserably.

“I think that’s something we should assume from the get-go,” Rachel said, “that someone somewhere will know where Gaby is.”

When we got back to the station, we learned that Gaby had been given lunch and had called a solicitor. They were now ensconced in a meeting, which gave us time to thrash out a strategy for her protection before tomorrow.

“OK, here’s what I know,” said Rachel, “and how this might tie in to the next part of the operation.”

She explained that she had been called at 5am by the people in the surveillance flat where she had spent most of the previous afternoon to tell her that Beqiri had shown up. 

“So I get up and head over there and we wait. Then at 9.30 am, Artie gets a phone call that has him all excited, waving hands around, visible in the living room window. He heads out and we follow him. He only takes taxis, no private cars, and leads me a merry dance. After several short stops we wind up in a Turkish café in Duckett’s Green, just down the road. I wait, I send a colleague in, Artie’s there for about an hour, then he vanishes through a back door.  We think he’s in a taxi coming out of a side lane, follow it, dead end. We lose him. So that’s when I called you, because I’m pretty sure that whatever he was told is related to Gaby being taken to Wood Green. That whole area is practically Little Turkey- if he wants eyes on the police station or the Crown court, it’s easy. We all know the Albanians bed down with the Turks in their areas. He’s got all the help he needs right there.”

I groaned. “Damn! 9.30 am UK time is 10.30 am Dutch time, so the timing of the call fits with when we boarded the flight.”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference,” Rachel said. “We have to assume he has eyes everywhere and that he would know when she got back and where she was. He may even have informants inside the police.”

“Rachel’s right”, Delgado admitted. “We need to assume he has all the intel. So how can we stop him from getting to her?”

We spent the next forty-five minutes mapping out a strategy. Not perfect, but Delgado would ask his boss for backup and we would try some diversionary tactics. It would have to do.

As pre-arranged, Delgado took the lead on the drugs enquiry with Rachel as his No 2. I observed from a separate viewing room. Right from the start, it was clear that, vulnerable though she might be, Annalie Hendricks aka Gabrielle Du Toit, intended to dominate the proceedings. The first half an hour consisted of negotiations between Delgado, the lawyer and Gaby over what she needed to reveal before any assurances of protection could be offered. Eventually, she started talking. Her account of the drug dealing scene was very one-sided and of course, she minimised her own involvement and maximised that of Beqiri. One interesting thing she revealed was that the flat Rachel had been watching, where the brother, Drit, was living, was a place where Beqiri occasionally stashed small amounts of heroin or cocaine. She also mentioned that Drit was “a bit simple” and that Artan was very protective of him. This opened the possibility that Drit could be picked up on a vague dealing charge, which would anger Beqiri and maybe bring him out into the open. Another thing she revealed was that her twin brother, Jacob, had proved to be a liability, which is why she had had to try to intervene in the last drugs drop to ensure that Beqiri got his haul, otherwise, he had threatened to kill her.

By the time  I took Delgado’s place with Rachel to question Gaby about the Crawford murders, it was almost 5pm. I felt exhausted from the early start, the tension of the journey back and all the waiting around. Rachel had had a short break but was reaching for her glass of water more frequently and must also have been exhausted.

“Well, if it isn’t the Dyke again”, Gaby greeted me sarcastically. I knew she was only saying this to be provocative and I didn’t react. I didn’t look at Rachel, whose annoyance I could sense, but switched on the recording machine and calmly started the interview. To our combined relief, Gaby gave us a clear and unambiguous statement of how Beqiri had forced her to put Rohypnol in Philip’s drink, then ordered one of his men to shoot him and take him to the car park.

“But what was the motive?” I asked, fascinated by her sang froid. She turned her wide turquoise eyes on me and said simply “He was in the way. He did a bit of dealing but he had a big mouth. Beqiri told me to lose him, but I ignored him, so he took matters into his own hands.”

Rachel and I were momentarily silenced by the sheer callousness of her words. Then Rachel said. “This was a man you were in a relationship with, so how did you react to being forced to drug him, knowing he would be killed like that?”

She shrugged. “When you get involved with animals like Beqiri and his mob, all you think about is getting away. I knew he would do the same to me if I stood in his way, but he needed me and Jake for the next drop. After that, we would be toast.”

“So I assume he knew about the murder of Andrea Crawford?”

“God yeah, he knew that Jake had blown everything already. That’s why we had to risk dropping the stuff outside the air base. This was the last job. For all of us.”

The interview wound up shortly afterwords with Gaby told that she would appear before the court at Wood Green the following morning and that we would ensure her safety  to the best of our ability. We left her with the statement checker and exited, both shattered and feeling soiled by what we had learned.

“Ryan’s with Steve and Michelle this evening”, Rachel murmured. “Take me home to yours. Let’s just be together alone tonight.”

I turned to look at her, she was close to tears, my big tough inspector, with all the ugly things she had seen in her life. I smiled. “That would be perfect,” I said.

“Oh”, she stopped. “My car’s in Ealing, I took a taxi this morning. Can we stop by for me to grab some clothes and stuff? And say hello to Ryan?”

“Absolutely.” I took her hand and with the other opened the Uber app. We were much too tired to take the tube and walk.

 

Rachel

 I had seen a lot of ugliness in my time in the police. I had handled rapes, murders, interviewed the most evil of criminals and witnessed the vilest scenes, even being in extreme danger several times myself, but Gabrielle Du Toit had got to me. Only 29 years old and already so cynical and ..yes, in a way, wise. She was, of course, also cunning, manipulative and self-centred, but the cool way in which she had assisted in the dispatch a man she knew as a lover, in order to placate a crime boss with whom she had got too involved, was repellent. I would call her sociopathic except that, when she told that story, I saw genuine sorrow in her eyes. She had weighed up the consequences and opted for self-preservation. I didn’t know enough about Gaby, about her background in South Africa, her family, whatever had turned her into an international criminal, but what I saw under the glamorous exterior was a scared woman putting on her best front. And I knew how that felt.

I had to get away from all that tonight, I needed Jill so badly that I almost just skipped the Ealing visit to get my car and clothes, but in the end realised I should be well prepared tomorrow. I  didn’t want to carry  the stench  of disgust and fear that stuck to my skin back to my son, but I acknowledged that  he would love to see Jill, so I compromised.

By the time we made it back, it was 7pm. Ryan was still downstairs and Steve was cooking. Michelle came to the door when she heard my key in the lock.

“Hey” she began. Then she saw Jill.

“Ooh, is this THE Jill Raymond?” she asked, beaming.

“It is, yes, and I think she’s offering to read Ryan his bedtime story while I grab a few things.”

“Are you not staying, then?” she asked, looking disappointed. I shook my head.

“Long day. We’re going over to Hillingdon to ..er prepare for tomorrow.”

“I bet”, she smirked, while I mouthed “Stop it!”

Jill stepped forward as Steve came out of the kitchen, beaming.

“Jill! Good trip?”

“Er…yes..it was fine”.

“Oh this is my fiancee Michelle, Meesh, this is Jill, Rachel’s …er..partner.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you finally,” Jill said.

“Me too,” Michelle replied. “Would you like to go and read something to Ryan?”

“Give me ten minutes”, I whispered to Jill, who good naturedly let herself be led to the sofa and offered a choice of Hungry Caterpillar books. I heard Ryan cry “Raymond” in ecstatic tones and I escaped to my room.

Later, after all the goodbyes and kisses for Ryan and collecting bags and car keys and clothes etc, I switched off my engine in the parking space behind Jill’s house.

“God, I’m so tired,” I said, almost unable to move.

“What about a hot bath?” Jill suggested.

“With you?”

“If you like.”

“Oh I like very much”, I said, hoping I wouldn’t fall asleep.

We headed inside, and Jill went next door to get Missy, who seemed pleased to see us both.

“Food?” she asked.

To be honest, if I’d been alone I would have just gone to bed, but I was aware of a hollow feeling in my stomach and many hours since the last sustenance, so I nodded. I thought she would just phone in an order but she opened the freezer and pulled out a container of soup and a loaf ready wrapped in aluminium. “

“Emergency rations’, she explained, putting the container in the microwave and switching on the oven.

I peeled off my jacket, eased off my boots and collapsed on the sofa. Missy immediately came to join me and I revelled in the peaceful feeling of stroking her soft fur, hearing her contented purr.

By the time we had polished off the pea and mint soup and the garlic bread, and Jill had poured us each a whisky (“You’re not still taking those painkillers, are you?”), I was feeling somewhat revived and looking forward to a bath. The thought of making love with Jill was a burning need, and I could see from her eyes that she felt the same. She took my hand and led me upstairs, switching on the bath taps while I undressed in the bedroom. When I was ready, I went into the bathroom, naked, and smiled as she almost did a double take.

“God, you don’t give me much time to prepare”, she gasped.

