Monday, 29 October 2012

Sacrilege - Chapter 9


As soon as I opened my eyes some sixth sense warned me not to move.  This was just as well because, once I grew accustomed to the gloom, I realised I was trapped in an air hole and a heap of debris was poised to fall and crush me into tiny pieces.
“Laurence…?” I heard a croaky whisper and recognized the voice.
“Ryan, is that you? What on earth are you doing here?”
“Not a lot,” was the wry response.
“You know damn well what I mean,” I retorted, “What is…?”
“A nice boy like me doing in a place like this?  You may well ask!”
 “So much for your employment prospects,” I commented and even managed a grin.
The pile of debris gave an ominous shudder. I closed my eyes and mouth as dust and soot streamed into the small space where I lay.
“Laurence, are you okay?”
“Never better,” I responded with a cheerfulness that was so forced it dismayed me. It suggested I had given up and was past caring. How dare I be cheerful? I continued to remonstrate with my less hysterical side, only to wish I hadn’t bothered as terror closed its jaws on me. Ryan?” I called out but it seemed ages before I heard his voice again. In the meantime, fangs began tearing at my flesh and drew blood.
I felt a sharp stabbing pain pass from my head to my toes and back again before I lost consciousness for a second time.
“Laurence, are you okay?”
I heard the voice and only vaguely realised it did not belong to Ryan Banks. I opened my eyes. At the same time, I became dimly aware of movement all around me, noises and…yes, a blast of cold air in my face! 
Oh, bliss, I was outside and…safe.
Someone was bending over me where I lay on what I later realised must have been a stretcher. Philip? My heart leapt but before he could say a word, I was bundled into the back of an ambulance and whisked away, sirens screeching, to hospital.  But I would recall little of it, having already succumbed to that extreme comfort zone we call oblivion.
The next time I woke, it was such a mater-of-fact affair that I thought at first that I was in my own bed until I noticed the drip and realized it was attached to my person.  A drip has to mean I am in hospital, right?  So why am I in hospital? Immediately, I regretted asking myself that question. My head began to throb and I felt increasingly nauseous as I proceeded to recall events of the past…How many hours? I had no idea. Nor did time play a major part in the sequence of distorted flashbacks that homed in on my semi-consciousness like a faulty video link.
“Ah, Mister Fisher, you’re awake, I see. How are you feeling?” A nurse with gargoyle features and hair piled high arrived to carry out several procedures that I could only assume were meant to confirm my general state of well-being, for better or worse.
“I’m thirsty,” I managed to say and was much relieved when she took a beaker of water on a cupboard beside the bed, held it to my lips and enabled me to drink the lot.
“Is that better?” she asked in a kindly rather than the clinical fashion I had always associated with hospital staff.
But I made no reply. I was already fast asleep.
When I woke up again, the ward was bustling with activity and sunlight was streaming through those of its windows where its path remained unblocked by other buildings.
I glanced to either side, saw that both beds were curtained off and found myself wondering if one of them might be harbouring Ryan Banks. Ryan. I started, puzzled. What had Ryan being doing at the Packard place?  Immediately, my chagrin threatened to overwhelm me. The more important question of course was had poor Ryan survived the fire? Danny. Teresa. How could I have forgotten?  I’d have sat bolt upright, but didn’t have the energy. As it was, I was close to tears and could only close my eyes in a vain attempt to make the whole ghastly scenario go away. “It’s all such a damn mess!” I wailed, inwardly I thought, not realizing I had shouted for the whole ward to hear.
“You can say that again.” Philip’s voice drifted into my hazy consciousness with a discernible note of reprimand that struck me and so unsympathetic and unfair that I opened my eyes and prepared to do battle. “What were you doing there in the first place?” Philip demanded as I took in the inconsequential fact that he had closed the curtains around my bed.
My hackles went into overdrive. “How are you Laurence? Good to see you alive and in one piece Laurence. I’ve missed you Laurence. Oh, and I love you Laurence.” I responded peevishly and met his glare with one of my own until I saw the tears in his eyes. “I love you too,” I mumbled seconds before he kissed me.
