This is the fifth in the Ross series of stories. Though each is meant to be a stand-alone, there are occasional references to events which happened in the previous ones. These are 'For Pete's Sake' (Death in Paint), 'Two's Company', 'Split' and 'The Visit'.
A short story
Ross will look after it. Ross will know what to do, I said to myself. So I went into the staff toilets and gave him a ring on my mobile. You may wonder why I had to go to the toilet to make a phone call but if you knew Miss Blagstock, our fiery dragon of a Head Librarian, you'd understand exactly why. She doesn't exactly approve of staff making, or receiving, private phone calls in work time. Actually I wouldn't have put it past her to have suspected what I was doing nasty suspicious mind that woman has and have gone herself to the 'ladies' (which backs on to the 'Gents') and listened. The wall between the two bogs (the American term 'restroom' is so much more delicate) is thin and I can often hear the girls chatting next door not exactly what they're saying but with judicious use of a drinking glass pressed to the wall, no doubt la Blagstock would be able to hear me. Or she may well have 'super-hearing' like a bat.
So I kept my voice down. All the same it echoed hollowly, strange acoustics Victorian lavatories have, and this one was definitely Victorian. Even had a chain to pull to flush the pan rather than a neat little chrome handle.
"Kevin here," I said and then asked when we made contact, "So what are we going to do about Split?" Ross' mellifluous voice fluted across the airwaves or whatever joins a landline phone to a mobile one. Something to do with old fashioned copper wiring and tall radio masts which exude dangerous microwaves. Technology is rather beyond me, though I'm prepared to use it when it's convenient (and it works).
The problem with Split of course was that he was completely fucked up. Ross knew that. He'd found out that the poor guy's childhood had been a living hell to use a well-worn but useful cliché. That it was only when the parental abuse was discovered and his father sent to prison, and he'd been allocated to reasonable foster parents that Split's innate intelligence had emerged. He'd got himself some good grades at school and then won a place at University. But this hadn't worked, whether because of his childhood traumas or just that he'd chosen the wrong courses. Anyway, he'd dropped out and that was where we'd found him, in a derelict squat in Camden Town, painting graffiti on walls and annoying the locals me included.
It was my lover, Peter Curtis, who had seen Split's potential as an artist, taken him in hand and the art world had loved him. Now, well-off, if not actually rich, and famous, at least in the confined environment of the art world, Split should have been the happiest of bunnies, except and here's the rub something nasty had flipped in his head.
For a start he was writing himself poison pen letters, accusing him of being gay and threatening to out him. Of course he was gay as Ross could well confirm. I too as he had once made a pass at me. That's as far as it went though I must admit I was sorely tempted. Split was and is a very attractive guy and sexy too.
Now that sort of stuff freaks me out, mind stuff not sex, so I'd left it to Ross to sort out. He'd know what to do, or if he didn't, he'd know who to see about it. I relied on Ross. He was the main man, as they say.
"So what's happening?" I asked.
I wasn't to find out not then anyhow because there was a sudden pounding on the door and a voice said, "Hey, Kevin, you all right? Cos Miss Blagstock wants you. I can tell her if you aren't feeling too good, but . . ."
"I'm coming." I switched off figuring that Ross had heard enough to understand the situation.
It was Thursday and half day at the Library so I had a free afternoon. I could have gone to Peter's Art Gallery in Camden High Street, or done some shopping at the local supermarket. I rang Ross but he didn't answer, so I decided to call on Split. I know I said his problems freaked me out, but I'd feel guilty if I deserted him. My car had been more or less repaired though it still wheezed like an asthmatic labrador but I figured it would get me the few miles from urban Chalk Farm (where Peter and I lived) to leafy Highgate (where Split had his bijou but expensive flat). I could have gone by Underground which was only four stops and probably much quicker but it was a pleasant sunny day and I didn't fancy being squashed into a tube train. These days I always had the feeling that a terrorist bomb could immure me underground in total darkness and surrounded by dead and dying victims (even if I wasn't one of them). Unlikely, of course but I'm always the pessimist.
Luckily nothing untoward happened on the way. The day was fair, the traffic light. Queen's Wood which skirted the row of houses where Split had his flat was beautifully arboreal in the midst of North London. The only thing wrong was that Split wasn't in, or at least didn't answer the door when I knocked. Of course I should have rung him before I started out but then I had assumed that someone who wasn't feeling well, would have stayed in. It's what I do, grumpily crouched in front of a fire and the TV, and complaining about the quality of the programs.
To cheer myself up I went for a walk through the woods. Sometimes I pretend I'm into the countryside, another Wordsworth though I've no idea how to write poetry. I liked seeing the squirrels chasing across the ground and up the trees until I told myself they were really vermin and responsible for stealing birds' eggs, eating the young and pushing out the indigenous red squirrels. I saw a fox but it looked a bit mangy as do most urban foxes and I was feeling even more depressed when I saw a figure coming towards me through the trees.
