"It's the taxpayer's money, laddie, and don't you forget it."
As Cowley's departing words floated back, Bodie grimaced. Fat chance. The Cow was always reminding them.
All he'd done was ask, quite politely he'd thought, when the bonus was due to be paid. After all, there were only a few days to go; he always thought the point of a Christmas bonus was being able to spend it at Christmas. Not much use afterwards - unless you put everything on the credit card and then paid it off.
However, that wasn't really an option. His flexible friend was being decidedly inflexible at the moment and he really needed the injection of cash funds.
He wandered into the VIP lounge to look for Doyle. His partner was flicking idly through the Christmas gift catalogues left behind by the girls. No doubt they'd got all their presents already bought, wrapped and under their respective trees. Bodie, as was usual in the run-up to the festive period, hadn't even started shopping yet.
Not that he had many people to buy for. His mum, obviously. And since he wasn't going to get home to see her, he'd have to post whatever he bought, so it couldn't be too heavy, or too fragile...
He put a tick on a mental list. Next, girlfriend. Better make that girlfriends, actually. He'd had the fortune - or misfortune, possibly - to meet Sarah, Angela and Kirsty on successive nights the previous week. Having given all of them his phone number on the basis that his ratio for scoring was usually one in three, they all phoned him on the same evening. So far he'd managed to juggle things and see each of them once, although it wasn't likely to stay that plain sailing for long.
So, presents for girlfriends. That little jewellers down the road had a good range of stuff; bracelets and necklaces and so on. He'd buy them all the same item. Not because he was cheap or didn't have any imagination, but things could turn nasty if he couldn't remember what he'd bought Sarah/Angela/Kirsty for Christmas. Much safer if they all had the same.
All this thinking was making him hungry. There had been at least half of the cake left but when he opened the cupboard the tin was gone. "Who had the last of the Christmas cake?"
Doyle looked up, puzzled. "What Christmas cake?"
"The iced one. Was in a tin, in here. Dunno who brought it in, but it was very tasty."
Doyle was staring at him with a weird sort of intensity; the sort of look that Bodie recognised. It was the one Doyle usually wore when he'd done something stupid. "What?"
"Was it in a tin with white roses on?" Doyle was now starting to grin. With a familiar sinking feeling, Bodie nodded. It just wasn't his day.
"So, you've been eating the Christmas cake in the tin with white roses on, that was in that cupboard?"
"Spit it out." He could throttle Doyle when he started acting like this.
"The Christmas cake in the tin -" Doyle paused dramatically, but wisely refrained from stringing it out any longer "- that Ruth was busily wrapping earlier to send to her Mum."
Hell's Bells. "She'll kill me."
"Very possibly. But only if she finds out it was you." Doyle grinned maliciously. "I'm the only one who knows."
That was true. But could he rely on Doyle not to say anything?
Doyle let him off easily, for a change. "You can stand me a drink later. What did the Cow say about our bonus?"
Bodie shut the cupboard with a bang. "'Och, ye kenna expect extera, Bodie.' And other phrases usually associated with the mean Scots, including the old chestnut about the taxpayer paying the bills."
"Yeah, and we pay taxes!" Doyle lost his grin. "Does that mean we're not getting one?"
"He didn't say that," Bodie admitted. "But he was being his usual cagey self about when we might get it. And of course, there was absolutely no mention of how much it might be."
"Oh, it's just typical." Doyle was gloomy. "I'm relying on that. I sent my Dad that classical music collection. And the postage was a killer."
"At least you've done your shopping. I haven't even started." Bodie was struck with a brainwave. "Doyle, I don't suppose -"
"No. I'm not doing your shopping for you."
"I wasn't going to ask you to do it for me." Bodie contrived to sound hurt.
"I'm not 'elping you either. I remember last year..."
So did Bodie. It wasn't his fault they'd been caught up with that bogus Santa in his grotto, or his fault that Doyle had missed his footing and ended up in Santa's sleigh surrounded by pseudo-elves and children. Feeling the edges of his mouth quiver, Bodie hastily swallowed the urge to laugh at the memory. That would really put Doyle's back up and he'd never get any help.
"Come on, Ray. I just need a few ideas, that's all. What can I get my mum?"
"How do you expect me to know? What do you usually get her?"
Doyle threw down the magazine in disgust. "You have no imagination."
"She likes chocolates!" Bodie protested, whilst knowing Doyle was right. "But it would really help if you could think of something else..." he wheedled.
Exasperated, Doyle got up and began shoving his arms into his thick jacket. "Come on, sunshine. If we're going to get your shopping done there's not a minute to be lost."
