Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Blasphemy: a novel by Roger N Taber (Part 2)



    “Poppy, murdered?” I couldn't believe it.
“Strangled,” said Philip and handed me a brandy.
“And you think, Danny…?”
“The woman next door, Mrs. Finn, heard them arguing. Then everything went quiet. Not long after that, she saw the boy run off. She became suspicious and let herself in. The girl’s body was lying here on the floor.” He pointed, and the expression ‘finger of doom’ sprung irreverently to mind. I swallowed, spluttered, drained the glass and held it out for more. Philip obliged. His manner, like his tone, was very impersonal. The woman next door, he’d said, and the boy, the girl.... They have names, these people, for crying out loud. I thought of the widow Finn and how I should go to her, she must be in such a state. Poor Popp, she didn’t have much of a life, poor kid. And what of Danny...? He’ll be terrified. “It must have been an accident,” I said, suddenly angry with the whole rotten world. “He loved her!”
“You don’t strangle someone by accident, Laurence.”
“In a temper, you might.”
“That’s true. In which case we could well be looking at a manslaughter rather than murder charge.” He sounded doubtful.
“But why? Why would he kill her? You know Danny. Does he strike you as a killer? The whole scenario is absurd.”
“You never know with that sort. Let’s face it, Laurie, they’re a couple of prostitutes, hardly your average kids next door!”
“Kids, though, all the same.” I retorted. “Okay, so innocence gets compromised, it happens. It can’t all be down to the likes of Danny and Poppy.” Her name hung in the air like a pretty balloon and brought a lump to my throat. Now was not the time to remind myself that I hadn’t liked her much.
“It’s certainly not down to the likes of you and me,” Philip was quick to point out. “They had a choice, Laurence. We all have choices.”
“Sure, like you chose not to tell me you’re a copper!”
He grimaced. “Let’s not get personal, Laurence.”
“By all means, Philip, let’s not!” We glared at each other. I sought salvation in another brandy but found none. “Why didn’t you try and find me?” I muttered between clenched teeth.
“There was no real urgency.”
“No real urgency? A young girl is killed in my own house and there’s no real urgency about letting me know?”
“What could you have done, except get in the way as usual?” he growled, “First you screw up our plans to raid the Battersea house. Then, just when we have a chance to take out Georgie with the video between his fat paws, you barge in and f**k that one up as well! It’s more by luck than anyone’s better judgement that you’re not the stiff they’re tagging down at the bloody morgue right now!”
“Pardon me for breathing!” I was furious. “I wanted to help those kids. Don’t ask me why, I just did. Somehow I felt…responsible for them.”
“Responsible? If you’re what being responsible is all about, I dread to think what irresponsible is!”
I couldn’t help myself and burst into tears. I buried my face in my hands and rocked to and fro on the damn sofa, even the brandy conspiring against me to make my guts ache.
“Pull yourself together, man!” He came and sat next to me. In spite of the hostility, I felt towards him, I longed for a comforting hug. How bloody contrary can a person get? My breathing made a chugging noise like a train. A cartoon I’d spotted in a newspaper only recently sprung to mind. It had targeted commuters who see each other every day, on the same train, year in, year out, without exchanging a word. I wiped my eyes, blew my nose and felt obliged to apologize. “I’m sorry,” I muttered.
“Shouldn’t that be my line?” he asked wryly.
I shrugged, for want of anything better to do or say. “It’s been such a shock, all of it, from start to finish. I’m not used to….”
“Sordid histrionics? I should hope not or my job would be a damn sight harder than it is already,” he declared, but subdued, a catch in his voice that alerted me to an undercurrent of tension between us that had nothing to do with pimps, prostitutes and murder.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated miserably.
“And so say all of us. Now we have a murder on our hands and Fat Georgie’s laughing all the way to Sodom and Gomorrah.”
“But surely, the video…”
“Wiped clean by the time we finally charged in, warrants to the right, warrants to the left and all that crap. We can’t touch the bastard. Oh, we can have his lackeys for abduction and assault but that’s about it. I should have made a copy.”
“There wasn’t time,” I pointed out.
“I should have made time. Instead, I got side-tracked and messed up good and proper.”
“I’m sorry you got side-tracked,” I murmured scathingly, “but it does take two to tango.”
“I didn’t mean….”
“I know what you meant,” I snapped, relented, sighed and started to get angry again. “Look here, Danny can’t have killed her. He just wouldn’t, couldn’t have, no matter how much she provoked him. I can’t, won’t believe it. You can say what you like about Danny. It doesn’t alter the fact that he loved the girl. Okay, so you can love someone and still want to strangle them, but that doesn’t mean to say you will.”
“Of which I dare say I’m the living proof….”
“You and me both, I guess.” A long, pregnant silence followed. The word ‘love’ hung over us like the sword of Damocles. This is ridiculous. We hardly know each other. The sword continued to dangle precariously above our heads.
“If we hadn’t realized in time that the spot where we lost the van was within a five mile radius of young Danny’s flat….”
“He wouldn’t be facing a murder charge,” I observed with irony.
“You’d be dead, probably with a knife stuck in your guts.”
“So would Danny.”
“I don’t care about Danny.”
“So what are you saying, that you care about me?”
“You know I care.”
“Like hell I do.”
Another long, awkward pause constructed a wall between us, brick by brick.
“Where would Danny go, Laurence? If you have any idea at all, you must tell me. It’s for the lad’s own good.”
“Oh, sure!”
“It’s true and you know it. We’ve managed to track down the parents but, frankly, neither could give a damn. We’ll watch the mother’s place, of course, the father’s too. But I don’t think he’ll turn up at either. He must realise we’ll have them under surveillance anyway. Mind you, if they were my parents, I wouldn’t bother. There’s no love lost there, believe me. You must have some idea, Laurie, surely? We need to find him before things get any worse.”
“Worse?” I was incredulous.
“The boy’s desperate. Desperate people do desperate things.”
“You don’t think he’d kill himself? No way. Danny’s not the type.”
Philip shrugged. “People get desperate, frightened. They feel trapped. There is no ‘type’. It can happen to anyone.”
“Not Danny,” I was emphatic. The more I thought about what Philip had said, however, the faster my confidence dwindled.
“You’ll let me know if he gets in touch?”
“If he does, I’m sure your men will spot him before I do.” I nodded all the same. “Will you do the same for me?”
“If you promise no more heroics.” He put hand on my knee and squeezed lightly before jumping to his feet. I nodded again, unable to speak.
Minutes after he left, the doorbell rang. I leapt to my feet. He must have forgotten something. Ignoring the entry-phone, I ran to the door. I so wanted it to be Philip, the old Philip, the one I’d once believed I was getting to know and, yes, with whom I was falling in love. At the same time, I dreaded opening that door. What would I do, what would I say?  
Oh, God, what a mess!
I need not have panicked as it was the widow Finn. She took charge and I was only too happy to let her put the kettle on and bully me into taking a bath. “You’ll feel all the better for it,” she assured me in the same brisk, no-nonsense tone that nurse at the hospital had used. “The police have finished here, that nice detective told me. So I’ll have a good tidy up and we’ll have a nice cup of tea together, just as soon as you’re good and ready.”
I readily fell in with her agenda. In no time, the place was looking immaculate and I was feeling refreshed and half human again. It wasn’t long before the widow was telling me how she came to discover Poppy’s body.
“I’m not one to pry, Mr Fisher, as well you know,” she frowned, “but when a neighbour sees fit to leave his front door key with you, well, you have a burden of responsibility.” She glared at me as if expecting me to contradict. I smiled and nodded encouragement.
“She arrived not long after you left,” May Finn went on, “A police car brought her and the boy, Danny, let her in along with Mr Adams. He didn’t stay long, though. Anyway, I didn’t think too much about it. There have been so many funny carryings-on at your house lately.”
I examined the carpet, feeling suitably reproved.
“Well, last night, I hear the pair of them having a terrible argument. Her language, Mr Fisher, I’ve never heard the like and I was in the Land Army during the war, so I don’t blush easily. I could hear every word and they were playing pop music so loud it shook the walls! So what did they do? Turned up the volume to full blast, that’s what. It meant I couldn’t catch what was being said, of course, but that was probably for the best if you ask me. Oh, the language, it was vile! Vile, Mr Fisher. Not that one expects anything less from young people today….”
I had heard this diatribe on previous occasions and felt bound to move the story along to what interested me most, her finding the body. “It must have been awful for you,” I agreed, “But finding the body, that must have been dreadfully distressing for you.”
“I was distraught, Mr Fisher, distraught, although I have to say that came later. At the time, I suppose you could say I took things in my stride. It was the music, you see, so loud it was, and  must have dulled my senses. Banging on the wall was a waste of time, of course, so I decided to go round and give the little blighters a piece of my mind. That’s when it stopped, just like that, all of a sudden. Perhaps if I had come round anyway…” she glowered at me even more intently as if holding me personally to blame.
She might well have a point, I reflected unhappily. I should never have left Danny alone so soon after everything that’s happened. As usual, I had been too wrapped up in my own feelings to give much thought to anyone else’s. I saw the widow’s eyes glisten with tears, and realized that any hint of reproach there was directed at herself not at me.
“The silence was even more deafening…” she rasped, “Not long afterwards, I happened to be at my window and saw the lad run off. Pelting down the street, he went, as if the devil himself were after him. I was instantly suspicious, of course. Who wouldn’t have been? Not that I subscribe to the view that being young is the crime of the century, you understand. Indeed, no. I was young myself once. But youth should be a time of halcyon days, not the nightmare young people seem bent on putting themselves and the rest of us through these days. A young girl dead, boyfriend on the run, and this used to be such a nice neighbourhood. Whatever next?”
“Was Poppy dead when you found her?” I prompted.
“Oh, yes, I could see that at once. I felt for a pulse, of course, but it was quite hopeless. So I called the police, and waited.”
“You waited by the body?”
“Good Lord, no. I went into your kitchen and took the liberty of making myself a cup of tea. The police were here in minutes, an ambulance too. The whole street must have been outside gaping and gossiping. It was horrible, horrible….”
We sat in grim silence for a while.
“How could such a these terrible thing happen?” she cried plaintively, “You hear about such things all the time, of course, but you don’t expect it on your own doorstep!” She slumped forward in her chair. I rushed to pour her a brandy. She kept shaking her head but finally took a sip then drained the glass and held it out for me to dispense another ample measure before proceeding to interrogate me with unrelenting thoroughness. “Where would the boy go? Home, perhaps. He must have one somewhere.”
I related what Philip had told me. She shook her grey-white head pityingly. “Small wonder he’s turned out the way he has  then. Oh, that poor boy, he’ll be feeling so alone.” She gave a soft, uncharacteristic moan followed by a likewise uncharacteristic fit of hiccups.
As I watched her reach for the brandy without waiting for an invitation, I found myself wishing yet again that I’d taken the trouble to get to know the old girl better. We had lived far too insular a life, Harry and me. And who’s fault is that? I reproached myself bitterly. No wonder Harry had tried to break out of the snug little prison I had inadvertently made for us. I had let him down as surely as I had let Danny down. “I should have stayed with the lad, I mused aloud.” He must have felt abandoned too, just like Harry.
If the widow heard, she gave no sign. “Did he ever speak of anyone or any place that might have been special for any reason?” she insisted and it crossed my mind that she was making a better job of questioning me than Philip. “Someone, somewhere he might feel the need to go back to, if only for the sake of happy memories…?”
As I, too, had gone back, I reflected ruefully. For, yes, they were special, my family, all of them, even my bloody-minded brother, Stuart. And, yes, there had been happy times, lots of them. I should have tried harder to make them understand. Harry had frequently said much the same thing. But I had leapt on my high horse and clung on for dear life to our cosy, exclusive existence, uncluttered by interference and threat from the outside world. Yes the outside world would not be bested, but had broken into my deluded idyll and taken Harry from me.
Jesus, what have I done?
I suddenly remembered, Southend. Danny had talked once, briefly, about a holiday in Southend before his parents split up. He had only been six or seven years old at the time.
“It has to be worth a try,” the widow agreed, “When things are bad, it’s always the good times that call us back and, God willing, give us the strength to carry on,” she added with a huge sigh.
“In the hope, I suppose, of other good times. Not that anyone’s future ever lay in the past!” she added dryly. “Still, needs must as the devil drives, I dare say,” she reflected prior to another noisy bout of hiccups.
My own thoughts, meanwhile, were tearing ahead. I hadn’t unpacked. My holdall was still in the hall where I’d dumped it, my mother having made sure all my dirty clothes had seen the insides of a washing machine and a hot iron before I left. I reached for the mobile and called the local railway station. I swore inwardly. It was times like this I wished I could drive. Even so, I worked out that it would only take me about two hours to get to Southend.
I left the widow Finn helping herself to another brandy and set off. Several times I sensed I was being followed. Fat Georgie’s henchmen or the police? Consequently, I found myself diving down back alleys and doubling back with the intention of catching a bus to any tube station other than the nearest. I felt foolish. At the same time, it was exciting, like being in a spy movie. Who’d have thought it, an ordinary Joe like me? It just goes to show. I could not stop myself brooding on the train how one minute life is like a comfortable pair of slippers and the next it’s using you for a punch bag.
It was late afternoon and a light misty rain was falling when I arrived in Southend. I took the little railway along the pier and wandered back, getting soaked, on the lookout for any sign of Danny. I roamed the prom and streets for hours. Nothing. I might as well have been looking for a needle in a haystack. I checked out every café and amusement arcade. Eventually, I sank wearily into a window seat in a pub to watch the people go by and a brassy dusk settle over the sea.
What next? I had tried all the likely places and it was only a long shot that Danny might be here at all. I watched a gull circle, swoop then soar in a long, graceful arc before heading out to sea over the few heads still bobbing about on the rainy beach. The beach! I could have kicked myself for not trying. rain or no rain, the most obvious place of all.
A beach in the rain at twilight must be one of the saddest places on earth. In my mind’s eye, I saw deckchairs and people sunning themselves, children making sandcastles. Every size and shape of human form was running to and fro, gleefully dripping at the water’s edge. I heard cheerful shouts, boisterous laughter and ice-cream chimes. I spotted a Punch and Judy show with a crowd of alternately cheering and jeering mums, dads and kids having the time of their lives. Memories of long summer holidays came flooding back. Not here,at Southend, but I could have been anywhere. I remembered taking my brothers Alan and Stuart for donkey rides because they were too scared to go on their own and neither parent could be cajoled into abandoning his or her deckchair. So I’d volunteered and saved the day. I grimaced, reflecting how I stood precious little chance saving the day here and now.
Did my brothers, too, remember those days, I wondered? I doubted it….
A dog barked somewhere and jerked me out of my daydream. The twilight had turned from misty amber to a dull yellow. I stood and looked out to sea, glimpsed white horses loping towards me in a gloomy distance and had decided there was no point in staying do I might as well go home when I spotted a lone, familiar figure some yards ahead.
Danny was standing stock still, staring into space at the water’s edge. The incoming tide lapped at his feet and, as I approached, I saw that his trainers were soaking wet. He cut a pathetic, bedraggled figure. Beads of fading light caught up in raindrops gave the illusion of a halo around his sandy head. His profile, turned only slightly away from me, might have been chiselled out of white marble. I was rooted to the spot, fascinated. It was if I perceived the image of a young god, this dreary patch of coastline a ruined temple.
He must have sensed my presence because I hadn’t moved. He turned slowly. For a long time, he said nothing and neither did I. When he found his voice, it was shaky, aggressive. “What do you want? What’s your game, eh?”
“I’ve been looking for you,” I said quietly.
“Because…I care about you.”
“Why?” he demanded again, “Why should you give a toss about the likes of me?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, “I just do. There but for the grace of God and all that….”
“God?” his tone incredulous, “Who the f**k’s He when He’s at home then?” We began walking very slowly across the thickly shadowed beach towards flickering lights on the prom. “What made you come here anyway?”
“A shot in the dark,” I told him, “You once mentioned that you were very happy here years ago.”
“Years ago, yeah,” he muttered, “bleeding donkey’s years….”
We walked on. The sun had become little more than a lemon-coloured haze on the western skyline, the moon a faint crescent among a few stars and lots of ogre-shaped clouds. I stopped and so did he. Together, we watched the sun’s last desperate glow disappear. Meekly and without protest, we let it suck us into an exquisite, fathomless after-dark.
“Why did you do it, Danny?” I asked at last, disturbed that I should have put it to him so directly when I was supposed to believe in his innocence.
It was a long time before he replied, his back to me, his chin tilting westwards. “I had to come. I don’t know why, I just had to. It was a mistake, though, like just about everything I put my bleeding hand to….” He paused and, intuitively, I waited. “I loved this place. We came here, Mum and Dad and me. It was the only holiday I ever had. I even used to dream about it. It sort of used to keep me going when there didn’t seem much point in carrying on. But nothing stays the same, does it? Everything’s different. It ain’t a patch on how I remember it. So now I ain’t even got that. No home, no Poppy, nothing….” He turned to face me, his profile in deep shadow. “I thought I could come here, turn the clock back and everything would be okay. How daft can you get, eh?” He laughed, a horrible retching sound that yanked at my nerve endings and made me want to retch.
“What about Poppy, Danny?” I prompted, “WHAT ABOUT POPPY?” In that unholy, gut-wrenching gloom, my voice sounded unnaturally loud although I could barely manage a hoarse whisper.
“She’s made her bed, let her lie in it,” Danny muttered, “See if I care!”
A gull came out of nowhere, shrieking as if raising an alarm, and hovered directly above our heads for a split second before pursuing its ghostly path across the vanishing landscape.
A man’s voice called, “Who’s there?” A woman’s giggle struck me as mildly hysterical. We ignored both, Danny and I, and no one bothered us again.
“Answer the question, Danny,” I tried again, “Why did you do it?”
