Mad Mitch McGuire

Short Story

Michael Gouda

At 1.23 am on Thursday January 24th Mitchell Brian Harvey McGuire, known to his friends as Mitch, to the police as Mad Mac, to his lover as Giggles for reasons that are probably obvious, fell over a body which was lying on the canal bank. You might ask what was Mitch doing out so late, at that extremely lonely part of the town stumbling along the canal path on that Thursday morning. The answer of course was that he was drunk, very very drunk.

And why was he drunk? As usual because he'd fallen out with his lover, a nice young man called Frank who put up with a lot from Mitch but who was, once in a while, driven too far by Mitch's extramarital activities. As always when Frank rebelled, he packed his favourite clothes into a small suitcase and vanished. Where he was accustomed to go Mitch never ever found out but his disappearances always led to a period of great depression and a drinking spree which often finished with a fight, usually resulting in Mitch being beaten up - losing, a) because he was a rotten fighter and b) because he was so much the worse for drink.

Sometimes the police were called and Mitch taken, flailing arms and kicking boots, down to the Station where Mad Mac as he became known, slept if off in a cell, appeared before the magistrates in the morning, was fined and went back suitably chastened, sometimes severely bruised, always pounds poorer to his lonely flat.

But Frank always forgave him and, once the clothes he had taken with him had become grubby or crumpled, would come home again to be met with great fervour, promises of complete and utter fidelity and finally celebratory excesses in bed.

But that was all in the future - or the past. This night, do you get the picture? Perhaps not so I'll describe it for you. Mitch had been ejected from the local pub, the Cock and Scrotum, (as they familiarly called it) at closing time - actually well after closing time as he was being difficult - and a bit maudlin - and had hung on even after the landlord's admonitions, even in fact until the landlord had threatened that, 'if he didn't get the fuck out, he'd call the police'. So finally spurned Mitch wandered drunkenly off, complaining to himself that no one loved him (understandably so), that he might as well commit suicide (which was the reason why he made his way towards the canal), and he promised the night (which ignored him) that, if Frank were to come back, he'd never, never fuck around with anyone else ever.

"Never, never," he mumbled. It was dark, not pitch dark because wherever you are in a built up area there's always lights, streetlights, headlights of passing cars, which pollute the real inky blackness of night - and of course the stars and moon, not that they were out that night as it was 100% cloud cover.

The water of the canal was a dark grey slab, the canal path a deep shadow and Mitch never saw the body (a slightly deeper shadow spread across the path) until he tripped over the feet end, and found himself lying spread-eagled across the prostrate form.

"Oof! Fuck," he said (Mitch, not the body which was understandably silent) though Mitch didn't at the time realise it couldn't speak, nor ever would again.

"What the fuck are you doing there?" Mitch asked. "You drunk too?"

Mitch suddenly realised that there was something warm and wet coming from he body he was lying on. For a moment he thought it was vomit but it didn't smell like that. In fact it had a sharp, coppery smell, something that Mitch recognised but for the moment couldn't identify. He struggled up and tried to help the other person but it was a dead weight, the limbs flopping about in a strangely doll-like manner.

"Come on, mate." He let go and the man - it was obviously a man - flopped back onto the ground.

It began to seep into Mitch's befuddled brain that something was really wrong. A car passed by on the road above with headlights on full. In their light he saw the dark marks on his hands, on his clothes where he had lain on the man.

With a shock he realised they were blood. And that the man was probably dead.

Now I don't know about you but there's something elementally terrifying about a dead body. Even very ill people have that spark of humanity which links them with you but that spark leaves when they die. All that is left is an empty husk with associations of ghosts and the undead. Mitch felt his stomach twist and churn. He was going to be sick - and he was, though he managed to avoid vomiting over the body.

"Christ," he said, when he had lost a lot of the beer he had drunk earlier that evening and his stomach had settled down. "Christ, I'd better get the police."