I thought at first it was a young kid, not exactly because of his outline which was tall and not particularly thin, but because of his gait. He, it was certainly a male, danced along, jumping occasionally like someone who just couldn't be bothered to walk, too hyped up to take things gently, dodging in and out of the tree trunks. Then as he got closer, I saw it was Split, but a Split I'd not seen before. He'd always been a guy who took things calmly, almost phlegmatically. Even when he'd made that physical pass at me, it had been done clinically, but how he was jumping all over the place. I noticed that he was sweating, perspiration running off his forehead and down his face.
"Split," I said.
He stopped and looked at me, or rather he looked in my direction, his eyes seemingly taking a while to focus.
"Kevin?" he asked, as if he wasn't quite sure who I was. Then, "Kevin!" when he was sure. He grabbed me in a hug, pulling me to his body.
I wondered if he were drunk but I couldn't smell alcohol on his breath.
"What'choo doin' in the woods?" he whispered in my ear.
"I came to see you," I said.
"Came to see me?" He stepped back, his trainers beating a tattoo amongst the dead leaves.
"Shall we go to your flat?"
"Oh yes," he said as if it was a brilliant idea.
We tramped back, or at least I did. Split pranced, skipping sometimes in front, sometimes behind.
The place was a mess. Before when I'd been, his living room had been tidy to the point of geometric regularity. Now everything was askew. Feng Shui in complete collapse. CDs scattered about, dirty cups had left rings on the coffee table, an arm chair faced the wall as if someone sitting there was in disgrace. It also felt cold and damp, though I noticed Split was still sweating. He slumped down on the sofa looking exhausted, though his feet still tapped a rhythm on the parquet flooring.
"Are you all right?" I asked. "Shall I make some coffee?"
"Apple juice," he said vaguely. "In the fridge. Thirsty."
There was a large carton of juice in the fridge and I poured out two glasses. I'd have preferred something hot but couldn't be bothered to make it.
Split gulped down the juice and then held out the empty glass for more, so I gave him mine. He didn't look well. There were dark circles under his eyes as if he hadn't slept and a fidgety nervousness about him so that he couldn't keep still. His fingers drummed ceaselessly on the arm of the sofa.
"How are you?" I asked, pointlessly as no one ever answers that question truthfully.
"I'm fine," he said, though his eyes wouldn't meet mine.
"Have you been painting anything new?" I knew Peter would want to know that.
Split looked vacantly around and then turned to see the three paintings on the wall behind him. It was almost as if he didn't know what they were. "No," he said after a slight hesitation. "No I haven't painted recently. Didn't seem much point."
"Of course there's a point. Your paintings are selling fine. Everyone wants a new one. I expect Peter will want a new exhibition at the gallery." And if you stop painting, I thought but didn't say, your income dries up.
"I suppose so." There was no enthusiasm in his tone. He finished the other glass of juice and licked his lips as if they were still dry.
I plunged in to what I thought was the problem. "Have you had any more of those letters?"
"The ones threatening to 'out' you?" He didn't answer, so I came out with, "The ones you wrote."
He had admitted it before but now he looked confused. No, 'confused' is the wrong word 'disoriented', completely fazed. "I didn't do it," he said, but without any certainty, then added. "I don't know. Sometimes I do things without knowing."
He suddenly looked lost, like a little boy who's mislaid his favourite toy. I'm a sucker for looks like that, brings out the mother in me, I guess. Deciding that a hug was in order, I clasped him in what I thought was a comforting grip.
Big mistake (or successful ploy whichever way you look at it).
It was as if I'd unzipped my trousers and invited him inside. Anyway that's where his hand went and mouth parts fastened on to mine like a lamprey, his tongue forcing my lips, teeth open and roving around inside until I felt that a tonsillectomy was imminent.
I think I've probably mentioned before that I am not exactly immune to young men's advances and parts of me (my cock in particular) seem to take on a life of their own when groped by questing fingers. "No. No," I attempted to say though my mouth was full of probing muscle. "Yes. Yes," said my cock rising to its full extent.
But there were no excuses for what I did and allowed him to do, and I knew I'd feel guilty afterwards but that didn't stop my putting my hand onto his groin, feeling, through the material, the softness of scrotum and balls, and then a hardening shape. Split breathed deeply and I grasped hold of his cock, using my other hand to find and draw down his zip. Inside, the whiteness of underwear. His trousers slipped to his knees. I felt his hands on the back of my head drawing me down towards him and I could smell the exciting scent of man, see the outlined shape obviously impatient to be out of the confines.
I obliged and took it out, feeling the soft silkiness of the surface skin surrounding the hard stem. I kiss-licked the top, prepared to take the whole immense thing into my mouth when
There was the sound of a key turning, a door opening, a call. "Split, you in?"
"Shit," he said, and drew back hastily.
Frantic adjustment and doing up of zip fasteners. Split slipped back into his chair and I looked - I hoped, composed.
"Come in, Ross," said Split. "We have a visitor."
Tall and good-looking, Ross came into the room. His looks were almost aristocratic which was why his tastes in men seemed so unlikely. His hair, blonder than Split's, flopped over his forehead. He looked surprised to see me there as well he might. I was equally surprised that he had a key to Split's flat. He, as always, recovered first. It wasn't possible of course but I felt that he knew exactly what had been going on. Ross is like that. He knows everything. Usually I think of this as a benefit; this time it was anything but.
