Joe took another sip of tonic water. He wished it contained gin, because being the only sober person at the table was hardly his idea of fun, but as he watched the bottle of champagne being passed around, he knew he didn’t really want any alcohol anyway. He couldn’t go back to work the worse for wear. Not after months of sick leave. Best foot forward, as his dad would say.
And it wasn’t only his decision not to drink that made Joe an oddity at the table. These were all Wendy’s friends, out for her birthday. Solicitors, legal types, who’d spent most of the evening already talking shop. Joe looked on, his mind on other things. Would he cope on his first day back? Would they trust him to ever do a good job again?
“So, Joe, we’re taking bets on who you’re going to be coddling next week!” Wendy put her second bottle of Prosecco on the table and settled into her seat. Her leg brushed Joe’s momentarily and she shifted, putting air between them again. “Izzy thinks one of the Fergie duo. Barnaby’s bet his bonus on Wills and Kate. I think it’s going to be the queen. The top job for a top bobby!”
“I don’t know yet.” Joe shrugged. “Maybe one of the corgis?”
“I bet you do know, and you’re teasing us!” Wendy’s friend Jemima brayed. “Have you signed the Official Secrets Act?”
Joe turned the plastic stirrer through his fizzing drink, rattling the ice cubes against the glass. He didn’t pester Wendy’s friends about confidential matters, so why did they think he was fair game? “As you know, if I had, I wouldn’t be allowed to say.”
“Whoever it is,” Wendy told them, “let’s hope they don’t put my poor old hubby in hospital again! He’s getting too old to play the action hero!”
Wendy’s friends laughed, and Joe tried to look happy, but he really didn’t want to be reminded of the accident. The headlamps coming straight for him in the evening darkness—and after he’d pushed the Duchess of Albany out of the way, there had been no time for Joe to leap aside. Just that crushing pain as the car slammed into him. Joe had slumped over the bonnet and found himself eye to eye with the idiot who’d just tried to deliberately run down the duchess.
“He’s not that old!” Verity giggled. She patted Joe’s leg and he tried not to flinch. “And still in fine form, too, Wendy, you lucky thing!”
“Lucky old me!” Wendy’s smile looked like a grimace. How would she know what form her husband was in when it had been over six months since they’d so much as kissed, let alone more? She refilled her glass and whispered to Joe, “For God’s sake, have a real drink.”
“Come on, you know I can’t,” Joe replied. “I can’t risk it. First day back and all that.”
“It’s my birthday.” Her pink lips grew thin and she drew in a deep, sharp breath, as sharp as her fresh blonde bob. Then she put her lips to his ear and hissed, “Stop showing me up, Joe, have a drink.”
“I’m drinking a stunt gin and tonic. That’s enough.” Joe held up the glass. It had the brand name of a well-known gin printed down its side. “They do tests, you know. I want to be nice and clean when they poke through my bodily fluids, thank you very much.”
“Barnaby!” Wendy subtly turned away from her husband, the centre of attention all over again. He was dismissed, just as he had been so many times over the five years of their miserable married life. “So, we’re all dying to know how your Tokyo merger’s going. It’s all everyone’s talking about. Tell us all the latest from the front line of big money!”
Joe sat his glass down on the table. The last thing he cared about was Barnaby and his bloody merger, which he’d heard snippets of for weeks as Wendy had made business calls at home. Barnaby this, Barnaby that, ‘Barnaby’s going places.’
So am I.
Joe nudged his seat back and stood to leave. Verity glanced at him, as if she was surprised he was going, but her attention turned to Wendy and Barnaby. Joe wasn’t sure where he’d go, but he needed fresh air. He wanted to be away from loud drinkers, away from Wendy’s carping. His head was pounding and as he stepped outside the pub, a car drove by close to the kerb. He instinctively jumped back, pressing himself against the wall behind him.
Calm down, Sergeant Wenlock, he told himself.
The night was cold, as cold as the pub had been hot, and Joe took a deep breath of autumn air. London tonight seemed even more surreal than ever, the streets a curious mix of the same well-dressed professionals who filled Wendy’s group and those who had embraced Halloween, escaping the real world in the form of cats and devils, vampires and aliens, some already stumbling, others only just starting out. And there in the middle of them was Joe, who would rather be anywhere else but there.
