‘I would have knocked,’ Duckworthy said, ‘but the door’s missing.’ He ruffled his feathers and took a look around. The room was like the rest of the nest: a war zone of smashed ornaments, foxes’ blood and swan feathers. He watched her for signs of life; she was breathing, but that was about it. Her eyes were blood shot, her feathers were grey and she looked decidedly scrawny. There was a police regulation nightstick tucked under her wing. He wondered when was the last time she’d eaten. He flicked his head in her direction. ‘Boss.’
Line of communication established.He folded his legs underneath him and hunkered down opposite her. Swann didn’t move. He rolled his eyes downward; he couldn’t see how many eggs she had left, but if you twisted his wing and demanded a number then he’d say only one had survived.
’Three,’ Swann said quietly.
‘I lost three of the eggs.’
Duckworthy nodded, realising yet again how ill-equipped he was for doling out sympathy. ‘Foxes?’
‘Who told you that?’ She looked at him with eyes that were suddenly sharp and clear. He’d woken the detective, or so it seemed.
‘Malcolm came down to the station house this morning.’
‘Did he now.’
’Said he was worried about you.’
’I’m sure he is.’
‘Said you threw him out on his bill.’
‘At least he can get something right. What else did he say?’
‘Said he was sorry, about leaving the nest unguarded.’
‘Well, we’re all sorry about that.’
‘He said to tell you that he wants to come home.’
Duckworthy wasn’t sure but he could have sworn that the air had taken on a fresh chill. He glanced behind him, half expecting to see foxes at the door. When he turned back, Swann was making a half-hearted attempt to clean her feathers. She looked so sad; he didn’t like to see her like this: so lost, so… broken.
She cleared her throat and asked him how the investigation was going.
‘We don’t have to talk about it, boss; not if you don’t want to.’
So she asked again, more firmly the second time: ’How’s the investigation going, sergeant?’
Duckworthy watched her. She hadn’t taken her eyes off the doorway. He tried to remember if he’d seen her blink since he entered the nest. ’Well, you cracked it, Ma’am. We rounded up the Canada Geese and they fessed up as soon as we got them into interrogation. It was like you said: turf war. Buggered if I know why though.’ He was pretty sure she wasn’t even listening… ‘Took ‘em all in during a raid last night. Prettyboy handled herself well, for a budgie. You should have seen her, chief; knocking seven bells out of a seagull like she was twice his size.’
A smile, at last.
‘Do you know her first name is, boss?’
Swann nodded, though you could barely see it. ‘Hooza.’
‘Oh, right. Just me who didn’t know then. Anyway, we got a confession for the one of the murders out of Feathers Flintlock, but wouldn’t tell us why he did it. ’
He waited for her to say something, and when she didn’t he tried clearing his throat. Still nothing. Duckworthy hated silences, especially with her. It made him think that he’d screwed up in some massive unknowable way. Why the hell was she so… guarded all the bloody time! ‘You know boss, you can take this aloof superiority thing a little far someti—’
‘Have you ever had young ones, sergeant?’
‘You and Mrs Duckworthy – Alice – have you ever had children?’
Duckworthy eyed her warily. ‘Yeah, about four batches of the little blighters.’
‘Right. I don’t think I knew that.’
‘You’ve never asked me before.’
‘Right, yes. I’m sorry. I should show more of an interest in you, your life. I mean, we are work colleagues after all.’
Duckworthy stretched out one wing and sniffed underneath it. ‘Well, I’d kind of hope you’d show an interest in my life because we’re friends.’
And then the silence again. Swann shifted uneasily on top of the egg. ‘Have you ever lost some?’
Duckworthy shrugged. ‘A few, in the early days. All part of learning I suppose. Then we lost three, about a four years ago. Alice was taking them out for a swim, and an Alsatian jumped into the water…’ A tightening in his chest took him by surprise. He tried to breath, but it wouldn’t let go. ‘Blimey,’ he said. ‘Weird how that still hurts.’
Swann said, ‘It always hurts. Hurts even more when you think—’
‘It could have been avoided.’ Duckworthy stretched out his other wing to hide his face behind it; just a few moments to get his shit together.
‘He left the nest,’ Swann was saying. ‘He’s not coming back.’
‘Thought you lot mated for life.’
‘Bit of a myth, I’m afraid.’
‘Just because I’m a swan doesn’t mean I have to stay chained to a dickhead for my whole life.’ She glanced down and sighed. ‘I’m not even sure it’ll hatch. He left them for such a long time, then it got knocked about in the fight with the foxes. I don’t know, Duckworthy; I’ve been sitting her for two days and I haven’t felt—’
‘It’ll hatch,’ he said. ‘Trust me.’
‘It’ll hatch, boss,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a good nose for these things. You’re a fighter; so’s your kid. Stands to reason, doesn’t it?’