"I was just going," I said.
"Of course you were," said Ross.
Well, I'd been saved from actual adultery but not through my own endeavours. Feeling guilty I decided to be extra nice to Peter when he came home. That meant of course a prepared meal his favourite, which was actually bangers and mash I know, he's got plebeian taste and chocolate ice cream sprinkled with coffee granules (don't ask). I also planned a special 'afters', or perhaps before's or in between's but at any rate some time before we slapped up, tarted ourselves around and hit the town. It would be a night to remember, I decided.
Perhaps I tried too hard because Peter, some time during my offering him my body between the sausages and the ice cream he became a bit suspicious and when we eventually cleaned up and I suggested going out, he asked me what was going on. Trouble is he knew me too well.
So I had to tell him. Not in every explicit detail but just the sketchy outline. How I had been round to see Split, how oddly he had behaved and how I felt sorry for him. Then how a hug had turned into something a little more 'friendly' but that I hadn't let it go too far. I omitted the fact that the possible coitus had been interruptus by the arrival of Ross, and just left the impression that I'd been strong and firm (well, I had in one particular sense) and insisted that compassion (on my part) and gratitude (on his) were all very well but that there were limits,
"So," I said, hoping that he'd let the subject drop, "where would you like to go this evening?"
Unfortunately Peter wanted to proceed. "What was wrong with Split?" he asked.
"Honestly, I don't know. He was just behaving oddly. He seemed agitated, irritable. He was sweating and couldn't keep still."
"I don't think so," I said. "He settled down after a while. He didn't seem to have a temperature."
"Well I suppose you got close enough to find that out."
I tried out an exploratory smile which was returned, so I knew I'd been believed, or at least forgiven.
"So where shall we go? A film? There's a concert at the Roxy."
I objected. "We're always going to that club. Why not choose something new?"
"Our friends, Eddie and Brian will be there."
That was true. They were always there. I liked Eddie and Brian, though two of the campest queens in London, they were good fun and didn't try to split us up by coming on to either of us. Or if they did, they knew, and didn't mind that they wouldn't succeed.
So to Brownies we went and were greeted by the familiar sounds, smells and sights of a pounding, sweaty, sexy, strobe-flashing gay club. Peter's blue eyes gleamed. He loved this atmosphere and had done ever since I found him in the pale imitations of Cheltenham. and rescued him to be my lover and friend. Watching him and the way the lights glistened on the curls of his black hair, seeing his smile and feeling the touch of his hand as he clasped mine, I wondered how I could ever look at another guy, much less even think of having sex with him.
Eddie and Brian were propping up the bar. Virtually indistinguishable they both were bottle blonds with similar facial structure and eyes that were enhanced with a touch of make-up at one time I couldn't tell them apart. Now, though I recognised their differences, Eddie's eyebrows were thicker, his eyes further apart and his mouth more sensual, though they could be brothers or at least sisters.
They quarrelled and bitched each other ceaselessly but I knew they were inseparable except in pursuit of a man.
"Eddie's been fornicating with some troll," announced Brian as soon as we joined them.
"I notice he only became a 'troll' after he turned you down," said Eddie.
I bought drinks and we settled down to some gossip.
"Who is this gorgeous/gruesome guy?" asked Peter.
"Name's Hank," said Brian. "Hank the Wank."
"Olive skinned, dark, broad shoulders and the biggest cock you've ever seen," said Eddie.
"I'm not a size queen as you well know," said Brian.
Eddie gave a disbelieving laugh. "You didn't say no to Sean," he said. "And look at the size on him. Coca Cola!"
"Can?" Peter asked.
"Who's Sean?" I asked.
"You know Sean." they said together.
"The artist," said Eddie.
"Split," said Brian.
Of course I knew Sean, Split's real name. I felt myself blushing as I had, that very afternoon, held his enormous schlong in my hand, nearly had it in my mouth. I hoped the lights would hide my discomfort. Nobody seemed to notice and Peter didn't say anything.
We chatted, we danced, me with Eddie (who gave me an erection), then me with Brian (who did likewise or at least kept it on the boil) and then me with Peter who noticed but, as he said, "If you came back from dancing with those two without one, I'd really begin to worry." I kissed him long and hard which was exactly the description of my physical condition when we rejoined Eddie and Brian at the bar.
They were talking to a dark-haired, olive-skinned, broad-shouldered guy wearing T-shirt, leather jacket and baggy trousers which didn't even manage to completely hide his endowment. "Must be Hank," I whispered to Peter.
Hank it was, introduced rather sulkily by Eddie. Brian winked at me behind their backs. I assumed there's been some falling out somewhere. Hank was smooth, charming without being exactly smarmy, but he upset me by immediately making a play for Peter. Not an obvious pass (which I could have understood) but including him always in the conversation, deferring to him and occasionally passing the odd compliment. I could see Peter being won over, smiling too much (at him), a little twitch of his butt as he turned to pick up his drink from the bar, classic Peter flirting. I put an end to it by taking Peter onto the dance floor where I told him that, if he didn't stop behaving like a strumpet immediately I'd take him straight to the bogs, rip off his jeans and fuck him rigid.
