Disclaimer: Doyle, Bodie and the rest of CI5 belong to Mark 1 Productions. All other characters belong to me.
With thanks to Carol for the beta and encouragement.


Louise



Damn. The headache I thought had gone away after I finally escaped from the hospital last night is back with a resounding thud this morning.

Despite not having to go to work today, I find myself rising with the birds. Once awake, the damned headache won't let me drift back off and even the pillow hurts, so there's no point staying in bed. But when up I find myself unable to settle to anything. I can't read, as the page keeps swimming before my eyes. Can't paint, for similar reasons. In fact, I can't seem to focus on anything. The TV's nothing but drivel. What do people do at home all day?

Maybe I should go out? Does a walk around the block come under the heading of 'rest'?

The doorbell brings a temporary halt to any kind of decision-making. Probably just as well, I'm not sure I'm capable of making a decision today.

I'm also not prepared for who I see when I open the door.

"Ray," she smiles at me nervously.

"Carol." Just about the last person I'd have expected to turn up on my doorstep.

"Mum!" A little voice pipes up, and then I notice the hand tugging at her skirt, belonging to the small child hiding slightly behind her. That's never Louise, is it?

I must have spoken out loud, because Carol answers me. "The very same. Come on, Lou, come out and say hello to your Uncle Ray."

Louise eyes me with deep suspicion, then tugs at Carol's skirt again, whispering urgently, "Mum, I need to do a wee!"

Trying to remember through the cotton wool in my brain just how long it's been since my beloved sister graced me, or anyone else for that matter, with her presence, I manage to usher the pair of them through the door and into the bathroom.

Leaving Carol to deal with one of life's little essentials, I return to the lounge to await the explanation of this unexpected visit. She must want something. I can't imagine any other reason why she'd come all the way down here to find me. I didn't think she even knew where I was living these days.

Carol reappears with Louise in tow, and plonks her down on the sofa with a doll before turning back to me with that nervous smile again.

She definitely wants something. Money, probably. Got herself into trouble, as usual. She never changes.

I wait for her to speak, not wanting to make it too easy for her. But although she looks like she's going to start a few times, nothing comes out.

That leaves me to make all the running. Fighting my impatience, I take her into the kitchen and fill the kettle.

"So, how'd you find me?" Well, that's as good a place to start as any, I tell myself. It's not unreasonable, either. After all, I certainly didn't give her this address: how could I? She never gave me hers.

"Mum."

That figures. My own sister has to ask our mother to find out where I live. She's just lucky Mum isn't going anywhere; she'd never find either of us. "It's been a while," I remark. Stating the obvious, maybe, but I have to say something.

"Yeah," Carol agrees, adding, "you've moved." God, she's got a nerve!

"Yeah, so have you," I counter, trying hard not to lose my temper. I really don't believe my sister sometimes. "The birthday card I sent Louise was returned 'not known here'. Even Mum didn't know where you'd gone. She was really upset. How do you expect people to stay in touch if you don't tell them when you move on?"

She has the grace to look abashed. "Yeah, well. I had a spot of bother."

"What kind of bother?" I can feel my defensive hackles rising at that. She knows she can always ask if she needs anything, doesn't she? I mean, I might complain about it, but she always gets what she wants in the end. Always has.

"Nothing for you to worry about, it's sorted now." Down come the shutters. She's not going to tell me what happened and there's no point even trying to find out. I know that much from a lifetime's experience.

This is getting us nowhere. I might as well just ask her straight out. I let out a sigh and close my eyes for a moment in an attempt to blot out the sharp pain behind them, and then turn to finish making the tea first.

"Carol," I begin, still with my back to her and feeling very tired all of a sudden. "Did you have a reason for coming here? Or just fancied a trip to the city and thought you'd look me up for old time's sake?"

As I complete the question, I turn to look at her, eyebrows raised enquiringly.

She stands there biting her lip for a moment, eyes glued to the floor. Then she looks straight at me and blurts out, "Ray, I need to leave Louise with you for a few days."

"You what?" It takes a moment for that one to sink in. I thrust a mug at her, not really aware of what I'm doing. Then the enormity of what she's just said hits me. "No way, Carol, there's no way I can look after your kid."

"It's just a few days, Ray," she tries wheedling.

"I can't look after a child," I tell her, firmly. That much I'm sure of. "Not with my line of work."

"Mum told me you're off work for a few days. Probably the rest of the week, she said"

I nearly laugh at that. "Off work sick!"

She's not giving up. "Mum said it was only a concussion."

Only a concussion? "Isn't that enough?" I ask in disbelief. I can't believe she's serious. Is it normal to want to leave a small child in the care of someone who still can't see straight? Or hold a coherent thought for more than a minute.

I try to remember when we last had a conversation that didn't descend into a slanging match. If ever.

Carol is still trying to talk me round. "She'll be no trouble, I promise. You won't even know she's here."

We always did fight, I seem to remember. Used to drive Mum round the bend.

I drag my fuzzy mind back to the here and now with some difficulty. "Can't her dad have her if it's only a few days?"

Carol laughs, bitterly. "Haven't seen hide nor hair of him in years."

Well, I already knew that, really, but it was worth a try. "Mum?" I know I'm fighting a losing battle now, and resent it deeply.

"Mum's half-crippled with arthritis. She can't run around after a six-year old."

"I don't know the first thing about kids," I protest.

"Time you learnt then," Carol tells me smartly. "Besides, since you're so hot and bothered about never seeing us, it's the perfect opportunity to get to know your niece."

I take a deep breath. I'm not going to get out of this, am I? The headache suddenly feels ten times worse, hammering away behind my eyes.

"Why do you need to leave her, anyway?" it suddenly occurs to me to ask.

"I'm going into hospital," she looks me straight in the eyes. "Have to have an operation. Nothing serious and I'll only be in a couple of days. I'll take her back as soon as I'm on my feet again, promise."

I know I've lost now. I can't exactly say no after hearing that. We might not be close, but she is my sister. I let out another sigh and run a hand through my hair, carefully avoiding the painful spot where the length of my curls covers a row of neat stitches, and then look back at her. "OK, tell me all about it."


*****


Over the next cup of tea, it comes out that Carol expects me to take Louise immediately. Like, today. Now. She's even got the bag packed and brought it with her. It turns out she's due to be admitted this afternoon and has to get straight back up there. I can't help wondering what she was planning to do with Louise before hearing I was 'available'. Probably would have just dumped her on Mum and let the two of them make the best of it. I decide it's better not to enquire.

It occurs to me that she's never once enquired about my health, beyond acknowledging the fact that I'm off work with concussion. And despite telling me all about her own problems. Like I said, she never changes.

Within an hour of Carol's arrival on the doorstep, she vanishes again. I'm on my own with Louise.


*****


After waving Carol off, I turn back to Louise with a deep sense of foreboding. She stands there, regarding me solemnly, hugging her doll to her chest.

What on earth do you talk about to a six-year old?

I'm saved by the bell, the telephone, that is, and hurry back into the lounge to answer.

"'Allo there," says a chirpy voice. "Didn't wake you up, did I?" Not that he'd care if he had. It's Bodie. As I try to form some kind of coherent reply, I become aware that Louise has followed me back into the lounge and is giving me that intense look again, which throws me off my stride a bit.

Bodie, meanwhile, is babbling on about the case he's working on, which is the same case that I was also working on before being so comprehensively clobbered.

It occurs to me that if I'd let that doctor keep me in a bit longer, like he wanted, I might not have been here when Carol turned up.

And then she would have had a wasted trip, and Mum would now be the one struggling with Louise. Which would be worse? Maybe I shouldn't even be thinking along those lines?

Just who was it that told Mum I'd been knocked out, anyway? There was no need for that, surely. After all, it's an occupational hazard. Got her all worried about nothing ? I spent half of last night on the phone trying to convince her I was all right. And I obviously succeeded, judging by Carol's attitude. Mum never said a word about Carol, either.

That train of thought is derailed as a silence slowly filters through my brain and it dawns on me that Bodie has stopped talking at last. He's waiting for me to say something, but as I wasn't listening I have no idea how I should respond. Then I become aware of something else: a certain emptiness in the room. Louise has disappeared.

Did I leave my gun anywhere she could find it?

I tell Bodie I have to go and hang up before he can reply. Then I rush into the bedroom. She's not there.

I find her in the kitchen, playing with the washing up liquid in the sink. There's soapy water all over the floor, bubbles everywhere, and her sleeves are dripping.

Stay calm, Ray.

Louise notices that I'm there, and turns that penetrating stare of hers back on me. "Who was that?"

