Monday, 3 December 2012

Sacrilege - Chapter 19


It was dawn by the time Ryan drove me back to the widow’s house. Reluctantly, he agreed to come inside. “All the downstairs lights are on, as you can see,” I said, “so it’s a safe bet that May is waiting up for us.”
“Waiting up for you, not me,” Ryan pointed out.
“Don’t be daft. May keeps an Open House. Besides, it’s high time the two of you met properly. She might have given the wrong impression at the hospital that time. You’ll love her, I know you will, and she’ll love you.” I suddenly realized how important to me that May Finn should give me and Ryan her blessing and must have sounded more confident than I felt because his face lit up and he seemed reassured.
We were soon sitting in the living room drinking large brandies.  I had been expecting to be drinking tea around the kitchen table and was surprised at the extent of my disappointment. Not that the brandy wasn’t welcome, it was, and went down a treat.
 “From what Danny has told me, I don’t imagine it’s a cup of tea you’ll be wanting,” the widow said with a dry laugh and disapproving expression that I didn’t take too seriously. “It sounds to me as if you’re extremely lucky to be alive, Laurence, let alone still in one piece. You look a mess, it’s true, but not nearly as much the worse for wear as I was expecting. I have to say, the cats for miles around must be quite envious. You have more lives than they do.”
Ryan laughed nervously.
“And you, Mister Banks, how do you fit into the picture exactly?” The widow gave Ryan a long, searching look. If she liked what she saw, the leathery face gave nothing away.
“Ryan and I plan to spend the rest of our lives together,” I said before he could answer.
“Really…? I hope you’ll be both me very happy, I’m sure.”  The widow’s tight smile and expression of surprise along with her good wishes rang with cynicism and disapproval.
Ryan drained his glass and got to his feet. “I had better go. It’s late and I’m keeping you both up. Thanks for the brandy. It was just what the doctor ordered.” He gave another nervous laugh and held out his hand to the widow. “It has been really nice meeting you.”
“You don’t have to go,” I told him. I looked to the widow for confirmation and reassurance, finding one but not the other.
“You’re welcome to stay as long as you like,” she said politely as they shook hands. “As for keeping me up, I’ve been up all night so what’s a bit longer between friends?” I cringed. Ryan swallowed uncomfortably, his Adam’s apple bobbing away like a foreign body trying to break out. Who could blame him, I asked myself with a mixture of anger and hurt? True, I had known the widow’s tone to have a cutting edge. On this occasion, however, it was practically lethal. 
Ryan grimaced and withdrew his hand. I jumped up. “I’ll see you out,” I said and accompanied him to the front door.
We kissed.
“That went well, didn’t it?” he commented wryly.
I felt wretched, but encouraged by a grim smile playing on the lips that had pressed with such heat and intensity against mine. “Give her time,” I muttered. “Besides, don’t forget she’s been up all night.”
“Haven’t we all?” he observed. We kissed again briefly, and I waited on the doorstep until he had driven off.
I stormed back into the living room prepared to take the widow to task for making Ryan feel so unwelcome but she had already retreated into the kitchen. I sighed wearily. She was on home ground now. What chance did I stand of pleading Ryan’s case or my own and her giving an inch?
“How much have you told him about Philip?” she said without looking up. I sat down at the table opposite her and warmed my hands on the mug of tea waiting for me.
“As much as he needs to know,” I hedged. “Ryan’s a lovely guy May. Give him a break.”
“Just how much does Philip know?  No, don’t tell me. As much as he needs to know, right? You know, Laurence, for a brave man you can be such a coward sometimes.”
“Hardly brave,” I protested.
“That’s not how Danny and Teresa tell it. I gather you saved Teresa’s life last night among other things.”
“More by luck than good judgement,” I mumbled and felt the colour rush to my face.
“Oh, that I can well believe!” exclaimed the widow, a warm smile taking the sting out of her words.
“Where are they?” I asked, only too happy to let the conversation shift away from Ryan and Philip.
“Philip is driving them back to Manchester.”
