By Ben Maunder
Detective Haynes was struggling to recall his drive home. The last thing he could remember was seeing Micheal Steinbach get into a squad car. He'd lit a cigar and lurked in the cover of a rusted out shed, mind aflame with possibilities of the fate waiting for his friend. From there things became mercurial, flowing, like a dream he couldn't quite remember, nor could he be sure he had awoken from it. So how he came to be parked on the drive of his home was a mystery. One he had little interest in solving.
A long, exhausted sigh broke the air as James ran a hand through his hair, now greasy and matted from sweat and exhaustion. The clock on his dashboard flashed 6:30 reminding him of how long it had been since he last stepped foot on his driveway, a good 48 hours to say the least. Which also meant at least 48 hours since he last slept in anything nearly resembling a bed, or for that matter since he last laid eyes on Francesca.
It was that final thought that kept him seated, scouring the car for the pack of chewing gum Burdock had left the night before. The lingering smell of smoke still edged on his breath, which was normally enough to earn him a harsh tutting from his significant other. To James, there was no more terrifying a fate than a sharp tut and eye roll from one Francesca Mendez. Awkwardly twisting himself across the front seats of his car, James probed the recesses of his glove compartment, eventually wrapping his fingers about a foil wrapper and smiling with relief.
“Salvation.” He muttered, freeing a strip and sitting himself up. As he began chewing he absentmindedly watched the world around him through tinted windows, rubbing the stubble on his chin as he tried fruitlessly to move the nights events from his memory.
He had been in fire-fights before, when you worked Southgate it was hard to avoid them. Between the Gang of Gregory, Russian mob and general gutter scum 'The Gates' were noted as one of the most dangerous areas in London. James had been knee deep in the filth of it more times than he could count and this was far from the first time there was blood on his hands.
“Come on James.” The detective rested his forehead against the wheel, a thin layer of sweat coating his brow. “You've seen worse. Don't let this shake you.” The gunshot echoed in his mind, the look on Elliott's face was etched into the inside of his eyelids, the smell of the alley stuck in his nostrils. Clasping his head in his hands he swore quietly, tapping his skull against the wheel in a futile attempt to knock the images from thought.
“Get up.” He spoke to himself, beating a tattoo into the flesh of his head. “Get out of the car and go home.” Despite himself, he didn't move from his seat. “This isn't helping anyone.”
A light tapping on his window broke his disparity.
Tilting his head and parting his fingers, James glanced outside to see an auburn haired woman stood at his car door. She stood in red spotted pyjama's with a steaming mug of liquid heaven cooling in hand, her expression spoke of her displeasure of having to walk barefoot down the gravel driveway. Knowing better than to keep his loving fiancée waiting, James opened the window.
“You coming inside or are you quite happy in there?” She crossed her arms as she spoke, a single brow raising above the other. Her hair was a mess, short, tangled and indicative of the less than peaceful nights sleep she had endured the previous evening. James moved to open his mouth, a litany of excuses ready to pour forth, but rather than wait for an answer Francesca simply turned in place and cautiously began picking her way back up the drive, muttered curses following her with each clumsy step.
Feeling akin to a scolded dog, James shifted in place, slowly chewing at the now flavourless substance in his mouth and formulating a battle plan. Francesca was many things to him, though one thing she wasn't was forgiving. He had learnt many years ago that she held grudges for longer than some people held jobs, so it had always been in his best interest to remain in her good books. But multiple late nights and missed meals had left him squarely in the dog house the past few weeks, his brief sojourns home culminating in silence and cup ramen. He'd been dreading his return home as he knew Francesca would only hold her tongue for so long, “The Talk” was only ever around the corner and James had avoided it for longer than she normally allowed.
It was with a grimace he finally stepped out of the car. Warm sunlight escaped through the smog above and played across his skin, biting at his unshielded eyes as he wished for a dimmer switch. Groggily he moved to the rear of the car, not daring to cast his eyes to the living room window where he expected to see Francesca cataloguing his every movement.
“Into the belly of the beast.” he withdrew his briefcase before he made his way up the driveway and into his home, leaving his boots at the door and lurking at the threshold.
Francesca's shoes hadn't moved from their place on the rack, it was unlikely she had left the house in the two days since he started his last shift. The kitchen door was cracked open, with the sounds of a boiling kettle luring him towards it, like a moth to flame.
"Cess? You in the kitchen?” James tried his hardest to sound confident, he didn't succeed.
“Yes.” A shiver ran up his spine as James moved into the kitchen, one syllable replies were never a good sign. When he stepped foot inside he found Francesca had her back turned to him, busy with a coffee mug and pot. About her lay the skeletons of several pizza boxes and two discarded wine bottles, all neatly piled into the appropriate recycling areas. In the corner of the room the news silently played on the small plasma television, a young mother with babe in arms shouting at the melancholy reporter, James was surprised that the shooting wasn't being shown yet.
“So...” James took a seat at the breakfast bar, picking a grape from the nearby fruit bowl and anxiously popping in between his teeth. “I should probably apologise for being late home.” The grape was surprisingly sour.
