Friday, 16 November 2012

Sacrilege - Chapter 14


I stayed over at Ryan’s that night and we shared his bed, but that was all. He slept amazingly well in the circumstances while I lay awake for hours at a time, torturing myself by imagining how things might have been had I not dozed off on the train and ended up in Plaistow. Eventually I rose at 3.00 am and made myself a cup of tea.
I was unhappy about Ryan’s refusal to go to the police after strenuously pointing out that, by doing so, he may well help to catch a killer and save other innocent gay men’s lives.
“The Packards would have my guts for garters if it got around I’ve been co-operating with the police,” he had protested, “…and the police are just as likely to  give me hassle as well. In my experience, they treat victims more like criminals than the criminals themselves. Besides, I can’t tell them anything. It was dark and the guy was wearing a mask. No, Laurence, if I thought it would help I would, I really would, but I don’t, so don’t ask me again.”
It was when I needed to go to the toilet that the idea came to me. I noticed Ryan’s bloody handkerchief in a waste paper basket along with a number of tissues, also blood stained.
It occurred to me that blood on the handkerchief might well belong to both men but any on the tissues could only be Ryan’s. I reasoned that, if I were to give the handkerchief and a tissue to Philip at the first opportunity, Ryan’s blood could then be eliminated by forensic tests while the killer’s DNA might help to catch the bastard. 
Feeling more than a little smug and self-satisfied, I wrapped both items in separate clean tissues and slipped them into the pocket of my jacket left hanging on a hook in the little hallway.  In the unlikely event that Ryan would notice, I would say I’d been tidying up. To be on the safe side, I emptied the remaining contents of the waste paper basket into a pedal bin in the kitchen. Since this was already full, I replaced the liner and emptied the original into a larger bin outside.
In the event, Ryan didn’t appear to notice. He slept in late and looked as fresh as a daisy while I suspected I looked my age and more since I had been up most of the night.  He was grumpy and kept yawning but was very appreciative when I provided a cooked breakfast along with croissants and plenty of strong coffee.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had been working for the Packards for ages?” I asked him when I could restrain myself no longer. “All that crap about a job interview, was that really necessary?”
He had the grace to look sheepish, but did not seem surprised. “In the café, I could tell you liked me and I liked you too. I didn’t want you to think I was just another boring accountant in a suit. As for working with the Packards, they don’t exactly come recommended, do they?  I didn’t want to risk being tarred with the same brush just when we were getting along so well.” He paused, grinned, and continued with a mouthful of croissant, “Besides it wasn’t a lie as such. I was on my way to see a client. He’s an old crony of Miles and wanted to suss me out for a little business proposition. Miles swore he’d given me a glowing reference so I thought I’d better look the part. You know me, Laurence. I wouldn’t win any prizes for being dressed the world’s best man, but I can do the business when it suits.”
We both laughed at the unintentional pun. However, I wasn’t so tired that I couldn’t recognize a lame excuse when I heard one.  Even so, his explanation was feasible enough and I felt flattered that he had wanted to get to know me better from the start. Had it been love at first sight for both of us then? I toyed pensively with my teaspoon. “Okay, but no more lies, agreed?” I mumbled.
“Agreed.” he said and, visibly relieved, treating me to an adoring smile that made me feel weak at the knees and sent a delicious shiver down my spine.
Again, I felt flattered. However, I was also conscious of the fact that I needed to contact Philip as soon as possible so resorted to some fishing. “That guy Phil we ate with the other night, are he and Ralph Packard close?”
“As close as Ralph ever gets to anyone, I’d say, apart from his mistress I imagine.” Ryan chuckled. “Take it from me, though, He’s not the sort to mix business with pleasure.”
“I was only asking,” I bristled to cover my amusement.
“He’s only been on the scene a short while,” Ryan continued between mouthfuls, “Apparently, he comes with glowing references. He’s a cool customer, I have to say. The Packards took to him right away. You can tell, can’t you?  I mean, he’s cocked up a few times, but not only is our Phil still around, he’s still in one piece as well. His references must be bloody brilliant. Mind you, I’ve heard he has connections with a guy known in the crime business as Fat Georgie. He’s serving time, but I gather he has a long arm. Maybe you’ve heard of him?”
I gulped on the bile that leapt to my throat and shook my head, not trusting myself to speak.
“Why are you so interested in Phil anyway?”
“I thought I knew him from way back,” I stammered, relieved to change the subject, but still reeling from the shock of hearing Fat Georgie’s name on Ryan’s lips, of all people. .