"My man," said Peter with mock admiration. "You know just how to treat a girl right."
When we got back to the bar, Hank had 'smoothed' off. Eddie looked a bit disappointed but Brian said something like, 'He'll be back. That sort always are,' and soon the two of them were chatting away to each other, shredding the reputations of everyone around them and fluttering their eyelashes at anyone even remotely attractive.
Peter said, "It's time we went home. You've got a promise to keep."
"Party poopers," said Eddie. "It's Friday night."
"Work tomorrow," I said.
"Work every day," said Peter.
"You're too straight," said Eddie. "Give us a grope."
Just before we left, Brian said. "If either of you need anything and I mean anything, Hank's the one to ask."
"What did he mean?" asked Peter, as we went out into the night.
"Oh I don't know," I said. "What do those two ever mean? Quick there's our bus."
We didn't hear anything from Split or indeed from Ross over the weekend but Peter and I were quite happy together. We walked on Hampstead Heath and ate tapas and drank wine at 'El Caballeros' in the High Street. In the evening we watched TV and made love, sometimes in bed, sometimes on the sofa. In fact we behaved like an ordinary married couple.
Two days later I was at work when my mobile rang. Miss Blagstock, hackles raised, glared at me. I was prepared to switch off but saw it was Ross. I'd answer, tell him I'd ring him back later, but his first words stopped me.
"Bad news, Kevin," he said.
"What's the matter?" I asked, thinking it would be a tale of his occasional rejection by one of the butch guys he lusted after.
I couldn't believe it. It didn't make sense. "What do you mean?"
"What I say. I found him lying on the floor this morning. He'd been taking drugs, of course "
I interrupted. "What do you mean, 'of course'?"
"Surely you realised. He's been taking drugs for months."
I didn't. I hadn't. But of course it explained his strange behaviour. "I never realised," I said. "Was it an overdose?"
"Either that or he got some bad drug. He was on crystal Meth, you know."
Miss Blagstock was hovering, a Medusa frown on her face. "Someone died," I said to her. "It's an emergency."
Somewhat, though not completely mollified, she said. "See me after," and retired to her little room where I sometimes wondered she drank vodka to get her through the day.
"Of course, I didn't know," I said to Ross. "God, that's awful. What's happening now?"
"He's been carted off to the mortuary I guess. And the police are here. They think I could be responsible of course. They'll be taking me to the police station for a grilling."
I could tell that, for all his lightness of tone, Ross was dreadfully upset. "What can I do?"
"Nothing at the moment. I'll be in touch when I can." The line went dead.
I rang Peter.
"Jesus," he said, genuinely shocked. Then said, "I always wondered about the drugs."
Was I the only one who was so naive? I arranged to meet Peter after I finished work. He, of course, could shut up his little art gallery whenever he felt like it. It struck me that, with Split's death, his income would be drastically reduced. He had been the one responsible for launching Split's pictures on the art world, where they had been fantastically successful.
La Blagstock wasn't exactly understanding but at least she didn't bite off my head and threaten dismissal so I considered myself fortunate.
After work, sitting in the Fag and Fishmonger, our local pub, we discussed the situation. I could see Peter was really upset. Always someone who tended to give way to his emotions, I saw his reddened eyes and knew that he'd been crying. He held my hand. The Fag and Fishmonger isn't gay otherwise he'd have thrown himself into my arms. I was almost tempted to outrage the few drinkers in the bar and give him a hug but I restrained myself. There are things you don't do on your own doorstep.
I'd tried to get in touch with Ross but his mobile had been switched off and there was no answer from his home number.
I explained this to Peter, and we sat, clutching our drinks, double vodkas and tonic which had raised the eyebrows of Dan our barman though he didn't say anything, and debated what to do what we could do.
I had nothing constructive to offer.
"Wallace," said Peter suddenly.
Sergeant Wallace, or rather Detective Sergeant Abraham Wallace of the local police, friend, and occasional bed mate of Ross's. He'd know about the case, or if he didn't, he'd be able to find out, and, if Ross himself was in trouble, he'd surely want to help as much as he could.
Wallace, big, butch and incredibly straight-looking was the unlikeliest gay guy you could hope to meet. How Ross had sussed him out, or even made the first move without fearing he'd be beaten to a bloody pulp, I'd no idea. But so it had happened and Wallace had remained one of Ross' occasional bed partners.
We'd met him of course in our previous encounters with the police, the Canaletto mystery and when Peter's cousin, Douglas had been attacked. Wallace knew us as friends of Ross so there wasn't any problem of our contacting him except that he might not be on duty. I rang the police station and asked for him. He was obviously 'protected' because I was subjected to quite an interrogation as to who I was by the duty constable. I kept saying it was a private call and eventually I got through. Not sure whether calls to the police were recorded, I was somewhat guarded when I heard Wallace's deep bass answer (even his voice was butch).
"Kevin Clarke here," I said. "You'll remember me perhaps."