"Who?" On the phone? "Oh, a friend of mine."

"What's his name?"

I'm being interrogated by a six-year old. "His name's Bodie."

Louise considers that, head cocked to one side. "Is he my friend too?"

God, do all kids ask this many questions? "Well, he's never met you."

She frowns slightly. "So he isn't my friend?"

I decide to try reason. "How can he be when he's never met you?"

Logic and kids obviously don't mix. Louise bursts into tears. "Why isn't he my friend?"

Someone help! I don't know what else to do so I pick her up, wincing slightly as the action pulls at my still fresh bruises, and carry her back to the lounge. Then I sit down with her on the settee and give her a big hug, assuring her that of course Bodie is her friend too.

I'm just glad Bodie isn't here to hear it.

Once Louise has stopped crying, she starts looking around the room, asking all kinds of searching questions about this, that and the other. She's a bright kid. And in my current state of mind I quickly find myself struggling to keep up with her. Especially when she clambers down from my lap and starts exploring the flat, still talking non-stop about everything and nothing while I trail helplessly in her wake and try to remove anything potentially dangerous from her reach. I have to stop myself looking at my watch, as it's driving me to despair. I've only been on my own with her for what, an hour? Hour and a half? And I'm already at my wit's end.

What are you supposed to do with a small child all day?

Well, send them to school, obviously. The salvation of many a parent's sanity, no doubt. But under the circumstances not an option for me, more's the pity.

Then Louise discovers a pack of playing cards that draws her interest. After hastily searching my memory for child-friendly card games, I take her back into the lounge to play snap.


*****


Louise turns out to be an absolute demon at snap, and a very bad winner, too ? laughing uproariously at the ever-decreasing number of cards in my hand. She cheats abominably, as well, and sulks so much on the rare occasions I win a hand that it doesn't seem worth the effort.

I am losing badly for the seventh game in a row, head pounding mercilessly, when the doorbell rings and I experience an odd sense of d?j? vu. Who else could possibly be landing on my doorstep today? Telling Louise to stay put, I go to answer it.

It's Bodie, standing there grinning like an idiot. "Hallo there," he says cheerfully. Of all the things I can't cope with today, Bodie in that mood is top of the list.

No, actually, Louise is top of the list. Bodie runs her a close second, though, and now I've got both of them. On top of the concussion. I should've let that doctor keep me.

"Can I come in?" Bodie continues, and pushes past me without waiting for an answer.

I'm feeling neither the desire nor the ability to rush, so I take my time closing the door and then follow him into the lounge. There I find Bodie and Louise staring at each other in mutual suspicion. Bodie turns to me as I come in and if my head weren't hurting so much I'd be savouring this moment. I can't remember when I've seen him so floored but he manages to come out with, "What's this, Doyle? New girlfriend?"

All I can do is gesture vaguely and even I'm surprised at how weary my voice sounds when I reply. "My sister's kid, Louise. Lou, this is my friend, Bodie."

Louise's suspicious look hardens into deep distrust. Clearly, she hasn't forgotten our earlier conversation. She comes over to me and whispers, "Is he my friend too?"

What am I supposed to say to that? "Of course he is," I tell her, and am unable to stop myself giving Bodie a pleading look.

Bodie takes pity on me and makes a big effort. "Hello, Louise." He glances at me like he expects me to tell him what to do or say, and then tries again. "What's your dolly's name?"

Lou snatches up the doll like she thinks Bodie was going to steal it. "She's called Baby Girl Griffiths," she announces solemnly.

Bodie meets my eyes, eyebrows slightly raised, his lips twitching. I'm not going to laugh. Lou would never forgive me and it's been hard enough having her here without that.

What's Bodie doing here anyway? I manage to get the question out.

"Came to see if you were all right," he tells me brightly.

That's all I need. "I don't need checking up on, Bodie," I protest as Lou creeps behind me, peering out at him. I pick her up without really thinking about it, and can't quite stop myself wincing again. Louise puts her arms around my neck and her head down on my shoulder, still eying Bodie warily.

"Oh, you reckon?" Bodie is laughing now. "You sounded so out of it on the phone, I thought something was up. And now I know why, an' all."

"So what happened to the case then? Shouldn't you be at work?"

Bodie frowns at me. "You really weren't listening earlier, were you?" He manages to sound both amused and annoyed at once. "No, there's not a lot happening just now. The lads we pulled yesterday have told us all they're going to. Got a couple of stakeouts set up, nothing doing. No sign of Hardiman, or the rest of the gang. It was a busy night so I thought I'd give myself a break while it's quiet."

"Yeah, that'd be right." Starting to feel a bit woozy again, I put Louise down on the sofa and lean against it myself. Lou seems to be in awe of Bodie, this is the quietest she's been since she got here.

Bodie gives me that concerned look again. "You sure you're all right?"

He knows I hate being made a fuss of. "I'm fine," I snap back.

He rolls his eyes. "Yeah, of course you are."


*****


Telling Lou to stay put again I take Bodie into the kitchen and put the kettle on. I could do with something a bit stronger, actually, but tell myself it's probably not a good idea.

Bodie leans against the counter and gives me a stern look. "Thought you were supposed to be resting," he says pointedly.

"I am resting," I protest. "Haven't set foot outside the door all day."

He raises an eyebrow and looks meaningfully towards the lounge. "That doesn't look restful to me, mate. What's she doing here anyway?"

Trying to remember through the fog where I keep the cups, I haven't got the energy to do other than tell it exactly as it is. "Look, Carol just showed up this morning and asked me to have Lou while she's in hospital. It's only a few days."

"Why you?" Bodie asks, elbowing me aside to get two cups out himself and set them down on the counter. "She does know you're supposed to be in hospital yourself, doesn't she?"

I don't even try to conceal my frustration at that. "I'm fine," I insist, managing to pour the tea without spilling any or dropping the pot. "They wouldn't have let me come home if I wasn't."

Bodie just looks at me. "They let you out because you made such a fuss, not because anyone thought you were fine. Be at work if you were. Can't someone else have her?" He manages to make the question sound nonchalant, wandering across the kitchen to peer inside my fridge.

"Isn't anyone else," I tell him flatly.

"Your Mum?" Bodie sloshes some milk into each cup as he speaks, then helps himself to the sugar before glancing across at me for my answer.

"Mum's crippled with arthritis, practically housebound. She couldn't cope with Lou." I find myself repeating Carol's arguments of earlier, and Bodie looks about as impressed as I was.

"Hasn't she got a dad?"

"Isn't around."

"Sounds about right. And just how long is it since you've seen your sister, anyway?" Bodie isn't going to let this rest. He remembers the returned-birthday-card rant, it seems.

"God knows. Lou was tiny." Too tired to argue or to attempt to defend Carol, I lean against the doorframe, watching Louise. She has found my collection of tin soldiers and is sitting on the floor playing with them, chattering away to herself, or possibly to them. I turn back to Bodie. "That's not the point though, is it? She needs help; I'm not going to let her down. Or Louise."

Bodie gives up the questions, to my relief, and starts rooting around in one of my cupboards. He comes up with a couple of aspirin and hands them to me. "Here you are," he says, managing to make it sound like he's presenting me with the crown jewels. "Don't say I never do anything for you. And don't try to tell me you haven't got a headache, either. I can always tell."

That much is true. I pull a face at him, but take the damned tablets. "Ta."

Bodie starts to laugh again. "So, what exactly are you planning to do with this kid, anyway?"

He's got a point, there. "I hadn't planned on doing anything with her," I admit. "I wasn't planning to have her in the first place. She just landed on me this morning."

Bodie comes across and peers over my shoulder at Louise. "She looks like you," he remarks, idly.

I turn to look at her again myself: light brown hair drawn back into a ponytail, blue eyes; more like Carol than me, surely. "You reckon?" I ask, doubtfully.

"Oh yeah, definite family resemblance," he insists. Then adds, "Poor kid!"

Oh, charming that.

Just then, Louise abandons her game and comes into the kitchen, creeping past Bodie and hurrying to my side. "Uncle Ray, I'm hungry," she says plaintively and turns a pleading face up at me, while still keeping as far from Bodie as the size of my kitchen will permit.

Bodie just grins. "I think that's my cue to leave you to it, Uncle Ray," he tells me, cheerfully. "You two have fun together. I'll see myself out."

"Yeah, thanks, mate," I tell him with a roll of my eyes.

"Oh, don't mention it. And you," he looks me straight in the eyes. "Don't overdo it, okay?"

With that he disappears, not waiting for a reply. I catch myself staring helplessly after him, and make an effort to pull myself together. What are you supposed to feed children, anyway?

