The Cow's Christmas


(An alternate version of this story is "Fairy Tale")

Bodie looked up over his newspaper, the nub of a pencil gripped firmly in hand, a partially completed crossword puzzle before him. He was sprawled on the floor, leaning against the settee in Doyle's flat, a well-laced eggnog at his side. "What's a five-letter word meaning skeptic?"

Ray spared him a glance from the telly, balancing his own drink on his flat stomach, prone on the settee above his partner. "Try Bodie."

Bodie ignored the jibe. "Has to start with a 'c.' And Cowley's too many letters."

"Cowley's not a skeptic."

Bodie raised both eyebrows. "You must be joking. The Cow's the biggest cynic I know. All that double-think and triple-think...."

"Not so," Ray argued. "There's no way he could keep at it if he didn't believe we make a difference."

"That's you, Ray, not the Cow. And what if he doesn't?"

"How do you mean? What would be the point of it all then?"

"What if he doesn't think he matters--that it would all go on fine without him--that he's just a tiny little cog in a big greasy wheel?"

"Well we won't know, will we?"

Bodie shrugged. "Reckon we won't. So what's this weepy thing you're watching?"

Doyle knuckled his fingers against Bodie's head. "A Yank film--It's a Wonderful Life."

"'S'at the one with the big rabbit or the fairy?"

"Angel, Bodie. It's the one with the angel."

"Oh ta. And the bell--something about getting fairy wings?"

"When you hear a bell ring, it means an angel has got his wings."

"Sort of sad, that."

"Big softie. Give us a kiss."

"You'll miss your movie."

"Seen it before."

Across town, George Cowley sat in his office, papers scattered before him on his desk, two fingers of single malt whisky sitting idly in the glass in his hands. He pushed away from the desk and walked to the window, staring out into the growing darkness. Outside, snowflakes fell, wisps of lace making their own tablecloth on the street below.

The news was grim--despite his best efforts and those of his agents, crime statistics continued to rise. They were battering their heads against a solid wall and nothing seemed to make a difference. The Minister was again threatening to cut CI5's funding, wondering at its purpose and the benefit of millions of pounds being used for such a seemingly unproductive and generally unsympathetic cause.

Cowley leaned against the window frame. His leg ached with the cold dampness of winter. He poured some of the liquor down his throat and waited for the familiar fire to warm him. As if something could.

Where was the young man who had taken Annie to movies and the opera? Who had eagerly awaited transportation to the front line, ready to defend country and honour? When had he cultivated enough cruelty to badger a witness or threaten a man with drug addiction, or worse? What was the point of this all now when the villains were showing victory? How many more good men would they lose to the bad? How had his heart become so hard? When had he become so damned tired?

Among the neatly typed papers on his desk was his resignation--dated and ready to be signed. It was time for a younger man to take over. One with more energy. One with fresh ideas. One who could really make a difference.

Cowley limped back to the desk and set his drink aside, taking up his pen.

"Are you sure you want to do that?"

Startled, Cowley looked up sharply, glancing around the empty room, confirming no one was there. He eyed his glass of whisky and the nearly empty bottle beside it and then shook his head. Too damned much to drink. He leaned over again and this time a hand stayed his own--he thought for a minute he could feel it, warm and real against his flesh. He jerked his hand away.

"You won't be able to take it back, you know."

Cowley closed his eyes and opened them. Quiet. Ah, better.

"Oh, I'm very real."

Cowley allowed himself a sideways glance and his eyes widened. Tommy McKay. Crazy Tommy.

"You're dead McKay."

"I am."

"I've had too damned much to drink."

"True enough, but that's a whole separate issue. Seems the big man thought I was a bit too vengeful in my last op and says I need to do one last good deed before I can get the final assignment in the sky. Sent me down to help you."

"Help me? Ach, this is ridiculous. Talking to myself now." Cowley shook his head.

"You do make a difference, you know," Tommy told him, gently taking the pen from Cowley's hand and setting it aside on the desk. "Things would have been very different had you not started CI5." Tommy snapped his fingers and a file appeared in them.

Cowley snorted. "Isn't that a bit dramatic?"

Tommy smiled--it was still that feral, slightly insane grin, but something about it was starting to reach his eyes now and soften them. He handed the file across to Cowley. "Take a look at what's inside."