“What, at this hour? They must be practically dead on their feet, I know I am.”
“Philip offered and they jumped at it. I like Teresa, by the way. She and Danny will be good for each other. I’m glad. He deserves someone nice. So do you, Laurence,” she added.
“Meaning what, exactly?” I demanded, hackles rising.
“Meaning what I said. You deserve someone nice, someone who’ll make you happy.”
“Ryan will make me happy,” I insisted.
“I hope so, Laurence, for all our sakes, I really do.”
“Do your honestly think you’ll be any happier with someone like Andrew?” I jibed and immediately wished I hadn’t.
Her face fell but only briefly. Visibly and characteristically, she rallied. “It may not be a marriage made in heaven, I agree. We’ve both been alone a long time. We’ll have to get used to each other’s funny little ways and make allowances. But there has to be give and take in every relationship. I know you and Danny think Andrew is a dry old stick, a miserable old goat even.” She smiled and her face assumed a glow that seemed to peel away the years as I watched. “But you don’t know him like I do. He’s really a very nice man. He’s just not used to having to think about other people. It can be very isolating, living on your own. Oh, I know we live next door to each other but it’s not the same as living with someone, being part of someone else’s life. He’ll have to learn to live and let live like the rest of us. And he will learn, Lawrence. Be in no doubt about that. Besides…” Her voice trailed away then rose again, strong and resonant, “we love each other. If love is worth having, it has to be worth keeping. That’s the hard part, holding on. Sometimes you feel as if you’re clinging to a cliff edge and all you want to do is let go, make it easy on yourself. Then the grass under your fingernails tells you different. Believe me, I know. Only a fool is complacent about love.”
“Here endeth the lesson,” I joked ineffectually.
“I’m not preaching, Laurence, just…”
“Making a judgement on Ryan,” I snapped, “or is it me you’re getting at? It is, isn’t it?  Do you think I haven’t given my relationship with Philip all the chances it deserves and more? Well, you’re wrong, just like you’re wrong about Ryan. Do you honestly think I could ever be complacent after what happened to Harry?”
I was on my feet now. Suddenly, I realized I was shouting and immediately stopped. It was as if my own voice bounced back and ht me in the face. Not only was I raising my voice to the widow, something I had never done or dreamed I ever would, but also…
Involuntarily, I looked up. Harry’s name hung from the ceiling like the sword of Damocles.
Would I never be free? I could not possibly repeat the same mistake again…could I?
“Laurence, I…” the widow was saying but I didn’t hear. I wasn’t listening. A note of apology in the warm, familiar voice hurt me almost as much as the notion that I could ever, even inadvertently,  take someone I loved for granted again as I had poor Harry . Poor Harry, who had taken his own life because he hadn’t felt able to talk to me, confide in me, tell me he had AIDS. 
At the same time as I was hurting, I grew angrier and angrier. I was angry with everyone…the widow and Andrew, Danny and Teresa, Marc and Jackie, Philip and Shifty, the Packards. I was even angry with poor, dead, Ginny Sharp. How dare these people barge into my life and turn it upside down without as much as a by your leave? It wasn’t fair. Life was so unfair. But I would turn it round, I promised myself there and then. I would show them. We would show then, Ryan and me.
I fled the house in tears.
Before I reached the front gate, the mobile phone in my pocket rang. It was Marc to tell me that he and Jackie were at the flat and would I join them for breakfast. “You’re back together again then?” I was pleased.
“It looks like it,” my brother confirmed and I could tell he was happy. How could I muscle in and spoil things? “We’re getting married.”
“Well, congratulation. It will be a big family occasion of course.”
“If any of them bother to turn up,” he chuckled.
“I’ll be there.”
“No worries then.”
I yawned. I had never felt so tired in my life. Suddenly, breakfast with the happy couple seemed like a good idea after all. “I’m on my way.”
An hour and three half eaten breakfasts later, all three of us were fast asleep. I was the last one to wake up, only to discover the love birds had flown. Jackie’s sister Heather was perched on the edge of the sofa where I lay offering me a cup of tea that was very welcome. I sipped gratefully.