“Liar,” he tossed back at me, and I must have looked as nonplussed as I felt. “You were lovers once, right?”
“It was a long time ago,” I murmured, struggling to collect my thoughts, afraid my expression might give me away and not knowing what else to say.
“Did you love him?”
“I thought I did,” I replied honestly.
“And now…?”
I had a flash of inspiration. “He owes me money,” I said, “a lot of money. And I’d like to try and get it back.”
“So why the big secret…?”
Again the smile on my lips wasn’t in the least contrived. “I didn’t want you to get the wrong idea. It was a long time ago,” I repeated, “and very one-sided. I doubt whether he has ever given me a second thought since.”
“Well, good luck. If you’re wondering how best to get in touch, I can give you his mobile number if you like? And before you, I don’t fancy him. It’s purely business. The Packards like all their staff to be able to contact each other at a minute’s notice.”
“Well, if you’re sure…”
He got up and went to a drawer, retrieved a scrap of paper and a biro and wrote down a number. “You didn’t get it for me, okay?” he said as he handed it to me, “He probably won’t ask anyway. He’ll assume Ralph gave it to you. On the subject of Ralph, by the way, I wouldn’t let on that Phil owes you money if I were you. Not to any of the Packards, for that matter. They don’t take kindly to any personal stuff getting in the way of their…activities.”
I saw an opportunity and dived in, “Am I correct in assuming you’re up to your neck in those… activities?”
Ryan shook his head. “No, you’d be dead wrong. Oh, I do a spot of creative accounting for them, but that’s as far as it goes. I’m their Honest Joe, the icing on the strychnine cake if you like.”
“Strychnine, you say? Those ‘activities’ must be pretty nasty.”I wanted to probe further, but he’d already got up and come to my chair, draped his hands around my neck and was nuzzling my ear. “Forget the Packards. Whatever dirt they push, it’s nothing for the likes of you or me to worry about. What the eye doesn’t see, the heart can’t grieve over, right?”
“I suppose so,” I readily agreed, distracted as I was by a tingling in my underwear.
“As for Phil, by all means try and get your money back but don’t try and take him on if he turns nasty, okay? Promise me, Laurence. I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you.”
“I promise,” I said and promptly despatched Philip to the back of my mind as I responded eagerly to a now slow, now frantic, pressure of deliciously moist lips on mine.
“Here, call Phil now if you like.” Ryan disentangled himself from our embrace and handed me his mobile phone, “just to prove I’m not jealous,” he added. So aroused was I by now that it was all I could do not to drag him back into my arms.
Three hours later, I met up with Philip at a pub near Tower Bridge. 
He didn’t look too pleased to see me. “What do you think you’re playing at, calling me on Ryan Banks’ phone? I’m supposed to be undercover, remember? If you’ve gone and fucked things up for me, Laurence, it won’t only be me that lands in the shit.”
“Calm down. As far as Ryan is concerned, we had an affair years ago. That’s all, nothing more, nothing less. And you’ve only yourself to blame. Did you think no one noticed the looks you were giving me the other evening?”
“That was because I was terrified you’d open your big mouth and drop us all in it.”
“Yes, well I didn’t, did I?  But Ryan picked up on the vibes so I had to say something to keep him happy. If you don’t like it, that’s too bad,” I told him. “Now, if you’re going to have a go at me, the least you can do is buy me a pint of bitter while you’re about it. There’s a table free in the corner. Oh, and I’ll have a packet of plain crisps as well.”  I marched over to the table without looking back, but didn’t need to since I could hear Philip ordering two pints at the bar.
We were soon drinking our beers and sharing a packet of crisps…while not a word passed between us. You could have cut the tension with a knife.
I was about to broach the subject of Ryan’s lucky escape from the serial killer when Philip flung an accusing look over his glass and growled, “So what’s going on between you and Ryan Banks?”
“What do you mean, what’s going on? Nothing is going on.”  I couldn’t decide which was worse, lying or discovering I was considerably more anxious to protest my innocence that I could have imagined.
“Come off it, Laurence. I can read you like a book, remember? Are you and Banks lovers?” The directness of the question caught me unprepared and all I could do was nod. “I suspected as much.”
“Yes, well, you would, wouldn’t you, being a copper? Suspicion comes as naturally to you as breathing.”
We glared at each other across the table.
“Do you love him?”
“How should I know? I haven’t known him very long.”
“Exactly, and already you’re jumping into bed with him, just like you did with Nick Carter before he took up with Marc. And why did he do that, I wonder?  Could it be because you got bored with him? Are you bored with me, too, Laurence?”