"Lou," I turn my attention back to her. "Do you like chips?"


*****


Since I'm forbidden to drive until cleared by the doctor, Louise and I take Baby Girl Griffiths for a walk to the nearest chip shop I can think of, which goes down a treat with her and has the advantage of being quick and easy, requiring little effort from me. Then I have a brainwave and remember that there's a park nearby which has children's play equipment. Lou's face lights up like a Christmas tree when I mention it. Getting there takes time though, as we have to walk at six-year old pace, stopping every five yards to examine and admire some amazing thing I wouldn't have glanced at twice, or for Louise to scramble up onto a wall low enough to walk along. But since I'm still feeling a little stiff and disinclined to rush anyway, I find the speed of our casual meander rather suits my mood. Restful, even, in spite of Louise's constant chatter.

Once in the park, Louise takes off towards the swings like an Olympic athlete, leaving me to carry Baby Girl Griffiths and feel like a fool. I follow at a more sedate pace and settle myself on a bench where I can keep an eye on her and rest at the same time; mindful of the doctor's instructions I left hospital with. The aspirin appears to be kicking in at last and my head feels clearer than it has all day. The fresh air seems to be helping too.

I'm not left in peace for long. Lou comes bounding back to ask me to push her on the swings, and that's just the start of it. Every time I try sitting back down she comes and drags me over to see something new: to watch her on the climbing frame; to see her attempt the monkey bars; to witness the thrill that is the high slide; or to help out with the roundabout and seesaw. I can't help wondering how Carol copes with her full-time. And why anyone would inflict this upon themselves by choosing to have children!

When I finally manage to extricate myself and sink wearily down onto the bench, the young mother with pushchair already seated there gives me a sympathetic grin. "Got yourself a livewire there," she remarks. "Come out to give the wife a break, is it? Half her luck."

Not being at full mental strength, it takes me a moment to figure that one out. Then I dig out a smile and flash it at her as I explain. "No, actually, she's my niece."

"Ah," the young mum nods knowingly. "Babysitting, are you?"

"Something like that," I find myself telling her. "My sister's having an operation, so I've got the little one until she's back on her feet."

"Good of you." She smiles approvingly. "They're a real handful at that age."

"Yeah, tell me about it," I agree fervently.

She laughs at that and points out her own children: a boy of about Louise's age and a smaller girl, plus the baby in the pushchair. A handful times three. I shudder at the thought, which seems to amuse my companion even more. She chatters amiably for a little longer and as she doesn't seem to require me to throw in more than the odd 'yes', 'no' or 'hhmm' at suitable junctures, I let the one-sided conversation wash over me.

Not having any further bright ideas about how to entertain Louise, I let her run wild in the park for as long as possible. Then, as the afternoon wears on and it starts to grow colder, the problems of how to extricate her from the swing and what to feed her when we get home begin to occupy my mind.

Louise is unwilling to leave the park, despite having been here for hours now, and proves to be incredibly stubborn. Eventually I have to resort to bribery to get her to leave. It works, too ? something to remember for the future. As we leave, I catch her gazing longingly at a group of children playing football and make a mental note to bring a ball if we come here again. Anything that will keep her occupied and out of trouble has to be a good thing.

We walk home via the shops to acquire child-friendly groceries and the sweets I had promised Louise. Shopping turns out to be a lengthy process as either my head is worse than I thought or the storeowners have completely rearranged their entire stock. We wander in bewilderment up and down each aisle about six times before I find everything I'm looking for. And then we get held up at the checkout by the elderly shop assistant, who thinks Louise is sweet and wants to chat to her, and to me about her. Wonder how sweet she'd think Louise was if she had her dumped on her at a moment's notice?

The journey home is a slow one as Louise is growing tired, but I don't think I'm quite steady enough yet on my own feet to carry both her and the bags. So she has to walk, and complains bitterly the entire way. Once home, I let her help me cook. This is a nerve-wracking process and means that the meal takes twice as long as it normally would to prepare ? and the mess has to be seen to be believed - but it's preferable to having to deal with a tantrum if I said no, or to having her out of sight and up to no good if I was in the kitchen alone.

Then the telephone rings again. It's Mum. Where have I been all afternoon? Am I all right? Is Louise with me? Is Louise all right? Did Carol seem all right when she was here? She can't imagine why Carol took it into her head to bring Louise to me, she never meant for her to do that when she mentioned I was off work, she just thought Carol would like to hear about how I was getting on and have the latest news and then Carol took off with Louise without telling her they were going and how on earth am I going to cope with Louise on my own ? on and on and on. Mum in full flow never seems to need even to draw breath, and it's nigh on impossible for me to get a word in edgeways, even to answer her questions. It seems to take forever to calm her down, convince her that I'm managing in spite of everything, and get her off the phone. And this gives Louise plenty of time to create havoc in the flat. When I finally get off the phone I find that she's dismantled my settee and has all the cushions piled up on the floor, using them as a trampoline.

I close my eyes and count to ten, very slowly, before attempting to deal with the chaos.

Bedtime introduces me to yet another set of headaches. Starting with, where am I going to put her to sleep? Well, in the bed, obviously, and that leaves me with the couch. Great, just what the doctor ordered for my second night out of hospital. The second headache comes when Louise refuses point-blank to go to bed and throws a tantrum when I insist. It's our first real battle of wills and would have been exhausting even if I wasn't feeling so rough already. We eventually achieve a compromise, although it is in fact a victory for Louise ? she gets to stay up longer in return for going to bed quietly when the time comes.

Once in bed at last, Louise mentions Carol for the first time since she left, tearfully asking for her Mummy. I have to explain to her what she already knows ? that Mummy is in hospital for a couple of days but will be back as good as new to collect her very soon. In spite of all that, reassuring her and calming her down is a long job better suited to someone with far more patience than me, and preferably someone who knows more about kids in general, too. By the time she's finally asleep, I'm ready to drop. The kitchen still looks like a bomb's hit it, but that can wait till tomorrow. I dig out a couple of blankets and settle down on the settee, too tired to even notice how uncomfortable it is.


*****


The room is still pitch black when I wake, unsure what has disturbed me. Still a little groggy, I can't quite work out what I'm doing sleeping on the settee. From there it is a short step to wondering why on earth I can't move, and what is that weight on top of me? After a while, I manage to work out that all of those questions have the same answer. Louise. She has crept out of bed and is lying right on top of me, fast asleep and snoring lustily, which was the noise that woke me. Having worked that much out, and not being fully awake anyway, it seems far too much of an effort to move her so I don't and sleep soon takes me once again.


*****


Morning brings with it a whole new set of challenges.

I wake to find myself sprawled face down on the settee, the side of my face crushed uncomfortably against its arm, with one of my own arms pinned beneath my body and totally numb. Louise is still lying across my back like a lead weight, fast asleep and snoring, while my blankets are all in a heap on the floor, which isn't much use to either of us.

Getting up without disturbing Louise is the first challenge of the day and I fail it miserably. She wakes up confused and unhappy, unsure of where she is and wanting her Mum. I find myself wanting her Mum too, if only so that she can deal with her daughter herself because I can't, not at this hour of the morning.

When we are both fully conscious I have to face the next challenges: those of getting Louise breakfasted, washed and decently dressed. Between the two of us we get through them all to a greater or lesser degree of success. I even manage to get her hair scraped back into a ponytail and looking respectable, which is more than I can generally manage with my own, especially at the moment since I can't even brush my hair properly with those stitches in the side of my head.

Next comes the challenge of what to do with Louise all day. Before we've even had breakfast she has started asking what we're going to do today, and by the time it's over she's getting bored and argumentative, and is looking for mischief to get into. Rather surprisingly, my headache has shifted a bit since yesterday, but I'm still very aware of being well below my best and mischief in my flat is something I don't feel prepared to handle. We're going to have to go out again.

Remembering yesterday, I suggest the park again, and Louise seems to like the idea. I take her there via the shops to acquire among other things a small plastic ball for her to play with, even though the thought of running around kicking a ball makes my head spin. At the counter, I spot a skipping rope and add it to my purchases, as an afterthought.

For the second time in as many days, Louise and I slowly make our way to the park, once again travelling at a snail's pace. I'm feeling slightly more alert today, and to my surprise find myself enjoying her childish prattle, while attempting to answer the myriad questions she throws at me keeps me on my toes. I mean, I can't say that before now I've ever given serious consideration to the question of what clouds feel like to touch, and Louise is too bright to be fobbed off. I find that she responds better if I simply admit my ignorance, and we enter into a debate about the possibilities.