‘I suppose so,’ she said, with what may have been another smile. ‘Might have something for you.’ She craned her neck behind her and came back with a thin folder wedged in her bill.
Duckworthy waddled over and sat next to her.
‘Remember Malcolm’s friend?’
‘Yeah, victim number three. Were him and Malcom like… you know… chummy?’
Now she definitely was smiling, smirking actually. ‘Chummy?’
‘Yeah, you know. I’ve heard that you swans sometimes take off with other swans of the same… er…’
‘Yeah, that’s the word.’ Now he wished she’d stop smiling. ‘Not surprising really. You all look pretty much the same, so if you make a mistake every so often…’ Now she had stopped smiling, and Duckworthy knew the waterfowl gods had just handed him a shovel. ‘Not you, ma’am, obviously. I can always pick you out from a crowd of swans.’ I am digging, he thought. I am definitely digging.
‘And how’s that, Sergeant, if we all look so astonishingly similar?’
That’s her icy look, he thought. And I did not use the word ‘astonishing’. ‘Well, you’ve got these… from the back, when your… tail feathers… I’d be very grateful if you tell me to shut up, ma’am.’
‘I think you’d better shut up, Duckworthy.’
‘Bless you, ma’am.’
She nudged the folder to him. ‘I couldn’t get Malcolm to explain their relationship, so I did a little digging myself. They weren’t lovers. The last victim was Tarquin Swann, Malcolm’s brother.’
Duckworthy looked up from the pages. ’Bloody hell.’
‘He left Reading years ago, headed down the Thames to make a name for himself in London. And he seemed to have done it, after a fashion.’
‘Insurance fraud, drug running, handling stolen goods, a list of gang-related crimes as long as my wing… Seems our lad was quite the busy boy.’
‘He came back to the Valley to expand his operation, and he started by knocking off the competition.’
‘And he also started a gang war.’ Duckworthy shook his head. ‘And your Malcolm didn’t see the need to mention that his gangster brother was in town, while we just happened to be trying to solve multiple murders.’
‘He says he didn’t see the connection, not until Tarquin showed up dead.’
‘And do you believe him?’
‘I want to.’
To Duckworthy’s mind, that wasn’t an answer. ‘Anyway, good job boss. Looks like you’ve cracked the case with a phone and a laptop, all while sitting on your big downy fundament. That’s bloody impressive that is.’
Swann decided to let the ‘downy fundament’ slide for the time being. ‘Take the folder to Mallard,’ she said. ‘It should be enough to wrap things up.’
‘This is your collar. You should take it to him.’
‘I’m not leaving, Duckworthy. I can’t. Take it. You led the raid; it’s your win.’
Duckworthy tucked the folder under his wing. He got to his feet and made his way to the doorway. It felt like a cold night, and Swann looked bloody awful; so awful that he wasn’t sure she’d last it out.
‘What the hell are you doing?’
‘Move,’ he said.
‘What the… Duckworthy!’
‘Get up, get scrubbed, and get yourself something to eat. Then head to the station and give this to Mallard. I’ll stay here and look after things.’
Swann’s bill fell open. ‘You’ll take care of the egg?’
‘But… you’re a duck!’
‘I see how you made DI so quickly, ma’am.’
‘You’d do this… for me.’
‘Yeah ‘cause we’re mates. Now move.’
She did as she was told, stretching out her legs and wings, aching and stiff from her two-day vigil. ‘I don’t know what to say, Duckworthy.’
‘Good. Say nothing. I don’t want word of this getting back to the lads at the station house. Understand?’ He sat down on the nest and shuffled about as though he were trying to settle on a blancmange.
‘Keep your feathers on, boss! I know what I’m doing!’
‘Oh really? How many times have you done this?’
‘Including this time? Once.’ The circle of twigs and branches felt surprisingly warm; surprising, because Maggie Swann had always struck him as a rather cold creature. ‘Right, if you go now you’ll have time to sort yourself out before Mallard heads home for the evening.’
DI Swann gathered up the folder and wedged it tightly in her bill. He watched her from behind as she waddled to the doorway. He reckoned he was entitled to a quick leer; he was sitting on her bloody egg after all. She suddenly turned and Duckworthy almost cricked his neck trying to look the other way.
‘Thank you… Dennis.’ she said.
It was the first time she’d called him Dennis; first time sober at least. He saluted and told her to get a move on. ‘Sooner you go, sooner you’re back.’
He waited until he couldn’t hear her wings beating against the wind, then sighed. ‘Swans,’ he said to the Thames in general, and shook his head. It occurred to him that it might hatch while she was gone. He hoped not. That would be bad. That would be very bad. He’d never live it down. He looked over his left shoulder, and found absolutely nothing of interest there; same with the right. He sighed again and started counting the twigs he was roosting on. If he’d known the night would turn out like this he’d have brought a newspaper…