I gulped, smarting with mixed emotions. It was true that Nick Carter and I had slept together, but only because we had desperately needed to feel close to someone. It hadn’t been because we had strong feelings for each other. We were both available. Anyone would have done for either of us.  Then Nick met Marc and I met Philip and…Nick died and... Do I still have Philip?
Life, I reflected bitterly, could be so damned unfair. “That’s unfair,” I protested, “You know full well how things were between Nick and me. There’s no comparison with what you and I have.”
“What you and I have, Laurence, or had?”
Feeling like a rat caught in a trap, I played for time and took a long drink from my glass. “If you must know,” I said at last, “I haven’t a clue about you and me and haven’t for ages. Yes, maybe I love Ryan and, yes, it’s true we haven’t known each other long so maybe I’m kidding myself.  But if I am, all I can say is that it makes me feels bloody good, which is something you haven’t managed for a long time. We’ve been playing lip service to love for months, Philip, surely you can see that? Maybe it’s high time we took stock of our relationship.”
“I’m hearing a lot of maybes,” Philip commented with a dry humour that hurt and made me see red.
“I didn’t come here to…”
“Dump me?” he asked so quietly that I had to strain to hear. Desperate to change the subject, I told him about the attack on Ryan. Immediately, Philip reverted to type. He became the professional copper, our personal relationship put aside. “Do you have the handkerchief and tissue with you?”
I handed them over. “Ryan would have gone to the police if he didn’t think it would jeopardise his standing with the Packards,” I felt obliged to explain. “You know what they’re like.”
“Tell me about it,” Philip growled. “How did Banks react when you told him the significance of the carnation?”
“How do you think? He was terrified. Wouldn’t you be if you’d just had a close encounter with a serial killer?”
“I dare say,” he agreed, but with a detachment that did nothing for my increasingly foul mood.
Where part of me wanted Philip to tell me to stop behaving like an asshole, sit down and have another drink, the rest was more inclined to make a dignified exit.  “Well, I’m glad he’s alive to tell the tale even if you’re not,” I said stiffly. “Now, I’ve done as much of your job as I intend to so, if you’ve no objections, I’ll be off and get on with my life.”
All he said was, “Be careful, Laurence and tell Danny to be careful too. Bloody careful,” he added and gave me a long, hard look that was impossible to read beyond the fact that it was a warning sincerely meant. We exchanged meaningless nods and I left.
By the time I returned to the widow’s house, I was in no mood enthuse about Danny’s hair-brained scheme for rescuing Teresa a second time.
“It’s as simple as A-B-C, Dad. It can’t fail, you’ll see…” he declared as we all gathered round the kitchen table.  The widow, Jackie and I listened attentively, if with growing scepticism, as he outlined his action plan. .“Jackie has found out that Vince Packard is celebrating his 50th birthday at the Red Admiral. Guess when it’s his birthday, yeah?”
But I was in no mood for guessing games.
“Next Friday?” said Jackie.
“So everyone will be there, right? That includes you and me, Dad, you can bet on it. I reckon Vince has us in mind for an extra special birthday present to himself.”
“It may be a joke to you, Danny, but I can assure you it isn’t to me,” I banged my fist on the table and half rose from my chair.
“Do you hear anyone laughing?” said the widow scathingly. “I don’t like this any more than you do, Laurence, but at least hear the boy out.”
“She has a point,” Jackie murmured.
I sat down again.
“Jackie has wangled an invite from Miles and I dare say Phil will be there too. Now, Jackie’s filled me in about the lay-out, yeah?  When Vince takes us upstairs or wherever he’s got in mind…Jackie, who’ll have been watching out for just that, will see where we go then slip off to the cellar and fuse all the lights. By that time, Terri will be with us so all we have to do is take care of Vince and make our get-away. None of the CCTV cameras will be working so it will be a piece of cake. A piece of birthday cake, yeah?”  He laughed. No one else did.
“A piece of cake…?” I echoed incredulously, “Are you out of your mind, or what?”
“Or what, I’d say,” murmured the widow, but no one paid any attention.
“For a start, Danny,” I fumed, “The Packards will be watching us like hawks. They think I’m your pimp and God only knows what else, right?” Danny nodded. “They also know that Teresa is your girlfriend, right?” Danny opened his mouth to interrupt, caught a warning glare from the widow and nodded again. “They also know that Jackie is my brother’s partner, right?”
“So what are you getting at?”