"I remember you. What can I do for you?"
"It's about a mutual friend. Could we have a chat?"
"Do you have any information?"
I was looking for information but I thought he might have someone listening so I fell in with his suggestion. "Meet you somewhere."
"We're in the Fag and Fishmonger," I said. "Peter and me."
"Five minutes." Wallace was nothing if not decisive.
While we waited I bought another round and a pint of beer for Wallace which I thought would be more likely to be his drink of choice. He came in, almost filling the doorway with his bulk. A big man with, Ross tells me, an enormous cock. (This chronicle seems to be dominated with size. I must control myself).
Wallace came over and sat down, taking a thirsty sounding gulp from his pint. He was big and brawny and not my type at all, but there was a certain rugged handsomeness in his features and if, like Ross, you were only interested in the dimensions of his cock, then I'm sure he was very attractive. (Oh God, there I go again.)
"So," he said, "what've you got to tell me?"
"I'm sure Ross had nothing to do with Split's death," said Peter before I could say anything.
"Trouble is," said Wallace, "that my boss has this theory that nine times out of ten, the person finding the body is responsible for it."
I jumped in. "Ross said that it was either an overdose or some contaminated drug."
"I don't think there's much doubt about that," said Wallace. "We'll have to wait for the toxicology report though before we find out which."
"If it's the first one," I said, "then it's surely an accident."
"And if it's the second . . ."
"The person who provided him with the stuff is guilty of murder, or at least manslaughter," said Peter.
"As well as several other criminal offences."
"But they can't suspect Ross," I said, making sure I said 'they' rather than 'you'. I wanted Wallace on our side.
"How was it that he was there? He had a key to the flat. Was he living there?"
Of course I had asked that same question myself when Ross had come in and interrupted Split's and my little 'dalliance'. "Ross wouldn't have anything to do with drugs."
"Suppose he was trying to wean him off, cutting down on the stuff, though still having to feed his habit."
"How could he have obtained the stuff?" asked Peter.
"Ross would know where to get it from," said Wallace, and I knew he was right. Ross might never have used drugs but he would certainly have known where to get them from if needed.
"What does he say?" I asked. "I haven't been able to get in touch with him since this morning. He hasn't been arrested has he?"
"No," said Wallace. "He was just answering questions. Of course he denied everything."
"As an innocent person would."
"Look," said Wallace. "I can't be seen fraternising with a suspect. You'll have to talk to him. He'll tell you everything, I expect " He paused and looked at us. " and you must share with me. I'll do anything I can to help him but I have to know the truth."
We both nodded. "Is he still at the station?" I asked.
"My boss, D.I. Simpson let him go, but warned him not to go anywhere. I must get back. Be in touch." He drained his glass and went out.
"Well, now we know," said Peter.
"We don't know anything." Which was true. I thought I knew Ross pretty well and couldn't imagine him giving Split drugs, but I could see him trying to rescue him from the addiction by cutting down gradually better than cold turkey, or at least less traumatic.
I tried Ross' home number but again there was only the answer phone. I left a message asking him to ring us. Then I tried his mobile, but no luck.
"Should we go round?" asked Peter.
"There's no point. If he was in, he'd have heard me when I left the message and picked up."
"Could he be at Split's?"
"I doubt it. That's probably a scene of crime area until they decide what really happened and guarded by 'Plods'."
"So what do we do?"
"I honestly don't know, "I confessed, "unless you feel like going home for a bit of uninhibited homosexual congress."
Peter looked sad. "I really don't feel like it," he said. This was serious; it was the first time ever that Peter had refused an offer of sex from me, except once when he was suffering from balanitis and anyway on that occasion I'd only been offering palliative comfort.
It was a depressing evening. Neither of us felt like going out and there was no news of or from Ross. We went to bed early and lay together in each other's arms. "He was a brilliant artist," said Peter. "It's such a waste. "I can't believe Split's dead."
"And a nice guy."
"Ross really liked him,"
"Ross doesn't do 'really liked'," I said.
"He did with Split."
And I wondered if that was true.
Next morning it was work as usual, for me at least. Peter didn't need to go to the Gallery; it was after all his own, but there was nothing else for him to do. He'd be faced with reminders of Split, his pictures lining the walls. He wasn't sure of the position. Certainly he was his agent and had been responsible for selling them. Did Split's death make any difference? Should all of them be held until probate was granted and his next of kin discovered? Was there a will? It seemed doubtful. Split has only been in his twenties and guys our age don't think of wills. Again, he'd only recently become well off. "I'll have to find out what to do," Peter said as we parted to go off in our separate directions.
There still hadn't been any response from Ross. I couldn't think where he could have got to. I knew he had a sister, Polly, but I didn't want to worry her by making enquiries if she had no idea either where he was.
I was early at the Library and Miss Blagstock hadn't even opened up. The daily papers had been delivered and lay in a pile in the doorway. I didn't usually look at them until later in the day but the headlines of the Daily Press caught my eye.
YOUNG ARTIST'S DRUG DEATH
The lurid story was described in full with all sorts of details about a wild life, homosexuality, drug taking, celebrity fame that couldn't be coped with by one so young etc. etc. etc.