“Come here”, I whispered, grasping her shirt front and pulling her to me. She moaned into my mouth as we kissed, long and languidly, me undoing the buttons on her shirt and pushing it off her shoulders. I reached for her bra to unhook it and it dropped to the floor. Pulling away from the kiss, I dropped my mouth to her breasts, nipping, squeezing gently, rolling the nipples. I had learned that this turned Jill Raymond on more than almost anything. She pushed into my mouth as I sucked and teased, her moans getting louder.

“Let’s get these trousers off, darling”, I said, tugging at them. Her hands came to help mine and together we pulled them and her knickers down and she stepped out and away. Then we were naked, pressed against each other. I could have taken her right there, but I was conscious of the long day and both of us needing to clean our bodies, so I pulled away a little and pointed to the bathtub.

“You first”, I said, mindful of the need to keep my arm out of the water. Jill folded her elegant limbs into the tub and sighed as she sank into the warm, scented water. She had used a bath bomb or something this time with strong hints of vanilla. I wouldn’t mind betting it had been a Christmas or birthday gift, it was so un-Jill Raymond, but the smell was warm and welcoming. I stepped in and sat in front of her, resting my back against her chest. Immediately, one hand curled round my breast, coaxing the nipple into alertness, her mouth seeking the tender spots on my neck. I relaxed back against her, aware of her nipples pushing into my back, but so lost in the sensation of her holding me and the caress of the warm water that I could barely focus on anything else. I needed this strong, compassionate woman all around me, helping to restore my equilibrium, to find peace and harmony within myself and my life. When her other hand dipped lower, between my legs, I moaned with my need and rotated my hips against her hand. She was gentle but her strokes were carefully targeted. We were too tired for teasing, yet this soft, velvety underwater caress was driving me wild, tantalising but never quite giving enough pressure. I felt myself building slowly, pushing against her hand until I couldn’t bear it any longer and brought my right hand down to cover hers and exert more pressure. Within seconds I was spasming, pushing back against her, hearing her gasp as I felt her pelvis connect with my lower back. She kept her fingers inside until the shocks subsided, then kissed me tenderly on the neck and shoulders. I twisted my head to reach her mouth.

“I love you so much”, I whispered, as we kissed deeply.

I was only too aware of her own need, and I had a definite idea of how to satisfy it. The water was also cooling a little so I took the soap bar and handed it to her.

“Here, you can reach more than me.”

She gladly complied, running the bar over my skin and working up a lather to rub all over me and herself. I could feel desire building again as her hand brushed over my sex, but I tried to hold back. She was the priority now. Once we were clean, I climbed out and held my hand for her to follow. We dried ourselves quickly then I led her to the bedroom and we crawled naked beneath her duvet.

She tried to position herself on top of me, but I flipped her over, taking her by surprise.

“No, darling, this is all about you,” I murmured, my mouth homing back in on her breasts and setting a sucking, squeezing, rolling rhythm that soon had her groaning and squirming beneath me. I so wanted to taste her, and I began kissing my way down her stomach, but when I reached her navel, she tensed and stopped me, pulling me back up.

“I need you here”, she said simply, claiming my mouth again. I was well aware that she was burning with desire and that I had to do something to relieve her, but I was also disappointed that she had once again stopped me from doing what I really wanted. She took my hand and guided it down and soon my fingers were feeling the slickness of her, pushing inside and out and over the hard nub of her clit as she bucked and hissed and, finally, cried aloud as she crested the wave of her orgasm.

When she opened her eyes, it was to see me licking her juices from my fingers. Her eyes were very wide, almost in disbelief.

“You taste delicious”, I told her. “And next time…”  I reached over and kissed her again, pushing my tongue into her mouth so that she could taste herself, however faintly.

“We’re tired,” I whispered when our lips parted. “And I’d really like to keep on making love with you all night, but we have an early start and a long day ahead. But when this is over- book a 24 hour slot for me to ravish you completely!”

She chuckled. “Have I told you that I love you?”

“Mmm. I think so, but you can say it again if you like.”

“I love you”, she whispered, pulling me close against her naked body, our skin whisper -smooth against each other, the lingering scents of vanilla and sex, a heady mix.

“So why won’t you let me taste you?” I asked, still feeling the disappointment.

She was silent. I waited.

“You know you can tell me anything?”, I said, feeling waves of stress begin to emanate from her. “ I won’t judge you or force you. If that’s not what you want, that’s absolutely fine. I will only do what you want. But please, please talk to me.”

“I find this hard to talk about,” she finally said.

“That’s fine, darling. Let’s save it for another time. No pressure.” I reassured her.  “Let’s get some sleep. You feel so good against me. Just hold me, like this, yes. I love you.”

We shifted into a spooning position and she held me from behind, whispering “I love you, and one day I’ll tell you,” into my hair as we fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Jill

 Delgado had commandeered a briefing room to rehearse Operation Primrose, consisting of the ongoing search for Beqiri and protecting  Du Toit on her way to and from court. We were joined by Rachel and the SIO, DI Costner, plus Tom, the head of the same armed unit that had accompanied us to free Amy Waterston. Costner was at the front with a map of the route and of the courthouse pinned to the board.

“As you can all see, these are the vulnerable spots- here, here and here. Departure should be fine, there’s a back entrance and we’ve got 2 decoy cars, one leading from the front and one before us at the back. The occupants are wearing body armour and the car our star celeb is in today will be armour-plated. In that car will be DI Raymond, cuffed to the prisoner, DS Delgado and a police driver. Delgado and Raymond you need to get kitted out. DI Raymond, I know you’ve taken a bullet before but if that snazzy waistcoat of yours does get a hole in it  today, that had better be the only damage.”

I raised my eyebrows. How did he know about my past injury, I wondered?

“Now, DI Bailey, I want you waiting ahead at the court. There’s only one way in and although we have not alerted the press, the tabloid scum will nevertheless be hanging around, and God knows who else. The opportunities are: stabbing or shooting at close range on the ground or sniper fire from a height. Rachel, I want you and Tom to watch the tall buildings. We’ve tried to put some people up there in the key vantage points but we can’t cover all of them. Rachel, you’re on the ground, in body armour and you stay close to Tom. You can identify Beqiri, so if it all goes tits up, you’ll be chasing him. If he tries anything, shoot him.  No ifs no buts. Do not put yourselves in danger just to bring him in.”

I tried to catch Rachel’s eye, but she was listening too intently to Costner. He went on explaining the plan and how they had tried to address every possible scenario. At 8.20 he wrapped it up and was about to dispatch us to where we would be given our protective clothing. He paused then added, “Oh and one more thing. I’m having Drit Beqiri arrested”  he looked at his watch. “…as we speak! That should distract Artie. It may also convince him not to make a move on Du Toit today, until he can get Drit out of custody.”

I was somewhat sceptical, but I suppose it was best to cover all bases. I removed my coat, waistcoat and unbuttoned my shirt, keeping my back to Delgado, who was doing the same.

“Good thing I remembered the vest and wore a looser shirt today”, Justin said, pulling his blue oxford shirt over the kevlar vest and replacing his suit jacket.

I realised before I had got mine unbuttoned that it wouldn’t fit, but the waistcoat was the looser black one, so I rebuttoned the shirt and put the vest under the waistcoat. I just got it buttoned up, though it felt very bulky. I personally thought it was a waste of time- if Beqiri  aimed at one of us it would be a head shot, and we were sitting ducks, especially me, chained to Gaby. Then I saw a flash of metal as Delgado was adjusting the back of his trousers. I met his eyes.

“You’re armed?”

“For this, yup. I’m licensed but I don’t belong to the AFO unit. This is just in case of emergencies. I’ll be in the front of your car as your protection. “

At this point, Rachel came in and saw the gun. “Oh this is where I wish I’d joined you guys”, she said. “I don’t feel right doing this with just a bloody taser.”

I looked at her, enthusiasm for the action lighting up her face, and I wondered. Would she really want to join an armed unit? And how would I feel if she did that and every day I had to live with the uncertainty of her coming back? I for one had no desire to go back to that sort of world. It had been fun when I was young, until I was nearly killed and it stopped me in my tracks, and I saw how it might seem glamorous and exciting to Rachel who, at 41, was still young, fit, and very much schooled in that hard type of policing. This was a discussion we would have to have later.

Rachel got a navy Police kevlar vest and a cap and stood aside to let Quinn enter and put on the same. He gave me a warm smile.

"Haven’t seen you for a few days, boss. How are you holding up?”

“I’m fine, Quinn. Where have they put you?”

“I’m in a decoy vehicle and I’ll be part of the posse escorting you both in.”

This gave me a good feeling, knowing there was one of my own in the team.

***

The journey into the courthouse was standard and without incident. There was a light drizzle which would reduce visibility for any sniper, and the officers from three cars crowded round us, hiding Gaby from view. She was silent and pale, dressed in a wine coloured suit with a lilac silk camisole and a borrowed hat, and she refrained for once from insulting me or making any comments. Rachel, in her visible police vest was at the entrance with a radio, checking everyone going in and keeping contact with Tom’s people dotted around the streets and the rooftops. We exchanged brief glances as I passed but did not speak.