It was a long, fruity kiss, planted squarely on my lips with a passion he hadn’t demonstrated for a long time.
“Danny, Teresa?” I was anxious to know.
Philip could only shrug. “I have no idea,” he told me, “You can imagine the panic and confusion. Packard is okay. Well, he would be, wouldn’t he? They‘ve always had the luck of the devil, that family. You know…” He faltered. “It took the fire crews four hours to get you and Banks out,” His grim expression told me that I, too, must have the luck of the devil. “How well do you know Banks?”
The question caught me off guard. I felt the colour rush to my face, reached for the tumbler and took refuge in several sips of water. How much did Philip know? How could he know anything unless Danny…? But Danny would never grass on me, even to Philip. Besides, as far as Danny was concerned it was pure guesswork.
“We looked death in the face together, that’s all,” I mumbled. To my astonishment and rising indignation, he threw back his head and roared.
“Oh, Laurie, you are such a drama queen!”
I would have protested, but he leaned forward and kissed me again. He wrapped his arms around me, with due consideration for my bruised ribs, and I clung to him. That was my mistake. As he prised my arms loose from his neck, I recognized the look that plainly warned, don’t get too close. Nobody has forever, even you and me.
We were close, Philip and I, very close. And we did love each other. At the same time, he always kept a distance of sorts between us. It’s hard to explain, but I was always aware of a gap. It had always been there, such a tiny gap that I hadn’t paid it much attention at first. Slowly but surely, though, the gap had become a chasm. Even in each other’s arms and kissing, I had a sense of his not being ready to go the last mile.
“I have to go,” he said gruffly. “I shouldn’t really be here at all. But when I saw it was you they finally pulled out from under that pile of rubble I…Well, I had to make sure you were okay, didn’t I?”
I bit my lip. He was an undercover cop, for heaven’s sake? For all I knew, he may have risked his life coming to the hospital.
“Banks is okay, by the way. He’s in much the same condition as you, just a few scratches and bruises. His rib cage has taken a bit of a battering but he’ll live. You were lucky, the pair of you…damn lucky.” I hoped my expression was giving nothing away but was not reassured by his next comment. “Stay away from Ryan Banks, Laurence. Whatever his reason for being at the house last night, I don’t imagine it was purely social.”
He left, tugged the curtain open, walked at a deceptively leisurely pace down the ward and through the double doors at the end without looking back.
How much, I wondered, did Philip know about Ryan and me?” 
The double doors, swung open again. My heart missed a beat. But it was not Philip returning but Ryan Banks. He was limping slightly and wore a wicked grin on his face.  My pleasure, though, was mixed with a rush of apprehension when I spotted May Finn a few steps behind him carrying a holdall. If her expression was meant to reduce me to a pulp, it easily succeeded.
Ryan was sitting on my bed when the widow stopped, treated us both to a withering look and pulled up a chair.
I introduced them. “Ryan and I were trapped together,” I explained and was relieved when the widow relaxed and seemed genuinely pleased to shake the hand Ryan held out to her. If there was any awkwardness, I put it down to Ryan’s having to offer his left hand since his right was securely bandaged.
“I brought you these.” She dumped a bag of scones unceremoniously on the bed, “Oh, and these.” Another bag was produced containing a huge bunch of grapes to which Ryan wasted no time helping himself. “There are some pyjamas, a towel, some toiletries and a change of clothes in the bag.” She indicated the holdall.
“Thank you,” I said meekly, and wanted to ask about Danny but Ryan’s presence prevented me without my quite understanding why. I could only suppose it had something to do with Philip warning me off.  I sighed. Sometimes Philip played the policeman to extremes. Yes, the Packards were a bad lot and Ryan had accepted a job with them, but it was hardly fair to tar him with their brush.
“Jackie sends regards,” the widow was saying, “She’s gone to see your brother. I dare say she wants to reassure him that all’s well that ends well after last night’s shenanigans…as well as can be expected, anyway,” she added with only a hint of a smile on the thin lips.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Danny and Teresa were safe…for now, at least. But for how long?
“Cheer up, Laurie. We’ve just escaped the jaws of death, for goodness sake.  As soon as we get out of here we’ll break open a bottle of champagne.”
