Rise up this morning, smile with the rising sun.
Three little birds pitch by my doorstep,
Singing sweet songs of melodies pure and true.
Singing, ‘This is my message to you...’
Singing, ‘Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing is gonna be all right.’
~Three Little Birds, Bob Marley
The sleep centre is cold and close and grey. And it smells of blood and death. Of potential lost. Of the sense of futility that falls over me like a shadow at every crime scene.
The contrast with the shining spring day visible just outside the door is disconcerting. Outside, the air is clean. Flowers are just beginning to bloom and spill their bright scent into the air. Outside is scented of hope and renewal and growth.
And winding through it all is the scent of the man beside me. Detective Inspector Robert Lewis smells like summer. He still smells of the Caribbean—sunscreen lotion and white sand, wild orchids and sun-warmed skin. He’s rumpled and tired and sad, but instead of travel and sorrow, he smells even better than spring. He smells as sweet and summery as a breezy, sunlit day on the beach.
He’s definitely not what I expected when Innocent tasked me with picking him up at the airport. So far, he’s been awkward and clumsy and forgetful. Cryptic and irritable with me, yet solicitous and kind with the sleep centre doctor. And his scent has teased at me since the moment I met him. In the vast open space of the airport, in the car, wisps of it have swirled around me, teasing and tantalizing.
But in this small space, the scent of him overwhelms what little oxygen there is. He’s all there is to breathe. I try to take only shallow breaths, but my lungs fill with him.
The sleep centre doctor, looking pale and a little green around the edges, brushes past me as if I’m invisible. But he stops in front of me.
The security room of the Pretorius Laing Institute is a small space, but not that small. Not so small that the DI, whom I’ve known less than a couple of hours, needs to stand so close. The folds of the ugly, khaki-coloured coat folded over his arm caress my knuckles. I resist the urge to look down and check whether the toes of his shoes are touching mine.
He looks up at me, head tilting as he assesses me with those eyes. Pale blue, like the spring sky bleached by unwavering sunlight. But there’s nothing pale about his gaze. It’s direct, as sharp as broken glass. But not harsh. His expression seems concerned, almost...sweet. As if the scent of him has leeched into his gaze.
For one ridiculous moment, I want to put my hands on him. It’s an absurd, dangerous impulse, completely inappropriate. And nearly undeniable. With an urgency that cramps my fingers, I want to know whether he’s really as warm as he smells. I want to lay my hands flat, in the centre of his chest, over that ridiculous shirt. Feel his skin heat my palms through the fabric the same way his scrutiny and his scent is burning up the air in the small room.
“Okay on your own for a bit?” He thrusts the wadded ball of his scene suit towards me.
The question feels like a slap. I stiffen as the insult chases up the back of my neck and heats the tips of my ears. The hair on the back of my neck stands up as if I'm a dog raising its hackles at the first sign of aggression. My longing for his tropical warmth scatters like wisps of smoke in a spring breeze.
Am I okay on my own! Does he think me incompetent? Unable to conduct the preliminaries of an investigation without a superior officer holding my hand?
As I do at least once a day, I force myself not to react, to bite back the frigid, sarcastic words that crowd up onto the back of my tongue. I mumble... Something. I’m not sure what. Something affirmative. Something acceptable, I suppose, because he gives a little nod. He releases the bundle of Tyvex into my hands. Leaves me to handle things on my own as he follows the doctor outside, the scent of sunlight and salt air and rumpled khaki trailing in his wake.
I can’t stop myself from taking a deep breath, drawing in the fading scent of him. And as I let it out, releasing air and tension, I realize that, maybe, my kneejerk annoyance was an overreaction.
Neither his tone nor his expression was patronising or sneering. Maybe his question was innocent and sincere. Maybe he wasn’t questioning my abilities. Maybe…he was seeing me. The same way he saw the doctor’s discomfort, perhaps he noticed mine, too. I’d like to think my angst isn’t as obvious as hers, but…maybe it is. Maybe it was to him.
I know better than to allow what I feel ripple to the surface when a body is removed from a crime scene. But it’s difficult, especially when the victim is so young. Only hours ago, a beautiful young woman had a life of promise stretching out before her. Now all of that’s gone. All the potential, the possibilities, reduced to cold, bloodied flesh zipped away a body bag.
