Bodie had run out of road.
It was a deliberate ploy on Doyle's part - he preferred plenty of advance warning of visitors; hence the obvious and clearly visible shallow route up to the dead-end. Bodie parked up and locked the car, and stood for a minute or two in the bright sunlight, gazing around him. Below, the pale waters of Lake Garda sparkled in the sun. Above, the hills rose into an ice blue, cloudless sky. Poised somewhere halfway between heaven and earth, for just a moment Bodie felt weightless, as though all the cares of the world had drained away, leaving him scoured clean and innocent...
If only... It couldn't last, of course. He sighed and set his sights on the splash of warm terracotta high above. Doyle's home, for the last eight years, his refuge, and the place from which he sent his creations out into the world. A wide rough gravelled path twisted upwards, following the contours of the hillside. It was a stiff climb, to an uncertain reception...
As he rounded the last curve, he came in sight of the house - a single storied villa sprawling cat-like in a hollow in the hills; spacious, but with a slightly unkempt air. A pool, its gently musical fountain splashing over the waterlilies that nearly choked the stone basin, sat outside wide-open patio doors at the far end of the house. Doyle stood to one side of it, barefoot on the grass, black shirt open to his waist, black jeans clearly defining a frame that had lost none of its lean, long-legged elegance.
His head was lowered, his eyes on the composition he was sketching.
Bodie paused for a minute, drinking in the lean figure, trying to calm his breathing. C'mon, Bodie. Cool, remember? God, he felt as nervous as a teenager on a first date! No, that was stupid. He'd known the man for ten years. There was no reason to be nervous. But you haven't seen him for ten years. Well, maybe not, but surely things couldn't have changed all that much, regardless of what had happened in the meantime. They'd been so close, back then... But were you, really? How well did you really know him?
Bodie frowned. He'd assumed he knew Doyle at least as well as he knew himself - their lives had depended on it often enough. But on reflection, how well did he know himself? How often had he stopped to try and analyse his own feelings, his own needs and desires? Not very, he had to admit. And Doyle? His understanding of his partner had been mostly instinctive. They'd - grown - together over those years, rarely talking about themselves, their feelings, what they'd wanted from life (apart from being able to survive the next assignment, that is.) After all, they'd never needed to. After that initial shakedown, he'd felt like Ray had always been there, an accepted, fundamental part of his life, and assumed his partner had felt the same. Yes, assumed it. He shook his head slightly. He'd always taken a lot for granted.
What if Doyle hadn't felt that way? Bodie froze for a moment, then relaxed. No, that wasn't possible. Who had Ray always turned to, in both joy and sorrow, to share both the good and the bad? ... but then why had he run away..?
It's a bit late to be worrying about this now! You should have considered it before you agreed to come here...
But all Bodie'd needed was an excuse. Any excuse would have done. It was a pity it had to be such a bloody difficult one. Swallowing hard, he swung open the gate...
Before he reached the artist, however, his attention was caught by the scene that Doyle was drawing. Though 'caught' was something of an understatement. He stopped to stare.
The two women were entwined on a large pale sheet of coarse cotton. Well, not so much entwined as practically glued together. One pale, one tanned, both lovely and both naked, they sprawled in the sun, legs around each other's waists, arms... Bodie tilted his head slightly, trying to make out exactly which arms belonged to which woman and failing. The pose was more than worthy of a kama sutra posture, and looked extremely uncomfortable. Since both women were struggling to hold their positions, and grimacing slightly, it seemed they thought so too. But their discomfort didn't last long. Within a couple of minutes Doyle had stepped back, apparently satisfied, and called to them. The sound of the familiar voice raised the hairs on Bodie's neck.
"Quest' Ŕ 'bastanza per i' momento. Torna tra tre giorni."
The women exchanged frowns.
Doyle planted his hands on his hips and glowered at them.
"Si, tre giorni. Che, non ci senti?"
The tanned woman raised her hands, obviously not happy but not willing to argue.
"Va bene, va bene - scusa!"
Her fellow model folded her arms across a pair of luscious breasts and glared at the artist.
"Quando ci pagherai?"
"Quand' i' pezzo sarÓ finito."
She clambered to her feet and stood facing him, hands on her hips, face thunderous.
"E che cosa succede s' decidiamo d' non tornare?"
Doyle leaned forwards, his words clipped and precise, his tone caustic.
"Allora non sarete pagati."
The pale woman grabbed a small stone from the ground and threw it at him with some force. Hardly bothering to watch its flight, he caught it easily and tossed it behind him.
"Bastardo!!" The hissed venom in the word took Bodie aback. Doyle pointed to the gate, mouth tight, eyes flashing. The women blanched.
"E ora fuori d' qui!" 1
As the models dressed and made a hurried exit, Bodie reached Doyle's side. His eyes were drawn irresistibly to the canvas - and he frowned, puzzled and suddenly ill at ease. The figures of two women were sketched there, in roughly the same position the models had held - but the rest of the image bore no relation to the tableau he'd admired on arriving...