The purpose of this morning’s exercise was for the CPS to bring charges against Gaby for drug dealing and conspiracy to murder.Her actual court case would be much later, and hopefully, by then, we would also have Beqiri one way or another, and an even clearer picture to present to the court. Gaby did as agreed with her solicitor and pleaded guilty to all charges on the understanding that her testimony against Beqiri would count in her favour when it came to sentencing. She was also in our hands when it came to protection, so she really had no choice.

As we were leaving the court, she visibly relaxed, relieved, no doubt relieved to have got that part over with. We ducked as we came out into a throng of reporters, and Rachel came forward to take Gaby’s arm and guide her through to the car. Delgado was in front. Rachel looked across at me and smiled. There must have been something in her manner that alerted Gaby, because she gave a sudden laugh and said. “Oh, I see! Got the girlfriend for protection, have we, dyke?” I bristled but said nothing. Rachel’s face showed her annoyance, and she tugged Gaby rather more forcefully to get her in the car. Delgado had gone ahead to open the door and a gap opened up between us and the car. Gaby was trying to say something provocative to Rachel, but suddenly, a crack rang out and Rachel went down.

“Shit!” I shouted. “Justin!”

He was there in an instant, practically picking up Gaby and throwing her into the car, leaning over to protect me as I followed. Another crack rang out dangerously close to my ear and I saw Delgado duck and pull out his gun. He closed the car door and ran around to the passenger side.

“Drive!” he shouted to the driver, who pulled away with a screech of brakes.

“What about Rachel?” I asked Delgado.

“She took it in the vest, she’s probably OK. Damn did you see that? A handgun at close range. How the hell did he get so close? “

Then he said “Oh fuck!” He raised his hand from his hip and I saw it was covered with blood.

Rachel

 I had worn a vest plenty of times but this was the first time I had taken a bullet in the chest wearing one.  It struck me on the upper  left side  and knocked me to the ground. I saw Delgado get Jill and Gaby into the car and the car move away before I could get to my feet. Then Quinn was at my side, helping me up.

“Are you OK?”

“It’s fine,” I said, lying, it hurt like hell, “but the shot came from somewhere near, I need to tell Tom.” I got on the radio and passed on what I had happened.

I felt my legs suddenly give way and Quinn caught me and took me to sit on the wall outside the court.  The crowd had dispersed, screaming, and armed police had appeared all around me. My chest hurt insanely and I was having trouble breathing. Tom loomed up in front of me.  

“Let me see”, he said, examining the vest. He reached a finger inside and came out with a bullet. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows as he pulled a bag from a pocket of his combats and dropped the bullet inside.

“That was no accident,” he said grimly. “That was a direct hit. You were the target. But luckily for you it was a hand gun. If that had been a high powered sniper rifle, you’d be dead.”

“There were two shots fired”, I said, and I asked Quinn. “Did you hear them?”

He nodded. “But I didn’t see the second one hit anybody”, he said.  “DI Raymond and the prisoner got in the car OK, I’m sure.”

Something was niggling at my brain. I tried to go back over the sequence of events, but it was all a blur after I had been hit.

“Help me up,” I said to Quinn, and together we staggered back to the pavement where the car had been parked. I looked carefully at the road, then I saw it. Some distance away from the kerb there was blood spatter.

“It’s the passenger side. Oh my God, Justin.”

I pulled out my phone and called Jill. Her number was engaged. I called Delgado and it went to voicemail.

“Fuck! ” I said in frustration.

“DI Raymond will call an ambulance for him, don’t worry,” Quinn said. “It’s less than ten minutes to the station and she can get him picked up from there”.

He was right. But I was furious.

“Let’s go”, I said to Tom. “We need to catch this bastard.”

“I don’t think you should be going anywhere with an injury like that,” Tom said. “You must be in a lot of pain. My team are onto it, we’re triangulating his position. They’ll be calling me any minute. But …hang on” his radio was buzzing.

“Yep, yep…roger that. I’m on my way.” He turned to me. “One of the guys on the third floor of a building to our left saw the gunman running away after shooting. He alerted our team on the ground to his position and we’ve tracked him to a car repair shop which is closed. He may not know he’s surrounded, so we have to go in carefully.  I have to go.”

“I’m coming with you.,” I said, determinedly.

"You’re not fit”, Tom said calmly.

“I’m fine”, I growled. “Stop fucking patronising me. I’m coming and that’s that”.

“Then I’m coming too”, Quinn said.

Jill

That Monday was one of the longest days of my life. Watching a colleague, fast becoming a friend, bleeding out in front of me while I was handcuffed to a prisoner and could do nothing to help was bad enough.  The driver had passed Justin a box of Kleenex and he wadded up a handful as best he could and applied it to the wound which was bleeding freely. By the time we reached Wood Green station he was losing consciousness. The medics decided to send an air ambulance to rush him to St Thomas’, the nearest available trauma unit, and as soon as they had taken him away, by now unconscious and strapped to a stretcher with an oxygen mask, and I had handed over my prisoner and removed my body armour, I set off for the hospital in my car. Rachel had assured me she was bruised but fine and still involved in the operation to track Beqiri. Anxious though I was for a conclusion to the Beqiri business, I was also concerned for Rachel. I had had my fair share of involvement in shootings in the past, and although I had caught only a glimpse of Rachel as she went down, I saw the bullet hole in her left chest. It looked like a direct hit to me. That meant he had made her a target. I couldn’t help wondering if it was Beqiri himself, and whether he had recognised her and taken revenge for the police arresting his brother earlier that morning. If so, she was unwise to be going, unarmed, into a building where he might be cornered. It was some reassurance that she was with the AFOs, but they needed her to ID Beqiri so there was a risk he might see her again and have another go.

However, I was wrong. It wasn’t Rachel who was brought into the same trauma unit as Delgado, where I sat anxiously, waiting for his surgery to be completed.

Rachel

 The repair shop where the gunman had gone to ground was a vast, cavernous place with several rooms. As far as we could see, there was no way out except through the front, so it was a question of waiting quietly to see if he would show himself. Tom didn’t want to announce our presence until we had located the gunman’s exact position. Tom and two others led us in while the other two members of the team were outside checking for exits. We crept quietly towards the back of the garage, pausing every time we heard a sound. When he had entered the garage it was with every intention of escaping from those following, so he must have a plan. Could this be his base, where he had stashed a getaway vehicle? Tom stayed with Quinn and I, the other two spread out. After some minutes one of the team appeared and beckoned to us. We crept forward. There was a just a little light coming from partially shuttered windows high up in the walls, but we could clearly see that we were at the entrance to a garage area with a parked 4 x 4 facing a closed electronic door. There was a noise and suddenly a man appeared at the side of the vehicle carrying a backpack. I took a sharp intake of breath. It was Beqiri.

Tom signalled to his team and raised his carbine.

“This is the police. We have you surrounded. Put your hands up and step clear of the vehicle.”

He had barely got the words out when the door of the car was flung open and, using it for cover, Beqiri began firing indiscriminately towards us. Tom and his colleagues inched forward and fired back at the vehicle. It must have been armour plated because the bullets from their Heckler and Koch carbines would slice through metal easily. The shooting from behind the door continued as Quinn and I backed against the wall and squatted to make ourselves smaller targets. I squinted to get a clearer view through the haze of gunsmoke and saw feet visible beneath the door just for a few seconds. I wasn’t the only one. A shot rang out and there was a cry from the man behind the door and a thump.  Tom crept forward directly towards the door, using it for cover against the man on the ground. He signalled one of his team to follow, and the other to remain covering the other side of the vehicle. Beqiri may have been injured but he was quick. As Tom reached the door and prepared to shoot round it, the gangster’s head suddenly appeared at floor level around the other side of the car. I heard Quinn gasp, then before I could move he threw himself in front of me. I heard a crack closely followed by the roar of the HK police carbine and Quinn collapsed onto me, knocking the breath from my lungs and putting pressure on my damaged chest.

Jill

I had been at the hospital almost an hour, which meant 90 minutes since Delgado had been admitted, and he was still in surgery. I was sitting in the waiting room with my second cup of weak machine coffee when there was a commotion and I saw another stretcher being pushed at speed down the corridor towards the trauma bay. I wondered if it was connected to our operation- I had heard nothing from Rachel. I stood up to see better and as I looked towards the entrance, wondering if anyone else was following, I saw Rachel. Still in her kevlar vest with the bullet hole. Pale, grimy, clearly in shock. She was being assisted by a nurse who was steering her towards the A and E cubicles. I was on my feet and running out in seconds.

“Jill!” she cried when she saw me and fell into my arms. Her body shook with tremors.

“What’s happened? Why didn’t you call me?”

“It’s Quinn, Jill. Beqiri took another shot at me and he shielded me. The bullet got him in the armpit. He nearly bled out before the paramedics arrived.”