Now Mitch, except when he was fighting drunk was basically a respectable man. OK he was homosexual, which some people say weighs against you. And he wasn't particularly faithful to his partner, which in some circles is also disapproved of. And he got drunk, but only when Frank left him but apart from that, he knew right from wrong and he knew that to leave a dead body lying on the tow path of a canal was basically reprehensible, so he set out to do the right thing which every civilian should do. He went to tell the police.

The trouble was that he was covered in blood. He managed to flag down a couple of cars but as soon as the drivers saw the state he was in, they quickly wound up the window and drove off. Admittedly one did ask, "Are you hurt, son?" but when Mitch said, "No," the driver must immediately have assumed that this was some dreadful murderer, some 'Ripper' still drenched in his victim's blood and the result was the same. Window up, first gear, hard down on the throttle and off leaving a screech and a smell of burning rubber behind.

Eventually Mitch decided that he would have to walk into town to the Police Station and that was what he did.

Police Constable Frederick Williams was doing his overnight shift when Mitch staggered into the police station apparently bleeding from most parts of his body. Williams paled visibly and reached out for the panic button which would immediately alarm everyone on call, his Inspector and even the Chief Constable who was safely tucked up with his good lady in his detached house on the hill. Luckily Williams desisted for the CC was not best pleased to have his slumbers disturbed for anything but the most significant crisis. Instead he just alerted his Sergeant who was having a cup of tea in the rest room. The Sergeant knew 'Mad Mac' of old but this was the first time that Mitch had presented himself at the Police station voluntarily.

"You're in a right mess," he said. "What's the other bloke like?"

"Dead," said Mitch, and then explained.

Mitch assured him that the blood wasn't his and that, apart from a superfluity of beer, he was in the best of health. The problem lay down on the canal tow path in the shape of a dead body, over which he had tripped and, in the course of trying to get up, had become covered in the victim's blood.

This news seems sufficiently important to phone his immediate boss Inspector King and with blue lights flashing from the top of a 'jam sandwich' the Inspector, Constable Williams and Mitch drove to the canal, Mitch being told to sit on a newspaper so as not to get blood all over the seats. The Sergeant was left to look after the station, finish his cup of tea, though by that time it had gone cold, so he put the kettle on and started on his report.

Mitch had, of course, sobered up considerably by this time, though he still wouldn't have passed a breathalyser test and he was wondering whether the body would still be there. Suppose the assassin had actually still been around when Mitch had come rollicking down the path, had hidden while Mitch performed his supine activity with the body, then, when Mitch had gone, had returned and tipped the body into the canal. The D.I. was not going to be pleased and it was therefore with a sense of relief that their torches illumined the dead thing, sprawled where Mitch had left it.

In their light they could see the full extent of what looked like a frenzied attack. Jagged cuts, presumably made with a knife, criss-crossed his face so that it was almost unrecognisable as a human. Similar stab wounds seemed to have pierced his body and it was from these that the blood, now congealing, spread over the jeans and shirt.

Messages were sent, an ambulance summoned. "Is that how you found him?" asked D.I. King, a not particularly affable, 40 year old with a moustache and a permanent frown.

"Not exactly," said Mitch. "He was lying flat when I tripped over him. I guess my falling on him moved him a bit, and then I tried to get him up - I thought he was drunk - but he sort of flopped so I let him go."

"Jeez," said the D.I. "SOCO will have a fit."

That means Scene of Crime Officers. They sniff around like terriers trying to pick up tiny clues like bloodstained knives or bullet cartridges or suicide letters - the sorts of things no one else would notice. Not that this one could have committed suicide or been shot and the knife was nowhere to be seen. Williams flashed his torch all round looking for it. He found Mitch's mess of vomit, stepped in it actually.

"He could have thrown the knife into the canal," said Mitch but Williams wasn't interested. He was wiping his size 11s on a patch of grass.

"Might be a clue," said the D.I. "The DNA of the criminal."