It was a news clipping. And a photo. A grisly image. Cowley picked them up, one at a time. Reading the article. Studying the photo. Raymond Doyle, CID, the Met. Injured in the line of duty. More than injured. Not pretty. A drug dealer's revenge.

The room swirled and changed and Cowley found himself watching a horrible scene. Doyle tied to a chair, stripped of his shirt, body bruised, nose clearly broken. Pure pain and terror evident in his eyes as a hypodermic needle was pressed against his arm. He struggled, succeeded in kicking out and was rewarded with a foot to his stomach. He would have doubled over save for the restraining ropes on his wrists.

Cowley turned to Tommy. "What the hell is going on here? I don't remember any op like this."

"Of course you don't. Doyle never joined CI5. It never existed without you to start it up and keep it going. This Doyle is in drug enforcement. Undercover. The Met."

Cowley glanced around the garage room where Doyle was being held. Four walls. A table. A few chairs. "What about back-up?"

"This is the Met. Not CI5. There's no Bodie to come charging to his rescue. Doyle's cover was blown by another copper--someone with more to gain from keeping the drugs flowing than stopping them. Ray was set up. Now this lot wants to know where he got his information--who grassed them in the first place."

"Doyle won't tell."

"Don't be so sure. How much can a man take? They've been pumping him full of a nice cocktail of drugs all night. Up and down, up and down."

"I know this man. Hang on, laddie." Cowley stepped closer to Doyle and put his hand on Ray's shoulder--his fingers passed straight through.

"You can't change anything here," Tommy told him. "Once in motion, events are going to go on as intended."

The hypodermic touched Doyle's skin and Ray sobbed, begging, and finally, desperately, gave up a name. The needle was pushed in, the plunger depressed and then the chair pulled out from beneath him. His head hit the hard cement with a sickening thud. He managed to look up and his lips formed two words, mocking: "I lied."

Cowley closed his eyes, his hands were clenched into fists. "Dear God."

"Oh, this isn't the end. He doesn't die now. Hear those sirens? The cavalry is finally coming to the rescue. Problem is, Doyle's lost his faith. That's what died tonight: that his own partner--that's right--partner--could turn on him. How do you trust after that? The other came later--you saw the news clipping--but in case you can't remember...." Tommy snapped his fingers and the clipping appeared back in Cowley's hand. The controller glanced through the text.

Ex-Met officer, Raymond Doyle, discharged for insubordination, found dead from multiple knife wounds to the back and abdomen. The body was recovered from a crate in a warehouse when a night watchman noticed a foul smell. It was estimated it had been there a week or more--a bloated, battered body locked into the foetal position so tightly in death that they would have had to break the limbs to straighten it. The death had all the markings of gang retribution.

Tommy snapped his fingers. "Now let me show you something else."

The guard on the other side of the barbed wire was unshaven. An SAS emblem and the fatigues identified him as special forces and the name tag on his chest gave his name and rank. Bodie. Sergeant.

"Bodie left the SAS," Cowley reminded his guide.

"Bodie wanted to leave the SAS. Bodie had no where to go. So Bodie got rotated back here. Belfast. The hardship tour."

The sound of a child's ball scuttling across the roadway brought Bodie to alert and he spun around, rifle at the ready, firing before he even really looked, reflexive action. The ball exploded. It had been meant for the border guard. For Bodie. And his SAS comrades.

The child looked through the fence, hatred burning so brightly in its eyes that it was clear this was the fuel that fired both imagination and soul. No fear. No fear when there is nothing left to lose.

Bodie's eyes met those of the child, opening the gates to hell and sharing the inferno there--one who had lost all, one who had nothing left to lose. There was a dawning awareness of the symbiosis, hatred feeding on hatred. Bodie blinked, clanking shut the gates, razor wire back in place.

Cowley's gaze flicked between boy and man, watching the interplay. He saw the child reach into his coat pocket, felt the snap of Bodie's gun lock onto target. Cowley took a step forward--to pull the boy from harm's way? To pull the man from harm's way? To try and stop a chain of events which had begun before his day and would continue beyond his end? Action and reaction. An instinct to serve and protect so primal that Cowley's own need to survive was submerged in the face of it.