Maybe Joe should’ve thrown aside his tweed jacket and sensible open-necked shirt for a costume. He’d have made quite a good Frankenstein’s monster, maybe, though that said, when he’d first been taken to hospital and had plaster casts and bandages in places he hadn’t thought possible, he’d have been a brilliant cursed mummy.
Joe decided to go for a wander. Once he was working again, he’d have little time to call his own. He’d take his freedom when and where he could. Music blared from pubs and bars, people laughed, taxis pulled up and disgorged their passengers. And up ahead, someone was shouting.
Bloody people, can’t hold their drinks.
“Don’t you ever, ever bloody do that again! Do you hear?”
It was a man’s voice up ahead. Joe could see two figures, one in a black suit with a skeleton painted on it in white. He was wagging his finger—jabbing it—at the red-headed woman walking beside him in heels so high Joe wondered how she didn’t fall flat on her face.
“It’s so important to me, so fucking important, and all you have to do is just nod, and instead, you’re pissing about, making a fucking joke of yourself!”
“I’m sorry!” Her voice sounded almost desperate and she recoiled from her companion’s stabbing finger, jerking away as though it were the blade of a knife. She hurried after the skeleton when he stalked onwards, scooping up the silken hem of her shimmering red evening gown to follow. “Don’t be angry, I’m sorry!”
“I’m sorry!” he mimicked. Joe could almost see him in profile. The man’s face was disguised by makeup that turned his face into a skull.
Seemed a bit rich for him to be accusing someone of making a joke of themselves.
“The man’s an investor in my film, and I wanted him to know that I’m serious about my art, and then you’re there hanging over my shoulder, interrupting and gobbing on about God knows what!” The man clenched his hands. Even they were tricked out in skeleton makeup. “Why do you wind me up like this? You do it on purpose, for fuck’s sake, then it’s all I’m sorry! Well, you bloody well will be!”
“He was laughing too,” the woman said, a fresh note of desperation in her sing-song voice. No, not desperation. Fear. “He was having a good time, you’re not thinking straight! Just—please, don’t be like this!”
“My thinking’s perfectly clear!” The man gave a long sniff then, and Joe knew exactly what was going on.
The drugs are talking.
The man stopped where he was and raised his hand at the woman. The way she flinched back told Joe that this wasn’t the first time it had happened. As she drew away, he saw her makeup clearly, a glamourous sugar skull in a rainbow of colours that nearly took his breath away.
“Please don’t,” was all she said.
Joe increased his pace. The man’s raised hand trembled but in a split second he slapped the woman across her painted face.
He was on the couple in only a few steps, and interposed himself between them. He didn’t look back at the woman, but could hear her frightened breathing just behind him. “That’s enough. Time for you to go.”
“And who the fuck are you, James Bond?” the man sneered.
“I’m not going to stand around and watch a bully like you slap a woman.” Joe clenched his fists, resisting the temptation to give Skeletor a taste of his own medicine.
“A woman? That’s a fucking joke. She’s a drag queen—a bloke!”
Joe turned to look at the woman.
It was hard to tell under the exquisite layer of paint—she looked more like a china doll than anything remotely masculine. She blinked her large dark eyes and lifted one lace-gloved hand to her face, then whispered, “It was my fault, really—”
Joe shook his head. He turned back to face the skeleton. “I saw what you did. All these other people in the street saw what you did too.” Joe extended his hand, indicating the crowd of onlookers who’d paused for a bit of unexpected entertainment. “Bloke or woman, I don’t care, no one slaps anyone on my watch.”
You’re not on duty now, Sergeant Wenlock!
Joe ignored the little voice at his ear. He was going back to work, wasn’t he? He protected people. And that’s just what he’d do.
“Nice tweed,” the skeleton sneered again, grabbing the collar of Joe’s jacket before letting it go. “What did you come as, Farmer Giles? Oooh-arrrr, me manglewurzles need ‘arvesting in the bottom field!”
Joe shook his head and sighed. “Oh, shove off, you tedious windbag.”
With a contemptuous shrug, the skeleton headed off, mumbling something under his breath. Joe was glad he couldn’t hear it. He turned to face the drag queen and placed his hand gently on her upper arm.
“Are you okay? Has he hurt you?”