I never would have suspected a six-year old could be such good company. She's got a wicked sense of humour, too, and a delightfully dirty chuckle that makes me laugh with her, in spite of myself.

The football, when we finally get to the park, is a huge success. Louise is a natural, although I would enjoy the game more if I was feeling better. Fortunately for my currently less-than-perfect sense of balance Lou is more than happy to do all the running around, leaving me to simply knock the ball back at her whenever it comes near me.

The skipping rope puzzles her, though. It seems she's never used one before.

Wishing we weren't in such a public place, I try to teach her how to skip, firmly ignoring both the smiles of passers-by at my demonstration and the thudding in my head at the jolt of each jump. Then I persuade Louise to give it a go. At first she can't seem to get the hang of it, and inability making her reluctant to keep trying and drawing a protest that, "Oh, this is boring."

I insist that she try again, telling her that she'll never be able to do it if she doesn't practice and that she'll soon be able to skip beautifully. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," I hear myself quoting the old cliché at her and have to grin as I remember Mum saying much the same thing to me, many years ago.

After a few more attempts something clicks and her delight at finding that she can do it after all is worth all the frustration that preceded the discovery. After that, every time she stumbles over the rope she grins at me, singing, "Try, try again."

Then all of a sudden she freezes, glaring at someone behind me. I turn to see who it is and find Bodie standing there, leaning against a tree trying to look casual. Seeing that he's been spotted, he saunters over with a big grin. "Hallo there, kids."

"Hallo yourself," I tell him as Louise scuttles behind me, still glaring at him. "What are you doing here?"

"Oh, just passing," he remarks lightly, still trying to appear nonchalant. It's tough to keep up the act, though, with Louise giving him the evil eye, and the smile gives way to a slight frown as he leans towards me to murmur confidingly, "Doesn't like me much, does she?"

"No, she's very discerning," I tell him. And since my mind is not wandering quite so much today as yesterday, I'm not prepared to let him off the hook that easily. "Just passing, eh? Come here a lot, do you?"

"Well," Bodie hesitates, knowing he's been caught out. "Okay, I went to the flat to see how you were getting on, but you weren't there. So I asked myself: where would I go if I had a kid to look after and nothing to entertain it with? And voila! Here you are."

He looks childishly proud of his brilliant deductions.

"Yeah, well done, Sherlock," I tell him, laughing. "Ten out of ten. Shouldn't you be out catching crooks and setting the world to rights?"

He pulls a face at me. Evidently the case isn't going well, but his tone is light as he remarks, "All work and no play makes Bodie a very unhappy boy. Especially when his partner is off-duty and living it up with a beautiful young lady!"

That last remark is aimed at Louise as she peers out from behind my back, and is accompanied by his most charming smile; a determined attempt to win her over. But this is one female who appears to be immune to the Bodie charm. Or maybe it's just that Louise has got enough of me in her to see straight through him. Either way, the ploy doesn't work and, defeated, Bodie flings himself onto a nearby bench with a big sigh. "How's the head today, anyway?" he cocks an eyebrow at me expectantly.

Now how did I know that was coming? "It's okay, actually, much better now," I tell him and hand Louise the ball before dropping onto the bench beside him. She wanders off, kicking the ball ahead of her and casting frequent doubtful glances over her shoulder at Bodie, who still seems rather disconcerted at her open distrust of him.

I can't help laughing. "Face it, mate. You've met your match."

Bodie pulls a face at me, and then grins. "That bad temper must run in the family."

"What bad temper?" I roll my eyes heavenwards. "Ever considered that maybe it's your influence brings out the worst in us?"

"Who me?" Bodie opens his eyes wide, the picture of innocence, but can't keep it up and breaks out into that inane grin again, laughing, "Just look at you, anyway. Off work for all of two days and you turn into the picture of domestic bliss. Mr Mum. Whoever would've believed it?"

I laugh at that. "Domestic bliss? No, mate, hanging on by the skin of my teeth, here."

Bodie grins, and then remarks, "You're seeing the medic this afternoon, aren't you?"

Am I? "Yeah, that's right." I'd forgotten about that.

Before Bodie can continue, a familiar beeping interrupts us. Grimacing, he pulls his R/T out of a pocket. "Three-seven."

"Three-seven, please report back to base," comes the crisp reply.

Bodie sighs and rolls his eyes before replying, "Yeah, okay, three-seven out."

Stowing the R/T safely back into an inner pocket, he gives me a resigned look. "No rest for the wicked, eh?"

"You got that right on both counts," I reply with a chuckle. "So you are playing hookey, then?"

"Who me?" Bodie grins as he repeats his earlier denial, then relents and explains. "No, actually, I really was in the neighbourhood, following up on a lead. Didn't get me anywhere, so I thought I'd come visit you two before moving on."

He glances across at Louise, who is now practising her skipping once more, before bouncing back to his feet. "Gotta go. Have fun."

"Yeah, ta-ra, mate."


*****


Over lunch I reach the conclusion that Bodie was right: I do have an appointment this afternoon with the CI5 medics at HQ to check on the progress of my concussion, make sure my head wound is healing properly, and begin the task of determining when I will be allowed back to work.

In the absence of permission to drive I have to rely on public transport, in the absence of a babysitter I have to take Louise with me, and she in turn takes her doll, Baby Girl Griffiths. Louise has never been on a London bus before, and insists on sitting up top despite the chill wind, and is fascinated by the experience.

And while on the bus, Louise takes advantage of having my undivided attention. She wants to know, of all things, if God lives in the clouds.

I can't say I've ever looked at it that way, but have to concede that popular opinion would have it that heaven is up in the sky somewhere.

So how do you get there, Louise wants to know? In an aeroplane?

This is deep, theological stuff, this. Certainly not the kind of conversation you want to hold while suffering from the after-effects of concussion. And also not a subject I would choose to discuss with a six-year old, but ? as I found out earlier ? she is difficult to fob off with half-truths and lame excuses.

No, I tell her very solemnly, you can't get to heaven in an aeroplane. Or a helicopter, or even a spaceship. It's much too high for that.

Louise considers that and then states decisively, "I don't want to go to heaven."

I have to ask. "Why not?"

She purses her mouth and frowns slightly. "I don't want to be up very high," she explains, deadly serious. "I might fall out."

She then drifts onto the subject of the police car that speeds past our bus, siren wailing and lights flashing. Where is it going? Why has it got a light? Why does it make that noise? What have the bad people done? Will they go to prison?

How, why, who, what, when? The stream of questions she comes out with on every conceivable topic is endless, and she clearly believes me to be either psychic or omniscient. Possibly both.

Rather to my relief, the arrival of the bus at our stop forestalls any further debate and before long we enter CI5 HQ. There, Jack on the front desk is more than a little surprised to see me coming in with a little girl, and we have to stop to explain the situation. I finally manage to get away by pleading lateness for my appointment, and usher Louise towards the lift.

Walking through the corridors of CI5 we attract quite a few puzzled looking stares from passing office flunkies, especially when Louise starts to ask questions about each room we pass in a rather loud voice. Anyone would think they had never seen a child before.

Well, in all fairness, they probably haven't seen a child wandering around CI5 HQ before.

The medics are also slightly disconcerted when I turn up with a small child in tow, and I have to explain Louise's presence yet again. I'm told that I'm making wonderful progress but as I'm still a bit fuzzy from the concussion I'm not cleared to drive yet. And, what with that and the fact that my stitches won't be coming out for a few more days, I'm signed off for at least the rest of the week. With any luck Carol will have reclaimed Louise by the time I'm allowed back, so that works out quite well, really, all things considered.

Before going home, I call into the rest room to see who's about, only to find it deserted. In fact, there seem to be surprisingly few people in the entire building. I eventually find Cowley's secretary, Betty, beavering away at her desk.

"Afternoon, Betty," I call across to her, leaning against the doorframe with Louise peering around me at the room.

Betty glances up from her typing to greet me with a smile. "Hello, Doyle. How are you feeling today?"

Then the smile gives way to a puzzled frown as her gaze drops down to Louise at my side. She shakes her head slightly, and frowns at me. "I'm sorry, what's going on?"

Understanding the source of her confusion, I grin and glance down at Louise. "There's nothing going on," I tell her, cheerfully. "This is my new shadow."

"Doyle," she gives me a warning glare and I give in.

"'S true," I protest. "Where I go, she goes. Betty, I'd like you to meet my niece, Louise. Lou, this is Betty. She works with me."

Betty rolls her eyes. "If you want to call it that!" Then she gives Louise a friendly smile. "Hello, Louise. Are you visiting your Uncle Ray?"