“Quinn?” I exclaimed. “What was he doing with you? “

“He helped me after I was hit and came with me to support the search for Beqiri. I think he only did it because he thought I couldn’t keep up with the AFOs on my own.” I looked at her in bewilderment. Of course, Quinn would always put a senior officer’s welfare before his own. He was that kind of loyal, brave cop. But why did Rachel let him assist her? I could see there was no point in discussing this further at present, so I caught the nurse’s eye and indicated that he should proceed to a treatment cubicle with Rachel.

“This is my partner,” Rachel said firmly. “She’s coming too.”

Once in the curtained booth, the nurse helped Rachel out of her kevlar vest and eased off her sweatshirt. There was massive bruising forming on her left shoulder and collarbone, right down to her breast, encased today in a black sports bra. The white of her previous dressing stood out on her left arm.

“Wow, that’s quite a bashing you’ve had,” the nurse commented. “Just sit there for a moment and I’ll get the doctor to look at you. “

He left the booth and I went over and held her hand.

“That must hurt a lot”, I said softly. Rachel looked as though she might cry for a moment, then she shook her head and put some steel into her gaze.

“It hurts like fuck,” she said. “But that’s not the worst of it.”

I knew what she meant. She now had to answer to CS Dodson and explain how one of her officers had got in the way of a stray bullet. I reached over and kissed her softly on the lips, and at that very moment, a doctor in green scrubs pushed the curtain aside and said “DI Bailey? Let's have a look at you.”

I moved back, blushing. “You um, carry on,” I said, seeing that she was in good hands. “I’m going to call Quinn’s wife and see how Justin’s surgery is going.”

Before calling Joy Quinn, I tried to get some information on his condition at the nurse’s station. The ward manager was there and I showed her my ID. “You have two of my junior colleagues admitted in a critical condition,” I said. “Can you give me any information before I call next of kin?” She was brisk and efficient.

“Detective Sergeant Delgado has just come out of surgery, he’s in recovery. Apparently it was touch and go, but he was very lucky. The bullet chipped his hip bone but the hip is still intact. The consultant can see you shortly to explain. Detective Sergeant Quinn has extensive loss of blood. He’s in surgery now and we have to wait until they finish. I suggest you call his wife or partner, if he has one.”  Her eyes met mine briefly. I got the message.

I moved back to the still empty waiting room to make the call to Joy. I felt a sense of absolute dread. Joy and Paul had two small children under 10. Joy had only recently gone back to work as an HR manager at the Ministry of Defence. This would hit very hard.

“How could this happen, DI Raymond?”  Joy’s soft voice asked the question I had most dreaded.

“Jill, please, call me Jill,” I stammered. “It appears Paul went to assist a senior officer in the same team searching for a major drug dealer. They had armed support and Paul ..shielded the inspector, who had been injured in a previous skirmish, when the suspect fired at them.

“So he’s a hero, is he, Jill?” Her voice held an edge of sarcasm. I hesitated.

“It would appear so. But I have to tell you that this operation will be the subject of an enquiry, so it would be premature of me to make any comment until we know what really went down.”

“Well, I’m on my way”, she said. “My sister is visiting from Barbados and will stay with the children, thank God for small mercies,” and she hung up.

I collapsed onto the nearest chair, praying to a God I didn’t believe in for Paul Quinn to pull through. While I sat there, I heard my name called. Looking up I saw a figure in dark blue scrubs addressing me.

“Detective inspector Raymond?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“I’m Barbara Schaeffer, trauma surgeon,” she said. “I’ve just finished operating on your colleague DS Delgado.”

She was a slim, erect woman with short greying hair and dark-rimmed glasses. I put her in her  late forties. She had a slight clip to her voice that I recognised as German.

“Yes, how is he?”

“He’s a very lucky man. The bullet struck him in the side, just below the kevlar vest. I assume from the angle that he was leaning forward because the bullet was partially deflected by his belt, but it glanced off his hip bone and nicked an artery. We’ve repaired the artery and done what we can with the bone. We had to remove bones chips before we could close him up. He may need more surgery in future to strengthen the hip joint, but he should be back playing tennis in a month to six weeks.”

Her tone was dry.

“Thank you, Ms Schaefffer,” I said. “When can I see him?”

"He’s in recovery now. Give him maybe 45 minutes but keep it short, don’t tire him. He lost a lot of blood. We almost lost him in theatre.”

Her cool grey eyes met mine, and I swear she could detect the guilt I felt for getting off scot free, with a prisoner for whom that bullet had been intended.

“Were you on this Operation ..er.. Primrose?”

I was surprised. “Yes, that was the name. I have another officer from that same operation in theatre now.”

“I see. Well it may interest you to know that we had one come in a short while ago under armed guard with bullet wounds to the head. I assume this was the criminal you were pursuing?”

“Um… do you know his name?” I asked. She studied me for a minute and I knew that she could not divulge that to me without further clearance, but I held her gaze.

“I don’t,  but I believe he holds an Albanian passport. Does that help you?”

Rachel

All I wanted after the hospital, and seeing Justin, who was at least recovering, and Quinn, who was in intensive care, and the expression on Quinn’s wife’s face, which made me want to turn around and run a hundred miles from there, was to be alone with Jill and to fall asleep in her arms. But there were procedures and protocols.

The interview with Dodson was predictably rough. She laid into me for allowing Quinn to accompany me on a mission he had not been instructed for, and I accepted the blame. That this misjudgement had resulted in the colleague’s life-threatening injuries was even worse. I felt terrible.

“Perhaps, Ma’am, you might also consider that male colleagues are sometimes overly protective towards women. Quinn thought I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the AFO’s and that’s why he volunteered.”

Dodson glowered back at me. “If you want me to believe that, don’t ever pull the feminist card again. You’re equals, do you understand?  If I had ordered Quinn to Mickey C’s command instead of you, you’d have complained. I chose the best officer for the job, one with previous arms training and a background on Shit Street, despite the arm injury. I thought you could hack it.  Quinn’s job was protection on the court journeys. It was way out of line. If he recovers, he’ll get a rocket for this, but you are not blameless. It was your duty either to reject his assistance or to call in sick and let the AFO’s go without you.”

There was nothing I could say. Tom’s account would match mine. He had tried to deter me and I had not listened.

“So, for the next fourteen days you will be suspended on full pay while we investigate what really happened here, and to see whether Quinn will recover. Then I’ll decide the next steps. Now get out of here and get Jill to take you home. She’s a due a day’s leave after working all over the weekend.”

I felt the tears prick my eyes but I knew she was right.

“Yes, Ma’am, “ I replied, turning on my heel and departing.  

 

 

Chapter Text

Jill

I was grateful for a day off after the stresses of the last few days, and used it to full advantage- restocking my fridge, getting up to date with the laundry and reconnecting with Missy, who followed me everywhere, obviously afraid I was about to disappear forever.

I had taken Rachel back to my place the previous afternoon to collect her car, but she was very depressed after the bollocking from Dodson, and refused to come in.

“I just need some space to get myself together”, she had said. “And I’ve been neglecting Ryan, so let’s have a break this evening and I’ll call you tomorrow.”

In the end we didn’t get together the next day. We talked on the phone, and I could see that Rachel was in a difficult place. She was an excellent detective, instinctual, with a nose like a bloodhound for following a case, but she was, as Dodson had correctly described her to me before we met, “gung-ho”. She had been promoted to inspector on the back of her outstanding work in Manchester with the Major Incident Team, and had experienced extremes of terror and pain that would have deterred most above-average detectives, once even being held hostage by a serial killer in a derelict building when she was pregnant. She had told me that she had really thought that was the end of the road. Yet her ability to bounce back and use the experience to toughen herself up had also made her reckless. She was willing to push herself in ways that the force generally disapproved of because the fallout could have far worse consequences for the officer – and other colleagues in the vicinity- than just failing to nail the suspect. I had gleaned all this from things she had said, but also from bits of her history filled in by other colleagues, including Dodson.

When I returned to work on the Wednesday, Dodson, who had returned to her headquarters in Ealing, sent me a message asking me to meet her for a drink “socially” at a wine bar she knew I had previously frequented. I wondered about this when I got home, and wasn’t keen to talk about Rachel behind her back, because what else could Dodson want to see me for? Lesbian relationship advice? Hardly, I thought. I had been doing this much longer than her. As this thought came to me I realised I was standing in front of a picture of Bella- the last one on display that I had somehow missed in my clean-up after she died- in a frame on my bookcase. It was a picture from the middle years of our relationship, when we were in Australia, visiting her family in Melbourne. She looked so healthy and happy, sitting in the sun, her hair ruffled  by the breeze, and  I had a sudden piercing sensation of loss for all the years we had shared, and the happiness that had soured. I sat down suddenly in the nearest armchair and looked at the picture, summoning up Bella as she used to be.