I felt sick though I'm afraid it didn't stop me from reading the whole thing. They'd managed to delve into Split's upbringing, his parental abuse, and his dropping out from University followed by his life as a vagrant on the streets. It all seemed very negative concentrating on the scandalous rather than mentioning how he had eventually made something of his life. Notoriety was all; fairness and impartiality went out of the window.
"Time to read the papers, Kevin?" La Blagstock had crept up unnoticed.
"Waiting for you, Miss Blagstock," I said and ostentatiously looked at my watch. It's impossible to catch Miss Blagstock out. There were still three minutes to go before opening time.
I don't think I'm a snob but I don't like the tabloid press. All they're concerned with is the lowest common denominator and celebrities (which are much the same thing). I've never bought the Daily Press and rarely if ever read it though of course it's available and very popular with the dropouts who come in to have a warm in the library.
But seeing that article on the front page (continued on pages six, seven and eight) with blurred pictures of Split and reproductions of some of his paintings reminded me that, some time ago, when we were trying to sort out the attacker of Peter's cousin, Douglas Patterson, he had got a job on that paper. I wondered if he could help us with our problem, so in the lunch hour I rang the editor of the tabloid. I didn't get him, of course, and was answered by what sounded like a young girl on work experience. "Don't know him," she said when I asked to speak to Douglas.
I struggled to keep my temper and also to remember the name of the man who had got the job (I thought it was with the Daily Press) for Douglas. "What about Mr Verhoest, Max Verhoest?"
"I've heard of him," she said vaguely. "He's quite important isn't he?"
"Yes," I said. "Very important, and if I don't get through to him he's going to be very cross."
"I don't really care. I'm bored of this job anyway."
"Bored WITH this job," I couldn't help saying, always a stickler for the grammatically correct.
"That's what I said."
"Could you please try to find him."
"Wait a moment." There was a pause while tinkly music, Vivaldi probably, it almost always is, played. Then she came back. "I'm putting you through."
There was more tinkly music and then a man's voice. "Hello, who's calling? Bloody girl never even asked your name."
"Kevin Curtis," I said. "I hope you remember. We met once at the journalists' club, 'Scribbles' and you put in a good word for my friend's cousin, Douglas Patterson. I've been trying to get in touch with him but your receptionist says she's never heard of him."
"Not surprised. I doubt she's heard of Rupert Murdoch."
'Who?' I nearly said but decided that now was not the time for a feeble joke. Instead I asked, "Do you know where Douglas works?"
"In the office next door. Hold on, I'll get him. I'd ask the receptionist to put you through but she'd probably lose you completely."
No more Vivaldi but the sound of a door opening and a buzz of conversation in the distance, then a call: "Duggie, a friend of yours on the phone. Kevin Clarke."
A little later, his voice, soft with the mixture of his father's Guyana and his mother's Peckham. "Hi. Sorry I haven't been in touch for a while. Been busy."
"'Busy' is what I'm ringing about. Have you anything to do with the Split case?"
"'Busy' is what we all are. It's the story of the moment. Reporters rushing about like blue-arsed farts after anything connected with it. Why? Do you know anything about it?"
"We're in the middle of it," I said. "Surprised you haven't been around already. But we need some help."
"Hold on a minute." There was a muffled conversation with Max in the background which I couldn't exactly make out, then Douglas came back.
"Max has OK'd it," he said. "Can we meet?"
"We'll need Peter," I said. "Can you come to the flat? You remember where it is?"
"How could I forget?" Indeed being raped and stabbed in our own living room and then being held hostage with Peter by the perpetrator wasn't something anyone could easily fail to recall.
We arranged the time and I phoned Peter to tell him. I tried Ross again but there was still no answer. Where the hell had he got to when he was needed? And if the police found he was missing, surely they would become even more suspicious. I worried while I crumbled a rather dry egg mayonnaise sandwich and washed down what I did eat with coffee.
Split dead, Ross missing, Peter in denial. I was desperately clutching at straws when Douglas arrived that evening. He though was just in search of information.
"How well did you know Split?" he asked as soon as we'd sat him down with a drink. I noticed he avoided the sofa on which the crime had been committed.
I thought we'd give him something so that I could ask him for something in return. "Peter knew him best," I said. I wasn't going to tell him that Split and I had almost had carnal relations on two occasions. "He's his agent as it were."
Douglas turned to Peter. "What sort of guy was he?"
"Really talented. Quiet and introspective but he showed his real nature in his paintings. I guess there was a lot of the animal in him."
I kept quiet.
"You really need to speak to Ross if you want to find out about that side of his personality."
"We'd like to but he seems to have vanished. I hoped you'd be able to tell us how to find him."
Shit! That was one of the things that I hoped a reporter especially a tabloid reporter would be able to find out. "He said he'd be in touch but he hasn't so far."
"Can you tell us some of his friends?"
"Peter and Ross and me I suppose." I knew I wasn't being much help.
"Eddie and Brian," said Peter.
Douglas pricked up his ears at some new names. "Who are they?" he asked.