Louise nods, speechless, and glances up at me for moral support. "She's staying with me for a few days," I offer as an explanation.

Betty nods, and offers Louise some paper to draw on. As if drawn by a magnet, Louise goes across to her, placing her doll down beside the desk to take the pen and paper. Within minutes the two of them are drawing pictures together and chattering away like old friends, leaving me standing in the doorway abandoned and forgotten. What is it about women and children?

Then Betty rather daringly leaves Louise alone at her desk and comes over to me, giving me a rather severe look. "I thought you were signed off?"

"I am, had to come visit the medics, didn't I?"

"So where did she come from?" Betty nods across at Louise. "Have you got her on your own, or is there someone staying with you?"

Rather frustrated about having to explain yet again, I scowl at her in annoyance. "Just me and Louise till my sister comes out of hospital. We're doing fine, okay?"

Why does everyone seem so amazed that I should have been entrusted with Louise? Don't they think I'm capable of looking after her, or something? I mean, is it just because I'm a bit below par right now, or would they be thinking it anyway?

Before Betty can make any further comment, I decide to change the subject and enlighten myself at the same time, asking, "So where is everyone today, then? You all on your own?"

Betty sighs. "Almost. There's a big job on, most people are out at that."

"Bodie?" I'm not sure I like the sound of that.

She nods. "Yes, he's there. And Mr Cowley. And just about every other active agent available."

"Everyone except me, then."

"Yes, more or less, but it's not your concern at the moment, is it? You'd better get her home." Betty nods back at Louise.

She's right on both counts. Louise will be getting hungry soon, and CI5 ops really aren't my concern just at the moment. Doesn't mean I have to like it, though.

I push aside the twinge of regret at not being a part of whatever's going on, and more especially not being able to help if it all goes wrong again. Not being there to back up my partner bothers me, but there's nothing I can do about it now. I call Louise over and we say our goodbyes to Betty before making our way back to the bus.


*****


Half way home Louise realises that she has left her doll behind in Betty's office and kicks up a huge stink about it. However, I have no desire to turn around, retrace my steps all the way back across the bus route to CI5 headquarters, and become the centre of attention there yet again just to retrieve a doll; she'll have to wait and we can get it back some other time. Louise doesn't see it that way, however, and with her calling me every name she can think of, it doesn't take long for me to start wishing I could dissolve into the seat, as every eye on the bus seems to be fixed on us. I have no doubt that the sympathies of the majority must be with Louise, who looks the very image of misery, mourning for her lost baby. I also have no doubt that many of the innocent bus passengers are also cursing me for the noise and wondering why I'm not keeping better control of my child. If only it were that easy!


*****


Inspired by Betty's example, when we get home I dig out a pen and leave Louise to practise her writing on the backs of some old bills while I explore the kitchen cupboards in search of inspiration for tea. Then the doorbell rings, so I go to answer and on the doorstep I find a complete stranger. He looks harmless enough, someone you'd pass in the street without looking twice, but nevertheless instincts honed by years with first the police and then CI5 instantly start to scream a warning at me, setting me on my guard.

"Hello, can I help you?" I ask, warily but pleasantly. After all, he might be simply a harmless insurance salesman. Well, as harmless as insurance salesmen ever get.

The man smiles at me, and says, "I hope so. It's Ray, is it? Carol's brother?"

Now that sets the alarm bells screaming. I reply cautiously, "Why? Who wants to know?"

My visitor narrows his eyes slightly, before cranking the smile up a few notches and launching into what sounds suspiciously like a pre-arranged spiel. He explains that he's a friend of Carol, Archie Sanders, and has just come back from overseas and brought presents for Carol and Louise.

Oh yeah, I really think so.

I point out that Carol isn't here, that she's in hospital at the moment, and this earns me another bout of the spiel. Yes, he gushes, he's been to see Carol in hospital and she told him that Louise was staying with me and he decided he would come down and reassure Carol himself that both Louise and I were managing in her absence as he did so want to give Louise her present straight away.

I really don't like the sound of this, but nevertheless in the absence of any suitable excuse not to do so I invite my strange guest into the lounge. Besides, it will be interesting to see how Louise reacts to this so-called 'friend' of her Mum.

Louise is sitting on the floor, playing with my tin soldiers again. She glances up as we enter, and freezes completely when she lays eyes on Archie Sanders.

Of course, she had a similar reaction to Bodie on both occasions that she's met him, so maybe I shouldn't read too much into it. But I'm feeling pretty much the same way about Mr Sanders myself, and am inclined to go along with Louise on this one.

Archie Sanders, on the other hand, ignores Louise and her negative reaction to him completely, and throws himself down onto the settee, his eyes scanning the room thoroughly.

Oh great, what have I got myself into now?

He accepts my offer of a coffee, and I call Louise to come into the kitchen with me. Once there, with one eye fixed on my unexpected visitor through the half-open door, I quietly ask her about him. "Louise, is that man a friend of your Mummy?"

Louise looks uncertain, but shakes her head. "He's Tommy's friend," she offers.

"Tommy?"

"Tommy was Mummy's friend," she explains. "He used to live with us."

What the hell is going on? My mind is racing as I try to make sense of it all. Why on earth would a friend of one of Carol's ex-boyfriends turn up on my doorstep with some lame **** and bull story about visiting Louise?

Like someone striking a big bass drum, or a crash of thunder, the headache that has been lurking in the background all day as a dull and manageable thud suddenly descends on me full force once more, a blinding pain behind the eyes which makes it almost impossible to focus.

I take a deep breath as I remind myself of the need to sort this out, and try pinching at the bridge of my nose before asking Louise to tell me a bit more about Tommy and Archie Sanders.

"He's a stupid old poopoo-head," she announces quite decisively. This description apparently applies to both. But Louise can't tell me much more than that, just that Archie was a friend of Tommy's but not Carol, that Carol didn't like him, and that she hasn't seen either of them since the last time they moved house.

"I had a spot of bother." Carol's explanation of why they moved so abruptly and without letting anyone know comes back into my mind, along with her unwillingness to explain further. Well, now it is starting to look as though that 'bother' has followed her, right to my doorstep.

Wishing that she had confided in me about whatever is going on, I return to the lounge in time to see Archie dropping one of Louise's toys and leaping back to the settee, trying to look casual. Ignoring this odd behaviour for now, I hand him his coffee. Then, sitting on the armchair with Louise on my lap, I decide it's time to call his bluff. "So, Archie," I begin with a smile. "You were saying something about a present for Louise?"

That gets him. He hesitates just that bit too long before regaining enough of his composure to bluster that he left the present at his hotel because he wanted to make sure he was going to the right house first.

He looks nervous, though, probably realising that I'm not going to buy that. And then without any warning, he snaps completely. He leaps to his feet, producing a gun from nowhere and waving it at me menacingly. "Okay, stay right over there, Mr Carol's Brother, and no one needs to get hurt. Just tell me where they are."

I don't believe this. Neither will Cowley when he finds out.

I close my eyes for a second, taking a deep breath and thinking fast. I stay right where I am, holding Louise tightly and willing her not to panic. Louise, bless her, keeps quiet, her eyes wide and staring, clinging to me tightly.

"Where what are?" My bewilderment at the question is genuine, and he hesitates once again.

"The rest of the kid's toys," he snaps, moving over to the window to peer outside.

I'm lost now. Louise's toys? What on earth does he want with a child's toys?

"I'm sorry?" I tell him, "I really don't understand."

He pulls the curtains closed and turns back to me to snap, "You don't need to understand. Look, just tell me where the kid's toys are and I'll get out of here, nothing else needs to happen. Just be quick."

I need to get this nutter out of here, and away from Louise.

"Okay," I tell him, using my most persuasive tone. "Just stay calm. Some of the toys are in the bedroom. I can go get them for you, if you want."

Archie paces around the room for a moment, thinking deeply and not paying much attention to me. He's no professional. A bit weedy, too. If I was alone, I'd probably be able to disarm him without too much trouble even in my current slightly wobbly condition. But with Louise here I can't afford to take any chances.

Then he turns back to me and nods. "Go on then. But I'm coming with you, so don't even think of trying anything clever."

I manage to hide my relief that he apparently hasn't thought of using Louise as a hostage. I slowly rise to my feet, gently placing Louise down on the chair behind me, telling her to stay still and quiet.

Trying to keep my body always between Archie and Louise just in case he gets any bright ideas, I move slowly over to the door, and Archie comes with me, once more ignoring Louise completely.