Grinning triumphantly, Bodie followed his partner along to the lift, humming a carol. Things were definitely looking up.
Pushing their way through the double doors of Fortnum's, the partners were brought to an abrupt halt by the crowds, and Bodie's heart sank. This was just as bad as he'd feared and he hoped Doyle wouldn't back out now.
They'd already had to suffer the crowds on the tube since Doyle had refused to waste time on looking for somewhere to park. Doyle glanced back over his shoulder, leaving Bodie in no doubt about what his thoughts were, but he took a deep breath and plunged forward. "Come on, then..."
Crushed into the lift they rode to the second floor and emerged like corks from a bottle. Since it was slightly less manic there they were able to browse the shelves in relative comfort, but Bodie eventually rejected the idea of a fragrance. "Mum doesn't really care for perfumes. I've tried that before."
"OK." Undaunted, Doyle headed for the stairs. "Let's try the first floor."
The array of handbags brought a grin to Bodie's face; his mum had been using the same battered old bag for as long as he could remember. He was just paying for a smart black leather bag together with a pair of gloves, when Doyle nudged him. "Look over there."
Craning his neck obediently where Doyle was indicating, Bodie spotted what had interested his partner. Cowley.
Their boss was attended by a store assistant, who was obviously pointing out the best buys. What was most interesting was the fact that he was looking at ladies gloves and handbags. Bodie grinned at his partner. "The crafty old goat's got a woman tucked away somewhere!"
"Looks like it." Doyle didn't sound so cheerful; he was watching the number of - very expensive-looking - items being collated by the woman assistant. "He's spending enough."
"Well, Cowley's probably paid his own bonus already." Bodie frowned. "You don't think he's snaffled our bonuses as well?"
"Nah, he wouldn't - would he?"
Cowley made his way to the stairwell, and as one the partners followed him.
The ground floor was still heaving, but their boss made his way determinedly across the shop to select bottles of wine and sherry. Handing his choices to another shop assistant who had materialised by his side, Cowley then consulted a list from his pocket and turned back towards the stairs, and straight towards them.
Ducking behind a tall display of bottles, the partners managed to avoid being seen. Doyle straightened up once Cowley had passed. "Why are we hiding?"
"Because, mate, I've had a thought. Cowley has a little secret, and we know it. I think we should persuade him to fast-track our bonuses in order to make sure we keep that secret..."
"You've got a devious mind," Doyle laughed. "Well, come on, then. If we're going to blackmail the Cow we need a bit more evidence than we've got at the moment."
Downstairs in the basement the Christmas Shop provided far more evidence of the festive season; with artificial trees resplendent in red and gold baubles and tinsel, and every sort of decoration available in every colour.
Having temporarily lost sight of Cowley, Doyle allowed Bodie to lead the way which meant following him around the bright displays until they spotted their boss over by the huge display of world-famous hampers.
"He's discussing which one to buy," Doyle decided, since Cowley's conversation with yet another willing assistant was going on for some time.
Doyle turned suspiciously. What on earth had Bodie found to eat now? Someone on the staff had improvised on decorations and adopted an American idea, and neatly strung lines of popcorn were dangling temptingly just overhead. Helping himself again, Bodie grinned. "Edible decorations, what a good idea!"
"Bodie, stop eating the decorations..." Shaking his head in disbelief, Doyle turned back to see their boss nodding and pointing. That was the hamper chosen then. He watched as Cowley was escorted to a desk at the far side of the store to sign something. Obviously the Cow had an account.
Bodie had finished plucking at the popcorn and was now peering about the shopfloor gloomily. "They don't have a Santa's grotty."
"No, they don't," Doyle confirmed. "Why do you think I brought you to this store?"
"You know, Doyle, if I didn't know better I'd say you were suffering from Claus-trophobia..."
It took a few seconds before Doyle groaned. "You just can't help yourself, can you? Come on, Cowley's gone. Let's get out of here."
"So, what are we going to do about Cowley?"
Under Doyle's aegis, Bodie had finished buying his gifts. They'd returned to HQ to wrap them and managed to get to the Post Office before it closed; and Bodie had high hopes that his Mum's package might even arrive before Christmas.
Back in the VIP Lounge, things were still quiet and Bodie's attention had returned to the question of their bonus. "I reckon we should pay him a visit."
"Cherchez la femme?"
"If you want. I thought we could take a look and catch him with this woman..." Bodie broke off grinning as Doyle hurled a cushion at him. "When should we go?"