She shook her head, but Joe couldn’t miss the dangerous wobble in her lower lip, even with its covering of scarlet glitter. Then she blinked again, tears swimming in her eyes, and told him, “He gets very passionate about his art.”
“Come on, let’s find you somewhere to sit down.” Joe glanced up the road. There was a pavement café ahead with metal chairs outside. “How about a nice hot chocolate to warm you up?”
She looked in the direction in which the skeleton had departed, as though weighing up whether to give chase. A shiver passed through her body, so deep that even the black roses in her hair shuddered with the force of it.
“I’d like that.” She held out her hand to him, her slender wrist and forearm covered by a long glove of black lace. Bright red stones shone in the enormous ring she wore, reflecting the gaudy lights around them like stars on the surface of a pool. “Paloma.”
Joe took her hand. “Joe. Nice to meet you. Will you be able to get home all right? If you two live together?”
“We don’t.” Paloma shook her head. “He’ll be out of it for days now. Hello, Joe, my hero in a lovely jacket.”
“Hello, Paloma, in your…well, it’s quite an outfit you’re wearing.” A hero? Joe held out his arm to her. “Would you like to take my arm?”
“I would!” Paloma slipped her arm through Joe’s, as though this was the most normal thing in the world. Then she sniffed, but not the telltale coke sniff of her companion. This one was clearly intended only to keep her tears from falling and ruining her exquisitely applied makeup. “I made this dress. It’s a spooky wedding gown!”
“You made it? That’s amazing!” Joe grinned. What the heck was he doing, arm in arm with a drag queen while his wife and her friends drank and laughed together? But he had to make sure Paloma was safe. He wasn’t about to abandon her in the street. Especially not if she was on the verge of tears. “Would you like to borrow my hanky?”
“I might get makeup on it,” Paloma warned, sniffing again as her lip trembled even more violently. “Yes, please!”
Joe took a cotton handkerchief from his jacket pocket and passed it to her. It had JW embroidered in one corner. “I didn’t order them especially with my initials on, in case you’re wondering. They were a Christmas present from my dad.”
That, along with socks, was pretty much all his dad ever bought him for Christmas.
“Very British. Just like you.” Paloma took the handkerchief and, as they paused at the café, dabbed at her eyes with such delicacy that she might be made of fine bone china. In the light that spilled from the plate glass window Joe could see the intricate makeup more clearly than ever, but still he couldn’t see any evidence of the man her attacker had claimed her to be.
And it wouldn’t matter anyway.
Joe pulled a chair out from one of the tables and indicated it to Paloma. “Take a seat. I’ll be back in a moment. Just a hot chocolate, or would you like something else?”
“Hot chocolate is perfect.” She sat down, arranging her voluminous lace and silk skirts with care over a flash of black and red candy-striped leg.
Joe forced himself not to look. Do not stare at the man’s legs, Sergeant! “I’ll only be in here. I’ll keep an eye out in case your skeleton comes back. Don’t worry!”
Joe went into the café. Although it was late, people sat about drinking coffees and eating pastries. He liked this bit of London. It felt Continental, and even more Continental with someone called Paloma. What was that accent? Spanish? Joe placed his order, and watched the street outside through the café’s large plate glass window. Paloma hadn’t run off. Yet.
Despite the deepening autumn the air was still almost balmy and a gentle breeze ruffled her sleek red hair. She patted it with one hand, dabbing at her eyes again with the handkerchief that was clutched in the other. Then she turned a little and met his gaze, offering a small tilt of her head in acknowledgement.
Joe raised his hand, giving her a wave. She returned it with one of her own, a regality to the gesture that reminded him of the job he was about to go back to. Then the barista called out his order, and Joe headed to the end of the counter. He sprinkled some chocolate powder over the creamy top of the hot chocolates and carefully carried the two drinks outside.
He placed a mug in front of Paloma and sat down opposite her. “I said yes to cream, but no to marshmallows. But if you do want marshmallows, you just say.”
“I shouldn’t have anything really. I’ve let you tempt me.” And she finally smiled. A mischievous, naughty sort of smile. “But I’ve never had a hero of my own before.”
Awkward, Joe scrubbed his hand back through his hair. He’d heard that word far too often after he’d nearly been flattened by a car. “I’m not a hero. Just doing what anyone would do. I risked getting a slap from the skeleton too, I suppose, but I’ve stared down scarier things than him.”