He drew a breath and stopped just as suddenly, turning to Tommy. "I can't do a damned thing, can I?"

Tommy raised an eyebrow and a bit of the old sardonic insanity came through in his voice as he replied. "You can watch."

The trigger tensed, the gun retorted and the boy's body rattled and flew to the ground. A grenade rolled out from the lax hand, pin still in place, and edged beneath the wire.

In an instant, Bodie reached down, swept up the grenade and tugged out the pin, tossing away the slim strip of metal along with everything before him, the now active grenade firm in his grip. They had changed places, boy and man: one who had lost all, one who had nothing left to lose. Both searching for salvation--or escape. One final act of desperation from those beyond despair.

Cowley staggered, mentally, if not physically, as the grenade detonated in Bodie's hand. He looked up to find Tommy staring at him, one eye cocked, challenging.

Cowley met the challenge with cold indifference. "The man I know would not have done that," he avowed flatly, his view of the macabre scene obscured by both man and machine as rescue crews raced to the site.

Tommy shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. Violence begets and all that. Bodie lost his balance, some would say. No Ray Doyle to give him a window to his soul--all chain link and razor wire. You wonder who's the guard and who's the prisoner after a while. Gets confusing. Especially when the cell's a street in Belfast and there's just a wire down the middle to mark the bounds."

"It's a damned waste," intoned Cowley sourly.

"Waste. Did I hear you say waste?" Tommy looked up to the sky and then turned back to Cowley, smiling. "Well we know how you Scots hate waste. So are you maybe ready for a bit of advice?"

Cowley grimaced, but nodded. "Go ahead."

"First..." Tommy snapped his fingers, "...let's go somewhere more comfortable."

Cowley's office materialized and Tommy gestured for the controller to be seated, pushing through the papers on Cowley's desk to clear a spot to perch.

"First, we both agree that CI5 is a worthwhile organization? That it makes a difference?"

Cowley nodded warily. "Go on."

"Well what do you think will happen if you just walk away?"

"The world will not stop turning."

"So who's going to run it? CI5, that is--the world's being taken care of."

"The Minister will appoint someone. I thought Murphy would...."

"Murphy. Yeah, right. Let's cut the crap here--what's the real problem? You feel unloved today? In need of a hug, so to speak? So didn't these little demonstrations of mine make a difference? Show you how much you're needed around here--what you've accomplished--who you've saved?"

"There was never a question of dissolving the organization."

"Hell, George--may I call you George? You are the organization. Don't you get that? Heart. Soul. Conscience. You go. It goes. You want to kill it off. Fine. Kill it off. Just remember--there are going to be more coppers who go bad, more villains who rule the streets, more kids tossing off grenades, more differences that won't be made if CI5 isn't there to make them. And more good men like Bodie and Doyle who are wasted."

Tommy pushed off the desk and hopped to his feet. "Now I'm not allowed to force your hand in this--just show you the light, so to speak. So I'll leave you now to think about it all. And I trust you to do the right thing. See you later, George."

Cowley lifted his head from his arms and blinked, catching sight of the neatly typed resignation. He picked it up and studied it and then looked around the room, half expecting he didn't know quite what, but there was nothing there save for the familiar walls of his office. Rubbing his neck, he tried to shake off the odd dream of his nap, but wasn't quite successful. Something still nagged at him. Taking the resignation in both hands, he tore it neatly in half. "Must be getting soft in my old age. Quit, indeed."

Across town, Bodie stretched out next to Doyle on the bed, drawing swirls and circles on his lover's bare chest, one leg looped across Ray's thigh, enjoying the feel of Doyle's heat. "Ever wonder what we would do without CI5?"

Doyle lazily opened an eye. "What brought that on?"

"Dunno. Was just the thought in my head."

"We could open an eggnog shop."

"A Snog and A Nog," Bodie teased, pleased with himself. Then he raised an eyebrow as the sound of a tinkling bell echoed in the room. "You hear that?"

"Must have left the telly on--end of that film."

"No. I turned it off. I remember."

Doyle turned onto Bodie, straddling him. "Then it must have been an angel got his wings."

Bodie wriggled, moaning as Doyle pressed against him. "Ah, Ray, 's a wonderful life."

-- THE END --

Originally published in Second Variation on the Theme of B and D, Keynote Press, February 1999

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