"It's mine," said Mitch. "I threw up when I saw the blood."

He sat down on the bank and watched while they ferreted about, while the ambulance paramedics arrived, confirmed the man was dead - as if that was necessary, while other policemen trampled around, getting more and more tired. The drunkenness seemed to be returning. He felt dizzy.

"Do you mind . . ." he started to say and collapsed.

And woke up in hospital. There was a policeman sitting by the bed. Mitch recognised him as P.C. Williams. Poor lad, he seemed to be doing quite a bit of overtime. When he looked at him though, Mitch saw that he was asleep.

I suppose I'm under arrest, thought Mitch. It was the usual outcome of one of his nights of debauchery, so he wasn't surprised. Another drunk and disorderly, he thought. Another glaring from the magistrate and a hefty fine, presumably larger than the last one. They didn't reduce when you had them in quantity, nor do you get a 'buy one get one free' sort of offer.

Mitch groaned and Williams woke up, looking slightly ludicrous, staring around him obviously with no idea where he was either.

"Hello," said Mitch.

Williams pulled himself together, looked around for something then finding a notebook and pen on the ground, he scribbled something in it.

"What are you writing?" asked Mitch.

"I have to make a note of everything you say."

"What for? Am I under arrest?" asked Mitch.

"Suspicion of murder," muttered Williams, scribbling away.

"That's daft. Would I report it if I'd done it myself. I don't even know who the guy was. Who was it?"

"Can you slow down," said Williams. "What did you say after 'done it myself'?"

A nurse came in. She was bringing in a cup of tea, for Mitch, but not one for Williams who looked enviously as Mitch drank it down. "How do you feel?" she asked.

"I'm fine," said Mitch. "Bit of a headache. Nothing that I haven't had before after a bit of a drink."

Williams gave up. "I'm going to phone the station," he said. "Please, nurse, don't talk to him."

"What a tit," said the nurse after Williams had gone out. "What are you supposed to have done?"

"Murder," said Mitch.

The nurse looked at him. "Never," she said, "not with those blue eyes and lovely black hair."

Mitch pushed back his hair which always flopped over his forehead. He smiled at the nurse.

"And that gorgeous smile," she said. "Do you want some breakfast?"

P.C. Williams came back and said that, as Mitch was obviously OK, he was wanted down at the station. The nurse said he couldn't go until his release had been approved by a doctor and there wouldn't be one on the wards for at least an hour so there was time for breakfast - Williams' eyes brightened - for the patient. But she relented when Mitch told her that Williams had been on duty all night and brought him a cup of tea whereas Mitch had bacon, eggs, sausage and beans and some toast and marmalade with HIS tea.

But the good life couldn't last and eventually Mitch got dressed in strange clothes provided by the police. "Yours have gone to forensics," said Williams. "All that blood."

"Not mine," said Mitch. He was escorted to the Police Station where D.I. King, accompanied by another Constable, Williams presumably having gone off duty, interviewed him, taking him through the events of the previous night, hoping to catch him out in discrepancies perhaps. "We'll check with the pub."

The interview room was painted in a depressing green colour. The atmosphere was stale and smelled of despair and neglect. The only window was small, high up and let in only grey light.

"Tell me about yourself," said King. "According to our records you live with someone called Francis Downing."

Frank! Mitch hadn't thought of him that day except for a dull ache at the back of his mind, a feeling that there was something lacking from his life. Now the ache took on solid force as he realised that Frank was not at home, that if and when he was released from the police, there'd be no one to go back to.

"Mr McGuire," said the D.I. "I asked you about Mr Downing."

"No," said Mitch bitterly. "He isn't living there any more. We had a row and he left."

"You had a fight?"

"It wasn't physical," said Mitch. "We had a difference of opinion." About my picking up a guy at the gym and fucking with him, he thought.

"Where is Mr Downing now?"

"I don't know. He didn't leave an address. He'll be back though." He always has, he thought.