I had been recovering from my spinal injury and all the surgeries, and to get myself out of the house, I had decided to visit Whipsnade Zoo. I was walking, but with a stick. The Zoo had a train that visitors could hop on and off at several points, so I set myself a target and knew I could collapse onto the train if I needed a rest. I was fascinated by the big cats and spent at least 30 minutes sitting in front of a large enclosure containing a family of Bengal tigers. I was so absorbed, and not a little fuzzy from all the painkillers I still had to take, that I barely noticed a woman come and sit on the bench next to me. She had a sketch book and when I finally realised I had company, I saw she was making intricate and beautifully accurate sketches of the animals. We fell into conversation and I learned that she was a zoologist conducting post-doctoral research into animal behaviour. The sketches were for a book she was planning based around her PhD work. I was duly impressed and, having learned that she was at the zoo two days per week, I deliberately planned another visit to run into her again. It had been so long since I had had stimulating company that was unrelated to police work and, besides, she was easy on the eye. Cropped, curling black hair, sparkling deep blue eyes and an enchanting smile. At that stage I had never had a long-term relationship with a woman, just an unsatisfying series of one-night stands and short-term connections that usually left me wanting. It wasn’t cool in those days to be gay, so we were never open. It had simply never occurred to me that I might meet someone in a normal, everyday situation as opposed to a dark bar after too much alcohol, so I was completely taken aback when, after three or four such meetings, she asked me quite brazenly for a “date”.  Isabella Hogan- Italian mother, Irish- Australian father, born in Australia but educated here in London. And so it began.

I used to have this obsession with chronicling each year of our relationship- the year we moved in together, the holiday in Australia, or Thailand, or Calcutta and the Sundarbans, looking for tigers. Long holiday weekends in Vienna or Florence or Athens. Until I reached what I called the Ugly Years- the year she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a relief to have a name to put to those outbursts of anger and rejection; the year she took off to Bangladesh for four months, leaving me alone in London, working. How it was never quite the same after that. The new friends she made. The feeling that our worlds, once so intertwined, were drifting apart.  A longstanding rift between us was my house- I had bought it with a mortgage when I was still working with SO13 and retired to it after my injury. When we had been living together for 10 years, she wanted me to put her name on the mortgage, but I always refused. Not because I didn’t trust her but simply because it was mine alone, my parents had given me the deposit and the payments were hardly onerous after some years and several promotions. I suggested she buy a property of her own and rent it while she was living with me. With hindsight I realised that my innocent suggestion was tantamount to a rejection. I should, instead, have suggested we buy a house together and rent out mine. I didn’t see it at the time, but that probably marked the moment after which she started going more and more her own way. When she died she had already made her final will and I was not part of it, nor had I expected to be.

I had done things wrong, many things wrong. I was gauche back then, over-cautious. Perhaps I wasn’t trusting enough at the beginning and she had to crack me open, like a coconut, as our relationship developed. I blamed myself for many things. Bella had been a beautiful, happy, healthy, generous woman but over the years with me she had become bitter and snarky and I had retreated into myself. I had never stopped loving her, her warmth, sense of humour on good days and her fine mind, but I had long ago known I was no longer in love with her.  I suspect she knew that, and it was part of the problem. I also came to the sad conclusion that she had, in her own way,  loved me more than I loved her, which is why, in the end, she had taken herself away, to our mutual relief.

I put the photo in a drawer, not wanting to look at it any more. The sadness and regret that had descended on me were rarer these days, but still hard to shake off. At that point my phone rang and it was Rachel.

Rachel

When I got home after work on the day I was suspended, after putting Ryan to bed, I went to my room and cried. Cried for Quinn, who I should have protected by refusing his assistance, and for myself. I also realised that if Quinn had not been there, Ryan might now be motherless. The thought terrified me. This was something I couldn’t take to Jill, not now. She was implicated, as a colleague and a fellow police officer. She could hardly be impartial, and I suspected she may even be blaming me for the life-threatening injuries of her sergeant. It had been Jill who had met Quinn’s wife at the hospital, who had offered whatever help was necessary. She had correctly deduced that I had been in shock and had had me sit that one out. But still. It was down to me that the poor man was now in intensive care.

The following day I put off calling Jill until about 6pm, when I thought she might have left work. We were cautious around each other. I didn’t offer to see her, and she didn’t ask. I didn’t know what to think- was she giving me space or avoiding me? Steve could see I was upset about something and on that second day after the phone call, during a dinner involving only me, him and something forgettable with tofu, when he saw that I was concentrating neither on the food nor his wedding plans, he finally put down his chopsticks and took my hands in his.

“Come on, Rache, whatever it is, spill. It’s hurting you, so let’s see if we can make it better.”

His gentle tone and obvious care set me crying, something I always swore I would never do in front of a man, but I had a sudden need to pour out my fear that I might lose both Jill, and my job. Stefan Bartulis was a scientist through and through. He elicited each step of the operation from me, decision by decision, until -  tofu now congealing unappetisingly in its sticky sauce- we got to my suspension.

“Hmm..you do realise, I hope, that Dodson suspended you for your own safety?”

“What do you mean? “  I was outraged.  

“Rache, firstly, your actions caused the injury, maybe fatal, of another officer, so they have to have an investigation. It’s not down to her to carry that out, so she wants you out of the way so that you can’t influence it and do yourself further harm.”

“Right.” Yes, that made sense. 

“Secondly, she knows you’re hurting and she doesn’t want an overspill of emotion when you’re on the job. This is reflection time. This is when you make your own decision about why you did what you did.”

I was uncomfortable. “But I totally accept responsibility, I made that clear, I’ve never denied that I let Quinn come with me when he shouldn’t have.”

“OK, I get that, she gets that- but what does that say about you as an officer in the future? Does it mean you’ll change the way you do your job? Or will you just suck up the punishment and go back to doing the same?”

The light began to dawn.

“Is that it?”

“No, there’s Jill.” He hesitated.

“This has nothing to do with Jill.”

“Oh yes it does. You’re starting a relationship with Jill, it’s looking serious. You’re both under DCS Dodson’s command. What if this affects both of you on the job? She can’t have Jill covering up for you, or you dragging Jill into your own issues. “

“I would never do that”, I protested hotly.

Steve just looked at me. “Maybe you think not, but in the heat of the moment? You see, Dodson thinks she may have a loose cannon. That’s the problem.”

The pieces fell into place and I sighed. “Yes, I see”; then: “And I thought you were just a geek with a test-tube and a digital camera- no one told me you were a bloody shrink as well.”

Steve smiled. Then he blushed a little and looked down. “I’ve been watching you,” he said. “You were always too quick to react, too reckless. When I heard about what that nut-job nearly did to you in Manchester when you were pregnant, I could hardly believe you got out alive, or that the baby was unharmed. And, you know, Rache, that I always loved you, and I still do, but now in a different way. I’ll always have your back, you know that, but it’s time to put your trust in someone else as well.  Someone who’ll be there for you one hundred percent.”

I felt the tears well up again as he said that.

“I want Ryan to have four parents who love him. And that means Jill. She’s perfect for you and him.”

“But only if we sort out this current situation?”

“Yes. So call her tomorrow. Invite her over for dinner with us. Let’s make her like part of the family. I think she’s just giving you space, she’s waiting for you to be ready. It’s time, Rachel, you can get through this, but I think you’d be better with her by your side.”

Well, I couldn’t argue with that.

 

Jill

Dodson was still in her work suit when I met her at 7.30 pm in the wine bar. I had made a quick sandwich to avoid drinking on an empty stomach, and I took my car so that I had to stay under the limit. I didn’t want my commanding officer to try to take advantage by plying me with alcohol. Not that she would, necessarily, but I didn’t want to put myself in that situation anyway.

“Well, here I am,” I said simply when I sat down at her table. I had deliberately underdressed- faded jeans, leather jacket, Converse.

“Jill. Thank you for coming.” She indicated an opened bottle of Pinot Grigio, two glasses already gone, her second still untouched in the glass.

“Wine?”

“Just the one”, I said. “I drove here.”

“Right, yes, that’s good. Grace is coming to pick me up so I can be a little more relaxed.”

She poured the wine, then put the bottle into an ice bucket on the side of the table. I raised the glass in a mock salute and took a sip.

“Jill, I asked you to meet me informally because I need to run a couple of things by you.”

“OK”, I replied warily.

“It’s not what you think- if you’re assuming I want to discuss Rachel’s suspension or anything related to that. I wouldn’t do that behind her back.“

“Right.”

“But it’s connected in a way. I’ve received a request from DI Costner’s boss to have Rachel transferred to the Special Task Force Drugs team. Delgado’s bunch.”

I was not entirely surprised, but still, I felt my stomach sink. If Dodson had received the request, did that mean Rachel had asked for the transfer? Or that they had offered and she had accepted? I felt sick with the realisation that if this was the case, she had not discussed it with me. I had a sudden giddy sensation of being on quicksand. But as usual, I was overthinking.

“I can see from your face that you knew nothing about this. And as far as I can gather, the request came from them, not from Rachel herself. But by tomorrow, DI Costner  will have pitched the idea to her. I wanted to talk to you to see if you have any idea of which way she might jump.”