"You know them," I said. "In fact, as I remember, you had sex with at least one of them. Maybe both. Eddie said he gave you a highly satisfactory blow job in the bog at Brownies."
Douglas had the grace to look a little embarrassed, though he tried to make a joke of it. "Ah, that was in my straight days." Then he got back to the business in hand. "And Sean knew them too?"
"They gave the impression that Split went considerably further with at least one of them than he did with you. But of course they like saying things that might or might not be true." Something was nagging at the back of my mind but I couldn't bring it into focus.
"I must talk to them," said Douglas, getting up as if he was about to shoot off immediately.
"I wanted you to help me finding Ross." I heard the complaint in my tone.
Even Peter backed me up but Douglas was adamant. If Peter and I didn't want to make a trip up West, he'd go by himself.
So we all decided to go.
It was too early to set out immediately, the Club would scarcely be open, or, if it were, no one would be there, certainly not Eddie and Brian who were creatures of habit and usually arrived around nine o'clock to scan the mid-evening arrivals and make their choice (or at least to decide who might be available).
Peter, therefore, organised a meal of sorts from whatever odds and ends were in the fridge and the cupboard a sort of spaghetti Bolognese though what the sauce was made of I didn't ask it didn't taste too bad however. We opened a bottle of wine and polished that off, then set out about half past eight.
We could have taken my car but the number 24 bus passes our door and takes us right to Charing Cross Road. Turn into Old Compton Street and there we are. It was a wet night and I hoped the whole thing wasn't going to be a waste of time.
Well, it certainly wasn't in one way because not only were Eddie and Brian at their usual places at the bar but Ross was there as well. I'd never been so pleased to see him and I told him so.
"What are you doing here?"
"I didn't want you to have to lie to the police so I kept low. I'm doing a bit of investigation on my own," he said, when he escaped from my hug.
"I see we don't get that sort of treatment," said Brian, so I gave him and Eddie hugs too.
"And you've brought Duggie too," said Eddie and gave him a kiss and also at the same time some below the belt fumbling but then that's Eddie all over scandalous.
"He specially wanted to see you two," said Peter naughtily. "Both of you. You know he's a reporter on the Daily Press."
Eddie looked a bit pissed off at that but Brian smiled. "It's about Split," said Douglas and Brian stopped smiling.
There were six of us and we made a sizeable group but it was difficult to talk amidst the din of the Club.
"Isn't there anywhere quieter we can go?" asked Douglas.
"We could try the bog," said Eddie. "I've never tried a six-some before."
"Apart from that spontaneous orgy we got involved in one Christmas," said Brian.
Eddie looked nostalgic. "Oh yes," he said. "That was fun."
"Not all fun," said Brian. "At one time you nearly had me."
They both shuddered.
"I want to ask about Split," said Douglas. "But not here."
"We could go upstairs," said Eddie.
For a moment I wondered whether he did in fact have designs on a group orgy and was proposing taking us bedwards.
"What's upstairs?" asked Peter.
"The owner's flat," said Brian.
"And he'll appreciate us barging in?"
"Eddie's got a special arrangement with him, haven't you Eddie?" said Brian with a tinge of envy in his tone.
"I've wanted to speak to Mr Palmer for some time," said Ross.
"How did you know his name?" asked Eddie. I knew he wouldn't get an explanations. That was what Ross did; he knew things. And he didn't often tell how.
"He won't be there there at the moment anyway. He doesn't get back from overseeing his other clubs usually until after ten."
At the top of the stairs was a heavy looking wooden door. It wasn't one of those interior doors that are put in to split up an existing building but a real, heavy-duty job which was obviously intended to put off anyone wandering up from the club with the idea of robbing the boss of a few of his ill-gotten gains.
Eddie, though, had a key. Inside a leather-covered armchair stood behind a large desk in a sumptuously decorated room. Red flock wallpaper was on the walls and the carpet we trod on was thick, our shoes almost sinking into the pile. The room was lit by lights, hidden somehow around the ceiling. There was music, completely different from that in the club, something classical, I thought. I hadn't heard it before. There were a few other less comfortable looking chairs around, presumably for visitors or clients.
Surprised at the music, I asked. "Are you sure no one's in?"
"He leaves the music on," said Eddie.
On the wall there was a picture of a young man standing by the side of a swimming pool and gazing down at another young man under the water wearing a white speedo. The painting looked familiar. Peter recognised it immediately. "It's a David Hockney," he said. "And I don't think it's a copy."
"He wouldn't have copies," said Eddie. "Now what do you want to talk about?" He seemed to have taken charge, no longer the camp screamer propping up the bar of 'Brownies'. Perhaps he doubled as a Bank Manager or some straight professional man. Stranger things have happened.
"I'm trying to find out all I can about Split," said Douglas.
"What do you want to know?" asked Eddie. "I had him so I guess I could tell you about the sexual side."
"So did I," said Brian, not to be outdone.
"Three times," said Eddie. "He was insatiable."
"There's not much more we can publish about the sex side. We're not that sort of paper."
We looked at him in some astonishment. I thought the Daily Press was exactly that sort of paper, but perhaps not quite into gay porn.
