“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” said Alex, at which Declan roared with laughter.
“And what is that one thing you don’t understand, Lady Constance?” he enquired with the air of a detective who has gathered everyone together in the library.
She grinned sheepishly. “Pretty much all of it, I suppose. Just go over it again for me, will you?”
It was ten days later and already the case showed signs of being buried in the Press, as John Major had finally succumbed to the inevitable and requested the Queen to dissolve Parliament. Both parties had swung into full Election mode and, although the outcome seemed foreordained, New Labour were campaigning as if their very existence depended upon it and the Conservatives were busy warning everyone who would still listen to them about the absolute disaster it would be if their hands were forcibly ripped from the wheel.
They were in an obscure but well-appointed hotel in Devon. Alex had been there, with Alicia, for nine days, but Declan had only arrived that afternoon, slipping in by Movements unseen. Although emphasis had shifted more than somewhat from the Regina Tyler scandal, the lady’s photogenic looks ensured a level of tabloid attention robust enough to have lasted thus far.
Miss Tyler had escaped custody, thanks to some formidable lawyering and, it has to be said, an undue emphasis on the fact that most of the evidence in the case had been procured by not merely a costumed figure, but one who was wanted as a criminal himself.
“Yes, Declan said. “Not that I regret for one minute frying Eric Johnson’s brain, I mean, do unto others as they would do to you, but get it in first, they should make everyone who decides to do this stupid, and may I say, unpaid job learn that off by heart before they’re allowed to even design a costume. But whilst it doesn’t leave me filled with regret that someone who’d decided to dedicate his life to destroying mine has ended up the way he is, it does rather take the edge off thins to have given the Queen Bee something with which to belabour the evidence again her.”
“Is he really going to be incapacitated for life?” Alex asked.
Declan shrugged. “Never say never. Not with the kind of stuff some of my colleagues can do, and with what science is desperately trying to reproduce now it knows there’s some of us trying to do it. It was a complete surprise to discover Regina Tyler’s efforts were all focussed on trying to duplicate my powers.” He looked pensive. “I retire for five years because I’m disgusted with the whole business and, I don’t know, I’m still distorting the world all the time I’m trying to avoid using my powers.”
“You took to them again pretty quickly though, didn’t you?” said Alex with a queer note to her voice.
Declan looked at her along the length of the sofa. Arms folded around her stomach, knees drawn up to her waist, body language set to defensive, that’s what he’d have expected to see with that voice, but she was sat casually, one hand supporting her face.
“Alex, you can accuse me of being a lot of things, and a lot of them will be true, but I am not stupid. When you take the decision to put on a mask and put yourself out there, you either learn to be smart, or you don’t get to sit there and talk about it ten years later. The moment I realised that I was up against a combination of two very rich, very successful people who seemed to be behind a scheme that involved fake battles being organised to destroy public buildings, I knew I couldn’t tackle this alone. I’ve always been a loner, never joined any teams, very rarely teamed up with anyone, and never deliberately, but I’ve always been a realist. You do what works.”
So, and without going into details by so much as it’s name, he explained to Alex that he’d enlisted the Switchboard to provide him with full operational assistance. Surveillance devices, remote and personal – he had had both audio and video recording equipment, supplied by Barrington, woven seamlessly into his costume – linked to Police units waiting just off-site for the call-in. Electronic depressors, baffles and penetrators overcoming the majority of the site security, especially the really scary crap protecting the laboratories. Aid from his peers: Icecapade, who had the best relationship with the authorities of all of them, to broker the approach to the Police, including the incidental news that these two masterminds were attempting to smear a guy called Declan Cuffe, who’d gotten in their way over Planning issues: Doctor Star, who’d recently retired from active duty but was now working closely with the Switchboard on providing supporting services to any costume needing specialist equipment to achieve things they couldn’t alone: Hyperwoman running interference for the London Raid and the Labrat conducting a sweep of the computer systems of both perpetrators’ organisations and clearing out any references to the White Knight.
Which had no doubt gone no further than the information banks of the Switchboard itself, but whilst he would once – say, about a fortnight ago – have gone apeshit about that, Declan was more sanguine than he had ever been. A lot of people now knew his secret, not just him and Harry, but the most important thing was that the authorities firmly believed that Declan Cuffe was not involved with the White Knight in any way.
Of course, that didn’t stop Regina Tyler from getting his name into the Press, which was why Alex and Alicia, asleep in her cot on the other side of the room, had spent the last week and a half in one of the Switchboard’s protected locations, away from the press. Declan had faced up to it and rode the storm.
“But how can you be sure they can’t connect you to this?” Alex pleaded. “I mean, you are the White Knight, unless you were lying to me about that, and you were there without your costume in front of them. And why were you so stupid as to go and do a thing like that?”
“Firstly, they created their own White Knight, thanks to Eric Johnson’s mind. I mean, ok, he was right, he did have a superpower after all, which is another good reason that I’m not losing any sleep over his having had a stroke, because that means he can’t do that any more.” Declan shook his head.”Just think how dangerous he could have been with that. I mean, that not-me that he created wasn’t just a thought construct, he was solid, through and through.