I took a deep breath, completely out of my comfort zone.

“There isn’t much I can tell you except that the other day, when we were kitting up for the court journey, she told Delgado she wished she was part of his squad so she could get her firearms licence back. But she’s never said anything else about that to me.”

Dodson raised her eyebrows. “So that’s maybe where this comes from. They think she wants to move to them, and they have a vacancy for another DI,  so they’re pushing things along.”

“Maybe.”

“And if she decides yes, she’ll move, how will that affect you?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Rachel’s a grown woman and she has to make her own professional decisions. It’s not up to me to influence her. Whatever she decides, I’ll have to find a way to live with it.”

“But you’d be unhappy about it?” she persisted.

I looked down, not at all comfortable with the way this was going or with the subject, but I could hardly lie.

“I’d be concerned that she might be putting herself in danger. I’d worry for Ryan’s sake as much as my own. But if that was the only way she could find professional satisfaction, I wouldn’t try to stop her. I don’t think that ever works. Bitter experience,” I added.

“You’re aware, I suspect, that on present form, there’s no way Rachel is going to make DCI?”

“Yes”, I said quietly. “But that doesn’t stop her being an excellent detective.”

“Exactly. That’s why I want to keep her. She’s the best in the Ealing squad by a very large margin. That edge she has, and her occasional excess of enthusiasm can be positive and motivating factors- in the right situation. If she could find a bit more maturity in her current situation,  and with the right support,” she looked knowingly at me, “she might be in a better position career-wise.”

I nodded in agreement.

“But if she goes to the Task Force, that edge can make her reckless. She isn’t any more likely to make DCI there than with us. How many years has Costner been a DI, for God’s sake? He’s another example of an outstanding detective who doesn’t have what it takes for a higher level leadership role.”

I smiled. “He’s certainly not a ‘yes- man’, if that’s what you mean. Bit of a maverick, I’d say. Are you suggesting Rachel is the same?”

“No, not at all, Rachel’s different. Costner’s a maverick who takes pride in it. Rachel doesn’t see herself as a maverick. She wants to improve, do better, go higher.“

I had a sudden glimpse of the soft spot DCS Dodson had for DI Rachel Bailey, and stored it away.

“So what are you saying, Boss? That if she stays with her current unit, you can watch over her and guide her to greater maturity, something like that? And then maybe promotion? But if she goes to the Task Force she’ll become more like DI Costner?”

Dodson looked down for a minute and then directed her very blue gaze at me.

“Or she’ll get herself killed,” she said.

I mulled over Dodson’s words all night, the fact that she seemed to be echoing my deepest fears niggled at me constantly. In the morning, when my phone rang at 8 as I was preparing to leave the house, I was relieved to hear Rachel’s voice sounding more upbeat.

“Hey, how’s my gorgeous inspector. Did you miss me?”

“You know I did”, I replied.

“Well, I missed you too, so much, and Ryan is driving me crazy asking about you, so why don’t you come over for dinner tonight? Steve and Michelle will be there and they really want you to come and join us. Then, if you like, you can ..um.. stay over.”

I leaned back against the kitchen counter, seeing Missy looking up at me with what seemed like feline resignation. Buggering off again. Damn her.

“Darling, you know I’d love to, but…”

“Don’t tell me that cat is more important to you than me?” she teased.

“No, of course not, but I’ve neglected her terribly these last weeks.”

“OK I have a brilliant idea. You come to mine tonight, then I’ll come and spend two or three nights with you, from Saturday morning?”

I felt an unexpected rush of pleasure. “That would be fantastic,” I said. “But you’re not leaving Ryan, surely?”

“As you’ll find out this evening, Steve’s mother is coming over tomorrow for a few days to discuss wedding plans. He only found out last night from Kathy and he’s frantic. She can’t speak English so he’ll have to stay in our house with her. Obviously, she’ll want to see Ryan so I thought we could have Saturday night by ourselves, then maybe take Ryan to yours on Sunday and introduce him to your house and Missy. Also, I’m not working so I can drive him around wherever he needs to be.”

It all sounded cut and dried so I just agreed, happy to be wherever Rachel was, and delighted that Ryan would also be coming to my house. Poor Missy, thought! One more night with the ever -patient Jean. I went to throw some clothes into a bag and called Jean to let her know.

Rachel

Once the plans had been made my mood lifted,  and when Steve had departed with Ryan for work and school, I set about changing sheets, doing laundry and cleaning the kitchen. Steve had told me not to worry about dinner because Kathy was coming and would bring it with her, but he had given me a shopping list as long as my arm for the weekend.

My mood lasted only for the duration of the washing machine cycle. When my phone rang in tandem with the machine’s beep, it was Mickey Costner.

After hanging up, I collapsed weakly onto a chair, my head whirling with possibilities. I had a chance to transfer back to a more active unit, one which would get me back my firearms licence and put me directly in touch with the hardest edge of Met policing. All the way round Sainsbury’s, as I picked up milk and coffee beans and bottles of wine and toilet paper and pumpernickel and whatever the hell else was on the stupid list, all I could see was DI Rachel Bailey in a Met bulletproof vest with a Glock 17, catching the worst of the bad guys, people like Artan fucking Beqiri who, we had discovered, had managed not to die yet despite Tom’s guys putting two bullets in his head.

I got home, stowed the shopping, shoved another load of laundry in and looked at my watch. 11.30 am. I could be at St Thomas’ in 30 minutes if I stepped on it. 

Delgado was brighter today, sitting up, drinking tea, reading his tablet. As I entered his room, an attractive Asian woman with a little girl in an aqua dress, her hair in mini bunches,  was just leaving. We smiled at each other and they departed.

“Well, well, DI Bailey,” putting the tablet down.

“You have quite a line of women visiting you”, I commented. “Who was that? Girlfriend?”

His face clouded. “Ex”, he admitted.

“And the little girl?”

“My daughter. “

“Wow, I had no idea you were a parent! I thought you were the eternal single male jumping from bed to bed.”

“Yeah, well, let’s not talk about that. But Tammy’s my daughter, she’s three and a half, and I’m lucky my ex is a kind and understanding woman and she’s willing to let me co-parent her.”

“She’s absolutely beautiful,” I said, truthfully, meaning the little girl, but the woman had been just as gorgeous, I realised. “And when you’re well enough, let’s get her and Ryan together and see if they make friends, eh?” I suggested this casually, but his eyes misted up and I realised I’d touched a raw spot. I sat down and took his hand.

“Hey, Mister Delgado, don’t go all soppy on me. I came here to talk shop.”

He groaned. “You got a call from Mickey C.”

“I did. And I need some advice.”

He looked at me earnestly. “In a word? Don’t.”

“What? But I thought you…”

“Rachel, I’d like nothing better than to work with you again but we are no longer thirty or  even thirty-five. I could give you all the professional reasons- Mickey as a boss, irregular hours, all that, but I think all I need to say is summed up by looking at that little girl who just left the room. I love my job, but this isn’t my first brush with death. I’m pushing forty  and I want to see Tammy grow up. The longer I stay in this job the less certain I am of that.”

He had knocked me for six, this confident, cheeky, brilliant detective who always seemed so at home in his work skin. My face must have shown my shock because he added. “Plus, you have Jill. Now, for the first time you can focus on being a family, and on giving your son all the support and love he needs to grow up into a responsible adult. Not a nervous boy with an always absent mother who can’t be sure she’ll come home to him.”

He sounded so convincing that I almost thought he was joking. “Hey, where’s all this coming from?” I asked.

“I was that boy”, he admitted quietly. “My Mum was from the Philippines. She worked as a carer and the job meant she cared for other people for much longer hours than she was able to care for me. My dad was -is- Jamaican. A useless layabout. Permanently stoned. My mum kicked him out when I was four, then she raised me single handedly. She died of cancer when I was fifteen. I spent a year with my father living in various temporary accommodations with druggies and alkies always on the scene. I left when I was sixteen, worked two jobs through the summer, then every evening and weekend and went to College to get my A Levels. After that I joined the police because I wanted to make sure that I never ended up like my dad and his friends. All I want is the chance to be a better parent to Tammy than my dad was to me.”

I was gobsmacked, had known none of this. “Oh Justin,” I said. “I’m sure you’re a wonderful father.”

“And Jill will be a fantastic step-parent to your son,” he said. “But not if you go to work for my unit. Then you’ll dump all the stress and anguish on her, as well as the responsibility of being there for Ryan when you can’t be. Why do you think Kim left me, even if it meant raising Tammy as a single mother?”