"It's the drugs we want to pursue. You know there's another guy who died after taking crank."
"Crank?" I queried.
"Crystal meth, tweak, go-fast, yaba and dozens of other names. In medicine, it comes in tablet form as a prescription drug. More often, though, it's cooked in makeshift labs and sold on the street as a powder, which is injected, snorted, or swallowed. There's a smokeable form of crystal, called ice."
"What about this other dead guy?" asked Peter.
"Again someone who took crank which had been cut with some other substance. Could be quite a few others."
"Like Split," said Ross.
"Is that confirmed?" I asked.
"Oh yes. Wallace told me."
"He said he didn't want to be seen talking to a suspect," I said.
"I don't think anyone saw him. We were quite alone."
"Thing is," said Douglas. "Who's supplying and is it the same dealer?"
"I expect a forensic analysis could confirm if they were the same."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Eddie and Brian exchanging glances. Eddie, for one looked particularly shifty. All of a sudden I remembered what had been niggling at the back of my mind for some time. I turned to Brian. Something he had said. Then I remembered. "You said, 'if either of us needed something, Hank was the guy to ask'. You were talking about drugs, weren't you?. Did Split get his drugs from Hank?"
"Who's Hank?" asked Douglas.
"Hank Palmer," said Ross, "The owner of this club."
A voice came from the doorway. "Someone taking my name in vain?"
Broad-shouldered, olive-complexioned, handsome and smoothly in command, Hank stood there. He wasn't though alone. Behind him stood a burly, brutish man, high cheekbones, square jaw, forehead covered by a short fringe of black, coarse-looking hair. I recognised him as the Club bouncer. A gorilla of a man all muscles under a dark blue suit which looked as if it could scarcely contain them. He was wearing a white short and a tie which - just - held together the collar around that bull-like neck.
Hank said, "And what, if I may ask, are you gentlemen doing in my private apartments? Eddie, have you been taking liberties?"
"We just wanted a quiet talk. I didn't think you'd mind."
"Oh but I do." He took two steps forward and slapped Eddie round the face hard. Brian seemed to react more than Eddie, stepping forward as if he'd interfere. Eddie, though, shook his head.
"I know some of you," said Hank, "Eddie and Brian of course, and you, and your pretty boyfriend, I've met. But these, the dusky young man and this tall thin gentleman we haven't been introduced."
"I'm a reporter on the Daily Press," said Douglas. "Name's Patterson."
Hank smiled. His face was handsome but it wasn't a pleasant smile, seductive but threatening at the same time. "I don't like reporters, but with you I could perhaps make an exception." He turned to Ross.
"I'm no one of importance," said Ross, "but I know more about you than you do about me."
The answer somewhat fazed Hank. Though we were six to two, I'd say the gorilla could more than easily take on four of us. Certainly Eddie and Brian looked beaten and servile, their usual bounciness destroyed.
I wouldn't have liked to take on the bouncer, and I'm sure Peter felt the same. He stood there, rather pale and quiet, head a little bent. I wanted to go towards him and touch him but no one moved.
Hank was supremely confident. For all I knew he might have a gun. "And what do you know about me, Mr Anonymous?"
"I know you're a drug dealer. I suspect you're responsible or your helpers are for providing bad drugs which have killed at least two young men."
Hank shrugged. "Difficult to prove," he said, his self-confidence showing.
Peter suddenly shouted, "You bastard. You killed Split." Before anyone could stop him, he ran at Hank and aimed a kick at his groin which connected solidly. Instantly there was confusion, absolute pandemonium.
Hank groaned then bent over holding his balls.
His bouncer have a shout and raced towards his boss, pushing anyone in his way aside. I don't know exactly what I did, but others tried to stop him but it was like holding back a rampaging bull. He whirled his fists and I saw Brian stagger back clutching his nose which was spouting blood.
Peter was still kicking at Hank who had sunk to the floor. I left him to it and the rest of us tried to hold back the windmilling bouncer. Peter was occupied and Brian seemed unable to focus through his tears and the blood. The remaining four of us clung on and gradually brought him to a halt, where he stood straining and cursing.
There was so much noise that we didn't hear the shouting from downstairs. Then the door burst open and police rushed in. It was like the arrival of the cavalry in a Western film.
Seeing them, the bouncer quietened down and Hank, white-faced and tight-lipped tried to stand up and demanded his solicitor even before D.I. Simpson who was leading the charge had said he was under arrest on suspicion of dealing with Class A forbidden drugs and manslaughter.
Afterwards, when everything had quietened down and Brian's nose had stopped bleeding, Ross explained that he had arranged it all with D.S. Wallace.
"But how did you know?" I asked. "We didn't even suspect until we got to the club."
"Things like that are best planned beforehand," said Ross smugly. "I made my enquiries while you were faffing around wasting time."
At home, I said to Peter, "I didn't know you were such a hero."
He blushed becomingly. "It was just instinct," he said.
I then carried out another instinctive course of action which eventually pleased us both.
© Michael Gouda 2007
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Date started: Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Today's date: Monday, June 18, 2007
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