"Tomorrow. I heard him telling Betty earlier that he had to meet someone at the station in the afternoon, and wouldn't be back afterwards. It's got to be her. We catch them together, and he'll still have time to get into the office before the banks close to organise our bonus payments."
Bodie was grinning in admiration. "Sounds like you've done this before..."
'Operation Pay-Up' was underway. At lunchtime, they staked out Cowley's office under cover of chatting to Betty.
Betty was being less than forthcoming about her boss' plans for the holiday. "Mr Cowley doesn't give me an itinerary. All he's told me is that - as usual - he'll be at the end of the phone if needed."
"Yeah, but he must've said something about what he's doing. I mean, it's Christmas. Everyone does something at Christmas."
"So what are you doing, Bodie?" Betty asked the question mischievously, knowing full well that the partners were on stand-by and their Christmas cheer was likely to be limited to a sniff of brandy butter.
"We," Bodie told her loftily, "will be diligently working."
"In between eating and watching Murphy's portable telly," Doyle added. "Has Cowley mentioned seeing anyone on Christmas Day?"
"He hasn't told me anything." Betty was growing exasperated. "Why the interest, anyway?"
Bodie thought quickly; it wouldn't help if Betty got suspicious. "Uh, we're trying to think what to buy him for Christmas."
Doyle nudged him. They didn't usually buy the Cow anything; that was more likely to convince Betty they were up to something. "And wondering if he was busy on Christmas Day, 'cos if not we could call on him..."
Warily, Betty glanced between them. "And you think that's a good idea?"
Bodie grinned. "It's the season of goodwill to all men. That has to include the Cow."
"I'm not sure how much good will he'll feel towards you if you disturb him."
"Us?" Bodie was saved from having to profess innocence by Cowley's appearance around the door.
"I'm off now, Betty. I should be home by four, if there are any messages." He stared suspiciously at the partners. "Don't you two have anything to do?"
"Just going, sir..."
Pounding down the back stairs, they reached the car park before Cowley and threw themselves into the Capri to wait.
Five minutes later they were still waiting; Cowley's Granada sitting empty ahead of them. "Where the heck is he?" Leaping out Doyle went to investigate, and came tearing back thirty seconds later. "Quick, he got a taxi out front...!"
There were four black cabs in front of them as Bodie turned the car out. "Which one?"
"I dunno... Can't be the one in front; that's got two people in the back..."
"Well, which station was he going to?"
"How am I supposed to know that?"
"Some detective you are..." The taxi immediately ahead of them turned left, and Bodie pulled up close to the next one. "There's only one person in there. Could be him. Why didn't you get the taxi's number?"
"Couldn't see it." They both laughed as they saw a movement from the person in the back of the cab which involved an extravagant flick of long blonde hair. "Well, that's not him, unless he's wearing a wig and going undercover."
Swerving around that taxi, Bodie drew up alongside the next one at the traffic lights. "Not this one either, this guy's young."
They both looked ahead to the last cab, which had cleared the lights and was gathering speed. Undefeated, Doyle reached for the R/T. "Control, we're following a black cab, registration Foxtrot X-ray Tango five seven one Kilo. Can you find out the destination for us?"
It took a few precious minutes before Control came back. "Destination is King's Cross, 4.5. Do you require back-up?"
"No thanks. We can handle it."
"Pull in there!" Bodie skidded to a halt at the kerb. They'd already been around the block looking for somewhere to park; now Doyle had decided it would be better to go on foot. "I'll find him. Wait here - if you can..." he sprinted away before the traffic warden reached them, fully expecting Bodie to have to go around the block again.
The station was crowded and Doyle paused in his headlong rush. This was ridiculous. Cowley had to be ten minutes ahead of them; there was no way he'd find him in this lot.
Not without a miracle anyway, and they were in short supply. Starting at one end, he hurried along the platform entrances; he might just get lucky. At the end, he turned and hurried back. Nothing. And the crowds were thinning out, you'd think he'd be able to spot the Cow.
Admitting defeat, he pulled out the R/T. "Bodie, where are you?"
"Just coming back towards the station," came the reply. "I'll be on the other side of the road - I had to turn around. Make it snappy - that traffic warden is a dragon, I don't fancy tangling with her again."
"On my way." Outside, Doyle could see Bodie, but reaching him was another matter, since no one seemed inclined to give way to pedestrians. He finally managed to dodge through various vehicles and to the accompaniment of several horns he tumbled past the bonnet of the Capri and fell thankfully into the passenger seat. "Don't want to do that again in a hurry..."
Bodie was already indicating to pull out into the traffic as a taxi passed in the opposite direction. "Cowley!"