"And how did you feel about him after the 'difference of opinion?"

Mitch had a sudden flash of insight. Christ, he thought, they think I hated him or something. They think the dead guy was Frank and that I killed him.

"Who was that guy I found?" he asked.

"We haven't identified him yet," said D.I. King. "Did you recognise him."

Recognise him? Through that mass of cut up flesh that was all that was left of his face? It couldn't be Frank, he thought. Christ, he had fallen right on top of him. He'd have known, even without seeing that it wasn't Frank. Wouldn't he? The thousands of times he'd lain with him in bed, on him and under him and in him, loved him, kissed and touched all his most secret parts. Surely he'd have recognised just through touch and smell the body of his lover. And yet he'd felt nothing familiar, only the coppery smell which he now realised was that of blood.

"Mr McGuire," said King. "Did you recognise him? Did you recognise the body?"

"Of course I didn't. You saw his face."

"You don't happen to know what blood group Mr Downing belonged to?"

"Group O, same as mine," said Mitch. "Same as millions of others."

"Same as the victim."

There was a pause, then King lit up a cigarette under the No Smoking sign and said, "Did Mr Downing leave any of his personal possessions at home?"

"Course he did," said Mitch. "He'll be back. Could be back now."

"We'd like to have a look around. Take some bits and pieces. We can always get a warrant but it would be quicker and easier if you agreed."

He would agree of course but before he did he said, "I could look at him, if he's cleaned up a bit, you know got rid of the blood. I could tell you if it was Frank or not. I couldn't make out his face last night."

"There hasn't been time yet," said King. "We'll go to your flat first."

"Have I been arrested?" asked Mitch.

"Just questioning," said King.

When they got to the flat, as Mitch opened the door, he knew Frank hadn't returned. The place was just as he'd left it when he'd gone out the previous night. There was a towel on the kitchen floor where he'd dropped it. Frank would have picked it up if he'd come back. And the whole place felt empty. Empty and sad and deserted. Mitch hated it when Frank wasn't there. He couldn't understand why he allowed himself to behave in such a way that, if Frank discovered, he'd leave him. It was his cock's fault and the stupid optimism that his indiscretions wouldn't be discovered though they always were because he couldn't keep secrets, allowed people to text him on his and Frank's shared mobile, generally behaved like a complete fuckwit.

What, he thought as he showed King and yet another Police Constable into their private shared rooms, watched them as they poked into private drawers, took hairs from a brush and comb that both he and Frank used, what if Frank never came back. What if this was the LAST time?

So depressed was he that he almost wished they'd take him back to the police station, put him into a cell so that he could be really miserable - but they left him, King warning that they'd need to speak to him again.

Alone, Mitch stared round the empty flat. It was Saturday so no work. He didn't feel hungry and anyway there wasn't any food in the fridge, so he went down to the pub, not with the intention of getting drunk again but for some company.

The landlord of the Cock and Scrotum, probably the most 'ungenial host' in the area, who rejoiced in the name of Sid, gave Mitch a sour smile. "Had the police in about you," he said by way of greeting.

Mitch apologised, though he was not sure what he was apologising for. "Fruit juice," he said and asked what they had said.

"Just wanted to confirm what time you left. I had to put it a bit earlier than the actual time otherwise I'd have got into trouble meself."

Thanks a bunch, thought Mitch. The later he'd left would have meant that he couldn't have got to the canal in time to kill the guy, but of course he'd no idea what time he had been killed. Mitch shuddered as he thought of lying on top of a dead body. It hadn't felt particularly cold, he realised. Surely he would have noticed a coldness. In fact he remembered the warm stickiness of what he afterwards realised was blood.

"Dead, eh?" said Sid ruminatively.

"Very," said Mitch.

"Oo was he?"

"Hasn't been identified yet," said Mitch.

"Fingerprints, DNA," said Sid sagely.