“She asked for it, that’s why. I didn’t mean to, it just happened. Even after everything what’s happened, the silly cow has to go and fall for it, doesn’t she? Fat Georgie promises her the earth and she’s on her knees gagging for it. I can’t go along with all that bullshit any more, it’s screwing me up so bad it’s driving me into the bleeding ground. But Poppy, she can’t get enough. The funny thing is, I love her. I do, guv, honest. I really, really, love her. I thought she loved me too but….” He sighed, “I got that wrong too, as usual.”
“Is that why you killed her?”
In the stunned silence that followed, Danny took several stumbling steps towards me until his hot breath was like steam hissing in my face. “Killed her? What sort of crap talk is that? I ain’t killed anybody. F**king hellfire, guv, are you trying to scare me or what?” His distress seemed genuine.
“Poppy’s dead, Danny. She was strangled.”
He stared at me, eyes bulging. “No!” he let rip with a pitiful howl, and ran off. I chased after him, the implications of his denial running riot in my head. I was glad, of course, so much so that it took a major effort of willpower not to pee in my pants. But if Danny hadn’t killed Poppy…who did, and why? It made no sense.
I ran all the harder. By the time I brought him down with a flying rugby tackle, I had all but convinced myself that Danny was lying. I had expected a struggle. Instead, Danny simply lay face down in the shingle, sobbing his heart out. “It’s not true, it can’t be true,” he sobbed over and over until the sobbing became a scarcely audible whimper….
As I recovered my breath, compassion overcame scepticism. I pulled gently at the youth’s shuddering shoulders. He turned and collapsed, distraught, in my arms. We had been running towards the sea’s edge and a rush of icy water soaked our legs as we knelt in the weird parody of an embrace. It occurred to me that neither of us was in any fit state to catch a train. As for confronting the police with the unlikely prospect of Danny’s innocence…that, too, was best postponed until the next day. For, as I held the shivering youth, each of us eagerly feeding on the other’s body warmth and a fierce spiritual closeness for comfort and reassurance, I changed my mind and reverted to instinct. Danny was no killer.
“Come on, let’s find a hotel. We’ll grab something to eat, get a good night’s sleep and take tomorrow as it comes.
“I didn’t do it, guv.”
Another wave splashed us.
“I believe you,” I said and the expression of relief on his puffy, tear-stained face was all the reassurance I needed. I booked us into a nearby hotel and the receptionist gave me a look that was anything but friendly as I paid for our rooms with my credit card. She kept an eagle eye on the pair of us while she telephoned the company, plainly disappointed when the transaction was confirmed.
We both relaxed in my room after a shower and a hot, three-course meal, courtesy of Room Service. Neither of us felt much like talking. It was Danny who broached the subject closest to our hearts over coffee. “What happened, guv? How come Poppy’s …dead?” He could scarcely bring himself to say the word. Much calmer now, he was wearing one of my shirts and a pair of red boxer shorts while his jeans dried out.
I told him all I knew. “Now it’s your turn,” I told him after a long, thoughtful silence.
“I didn’t mean to hit her, it just happened. But I didn’t kill her, guv, I swear.”
“I believe you. Now, take me through it, just as it happened….”
“I lost my rag and…she sort of got in the way of my fist….” He became tearful again.
“I was provoked, guv, honest. I’d never hurt Poppy, never.”
“Go on. You had a punch-up and…?”
“I was so angry. But she wouldn’t let it go, and we ended up on the floor. I was on top of her. My hands were at her throat. Her face was turning red then purple. Suddenly, I realized what I was doing. Jesus, I was so scared I nearly shit myself. I let go and ran off. But she was still breathing, I swear. She saw me grab the video and said something. Only, she could hardly speak so I dunno what it was she was saying. I just knew I had to be somewhere else, get as far away as bleeding possible just as fast as I could before….” He he began shivering again. I tossed him a jumper. He flung me a lopsided grin as he pulled it on. I had a sense of the old streetwise Danny for the first time in a while, and decided I much preferred it to this snivelling wreck of a youth sprawled opposite me in an armchair so huge it appeared to be swallowing him up.
“Video?” I started and pricked up my ears.
“That’s what we rowed about. Fat Georgie told her to keep it safe for him. More fool, the pair of ’em if you ask me. He promised she’d get to star in some sort of blue movie, the mother-f**king toad!”
“What video?” I insisted, thoroughly confused.
“What d’ye mean, what video? You know what video. The one what got us all into this mess in the first place!”
“But Philip said…”
“Oh, him!” Danny snorted dismissively. “Coppers, they think they know it all. But that Phil, he’s as thick as two planks, just like all the rest. Georgie spots I’m being tailed, right? So he does another swap. He takes off the label, sticks it on some Mickey Mouse vid, then gives the original to Poppy, spinning her a line about how it’s a prezzie for his little granddaughter. Do the cops look twice at it? Nope. Anyway, it ain’t Poppy they’re after, except for rescuing or so they reckon.” He burst into a spasm of forced laughter that made my blood run cold. “That’s my gel! She can run rings around the Old Bill with her eyes shut…at least, she could.” The laughter froze on his lips and he began to cry again. “That bastard Georgie, he always could talk her round with his sweet talk and promises of big money and how he’d see to it she got rich pickings.”
He sniffed noisily.
“It never bothered her much what she had to do for it. I guess she was sick. Only, I never saw it, never wanted to see it. She was special, you see. I ain’t never had anyone special before, not anyone who thought I was special too….”
He sniffed again.
“We didn’t have much but at least we had each other. I suppose you think that’s bleeding pathetic? Well, you’d be right, I reckon.” He glared at me, fiercely self-defensive, but his lower lip was trembling and he was still crying.
“Not pathetic,” I said gently, “just sad, very sad.”
“Don’t patronise me.”
“I’m not. I’m trying to understand.”
“I don’t need your understanding or your pity. I don’t need anyone. I managed on me own before, I can do it again.”
I shrugged. “If that’s the way you want it.”
Danny dabbed at his eyes with a tissue and blew his nose. I helped myself to more coffee while we sat through another long, uneasy silence and struggled to collect our thoughts.
“I’ll go down for this, won’t I?” They’ll shove me back in one of those shit-holes for juveniles,” he shouted without taking hi eyes off the floor.
“Only if they find you guilty,” I pointed out, “which you’re not, so you’ve nothing to worry about,” I added hastily.
“Of course they’ll find me bleeding guilty! Look at me. What chance do I have? Besides, I’ve got form, haven’t I?” He spat at the carpet then glared directly at me. “Do you know what it’s like for people like me in those places? You’re expected to spend half the time with your arse spread and the other half going down on anybody who has a fancy for it, and that’s plenty, believe you me!” He began rocking to and fro, clutching his stomach, his face grey, almost the same shade as my hair. “I can’t go though all that again, I can’t! I’ll top myself first, I swear.”
I went and stood in front of him, grabbed his shoulders and shook him hard. “Don’t you ever say that again, never, do you hear me? Don’t even think it! Where there’s life there’s hope. It may be the oldest cliché in the book but it also happens to be true. What good are you to anyone dead and what good is anyone to you? So just you hang in there until we get this mess sorted. Promise me, Danny.”
“What’s it to you anyway?” he demanded, tears streaming down his face.
I hesitated. “You once said I was the nearest thing to a dad you’ve ever had. Well, I guess you’re the nearest I’ll get to having a son. It may not be an ideal package but it’s the only one on offer. Take it or leave it. I can’t promise you much, only that I’ll do everything in my power to help you and make things easier for you.”
We regarded each other warily.
“Can you promise they won’t bang me up?”
I shook my head. “No promises, Danny, but I’ll try. Here’s my hand on it. What do you say? Do we have a deal?” I held out my hand. He stared at it then scrambled to his feet.
“A fat lot of good that’s gonna do me!” he retorted and stormed out of the room.
I spent yet another restless night sifting through a mish-mash of conscience and emotion. I was angry, upset, confused, you name it. I had put my heart on the line for Danny, and although he had chosen to trample all over it I still felt much the same way towards the lad. It was ironic that, at forty-plus, I should suddenly develop paternal feelings. Ironic indeed. That these should seek to express themselves in a streetwise rent boy, his first perception of me as a potential client, was nothing short of ludicrous.
My thoughts turned, naturally enough, to my own father, for once with a fondness that helped settle me down and drift off to sleep.
I was rudely awoken awakened by a huge brown bear, opened my eyes to find it towering over me on its hind legs, growling and gesturing urgently with its paws. Even wide-awake, I seemed to feel its fur rubbing against my bare legs, hear persistent grunting sounds in my ears.
Something was terribly wrong.
I crawled out of bed, pulling on a pair of jeans before venturing into the corridor. I tapped on Danny’s door. No reply. I told myself that I was behaving like an idiot and that Danny, like most sensible people, would be fast asleep at three o’clock in the morning. I was about to return to my own room when I heard a faint noise behind the door. On impulse, I turned the brass doorknob and pushed. It opened and I peered inside. “Danny?” I called softly.
In the darkness, I thought I saw some movement on the bed. I entered and fumbled for the light switch; it was in exactly the same position by the door as mine. The room came alive with light. I scarcely had time to take in Danny’s inert form on the bed, when I was grabbed from behind. A gloved hand clamped tightly over my half open mouth. Something cold was pressed against the side of my head. Out of the corner of my eye, I could make out the unmistakeable shape of a gun barrel.
“Try and play the hero, Fisher, and I’ll kill you,” a man’s voice purred in my ear.
I nodded, terrified.


Fat Georgie. My mind grappled with this likelihood with no thought of heroics. I could feel the man’s bulk prodding me, smell his distinctive deodorant.
“Get over there, hands behind your head,” he snarled. I hastily did as I was told. Danny
lay perfectly still on the bed, eyes closed, his face ashen.
“Is he dead?” I ventured to ask.    
“Not as dead as you’ll be if you don’t shut up and do exactly as I say,” Georgie observed and proceeded to study me with a beady, penetrating gaze. I felt as if ants were crawling all over my body. “You are a nuisance, Mr Fisher, a bloody nuisance.” Careful to keep me covered with the gun at all times, he reached for something on the bed and pocketed it.
“Home entertainment?” I enquired sarcastically, assuming the video was the same one all the fuss was about.
He chuckled. The fat, sweaty face beamed. “Quite so. I take it you’ve had a preview?”
I nodded. “Don’t tell me, let me guess. It wasn’t to your taste.”
“It’s sick,” I got angry, “Like you, you fat moron.”
His expression turned ugly. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you it isn’t polite to call people names?”
“People, not animals,” I said with an air of bravado I was far from feeling. I should have known better, of course, but I had some mad idea that if I could provoke him enough, he would make a mistake and give me an opening.
Obviously, I had seen too many James Bond movies.
As Fat Georgie continued to point the gun right at me, a chubby finger tightening on the trigger, my alter ego was forced to acknowledge it  was behaving like a reckless prat. Slowly, he lowered the gun. My immense relief, however, was short-lived. “Not here, I think,” glancing at Danny and back at me. “Oh, the rent boy-client scenario may well have worked before, all things being equal so to speak. Only, they weren’t, were they, equal I mean?  I fancy your friend Fanny t Adams is unlikely to be taken in.”
“His name is Philip,” I said unable to swallow a catch in my voice. “But, yes, you certainly botched that one up,” I agreed.
“No, Mr Fisher, you did, you and a pair of fools. I, though, am no fool. Why do you think I’m holding this gun myself? If you want a job done properly, do it yourself, as my dear old granny used to say.”
“If she could see you now, I’m sure she’d be very proud of you,” I murmured scathingly. He flinched and gave a tight smile, but said nothing. “So what happens now? Are you going to shoot us?”
“Nothing so crass, I can assure you. Besides, the boy isn’t a problem now he no longer has the video. He assured me there are no copies and I believe him. Our Danny will come to with a nasty bump on his head and I dare say a splitting headache. But who cares? He’s rent. He’s scum. Even if he blabs, who is going to believe him? As for the video, the police believe it no longer exists. I have no worries on that score. You, though, Mr Fisher, you are a worry to me.”
“What can I do or say without the damn video?” I protested, “I’d have thought I’m in much the same boat as Danny as far as you’re concerned. No one’s likely to believe me either.”
“Ah, but they might. You talk, people listen, and I’m in big trouble maybe. I don’t like the sound of that, Mr Fisher,” he hissed between clenched teeth.
“So?” I tried to sound confident, nonchalant even, while so scared I thought I’d wet myself.
“So place both hands by your sides and keep them there. I really would prefer not to shoot you. For your information, however, you will see I have taken the precaution of fitting a silencer to my little friend here. If I have to shoot you, I will. No one will hear a sound. Nor, I can assure you, will I miss.” He laughed, thick lips between massive jaws jerking obscenely. As the last, deep throat rattle died away, he farted noisily. “After you, Mr Fisher,” gesturing with the gun.
I stopped by the door and turned. He darted forward, pushing me against the door, the gun barrel digging into the nape of my neck. “Where are we going?” I stammered.
“For a quiet stroll, just you and me.”
“Can I get dressed first?”
“No need for that, you’ll do nicely just as you are.”
I winced. I was wearing only boxer shorts under my jeans, a tee shirt and stood in my bare feet. “You’re mad,” I muttered.
“And you, Mr Fisher, have far too much to say for yourself.” He snatched a handkerchief from his breast pocked and was stuffing it between my lips before I realized his intention. Ignoring my muffled protests and pressing the gun barrel even harder into my flesh, he forced it into my mouth. It felt like a wad of cotton wool and I nearly choked on it. Instinctively, I raised my right hand to yank the gag free.
The gun pressed against me even harder. “Hands down, mouth shut and keep them that way…or else,” the pimp hissed. Behind rimless specs perched on a cauliflower nose, a pair of button eyes glittered, full of malice and determination.” He farted again. I grimaced. So did he, only his was a look of pure evil. Seconds later we were walking along the corridor, down the back
stairs and through a Fire Exit into the street, encountering no one. For a second time, I found myself heading for the beach.
The night was damp. Paving stones, like blocks of sandpaper, chafed the soles of my feet. A man and woman turned a corner and approached us, arm in arm. I felt a warning stab of cold steel in the small of my back. Tempted though I was to try my luck as the pair drew level, the pressure on my spine increased perceptibly and I thought better of it. Nor did I want to place the lovebirds in danger too. I managed to push at the gag with my tongue so that a scrap of silk protruded but in vain. The couple passed by with eyes only for each other, their hollow footsteps like a banging of nails in a coffin. Mine, I wondered?
The beach loomed up at us and we walked on. “Stay where you are,” the familiar hissing sound stopped me in my tracks. “Now, take off your shirt and jeans.”
“What?” I could not believe what I was hearing, “It’s bloody freezing!”
“Take them off, now,” the hiss became a low bark. I did as I was told, shivering as much from fear as the chill night air. “Now keep walking. No, leave them there,” the voice rasped as I bent to retrieve my clothes.
We walked to the sea’s edge, wet sand tickling my toes, shingle pricking my bare feet and waves crashing around my ears until my mind’s eye was forced to witness the destruction of Babylon.
“Keep walking,” chuckled the pimp. Icy water lapped at my feet, covering them. It dawned on me what he had in mind. I panicked, stopped and half turned. The gun caught me a glancing blow on the forehead. I stumbled further into the water. At the same time, I tugged the gag from my mouth and tried to scream. But my mouth was parched and I could only manage a pathetic croak. Chest high in the water now, I swung round with difficulty, splashing, just as a fresh wave hit me and caught me off balance. I fell face down into the murky water and only vaguely heard the sound of shots.
I had swallowed mouthfuls of water before a burning desire to live took hold of me. Somehow, I found the strength to scramble up, spluttering furiously and scared witless.
More shots blasted into a jaded moonlight streaking eerily over land and sea. I staggered towards the shore, buffeted by waves and frequently doused by them. Yet I stayed on my feet this time and waded towards the shore, marginally less frightened of Fat Georgie than of black, freezing cold waves, likewise out to get me. Not for the first time in my life, I wished I could swim. Instead, I could but lift up a mute prayer to a Godwhose existence I doubted, and persevere.
The bullet hit me with the force of a high voltage electric shock. I sank to my knees. Another wave drenched me and sent me flying. I found my feet, fell again, and found them again.
Someone shouted my name. It wasn’t Georgie’s voice. I waded towards it, waves shoving and dragging at me in quick succession. All the time, I kept swallowing salt water, retching, trying to concentrate on hauling myself forward, increasingly aware of an agonizing pain in my chest. Another wave had a mule’s kick and I fell, my strength almost gone. I let several waves roll over me before I realized I was lying on sand. I began to crawl on my hands and knees.
The moon had disappeared behind a blanket of low-hanging cloud. I heard my name called again and strained every aching muscle to see in the gloom.
Sudden;y, I spotted it, the outline of a shaggy bear on its hind legs. It dropped to all fours and came bounding towards me. I felt its hot tongue on my face, grabbed a fistful of fur and let the beast drag me out of the water.
I heard the voice again. But, no, a different voice this time. More voices. More shouting. “Laurie,” someone murmured at my ear, so tenderly that I wanted to believe it was Philip.
Strong arms gripped my shoulders while I vomited almost non-stop for several minutes. “Are you okay Laurie? Are you hurt? If that fat bastard has hurt you, I’ll kill him.” It was Philip’s voice. My reeling brain barely had time to register the impossible when I felt my feeble hold on consciousness slip away. I was happy enough now, though, to clamber on the bear’s back and trust the beast to carry me wherever it would.
The first thing that struck me when I opened my eyes was that I was dry. Next, I began to appreciate how the sun was shining brightly, in a clear blue sky, through a window just across the room from the bed where I lay bare-chested and bandaged. Then I realized I was in a room of my own, not a general ward. This came as an enormous relief, not least because it meant I could have a stab at putting my muddled thoughts into some kind of order at my own snail’s pace.
A nurse came in, smiled but seemed harassed and said nothing while she took my temperature and pulse, noted them down on a chart at the end of the bed then left me to my own devices with a brief, “You’re doing very well, Mr Fisher. A doctor will be in to see you shortly.”