No matter how often I see it, I still have difficulty blocking the overwhelming sense of helplessness and futility. The hopelessness that, no matter how much I do, how many crimes I solve, how many murderers I arrest, there’ll be another body tomorrow, or the day after, or next week. There’ll be an unending parade of lives lost to anger or hatred or greed. Nothing I do will stop the ridiculous violence, the loss of promising lives, the next pointless murder.
I know better than to dwell on all of it. I know better than to slide into sadness. But I’m not always successful. I’ve never had to worry about anyone noticing that before.
That condescension I’d initially imagined in his expression is the way most superior officers react to me. Dismissive and doubtful. Aggressive and disdainful. Especially DIs like him. DIs of a certain age and educational background. The ones who’ve worked their way up through the ranks, earning their positions the old-fashioned way with experience and hard knocks and feet flattened by walking a beat. Not one of them has ever given a tinker’s damn whether I’m okay—or not okay or anything in between—at a crime scene.
Maybe I’m just being ridiculous to think that he was genuinely concerned about whether I’m all right on my own. Why? For no reason other than kind and clear blue eyes and the scent of summer? Just because a man smells like sunshine doesn’t mean his soul is bright and kind.
Maybe I’m just wishing. Maybe I’m tired of being looked at as the supercilious, fast-tracked upstart with a brain too big for his head and an attitude too big for his shoes. I know what they think, other coppers and most DIs, that I’m cold and haughty and unreachable. They think, perhaps rightfully, that I don’t belong and never will.
So how is it that this man, who’s known me less than two hours, could have seen past all the things that the others don’t?
It’s daft. How is that I could think that he’s seen me? The me that I’ve shown to no one in so long that I’m sometimes not sure that me is there anymore. Maybe all that’s left is the facade.
After all… He thought I was a taxi driver when he first saw me! Though, is it all that surprising that a man wearing a khaki suit and that shirt doesn’t recognize a designer suit when he sees one? It’s a lot more surprising to think that he’s a detective. And not just any detective. The legendary Morse’s bagman.
So maybe I just want to believe that he’s seen me. Maybe I just want him to be kind and caring. It’s so odd that I don’t know what to think of it. Whether it’s just wishing on my part, or whether it was real, I don’t know what to think of him.
And I’ve stood there so long, lost in my thoughts, that now the security guard is looking at me sideways. His brow is wrinkled, chin tilted so that he can watch me without being obvious, from the corners of his eyes.
I tuck the scene suit under my arm. Take the information from the guard. I ask all the proper questions and type the information into my phone even though my fingers feel as cold and crunchy as the wad of Tyvex. As soon as I can, I escape the confines of the tiny room. Escape the sterile, still air and the dull green walls.
Outside in the spring sunshine, around a corner of the building, away from the lingering scent of blood and death, the stunned silence of the sleep centre employees and subjects, away from the quick, furtive glances of other coppers, I lean against the wall of the building and pull out a cigarette. But I don’t light it.
The brown brick is warm on my back, and the light breeze is cool and fresh, slightly sharp with the scent of balsam, crisp with the scent of new leaves. The day smells like spring, like everything’s reborn. Ordinarily, that would be enough to lighten my mood. But it just seems lacking because it’s not sweet and summery like him.
I can’t help myself. I press his abandoned scene suit to my nose. Beneath the scent of rubber is the scent of him. I breathe it in...sun and sand and hope. My whole body—from the roots of my hair to the soles of my feet—flushes. My skin tingles. My fingers flex in the folds of rubber. The urge, dangerous and honeyed, to lay my hands on him ambushes me again.
At the airport, he’d almost walked into the path of a car, and I’d caught him under his arm when he fell back, so I already know that he’s strong and solid, muscles hard but overlaid with a layer of age softness. I want to know more. Whether his skin is soft or rough. What colour his eyes turn when he’s caressed. Whether he tastes the way he smells, of sun and salt, as sweet as an exotic, fruit-laden rum drink.
My phone pings, bringing me back to reality with a wrench. It’s Chief Superintendent Innocent, questioning my whereabouts and that of DI Lewis, demanding to know whether he’ll be on time for his appointment with her. She huffs in annoyance when I tell her he’s on-scene and interviewing a witness. She orders me to put him in a cab immediately.
I promise her I will. But I don’t want to. I want him to stay on the case with me. Pierce me with that blue gaze. I want, for just a little while, to work beside someone who looks at me straight-on. And doesn’t seem to mind what he sees. Even if I’m only pretending it’s true.