“Jack and Marc have gone shopping. For an engagement ring, by all accounts although I’m not sure it’s a matter for congratulations,” Heather was saying. “Still, it takes all sorts I suppose.”
“Jack, you say? I thought you were okay all with that?  Jackie certainly thinks so?” I made no attempt to conceal my surprise.
Heather merely shrugged. “I came to say that the police still won’t release Virginia’s body. Hopefully, though, we’ll be able to get on with the funeral this side of Christmas. Marc said he thought you would probably be going to Ryan’s later so asked me to hang around and offer you a lift.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
Heather shrugged again. “I can take you as far as Mile End. I’m sure you can find your own way from there.”
I thanked her and got dressed while she tactfully retreated into the kitchen. I could hear sounds of washing-up being done.
Later, I called Ryan but got no reply. I tried again in the car but with the same result.
“He’s probably asleep,” said Heather. “Can you wonder? You all appear to have had a very long night.”
“True,” I agreed.
“He might be out of course. You know how it is. By the time you’ve got hold of the damn mobile, it’s stopped ringing. Don’t look so worried. I’m sure he’ll call you back soon. Would you like to come back with me for a tea or coffee or something? I don’t imagine you want to be on your own after all you’ve been through.”
“Thanks.”  She was right about my not wanting to be on my own.  Something in her manner told me she didn’t either.
Back at the flat, she made more tea. We were in her kitchen. I felt very relaxed. Why did I always feel more comfortable in people’s kitchens than anywhere else, I wondered?  It was untidy but homely, what my mother would call ‘lived-in’. My wandering gaze rested on an ironing board in one corner on which lay a red blouse. “Ginny looked good in red,” I mused aloud without thinking, heard Heather’s sharp intake of breath and apologized. “I’m sorry. It must have been such a shock for you.”
Heather went to the ironing board and picked up the blouse. “Ginny looked good in anything,” she said with a cutting edge to her voice. “She was a cow but she knew how to attract men, that’s for sure.”
She wasn’t all bad,” I protested. How much, I wondered, did Heather know about Ginny’s co-operating with the police regarding the Packard’s people trafficking activities?  I liked Heather. At the same time, I did not believe for a second that she would take kindly to her own sister turning grass, whatever the provocation.
Draping the blouse over a chair by the window, she continued making the tea. I went to the window and looked out on a communal play area where a young couple were sitting on swings and some toddlers were playing on a slide under the watchful eye of two elderly women. “They must be the grandmothers,” I reflected absently and could only suppose the mothers were at work. It could have been my own mother standing there and wondered inconsequentially how much time she spent with her grandchildren. I had never asked.
My thoughts turned to Thomas. I still could not believe he had been excluded from school for carrying a knife. Thomas wasn’t that kind of boy at all. It had to be the world we live in, surely, moulding good people into bad.  Had that happened to Ginny Sharp, I wondered? My eyes took in the redness of the blouse and felt suddenly tearful for thinking about that unfortunate young woman. “Poor Agnes too,” I mused and began to recall our first meeting but broke off suddenly. Where my vision had been hazy, it had suddenly acquired incredible clarity, focusing on something about the red blouse that brought me out in a cold sweat.
There was a button missing.
“There’s button missing,” I muttered and hadn’t realized I had spoken aloud until Heather turned from where she was pouring boiling water into two mugs. “Oh, that. Yes, it’s a bloody nuisance. I’d intended to wear it today too. But it’s no big deal. I wear a lot of red. I dare say I’ll find it or a near match.”
“Like this one?” I had dug into my trousers pocket and recovered the button I’d found near Ginny Sharp’s body.
“Well, yes, like that one.” Heather reached for it but I snatched my hand away.
“I found it beside Ginny’s body,” I told her and was somewhat taken-aback by her lack of response.
“Oh,” was all she said. She turned her back, took a mug in each hand then turned to placed them on the table. “Help yourself to milk and sugar,” she said calmly and sat down.