"That cab - " Sticking his arm out of the window to wave at oncoming cars, Bodie hauled on the steering wheel and slewed the Capri sideways across his lane. The sound of screeching brakes added to the general cacophony of car horns and Doyle shut his eyes, bracing himself for the anticipated smash as someone ran into them; only opening them again when the car straightened out.
Doyle looked back in bemusement; he had no idea how Bodie had managed to pull that manoeuvre off unscathed.
Bodie was weaving impatiently from side to side in the lane, trying to get past the car in front whose driver was having none of it. Hitting the brakes hard as the traffic lights changed to red, Bodie banged on the wheel in exasperation as the target vehicle disappeared down the road.
Calmly, Doyle asked, "Are you sure it was Cowley?"
"Positive. And he wasn't alone, although I couldn't see who was with him."
"Well, it's no problem. He told Betty he would be going home, so that's where we'll go. If we're lucky, this woman will be staying with him - we can beard him in his den."
"On what pretext?"
"You don't think he'll be just a tiny bit suspicious if we roll up on his doorstep without a good reason?"
Doyle relaxed back into the seat. "You drive, Bodie. I'll think of something..."
However, he was still thinking by the time Bodie pulled up outside Cowley's apartments. There wasn't an emergency on - and in any case, HQ would phone Cowley if there was - but he couldn't think of any other reason. "I'm stumped," he admitted.
Bodie grinned. "Well, how about what I told Betty? We get him a present and call with it. It's a good excuse as any."
"OK - but what do we take him?"
"Bottle of scotch and cigars. There's an off-licence around the corner."
Cowley was smiling as he answered the door. "Why, Bodie, Doyle. What can I do for you?"
"Compliments of the season, sir." Bodie proffered his hastily-wrapped, bottle-shaped present.
Doyle waved his own gaily-wrapped box. "Thought we'd just drop by, to wish you..." he caught sight of movement behind his boss "... and your guest, a Merry Christmas, sir."
"That's very nice of you, lads. Completely unexpected, too."
"Well, it is Christmas, sir. It's the time when everyone gets Santamental, after all..."
Cowley chose to ignore the bad joke and opened the door wider. "Come in, there's someone I'd like you to meet."
Doyle nudged Bodie worriedly as they followed Cowley into the apartment. "He's a bit keen to show her off..."
"Mmm." Bodie was worried too. If Cowley wasn't trying to hide her, then the unknown woman wasn't much good as blackmail material.
The little old lady had to be 80, if not more. She inclined a regal smile in their direction. "Bodie, Doyle, this is my Aunt Agatha. She's just arrived to spend Christmas with me."
"That's nice, sir." Doyle sounded strangled. "Nice to meet you, ma'am."
"Likewise..." Aunt Agatha! Bodie saw their bonus dwindling away.
Cowley relieved them of the presents. "While you're here, I wonder if you'd mind doing me a small favour?"
Bodie brightened. Maybe they could stay in Cowley's good books and secure the bonus after all. "Of course, sir," he agreed without consulting Doyle.
"I've just had a Christmas tree delivered - perhaps you saw it on your way in? - and it needs to come up here. The pot is all ready. There's just one small snag; it's too big to go in the lift..."
"No problem, sir." Bodie now didn't dare look at Doyle. Cowley's apartment was on the sixth floor; that was twelve flights of stairs.
"Thank you. And when you've finished, I'll have a small libation waiting for you."
"We'll, er, just go and take a look..."
Cowley could hear them bickering as they headed for the door. "What are we doing?"
"Getting the tree. Look, Ray, we've still got time to butter 'im up and get those bonuses..."
Cowley smiled to himself and poured a sherry for his aunt.
"Thank you, George. They seem nice and helpful. Not at all the conniving, devious pair you were describing to me earlier."
"I know them a little better than you, Aunt Agatha. My secretary warned me they were up to something, and it would be time to retire if I wasn't aware of them following me about shops and half-way across London."
"Well, if they're trying to outwit you, they need to get up a little earlier. But what do they want?"
"The Christmas bonus is due." Cowley poured himself a scotch from the new bottle Bodie had brought along. "This is a good blend. They've excelled themselves. Shame it's all in vain."
"Are they not getting a bonus?"
"Oh yes. It's just a shame that they've been so busy following me about that they haven't bothered to check their mail slots, or bank balance. Their bonuses were paid into their bank accounts this morning."
Hearing noises from the stairwell, he went to pour another couple of drinks. "I think I might find a few more things they can help me with, before I break the good news to them..."