My next visitor, however, was not a doctor but Philip Adams. He grinned and perched on a hard chair beside the bed. “What am I going to do with you, eh?” It was my turn to grin if a trifle sheepishly. “Whatever, we can’t keep meeting like this or people will talk….” I chuckled, and  then winced involuntarily as the wound in my chest wasted no time asserting its disapproval.
“Danny’s fine. He’s sleeping it off at your place. Don’t panic. Your brother Marc has temporarily moved in and promises to keep an eye on things, especially young Danny. The widow Finn is keeping an eagle eye on the pair of them, so no worries there.”
“Fat Georgie?”
“Under arrest along, with a few others with whom I dare say the press will have a field day in the not-so-distant future. So you can relax and stop worrying.”
“So how….”
“How did we strike it lucky by the skin of our teeth? Good question.” he rubbed his chin and frowned, “When I called to see you, the widow was in a bit of a state….”
“Drunk, I imagine!” I laughed then gave a yelp. Yet again, my wound gave me cause for regret.
“She was well over the top,” Philip chuckled, “ but reasonably coherent. She told me you’d gone to Southend to look for Danny, although I have to say I couldn’t make head or tail of her rambling explanation. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure I’d heard right and thought no more about it until a report came in at the station, confirming Fat Georgie had been spotted in Southend. It had to be too much of a coincidence even if it didn’t make much sense. I got scared for you, Laurie. Our George is a nasty piece of work and way out of your league.”
“You can say that again!” Then I remembered, “The video!”
“Relax. It’s in safe hands,” Philip assured me and looked grim, “A neat little trick, that, and one I should have fallen for in the first place!”
“So how…”
“Did we put two and two together? We didn’t. Not long after I arrived at Southend nick, Danny turned up in one hell of a state with some garbled tale about you having been kidnapped by Fat Georgie.”
“Danny?” I was slightly incredulous.
“Yep, our Danny, walking into a cop shop of his own free will! It was so unlike him, I felt inclined to believe every word he said. It took a little longer to convince the D.I. that I wasn’t completely off my rocker, but once the penny dropped it was all systems go. We were cutting it pretty fine, as it turned out.”
“He wanted to make it look as though I’d drowned myself….” I shivered.
“Oh, he’s full of bright ideas alright.”
“Will the video see to it that he goes down?”
“For a long time. It puts him and some very important people in the frame for rape, murder, you name it. If it’s sick enough, it’s on that tape.”
I shivered again. “Murder?” I repeated then, cried “Poppy! Danny didn’t do it, Philip, he didn’t, couldn’t have….” I became agitated. Philip leaned forward and gently forced me back against the pillows. By now, I was panting, each rasping breath accompanied by a shooting pain in the chest. His face was close to mine. In spite of everything, I wanted to fling my arms around his neck and kiss the full, earnest mouth. I did no such thing, of course. I had neither the strength nor much hope that he would return my embrace.
Philip waited until I was calm. “Danny’s in the clear. A couple of Georgie’s pals were watching out for young Poppy. When Danny ran out of the house after he and Poppy argued, they had no idea he had the video so he wasn’t a priority. Even so, one of them tailed him to the railways station while the other broke in at the back of the house and surprised Poppy. She put up one hell of a fight,” he added, “He says it was an accident, that he didn’t mean to kill her, just….”
“Just what?”
“She was raped, Laurie.”
“Oh my God, that poor kid!”
“He denies rape, of course, says she was up for it.” He hesitated. “She was only fifteen, by the way. Danny’s been telling porky pies about his age as well. He won’t be sixteen until next March.”
“They should have been at school instead of….”
“You hear about these things but you only half believe them until they happen to you…”
“In spite of the marks on her neck, it seems she wasn’t strangled. It looks as though the poor kid hit her head, probably during the struggle. That’s what killed her. The pathologist says it’s an unlucky chance in a million.”
“So the bastard might not even go down?” I was appalled.
“Oh, he’ll go down alright. Not only for GBH and underage sex either. He pops up in the video, too.”
“Poor Poppy. Oh, shit!” I railed at the world’s injustices.
“You said it,” Philip agreed.
At that moment a woman doctor arrived to give me the once-over. Dismissing Philip with a glance, she examined my wound. “You can go home, Mr Fisher, we need the bed. We’ll be in touch with your GP and you may need more painkillers. Otherwise, you’re in fairly good shape. Lucky for you, it’s only a flesh wound. You’ll need to visit Outpatients to have the stitches removed.” She smiled, effecting a remarkable transformation from dragon to very attractive young woman.
Half an hour later, Philip drove me home. Apart from filling me in on a few more details, conversation was detached and impersonal. A reception committee was on hand to greet us. No sooner had we parked outside the house than the front door opened and Danny ran to the gate. Nick Carter and Marc stood in the doorway while the widow Finn emerged from her own house to greet us.
Are you okay, guv?” Danny demanded anxiously.
“I dare say I’ll live,” I assured him.
“You don’t sound too sure,” murmured Marc who had left Nick in the porch and come to the gate.
I shrugged and smiled, much relieved when he smiled back. His handsome, boyish face was flushed with pleasure, a fraternal intimacy I couldn’t have put into words and was content not to try.
We all crowded into the kitchen and the widow wasted no rime providing a pot of tea and a light spread, into which we all tucked in with relish. She also saw to it that Danny assisted by handing round plates of various goodies. I couldn’t help noticing that he’d become very subdued. When he volunteered to help with the washing up, I really began to worry. Each time I tried to catch his eye, he obstinately refused to look at me. Yet he had appeared so pleased to see me earlier. I couldn’t make him out at all.
Philip was the first to leave after first reminding Danny and me that we were required to call in at the local nick and make full statements within the next twenty-four hours.
Danny nodded sullenly. I saw Philip to the door, more than slightly put out by his officious manner. We shook hands. His touch excited me but I resolved not to show it. “Thanks again,” I mumbled. What else was I supposed to say? I owed the man my life, but that did not alter the fact he had betrayed not only my trust but also my affection. Well, hadn’t he? I began to wonder if it really made so much difference that he was a copper. “I could have loved you,” I murmured inaudibly as I watched him go, and then returned indoors feeling grumpy and, yes, lonely.
The widow Finn and Danny remained in the kitchen while Marc, Nick and I drifted into the sitting room. It was not long before Marc rose and, looking embarrassed, made an excuse to use the loo. Nick, meanwhile, remained firmly seated.
“Are you two an item?” I couldn’t resist asking after Marc had left the room.
Nick Carter shrugged. “Maybe, one day. I like him a lot.” He paused and flung me a challenging look, “Do you mind?”
“Not any more,” I admitted, “I hope it works out for you both.”
“Do you really mean that?” He sounded surprised but pleased.
“I said so, didn’t I?” I grinned, and he grinned back. He looked different, more relaxed than I had ever seen him. We went to shake hands but, of one accord, moved into a brief hug. It was an impulsive embrace between friends, nothing more, except that we had discovered, perhaps for the first time, a genuine liking for each other.
“Marc and I were worried sick when we heard what happened. I still can’t believe it. You might have been killed. You have to be the world’s most unlikely hero, Laurence!” He let rip with a burst of nervous laughter and I remembered, just in time, not to join in.
“I’m no hero.” I had to chuckle in spite of the pain in my chest. “I’m just a selfish nerd who follows his instincts and never stops to consider the consequences, for himself or anyone else.”
Nick unexpectedly kissed me on the cheek at the door. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Laurence. There’s nothing wrong with your instincts that a little thought can’t lick into shape.” He turned to Marc who was coming down the stairs, “I’ll wait for you in the car.”
Marc followed me back into the sitting room.
“Tactful of Nick to give us a few minutes to ourselves,” I commented dryly, and eased myself gently into a chair opposite my brother.
“He’s a nice guy/I like him a lot,” came the even-tempered response to which I made no reply. “I like him a lot,” he repeated.
“Good,” I said, my mind elsewhere. For it had already turned to another matter, one that I considered of equal concern to us both. Even so, I had to take several deep, painful breaths before telling him about plans our mother and sister were hatching for a family get-together.
“Is that why you went, to organize peace talks?” He sounded even more doubtful about the likely outcome than I was feeling.
“I’m not sure why I went but it has to be worth a try, don’t you agree?” I endeavoured to sound optimistic. “If we show willing, maybe they can meet us half way at least. I’m guessing it hasn’t been so bad for you as it was for me, but...”
“Bad enough,” he interrupted sharply. “And half way would be good enough for you?”
I shrugged. “There’s no point in expecting miracles. And it has to be better than nothing, surely?” I countered, “Better foundations we can build on than walls to keep bashing our heads against, surely?” I suggested wryly. “True, there’s a lot of work to be done. But, who knows? Between us we might yet drag our family into the twenty-first century...”
“Yes, kicking and screaming!” he retorted but a grin on his face took the sting out of his words. I experienced a pang of…What, guilt? Not so long ago I’d have passed much the same comment. Had things changed so much then? Had I changed? It’s hardly surprising if I have, I reflected grimly. Certainly, recent traumatic events had left their mark. At the same time, maybe they had but acted as a trigger of sorts for home truths with which I had been playing hide-and-seek for years. It was a sobering thought.
“It’s a start,” I said, “Family is family, after all’s said and done. If things don’t work out quite to our liking, well, so be it. At least we’ll have each other.”
He coloured and gave me a shy smile that  made him appear much younger and very vulnerable, not unlike the little brat who had called me names on that Sunday twelve years ago. “I’d like that, Laurie.”
“Me too,” I agreed and we arranged to travel home together in a few days. At the door, we hugged; it seemed a natural thing to do.
Left alone, I sat and brooded for ages. Finally, a blast of pop music overhead provoked me into attempting to take the stairs two at a time, and quickly realising my mistake. I had to sit down for a while for the pain to recede. Finally, and very gingerly, I took the last few stairs. Words of a much media hyped artist and pop song blaring in my ears, I had to bang on the door of the spare bedroom to stand any chance of making myself heard.
Danny took his time before appearing, immediately adopting a defensive stance as he stood aside to let me enter.  “We finished clearing up, me and Ma Finn.”
“Less of the Ma,” I said shortly, “ It’s Mrs Finn to you. You can turn that racket down, too. If you must play music so loud, use my earphones.”
“It ain’t the same,” he protested, with a logic that confounded me utterly. But he turned down the volume, and then crossed to the window while I sat on the bed.
“Why did you let me think you were sixteen?” I demanded.
 “I can’t help what you thought, can I?”
“You should be at school.”
He turned, looking grim and white faced, “Are you going to turn me over to Social Services?” I shrugged, preferring not to consider that I hadn’t given the matter any thought.
“Can I at least stay here until Poppy’s funeral? I won’t be any trouble, guv, honest. Phil said it might be another week before they’re…finished with her…and we can set a date.”
This simple request stung me to shame. I hadn’t forgotten poor Poppy, only pushed her death, conveniently, to the back of my mind, Danny’s private torment along with it. “You can stay as long as you like,” I said on impulse.
“Like, how long?”
This time I chose my words more carefully. “I’ve applied for a transfer at work. If and when it comes through, I’ll be moving out of London and going to live up North.”
His face dropped. “So can I stay till then?”
I nodded. “Then you can decide whether or not you want to come with me.”
“How do you mean?”
I took a deep breath. “If you decide to come with me we’ll look for a house, a school for you and…”
“School?” he pulled a face.
“You aren’t old enough to leave school yet,” I reminded him, “and you have a lot of catching up to do. Maybe we can sort you out with a Further Education college or something, we’ll have to see. Even so, we’ll have to go through Social Services, but I imagine they would rather it be me than them takes you on, especially as you’re nearly sixteen anyway. It’s your decision, of course. But think carefully about it before you do anything stupid like running off again,” I cautioned sternly, “Here’s a chance for you to….”
“Live happily ever after?” he muttered. I could feel his resentment, almost touch it.
“You can’t make me go back to school, you’re not my dad!”
“No,” I agreed, “but I’d like to be your friend, if you’ll let me.”
“A rent boy and a queer. Do you honestly think anyone’s gonna buy that, especially Social bloody Services?”
“It’s like I said, Danny. You’re nearly sixteen, I don’t think they’ll want the hassle.”
“And you do?” He was quietly incredulous.
I pressed on, giving voice to an idea that had been running wild and unformulated in my head for a while. “It’s up you, of course. We’ve been through a lot together in a very short time. I can’t deny it’s been a shock to the system, for you too. But after this little lot, the rest has to be child’s play, I reckon. But it’s up to you,” I repeated. “I’m game if you are.”
“So where’s the catch?”
“The catch, Danny, is that you pull your weight with the chores, go to school like any normal kid, and if that means homework, so be it.”
“Don’t want much, do you?” he grimaced.
“The point is, do you?” I retorted. We glared at each other and I had the feeling I was wasting both my time and my breath.
“Why should you help me after what I did? I nearly got you killed, for crying out loud.”
What could I say? “These things happen. Besides,” I added dryly, “I gather I have you to thank for my rescue from a watery grave.”
“I suppose I was a bit of a hero,” he agreed with chuckle.
I got up. “Think about it, Danny, that’s all I’m suggesting. There’s no rush….”
“We’d probably get on each other’s nerves something rotten.”
“So, why?” he insisted.
“Because, like it or not, I happen to care about you,” I snapped with growing impatience and some embarrassment. I all but fled the room as much as the pain in my chest would allow, and left  him to mull over the unlikely prospect of our setting up home together.
Half an hour or so later, Danny joined me in the sitting room. I was taking some painkillers with a cup of tea while a bland made-for-TV movie ran its predictable course without grabbing my attention. “Guv?”
“I care about you too,” he mumbled and tears began to stream like rivulets down his face.
I hesitated. “I suppose you’re too big for a hug?”
He grinned and flung his skinny arms around my neck. A warm glow spread through me as I held the sobbing youth close. My aches and pains didn’t matter. We stayed like that for several minutes before Danny broke away, his face crimson with embarrassment, and ran upstairs.
“Three down and one to go,” I told my Christmas cactus on the sideboard. I had made my peace with Nick, Marc, and now Danny. All I needed to do now was sort out my feelings for Philip Adams. Fat chance. I sighed. Not only had I no clue how to approach the man, but also no clear idea what I expected from him. Who am I kidding?
The cactus was saying nothing, but a character in the TV movie began yelling as if on cue, “You have to go for it, man, go for it!”
Yet, time passed and I neither contacted Philip nor did he attempt to get in touch with me. I returned to work the following week, leaving a loudly protesting Danny in the care of May Finn. A social worker had called twice and, for now at any rate, it appeared Danny and I were to be left to our own devices, especially after the widow had agreed to help out. Marc and I were due at our mother’s that weekend. While I hated leaving Danny, the widow declared that a break from each other would do us both good, besides pointing out that I could hardly take him with me. Time enough, I agreed, for my family to get used to the idea that I intended living with a former rent boy.
It had proved to be a difficult but promising weekend. Marc and I threw ourselves into a spirit of compromise and goodwill. Even brother Stuart and his wife grudgingly conceded that there was something to be said for family values, prejudice not being one of them. Eventually, we all agreed to stay in touch as a family. Only time would tell what degree of consensus was down to the efforts of our mother and sister behind the scenes and how much rested on spent emotions.
 “I wonder what dad would have made of it all,” I mused aloud on the drive back to London.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Marc at the wheel. “But I think he’d have been pleased, don’t you?”
“Maybe. Oh, I don’t know. I just wish I could share your optimism.”
Marc pulled into a leafy lay-by. “I told dad I was gay just before he died.” He stared straight ahead, watching the antics of fat thrushes squabbling over a worm on a nearby branch. “Mum had told me not to say anything but I had to, while there was still time.”
“So what did he say?” I prompted after a long silence, during which I could tell by his expression that my brother was reliving the moment.
“He said not to worry, that it was okay, how I’d be okay too and how much he loved me.” My brother turned to me with tears in his eyes. “He said he loved you too, and how sorry he was that he hadn’t understood sooner. He said it was a generation gap thing but that was no excuse, how he wanted to see you but was afraid you wouldn’t come, that you wouldn’t be able to forgive him.”
Two grey squirrels began chasing each other up the tree. The thrushes flew off into a leafy sky.
“I wish I’d known,” I said at last. I wanted to cry, but not for sadness. I felt oddly lightheaded, as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
“I’ve been wanting to tell you for ages. I guess I’ve been waiting for the right moment.”
“Some weekend!” I heaved a sigh and grinned. “Blessed are the peacemakers, eh!” He grinned back and, without further ado turned the key in the ignition.
Poppy was cremated a few days later. Her parents had been contacted by the police, but shown no interest. It was left to her grandfather to attend to all the funeral arrangements. Apart from Danny and myself, he was the only other mourner present. It was a bleak affair. Danny looked smart in a dark suit, white shirt and black tie but also, I reflected sadly, frailer even than the old man.
As the curtains closed and the coffin moved away, I found myself thinking about Harry. Grief, still raw, was exacerbated by my concern for Danny and a deep sorrow for poor Poppy. I’d have given a lot for someone to put an arm around me and let me know I still counted for something. Instead, I gave Danny a hug. He glanced up at me. A look of frank gratitude on the pale face, as he struggled unsuccessfully to hold back a flood of tears, reassured me that I hadn’t misjudged the moment.
One afternoon, a few weeks later, my boss called me into his office and confirmed that my transfer had been arranged. “You can start from the first of next month. That will give you time to find a place to stay and set a few wheels in motion regarding something more permanent.”
”It’s not long,” I groaned.
“Take it or leave it.”
“Oh, I’ll take it.”
“Good,” then, “I’ll be sorry to lose you, Laurence, you’re a good worker.” I was pleasantly taken aback for he wasn’t a man given to dishing out compliments.
In the workroom, the news quickly spread. Craig Barton, an old adversary and dedicated follower of homophobia, called out to me, elbows resting on his desk, a broad sneer on his pockmarked face. “We’ll miss you Laurence. It won’t be the same, will it folks, without the office pervert?”
A few people laughed uncomfortably.
“Why, are you leaving too, Craig?” Nick Carter piped up.
Everyone roared. Barton scowled. “Very funny. Oh, and since when were you a pouf lover, Nick?”