Doyle turned his head slightly, a bare acknowledgement of Bodie's presence, then turned back to his canvas.
Bodie lifted his eyes from the sketch to regard his old partner thoughtfully. He hadn't been the only person who'd seen Ray as a cat - albeit a slightly battered alleycat of uncertain temper. Now he was more eagle than cat, his eyes, as big and as clear as they had always been, green as the leaves of the lilies in the pool, his gaze straight and sure and searching. As graceful as ever - but there was an unfamiliar gravity in his smoothly controlled movements, a finely balanced feel about him. Bodie smiled, unsettled, unsure of how to behave. This Doyle felt like a stranger.
"It's been a long time."
The slightly husky voice was neutral, betraying nothing. "Why are you here, Bodie?"
Never had been much of a one for small talk, had Ray. "What, no hello? I thought I'd get a beer, at least..."
Doyle closed his eyes briefly and sighed, long fingers shoving his hair back from his face. The curls were looser now, the mane long and full, silver curlicues at the temples sparkling in the sun.
"In the kitchen. Bring me a mineral water."
Bodie glanced at the villa, shrugged mentally and went in search of the drinks. It gave him a much-needed few minutes to collect his thoughts and try to decide just how to handle the situation.
The inside of Doyle's home was cool and surprisingly tidy, and smelled of linseed oil, turps, and the deep red roses that scrambled up the outer wall. There were finished paintings everywhere, and Bodie stopped to look, eyebrows climbing.
They were good - very good indeed. But they certainly weren't easy to look at. Dark, almost menacing, there was something distinctly skewed about each one, something that was impossible to quantify, but which nevertheless raised a shiver. What the hell had happened to Doyle to make him paint these - horrors? There was a self-portrait, stark, brooding, the eyes filled with nightmares. Desolated landscapes, dimly-lit interiors, crowd scenes that filled the viewer with a sense of claustrophobia. Canvases that would have been at home in a torture chamber. With one exception. By itself on one wall, framed in old oak, was a picture of himself.
Curious, and relieved to find something that looked more or less normal, Bodie went for a closer look. The portrait was dated something over nine years earlier, just after their last meeting. It was obviously an early work, with a slightly unfinished look to it - but nevertheless the likeness was extraordinary. The face had that familiar half-amused, half-quizzical look that had so often been his expression when confronted with one of Ray's frequent tirades, back when they were a team. And the portrait had been painted with an affectionate acceptance of all the faults and foibles Doyle had learned to put up with in the years of their partnership. It had been painted with love. Somehow his friend had captured Bodie's soul.
Swallowing against the sudden tightening of his chest, a faint blur of unshed and utterly unexpected tears filming his eyes, Bodie dragged his gaze away, found the fridge and went back out into the brilliant day. He still hadn't worked out what to say. Christ, he couldn't even work out what he was feeling right now...
Doyle had moved, was standing silhouetted against the pale sky with his back to the house, hands on hips, the breeze rippling his hair. Bodie stopped to watch for a moment, almost convinced that the lean figure was about to spread vast wings and soar into the bright sky. The thought raised a shiver. Ray had run, once. The thought of losing him again - changed and strange though he seemed to be - was suddenly, unbearably, painful.
Ray knew he was there. Despite the intervening years, his awareness of his old partner was as keen as ever. He tensed as Bodie approached.
Trying to think of a way to regain some common ground, Bodie laid a hand on his shoulder, an unconscious, once-familiar and never-forgotten intimacy. The muscle under his hand tensed, and Doyle turned his head, slowly, to stare first at the hand, and then into Bodie's gaze. His face was expressionless. There was no warmth in his eyes. Swallowing, Bodie shifted his hand.
Whatever it was he'd done wrong, obviously it hadn't been forgiven.
He offered Ray the bottle of spring water, and took a swallow of his beer. For a few minutes the two men stood in silence, Bodie awkwardly, watching Doyle, who gazed impassively out over the lake far below.
Doyle had watched the car climb the hill with a mixed sense of resignation and something that was half fear, half tense anticipation - not exactly unpleasant, but not comfortable. It was familiar: he recognised it as the feeling he'd used to get before a tricky assignment. The memory almost made him smile. Bodie, a tricky assignment? Too bloody right... Suppose it had to happen one day, he mused. The question was how to deal with it. A lot depended on why Bodie was here.
Don't give anythin' away. You've worked too fuckin' hard to let him get to you now... He took a deep breath and tried to continue sketching, but his concentration was gone. Bodie would never know the effort it cost his partner to hide the trembling of his hands. And it had made him curt with the women: he'd have to make that up to them, the next time they came. Much as it was considered an honour to pose for a LaMorte - and he knew the women in the towns around the lake practically fought each other to become one of the Úlite few he took on as models - he had no wish to acquire a reputation as an unreasonable taskmaster.