"It was only last night. They wouldn't have had time for all that."

A dark-haired man, handsome in a coarse sort of way, was sitting beside Mitch at the bar. He showed interest. "Murder?" he asked.

Sid filled him in with details and then pointed to Mitch. "Mitch 'ere. 'E found him," he said.

The man looked at Mitch with a strange expression on his face. Mitch decided it was probably something akin to horror. "Nasty experience," he said.

Mitch decided to rub it in. "I fell on top of him," he said. "There was blood everywhere. I was covered in it."

The man clearly decided that sitting next to Mitch was distasteful. He finished his drink and left.

"Thanks for driving my customers away," Sid remarked.

Mitch forbore to comment that it was Sid's choice of subject.

"You not drinking?" Sid asked, nodding at Mitch's nearly empty glass.

"Not today."

"Suit yourself." He went off to polish some glasses with a greasy looking towel.

Outside the air was fresh and Mitch found himself wandering in the direction of the gym. On Saturdays he and Frank used to go there together. Other days of the week he went by himself which was how he managed to pick up a guy from there. He didn't feel like anything particularly strenuous so he went on the treadmill set on slow. Someone he knew well enough to chat to was on the parallel one though moving rather faster.

The guy, Martin, had a nice body but Mitch had never really been tempted.

"You're being observed," said Martin.

Mitch looked startled. "What do you mean?"

"That guy over there," said Martin, "the one that's just come in. He's got his eye on you."

Mitch glanced over to where Martin had indicated with a nod of his head. He saw someone, well-built, with dark hair and a pleasant face, prominent jaw. He looked vaguely familiar.

"Think I must have had him," said Mitch. "I'm sure I've seen him before."

"Looks a bit hard," said Martin. "The sort that would want roughness when he was fucking you. I don't fancy that myself."

Mitch could well imagine. Martin, though well-proportioned, looked fragile and a bit anaemic.

"Well, if you want him again, you better hurry. Looks like he's off."

Mitch looked over. Certainly the guy had turned, had put on his coat and was walking towards the exit. Again there was something familiar about the sight and suddenly Mitch realised what it was. Though he had paid little attention to the man sitting beside him in the pub, he now realised that that was who it was. A coincidence? Well, of course it must be, they happen all the time after all. But why had he come into the gym, seen Mitch and then fled? It didn't make much sense. Surely he couldn't have been so spooked by Mitch's remark about the blood that he couldn't bear to be in the same gym as him. He certainly didn't look like the sort of person who would have been so easily disconcerted. Yet he had gone out of the pub rather quickly as soon as he heard that Mitch was the one who had discovered the body.

"Oi," Mitch called.

Practically everyone in the gym heard and turned to look. Only the man with black hair continued and went out. Mitch switched off his treadmill rather too sharply so that he almost fell and everyone laughed. Ignoring them, he raced across and followed the man into the street but when he got out, the man had disappeared into the crowds of Saturday shoppers which filled the pavements, stopping to gawk at the scantily clad young man who had burst from the gym.

Mitch returned and was greeted by applause and cries of 'The one that got away', 'Better luck next time', even 'He must have heard of your reputation'. Mitch took it good-naturedly, showered, got changed and headed for home.

He bought a takeaway on the way and ate it off his lap in front of the telly. The food was tasteless and he didn't enjoy it. There was nothing on his answer phone. Frank hadn't tried to get in contact. Mitch pictured this as being the way his life would be from now on. It was not an attractive proposition. He considered going out and getting drunk again but decided against it. There was a report of the killing on the TV news with a photograph of the area of the towpath fenced off by police ribbons. The reporter said that the police had requested anyone who had seen anything suspicious to get in touch.

The phone rang. Mitch jumped up and almost ran across he room to answer it. "Frank," he said hoping against hope.

But it was a strange voice, a voice he did not recognise that spoke. "It's not Frank." The voice was male, low with a rather expressionless tone to it, each word given the same emphasis as the others.