I paused to take this in. So far, I had concentrated on myself, on what I wanted as a career detective. The thrill of the hunt, the adrenaline rush when I made an arrest. The excitement and thrill of chasing criminals. And I saw clearly that I was merely prolonging an endless teenage escapist fantasy. I wasn’t so different from Justin in many ways. Alcohol-dependent, irresponsible mother, absent father, a brother already in jail for the second time and selling his body as a way of surviving the harsh conditions. I had tried to save Dominic, my brother, and had failed. But I had saved myself through my job, and had thrown myself into it whole-heartedly. I had done some of the most dangerous work in policing and had been promoted to inspector. But I was forty-one, and a mother, and now, for the first time in my life I had a partner I loved with all my heart, who loved and respected me in return, a woman I couldn’t imagine ever living without. But Justin was right. I couldn’t commit to Jill if I was still chasing my teenage fantasy. I owed it to both Jill and Ryan to be there for them. If Paul Quinn hadn’t got in the way, Beqiri’s bullet would have put paid to that.

I kissed Justin on the cheek. “Thank you,” I said. “You’re a true friend.”

***

Dinner with Steve, Michelle and Kathy, was never going to be anything but boisterous. Kathy had turned up with two big pots of chilli- one vegetarian and one beef. Steve and Michelle provided dirty rice, corn tacos, guacamole, sour cream and the hottest salsa I’d ever tasted. It was all delicious.  Jill kissed me tenderly when she arrived and whispered that she couldn’t wait to get me on my own, a thought that stayed uncomfortably with me all evening, especially with her hand stroking my thigh under the table.

The mood was upbeat, the talk mostly about the wedding, although there was plenty of teasing of Kathy about a colleague- gender not revealed- that she seemed to be spending a lot of time with.

“So that’s why Mama can’t stay with you!” Michelle chided her.

“No, Michelle, you know I have only a one bedroom flat, no room for my mother. She’s very fussy, wants her own room, space for her clothes, you know.”

“This is true,” Steve agreed. “She’s really nice but she likes things to be …just so.”

Kathy then gave Jill a shy but speculative look and said something to her in what I assumed was Latvian. To my absolute astonishment, Jill laughed and answered her fluently. Steve also laughed and clapped his hands. My mouth hung open.

“Watch out or you’ll catch flies,” Steve teased me. “You didn’t know your partner was fluent in German?”

“German?” I exclaimed, totally confused. “But I thought you and Kathy spoke Latvian?”

“Ah but our mother is bilingual and so are we. Her mother, our grandmother, was German. That’s why – Stefan and Katrín, these are German, not Latvian names. Kathy and I we went to the German School back in Riga. My mother wanted us to have the German high school diploma.”

I sat back in my chair, food temporarily forgotten. Not only did I have  a child with grandparents from three different countries and one trilingual family, but my current lover was the only person outside that family who could bridge the linguistic gap with Ryan’s grandmother. It was a lot to take in. Especially for someone who had failed GCSE French.

“So we thought”, Kathy leaned forward towards Jill, “to give us a little break when she is here, maybe Jill could spend some time with Mama? “

Jill seemed charmed. “I’d be delighted”, she said. Kathy looked very pleased with herself, and I had noticed that she was throwing an awful lot of appreciative glances at Jill, who was her usual stunning self in her slim black trousers and the deep indigo shirt I loved so much. I’d definitely have to have a word later.

“And how is Mama with same sex relationships?” I asked. Steve and Kathy exchanged glances and I worked it out in a trice.

“Oh…..I see. You want Jill to charm your mother, to make her favourable to same sex relationships, is that right, Kathy? A sort of test case for you, hmm?”

Kathy had the good grace to blush, but Jill reached over and patted her hand. “It’s fine, I don’t mind at all”, she said. “And I promise to do my best”, winking at Kathy. I thought the poor girl would have a heart attack on the spot. Enough of this flirting. I slid my hand higher on Jill’s thigh and gave a little squeeze.

“I think it’s time we retired”, I whispered.

"But what about dessert? "

"Bugger dessert."

 

Jill

After everyone had gone their separate ways, leaving us alone in the house with Ryan, I lay and thought back over the day. The first bit of good news had been that Paul Quinn was out of danger. I hadn’t had time to see him today but promised to go tomorrow. Rachel had also insisted on accompanying me. My relief was massive. I knew he would be disciplined, and I thought it fair, but the investigation would now focus on clarification of roles within the unit on duty that day, and the pressure on Rachel would be less.

The second bit of good news had come from Rachel. She told me about the offer from DI Costner and that she intended to turn it down. When I asked why, she said “Because things are different now. I want to focus on being a good partner and parent. I can’t do that and a dangerous job where I’m constantly putting myself in danger. The job I have is quite exciting enough as it is. And my home life is even better.” And with that she began kissing and touching me so that we forgot all about DI Costner and focused solely on our own pleasure, which seemed deeper and the connection more powerful each time we made love.

As we lay entwined, our heartbeats slowing, she moved to my side and put her head on my shoulder. I felt that she wanted to ask me something and I thought it time that I gave her the answer she had been looking for. She had been careful tonight not to give me any sign that she wanted to go down on me, so the subject had not arisen, but I felt the question still hanging in the air.

“Um..I wanted to explain to you something about, about last time, when I …” I stammered, feeling myself become tongue -tied with embarrassment.

“Shh, it’s OK, you don’t have to say anything,” she soothed.

“But I want to. I’ve never talked to anyone about this so it’s ...new to me. And I don’t quite know how to say it.”

She propped herself up on an elbow and gave me a gentle kiss. “Take your time, no hurry. Would you like me to help you? Talk around it a bit first?”

“Yes, please”, I said gratefully.

“When you made love to me like that with your mouth, I had never felt anything like it before. It was like such a deep connection between us, so powerful I thought I was going to pass out. No one ever made me feel like that. It wasn’t the first time, but the other times, with one or two men, I just got bored. But with you, never. It was so good that I just wanted to do the same to you, to taste you and have that same deep connection with you. Then I realised that maybe you hadn’t had good experiences in the past with it. That you liked to do it but that receiving was not so ..so ..easy for you. Am I right?”

I swallowed. Here goes, I thought. “Yes. I don’t want to tell you not to do it, but I just….I ….I’m afraid that I can’t….that I won’t…” the words wouldn’t come out.

“You’re afraid you won’t be able to come like that and I’ll be upset?” she asked, smiling.

I nodded. “Or disappointed”, I added.

“Why would you think that? We don’t have any problems with the other ways we make love. You’re a wonderful lover, you’re generous and very responsive. It’s so easy with you, we know how to turn each other on, it works every time. In fact I’m still amazed by it because, believe me, I’ve never had a lover as good as you.”

“I only did that once,” I confessed, warmed by her words. “I mean someone only did that once and it didn’t work.”

“Bella?” she asked.

I nodded. “We never had any problems with other things, in the beginning, I mean, it was all fine, but when she did that to me, I felt she was only doing it because it was expected. I got the feeling she didn’t really want to do it. So I was anxious and it ….well…..I was kind of blocked. So she gave up and never tried again. And I never asked her to do it.”

“And you’re afraid the same might happen with me? That you might be blocked and unable to enjoy it?”

“Yes,” I breathed, relieved to get it off my chest. “It was a bit hard at first to relax when you did other things, because it had been such a long time, but this…this was different.”

“Oh darling, I would never be disappointed or upset if something like that happened. I would be more concerned for you, because I never want to do anything that might make you uncomfortable. You can talk to me about anything. And we don’t have to do it, or not until you feel comfortable with the idea. There are so many ways you turn me on ..“ as she spoke,  I realised that her hand had crept across my breast,  and she had started pulling gently on a nipple. A spark of pleasure shot through me and I gasped as her mouth moved to the other nipple and she began a gentle but firm sucking motion that had me squirming in seconds.

“I know you like that”, she whispered, raising her head just a little, then dropping her eager mouth back down.

“Jesus, Rachel,” I panted, arching up into her mouth, my hands scrabbling for purchase on the sheet as I tried to control the twitching in my hips and lower belly in response to her attention to my breasts. Then her hand slid lower and two fingers found their way inside as I exhaled sharply.

“And this, I know you really like this,” she murmured, setting up a rhythm with her fingers, thumb gentling on my clit as she began rolling her hips against mine, the movement driving her fingers ever deeper. I felt myself losing control, something that had taken me time to adjust to, but with Rachel, desire was an unstoppable force, a surging swell of emotion and pleasure that I had learned to surrender to. I pulled her mouth up to mine and kissed her deeply as the pleasure rose higher, just vaguely aware of her hips moving against me, grinding harder and harder on my thigh. I tried not to make any noise when I came, but the breath hissed out of me while she gasped into my shoulder at the same time, shuddering against my leg. The pleasure was so intense that we stayed in that position for several minutes, panting, my hand stroking her back, her lips on my neck.

“I love you”, I whispered, wondering why those three little words were somehow so inadequate for what I was feeling.

“And I love you, too”, she breathed, slipping her fingers out of me and sliding off my leg, the air cooling the wetness she left there. She licked her fingers with a cheeky grin and despite everything that we had done and talked about, I felt embarrassment rise in me at her unashamed delight.

“I have never been properly loved before”, she said. “And it’s so obvious. But why do I get the feeling that you have also never been properly loved? Or that you never felt you could really let go?”

I had no answer, but I was beginning to see that she was right.