“You were there,” I accused her. “You were there when that brute killed your sister.”
“Oh, and what brute would that be?”
“Ralph Packard.”
Heather burst out laughing. It was a horrible sound. “Ralph would never kill a woman.  He’d rape her, sell her, whatever…but he wouldn’t kill her. Ralph is far too much of an old softie for that.”
“How would you know?”
Heather responded with one of her matter-of-fact shrugs. “I know Ralph Packard better that anyone. I should do, I’ve been his mistress for years.”
“His mistress…!” I spluttered, vaguely recalling mention of a mistress but not from whom.
“Few people know so you can count yourself among the elite. Ralph is the best thing that ever happened to me. Even Ginny didn’t know. If she had, she’d have found a way to spoil things. She was good at that, spoiling things for people.”
“Is that why you killed her?”
“Oh no,” replied Heather coolly, “I ask you, do I look like the kind of woman who’d commit murder over a man?”
“So you didn’t kill her?”
“Oh, yes, I killed her,” said Heather.
I sat down.
“But the note…” I could not believe I was having this conversation.
“That was Ralph’s idea. It wasn’t murder, you know. It was an accident. Ginny always knew how to get under my skin. This time she went too far. I saw red and… well, the rest is history as they say. I panicked and called Ralph.  He told me what to write. I knew about his little campaign against you and your friend Danny of course so it made sense. 
“You knew…?” I was aghast.
“Oh, yes. We both thought it was a hoot. It was also a way for Ralph to pay off his debts. He owes Fat Georgie a small fortune.  The note was a stroke of genius, don’t you agree? “
“But why…?” I gasped. “How could you kill your own sister?”
“So she was my sister, so what? You must have realised by now that we’re a pretty dysfunctional family, surely? Besides, it’s like I said. It was an accident. She got me so mad I didn’t know what I was doing until…Well, until it was too late. Miles had called her to say he suspected Jackie of being a grass. That’s why she went to the flat, to warn Jackie. Only, Ralph had his suspicions too, and he’d called me and told me to check it out. Naturally, when I arrived and found Ginny there, I knew it was true. We argued and I completely lost it. End of story.”
“How can you be so calm?”
“Why shouldn’t I be calm? What’s the point in getting worked up about spilt milk?  Besides, no one is going to suspect me, and you’re no more likely to go to the police than I am.” She sipped her tea.
“What makes you so sure I won’t go to the police with this?” I waved the button in her face, careful to keep a tight grip on it. “This is evidence.”
“Circumstantial,” she declared. “Besides, you won’t want the publicity, your sort never do. It’s not as if there aren’t other people to consider either. Take your brother, for starters. How long do you give his relationship with Jack when it’s spread all over the tabloids that I killed my own sister? Not that our Steph will be too pleased either, what with her being married to a vicar. Still, it will liven up the parish magazine I suppose.”
“That’s the second time today you’ve referred to Jackie as Jack,” I commented distractedly. “Do you still think of him as a man then?”
“I think of him as a walking, talking, freak show, if you must know,” said Heather, “but I play along like everyone else. I wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings. When all’s said and done, family is family.”
“It’s a pity you didn’t think of that when you strangled Ginny,” I observed scathingly, struggling with a pot pourri of incredulity and disgust.
“I told you, it was an accident. But I’m right and you know it. Jack would go to pieces if he ever found out and even your precious brother won’t be able to put him together again.  You care about Marc, I can tell. In my own way, I care about Jack.”
“Because he’s family…?” It was all I could do muster a parody of self-control.
“That’s right.” Heather paused to pick up her mug and fling a challenging look over the rim of her mug. “He’s my son.”
“Ginny wasn’t the only gymslip mum in the family. If I’d had my way, I’d have had the sprog aborted. But my parents wouldn’t hear of it. They’re strict Catholics, you see. Mind you, a fat lot of good it ever did them. A fine addition to the family our Jack turned out to be! We weren’t to know of course. Mother has the business of managing crises down to a fine art. Steph was bundled off to Auntie Hilda’s for an extended holiday by the sea. And, hey presto!  She returned to be greeted by a new baby brother.”