"Who is it?" asked Mitch.

"Are you alone?" asked the voice.

Without thinking, Mitch answered, "Yes. Who are you?"

There was a silence. No heavy breathing but in the distance the sound of traffic, a car passing. Presumably whoever it was was in a telephone box.

"What do you want?" asked Mitch.

"Are you alone?" The question was repeated.

"Yes, I've told you, There's no one else here. Who are you? What do you want?"

The receiver was replaced. The dialling tone recommenced. Mitch tried the 1471 find out who's called but the recorded voice said, 'The caller withheld their number'.

It was a silly, innocuous call. There was no threat except for the insistence on whether Mitch was alone but he felt uneasy. So whoever it was knew that there was no one with Mitch. What advantage did that give him? The flat was on the second floor and no one could get in the front door without phoning through and contacting Mitch. There was no way anyone could climb up to his windows. Was there? He switched off the light and peered out of the window. It was getting dark outside but there was a telephone box on the other side of the road. It had a light inside and Mitch could see a figure in there but so dimly lit that he couldn't make out any details except that it looked like a man.

For a moment he thought of going down and seeing who it was but there didn't seem much point. What could he say. 'Have you just rung me' would sound stupid especially if it was a perfectly innocent person making a call. In the end he decided not to but he watched until the figure left the box, walked down the road and disappeared round the corner. But again it was too dark for him to really make out any distinguishing features.

He felt tired. It had been a long day, starting off in hospital, then the interview with the police, the visit to the pub and then the gym. Climbing into bed he wanted more than anything to feel the warmth of Frank next to him. He clung to Frank's pillow but it was unresponsive and it was some time before he dozed off.

He awoke in he morning with a sudden start as if some noise had awakened him, but he listened and there was nothing. Some sparrows chirped outside his window and he felt even more Frank's absence. Sunday morning was a time for gentle lovemaking as neither had to get up. He felt cold, though, and needed a piss so he got up and emptied his bladder, then went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Clutching it he was on his way back to the bedroom when he noticed an envelope which had obviously been pushed under the front door and now lay on the mat. No Sunday delivery so it couldn't have been the postman who anyway left all the mail downstairs in the separate boxes provided.

Mitch picked up the envelope and turned it over. Hand delivered with no stamp and his full name - Mitchell Brian Harvey McGuire - scrawled on the front. Who knew his full name, he wondered and opened it apart from his nearest and dearest but he didn't recognise the handwriting. On a single sheet were written the few words - 'What does it feel like to be alone?' Nothing else, no signature, no heading. Yet someone had got into the house, come upstairs, stood outside his door and pushed the envelope under the door. Sometime during the night there had been someone only a few feet away from him while he slept. He shivered at the thought. What was happening? What did it mean?

For a moment he contemplated phoning the police but dismissed the thought. Apart from the letter with its - hardly threatening - message, what evidence was there? A phone call - unsupported by evidence. Two brief glimpses of a black-haired guy who had run away on seeing Mitch and was probably nothing to do with either of the other incidents.

As it happened he didn't have to make the decision for the police phoned him. The Sergeant who knew him well reminded him that he'd offered to look at the body of the murdered man once he'd been cleaned up.

"They've done the autopsy and made him as human looking as possible," he said. "Come along to the morgue and take a look, will you?"

"On Sunday," said Mitch surprised.

"Crimes get committed on Sundays. Some of us have to work on Sundays. It's overtime anyway."

Mitch accepted the offer though he didn't look forward to the experience. He knew he'd asked, of course, but now that the event was imminent, he felt reluctance. Of course it wasn't Frank - that wouldn't be the problem. It was the fear of death, fear of a dead body, features which would never again show emotion. limbs which would never move again in the ecstasies of love. Mitch shrugged off the depressing thoughts and set out.