I lead Archie into the bedroom and gesture towards the jumble of toys Louise brought with her, lying scattered across the floor. He waves his gun at me again, warning me not to try anything, but then pounces on the toys, sifting through them feverishly and discarding them one by one. His attention being totally focussed on the toys, I seize my chance.

Pouncing quickly and silently, I grab him from behind, seizing his wrist in a firm grip and twisting it painfully while wrenching his other arm behind his back. As the gun drops to the floor, he gets in a painful kick but as he breaks free I manage to kick the gun away from his grasp and we tussle again. Archie knows how to fight, but he's no expert and as I had the element of surprise in my favour, I manage to overpower him with only a few bruises to add to my collection. And then to my surprise, he collapses hysterically, wailing about there not being enough time. "They're coming!" he moans.


*****


Hauling him upright, I spot Louise standing in the doorway, wide-eyed and staring. But with Archie struggling frantically in his panic, I can't afford to waste any concentration worrying about her. My wardrobe door is half-open, as usual, and I can see a long-discarded tie lying among the clutter of shoes and other junk at the bottom, and call to Louise to get it for me. She scuttles over silently, while I hold Archie firmly on the other side of the bed; I don't want him anywhere near her.

Reaching across the bed to Louise, I take the tie from her and use it to firmly tie Archie's hands behind his back, and then send Louise back into the lounge before dragging my prisoner in after her.

Louise has returned to the armchair and is curled up on it, very quiet and looking scared.

Well, scaring my niece is just another crime this guy is going to have to pay for.

I need to find out just what Carol's part in all this is. I also need to get some back up to help sort it out. So as I sit Archie down on the settee and settle myself beside him, holding on to him firmly, I call over to Louise to pick up the phone and dial a number for me. Unusually docile, she complies without question, and manages to accurately dial the number for CI5.

"That's a good girl," I tell her, ignoring Archie's whimpers and protests. "You're being very clever and brave. Now bring the phone over to me, good girl, don't get too close. That's it."

Taking the phone, I get through to Betty and explain in a few terse sentences that I've got an armed intruder in my flat, that the situation is under control for now but there may be more on the way and that I need back up and a lift to HQ for myself and my prisoner as soon as possible. I also ask her to get the local police to check on Carol and also my Mum, just in case. Betty sounds concerned and promises to get someone over as quickly as she can, but reminds me that every active agent is currently out on the Hardiman raid. Damn. Talk about bad timing.

I still don't believe this is happening. I'm supposed to be on sick leave, not dealing with armed intruders.

Putting the phone down, I return my whole attention to Archie, who is now staring at me in disbelief. "You're a cop?"

"Sort of," I tell him with a grim smile. "Carol never mention that, did she?" As he shakes his head, I decide it's time to find out what the hell this is all about. "Okay, sunshine, I'd like you to explain to me just exactly what you think you're playing at."

"We have to get out," he whimpers. "There's still time. Don't wait, just go."

"Why?" I press. "Who's coming? What's going to happen?"

"Miller." I can barely hear the name, and it means nothing to me.

Archie gives in and starts to talk, the words almost falling out of his mouth and tripping over one another in his haste. Apparently he and his old school friend Tommy got in over their heads with a gang of what sound like big time drug dealers. There was a split in the gang, a kind of internal war, and one of the leaders was set up by his rival, got busted and was sent down for a short stretch over some minor offence, leaving an extremely valuable stash of drugs in Tommy's safe-keeping. Tommy was living with Carol at the time, but when she found out he was involved with drugs she walked out on him. Archie had thought at the time that Tommy was taking the split worse than he'd have expected, but has only just found out why. Tommy had hidden the drugs in one of Louise's toys.

An image flashes across my mind of a plastic doll with a wobbly, detachable head, and I suddenly know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, where Tommy stashed the drugs. And where they are now ? safely out of the reach of any members of this gang, if only they knew that.

Archie continues, explaining that now this gang leader, Miller, is back out and wants his stash, which he needs to set himself back up as he has lost everything else and his rival is making life extremely difficult for him. Archie had a panic-stricken phone call from Tommy explaining where he put the drugs; terrified that Miller was catching up with him, begging for help. So, Archie explains, he went looking for this toy and followed the trail to me, hoping to get in and out before Miller showed up.

I'm even more worried now. What trail? Has he been after Carol?

I think I must have scared him, because he stammers that he hasn't seen Carol, 'only' turned over her flat, having been given the address by a friend of a friend, and found out from a neighbour that she'd taken Louise to her brother in London while she was in hospital. From what I can make out, it's unlikely that she has any idea of what's going on. She probably doesn't even know about the break-in yet.

That's a huge relief, although I hate to think of Carol leaving hospital and coming home to find her flat has been trashed. Or Louise going home to find her toys destroyed. Then a worse thought crosses my mind: what could have happened if Archie had found Carol and Louise at home alone when he went there.

But now the prickling in my spine is telling me that my own flat is probably not a healthy place to stay for too long. Not if this Miller has caught up with Tommy and followed the same trail as Archie. As long as he hasn't been anywhere near Carol, or Mum ? Better not to follow that train of thought. I'll just have to trust the local boys to follow up on that for now.

I decide that prohibition or no prohibition, the best option will be to get out of here at once. I can drive us all to HQ, although I don't like the idea of Archie and Louise both in my car and without my full attention. Once there, though, we can check out Archie's story, and get some sort of operation set up, a stakeout or something to see if Miller does turn up here. I'm in no fit state to deal with him if he shows up before the back up, especially not with Louise's presence handicapping me. I mean, he may never come, or he could be here within minutes. Who can tell? And who can predict what he's likely to do if and when he does show up? It all depends on just how important this stash is to him, and what lengths is he prepared to go to in order to get it back.


*****


I haul Archie to his feet, preparing to get him out of the flat to the car, hopefully without drawing too much attention to us from anyone who might be watching. Just then, though, I hear a car pulling up outside and thrust him back down onto the settee, moving cautiously to the window to peer around the curtains. Through the gathering gloom of the early evening, I recognise the car, and let out a long breath I hadn't been aware of holding.

I can't remember when I've been so glad to see Bodie.

Not wanting to leave Archie unattended as he's starting to show signs of wanting to bolt, I watch Bodie moving swiftly but cautiously up the path and ask Louise to go and open the door for him.

There's a tense moment while I wait, listening to the muffled sounds of the front door opening and the voices of Bodie and Louise.

The door to the lounge opens, and Bodie enters holding Louise by the hand; Lou has clearly decided that Bodie is now her friend, or at the very least preferable to Archie. Bodie looks tired and dishevelled having evidently come straight from whatever kind of operation he was taking part in, but he has obviously heard something of what's going on from Betty, and as a result is wary, his eyes scanning the entire room and pausing on Archie before fixing on me.

"Doyle, you need a keeper, mate. You all right?"

I nod, feeling a knot of tension in my stomach beginning to unravel as I can now share some of the responsibility for events from here on in. "Yeah, hanging in there." I tell him, hauling Archie to his feet. "We'd better get going, I can explain on the way."

"Explain what?"

I can't believe he wants to hang around to discuss the situation, and snap back at him, "Bodie, a gang of extremely pissed off drug dealers could be bringing this place down around our ears at any moment and I'd rather Louise wasn't here when that happens. Or me, for that matter. I'll tell you all about it in the car."

"Drug dealers?" Bodie hesitates, holding the door open but blocking the way through as he turns back to face me, looking puzzled. "What on earth have you got yourself into this time? Who's he?" He jerks his head at Archie questioningly.

"The advance warning party," I tell him grimly, towing Archie out into the hallway. I pause there and nod for Bodie to check that all is clear before we venture outside.

As Bodie moves towards the front door, the phone rings. We all stop dead in our tracks, listening. Bodie and I exchange glances, mentally weighing up options. Who could be ringing right now? Well, it could be any number of people, all perfectly innocent and harmless. It could also be Betty, or someone else from work, ringing with important news. Or it could be ? something else entirely. I can feel that prickling feeling at the base of my spine again, an alarm bell ringing frantically to tell me that all is not right, but a decision has to be made. I look across at Bodie and he nods ever so slightly, agreeing that I should answer it.

I thrust Archie at Bodie and return to the lounge to pick up the phone. "Hello?"

The line goes dead instantly.

That nasty suspicion crystallizes into an even nastier certainty that it's already too late to make a break for it. Miller and his gang are here, and thanks to that call they know that I'm here, too. The only question is: how are they going to play it?

I replace the handset and slowly look up to find Bodie in the doorway, watching me with a grimly questioning expression. I shake my head slightly, and he grimaces, nodding.