He'd watched from the corner of an eye as Bodie had approached, almost relieved when the bigger man's attention had been grabbed by the scene before him: it gave Doyle a chance to scrutinise his old partner for a moment, unobserved.
He'd hardly changed. A little grey in the hair, perhaps a little heavier than he had been - though Doyle would be prepared to bet it was all muscle. He was sleek, serene, with an indefinable air of success about him. The years had treated him well.
Better than they treated me... he mused bitterly, and was immediately ashamed of the thought. It hadn't been Bodie's fault. And he wouldn't have wished his own experience on anyone, certainly not the best mate he'd ever had...
Cautiously, he again tried to focus on his sense of betrayal when he'd woken up to find himself in the hospital, his life effectively shattered. The sheer terror of knowing he could no longer trust his body, that it had let him down so completely.
His mind shied away from it. Even after all this time it still hurt too much to contemplate. From being perfectly at ease and in harmony with his physical self, enjoying his body, its reactions and pleasures, to knowing it could let him down at any time. That it could kill him at any time. The initial terrible weakness, the pain, the slow realisation of new and narrow limits - no. He couldn't face it. He'd learned to live with it by doing what had to be done and disregarding the rest. He'd survived - even come to enjoy life again - but always, at the back of his mind, was that lurking fear. He no longer had control.
Bodie's warm, deep voice was like ice water dashed in his face. He hardly remembered what had been said, was just grateful for a few minutes solitude to try to damp down the frightening confusion of feelings that now surfaced. He stared unseeingly out over the lake, forcing himself to breathe deeply.
Then Bodie - his rock, his lifeline - returned to his side...
"So why are you here?"
Bodie took another swallow of the beer and considered the question. It only took him a couple of seconds to decide that simple honesty was best. Well, almost honesty.
"They want us back on active service. Just for one job."
Doyle's composure fractured slightly, then the eagle was back.
"Ray, will you just listen, please?"
Doyle swung to face Bodie, clamping down on suddenly welling anger.
"I don't want to listen. I gave the best years of my life to CI5 and it damn near killed me."
Mixed in with the anger was a sense of disappointment so great it tore at his guts. He could have wept. Bodie had come because CI5 wanted him. Not because Bodie had chosen to do so.
Shouldn't feel grief. Your own fault, remember? You left, not him.
Doyle forced himself to remain impassive - but it was a fight he was rapidly losing. It was irrational after so long, but the sight and sound, even the scent of Bodie brought back so very many memories. So many of them bad - blood, pain, treachery, the loss of innocence and the death of friends.
But the good ones - ah, the good... Companionship. Humour. Tolerance. Acceptance. Understanding. Just knowing someone was always there. The sort of thing you were supposed to get from the ideal marriage, and that he'd never even found with the ideal girlfriend. Not that any of them had ever been truly ideal, of course. They couldn't have been, or they'd have stayed. Like Bodie had...
He shook himself. Mind strayin' again. Stay focussed... Bodie was speaking.
"And I suppose you're happier, now?"
"What?" He'd lost track of the conversation.
"I suppose you're happier now. Living here, in the sun, painting your life away."
Doyle hesitated, and Bodie pounced on his indecisiveness. He jerked his head back towards the house.
"Doesn't look like it - not going by those paintings."
"Those have nothin' to do with bloody CI5!"
"But a hell of a lot to do with your state of mind!" Doyle paused, realised he was already close to losing what little control he had left, and closed his eyes for a few seconds. When he spoke, it was coldly.
"And my state of mind has nothing to do with you."
"Oh come on, Ray!" His temper fraying, Bodie threw the bottle down and grabbed Doyle by the shoulders.
"No, damn you!" Bodie nearly shook him. "Don't you dare freeze me out again! Do you know what hell you put me through these last ten years?"
Doyle stared at him, wide-eyed, stunned. Bodie relaxed his grip, closed his eyes and shook his head. Sheer frustration had sparked the accusation, frustration and a sense of so much lost. But it had been a selfish thing to say. Unfair. He'd blown it.
He felt Doyle's hand on his shoulder. Startled, his eyes shot open, to see a faint shadow of that well-remembered lop-sided half-smile on his old partner's face. There may even have been the tiniest hint of warmth in the green eyes. Doyle inclined his head.
"OK. I'm listening..."
© Feb 2000 Joules Taylor
"That's enough for now. Come back in three days time."
"Yeah. Three days. You deaf or something?"
"OK, OK - pardon me for breathing!"
"When are you going to pay us?"
"When the piece is finished."
"And what if we decide not to come back?"
"Then you won't get paid."
With many thanks to Vincenco Stoppa for the translation, and to Brenda Kübler-Mabbott for organising it for me! Back to the text.