Sunday morning streets were as usual empty but for the religious going to church and the profane returning home after a night out. The morgue was in a one storey building at the back of the police station and only reachable through it. Sergeant Young, never it seemed to be parted from a mug of tea, took Mitch through. It was cold and the large room was windowless and lit with fluorescent lights. Along one side were banks of what looked like giant sized pullout filing cabinets. "The guy from Friday night," said Sergeant Young to the assistant, a young man dressed in green overalls.

He went over to one of the files and pulled it open. Inside was the naked body of the young man. The blood had been washed away leaving the skin pallid with an almost greenish tinge from the lights. His body was punctured by stab wounds. Mitch didn't count them but saw that there were many.

He purposely had avoided looking at the head but knew he would have to eventually. The face was a mess looking like a mound of chopped meat. The nose, relatively unscathed, poked out from the surrounding raw flesh and one eye was in situ, the other had slid down and was now resting on the cheekbone. The face was unrecognisable as Frank. It was almost unrecognisable as a human being. The hair though was brown, Frank's colour.

The body was of good physique, could have been well-exercised, like Frank's. Frank had no really distinguishing features, no birth marks, no moles, no scars. Both Frank and the body were circumcised.

"5 ft 11 inches tall," said Sergeant Young.

About Frank's height. "It's not Frank," said Mitch. "It's nothing like Frank."

"The final proof will be the DNA," said Young. "And that'll take a couple more days."

"It's not Frank," repeated Mitch. "I'd know if it was." So why were the tears welling up in his eyes? He turned so that they couldn't be seen and blew his nose harshly. "Nothing like him," he said, trying to convince. Himself?

They went out and Young gave him a mug of tea.

D.I. King appeared. "Have you remembered anything else?" he asked.

And Mitch said he hadn't.

He went out into the fresh air and made for the Cock and Scrotum. Anywhere was better than his empty flat. It had been a horrible morning, what with the letter, the view at the morgue. Surely it could get no worse.

And then he saw the guy with the black hair. Mitch was about to cross the main road at the zebra crossing. He looked to left and right as he had been taught to do by his mother as a child and never got out of the habit of doing. A car in fact had stopped to let him cross when he noticed the guy on the same side of the road as he was, some yards back but staring at him. Unnerved, Mitch took a step back and the driver of the stopped car gave him a blast on his horn waving angrily. Mitch wavered then stepped back onto the pavement and the car drove on, the driver putting up a finger as he passed.

Mitch turned back but the black-haired guy had disappeared. Mitch chased back but couldn't seen him anywhere. Had it really been him? Mitch thought so. Why was he following him? What was going on. In a bit of a state his mind conjured up the most unlikely scenario. The black-haired guy was the murderer of the young man on the tow path. He had seen Mitch fall over the body. Perhaps he thought Mitch had caught a glimpse of him, the murderer hanging around, and was out to get him. Or perhaps just scare him off from helping the police identify him. What other reason could there be for this constant surveillance, the telephone call, the letter?

Christ, you're being bloody stupid, he said to himself. But once the suspicion was there, it niggled away at his brain and he found himself glancing over his shoulder as he walked towards the pub. Even there, after buying a beer - "Only a half," sneered Sid. "You on the wagon?" - Mitch found himself a seat against the wall where he could keep an eye on both doors, looking up each time either of them swung open and a stranger came in.

Eventually Martin, his companion on the treadmill, came in and sat with him.

"That black-haired guy cam into the gym this morning," said Martin. "Could have been looking for you. Anyway he glanced round and of course you weren't there so he went out."

"He's following me," said Mitch. "I'm sure of it. I don't know what he wants. If I try to speak to him, he runs off. It's mad. Who the hell is he?"

"I know his name," said Martin. "I asked the manager of the gym and he said his name's Tim, Tim Robson. He doesn't often come into the gym at weekends, mostly in the mornings, weekday mornings."