There's no need to say anything, both Bodie and Archie, who he is still firmly holding onto, understand instantly what this means, even though Bodie still has no idea where all this is coming from. Bodie flings Archie down onto the settee and crosses to the window in a few long strides, peering cautiously out before turning back to me. "Okay, Doyle," he begins, wearily. "What the hell is going on?"

Where to begin? "The short version?" I gently lift a now sobbing Louise and hold her tight, head buried in my shoulder, while trying to keep alert for any signs of further intruders. "Archie, here, and his pal Tommy got themselves involved in an internal war with a drugs gang. Tommy was living with Carol at the time, and he put a big stash of drugs inside one of Louise's toys."

I see Bodie's eyes widen at that. "Did Carol know?"

What the hell does he think Carol is? I snap back at him, "No, of course she didn't know! And then she walked out on Tommy and left him high and dry."

Bodie nods, understanding. "And now this gang has found out where the drugs are and want them back?"

"Yeah, something like that, to cut a long story short." I put Louise back down on the armchair and move to join him at the window, peering around the edge of the curtains once more. It all looks quiet, but surely it can't be long before they make their move. Will they try anything knowing there's someone here? Or don't they care? How desperate are they? Should we try to make a break for the car and leave them to turn the place over? Or would that simply turn us into sitting targets as soon as we left the building and stepped out into the open? There are too many possibilities - too many questions and not enough answers.

As I turn back, Bodie sits on the arm of the settee, pulls the R/T from his pocket and quietly speaks into it, reporting the situation and requesting immediate back up. Then he looks back at me. "Surely they wouldn't be so stupid as to make a move on the home of a CI5 agent?" He sounds amazed at the thought.

I almost laugh at that, shaking my head. "Laughing Boy here had no idea, did you? No reason why they should, either. No, mate, to them I'm just another nobody, Tommy's ex-girlfriend's brother, currently in possession of enough drugs to make them willing to try just about anything. They think I am, anyway."

"Meaning?" Bodie raises an eyebrow.

"Meaning I think I know which toy they're in. And that it's not here."

"Where is it?" Archie pricks his ears up at that, having been suspiciously quiet for some time now.

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," I answer, grimly, and then turn back to Bodie. "Anyway, where's my back up? Or are you it?"

"On its way," Bodie replies. "Cowley said he'd send a couple more lads over to find out what's going on as soon as he can spare them. We're spread a bit thin right now."

"The Hardiman op.?"

Bodie grimaces. "Yeah. Bit hairy there for a minute or two, but it's just about all over now bar the shouting. Someone'll come, should be on their way now."

Then he freezes for a second. Bouncing to his feet, he drops the R/T and pulls his gun out, cocking his head to listen.

I also standing stock-still and listening intently, having heard the same sound: someone moving around just outside. Trying to get in, perhaps?

Bodie glances across at me and speaks in a very low voice, "So, they think you're just some nobody they can intimidate?"

"Dunno what they think I am," I tell him, wishing I were armed myself. But my gun has been securely locked away since Louise got here, and there isn't time to go looking for it now. Archie's is still somewhere under my bed. "But yeah, probably."

"And they also think that if you're home, you'll be alone with a small child?" Bodie continues.

"Unless they saw you coming in."

I can see what he's getting at. Although it's still fairly early, it's already dark enough outside for them to attempt a break in without fear of being easily spotted by any neighbours or passers-by. And they might be desperate enough to try at once, despite knowing that there's someone home, if they think I'm unlikely to go out again tonight. That means that they will be armed. And I have got a child in the house.

They won't be expecting me to have had warning that they are coming ? or to understand the implications of that 'phone call', they won't be expecting me to try anything, and they won't be expecting Bodie. All points in our favour. But still ? Louise is our weak spot. There's nowhere in the flat I can hide her and be sure she will remain safe, and therefore I want her where I can see her and protect her. Alone, Bodie and I might be able to resolve this fairly quickly. But Louise is our Achilles heel.

Archie tried to bluff his way in, hoping to find the right toy and get out without raising any suspicions. Somehow I don't think Miller and his merry men will be trying the same approach.


*****


Any further discussion is forestalled by more noise, faint but distinguishable, coming from the kitchen. Bodie meets my eyes for a moment, glances over at Louise, and then back at me. I nod, agreeing. The intruder is all his.

Gun in hand, Bodie cautiously moves towards the kitchen. Without waiting to see what he finds, I take Louise's hand and lead her into the bedroom. Fishing Archie's gun out from under the bed, I check to see that it is loaded, and then persuade Louise to hide under the bed as the sounds of a struggle can be heard from the kitchen.

Well, if CI5 weren't on their way before, they will be now. Breaking in through the kitchen window will have set off all the alarms.

The muted sound of silenced gunshots from the direction of the kitchen cause my heart to leap into my mouth. With Louise safely hidden for now, I move back to the door, tucking the gun into the back of my waistband, listening intently and able to see a little of what is going on through the opening. Things are not going well. Bodie seems to have overpowered the first intruder, but now I can see him being herded back into the lounge at gunpoint, disarmed.

Damn.

At least he doesn't seem to be injured. I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies.

How the hell did this happen? Drug wars in my flat.

From what I can hear, Miller is assuming ? reasonably enough ? that Bodie is me, and my partner isn't bothering to disabuse him of that notion. The discovery of Archie in the lounge trying to make himself invisible causes consternation among the intruders: they know him of old and his presence here, bound as he is, leads them to the inescapable conclusion that their one time associate was trying to screw them all over. His protest that he was just trying to help out a mate cuts no ice.

I can't help wondering what happened to Tommy when they caught up with him.

Please, God, don't let them have been near Carol, or Mum.

Please, God, don't let them find Louise here, for that matter.

I can hear them asking Bodie where the child is, which means they know enough to expect her to be here. I suppose it's a simple enough equation, from their point of view: where the child is, there the toy containing the drugs will be.

The order is given to search the flat and I draw in a deep breath in an attempt to steady myself, rubbing at my temples in the hope of clearing my head a little. This is it. The moment of truth. I wait for the right moment, needing to distract them from the bedroom, and keep them away from Louise if at all possible. Just at the last second as the searcher is about to enter the room, I wrench the door open and lunge out at him.

The struggle is brief, given that my opponent has armed back up, but provides a successful diversion. Louise is forgotten as my captors take Archie's gun from me and haul me into the lounge for Miller to demand to know who I am and what I am doing here.

"Ray Doyle," I spit the words at him. "I live here. What's your excuse?"

Miller is starting to panic, seeing his future crumble into dust before his eyes. He waves his gun towards Bodie. "So who's he then?"

"A colleague," I tell him. "Who are you?"

Miller growls at me. "I don't have time to play games, Mr Doyle. I'm here to reclaim some property, and I don't plan to leave without it."

"Look, I've never seen you before in my life," I protest, in spite of Bodie's warning glare. "What makes you think I would have something belonging to you?"

I can feel my head snap back at the blow that comes from the thug standing to one side of me. Must be slipping, I didn't even see that one coming.

With stars dancing in front of my eyes, and the metallic taste of blood in my mouth, I spot Bodie starting forward in anger, and it's my turn to direct a warning glare at him. He's supposed to be the one that stays cool in a crisis.

"I know it's here," Miller hisses at me, eyes narrowed. I can see by panic in his eyes that he doesn't really know what to do with us now that things aren't going quite the way he planned, and lightly suggest that he might want to keep the noise down unless he wants my neighbours to call the police. That doesn't go down too well, either.

"We're wasting time," one of Miller's men mutters. There are two of them, not counting the one apparently out cold still in the kitchen, and they are starting to look decidedly edgy. That makes me wonder just how much of a hold Miller has got over them and how far they will be prepared to back him. If they are expecting to be paid, then they will be as keen to get the drugs as him because without them there will be no payday.

Miller swings around to curse at his men, and then waves his gun under my nose again, demanding to know where I have hidden the child and threatening to rip the whole flat apart if he has to.

"You won't find anything," I tell him, wearily. "The stuff isn't here."

An odd light comes into his eyes at that, and his henchmen all prick their ears up. "You know what I'm looking for, then?"

"Course." I mentally chastise myself for allowing that note of sarcasm. Not a good idea to rile this nutter too much. "Archie's been very talkative, haven't you, Archie?"

Miller takes a deep breath and looks me straight in the eyes, one hand pressing my shoulder against the wall, his gun pressed into my chin. Having committed himself to this course of action, he is clearly fast approaching the end of his tether, and his voice is tight as he very slowly asks, "Where are the drugs?"

I maintain the eye contact as I answer the question. "Work."