I winced. Few people ever called me Laurie, only those closest to me. I sensed rather than saw the widow stiffen and realized Ryan’s familiarity hadn’t escaped her notice. I winced, but not in pain. The woman had eyes like a hawk and a sensory system that would make a bat’s look amateurish. I could only hope she would put it down to the bond peculiar to people who have shared the same traumatic experience.
May did not stay long.
“She’s tough old bird,” murmured Ryan as we watched her stride towards the double doors and out of sight.
“She’s that alright,” I agreed and felt slightly sick. The stiffness of her walk and the way her shoulders kept twitching was like a semaphore message telling me that if I thought for one second I’d put one over May Finn, I should think again. Whatever impression she might have of my relationship with Ryan Banks it was not one of two trauma buddies.
I was discharged the next day, but not after being kept hanging around for hours to see a doctor who pronounce me a lucky man and fitter than a deserved to be. If only you knew, I reflected, guiltily. Jackie had arrived to drive me back to the widow’s house, but got bored waiting around and declared she would wait for me in the car where she could at least listen to the radio.  She reached the double doors just as a thin, shifty looking man was entering the ward and it was with growing apprehension that I witnessed what appeared to be something of an altercation between them before Jackie disappeared. The shifty looking character took only a few steps towards me before dragging open the curtain surrounding a bed to his right and closing it again with equal vigour.
Back at the house, the widow fussed over me in a kindly but noticeably distant manner. “You could all have been killed!” she kept exclaiming, and I couldn’t quite make out if she was being sympathetic or accusing. She told me that Jackie had driven Danny and Teresa back to the house on the night of the fire and then on to my mother’s the next day.
“My mother’s, they’ve gone to my mother’s?” I was flabbergasted.
“Where else can they go? I haven’t got room for you all here. Besides,” she said stiffly, “You know me, Laurence, I’m no prude. Even so, fond though I am of Danny and much as Teresa seems a nice enough girl, I will not have unmarried couples sleeping together under my roof.”
“And you think my mother will?” The idea was laughable if not very funny, and I was hard pressed not to swear. However, while it was true the widow was no prude, neither did she like to hear bad language so, with some difficulty, I stayed silent while I digested this latest bombshell. It made sense, I supposed, albeit grudgingly. But how my mother would cope with Danny and Teresa as well as the Marc-Jackie situation was anyone’s guess.
“It’s none of my business,” May Finn was saying, “But I have to say, my heart goes out to your poor mother.”
“And so say all of us,” I muttered under my breath.
“I imagine you’ll be on the next train to find out what their plans are exactly?” It was not a question. I nodded.
“I have a few things to do first though,” I mumbled into a slice of steak and kidney pie. If she had asked, I’d have put her off the scent with some lame excuse, but as she didn’t, I felt perversely obliged to be truthful. “I promised Ryan I’d call in to see how he is. We barely had time to say ‘goodbye’ at the hospital.”
“Yes, really…”
“You have his address then.”
“Of course I have his address,” I said and immediately felt the colour rush to my face. “Naturally, we made time to exchange addresses.”
“Naturally…” The widow sniffed with more than a hint of disapproval before leaving me to devour the rest of my pie in peace.
Later, I heard the front doorbell and recognized a voice in the hall as belonging to Andrew Bolton. It was my cue to leave. “Hello,” I greeted the man in passing and started to dash upstairs to throw a few basics into a holdall. My ribs had other ideas, however, and I was reduced to a slow climb. Soon afterwards, I poked my head round the living room door and called out an equally brief, “Bye!”
“Take care, Laurence,” the widow urged and a warning note brought a frown to Bolton’s face. He grunted and looked disapproving. I made a hasty get-away, trusting she would have the good sense to see the man for the cretin he was sooner rather than later. May Finn was a woman of infinite wisdom, after all. Surely she can see she’d be signing up to fate worse than death if she marries him?
It was relief, an hour later, to see Ryan and forget about them.