“So Jackie has no idea?”
“Jack hasn’t a clue and that’s the way it’s going to stay.  I mean, how do you think he’d react to finding out his sister is really his mother and she’s just strangled the aunt he thought was his sister?  Yes. He’s tough. He’s had to be. But it’s straws and camels’ backs. He can’t take any more shit. That’s why he needs your brother. From what I’ve seen and heard, I’d say it was reciprocal wouldn’t you?”
I nodded, speechless.  Then another awful thought found its mark. “It was you who told the Packards Agnes was in London!” I gasped. “What kind of monster are you to kill your own sister and betray a friend?”
“The usual kind, the kind that has learned the hard way that if you don’t look out for yourself in this world no one else will. But how many times do I have to tell you? I didn’t mean to kill Ginny. To be honest, I don’t even remember doing it. One minute we were arguing and the next I had a grip on her neck. I let go immediately, but it was already too late. As for Agnes, that was unfortunate as well. Ralph came round to the flat without calling first like he usually did.  I’m sure you don’t need me to paint a picture.”
“Unfortunate?” I echoed in disbelief. “Two people murdered and you call that ‘unfortunate’?”
“Don’t you?” she parried. “It goes without saying that we never had this conversation, of course. Oh, and I’ll have my button back if you don’t mind. I’ve always had a soft spot for that blouse.”
She reached out her hand.  The fool that I am, I dropped the red eye into her palm. For a second it glared reproachfully back at me before succumbing to the fist that closed over it and withdrew.
I could think of nothing to say. Much as I longed to rant and rave, do justice to the invective furring up my tongue, I hadn’t the energy. I only knew I could not stay in the same room as that awful woman another minute. For the second time that day, I fled, only this time it was not in tears. This time, I was in shock.
I walked aimlessly for a while trying to come to terms with what Heather had told me. Eventually, I recovered sufficient presence of mind to try calling Ryan again.  I cold have wept to hear his voice, my relief was so overwhelming.
“Hey, Laurie, are you ok? Yes, come over. I can’t wait.”
Neither could I.
The next twenty-four hours was a glorious roller coaster of sex and booze, sex and booze with the occasional nap and packet of crisps in between.  The police had said they wanted to speak to us, especially me, and take statements. But we were past caring. We had switched off our mobile phones and disconnected the land line. They called at the flat twice yelling “Police!” and banged on the door when they didn’t have a finger on the bell. We ignored them. “We’ll have to see them sooner or later,” I told Ryan between steamy tongue-in-mouth kisses.
“Later,” he said.
I was so happy, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t delirious and my imagination running riot. For me, too, our lovemaking was an exorcism of sorts. I felt utterly cleansed by it. Nothing else mattered. It was frantic but never rough. Passion took us to crescendo after crescendo and always let us down gently. We’d kiss and cuddle or just cuddle, sometimes falling asleep in each other’s arms.  Uncannily, we would wake at the same time and start all over again. I had never experienced either a lovemaking so frantic yet caring or pleasure so excruciating. Harry had been a good lover, so too was Philip. Although Nick Carter and I had never been in love, we’d certainly had our moments in bed.  But none of them could compare to the ball of fire that was Ryan Banks, consuming me with a dragon’s breath one minute and fondling me with puppy paws the next.
It was early evening the next day when we emerged from the cosy warmth of our cocoon and ventured into the real world.  I called the police and told them we would present ourselves at the station the next morning. “Is eleven o’clock alright?”
“Make it eight o’clock and don’t be late,” a clipped female voice came back at me.
“That’s a bit early, isn’t it? I’m not feeling very well,” I protested
“You’ll feel a lot less well if you’re not here by eight o’clock sharp. We’ve been trying to contact you. Where have you been, cloud cuckoo land?”
“Something like that,” I said and pressed the off key on my mobile with some satisfaction.