"What?" Several voices express their disbelief at once, including Bodie, and it is to him that I address my explanation.

"Had to visit the medic this afternoon, didn't I? Louise took the doll with her, and left it in Betty's office."

The disbelief on every other face in the room is almost comical, Bodie's in particular, and in spite of the gravity of the situation I am gripped by an irrational desire to laugh out loud.

Miller glares at me for a moment, then abruptly releases his hold on me and whirls away to pace around the room, breathing hard, while his men fidget nervously, waiting to see what he will do next. Archie is cowering in a corner, and Bodie is still stood stock still, a gun wielding thug right behind him, with only his fists clenching and unclenching ever so slightly to indicate his state of mind.

Then Miller whirls back to me, gun waving again. "We'll go there, then. Where you work. Get the drugs and get out of here."

Bodie catches my eye, and then mildly tells him, "Won't do you any good, you know. You'd never get past the door. You should just give up now, while you still can."

"Shooters'll take care of any security," Miller tries to bluster it out, but that odd light in his eyes tells its own story. He is starting to feel trapped, and who can say what he's capable of.

Bodie shakes his head. "You won't get in, I'm telling you. The drugs are out of your reach, more than you can imagine. If you give in now, it'll be better for you in the long run."

"Why?" Miller bellows, his uncertain temper snapping, suddenly. "Where the hell are they?"

Bodie meets my eyes for a second, and then looks back at Miller to reply, quietly. "CI5 Headquarters."

There is a moment of absolute quiet. Miller's eyes seem to get larger and larger, while his hired thugs gaze at one another in dismay. Miller's head starts to swing around the room, looking from me to Bodie and back again, then taking in the state of his men, his gun pointing at each of us in turn. Then he looks back at me and speaks, very quietly. "You work for CI5?"

I nod, silently. The tension in the room is almost unbearable and this could still go either way.

Another moment of absolute stillness passes. Deadlock. There is no way out of this for Miller and his lads, and they know it. No drugs, no money, and a flat full of witnesses. No escape. The question is: will they give up quietly, or try to shoot their way out of it?

A slight movement at the edge of my vision breaks the moment, and Miller's temper get the better of him again as he bellows, "It's all your fault!"

In what seems like slow motion as I half turn I see him bring his gun up, see Louise standing in the doorway staring, see Bodie starting to move only to be restrained by the thug behind him, and start to dive towards her myself.

Then everything speeds up again as something hits me hard in the side. I don't even remember hearing the shot, I reflect distantly as I collapse on top of Louise, bringing her to the ground beneath me, shielded by my body.

Behind me I am vaguely aware that all hell is breaking loose, and then a further commotion in the hallway, which sounds suspiciously like my front door being broken down, heralds the arrival of the cavalry; better late than never.

Then the blackness at the edge of my vision starts to crowd inwards till I can no longer keep my eyes open.


*****


I know I'm in hospital before I've even opened my eyes. The other four sense are reporting back very efficiently, in spite of everything: the muted sounds, the feel of clean, fresh linen, the scent ? and taste ? of antiseptic. Where else could it be?

Since I've already worked that much out, I don't feel particularly inclined to open my eyes just yet and am quite happy to continue floating in what I am vaguely aware is a drug-induced haze. I spend a little time idly pondering just what could have brought me here this time. I don't remember being on a case ? I was at home?

Then all in a rush the memories come flooding back and my eyes snap open as I gasp with remembered horror.

Somewhere to the side of me, Bodie swims in and out of focus. His mouth is moving, but I can't quite catch all the words.

" ? awake ? at last ?very lucky ? going to be fine ?"

There's something I need to ask, it's important, but I can't quite get my brain and mouth to connect.

Seeing me trying to speak, Bodie leans closer, frowning a little in an attempt to interpret my croaks.

"?ise?" That's no good, so I try licking my lips a little before having another go. "Louise?"

Bodie nods, understanding. "Louise is fine, sunshine, not a scratch. Never seen you move so fast. Don't you worry, everything's okay."

Relief washes over me, and before I can ask anything else I drift back off to sleep.


*****


It's quite hard to keep track of time as I continue to float in and out of consciousness. I am disturbed from time to time by an assortment of nurses who come in to poke and prod at me, play around with the various tubes and wires I appear to be hooked up to, evidently to make sure they are still connected, and to reassure themselves that I am merely uncomfortable rather than in any actual pain. At one point a surgeon materialises to similarly poke and prod, and examine the dressings. He then proceeds to deliver a lecture on the follies of stepping in front of moving bullets, before vanishing once more.

I am vaguely aware of Cowley drifting into the room at some point in the day, or possibly night. In the permanent half-light of my hospital room it is very hard to be sure.

At length, I manage to wake up properly. There doesn't seem to be anyone around this time, so I use the unexpected solitude to examine my rather fuzzy recollections of recent events.

Some time later, the door opens and a string of visitors file in: Carol, with Louise, who is clutching Baby Girl Griffiths, shepherded by Bodie. Louise makes a beeline for my bed, only to be grabbed and held off by Bodie, who firmly tells her that Uncle Ray is poorly and can't be jumped on just yet. It's funny to see him interacting with her like that, especially after her initial dislike of him. They have clearly been getting better acquainted while I was sleeping.

Carol, while this little byplay is going on, hovers sheepishly at the foot of the bed, looking a little pale and drawn which reminds me that she has presumably only just left hospital herself, and not meeting my eyes. Then she abruptly interrupts Bodie and Louise's chatter about how much better I look and that it's about time I started paying some attention to the world, to quietly say, "I'm sorry, Ray."

Only Louise's continued babbling disturbs the silence that follows.

There are lots of things I want to say to Carol, but what comes out is, "How could you be involved with someone like that?"

"I didn't know he was like that!" she protests. "I didn't know. He just seemed so nice, and he didn't mind about Louise and ?" her voice trails off slightly before she rallies a little and defensively continues. "When I found out, I left. I took Louise and left, and when he came looking for us we moved again. I didn't think he knew where we were. I didn't know about the drugs in the doll ?"

She trails off again, looking over at Bodie. He nods at me. "All sorted now. Miller and Co. are safely banged up, the drugs have been impounded and Louise has got her doll back. Betty was rather sorry to see it go ?" He grins at me conspiratorially, but my mind has leapt onto a different track.

I look back to Carol to ask, urgently, "You're okay, though, aren't you? They didn't come looking for you?"

She shakes her head, but it is Bodie who explains what happened. Evidently Archie the Idiot had told his girlfriend where he was going. On learning from Tommy that Archie had been told the location of the drugs, Miller had gone looking for him first. The girlfriend gave him my address, so they came straight to me without bothering with Carol.

"I'm sorry," Carol repeats with tears in her eyes. "I didn't know. If I'd known ? but I put you in danger, and Louise. My god, if anything had happened to her ? but you saved her, and you were shot ? and it was my fault ?"

The tears are flowing freely now and my first impulse, as always, is to try to comfort her, although at the back of my mind is the thought that this is still typical Carol behaviour. Being the cause, however indirectly, of endless trouble for other people, and still ending up as the one everybody feels sorry for. I've never been able to work out how she does it.

It certainly works on Bodie, who instantly leaps into knight in shining armour mode, providing a willing shoulder for her to cry on while giving me a faintly reproving look for making my sister cry.

Incredible.

I clear my throat slightly to remind everyone that I'm the injured party here, stuck in hospital again, and then unwittingly drive the point home by shifting position slightly, which hurts rather more than I had expected. I am promptly the centre of attention once again as everyone in the room, including Louise, rushes to help rearrange the pillows and get me comfortable.

It is a considerable relief to see Louise looking so cheerful and, well, so normal. She's a bit clingy, but otherwise doesn't seem at all affected by her traumatic experience, and she has apparently been made a huge fuss of by the whole of CI5.

I dread to think what that will mean for me when I get back there.

I suppose I can look forward to lots more telephone conversations in which I attempt to convince Mum that I'm all right and that things aren't as bad as she was told. I seem to recall her complaining at some point that the only time she ever gets to talk to me is when I'm injured. Certainly when I'm on a case our more usual method of communication are those reproachful little letters about how I never answer the phone.

After a while Louise starts to complain about being hungry, so Carol takes her off in search of the canteen. Bodie holds the door open for them, and then turns back to me with a grin.

I know that look, far too well. "Eyes off," I tell him in no uncertain terms. "Don't even think about it."

"Wouldn't dream of it," he remarks airily. "I was just thinking."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. It's a good thing, really, that you only see your sister once every five years, if this is the amount of trouble she causes!"


? Jo ? November 2002