“Since I started to take pride in myself, why? Being one too, this is….”
The silence was deafening.
“You’re queer?” Barton was genuinely surprised.
“Got a problem with that, have you?” Nick looked around. “Does anyone else have a problem with it?” Nobody spoke.
“Okay, get on with some work, you lot. I don’t pay you to  sit around and gossip!” yelled my boss through the half open window of his office. We did, but only after Nick gave me a wink that  left me unable to concentrate a hundred per cent for the rest of the day.
“Why did you do that?” I asked him later at the bar of the Flying Horse.
“I felt like it. Not before time either,” he added with a light, easy laugh I hadn’t heard before.
“Talk about burning bridges...!”
“Maybe.” He shrugged. “Who knows? I like to think it’s all about building new ones. Let’s face it. The chance doesn’t come along every day. Besides, life’s too short. Anyway, there’s legislation now. If anyone tries to put a spoke in my wheel, I’ll sue.” He grinned. “In the meantime, life goes on and mine’s another pint.”
I was about to order when several colleagues arrived and wandered over to join us. After a strained start, we settled down to a good-humoured hour or so of drinking and banter before going our respective ways.
It felt less of a wrench to leave London than I’d anticipated. I soon started to enjoy my new job, having left Danny staying with the widow Finn, and found a cosy B&B. When I took some leave to go house hunting, Danny travelled up on the train and helped me choose a charming detached house in a quiet, tree-lined street less than half an hour’s drive away from the centre of Manchester. The owners were anxious to make a quick sale. Having already sold the old house, I was able to make a cash offer. After a minimum of haggling, this was accepted.
I began to feel genuinely excited about starting a new life. All I would miss about the old one, I reflected with some surprise, was the widow Finn and she had promised to visit often.
On the morning of the actual move, Danny disappeared after breakfast without saying where he was going and still hadn’t returned by the time the removal van had arrived, been loaded, and left. I watched it turn the corner by the old Copper Kettle and wondered what Harry would have made of it all? I suspected he would have approved. At least, I hoped so. It felt strange. Not only had two complete strangers cheerfully packed up the whole of our life together and driven off with it, but also they had done so with my blessing. Harry’s too, I tried to reassure myself. This was no time to be having second thoughts.
As I wandered through the empty rooms, Harry accompanied me every step of the way. “You never want to do anything different any more,” he was complaining. “What happened to being young and spontaneous, meeting life head-on instead of being resigned to each day as it comes? It’s so boring, Laurie. We may be getting older but that doesn’t mean having one foot in the grave before we’re good and ready….”
Oh, he’d say it jokingly enough, but I should have taken him seriously. I should have listened. , Instead, Harry had gone off and done something different on his own, and paid for it with his life. It wasn’t my fault, I kept telling myself, but only half believed it.
In the empty bedroom we had shared, I spotted something shiny stuck between two bare boards where the bed had been. I went to pick it up. It was a five pence piece. I chuckled. The room rang hollowly with a sound likes ghosts laughing. The longer I regarded that tiny coin in the palm of my hand, the more clearly it expressed how I was feeling. For I couldn’t have put a price on the joy this house had brought me even if I tried. Yet, it was time to move on. I almost, superstitiously, replaced the coin. Now you’re just being silly, I told myself. As if to convince myself, I idly flipped the coin without calling heads or tails, and pocketed it.
I felt so much better for that simple act.
Hearing a sound beside me I swung round, poised to give Danny a good ticking off for being late. Philip Adams was leaning in the doorway, an uncharacteristically nervous smile twitching at the corners of his mouth.
“I came to wish you Bon Voyage. I hope you don’t mind.” But I just stood there, tongue-tied.
“Well, say something, even if it’s only, hello.”
“Hello,” I mumbled.
He shrugged. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have come. I told Danny he’d got it all wrong.
I’ll go.” He turned to leave.
“Danny?” I found my voice at last, “Got what all what wrong?”
Philip paused, his mouth twitching again. “He came to the station and filed a complaint.” I felt my jaw drop. “According to him, you’ve been behaving like a bear with a sore head and it’s all down to me.”
“He said that?”
“Yep. He said a lot more too. We had a long, cosy chat.”
About what?”
“You, mostly. Me. Us.”
“Oh? And there was I, thinking the pair of you couldn’t stand each other.”
“Danny and I understand each other, we always have. Liking or disliking has never been an issue.”
“You could have fooled me,” I retorted.
“You can think what you like, you will anyway.”
“If you say so, Sergeant.”
“Inspector, if you don’t mind.”
“Congratulations,” I hadn’t meant to sneer but could tell from his hurt expression that it was how he took it. I wanted to apologize. Instead, I crossed to the window and looked out. The garden, less of an eyesore than usually since Danny had done some work on it. He was looking forward to tackling the garden in the new house. Just as well since my own appreciation of horticulture was a strictly passive one.
“The trouble is, promotion always has its drawbacks. I’ll be moving away, too.”
“Yes, to Manchester. So we may well run into each other.”
I swung round. “Manchester? Well, well, what a coincidence!”
He flung me a sheepish grin. “Not really. When the job came up, I jumped at the chance. The alternative was moving to Cornwall.”
“Cornwall is beautiful.”
“Yes, but too far away.”
“From London?”
“From you.”
I caught my breath. “Meaning?” I demanded, hackles and just about other self-defence mechanism in overdrive.
“Okay, I should have told you I’m a policeman. But you’d have run a mile if I had. Anyway, does it really matter? We all have to earn a living somehow.”
“You used me!” I flared.
“I had a job to do.”
“I bet you say that to all your one-night stands!”
“I seem to recall, it was in the middle of the day actually.” He glared at me, blushing so furiously that I burst out laughing. “I’m glad you find it so amusing.”
“It’s not that, it’s you….” I stammered
“Goodbye, Laurence. Sorry to have bothered you.” Philip’s strong handsome face turned a shade puce before he clattered off down the stairs without another word.
“You certainly messed that up good and proper!” Danny appeared out of nowhere.
“You had no right to interfere!” I shouted at him.
“And you’ve got about sixty seconds before your boyfriend rides off into the sunset!”
“It’s not even four o’clock yet…”
“So? Are you just gonna let him go? Are you a complete nerd, or what?”
“Mind your own damn business!”
“It is my business. I’m the one who’s gonna have to live with you, right? Well, from where I’m standing, that doesn’t look too good. I don’t want to share a house with some misery guts moping around the way you’ve been lately. Do you love him?”
“Mind your own damn business!”
”Do you love him?”
“Yes!” My whole body went limp. “Yes,” I repeated miserably.
“So what are you waiting for, Christmas?”
I pushed past Danny and fairly flew down the stairs. Philip was waiting at the front door. He leapt forward to catch me as I tripped on the bottom stair. We both tumbled in a heap on the floor. “I’m sorry,” I blurted, “For everything. Can we start again?”
“I thought we just did,” he said with a broad grin, and kissed me. Neither of us paid much attention to Danny’s slow handclap.
Out of the corner of one eye, I glimpsed a lumbering shape on the stairs. It cast a huge shadow on the wall and bore an uncanny resemblance to a bear. I returned Philip’s kiss with renewed confidence, the beast’s resounding roar of approval ringing in my ears like a blessing upon us all.
“Let’s go,” I said at last.
“Hang on a mo while I go and get some fags.” Danny pushed past us and hared off, leaving the front door wide open.
Philip shut the door and took me in his arms. “It won’t be easy,” he murmured, and tickled the lobe of my right ear with his tongue. “I’m not sure that society is quite ready for gay coppers. But I’m assured by the powers-that-be that we have to change our image. That means fall guys like me are much in demand. I guess. The proof of the pudding, and all that,” he added grimly.
“You don’t seem too sure,” I teased.
“I’m sure about you,” he kissed me again, “Nothing else matters. If I get stick for being gay, so be it. I’ll survive so long as I have you to come home to after a long, hard day.”
He chuckled. “I should be able to join you in a couple of weeks.”
“Danny…” I began doubtfully.
“Danny assures me he can live with me if you can. So, can you?”
“I can’t wait.”
“Do we have to…wait, I mean? It’s not like we don’t have the whole house to ourselves.”
“Down, Rover, down!” I giggled, and so did he.  Even so, we settled for a cuddle on the stairs while we waited for Danny.
Only, Danny never arrived.


We waited for hours. The old couple who ran the grocery store next to the Copper Kettle assured us Danny hadn’t been in.
Philip was convinced the lad had planned it for the start. “You have to face facts, Laurie. Danny never had any intention of going to Manchester with you. It’s probably all for the best,” he added.
“We’ll have to report him missing.”
“Sure, for all the good it will do.”
“He’s only fifteen, for heaven’s sake!”
“But nearly sixteen. Then he’s free to do whatever he likes and go wherever he pleases. Have you any idea how many kids go missing from home every year? Hundreds. Some we find, some we don’t. Some don’t want to be found and the chances are we won’t.”
“Danny wanted to make a fresh start,” I insisted angrily, “He even agreed to go back to school, maybe college later.”
“And pigs might fly. Get real, Laurie, the boy’s a loser.”
“He wanted to make a fresh start,” I repeated stubbornly. “We both did.”
“You and I still can,” Philip was quick to point out.
I rounded on him, furiously. “So what are you suggesting we do about Danny, write him off?”
“Frankly, if it’s what he wants, yes. A life on the streets is all he knows. He’d never have settled down to a decent life. Believe me, his sort never does. Oh, they might talk about it, even dream about it. But when push comes to shove, they run a mile. Because they know that’s all it is...a dream.”
“And his ‘sort’ don’t deserve any better I suppose.”
“I didn’t say that. All I’m saying is that Danny’s not….”
“Worth the effort?”
“He’d not your average teenager, that’s for sure.”
“You never liked him,” I said with a bitterness that surprised even me, “but why should you? He’s got a criminal record. He’s a rent boy, scum of the earth. Not the kind of person a police officer wants to associate with unless he’s putting the handcuffs on! Least of all, a detective bloody inspector….”
“If you say so,” said Philip quietly.
“But he brought you and me together again,” I protested. “That says something for his character, surely?”
Philip shrugged. “It was his way of saying thank you, I suppose. Nobody’s all bad and you obviously got to him.” He grinned. “Like you got to me, you irritating bastard!”
He reached over and took my hand. I snatched it away. “He’s in trouble,” I insisted.
“Kids like Danny always are….”
“I mean real trouble. He hasn’t come back because he can’t, I just know it.”
“For crying out loud, Laurie, just listen to yourself! Fat Georgie is under lock and key and so is everyone else connected with the whole stinking business. No one is out to get Danny any more. What would be the point? Believe me, Danny simply doesn’t matter now.”
 “He matters to me,” I snapped.
“So let him go, since that’s obviously what the boy wants.”
“It’s not obvious to me.”
“Then you’re a damn fool.”
“As well as an irritating one? Bully for me!” I raged. He stomped upstairs. I heard the toilet flush and cascade through the house like a flood. I suddenly imagined myself drowning, and found myself back on Southend beach in terror for my life. Panic threatened to choke me. I tore at my collar and the top button of my shirt went flying. I sat down on the stairs, buried my face in my hands and wept.
When Philip put both arms around me, I did not pull away. “Let’s go,” he said. Gently,  he hauled me to my feet.
I did not resist, but shook my head. “Not without Danny.”
“You can’t stay here in an empty house,” Philip pointed out, with maddening logic.
“I’ll stay next door. May Finn’s a good neighbour, she won’t mind.”
Philip sighed with a mixture of impatience and resignation. “You can stay at my place. We’ll ask the widow to watch out for Danny if it makes you feel any better. The old girl doesn’t miss much, let’s face it.”
“True,” I mumbled. The idea of staying at Philip’s flat in Holborn appealed. Could he be right, I wondered? Had Danny never intended coming to Manchester with me? I couldn’t, wouldn’t believe it. Even so, I had to admit, neither Philip nor Danny were strangers to the darker side of humanity. I, on the other hand, was a mere novice, a pretty naïve one at that….
I rang Marc, who had volunteered to do a few odd jobs for me at the new house. He was very sympathetic, told me not to worry about the house, and assured me he and Nick would see to everything. Soon afterwards, Philip and I were tucking into a take-away in the kitchen of  his Holborn flat where he’d also produced some cans of beer from the fridge.
I found myself wondering how people, especially young people,  survived a life on the streets. My compassion, however, did not get the better of my appetite.
Later, in bed, I let Philip comfort me. Despatching Danny to the back of my mind, I succumbed to an unsubtle cajoling of the flesh without a qualm. We were soon engaging in frantic love-play. It felt so good, so…right. When, finally, he fell fast asleep, I took his hand in mine, pulled his arm around my waist and snuggled closer. His heaving chest tickling my bare back, one of his legs wound around one of mine, we were, quite literally, locked in an embrace. His steady breathing against my skin was like a summer breeze on the back of my neck. For the first time in ages I felt safe, contented. Then I began to worry about losing him as I had lost Harry. Oh, not suicide. But if Philip and I should ever part again….
I toppled backwards into a yawning chasm of half-lies, half-truths and pointless speculation. It went on and on, this downward spiralling into infinity, and only came to an end when an alarm clock beside the bed burst into life.
“I have to go to work,” Philip leaned across and kissed me while reaching out with one arm to switch off the alarm.
“Must you?” I kissed him back and flung my arms around his neck.
“I’m afraid so.” He wriggled free.
 “What? No breakfast in bed?” I feigned horror.
“Breakfast, what’s that?” he laughed and began to get dressed, “Duty calls. I’ll grab something in the canteen later.”
Duty calls. I frowned at this reminder of his chosen profession.
He sensed my mood and kissed me again. “I love you, Laurence. But don’t expect me to apologize for doing my job. Apart from anything else, I’m damn good at it.”
“Don’t I know it,” I muttered tersely, but if he heard he gave no sign. Once fully dressed, he lent down and kissed me one more time. It was a long, warm, lingering kiss to which my heart responded, but my mouth remained obstinately passive.
“See you later. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he said with what was plainly a forced cheerfulness. I heard the toilet flush in the bathroom and taps running. Feeling absurdly abandoned, my thoughts turned to Danny. Philip popped his head around the door, “I’ll see what I can find out about Danny but don’t get your hopes up, okay?” He vanished before I could reply. I almost leapt out of bed and ran after him. Too late, I heard the front door slam. Irrationally, I began to get angry because he had left without any breakfast. My mother had always drummed into us kids that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. “No breakfast and no good will come of it,” she’d say. I took it personally, therefore, that Philip had gone without, and got madder still.
An hour later found me at Ginny Sharp’s. I nagged on the door. No reply. No surprises there, but I was disappointed. It had seemed as good a place as any to start looking for Danny. Frustration welled up in me. I banged on the door again with clenched fists.
“Do you mind? We like our peace and quiet around here.” I turned to see a blonde woman who could have been any age between thirty-five and fifty filling the doorway of the flat opposite. She was wearing a loosely fitting green kimono with dragons on it.
“I’m looking for Ginny.” I muttered ungraciously.
“I bet you are!” She inhaled on a cigarette and blew a perfect smoke ring, “Only, you’re out of luck because she ain’t here.”
“Have you any idea when she’ll be back?”
“Not a clue, sweetheart. She’s done a runner, I reckon.”
“What do you mean, done a runner?”
“I mean exactly that, sweetheart. She won’t be coming back. She’s gone, right?”
“Gone where?”
“That’s for me to know and you to mind your own bleeding business.” She smiled, exposing crooked, nicotine-stained teeth.
“I have to find her.”
“Don’t you worry, sweetheart, she ain’t got nothing I ain’t got. So if it’s business you’re after….” She sidled up to me. I felt her stale breath on my face, reeking of tobacco and gin. I backed away. She took the hint and retreated, scowling.
I persevered. “It’s very important that I find her.”
“Important, eh? Well, I might be able to help you and, there again, I might not.”
I was my turn to take the hint. I took out my wallet. She snatched it, helped herself to a wad of notes and coolly handed it back. “You could try the Cross but I’m only guessing…”
 “The Cross?”
“King’s Cross, sweetheart, as if you didn’t know. It’s an old hunting ground of hers, you might say. Oh, the Bill reckon to have cleaned it up but...well, there’s only so much clearing up you can do to a place, right? It may look like a bloody building site while they’re sorting out the Chunnel connection, but it’s still popular with the punters. Regulars, they know just where to go. Ginny’s got contacts, too, the sort that knows a bargain when they see one.
“A bargain?” I was puzzled.
“Old Bill’s been sniffing around. Ginny may have class but it ain’t class what gets you protection, it’s how you spread it about…if you get my drift.”
I wasn’t sure that I did. “Why does Ginny need protection? Protection from whom?”
“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies,” the woman shrugged and the bloodshot eyes narrowed. “But I’ll tell you something for nothing, shall I?”
“Anything!” I exclaimed eagerly
“You ask too many f***ing questions!” She slammed the door in my face.
Wearily, I made my way to King’s Cross. It started to rain and I ducked into a small café in a side street. It did not take long to realize that it counted at least one drug pusher and a pimp among its customers. The pusher conducted his evil trade with a brute matter-of-factness that appalled me. Likewise, the pimp had little to say for himself, but invited a succession of young women wearing short skirts and heavy make-up to join him, briefly, for a mug of tea, coffee or chocolate. I thought of Poppy and felt physically sick. But this was King’s Cross. If I hadn’t the stomach for it, I should have stayed away. Worse, I felt little better than a voyeur myself as I considered the shortcomings and goings of this cruel world over the cracked rim of my teacup.