Neither of us was in the mood for sex. Even snuggling up to each other on the sofa to watch TV required some manoeuvring of bruised ribs and aching limbs. It was well worth the effort, though, and we were content to let a boring ‘reality’ show send us to sleep. By the time we awoke and disengaged, with much panting, grunting, groaning and a degree of swearing that would have made the widow Finn’s straight hair curl, it was far too late to think about going to my mother’s house in Reading.
Instead, we went to bed.
I did not call my mother until the following afternoon, for no other reason than Ryan and I hadn’t risen until nearly 1.00pm.
“Are you alright Laurence? We’ve all been worried sick about you. May Finn called and seemed to think you’d have been here since yesterday.”
“Sorry, Mum, I came over a bit queer on the way to Paddington so stopped off to see a friend.” I lied.
“Well, you might have called to let us know. Are you feeling better now?”
“Yes, much,” I lied again. In actual fact, I felt like death warmed up and could only suppose I was suffering from some kind of delayed shock.
“How is everyone?” I asked.
“Marc and his…err…friend went out about an hour ago. Don’t ask me where, I didn’t ask. Danny and Teresa are watching television. I must say, Laurence, you might have given me some warning. They were in a dreadful state when they arrived. Fortunately, Mary was here or I’d never have coped. She lent Teresa some clothes and looked out some of Thomas’s things for Danny. Thomas is tall for his age and they’re about the same build. With much the same hair colour, you could take them for brothers…”
I bit my lip. The idea of Danny and Thomas being in the least alike struck me as more than faintly ridiculous.
“I wish your dad was here.” Her voice broke. Not for the first time, I experienced pangs of guilt about being estranged from my father for years. But that hadn’t been my fault… or had it?
My mother rallied. “Really, Laurence, people arriving like that out of the blue is  a shock I can well do without, especially at the moment with poor Mary having such a hard time with Thomas…”
I let her ramble on while I collected my thoughts. Thank heavens for my sister.  Then I remembered to ask, “Are Danny and Teresa okay? No broken bones or nasty burns?”
“Like I said, they were in a bit of a state but there’s no lasting damage as far as I can tell. Everyone seems to have got a good night’s sleep and that always helps. Everyone except me, that is. I didn’t sleep a wink. Not least, for worrying about you.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled, wondered if I dare ask about the sleeping arrangements but decided not to push my luck.
“I’ll be with you about teatime,” I told her. At first she said nothing. “Mum, are you there?”
Then I heard a scream and the phone went dead.
“Mum, mum?” But there was no answer. I began to panic. Frantically, I misdialled Marc’s number three times before I heard his voice.
“Laurie, are you okay. We’ve all been worried sick.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m in Reading, of course. More to the point, where the hell are you?”
“I know you’re in Reading,” I snapped, “but where?”
“Jackie and I are talking a walk by the canal. Are you okay, Laurie? You sound really weird?”
“I’ve just been talking to mum on the phone.”
“Oh, well, that explains it. She was none too pleased when the others turned up last night.”
“There was a scream and the phone went dead. You’ve got to get home, Marc, and fast. Something dreadful has happened. I just know it.”
His voice changed. In an instant, it took on a new, authoritative tone that reminded me of Philip in full throttle cop mode.”We’ll be right there. Leave it with me and try not to worry. Oh, and Laurie, drag yourself away from whatever or whoever is keeping you in London and get here a.s.a.p. Preferably this side of Christmas….”
He hung up before I could protest. I felt aggrieved. I’d been in hospital, for heaven’s sake. Doesn’t that count for something? Even so, it was unnerving that he was plainly nursing suspicions I’d rather not touch upon. Am I really that transparent?
I toyed with the idea of taking a taxi but settled for the train, arriving at Reading station a little after 1600 hours. I had tried calling Marc again, my mother and Danny too. I even tried Mary’s number. No one was picking up. What could have happened? Whatever, the chances are it’s related to recent events. Better not speculate. Oh, but easier said than done.
By the time I tumbled out of a taxi at my mother’s front door, I was a near nervous wreck.
I had my own front door key but my hand was trembling so much, I couldn’t fit it in the lock. Then Danny flung open the door, a huge grin on his face.
“You made it then? Jesus, dad, you gave us all a scare!” He flung his arms around me.