“What am I getting at? What I’m getting at, you pea brain, is that they are hardly likely to let us walk in and snatch Teresa from under their noses a second time are they? They’re just playing with us, can’t you see? We can only pray that any connections they’ve made don’t go back too far or we’re well and truly in the shit. If they get the slightest inkling of who we really are…well, enough said. And what if Jackie can’t get away from Miles or doesn’t see us leave the party or can’t fuse the bloody lights…what then?”
“I’ve thought about that,” Danny was quick to point out. “Phil is bound to be there too.  We get word to him about what we’ve got in mind and he’ll keep an eye on things as well, just in case…”
“It’s a good thing those awful Packards haven’t a clue about you and Philip,” the widow declared as she passed me a steaming mug of tea, “or they might well have made connections we’d much rather they didn’t.”
I couldn’t help but catch Jackie’s eye.
“Well, actually…” she began but was cut short by a yelp from Danny.
“What?” Danny demanded, “Come on, let’s hear it. Just when I was thinking things were starting to shape up nicely…”
“Huh!” the widow snorted, which I thought summed up Danny’s natural optimism quite nicely.
Jackie glanced accusingly at me. Danny looked from her to me and back to me. “Okay, Dad, what have you done now?  If you’ve given the Packards cause to connect you and Phil then we’re really done for…and how!”
“I haven’t!” I protested and glared at Jackie.
Jackie shrugged. “It was pretty obvious the other night that the two of you have a history,” she muttered.
I told them what I had told Ryan. “I’m sure Ryan won’t pass it on but what if he does?  It sounds feasible enough, surely?  No one is going to dig up old bones…are they?”
“You had better hope not or the only bones being dug up will be yours, mine and Phil’s,” Danny snapped and sat down again.
“To mention but a few,” Jackie added.
No one spoke.
The widow disappeared only to return a few minutes later carrying a tray on which stood four glasses and a bottle of brandy already less than half full. Upon depositing it on the table, she proceeded to pour three us an ample measure and a little less for Danny before raising her own glass, “As my dear mother always used to say, needs must as the devil drives. Are we all agreed that Mum knew her onions?”
“Agreed,” we chorused and drank.
She turned to Danny. “Laurence is quite right, of course. It’s a mad idea, quite mad. I suppose it could work though…”
We would, I acknowledged privately, doubtless find out to our cost when the time came. “Perhaps we could bring Ryan in on it?” I suggested. “We don’t have to tell him the full story, just that Vince Packard is turned on by watching threesomes and I’m one of the three.  I’m sure he’ll want to help.”
“I’m sure,” Danny agreed between clenched teeth.
“It’s too dangerous.” Jackie was adamant. “The Packards pay well for services rendered. Given the choice, no self-respecting accountant is going to choose sex over money are they?”
To my horror, I found myself blushing. “Are you implying my relationship with Ryan is purely sexual?”
Jackie shrugged. “If the cap fits...”
“Oh? And just how well does Miles Packard pay for services rendered?” I all but spat the words across the table.
Jackie blanched, scrambled to her feet, burst into tears, and ran out of the room.
“Laurence, really, how could you?  Now see what you’ve done,” cried the widow and went after her.
Danny said nothing, merely reached for the bottle and poured us both a larger brandy than the first.
Increasingly aware that I should have gone after Jackie myself and offered an abject apology, I listed numerous excused to my alter ego for doing nothing of the sort. Nor was I finding a sulky Danny the best of company either. So I took myself off to Grantham Court to see how my brother was coping with moving back in and being single again.
As I crossed the road from a bus stop that was almost opposite the flats, I saw someone run down the steps to a motorcycle parked in the forecourt and roar away. I only caught a glimpse of his face as he paused to strap on his helmet but could have sworn it was…Shifty.  Almost at once, though, I dismissed the thought as a symptom of paranoia.
Marc was pleased to see me and greeted me with a hug. If the smell of his breath was anything to go by, he was only marginally less drunk than me. I glanced around. The flat was looking passably decent and tidy although there was still a lot of redecorating to be done.
“It’s looking better than the last time I was here, that’s for sure” I observed and accepted a can of lager before sprawling in an armchair that was a trifle wobbly…but that might have been me.
“You have to show willing, don’t you?” he said. His voice was as slurred as his tone self-pitying. “She’s left me, you know. Jackie’s left me.” He paused and gazed abstractedly into space. When he spoke again, his voice and manner were oddly distant as if his mind was elsewhere. “I went out, came back and wondered why the hell I bother.”
“To go out or come back?”  I giggled self-consciously at my own poor joke.