Unable to settle, I got up and walked out. The rain on my face was refreshing after the clammy heat of the café. I wandered around for ages. I soon grew weary of traipsing around King’s Cross. I gave up on Ginny Sharp too. My feet took me into the West End and eventually the heart of Soho. I bought some grapes at the lively market and ate them as I roamed the streets with their sex and ‘Adults Only’ video shops, nightclubs, soft-porn cinemas and exotic sounding names scrawled on cards beside doors left wide open to expose dimly lit flights of stairs…
What struck me most, though, was how drab Soho was by day. There was none of the fairground-like excitement that would descend after dark, no neon lights to get the adrenalin flowing and, somehow, excuse the seediness of it all. I tried several gay bars in Old Compton Street, but no Ginny and no Danny either. I stopped several prostitutes, male and female, asking if they knew either. One pimply youth pulled a knife on me, forced me into a doorway and demanded money. I was about to hand over my wallet when a big woman with dyed red hair appeared and flung abuse at him. My would-be mugger fled empty-handed. I thanked the woman profusely but she was having none of it. “Do yourself a favour, mister, and get lost!” She merged into a colourful scrum of passers-by, vanishing into a late-afternoon haze.
Night fell before I had even realized it was getting dark. I grabbed a bite to eat, sent Philip a text message to say I would be late back without saying where I was or why, made my way back to King’s Cross and ended up sipping stewed tea in the same café. I might never have left. The same grey, stubble faces were doing the same dirty business and more besides. Twice, prostitutes gave me the eye. A fat man with a moustache, whom I hadn’t spotted earlier, was encouraging them. I glowered at them, at him too, but they just laughed. The pimp continued stroking his moustache without even acknowledging my existence. Even so, he kept a beady eye on just about everything that was going on inside the café and out.
Gazing abstractedly out of the rain-spattered window, I almost missed spotting Ginny Sharp as she strutted past an amusement arcade. That is, I was almost sure it was Ginny. I jumped to my feet and would have dashed out and across the road right away. But the last few weeks had taught me a thing or two. I dare not be too obvious or I might get the poor girl in trouble. Bursting with impatience, I resolved to bide my time, and even drained the revolting cup of tea before quitting the café with as casual an air as I could muster.
Ginny did not recognize me at first and was none too pleased to see me when she did. “What do you want? Clear off, I’m busy,” she muttered out of the corner of her mouth while continuing to smile at a portly, well-dressed man about my age hovering nearby.
“I need to talk to you,” I whispered urgently, “about Danny.” She gave me a strange look and compressed her heavily painted lips.  I followed her into a shadowy side street. We ducked into a shop doorway. “About Danny…” I began.
“You really are a pain! Can’t you see I’m working?”
“I think Danny may be in trouble.”
“So what’s new?”
“He’s only a kid,” I protested, “Do you want him to end up like you?”
Her eyes narrowed, and then, surprisingly, her expression softened. “We can’t talk here. Have you got wheels?” I shook my head, “A place we can go?” I considered Philip’s flat but not for long. Ginny was becoming visibly impatient. “There’s a crummy hotel just up the road, but it’ll cost you.”
“I don’t want…sex,” I mumbled, feeling foolish, “I just want to talk.”
She shrugged. “Sex comes cheap at the price, talk costs.”
“How much?”
“What’s it worth?” she parried.
“Twenty pounds.”
She laughed. “I’ll tell you what. Make it a hundred, plus the cost of the room and we’ve got a deal.” She grinned. “I’m a soft touch, me. It’ll be the death of me yet. But we can’t have young Danny ending up like me, can we? Heaven forbid. Besides, he doesn’t deserve…” She stopped abruptly.
“What?” I pressed her anxiously, “Doesn’t deserve what?” But she had moved on at a brisk pace and I had no choice but to follow.
The room was shabby and basic, boasting only a double bed, a battered chest of drawers and two hard chairs. “Take your clothes off,” she told me and proceeded to peel off her top. I protested. “Do it, now!” she repeated, with an urgency that warned me it was probably in my best interest to comply.
Ginny was stark naked and I was in my underpants before she went to the window and closed the flimsy curtains. “That will keep ’em happy for a while,” she muttered between clenched teeth, and turned back to me, “It pays a girl to be seen to be doing what a girl has to do. Otherwise, well...she could be taken for a grass. ” She ran a finger across her throat in a gesture that even I could not misinterpret. “I guess we’ll be warmer in bed, yeah?” She dived under the duvet and held it open for me to join her. “Come on, don’t be shy. I promise I won’t lay a hand on you!” She giggled. Try as I might, I was unable to prevent an attack of hot flushes that covered me in scarlet blotches from the waist upwards.
I lay beside Ginny in that creaking bed and we talked. In a few words, I gave her a résumé of what had happened. I was careful not to mention Philip, but needn’t have worried.
“So why come to me? Can’t that copper boyfriend of yours wave his magic truncheon and find Danny?”
“He’s a detective,” I retorted without thinking, “They don’t carry truncheons.”
Ginny laughed. “The word is, he carries one in his pants, but only for special occasions.”
I blushed again, furiously. “So what’s the word on Danny?” I persisted.
Ginny took her time answering. “I don’t know much,” she said slowly, “and that’s God’s honest truth. But what I’ve heard ain’t good.”
“Danny’s in trouble?”
“And how!”
“I knew it! It has to do with that damn video, right?”
“So what the f**k isn’t right now?” she pouted and lapsed into a long, brooding silence.
“Tell me what you’ve heard, please. I know how to keep my mouth shut. No one need ever know you helped me.”
“Fat chance!”
“You said…”
“I say a lot of things I don’t mean.”
I lost my cool, grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. She didn’t resist and I might as well have been shaking a rag doll. Worse, I could feel what little rapport we had achieved disintegrating on the spot. I released her, instantly and shamefaced. “Sorry,” I muttered, “I care about the lad, that’s all.”
“I bet you do,” she hissed, “I bet you can’t wait to get your dirty little hands on him!”
“It’s not like that!” I was genuinely shocked, “You have to believe me….”
“Why should I?”
“Because it’s true.”
She roared with laughter. “Do you know what? I believe you. You are so unbelievable, you just have to be for real!” I suspected she wasn’t paying me a compliment. “Look, if you’ll take my advice you’ll leave well alone.”
“It’s too late for that.”
“Yeah, well, maybe you’re right. But I really don’t know much, okay? So don’t hassle me. The word is, there’s somebody who should have been in the video but ain’t. Only, he can’t be sure he ain’t. So he’s shitting himself good and proper, ain’t he?” She had propped herself up on one elbow and was looking me right in the eye, “Apparently, it’s someone pretty high up and he’s got it into his head that Danny can identify him.”
“But if he’s not in the video, what does it matter?”
“Because he was in the original, right? That means someone has edited this geezer out. So, did Danny see the original or not? It doesn’t matter either way. This geezer ain’t taking any chances  on some little squirt like Danny spilling the beans. He’s got too much to lose, not to mention family to protect. Danny, though, he’s got no one. What’s to stop him blabbing to the Old Bill?”
“Someone high up?” I was mortified.
“Government, royalty, I dunno. No one does. Or if they do, they ain’t saying, that’s for sure.”
“The police must be on to him, though, surely?”
“Maybe, maybe not. By all counts, he plays as clever as he plays rough. That pretty boyfriend of yours should watch his back.”
“Danny’s no fool. If this pervert’s as high up as you say he is, he’ll know to keep his mouth shut.”
“Maybe, maybe not. It’s academic now anyway.”
“What do you mean, academic?”
“The word is, he’s already paid out a cool sum to have Danny eliminated. No one with half a brain would touch Danny with a barge pole, of course. But, there’s no shortage of brainless creeps out there, believe you me. I heard Danny’s already been picked up. But even if he hasn’t, it’s only a matter of time….”
“They’ll kill him?”
“Right away, with any luck.”
“Luck?” I was appalled.
“Ask yourself, what kind of demented bastard is into snuff movies? The full horror dawned, yet, stupidly, I could think of nothing to say. “I’ve no idea where they’ve taken him but I can give you the number of someone who might….” She reached for a jacket on a chair by the bed a pulled out a scrap piece of paper and a small biro, the kind you find at any bookies. She scribbled a phone number and handed it to me. “He specializes in S&M. Give or take, he’s not bothered. He ain’t no grass but he ain’t into snuff either, none of us around here are. Oh, we’re no angels, that’s for sure, but we ain’t perverts or killers either.” She glared, defying me to contradict her. I reached out a hand to reassure her. She edged away, teeth bared. “If you wanna paw me, fair enough, but it’ll cost you extra.” A deep sadness threatening, to overwhelm me. I got dressed in silence, slipped the scrap of paper into my shirt pocket...and left.
I called the number Ginny had given me. “Luke?” I enquired tentatively.
“Who wants to know?”
“I’m a friend of Ginny Sharp. I, err, require your services.”
A long pause, and then, “Give or take?”
“Whatever you’re up for,” I said, naively thinking this might be to my advantage.
“Take. Two hundred.” No preamble.
“Okay. When and where? I don’t have a place of my own,” I added hastily.
“Where are you?” I told him. He gave me an address in Earls’ Court. “Call me when you get to the station.” He hung up. Bemused, I headed along wet, shiny streets for the nearest Underground station on the lookout for a cash machine.
An hour later, I found myself being closely studied by Luke and another, older, man in the very nondescript sitting room of a spacious apartment in Earl’s Court. By now, I was less bemused than frightened. Luke’s shifty companion was a short, weasel-faced individual to whom I took an instant dislike. The pimp, I wondered?
“You don’t touch his face and if he needs stitches anywhere it will cost you extra, a lot extra,” he added as cool as you please.
“Fair enough,” I agreed. I smiled at Luke, a handsome hunk whose only response was a flicker of eyelashes so long they had to be false.
Weasel held out his hands, counting under his breath as I thrust a wad of notes into them. He nodded to Luke. “Take the gentleman through and damn well do what he tells you. I’ll be here if you need me,” he added. A sly glance at me, accompanied by a severe expression, left me in no doubt this was for my benefit.
Luke let the way into another, larger room. At first glance, it resembled a gym. A second look revealed an array of studded collars, wall racks with leather strap holds for hands and feet, an impressive display of whips, canes, rubber truncheons and a wet suit draped across a vaulting horse. On a table there was a coil of rope, pairs of tights, stockings, rubber gloves and bandanas in all colours.
“What must I do, sir?” He spoke in a lazy, pleasant voice that took me by surprise. Why, I wasn’t sure since I’d had no idea what to expect.
“Actually…” I coughed nervously, “I just want to talk to you.”
“Fair enough, you’re the customer. Go ahead and talk. Tell me what you like if that’s what puts you in the mood. Then we can get down to business….”
“No, no,” I stammered, “I really do…just…want to talk.”
“Don’t go chicken on me, man, I’m in the mood for a good hiding. You can do whatever you want, but like the man said, don’t mark my face. This is your first time, is that it? That’s okay. I’m a good teacher. Or maybe you’ve changed you mind and would rather be on the receiving end?”
“No, no…I’m not into…all this. I’m looking for Danny.”
“On your bike,” he snarled.
“Ginny said you might help me,” I blurted, “She said you weren’t into…snuff.” I could hardly bring myself to say the word. It left a foul tasting taste in my mouth. I spat to one side. So did Luke. I felt slightly encouraged. “Will you help me?”
“I’m no grass and Ginny knows better than to open her big gob,” he muttered. Even so, a perceptible change in his manner accompanied the surly tone. Still aggressive, he became subtly defensive rather than overtly threatening. “I used to think snuff movies were a myth, created to put the fear of God into you. I was wrong. The creeps that make them are perverts, scum. Jesus wept! Nobody deserves to die like that.”
“So you’ll help me?” I ventured hopefully.
He came right up to me, seized my shoulders in an iron grip and forced me to meet his icy gaze. “What’s in it for me, eh? Why should I lift my little finger for some smart-arse like you.”
“Because a fifteen year old boy needs your help,” I croaked.
 “And you’re so concerned for his welfare, right? Or is it because you can’t wait to get your sick little mitts on him yourself?”
“I’m a friend of his.”
“Sure, and I’m Santa Claus.”
“I’m telling the truth!” I wailed, “I want to help the lad. And if you can’t tell the difference between a friend and a dirty old man, I… feel sorry for you!” I fumed.
“Don’t you dare patronize me, you stupid ole fart!”
“What then? Would you rather I spat on you, or maybe your sort prefers to be hogtied and pissed over? Okay, if that’s what it takes…” Suddenly, I was past caring. Anger, tiredness and panic conspired against any remaining vestige of commonsense, even self-respect, completing an induction to disillusionment that had begun when I first answered Danny’s cry for help in that sordid little alleyway.
Luke let go of me, removed a red bandana from his neck and wiped his face with it. To my astonishment, he then grabbed me and kissed me roughly on the mouth. I felt his teeth scrape my lips as I gagged on his tongue. My spine tingled and there wasn’t time to wonder why. It was over and done with in seconds. He pushed me away and regarded me with a mocking grin. “I guess you’re on the level. My, but you’re a sight for sore eyes and no mistake.”
“Then you’ll help me?”
He shrugged. “Give me a number I can call and I’ll get back to you.”
“How do I know you will?”
“How do you know I won’t?” His tanned creased into a teasing but not unpleasant smile that made him look years younger.
I took Luke at his word.
It was in the early hours when he called. I was lying wide awake next to Philip who was snoring softly. I reached for my mobile phone, saw Luke’s name and was instantly alert. He gave me an address in Hammersmith.
“You don’t know me, we’ve never met and if you know what’s good for you you’ll leave well alone.”
“I hear you.”
“Good luck, babe, you’ll need it!” He hung up. I shivered, glad of the warmth of Philip’s buttocks against mine, recharging my body with a comforting heat. I turned over and studied his face. “I love you,” I whispered, and then immediately felt guilty. Who was I to speak of love when Danny’s life hung by a thread?
I shook Philip awake. Another tuneful ring, but this time it was his phone. He reached for it, swearing, without opening his eyes. I could only lie there, wriggling with impatience. There can be few things more infuriating that having to listen to one side of a conversation, especially at past three o’clock in the morning. I was just about to snatch the phone out of his hand when he switched it off and slammed it down.
“There’s a big flap on. I have to go.” He was already clambering out of bed and pulling on a shirt.
“You can’t go now!” I sat bolt upright. “I’ve had some news about Danny. He’s in big trouble, Philip. We have to help him.”
“Later, Laurence. I can’t worry about Danny now!” He swore as a button on his shirt flew off.
“Philip, this is important, a matter of life and death for heaven’s sake!” I seized his wrist as he was fumbling with a cufflink and it dropped on the floor.
“Now look what you’ve made me do!”
“Stuff your damn cufflink!” I was angry and upset, “Danny needs our help. Don’t you care? Listen to me, will you?”
“Danny can look after himself, he’s had plenty of practice,” he muttered and tried to pull away, but I hung on.
“Hear me out, for my sake if not for Danny’s. Or don’t you care about me, either?”
He had straddled and pinioned me in a split second. “I love you, Laurence. But don’t you ever try emotional blackmail on me. Now, I have to go. It’s my job. If you want a nine-to-five partner, you’re with the wrong guy. So, you can either get used to how I work and what I do or…We can discuss it when I get back. Okay?” I nodded sullenly. He leaned over and kissed me lingeringly on the lips. Before I’d quite got my head around what was happening, he was fully dressed and going out of the door. He paused in the doorway. “Don’t worry about Danny. Take it from me, that kid’s a born survivor.” A few minutes later, I heard him drive away.
I almost burst into tears. Instead, I let rip with a string of purple oaths and felt much better for it. I called Nick only get through to his voicemail. So I called a cab, scribbled a note for Philip and was holding my finger against Nick’s doorbell within half an hour. .
“Who is it?” a weary voice groaned into the entry phone.
“It’s Laurence. Let me in.”
There was a pause then, “It’s past four in the morning!”
“Never mind that now, just let me in.” I was shivering in spite of a heavy sweater under my anorak. I heard the familiar buzzing sound, pushed open the door and bounded up the stone steps. He was waiting for me on the fourth floor, looking none too pleased.
“What the devil…?”
“I need a brandy,” I said as I pushed past him and went to help myself. “Do you want one?”
“Will I need one?”
“Then you had better make it a double.” We drank. “So what’s up?” I told him.
“Bloody hell!”
“We have to do something.” I said, insisting and pleading at the same time.
“I’d ask Marc, but  he’s still in Manchester…”
“Yes, I miss him.” His face took on a dreamy look that tested my patience to its limits, but he must have read the warning signals because his tone the next time he spoke was markedly less aggressive, almost conversational. “So you want me to help you find young Danny?”
“There’s no one else, Philip doesn’t want to know.”
“Wise man!” Nick exclaimed, “Philip’s right. Danny can take care of himself.  If you ask me, this whole thing is a wind up.”
“And if it isn’t? I was close to tears. “What if some pervert’s got hold of Danny and….” My imagination went wild at this point, and I poured myself another generous measure of brandy. “You didn’t see that video, I did.” My teeth began to chatter and the glass shook in my hand. I drained it and gave the fiery liquid time to penetrate before I appealed to Nick again.  “Please, Nick. I’d rather not do this on my own.”
“Do what exactly?”
“Does that mean you will? Thanks, mate, you’re a diamond.”
“I’m an idiot,” muttered Nick with a weak grin. “But no heroics, Laurence. Promise me, no heroics. ”
“I swear. If the address Luke gave me turns out to be a red herring, so be it. But if we find out Danny’s is being held there, then we call the police. Can I say fairer than that?”
Nick shook his head in mock despair. “This sort of caper isn’t for the likes of us, Laurence. We’re not cut out for it.”
“We didn’t do so badly last time,” I pointed out, “when we rescued Poppy.”
“Sure, and look what happened to her in the end? And look what happened to you...kidnapped and nearly killed, not once but twice, for crying out loud! I’m telling you, Laurie, we are way out of our league here.”
“Danny needs our help,” I said stubbornly.
“Surprise, surprise. That kid has caused nothing but trouble since you first set eyes on him.”
“He’s only fifteen!” I pleaded, “We can’t just…abandon him, turn a blind eye, behave like just about everybody else these days!”
Nick rose, yawning. “Okay, you win. Make some coffee while I get dressed. I’m driving, don’t forget. Besides, if we’re off into some lion’s den, we’ll both need a clear head.”