Later, much later, after we had cleaned up, put on pyjamas and snuggled under the duvet, I had a sudden vivid image of myself as a happy person, running towards a sunlit future, and realised that this was the first time in many years that such a vision was not just a dream. It was happening.

 

 

Chapter Text

RACHEL

Monday morning, 6.15, my body clock nudged  me awake, despite the fact that I hadn’t fallen asleep till nearly 2 am. I tensed, then relaxed. Neither of us had to go to work, and Ryan was back with his father and his adoring grandmother in Ealing. I turned my head. Jill was fast asleep on her front, hair splayed out over the pillow, face relaxed and with the hint of a smirk. Hardly surprising after the marathon sex session we had had last night.

It had been a hectic but satisfying weekend. Jill, as Kathy and Steve had, of course, predicted, totally won Margarethe, (“Everyone calls her Maggie”), Ryan’s grandmother, over to the charms of same sex relationships, well, one in particular. Maggie was a young-looking 70, slim and spry with naturally grey, short cropped hair. She favoured simple but classic clothes and was always impeccably groomed. She had met Ryan once before, when Steve and Kathy had taken him to Latvia for a long weekend and I had had to go away on a course. To be honest, I hadn’t been that keen to meet her, thinking I might be in the way. However, I needn’t have worried. Maggie was sweet and warm, greeting me with a strong hug and telling me how pleased she was to meet her grandson’s mother after so long, and exclaiming over “modern relationships”, while Kathy and Michelle rolled their eyes as Kathy translated. Introducing Jill had been a delicious moment. I gathered that Steve had omitted to tell his mother that I was in a same -sex relationship, and you could see the cogs whirring as she tried to figure it out. But Jill was her most relaxed and natural self. She had dressed in skinny dark denim with a loose, dusty pink cashmere sweater, and added earrings, a bracelet and some very sexy cologne, giving her a timeless, classy, English look that had Maggie swooning. That, and her apparently flawless German that left me very much in the shade, and had Kathy and Steve smirking and high fiving each other behind everyone’s back.

Jill might have had the task of charming the pants off Maggie with her own magnetic allure, but she also talked me up in a very positive way, aware that Steve’s father had been a Chief of Police in Riga before his untimely death from a heart attack. Steve whispered a translation as Jill explained to Maggie that I was a senior detective who had caught many bad guys single handed, especially using my special kampfkunst (martial arts) skills. Maggie’s eyebrows were up to her hairline by the time she had finished and I was trying hard not to laugh. I was glad, however, that she left out all the really dangerous bits where I had been injured or narrowly missed being killed.

On Saturday night, after a happy family dinner (English roast beef for us and nut roast for Steve and Michelle), we decided to trade nights and take Ryan with us so that Maggie could settle in and rest before tomorrow. It was a good decision. Ryan was asleep when we took him to the car and when he woke up in the morning at his usual impossible hour, it was to find a strange cat on his bed swishing her tail in annoyance. We had left the door ajar in case he called out to us, thinking that Missy, who hated strangers, would just stay in our room. Ryan was anything but afraid of animals and he sat up and began stroking her. By the time I came in to see how he was, he was hugging a rather uncomfortable-looking Missy and talking to her in Latvian. I sneaked back to grab my phone because that was a picture I just couldn’t miss.

Ryan of course loved Jill’s house. Mine was just a modern semi, a box with compartments, as Steve called it, whereas Jill’s refurbished terrace had charm and lots of old fashioned nooks and crannies that provided hours of entertainment for a four year old. And everywhere that Ryan went, he wanted Missy to go. By the time we left to join the family for some London sightseeing, Missy was visibly pleading for mercy.

Jill and I had come back to her house alone at seven, crying off dinner and opting for a homemade carbonara and a bottle of Pinot Noir on our own. We both knew what we wanted to do. As soon as the dishwasher was turned on, we headed upstairs. A long bath, sex, bed, more sex, lots of talking, more sex and so on until late. I must have come four times by then and could hardly keep my eyes open. I had managed to reciprocate twice, but Jill was tireless and devoted. Every time she looked at me in a certain way I felt the leap of my response and one thing followed another. We had not had any further discussions about Bella or Jill’s previous experiences, and the topic remained hanging. I knew now with absolute certainty that Jill was all about restraint when it came to voicing her own needs. Always willing to go the extra mile for anyone else, and especially for me, she still hung back when she could have asked for what she wanted. I was learning her, inch by inch, unspoken word by unspoken word. I had always been fairly uninhibited in my sex life, willing to try things, learning to take what I needed. The fact that I now had someone who had conditioned herself to give and not take was a new challenge and it was one I was determined to conquer.

Jill stirred beside me and I thought she was waking, but she shifted onto her back and pushed the duvet away, feeling hot, no doubt, as the heating had kicked in a while ago. I watched her as she resettled in the new position, and as my eyes travelled down her body I realised with a little shiver that she had left her knickers off after the late post-sex shower. Her T-shirt had rucked up and between it and the edge of the duvet was a creamy expanse of firm belly and the first curling wisps of hair. My heart gave a little flip and desire surged. Would I dare?

Very carefully, I inched the duvet down until her sex was exposed, then scooted down the bed a little until my face was level with her thighs. She smelled delicious. I began gently with small kisses to the insides of her thighs, noting the relaxation of muscles that allowed her legs to part a little more. I was desperately holding back from diving straight in, wanting to be sure of her arousal before I took that step. She murmured a little in her sleep and I froze, but then she fell silent and I resumed my barely there little kisses, finally blowing on her sex very softly. I felt her twitch so I paused and then blew again and this time heard a tiny moan. She had not shown any sign of waking but I could smell her arousal and feel her restlessness. Moving so that I was between her legs, supporting myself on my arms planted either side of her hips, I lowered my mouth and swiped my tongue gently along the length of her sex, and again, just brushing the base of her clitoris each time. Her legs were opening wider and, emboldened, I pushed a little deeper with my tongue, relishing the taste and texture, so fascinated by my exploration that I was barely aware of her moans until my arms tired, and I dropped them to hold her hips which were moving, rotating, her pelvis pushing up into my mouth as I increased the pace, nudging her clit with my nose. I remembered how she had used her fingers with me, so I did the same, sliding in two fingers as I sucked on her clit, hearing and feeling her come apart all around me. Still I didn't stop, until I felt her hand on my head, stilling me. We stayed like that for a few moments, my head resting on her thighs. Then I heard her say.

“Come here, you.”

With some trepidation I moved up to her mouth and she drew me into a deep kiss, pulling my body flush against hers, her hand squeezing my buttocks as I panted, almost coming myself from the exquisite sensation of having conquered that final barrier. I pulled my mouth away, needing to breathe.

“Oh God,” I said, “that was so, so amazing, you’re amazing…and I’m sorry if I had to take advantage of you to get there.”

“No, you’re not”, she smiled against my lips. “Nor should you be. I trust you absolutely, and you did the right thing. I woke up to the best feeling ever. Thank you, thank you, I love you,” and she kissed me again until we were both breathless and finally moved her hand to where I needed it.

Jill

 It was a dull, grey, cold November morning in Hillingdon with a promise of rain, but it was the best day of my life. I hadn’t realised that freedom from anxiety could unlock this door to happiness in such a way. We had a day off together, our only plan to visit Delgado and Quinn in hospital again.

As I flipped pancakes and Rachel poured coffee, I suddenly remembered what I had heard Maggie say to Stefan in German as we all sat together on the Thames river cruise, while Rachel and Michelle were pointing out landmarks to Ryan. Somehow I had forgotten – well, I had been massively distracted after all.

“Here you are- blueberry jam or Nutella? And have you ever been to Riga?”

“Need you ask?”  she  laughed , reaching for the Nutella, then “What?”

I repeated the question about Riga.

“No, why?”

“Because it seems the wedding plan has changed. Stefan and Michelle will do registry office here and the big wedding thing in Riga. Her family are going, and we, of course, are invited.”

“Right”, she said, spreading Nutella thickly on her pancake and rolling it up. Then she stopped. I was sitting facing her across the table, not speaking. She slowly cut a chunk from her pancake and lifted it to her mouth. My eyes tracked every move but still I didn’t speak. She put her fork down.

“When is this exactly? I keep losing track.” She was trying to keep her voice casual, but I knew.

“February. The fourteenth. The registry office in the morning and flight to Riga in the afternoon.”

“And you’re thinking…?”

“Finish the thought for me.”

“That we might ….on the same day?”

“See, I knew you were a mind reader”, I said smugly.

“God, that’s so corny”, she said, finally pushing the pancake into her mouth and chewing. “And,” she waved her fork at me, “Riga will be fucking freezing in February.”

“So what do you think, DI Bailey? Meteorology and corniness aside, would that be something you might …consider?”

She dropped her fork and came around the table to sit on my lap, winding her arms around my neck and twisting strands of my hair between her fingers.

“Ask me again, and ask me properly”, she said. “But the answer is yes, of course, yes, yes , yes.”