“What’s the point of coming back to an empty flat?  What’s the point of anything? I nearly kill myself clearing up the mess and trying to make the place halfway resemble a home and…I might as well be dead anyway.” He tossed me a second can and opened another himself.
“Jackie thinks the world of you,” I told him.
“I think the world of her too.”
“So, why…?”
“Because she’s a whore, that’s why. That’s how she got the money together for the operations, you know. She whored for it. How can I live with a whore?”
“I thought you knew all that? She led me to believe she hadn’t kept anything back from you.”
“Oh, she gave me the gist. I didn’t care. I really didn’t care. But she did keep something back, didn’t she? Miles Packard for a start...”
“I didn’t care what she’d done or who she slept with. I could live with all that because none of it meant a toss to her except as means to an end. But you don’t keep something back if it never meant anything, do you?”
“Does it matter, if you love her? Besides, it’s all in the past.”
“In the past, you say? She’s been seeing him behind my back for crying out loud! That’s how much it’s in the past.”
“It doesn’t mean anything, you idiot. Grow up, Marc. You’re the only one Jackie wants, not bloody Miles Packard! If you can’t see that, you’re not only drunk, you’re a raving loony!”
“It’s easy for you to talk. You, Philip, Danny…you’re a family.” My expression must have given me away because he was at once alert and oozing concern. “What’s wrong? Was it something I said?”
I told him about Ryan.
“Oh, and I thought I was supposed to be the raving loony here? What on earth do you think you’re playing at, Laurie? You’ve got a good life going for you with two people who love you to bits. How can you throw all that away for someone you hardly know?”
“I love Ryan,” I protested. “He makes me feel…I don’t know… like I’ve always thought it should feel to be in love, I suppose.  Okay, so we haven’t known each other long but I guess there really is such a thing as love at first sight.”
“You’re deluding yourself,”
“Huh! Hark who’s talking. You’re not deluding yourself, then, into thinking you don’t care about Jackie? You know you do. You care a lot. You love her for heaven’s sake. So don’t tell me, I’m deluding yourself…at least, not before you’ve put your own house in order.”
He looked around. “It will take a good while.”
We both fell into fits of giggles and continued drinking.
“I need to go for a pee,” I announced as the urge came upon me suddenly and staggered towards the bathroom. On my return, the room began spinning and when I flung myself back into the armchair it wobbled even more than ever. “I think I’d like to lie down,” I managed to say despite a bout of hiccups. Getting no reply, I looked across at Marc who was snoring soundly.
I heaved myself to my feet and headed for the bedroom.
The curtains were closed and the room was shadowy and strangely unwelcoming. I felt like an intruder and would have returned to the main room had I not stumbled and fell across the bed. For a few seconds I lay contemplating the low ceiling until my nostrils caught a whiff of something horrible. I sat bolt upright. “Gas, I smell gas!” I shouted, but quickly relaxed when I remembered the flat was all electric. Panic over, I put my mind to the business in hand and stretched out on the bed. My head had barely touched the pillow when I became aware of someone lying beside me.
I froze. Seconds later, a rasping fart shattered the uncanny silence as if to confirm my worst fears.
Before I even risked a glance at the prostrate form, I knew it was a corpse. I gulped, closed my eyes tight and hoped it was a drunken hallucination. But when I opened them again, I saw it was not. Shivering, in spite of the clammy warmth of the room, I began to grasp that I was lying next to the body of a woman, full clothed and looking for the world as if she was asleep. Only an unnatural stillness told a different story.
It was Ginny Sharp.
I leapt to my feet but they refused point blank my brain’s command to run out of the room. Instead, I felt compelled to run my eyes over the body. It was only when they reached the strangulation marks at the neck that I had to look away and retched violently. Even then, I could not leave the room. It was as if someone was holding a gun to my head and forcing me to look into wide, unseeing eyes that were like blue flowers fallen on a damask tablecloth.
I found myself struggling for breath. At the same time, I couldn’t help but reflect how, in death, Ginny Sharp looked almost beautiful, certainly more so than she ever had in life.
I thought I saw a spot of blood on the grey carpet then saw it was only a button.   Since it matched the red top Ginny was wearing, I could only assume it had been torn loose in the course of a struggle. I knelt and picked it up. It stared back at me like a bloodshot eye. Absently, I slipped it into my pocket. If I’d been thinking clearly, I wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place of course. Wasn’t the golden rule at a murder scene, don’t touch a thing?
Rooted to the spot like a man hypnotised, my mind continued to grapple with the word ‘murder’ until, finally, I found my voice. “Marc!” I yelled.

To be continued on Monday