As we were about to leave, Nick ducked back into the bedroom and returned carrying a revolver. He laughed at my shocked expression. “Anyone would think you’d never seen one of these before. It’s okay, it’s legit and I do have a licence. I used to be a crack shot once. Don’t look so worried, mate, it’s only a precaution. I had it with me last time, too, just in case….”
“You didn’t say anything.” I was appalled.
“You didn’t ask,” he pointed out and suddenly went into a horseplay stance, “Stick ’em up, mister, and stay right where you are, or else...”
But neither his exaggerated drawl nor the broad grin on his face amused me in the least. “Put that thing away!” I felt inclined to demand he leave it behind, but there was no telling what we might encounter. He looked chagrined and slipped the weapon into his pocket so nonchalantly that my lips went dry. “I didn’t think normal people like us carried guns,” I murmured.
Nick shrugged. “What’s ‘normal’ these days?”
“Even so…a gun….”
“It’s for shooting clay pigeons and the like, Laurence, not people. Besides, it’s empty so you don’t have to worry I might kill someone. But they won’t know that, will they, these people you say are out to get Danny? Better safe than sorry if you ask me. If the worst happens, and we look as though we’re ready to fight fire with fire, it might at least buy us some time. Or would you rather they shoot at us first and ask questions later? We’re not playing at goodies and baddies here, Laurence. These guys are nasty pieces of work. They mean business. So get real, okay? And no heroics or, so help me, I’ll….” But he left the rest to my imagination.
 “I don’t know….” I continued to prevaricate.
“Okay, I don’t shoot clay pigeons, not very often anyway. A guy raped me once and I’ve carried a gun ever since.” He shrugged, avoiding my stunned gaze. “Then I met Chris and I’ve never so much as looked at the bloody thing since…until now.”
“Does Marc know?”
“About Chris? Of course he does.”
I meant the rape and he knew it. But it was none of my business. Besides, I felt embarrassed by Nick’s expression, so animated a few moments before but now dark and strained. “Let’s go,” I said, and went outside to wait for him. He appeared a few minutes later. I did not ask him whether or not he still carried the gun. For one thing, I was preoccupied with feeling guilty. I had  misjudged Nick at the outset.  Now, here I was, leaping to another judgement about the man. I had no right to do that. “Marc’s a lucky man,” I blurted without thinking.
Nick looked surprised, but pleased. On impulse, we shook hands. It covered a multitude of sins. We understood each other perfectly.
Before we set off, Nick made much of taking off his jacket and tossing it on the back seat of the car, a gesture clearly intended to allay my fears. I relaxed but only slightly. Its presence was like an ill omen. One minute I would shrug it off as of no consequence, the next it was making me feel quite ill. Of course, I should have asked Nick outright if the gun was in his jacket. But I didn’t. Instead, I fretted and wondered just what I was getting us into. It crossed my mind that the reason I avoided asking Nick a direct question was because, secretly, I wanted to the gun to be there. Needs must as the devil drives, I told myself with false bravado. At the same time, I silently prayed that Philip would find my note in time.
In time for what, I wondered? But I dared not speculate. My conscience, however, continued to prick me for dragging Nick along.


At first glance, the address Luke had passed on didn’t have much to recommend it. Number seven was a detached house sandwiched between neat rows of grubby terraces that might or might not have been Victorian. In a dead-end street strewn with litter, only one of several lampposts displayed any light. In the glare of a full moon, the scene resembled something out of the musical ‘Cats,’ to which Harry had treated me one birthday. Dear Harry. My feelings for Philip remained somewhat muddled so it was only natural that I reach out to my old friend, lover and companion for strength and reassurance. Hadn’t I always?
“So what now...?” I glared at Nick.
Nick shrugged. “Ringing the doorbell has to be as good a start as any, surely?” His facetious tone effectively drove a wedge between my feelings and my thoughts. I pressed the grubby bell push. No reply. I rang again. Again, there was no reply.
“Let’s take a look round the back,” I suggested. We were soon parked on a wide asphalt track with tall garden fences on one side and a row of lock-ups on the other. Cars, vans, motorcycles, even a cement mixer, were parked, haphazardly, the entire length. A nameplate at one end read: ‘Franklin Mews’ although I have to say this pot-holed, makeshift road bore no resemblance to my old fashioned idea of what a Mews should look like. My eyes, unused to the moon having disappeared behind an ugly patch of cloud, I stepped on a skateboard, and almost went flying.
“That’s right, tell everyone we’re here!”
To my frayed nerves, Nick’s harsh whisper sounded loud enough to wake the dead. The same notion must have occurred to Nick. We both looked around, furtively, careful to keep an eye on the car in case we had to make a run for it. Nothing and no one stirred. A light went on in a window but too far away to matter. “Go and wait in the car,” I whispered, “At the first sign of any trouble, call for help.”
“That’s all very well, but what if...” he muttered indistinctly, but did not procrastinate for long.
I approached a garage, number seven daubed in luminous green paint on a shiny steel door. As if on cue, it began to open.  My stomach gave an almighty lurch. Frantically, I crouched behind a nearby motorcycle and could only hope Nick would have the commonsense to keep his head down. I watched a shadowy figure exit from the lock-up, climb into a small van and drive off. The door began to close. I didn’t hesitate, but ran forward and dived underneath with only seconds to spare before its automatic mechanism ground to a stop. It was an act of sheer stupidity, of course. Anyone might have been waiting on the other side. In the event, though, there was no one. Even so, my James Bond persona quickly deserted me as I began to feel vulnerable and scared.
Gradually, my eyes became accustomed to the gloom and a reek of petrol fumes bothered them less, I spotted a pinprick of light at the rear, behind a Rolls Royce whose sleek, glistening bodywork struck me as incongruous in such spurious surroundings. Forcing my limbs into action, I edged towards it. By the time I reached a wooden trapdoor on the floor,  my flagging nerves had rallied significantly. Making a fragile truce with a whole army of misgivings. I tugged tentatively at its metal handle until one of the flaps gave way sufficiently to allow a glimpse of what was going on below.
At first I could only make out three figures moving in a ritualistic circle. Each wore a black hood with slits for the eyes and mouth. Otherwise, they were stark naked. In unison, they bent over what looked like a workbench of sorts and I had the impression they were securing something. Not until they stepped back to admire their handiwork did I see what it was and bit down hard on my lower lip to prevent myself from crying out. So much so, it bled.
Spread-eagled, wrists and ankles strapped down, lay Danny. He was naked and I could see his face clearly. His expression would haunt me for the rest of my life. It was quite…blank. It could have been a wax dummy lying there. He lay so perfectly still I thought he must be dead. Then I saw the body twitch, its chest rise and fall with a slight, erratic motion. One of the hooded figures knelt astride it and performed sexual acts. “Bastards!” I swore under my breath. Somehow, I had to fetch help. Scrambling to my feet, legs trembling, I ran back to the garage door and searched frantically for a way to open it.
I lost all sense of time. My clothes became soaked with sweat. I took deep breaths. They sounded like the rattle of machine gun fire and only exacerbated my terror. I kept telling myself not to panic. Who am I kidding? Then I’d think about Danny being subjected to whatever atrocities those perverts had in mind, and feel thoroughly ashamed of myself. Something that passed for calm washed over me. I began to feel marginally less frightened.
Suddenly the door began to rise faster, or so it seemed to me, than it had shut. I pressed myself into a corner and psyched myself up for slipping out unseen.
I was expecting a vehicle. Instead, two figures stumbled inside, one being roughly manhandled by the other. My stomach tuned turtle. It was Nick, one arm caught in a savage half nelson and a gun to his head. His captor, whom I vaguely recognized but could not place, forced him towards the trapdoor, and then stamped twice o the flaps. What next, I wondered, and felt faint?
At the same time, a faint whirring noise, alerted me to the fact that the garage door was  already closing. This was no time for internal debate.  As it was, I only just managed to roll under the descending metal in time. Once free, I bent double, trusting to the gloom to conceal me from anyone who might be on the lookout, and hared towards the car. No one shouted after me. I collapsed into the passenger seat, my relief at being out of that awful place so intense that I promptly developed severe stomach cramp. This lasted for several anguished minutes. If only I could drive. Gradually, the cramp receded. I reached for my mobile. Damn. I had left it behind.
Vaguely, I recalled that we’d passed a public phone box shortly before turning into the Mews. I began to limp in that direction. My escalating anxiety for Danny and Nick made my head spin. My dismay at reaching Philip’s voicemail knew no bounds. I dialled 999. A crisp, polite voice drove me mad but I was finally put through to someone who exhibited a spark of interest. “My friends need help,” I shouted impatiently down the line. “Their lives are in danger. A bunch of f**king perverts have taken them prisoner. Please, help us!” I sobbed. At the same time, my garbled plea sounded implausible even to my own ears.
 “Where are you, sir?” Where was I? My mind went completely blank. “Read out the address by the telephone, sir,” a patient female voice crackled in my ear. I hastily complied. “Number seven,” I blurted, “It’s number seven, some kind of lock-up garage. Please, hurry!” More crackling. The voice grew very faint. I could only catch the occasional word although I grasped that I was being told to stay put. My alter ego, though, had other ideas. I abandoned the kiosk and left the phone dangling.
I had just remembered Nick’s gun.
As soon as I got back to the car, I wasted no time extracting the weapon from Nick’s jacket, if somewhat gingerly. It was heavier than I expected. The very touch of the thing made my flesh crawl. It may have worked wonders for Nick’s self-confidence but it did precious little for mine. My instincts cried out for me to wait until the police arrived. But when would that be? By then it might be too late. Besides, Nick had assured me the gun was not loaded. What could I expect to achieve with an empty gun? At the same time, I remonstrated with my indecisiveness, what is life if not a game of bluff?
I approached number seven, my tunnel vision failing to make contact with the fact the door was open again.  If I smelled a rat, my nose was not letting on to my head.
Cautiously, I crept towards the trapdoor and tugged at the handle with my left hand. By now, my right hand had become used to feeling a gun against its sweaty palm. Illogically, this made it less frightening, almost a comfort. I felt the handle slacken and was careful not to open the wooden flap too far. I peered at the scene below. The same hooded figures were gathered around Danny’s trussed body. I could see nothing of the fourth man or Nick, and risked opening the flap a fraction wider. Almost immediately, I identified Nick’s assailant and realized why he had seemed familiar. It was the same gorilla that had let me into the Battersea house where Poppy had been taken on that first occasion. But I could not bear to think about poor Poppy at a time like this. I screwed up my eyes, seeking some indication that Nick was at least alive. I twisted my head until I spotted Nick’s head and torso. He was sprawled in a corner looking much the worse for wear. His clothes were torn and bloodstained. He looked very scared.
Gently, I lowered the flap and considered my options. I could and should wait for the police to arrive. But that might take ages. If these bastards planned to kill Danny, wasn’t Nick’s appearance  more likely to speed things up rather than provoke a change of plan? It might spoil their fun, but they could ill afford to keep Danny or Nick alive for long. Their most likely course of action, surely, would be to kill them and dispose of the bodies as soon as possible?
I had to act now. Re-enter James Bond. Only, it did not cross my mind, as it would have certainly 007’s, to wonder why they were still hanging around, seemingly undisturbed, or that they might even be expecting the likes of me to behave too stupidly for words. Who was I to disappoint them? “Don’t anybody move!” I yelled. Simultaneously, I tugged the flap open and descended a few steps of a ladder. I pointed the gun directly at one of the hooded men whom I took to be the leader if for no other reason than he stood head and shoulders above the others. “Put your hands up!” They obeyed without a murmur. I gestured with the gun at the gorilla. “Untie the boy.” He crossed to the bench and began loosening the straps that were holding Danny down. “Can you walk, Nick?”
“I think so.” Nick scrambled to his feet and began walking towards me. It was only then I saw that his hands were tied behind his back.
“Untie him!” I shouted to one of the hooded men. “Can you manage the ladder with Danny, Nick?”
“No way. You’ll have to help me.”
Gingerly, I put one foot in front of the other while clinging on to the ladder with one hand. It was no mean feat. No wonder people always descend ladders backwards. Somehow, I made it without mishap, much relieved when my feet touched the concrete floor. My nerves, though, enjoyed no such respite. I was very scared but resolved not to show it.
Meanwhile, Nick staggered to the bench, released Danny, hoisted him over one shoulder and approached the ladder.
Suddenly, all hell broke loose.
My eyes were on the tall man. Unexpectedly, he looked upwards, as if at something or someone behind me. Instinctively, I did the same. During that split second, the gorilla lunged at Nick. At the same time, one of the hooded men flung himself at me. My finger tightened on the trigger, but froze. Besides, what use was an empty gun? In a flash the weapon went flying, and so did I. Even so, my reflexes did not let me down completely. I put up a game fight. The outcome, however, was never in any doubt. Dimly aware of a fracas on my right, I foolishly allowed myself to be momentarily distracted by it.  
A fist crashed into my face. Multicoloured lights descended like a flying saucer and carried me off into sweet oblivion, the sound of a single gunshot resounding in my ears.
When I came to, I was lying where I had fallen. My immediate reaction was surprise that I could move my arms and legs freely if painfully.
“Did you enjoy fairy stories when you were a nipper, Mr Fisher?” I turned my head in the direction of the voice. The tall man, still wearing a hood, had paused while ascending the ladder, one hand clinging to a rung. His free hand gripped the gun and pointed it at me. “I did. I loved them. Hansel and Gretel was my favourite. I always felt so sorry for the wicked witch, denied a fat, juicy roast in the end.” He gave a sinister chuckle. A shiver ran down my spine. “Still, the witch was cooked to a cinder so that was something, I suppose. Can’t you just imagine it, getting hotter and hotter until your flesh begins to peel away and your lungs start to fry…?”
A terrible premonition hit me.
I scrambled to my feet and made a mad dash for the ladder without a thought for the weapon aimed at my heart. I reached it in time to observe a pair of shiny black shoes and white socks disappear over the rim before the metal flap crashed down over my head. I continued to heave myself towards it. Ignoring a pain wracking my whole body, I pushed at the trapdoor with both hands. It gave slightly. I heard a noise and guessed something had been placed on top of it. Subsequently, no matter how hard I pushed, it would not budge.
The cellar went horribly quiet. I began to suspect it was soundproofed. I could hear no tell-tale sounds of life above. Nothing. Suddenly, the ladder gave a violent shudder. The whole place shook as if a bomb had gone off. Paper-thin cracks appeared at the flap’s edges. Smoke began to drift downwards. I descended so fast I lost my grip and fell in an untidy heap on the concrete floor. I lay there, hypnotised by the smoke until a strangled cry from Nick brought me to my senses.
We had been left to burn alive.
Blood was pouring from a gaping wound from Nick’s chest. “You and your promises,” he grimaced wryly, “No heroics, you said.”
“Sorry.” I hung my head in despair.
“Don’t be. You did what you thought was right. It’s all any of us can do. How’s Danny?”
I knelt beside the inert form on the floor. “Danny?” I felt for a pulse and was relieved to find one. “Danny?” I cried urgently. The rapidly increasing temperature was beginning to get to me. “Danny, wake up!” I became hysterical and shook the pitifully thin shoulders. Only Nick’s hand on my arm restrained me.
Danny stirred. A single tear trickled from one eye and down a pale cheek. I lifted him in my arms and carried him to a far corner of the room where we huddled between two gloriously cold walls.
Suddenly, the body in my lap jerked and went quite still.
I kept my head long enough to give Danny the kiss of life until a groan from Nick reminded me of the poor condition he, too, was in. “Hang in there, Nick, just hang in there!” I railed, sparing him an entreating glance.
Nick smiled weakly and coughed up a stream of blood. After wiping his mouth with a handkerchief, he tried to talk. “Tell Philip to be sure and get the bastards….”
“Tell him yourself.”
“You never know, I suppose…” He spat out more blood, “Somehow, I don’t think so though….”
The smoke was thickening.
It was my turn to have a coughing fit. All Nick could manage was a ghastly gurgling sound at the back of this throat. “We’ve been lucky.” he croaked.
“You call this lucky?” I wanted to laugh but smoke filled my lungs and I had another coughing fit.
I tied a handkerchief over my nose and mouth. Nick followed suit. I did the same for Danny, using part of my shirt that I’d pulled off and ripped up.
“Love, Laurence. We’ve both been lucky in love…twice.”
“Don’t try to talk.”
“Why not? What else is left? Tell Marc I love him but…to…keep looking.” Nick grimaced horribly as another rush of blood poured from his mouth and soaked the handkerchief. He slumped forwards and would have fallen to the floor but I caught him and sat him up again. His body was warm but awfully still. “Oh, God!” I cried aloud.
Nick was dead.
By now the heat and smoke were unbearable. Panic stricken, I looked from Nick to Danny and back again. Danny was not stirring at all now. They were dead. Soon, I too would be dead. I felt…empty. No surging desire to live came to my rescue as it had before. I had the weirdest sensation of being dead already.
I began to choke on the clouds of black smoke, sparking off a flicker of resistance in me. Then I saw it. A big brown bear loomed up at me in a smoky haze. It reared on its hind legs and fixed me with a savage, reproachful glare. “It’s not my fault,” I yelled at the beast and ripped the handkerchief away from my mouth, the better to make myself heard, “It’s not my fault!” 
Suddenly, I heard noises. And voices! The trapdoor was flung open and several figures in fire fighting gear clambered down the ladder.
The bear dropped to all fours, uttered a rumbling growl and sloped off.
Strangely enough, my thoughts were not of Harry, Philip, Danny or even poor Nick. All I could think about was something Marc had said, that my father had loved me. .
“Relax and breathe normally,” a voice rasped in my ear as an oxygen mask was expertly positioned over my nose and mouth. I felt Danny being taken away from me. My lap felt terribly…empty. Another anonymous face under a yellow helmet cursorily examined Nick, glanced at the colleague assisting me and shook his head. It was all too much. I shut my eyes and retreated into unconsciousness. Here, at least, no one could hurt, accuse, or judge me.
Philip was sitting beside my hospital bed when I awoke. He looked tired and grim faced but managed a smile when I opened my eyes. “We really cannot keep meeting like this, Laurence.”