“What’s going on?” I demanded. “Where’s my mother?  One minute we were chatting on the phone, the next I heard a scream and not a word since….”
“Your mum’s okay. Well, sort of. Here, let me take that.” He took my bag and I followed him into the kitchen. If I had a quid from every crisis my mother’s kitchen table had seen, I would be a rich man indeed.
Teresa was there and already had the kettle on.
“What do you mean ‘sort of’,” I continued to quiz Danny but returned the girl’s shy smile with what I hoped was a reassuring one of my own.  Not that I was feeling in the least reassured myself, quite the contrary. “Where is Marc? What the hell is going on?”
“Sit down and shut up while Terri makes us all a cup of tea and I fill you in.” Danny practically pushed me into a chair and sat next to me. “While you were on the phone to your mum, Thomas burst in…”
“Thomas? What has Thomas to do with anything?”
“Sod all, really, except he was covered in blood and your mum got a bit hysterical.”
“Blood…Thomas?” I began to panic again. “Is he alright? How did it happen? Tell me it wasn’t those damn Packards. They can’t have tracked us down here, surely?”
“Not as far as we know.” Danny’s response was cagey and less than reassuring.
“Thank God for that!” A surge of relief made itself felt in my bladder, but I managed to restrain myself.
“Besides, how would they find us here?” Danny went on. “Anyway, that’s all I know. Thomas was in no fit state to tell us much. Frankly, he couldn’t get a word out without coughing up the red stuff. Marc and Jackie took him to the hospital. Your mum went too of course. Teresa and me, we wanted to call for an ambulance but Marc insisted. He said there wasn’t time for all that so they took Jackie’s car and made off like nobody’s business. He had a point, I suppose. The poor kid looked pretty rough.”
In spite of everything, I was mildly amused to hear Danny refer to my nephew as a kid, given that only a few years separated them.
“I need to go for a pee,” I announced and fled the room
Later, over several cups of tea, Danny related how he and Teresa had escaped the fire before it had time to get a complete hold. “It looked worse than it was at first,” he told me, “then suddenly…whoosh! And it was everywhere! Once we got outside, we went spare for thinking you might be trapped. By then, the whole house looked about to collapse.”
“He wanted to go back for you but I wouldn’t let him,” said Teresa quietly. She hadn’t said much and the sound of her voice startled me. I looked into the lovely face, its expression grave. “I could not face losing him again,” she added almost apologetically.
“I should say not,” I agreed and glared at Danny, “Whatever were you thinking of?”
“How was I to know you’d make it on your own, especially with your track record?” Danny snorted and drank some more tea, but not before I glimpsed the pain in his eyes.
“Yes, well…” I mumbled, “contrary to general opinion, I can look after myself.”
“You’ve got the devil’s own luck, I’ll grant you that,” said Danny, the familiar grin back in place.
“Huh!” I retorted. “If that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what it.”
For a second we confronted each other as only two people can who care very much about each other.
“How can I ever thank you enough? You risked your life for me,” said Teresa, breaking the spell as much to Danny’s relief as mine. 
I shrugged. “It was nothing,” I told her before rounding on Danny, “I warned you how dangerous playing with fire can be.”
But Danny was having none of it. “Don’t you wag your finger at me like that,” he admonished me, eyes shining with mock reproach. “You’re the one that started it. There I was, thinking you could be trusted to make sure there was more smoke than fire and all the time you were plotting arson!””
“There was this cat…” I began, and then thought better of it.
“Oh, really…? You’ll be telling us next that a cat started the fire.”
“It was horrible, but it’s over and we are all safe,” Teresa pointed out.
“It’s a small miracle no one was killed,” Danny muttered as he helped himself to a chocolate biscuit from a tin with an elaborate if faded design that had been in my family for as long as I could remember.
I tried calling Marc again without success and was reluctant to leave a voicemail message.
“If they are still at the hospital,” said Teresa whose quiet voice of reason was starting to irritate me, “they may not be allowed to use mobile phones.”
I dialled again, this time for a taxi.