“Sorry?” The word cut like glass, edged in by the sharp tone of Francesca's voice. The clink of metal on the china sugar bowl rang like a bell as he delicately placed it home. “I really want to avoid the fucking cliche here James...” She turned in place, Chelsea FC mug in a vice grip. “But you're bloody sorry!?” The mug slammed home in front of him, black droplets staining . He ate another grape and wished he was back in the alley.
“I was heading home but...” James didn't get to finish.
“But what James? But fucking what?” Francesca threw her hands out in frustration. “You didn't even call!”
“It was late, I thought you would be asleep.” It was an honest answer, the only real defence left to him in the situation.
“Then leave a god damn message!” She collapsed into the chair beside James, head in her hands massaging her eyelids with her palms. “I worry about you, you bloody idiot.” she hissed through clenched teeth. James rested his hand on the nape of her neck, half expecting to be shrugged off, words flew through his mind at a million a second as he tried to snatch up the right ones, but he found none. Instead he reached into his pocket and withdrew a number of ten pence pieces, carefully placing them on the table in front of his exhausted partner.
“I saved you these, Burdock was going to waste them at the slots.” A lone eye peered out from between fingers at the piled coins. “Thought they'd be better off here, save him from himself you know. Plus now you can put them in the jar, so hey, win win.”
Francesca dragged her fingers across her face, the bags beneath her eyes more apparent as she pulled her skin taut.
“You're an asshole.” A small smile tugged at her lips. Scooping up the coins she moved from the chair momentarily gripping James hand in hers. James smiled back, the exchange of small change seemed to mean little to an outside observer, but it was a ritual to the two of them, a small token of affection.
“You're marrying this asshole.” He chuckled, finally bringing the nearby mug to his lips and absorbing the aroma of the freshly ground coffee. There was nothing quite like it.
“Don't remind me.” Francesca drew a small glass jar from a cupboard, sliding the coins into it as a comfortable silence settled in. The sound of metal on glass, a washing machine signalling it's end, the sipping of piping hot coffee.
“Are you okay?” She said as the last coin clinked home, resting her back on the counter and looking to James with concern. He returned her gaze, raising an eyebrow as he wiped black from his unshaven stubble.
“Hm? Yeah I suppose, what makes you ask?” Francesca crossed the room, arms folded as she did so.
“I know about Elliott, James. I know what happened.” Her eyes were piteous, full of concern. James went to open his mouth to ask the obvious question but Francesca jabbed her thumb towards the television in the corner in a pre-emptive answer.
“It was on the news, or at least enough of it was.” James glanced at the screen, currently showing a cruise across the Atlantic.
“Ah, yeah.” He shrugged, taking another sip from the mug. “He needed help, so I helped.” his lip twisted to form an indifferent expression, averting his eyes from Francesca's. He was well aware of the look of scorn slowly forming on her face. “He would have done the same for me.”
“Would he though?” Francesca leaned on the counter besides him, pushing the mug away from him. “Elliott's thrown his life away, why are you making it your problem?” James scowled, he had hoped this argument would have died the last time she had raised it, but every few weeks she would resurrect it with renewed vigour.
“Because it has to be someone's problem 'Cess.” He glanced up, looking into the cool forest green of her eyes. “He's got no one else.” She kept a matched gaze, the effort to keep an appearance of anger on her face clear.
“Well who's fault is that?” She squirmed in place. “The man's a drug addict, it's no wonder his family disowned him.” James stood as she spoke, stretching his aching muscles as he did.
“He's a friend 'Cess.” He yawned, “And he's trying to improve.” Francesca's tired eyes displayed clear doubt at the sentiment, James could only offer half a grin to belay her distrust in his old friend. “His heart's in the right place. He just needs some guidance.” she shook her head, unconvinced.
“Don't we all.” She pushed off from the counter and wrapped her arms about James, gripping tight. “Just, don't let him drag you down with him. You actually have some people who love you.” She let go, pecking him affectionately on the cheek as she moved away. “Not that I'm sure why...” smiling warmly she moved past him, playfully nudging him as she did.
“I'm off to bed, there's more coffee in the pot.” Her voice trailed into the hallway as James recovered his mug, the contents still thankfully warm.
“Sleep well!” He called out, once more drinking deeply and gazing into the middle distance, finally aware of how exhausted he truly was.
By the time the sounds of footsteps from the floor above had silenced, James had retired to the living room, his mug refreshed and a local talk show dully droning on in front of him. He was absent-mindedly fidgeting with his phone, folding it over in his palm as his mind drew a blank of what to worry about first.
As the show ended and his mug emptied sleep began to aggressively pursue him, his eyelids began to drop of their own accord and it took an increasing amount of effort to reopen each time they lazily drew shut. Eventually James stopped fighting and allowed himself to slowly shut down, his vision darkened and the familiar sound of the B.I.N.N opening sequence filled the room about him, it too fading as he passed into unconsciousness.
“Breaking news: Shooting in South gate this morning as Gang members....”