We drove to Hampstead and had a meal at the William IV pub. Later, Ryan suggested a stroll on the heath. The moon was making heavy weather of breaking through some stubborn clouds and there was only a sprinkling of stars but it was a romantic gesture all the same and, although I had begun to feel tired, I fair lapped it up.
We had paused to kiss among some trees when it crossed my mind that Miles Packard had murdered one of his victims on the heath.
“Ah, but you’re with me and I wouldn’t let anyone come between us,” Ryan murmured, lightly biting my lobe.
“Not even a serial killer?” I teased.
“Not even the Grim Reaper himself.” Ryan grinned and kissed me again. “Mind you, he added with a wicked gleam in each eye, “I dare say the Grim Reaper would be preferable to a head case with a thing about pink carnations, for crying out loud.”
“True,” I agreed.
We embraced again and out of the corner of one eye, I caught a star winking at me over Ryan’s right shoulder,
. I yawned. “Let’s go back to the car,” I suggested. Suddenly, my legs began to give way and I would have fallen if Ryan hadn’t kept his arms around me and lowered me gently to the ground.  A blade of grass tickled my ear and seemed to be trying to tell me something. “How did you know, I asked?”
“Know what?”
“About the carnation….”
“Oh, that. I must have read it somewhere the same as you.”
“But…” I began to argue but the words died on dry lips. “That night you were attacked…it wasn’t Miles was it?”
“How would I know? It was dark and he wore a mask, remember?”
“It wasn’t Miles,” I repeated, struggling to hold on to the thread of thought that was snaking predatorily through my mind. “You weren’t the one being attacked at all, were you? You were the attacker. You killed those men and…” Philip’s words returned to haunt me.
He has sex with them afterwards.
I tried to get up but Ryan pushed me back, only gently but it was enough.
“What have you done?” I demanded. “You’ve drugged me.” I was more incredulous than frightened.
“It’s for your own good, Laurie. I love you, you see. I’ve never felt this way about anyone else, not ever. I want us to be together always. I wasn’t sure you’d understand,” he added apologetically, “that’s why I had to put something in your drink, so you wouldn’t try and fight it.”
“If you love me you’ll take me back to the car now and drive me to the widow’s house.”
Ryan shook his head. “It will be incredible, Laurie, you’ll see. We’ll go to heaven where no one can touch us. We can make love always, be together always. We’ll be a part of each other, just as we were meant to be. No one will be able to separate us, not ever. It’s the most fantastic feeling, Laurie, like making love to an angel. Only, this time I’ll be with you every step of the way. We’ll never be lonely again, not ever.”
I fought to keep my tenuous hold on consciousness.  “What do you mean you’ll be with me every step of the way?”
“I’ll not go away and leave you like I did the others, I promise. I’ll never leave you, Laurie, not ever. Well, just for a few minutes. But I’ll be back in no time, you’ll see, honest I will.”
“Where are you going?”
“I left it in the car, you see.”
“Left what in the car?”
“Why, the knife of course.”
“You’re going to kill me?”
“It won’t hurt, I swear. You’ll feel a tingling sensation across your throat that’s all. Then we’ll make love just like we did at the flat. Only this time, it won’t have to end, not ever. When I kill myself it will be like the most fantastic climax either of us has every known and the joy of it is it won’t have to end, not ever…” His face turned was shining and not just because a splattering of moonlight had filtered through the trees. His eyes were shining too, like cat’s eyes fixed on a mouse and savouring the anticipation of killing it almost as much as it would the act itself.
“You’re mad!” I meant to shout but could only manage a harsh, guttural whisper. What have I done? I’m in love with a madman…
My eyes closed of their own accord.  
No friendly bear came bounding up to lick my face and reassure me.  A bear, yes. Only, it was on its hind legs and raging fiercely. All at once, it dropped on all fours and reached me in seconds. Rearing just once, it descended on me. Nor did it waste any time before tearing me to pieces with its claws. In spite of the agony, I could not even scream as it proceeded to rip out my heart while still munching on my head trapped in its jaws.

Concludes on Friday