I found them sitting in a corridor at the hospital, looking grim faced and tired. My mother had an arm around Mary while Marc and Jackie were sipping something that could have been tea or coffee from plastic cups. There was no sign of Ian, Mary’s husband. Where could he be, I wondered? Why wasn’t he here where he belonged? If it were my son rushed to hospital, wild horses would not have kept me away. Or if it had been Danny lying at death’s door…
“How is Thomas?” I asked Mary but it was my mother who answered.
“He’s in Intensive Care. They say there’s every chance he’ll make a full recovery, but…” her voice dropped to a throaty whisper, “the knife narrowly missed his heart.”
“Knife…?” I was gobsmacked. “You mean he was stabbed?  I thought he’d been in some kind of accident.”
“We all thought that at first, but he managed to tell us a little about what happened on the way here. I knew something like this would happen. I couldn’t believe he’d been excluded from school for carrying a knife. I kept telling myself it had to be a terrible mistake. But now…” She wrung her hands. “He swears he doesn’t belong to any gang but you read about it all the time, don’t you, rival gangs attacking each other?”
“The police were here earlier,” said Marc, “and they’ll be back of course. But Thomas hasn’t regained consciousness since he passed out in the car so there’s not much point in their hanging around. According to Thomas, he just was walking along the road listening to his MP3 player. He wasn’t up to anything, just… walking along the road.  Apparently, he was opening your mum’s front gate when some man he’d never seen before got out of a car and stuck a knife in his chest. It’s a small miracle he made it into the house. He gave us all a real scare, I can tell you.”
Marc’s face was grey. He sounded and looked more shocked than any of us. I guessed what was going through his mind because the same thing was going through mine. If the Packards were behind the attack on Thomas, it was not only meant as a warning they meant business but also that they knew where to find us. “But stabbing a fifteen year-old boy…?”  Dazedly, I struggled with the implications.
“There’s been a growing gang culture locally for some time,” said Mary, “That’s why I’ve been so afraid Thomas might be mixing with a bad crowd.  Oh, he denies it. But he would, wouldn’t he? He used to bring friends home but he doesn’t any more. He seems to have lost touch with most of his old mates. And you are so right. A fifteen year-old getting stabbed in broad daylight on the streets of Reading in 2006 is scary, to say the least.” She began to cry and fell into my mother’s arms.
Marc and I exchanged meaningful glances. He shook his head so slightly that I doubt the others would have noticed. He was absolutely right of course. This was neither the time nor the place to let my family in on the fact that matters were not only even worse than they appeared but also likely to worsen.
The hospital was unbearable stuffy and I was feeling claustrophobic. I went outside to get some fresh air.
The more I thought about it, however, the less sense it made that the Packards could have been responsible for what had happened to my nephew. More likely, as my sister had suggested, it was the result of local gang rivalry. For one thing, how would the Packards have tracked us down so quickly? “Oh, no…!” I cried aloud.  A small miracle no one was killed, Danny had said. How can he know that for sure? Who has he been talking to? One name sprung to mind. It has to be Ginny Sharp, damn her. I groaned aloud. But Danny’s no fool. He won’t have risked contacting to Ginny, surely?
I keyed in Danny’s number on the mobile. But it wasn’t Danny who answered although I recognized the voice.
“Hello, Mister Dead Man Walking? How are you today?” 
Before I could say anything, the phone went dead. I felt physically sick with fear although I like to think I was less concerned for myself than for Danny. What did my mystery stalker think he was playing at? More to the point, how had he got hold of Danny’s mobile phone?
It crossed my mind that the phone creep might be responsible for putting Thomas in hospital and it may have nothing to do with the Packards after all. But even supposing that were true, what possible motive could anyone have for stabbing poor Thomas?  
Nothing made any sense.
Suddenly, the phone conversation I’d had with my mother earlier came back to haunt me, about Danny borrowing some of Thomas’s clothes. They could be taken for brothers, she had said.
My heart missed a beat. Could it be that Thomas was mistaken for Danny? Had my stalker intended to get at me through Danny, realized his mistake and tried again? Another, even more dreadful possibility struck me. Is that how he’d come by Danny’s mobile phone, taken it from a dead body?
I bent double and vomited.

To be continued on Friday