I indulge in one more deep breath, the suit pressed against my face. How much stronger would that scent be at the source...on his skin. How much purer? How much sweeter?
But then I hear voices nearby, just around the corner, probably SOCO searching the perimeter of the crime scene. I push away from the wall, tuck the suit under my arm again, and go in search of him.
As I pass the SOCO van, I pause to toss the suit into the back. But I’m ridiculously reluctant to give it up. It makes me think of him. Of his hands. The way he didn’t let go of the suit until I’d answered his question. Of that ridiculous shirt stretched over his shoulders and the scent of the ocean and his eyes as blue as the sky. His gaze holding mine as he looked at me... Not through me or past me or around me.
‘Okay on your own for a bit?’
I like his voice. I feel as if I shouldn’t. It’s not cultured or particularly educated. But I like the warm depth of it, the geniality of his Geordie accent, the vowels shot through with just a hint of the Caribbean. And his eyes... I could drown in the blue of those eyes. They’re shadowed, but sharp, as if they see more than his easy-going demeanour suggests. Calm as deep, still water reflecting a bright, cloudless sky And kind. They’d been kind. I’m sure of it.
And now I remember that I’d answered, ‘Fine, Sir, thank you.’ So that’s what I’d said. And I seem to remember a bit of attitude in my voice and a dubious head tilt to communicate my suspicion of his motives. I hope he didn’t notice my incredulity. Or the momentary hostility.
The suit rustles, protesting the clutch of my fingers, and I stare at it. And I realize that with that one small question, ‘Okay on your own for a bit?’, he’s made me question… What? My whole existence as a copper? The shadows that darken my every day?
Maybe I’m not okay on my own. Maybe I haven’t been for a long time. And maybe he saw it before I did!
My skin prickles as if a spring breeze has sent the seeds of a dandelion puffball showering over me, dancing and swirling and skittering. I feel as if there’s been a shift in gravity. As if I’m askew. Breath coming too fast. Equilibrium teetering. Tipping forward as if I’m leaning dangerously over the edge of a precipice, about to fall towards something I can’t even name.
And I’m pretty sure I don’t know how to right myself. I take a deep, slow breath and it seems a bit tasteless without the scent of him flavouring it.
I toss the suit into the back of the van, school my expression back to pretend-impervious, and go in search of DI Robert Lewis.
As the driver swaps the luggage from the boot of my car to the taxi, Lewis strolls towards me, his gait a bit knock-kneed and ungainly, coat flapping open to reveal an expanse of blue and gold shirt.
The sense of being askew suddenly slips away. And my heartbeat trips and stutters again, then evens out. A cool breeze washes over me. I wish, instead of stopping him, I could fall into step beside him, walk in his wake. Feel his voice wash over me the same way his scent does, making me feel okay, even if it’s only for a while.
But Innocent’s waiting… “Your taxi, Sir,” I tell him, holding the car door open, resisting the urge to breathe him in, and then giving in and inhaling like my breath has been smothered for hours. The scent of him mixed with the new, wakening scent of spring fills me.
He starts to protest and grumble. “I told you not to bother.” His frown darkens the blue of his eyes until they look like storm clouds rolling in.
As I explain that I’m following Innocent’s orders, he gets into the taxi, but it’s obvious he’s reluctant. Despite how annoyed he is, how tired he must be physically and emotionally, it’s obvious he wants to stay on-scene, to keep working the case.
An idea teases at the back of my thoughts and a flutter of excitement tickles in my gut… With Knox as good as gone, I’ll need a new guv’nor. Grainger’s the obvious choice. He’ll teach me, help me progress. I’ll do well under him. He’s a good detective, and he doesn’t mind fast-tracked officers as much as some. He’ll be polite and proper. But he won’t understand me.
So much will depend on how Lewis’s meeting with Innocent goes. On whether she lets him stay on this case. On our result. On how well we work together if she does allow him to continue.
Even more will depend on whether I’m right about him. Or just having a flight of spring fancy.
But even if he’s assigned to a different case, he’ll be needing a bagman. I’ll have to find a way to introduce the idea to Innocent. And to him.
As the taxi pulls away from the kerb, he looks back at me and gives a little nod, nearly the same as when he left me alone in the security room. Then he turns and settles into the seat and faces forward.
I know it’s my imagination running away, dancing like sparkles of spring sunlight on water, but it feels as if he’s telling me I’ll be all right.