“But by producing him, and trying to make me come out of the woodworks in time to have my name blackened, they gave me alibi after alibi. The White Knight kept appearing when I was provably somewhere else, and, with the aid of Doctor Star’s fabulous Chameleodroid to go visit Sammy and Andy a couple of hours before it all kicked off, and stay there weeping all evening, they don’t have any doubts whatsoever.”
“I hope you’re right, but that doesn’t mean the Press will shut up, does it?” Declan noticed that Alex had been a little tight-faced over the reference to his weeping, which he thought augured well.
“No, but they’ve other fish to fry, and the public’s losing interest. I reckon we can all go home next week without worries.”
Alex let that pass. “And what are you going to do?”
“Well, given all the publicity about me being victimised, not to mention that the Tyler scheme is now officially dead in the water, George has been forced to rescind my suspension and take me back. Of course it’s had to have been formally reviewed, and I’ve had a severe slap on the wrist over my pissiness that day I walked out, just to make them feel better, but I start back at the Town Hall on Monday, and everything goes back to normal.”
“Everything?” she asked. He should have spoken then but chose not to, spoke instead of what he believed she first needed to hear.
“I’m not doing that again,” he said, shaking his head firmly. “It was a one-off, and I didn’t have much choice in the end, but it’s only told me what I already knew: that I’m not cut out for living that kind of life. I don’t believe in it, and it doesn’t help anyone.”
Alex inclined her head. “So, what was Hillsborough?”
Declan closed his eyes. “A nightmare,” he said. “One I plan to wake up from. No,I’ve made it plain, officially this time, there is no more White Knight, and there never will be again.”
They sat and looked at each other. Maybe they were each waiting for the other to begin,hoping that neither of them had to take the responsibility for whatever might happen. The longer he waited, the harder Declan knew it was for him, and it was so awkward already, but if Alex wouldn’t offer him a sign, then he had to walk into the dark to try to find her.
“It’s over,” he repeated. “and it’s never going to happen again. And I want to come home. To you, I mean, not just to Lissy.”
“Come over here,” she said, and he was in her arms on the instant, kissing her, passionately, feeling her responsiveness, moving together in ways that were familiar yet startlingly new. Her face was wet, and so was his, tears of relief and release, as his hands pushed in under her top, ran across the soft, smooth skin of her back, touching and drawing, her mouth eager for his as he began to unhook her bra, and the tears became sobs and her mouth fought to escape his, to give way to great heaves that pressed her into him in a way he found wonderful, but which halted as she put her hands to his face and held it away.
“I’m sorry,” she said, repeating the words many times, as he wrapped his arms round her to comfort her in whatever this meant, as stones began to churn in the pit of his stomach.
It should have been dark. It should have been evening, with dimmed lights the only illumination, where they could talk with faces half-hidden in shadows and expressions impossible to decipher, but it was afternoon and the sun streamed in through all windows, pin-sharp and unforgivingly cheerful.
“I’m sorry,” Alex said again. “It’s not that you lied, though that hurt me so badly, knowing I could never trust you again. It’s not even necessarily what you lied about, though you don’t seem to understand that it isn’t over and it never will be, as long as that Tyler woman knows who you are. You turned Alicia and me into targets, and I can’t cope with that.”
“But isn’t there a way to try to handle this? We have so much to talk about. We love each other, we’ve got to be able to find a way to let that work.”
“Declan, I… I’m sorry, I know it’s a lousy thing to say, but I don’t know, at the moment, if I love you or not. But one thing I do know is… that I don’t think you love me any more.”
“What are you saying? Of course I love you!”
“You love Alicia, I know. But me? When I asked you to go, Declan, what did you do?”
“I went. Because you wanted me, and because we needed space at that time.”
“Yes, but what did you do?”
He thought about it. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re getting at.”
“You didn’t fight. You didn’t argue with me. You didn’t try to get me to change your mind, or plead with me to give you a chance, or tell me you loved me. You didn’t even wait to see if I thought better of it. You took out a six month letting on a flat.
“I don’t think you do love me any more, Declan. I’m sure you think you do, but if you look a lot closer at yourself, maybe you’ll see that most of it is a reflection of Alicia.”
He was stunned, crushed. He wanted to fulminate, to jump and shout and swear and deny, but instead he was paralysed. “And are you really sure you aren’t cut out to be a superhero?” Alex gently quizzed him. “You seemed to have no difficulty handling it again.”
Declan shook his head. “That’s over,” he said, firmly. “But surely you and I aren’t?”
Alex lowered her eyes. “I’m afraid we are. I’m sorry, Declan. But even superpowers can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Don’t feel too bad. You saved everybody else, after all. Isn’t that what the White Knight does? Save people?”
Save people? But who had he really saved?
“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” said Alex, at which Declan roared with laughter.