He shook his head and reached for my hand. “I’m so sorry.”
I snatched my hand away, telling myself I did not deserve to be comforted.
Philip could not look me in the eye. “I’m sorry.” I hadn’t the heart to press for details. “I should have listened to you,” he added contritely.
“Yes, you should,” I retorted.  We did not speak again for several minutes, the tension between us like the smoke in that cellar. Thick. Heavy. Unbearable. “Did you catch the bastards?” I asked at last.
“All of them, except Top Dog, the one we really want.” He sighed. “Oh, we know who he is and we know he was there. But he got away.” He shrugged. “Take a cast iron alibi and a good lawyer and he’s all but off the hook.”
“But the others….”
“Are saying nothing and probably won’t. Sometimes I think there’s a lot to be said for Gestapo methods.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Oh, yes I do. Well, maybe not….”
“Top Dog’s car, surely it must be registered to someone?”
“False number plates. We’re not dealing with amateurs here, Laurie. These guys are professionals.”
“And number seven?”
“The lock-up’s a burnt out wreck. The flat’s as clean as a whistle, owned by a harmless old chap who lets out the lock-up for a good price, no questions asked.” He groaned. “You can’t blame the old boy for wanting to supplement his pension, I suppose.”
“But…” I spluttered, “You can’t let Top Dog get clean away….”
 “Oh, we’ll get him in the end. But…it’s complicated. The guy has connections, Laurie, the best. That quaint notion some people have that no one is above the law is a fairy tale. Money, connections…they may not buy you love, but they’ll get you pretty much everything else.”
“So he gets away with murder?”
“Quite possibly. If it suits certain people in certain high places, so be it, our hands are tied.”
“So you’re just going to sit there and do nothing?” I was shocked and disappointed.
“I’ve been taken off the case. This isn’t my patch any more, don’t forget. My transfer has come through. Oh, the bloke who’s taking over from me is a good copper, one of the best, but we can only do as good a job as we’re allowed. Joe Public may like to believe politics and the police don’t mix but, well, our Joe’s in for a big disappointment if he should care to take a closer look. On the whole, we do a bloody good job. Only, sometimes we get trampled on by the powers that be before the job’s half finished.”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this!”
“Believe it,” said Philip, “You’re a sweet guy, Laurence, but sometimes I think you must have fallen off a gooseberry bush and bumped your head.”
“I’ll go to the press,” I declared, and became very excited, “That’s what I’ll do, I’ll go to the press and shout the whole bloody mess from the bloody rooftops!”
“And you really think the press is any more independent than the police? Oh, they do a good job, too, some of the time. But when push comes to shove they get trampled on too, believe you me. Sure, you can tell the world. And the world will get to know as much as the powers that be don’t mind it knowing. Nothing more, nothing less. Haven’t you put yourself through enough already? Take my advice, mate, and keep your head down. With any luck, no one will get their knickers in too much of a twist over couple of gay men and a rent boy.”
“It wasn’t like that, and you know it,” I snapped wearily.
“Of course, I do. But once you start shouting your mouth off, people will only pick up on the dirty bits. Lies, truth…no one gives a toss so long as it makes a cheap ‘n’ nasty read. It’s human nature. It’s also what sells newspapers. Get real, Laurie. They’ll put you through a crusher and hang you out to dry.”
“So Nick, Danny, Poppy, they all died for nothing?” I fell back on the pillows, exhausted. But I was angry and soon rallied. “How can you fall back on clichés, you a police officer, for crying out loud?” An irreverent thought struck me, “Not that I suppose it would do your career much good if it became general knowledge that you’re gay….”
“It will be general knowledge soon enough. One of my duties with the Manchester force will be to liase with the local gay community.”
I had no answer to that. “Go away, I’m tired,” I muttered and sought refuge in sleep.
“There will have to be a post-mortem on Nick,” Philip murmured, “Danny, too,” he added hastily. “As soon as we get the all-clear for the funerals, I’ll let you know.”
“Suit yourself,” I muttered ungraciously. Nor did I open my eyes to watch him leave.
My next visitor was Marc. My mother and sister were with him and fussed over me a lot before Mary tactfully led my mother away, ostensibly to get a cup of tea. I could hardly bear to look at my brother. There were lines on his face I hadn’t noticed before and he looked much older than his twenty-five years.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered ineffectually, took his hand in mine and was humbly grateful when he did not snatch it away. Nick’s last words had been running through my head since I first recovered consciousness. How could I repeat them without sounding trite or, worse, as if I were seeking absolution?
“I miss him, Laurie. I miss him…so much.”
What could I say? He would always miss Nick just as I would always miss Harry. In time, though, so they say, grief becomes less of a burden, a comfort almost, like settling in a favourite armchair with a good book, every page a happy memory. But it would be a while before Marc was ready for all that. Me, too. Now, his grief was too raw, his loneliness absolute. Oh, he had me and the family to support him. But that’s no  compensation for losing someone you love. Too few of us, I mused dryly, are fortunate enough to find love. It was as Nick said, we just have to keep looking for it. My thoughts wandered to Philip. How could I love him without forgiving him? But even before I asked the question, I knew it was myself, not Philip, whom I would not easily forgive. How could I have been so stupid? “I’m sorry, Marc, I’m so sorry!” I sobbed.
“You mustn’t blame yourself. You only did what you thought was right,” he murmured, unwittingly echoing Nick’s words and making me feel worse than I did already. “Nick was a grown man, he knew the score. You both chose to take one hell of a risk and….”
“It backfired,” I said miserably, and then. “His last words were about you.” I felt Marc’s hand tighten over mine. “He loved you,” was all I could bring myself to say. Marc said nothing but leaned forward and hugged me. Tears streamed down my face. Nor were they mine alone.
During the weeks that followed, I became very depressed and was referred to a psychiatric hospital. Here, I was comfortably installed as a patient without fully comprehending that this was on a voluntary basis. I lived in a kind of dream, letting everything wash over me without taking much in. I attended group therapy sessions but these, too, were surreal. I was only vaguely aware of people around me and words coming out of their mouths, but nothing made much sense. I ate, drank, and slept. Time passed, but meant little. My mother, sister and Marc were regular visitors. Philip came once. Later, they told me I attacked him and screamed abuse. To this day, I have no recollection of it.
I cannot point to a particular moment in time when I began to get well. It just…happened, slowly.
One day Marc dropped by. He was living in London now. I broached the subject of Nick’s funeral. He seemed pleased and talked about it for some time, describing the church service and all the flowers. “His people didn’t want him to be cremated. I’m glad. He has a lovely spot in the prettiest little churchyard you ever saw.”
“I’m glad, too” I said, slightly peeved. It’s what I would have liked for Harry. I had to dig deep within myself before I could ask about Danny.
“He’s buried near your old house. It was Philip’s idea. Danny’s parents didn’t want to know, so Philip thought it would be appropriate, seeing as how the time he spent there was probably the closest he ever came to having a real home. Word had obviously got around because a lot of his street pals turned up. They did Danny proud. It was all very moving.”
“And the vicar didn’t mind?”
“The vicar was really cool about it, especially after Philip explained the circumstances.”
“Philip?” I pricked up my ears. “He seems to have had a lot to say for himself,” I muttered.
“He’s a nice guy,” Marc grinned, “for a copper.” He opened his mouth as if to say something else. Instead, he went very quiet.
“Philip and I are finished,” I said simply.
My brother gave me a long, reproachful look. “He cares about you a lot, Laurie.”
“Yes, well, maybe….” I muttered, not trusting myself to consider my feelings for Philip Adams too closely.
A week later I discharged myself and went to stay with my mother. I told myself it was only natural that I should want to spend some time with her. At the same time, I suspected I was only postponing the inevitable. I was dreading the move to Manchester. My job had been kept open for me and, by all accounts, Marc had done a wonderful job on the house and garden. A new job, a new life, I had everything to look forward to. Only, it wasn’t at all how we’d planned it, Danny, Philip and me. Yet, it was an opportunity to put recent events behind me and I was determined to make the most of it...or so I tried to reassure my mother. While the rest of the family were not much in evidence, at least I didn’t get the feeling they were deliberately staying away. I took my sister Mary’s son, Thomas, fishing on the canal. We had a great time and no murmurs of disapproval found their way back to me.
My mother was worried about Marc, we all were. One evening she asked about Nick. “Were they…close?” I told her what Nick had said as he lay dying. “Have you told Marc?”
I shook my head, “Not all of it.”
“I think you should,” she said slowly. I put it to her that it would only upset him.
“Of course he’ll be upset. But it might help him to let go…be free. Your father gave me his blessing, you know. He said I mustn’t live alone, that I should find someone else and be happy. I won’t, of course, and I was angry with him at the time for even suggesting such a thing. But…somehow…it has…helped. I can’t explain. But your father and this Nick, they understood. You should give Marc the opportunity to understand, too. Oh, not right away, it takes time. But it’s always good to know, be sure you’re loved. Believe me, there’s no love greater than setting someone free.”
We sat quietly for a while. I couldn’t help but be as surprised as I was moved by what, for my mother, had been a long speech. “Tell me about Philip,” she said at last, again catching me completely off guard.
“We were lovers,” I said without thinking.
My mother, however, did not turn a hair at my choice of words but proceeded, gently, to interrogate me. “You don’t love him any more?” I shook my head.
“And if things had turned out…differently?”
 “I don’t know,” I said. It was true. Even so, my misery deepened as I let myself dwell on what might have been.
“What about Harry, did you love him?”
I gave a start. “Oh, yes, I loved Harry.”
“And do you think Harry would have minded about Philip?”
“Of course not!” I wished my mother would shut up.
“You sound very sure.”
“I am. Well, as sure as anyone can be. Harry would have wanted me to get on with my life and if that includes falling in love again, so be it.”
“So be it…” my mother said and gave me one of her old fashioned looks that spoke volumes.
“You can’t compare Harry and Philip,” I snapped, “Harry was kind and gentle. Philip…told me a pack of lies, for a start.”
“And Harry didn’t?”
“That’s different,” I snapped again, “Harry and I…our relationship wasn’t built on a lie even if it was a lie that…finished it. Only it isn’t finished,” I cried, “How can it ever be finished? I drove him into the arms of another man, other men. So much so he didn’t even give a damn about safe sex. He couldn’t even bring himself to tell me he was HIV positive. I could have helped him through it. People live for years with the HIV virus. He didn’t have to…kill himself. How dare he do that to me?” I raged suddenly, “How dare he make me responsible? How can I ever be free of that? How can I ever be…free?” But even as I broke down in floods of tears, I understood what my mother had been trying to tell me, what Nick Carter and my father had instinctively known. “You know a thing or two, don’t you mum?” I said later, over yet another cup of tea.
“I like to think it’s never too late to learn, dear,” she replied with a sad smile. I went to her and gave her a big hug. What would she and Philip have made of one another, I wondered involuntarily. Almost certainly, I reflected with irony, they would have got along like a house on fire.
The following day, I travelled to London to see Marc. I had very mixed feelings about making the trip. While nervous about talking to my brother about Nick, I had a good feeling about it. So was it altruism that took me to London or was I postponing the move to Manchester yet again? How would I cope, living on my own again after everything that had happened? Why me? I’d kept asking myself as my ordinary, humdrum life was repeatedly turned upside down. Yet now the worst was over, I was apprehensive to the extent of dreading a return to anything even closely resembling a day-in-day-out, ‘ordinary’ life. Moreover, no matter how often I told myself that Danny would have driven me mad or Philip and I were far better off apart, I never quite believed it.
Marc was pleased to see me at first and greeted me with a hug. I made the usual complimentary remarks about the flat that was, indeed, spacious and attractively furnished if not to my own taste. As time wore on, he became taciturn and withdrawn. I suggested going for a meal. He agreed. It was a half-hearted affair at a local Indian restaurant. Afterwards, we headed for a pub across the road. We both drank too much. I was looking for some Dutch courage. Marc just felt like getting drunk.
Back at the flat, I made some coffee while he opened a bottle of rum. “Marc…” I began awkwardly once we were both seated.
He grinned. “Whenever you say ‘Marc’ like that, it always means you want to get heavy,” he chuckled slurring his words, “It always did, even when we were kids.” His expression darkened. “Well, I’m not a kid any more and I’m in no mood to get heavy. So you can just…stuff it, big brother.”
“It’s about Nick.”
He slammed his glass down on the table. “I don’t want to talk about Nick. I don’t even want to think about him….”
“You don’t mean that.”
“I bloody well do mean it!” he shouted, glaring at me.
“Look, I know how you feel. When Harry died….”
“You don’t know how I feel! You haven’t a bloody clue how I feel, no one has! You and Harry were together for years. Nick and I, we scarcely had any time together at all. It’s not fair, Laurie, it’s not bloody fair!” Ignoring the glass, he took a swig from the bottle. “It’s alright for you,” he spluttered. “You have Philip.”
“It’s over between Philip and me,” I said sharply.
“The more fool, you, then!”
“You’ll meet someone else….” It wasn’t what I meant to say but I was desperate to steer the conversation away from the subject of Philip Adams.
“Says who?” Marc fumed, “Says my big brother, yeah? A fat lot you know!”
His tone cut me to the quick, not just sneering but downright vindictive. He blames me. He hates me. I was stung into saying, “No, not me, Nick.” I forced myself to stay calm. Marc lifted the bottle over his head, spilling its contents everywhere. I expected it to come crashing down on my head. “Go on, hit me if it makes you feel better.” I said quietly, almost hoping he would.
Marc hurled the bottle across the room and it smashed against a wall, splattering the new paintwork. He flung himself on the sofa. For a moment, he stared open-mouthed at me, and then hid his face in his hands weeping.  Gingerly, I sat beside him. In a faltering voice I repeated, verbatim, Nick’s last words. “That’s how it was, Marc, I swear. He loved you. He wanted you to be happy. Maybe, in time….”
“F**k time! What did time ever do for us, eh?”
“Whether two people are together for a long time or a short time, it isn’t time that matters, it’s being together,” I mumbled.
“That’s easy for you to say,” he muttered but there was no animosity in his voice now, only pain.
During the long, heavy silence that followed, my thoughts turned involuntarily to Philip Adams. He should have listened to me. Then again…who was I kidding? If I had only waited instead of charging in like a lunatic… Nick was right. No one was to blame, no one and everyone. We go about our daily lives, each of us doing our best, and hopefully getting it right half the time if we’re lucky. I got up, ran to the bathroom and threw up in a pretty peach-coloured basin.
When I returned, Marc was standing by the door. We contemplated the broken bottle, pools of rum in pieces of glass strewn across the carpet and an ugly stain on the opposite wall. “I’ve made a right mess of things,” he said with a lopsided grimace
“You and me both,” I said dryly.
He gave me a long, searching look, and then, “Thanks for telling me about Nick. It can’t have been easy for you.”
“Thank mum. It was her idea I should tell you. We both thought it might help.”
“It does.”
“I’m glad.”
He fidgeted with his hands, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “Friends...?” He looked so young and vulnerable.
“Friends,” I agreed, feeling very middle-aged.  Yet, as we moved into an increasingly fierce hug, I not only experienced a sense of being forgiven, but also took the first tentative steps towards forgiving myself.


The next day, I visited Danny’s grave. To my surprise, a headstone was already in place. It bore the simple inscription, ‘Rest in Peace’ above Danny’s name and dates of birth and death. I discovered for the first time that his surname was Conti. Could it be his father was Italian, I wondered? It hit me then how little I knew about Danny and wished I had taken the trouble to ask. The words Rest in Peace struck me as more than appropriate. The poor kid knew precious little peace while he was alive, after all. We all deserve that much in death, surely? The force of my bitterness shocked even me.
I replaced some withered flowers with some of my own and wondered who else had thought to bring any. My question was soon answered. I heard footsteps on the gravel path and looked up to see the widow Finn coming towards me. She was carrying two bunches of yellow roses and the bony face wore a warm smile. “Why, Laurence, how nice..!” I blushed with pleasure. She rarely used my first name. We exchanged pleasantries and chatted about nothing in particular for several minutes. “It’s good to see you looking so well. I was so sorry to hear about your friend and….” Our heads turned towards Danny’s grave. Seeing my distress, she patted my hand. “You mustn’t blame yourself. The Good Lord decides when He’s ready for us to come into this world and when He’s ready to take us back. I dare say he thought Danny had suffered enough.”
I wondered how much she knew.
“I heard about it on the television, of course,” she went on. “But who believes half of what they hear these days? No one with a mind of their own, that’s for sure. We probably only ever get to hear half the story if that.” I was impressed by her shrewdness. She never ceased to amaze me, this neighbour of mine. Neighbours no more, though, I reminded myself, and the prospect seemed suddenly daunting as well as sad. “So the boy was…an unfortunate,” shying away from total realism. (Who doesn’t?) “All that matters is that when he died there were people who cared about him. Who can ask for more?”
I envied May Finn this simple vision of things, this quiet acceptance of all that is intolerable in the world.
“If it’s any comfort, I’ll see to his grave for as long as the good Lord wills. My husband is buried here too, you know….” I hadn’t known. Again, I hadn’t thought to ask. It explained the second bunch of yellow roses. “Yellow roses for remembrance, you know….”
“Thank you,” was all I could think to say before impulsively planting a kiss on the leathery cheek. “You won’t forget you promised to come and visit?”
“Indeed, no. I shall look forward to it. I’ll miss you. But I have a delightful new neighbour.” I thought I detected a twinkle in the grey eyes. “His name is Andrew. He’s a widower. What’s more, we appear to have a lot in common. Not only a love of gardening, but also choral music. Who knows? I may even persuade him to accompany me to Manchester…”
 We both laughed.
“Goodbye, May.”
“Goodbye, Laurence, and good luck. Be sure and take good care of yourself.”
“You too,” I mumbled and strolled briskly back down the gravel path before she could see I was close to tears. It was the end of a chapter. How on earth would I fill the rest of the damn book? As I came to the main road, I spotted a bus turning the corner just ahead and ran for it. I could only suppose that time would tell. However, this philosophical attitude did not last long. I missed the bus. “Shit!” I yelled at its rear end.
Marc drove me back to our mother’s house a while later, resisting all attempts by both of us to persuade him to stay overnight. He stayed for tea, muttered something about having things to do, and left. I thought I understood. Mum, bless her, was possibly trying to make up for lost time. At any rate, she fussed over us to such an extent it was driving us mad.
I treated myself to an early night and slept better than I had in a long time. After breakfast, I washed and shaved, then took a long walk by the canal. I had to keep checking my watch as I’d finally resolved to catch a mid-afternoon train to Manchester. On my return, the sight of Philip’s car parked outside the house stopped me in my tracks. I had to face him sooner or later, I reasoned. It might as well be sooner. I took a deep breath, crossed the road and let myself in with a front door key my mother had insisted I keep.
They were in the kitchen (where else?) drinking tea. My mother beamed as I entered. Philip looked sheepish. “Philip has come to give you a lift to Manchester, dear. Isn’t that kind?”
“I planned to go by train,” I said bluntly.
“Don’t be so childish, Laurence,” my mother chided me before tactfully mumbling an excuse to leave the room.
Philip and I regarded each other warily. “A cup of tea?” he suggested.
“I don’t need you to offer me a cup of tea in my own home, thanks very much,” I said rudely.  At the same time, I poured myself one and sat down.
“How are you, Laurence?”
“You’re certainly looking much better than the last time I saw you.”
I had to smile. “They told me I went for you….”
“Like a mad bull!” He grinned.
I scowled. “Well, I was, wasn’t I? Mad, I mean.” What does he expect, an apology? I fumed inwardly. Well, you’re in for a disappointment, copper.
“You’d had a rough time, we all had.”
“Some more than others,” I observed acidly.
A long, awkward silence followed. I sipped at my tea, observing his discomfort over the rim of my cup and hating myself for it.
“I’m sorry about Nick. He was a nice bloke.”
“But the likes of Danny are expendable, is that it?”
“You know me better than that.” It was his turn to snap. He shrugged and adopted a gentler tone. “The past is past. We can’t change it. What we have to do now is look to the future, hopefully learn from our mistakes.”
“Bravo!” I clapped my hands. “Cliché, cliché!” I applauded again. “Got any more like that, have you? It’s just what the doctor ordered, I don’t think.”
Philip jumped to his feet, “Can’t you at least try to meet me halfway?” His furious expression evaporated even as I watched. In its place, an anguished, pleading look although his tone fell short of a total cave-in. “We could still have a future together, you and me, if you’d only stop whining for a half a second and…grow up!”
I rose, too. “Alright, alright, you don’t have to rub it in!” I yelled, “I behaved like a stupid kid. I tried to play the hero and f**ked up good and proper. It’s my fault Nick and Danny are dead. Do you think I don’t know that? It will haunt me for the rest of my life. If I could change things, put the clock back, I would. But I can’t. I’m sorry, really sorry, but I can’t.”
“You mustn’t blame yourself. But you’re right about one thing. You are stupid, really, really stupid, if you think I’m going to write us off without trying to drum some sense into that thick skull of yours.”
“Us? There is no ‘us’,” I hissed. “I hate you.”
“Well, that’s a crying shame because I love you very much,” he said quietly and completely took the wind out of my sails. “At least let me drive you to Manchester now I’m here, and since I’m going there anyway….” he added lamely.
I sidestepped the question. “How did you know where to find me?”
“Marc called. He thought you’d be pleased to see me.”
“Then he thought wrong,” I retorted. Philip’s hurt expression cut me to the quick. My mind was in turmoil. Why was I being so horrible to him? I love him. This admission put me in more of a quandary than ever. I couldn’t think straight. It hadn’t occurred to me that he and I might still have a future together. I had convinced myself it was a pipe dream, dead in the water. Now here he was, larger than life, telling me I was wrong and how he loved me. Yet, was I, lying through my teeth, telling him I hated him. I was close to tears. The brick wall I had carefully constructed to keep him out crumbled before my eyes. I stood amongst the rubble, hugging my self-blame, longing to feel his arms around me. “A lift would be nice,” I managed to say, but not above a hoarse whisper.
I fled upstairs. After a while, there was a knock on my bedroom door and Philip entered without waiting to be asked. I was at the window, gazing down at my childhood, watching my brothers and sister gather round, anxious to help me build a go-kart with some wooden planks from the shed and the wheels of an old pram. He came and stood beside me. “A penny for them?”
“You can’t put a price on the past,” I said stiffly and knew I sounded pompous.
He chuckled softly in my ear. “How about the future?”
I sighed. “Do you ever regret not having kids?”
“We could always adopt.”
“I’m serious, Philip.”
“So am I, but if what you’re really asking is do I regret being gay, the answer is ‘no’. It’s what I am. You might as well ask me if I regret being born. If I hadn’t been born I would never have met you, would I? How can I regret that?” He was gently teasing me, I knew, but my hackles remained firmly in place. “Oh, I get lonely, but who doesn’t? Gays don’t have a monopoly on loneliness. Besides, who’s to say I’d have had kids if I were straight? If you love someone, I guess having kids is a bonus. Not having them only really matters when that love is not enough. He paused before saying, “So where does that leave us?”
The scene in my mind’s eye changed. I saw Danny, naked and spread-eagled on a bench. Had he ever built a go-kart, I wondered, or Poppy? I don’t want to be lonely again, a voice whispered and I thought it was my own until I realized I couldn’t, wouldn’t speak.
Loneliness, I reflected grimly, has to be the saddest, most frightening word in any language. Suddenly, I was in a dark cave, listening to sounds of the world going about its daily business just above my head, a world that neither knew nor cared I was there. Tentatively, I began to pick my way through the ruins of my defences.
“I let you down, I’m sorry,” Philip was saying, “I should have listened to you. Can you forgive me?” His voice trailed away unhappily.
I slammed the lid on my own guilt feelings and turned to face him. “I love you so much,” was all I could say. His expression told me it was more than enough.
“Even though I’m a copper?” His grin was like the sun coming out after a bad storm.
“Even though you’re a copper.” I grinned back, and we fell into a joyful hug.
“There’s something I have to explain,” he murmured in my ear and pushed me gently away.
“Later,” I insisted and kissed him on the mouth. He responded with a fierce passion that carried us both away on a rapidly incoming tide of need and desire. Frantically, we undressed. Later as we lay, spent, on my bed, I saw blue sky through a hole that had appeared in the roof of my cave and had to close my eyes to the blinding sunlight.
When we returned downstairs, it must have been obvious that we had patched things up. My mother’s concerned expression broke into a tearful smile as soon as we walked into the room. Even more significantly, out came the sherry instead of the teapot. “You’ll stay the night, won’t you?” she said to Philip. “I know Laurence would love to show you around, wouldn’t you dear? Manchester will still be there tomorrow,” she added. We both looked at Philip, whose silly expression gave everything and nothing away. “Good, that’s settled. Why don’t the pair of you go and see Mary?”
In the event, we did just that. Philip got on well with Mary and the kids, and it was fun taking him around some of my old haunts. I could not help but compare this occasion with that last time, when I had made much the same rounds on my own. It made a world of difference, being with someone, sharing it all. Everyone we met seemed more at ease and comfortable with me, us. Even Dave, whose wife had left him, seemed only too happy to join us in a game of darts. As a fair comment on human nature, it was perhaps debatable, but I enjoyed myself all the same. It was very late when we got back but mum was still up and smiled, albeit with a look of weary dé jà vu, at our schoolboy high spirits.
“Which room have you given Philip, Mum?”
She gave a light shrug and avoided my eye, “Your room of course. I naturally assumed you’d want to share.”
I was frankly shocked. “You don’t mind?”
She lifted her face to mine, “As your father would say, Laurence, there’s no point in taking a down escalator when you want go up.” She turned to Philip. “I’ve put clean sheets on the bed. I hope you’ll be comfortable.”
“Thank you, Mrs Fisher, I’m sure I shall,” he said solemnly and I giggled. My mother glared at me and left the room. Instantly, I felt ashamed of myself for having trivialised what, for her, could not have been an easy decision. “Mum!” On impulse, I ran after her. She paused at the foot of the stairs long enough for me deliver a kiss on the cheek and a big hug. “Thanks!”
I watched her climb the stairs, slowly, with a dignity which came as something of surprise as it was not a quality I normally associated with my naïve, fussing mother. People really do change, as Philip had once been at pains to point out. So has my mother changed, or have I?
It felt strange, lying in the bed of my childhood with Philip beside me. At first, I had reservations. It seemed almost like a sacrilege. In this room I had been young, innocent. I grinned. In this room, too, I had secretly masturbated. Now I was middle-aged. I did and did not belong here any more. So the boy was now a man, so what? Behind all the front and show of maturity, he was still much the same person, still wanting to be told that all’s right with his own little world, still glad of a cuddle, still anxious to be loved.
I snuggled up to Philip and he tightened his arms around me. It was all I’d ever wanted, someone to take care of me, make me feel safe.
“Thanks for letting me stay,” he murmured.
“Thank my mother!”
“I did, remember?”  he kissed me lightly on the cheek. “I like your mum.”
“She certainly likes you. I never dreamed she’d let us be together like this. I expected separate rooms and a lecture on how to behave under her roof.”
We both laughed.
“Seriously, Laurie, it means a lot to me, being here with you like this.”
“Because we have my mother’s blessing?”
“No, because it’s something you never did with Harry.” I winced and would have pulled away but he pulled me close. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not jealous of Harry. It’s just that….” He broke off and slackened his grip. I lay without moving, my head on his chest, his heart banging away in my ear like a set of drums.
Eventually, I heaved myself up on one elbow. “Harry was Harry and you’re…not Harry. You’re…you. I loved Harry and I love you. It’s…different, of course it is. You’re two different people. I’m different too, I think…certainly, when I’m with you. Harry made me feel good. You…” I chuckled, “You make me feel alive.” I felt the frantic rhythm under my palm relax. “You don’t have to worry about the competition; there isn’t any.”
“You must think I’m a prat.”
“I won’t answer that,” I giggled again and kissed him on the lips. “Besides, it takes one to know one. If you must know, I think you’re wonderful.”
“That’s the British copper for you…bloody marvellous!”
We laughed, kissed and made love with infinite tenderness. The young Laurence Fisher had at last come of age or so I liked to think. If we had intruded upon some long-ago innocence, we certainly hadn’t betrayed it. No blasphemy had been committed. And if this shared act of searching for and discovering peace had touched upon aspects of self-discovery, especially in relation to one another...well, so much the better.
Soon after breakfast, we headed for Manchester. Philip was quiet and, I thought, a shade edgy. I was miffed. Hadn’t I let myself believe Dame Fortune’s wheel was spinning in my favour again, and not before time? I tried to make conversation. “Is the house looking okay?”
“You’ll be pleasantly surprised. You won’t recognize the garden, it’s not a wilderness any more.”
“Who do I have to thank for that, Marc?”
The car skidded slightly. “Shit!” Philip pursed his lips, quickly regained control, and I let my thoughts wander off at a tangent. I knew Marc hadn’t been to the house recently, he had said so and been very apologetic. I’ve had heaps to do here, Laurie. You know how it is. It crossed my mind that Philip may have organized some local help. I would have asked him, but his expression was such I didn’t feel encouraged to say another word.
The house looked smaller than I remembered, the street more ordinary and shabby. Leaves were falling from its parade of trees and making a mess everywhere. My heart sank. I hadn’t realized how much it meant to me, this whole new chapter in my life. Oh, I’d had sense of new beginnings, a fresh start, but it was so much more than that. Only now, taking in the reality of it all, did I begin to appreciate the stuff of which dreams are made. This commonplace scene, this cold light of day...this was not what I’d had in mind at all. “It looks different,” I muttered sullenly.
“You’ll get used to it,” said Philip with a cheerfulness I found extremely irritating.
I glared at him. “Don’t presume to tell me what I’ll get used to, okay?”
“Sorry I spoke.”
My frayed nerves, snapped. “Your trouble, Philip, is that you can be so bloody patronising when you like!” I flounced out of the car and pushed open a gate recently painted a garish yellow. At a front door the same colour I inserted my key in the lock. It was a full minute, however, before my fingers felt motivated to start turning.
Inside, the house was clean and tidy. It also had a lived-in feel to it that I found thoroughly disconcerting. By the French windows at one end of the L-shaped sitting room, I couldn’t help admiring the garden. Someone had put a lot of work into it. There was a neat lawn edged with herbaceous borders one side, a vegetable patch showing signs of life on the other.
“Hallo, guv.”
I thought heard Danny’s voice behind me and could even make out his reflection in the glass. Nor was I unduly bothered. I was learning to live with ghosts. It must be the male menopause, I pondered wryly. At any rate, it gave me a warm, comforting feeling to believe that Danny had managed to find his way back here in the end.
Absently, I turned. Danny was leaning in the doorway as real as if he were…alive!  “Danny, is that really you?”
“Yeah, it’s really me, guv. How do you like the new hairdo? A real blond bombshell, eh?”
It was the sound of laughter that all but convinced me I wasn’t dealing with any ghost. What could a ghost conceivably find to laugh about, I asked myself? “What the hell is going on?” I demanded. Although I had begun to accept the impossible, my hackles rose of their own accord.
Danny’s face fell. “You mean you didn’t know?”
“No, I bloody didn’t.” I was furious. “Have you any idea what misery I’ve been through on your account, you ungrateful little bastard?”
“Don’t take it out on the boy.” Philip appeared at Danny’s side. “No one else knows except us three, no one who matters anyway, just a few anonymous bodies in the Home Office. One or two others later, yes. Marc, for a start. But it has to be a well-kept secret or there’s no point. I tried to tell you, but…” He shrugged, “we’d only just got together again. I didn’t want to complicate things.”
Danny looked crestfallen. “Cone on, guv, aren’t you glad I ain’t dead? I was made up when Phil rang to say you was on your way at last.” He hesitated then, “I’ve told the neighbours you’re my dad. But don’t worry, I won’t have to call you that. I said how we’re strictly into equality stuff, the both of us, so you like me to call you Laurence.”
“And just where am I supposed to have been all the while you’ve been busy setting up home for yourself here?”
“Not myself, us!” Danny protested, “It was your bright idea remember? Or didn’t you mean it?”
“Where, Danny?” I insisted.
“You have changed your mind,” he threw at me accusingly, close to tears.
“I will in a minute if you don’t tell me why I’ve been such a lousy, absentee parent.”
“Keep your hair on, guv, it’s all sorted. You’ve been burying my gran, seeing to the estate and all that.” He chuckled. “Some scaffolding fell on her after she left the hairdresser’s and she snuffed it before the ambulance could even get her to the hospital. Good, eh?” I groaned. Danny looked dismayed and tried a new approach. “I’ve done a lot to the garden. Do you like it? Phil helped, of course, but it’s me what’s done all the hard graft.”
By now, my hackles had settled down. Danny’s anxiety to please had put me firmly in my place. “Oh, Danny!”
His face lit up. He ran into my open arms and we hugged each other in floods of tears. “It’s all down to Phil. He’s fixed it so I won’t have to be looking over my shoulder all the time,” the boy sobbed. “Maybe they’ll nail Lord Muck, maybe they won’t. But at least he won’t be looking for me now I’m dead, will he?”
If there was a flaw in Danny’s logic, it escaped me. “It’s really you, you’re alive!” I hugged him tighter.
“You bet! Good, h?” Danny looked up at me, licked his lips nervously as the cheerful expression changed to one of genuine contrition. “I told Phil he should have let you in on this caper. I’m really sorry, guv.”
 “Never mind that now. You’re safe and well, that’s all that matters.” By the time we broke apart, we were both flushed with embarrassment. “But you’ll go back to school and catch up on your education.” It was not a question.
“Oh, guv, must I?” Danny wailed.
“That’s the deal,” I retorted, “Take it or leave it.”
“As if I had a choice,” he muttered ungraciously, and then added, “I love you,” and gave me a squeeze. We both burst into tears again. “Go and wipe your face,” I told him.
“Yes, dad, anything you say...er, Laurence.” The familiar cheeky grin in place again nearly triggered off more tears and I was relieved when he beat a hasty retreat upstairs. I glared at Philip. “Whoever said grown men don’t cry must have been a very unhappy person.” I sniffed and blew my nose.
“Does that mean you’re happy?” Philip sounded sceptical as he came towards me. He also looked very sure of himself.
“Of course I’m happy,” I said, and meant it. “Still gob-smacked and bloody angry but, yes, I’m happy, very happy.”
A blast of pop music exploded upstairs.
“He can turn that down for a start,” I exclaimed, bracing myself to take appropriate action.
Philip caught my sleeve. “I can see we’ll have to take that young man in hand,” he murmured.
“We?” I checked myself.
“I thought I’d move in, if you don’t mind.”
“And how do we explain that to the neighbours?”
“Don’t worry about them. In my experience, once people find out I’m a copper they’re only too pleased to keep their noses out of my business, in case I start sniffing around their precious skeletons.” He laughed. “Let’s face it, we’ve all got our share.”
I could only nod, unconvinced. “What about your colleagues in the police force, won’t they have something to say about it?”
He shrugged, grinning. “Plenty, I expect. They’ll just have to get used to the idea. After all, I’m the new face of a gay-friendly police force. Besides, don’t forget I’m an inspector now so they’ll have to watch their step. We’re not so easily sat on, we DIs. So, how about it?”
I attempted, without much success, to appear nonchalant. “I dare say I could get used to the idea.” I grinned back.
Danny turned the volume up.
Philip and I ran into the hall and yelled in unison, “Danny, turn it down!”
After a long pause, it went marginally quieter. We grimaced, then simultaneously burst out laughing. A long, searching look passed between us. Liking what we found, we fell, still laughing, into a warm, all-encompassing embrace.
Over Philip’s shoulder, I could have sworn I saw a big brown bear lumbering down the stairs. It paused, rose on its hind legs and raised a friendly paw in a gesture I chose to interpret as nature’s blessing.