It was an innocuous enough name. 'Tim' didn't sound threatening at all. And that was the reason Mitch had never seen him before as he was at work weekday mornings. But why had this Tim suddenly changed his times, coming in when Mitch was there or coming in and going out when he saw Mitch wasn't there.

"What does he want?" asked Mitch.

Martin laughed. "What do we all want?" he asked.

Mitch turned to look at him. "If he wanted that from me, he'd hardly run off when I go to speak to him."

Martin said, "Perhaps he's shy."

"Shy! A guy like that - shy!" Black hair, handsome in a brutish sort of way, heavy black eyebrows, flattish nose and a wide mouth, strong arms, a developed body. Mitch realised he had noticed a great deal in the few times he had seen the man, Tim, he must think of him now.

"You don't know. I'm shy," admitted Martin confidentially.

Mitch looked at him. Now that he could understand. Even though he worked out, Martin's body was slight though well-proportioned. He had gentle, grey eyes and a nice smile. Sometimes he looked like a lost puppy and Mitch realised that he probably used that look as an attraction come-on. It would have been easy to put his arms round Martin and to hug him. That was though about as far as Mitch would have wanted to go. A kiss and a cuddle perhaps. He hoped Martin didn't have designs on him. He wouldn't have wanted to hurt him by rejection.

And yet he didn't want to spend another night alone, with the possibility of Tim creeping around outside, up to his door, phoning him. A night possibly of kissing, cuddling, light frottage perhaps. Would Frank understand? After all he'd left him, though of course for fucking around. "Anyone for a quick shag," he'd say.

Mitch pulled himself together. "I've got to go," he said and saw the disappointment in Martin's eyes. Almost he relented but only almost. "See you at the gym," he said. "Be good."

"Or if you can't be good, be careful," finished Martin.

"Off already," said Sid. "Oh I forgot to tell you. There was someone asking after you."

"The police again?"

"No," said Sid. That guy you frightened off with all that talk of blood and stabbed bodies."

"What did he want?" asked Mitch.

"Just wanted to know who you were."

"You told him, I'm sure."

Sid looked affronted. "Course not. Just said your name was Mitch. That's all I knew. I don't go blabbing my mouth off about my customers."

"Of course you don't," said Mitch and with a final wave to Martin, he went out and off to home.

And so passed Sunday and a lonesome afternoon and evening for Mitch for there was no word from Frank. But also there was no sign nor sound from Tim which relieved Mitch somewhat.

Monday was a work day of course. When he got home there was a message on his answer phone from D.I. King. He sounded a bit grudging when Mitch rang back. "Just to tell you that we've checked the DNA of the bits we took from your flat. Neither yours nor Mr Downing's compares with the body of the man Mitch had stumbled across."

"Of course it wasn't. I always said so and it would hardly be likely to be mine," said Mitch, his relief making him sarcastic.

"No, sir, but we had to check and if you remember you couldn't differentiate yours or Mr Downing's hairs."

"Any progress in the identification of the guy?"

"Still making enquiries," said King stiffly. "You haven't remembered anything, I suppose? Nothing to connect with the body you found?"

For a moment Mitch was tempted to tell him about Tim Robson's activities, both real and assumed, but it sounded silly. Perhaps he was, as Martin had suggested, just 'shy'.

The last lingering doubts cleared though by the Inspector's call, Mitch thought optimistically that Frank would soon be back. He had - what was it - only been away for a couple of days and, on previous occasions, it had sometimes been as long as a week. He'd have to put up with being lonely for a while yet. God, this had been a miserable weekend. Surely this would stop him from being so stupid in future.

He'd go out, have a couple of drinks - no more - and then come straight back home. But, as we all know, the best-laid plans of mice and men 'gang aft agley' and so it happened with Mitch. King's news had cheered him up but only for a short time. The depression which Frank's absence always caused, returned and his 'couple of drinks' doubled and redoubled, in both numerical and size terms.

Sid, the landlord started to object, first in an admonitory way. "Come on, Mitch, slow down, lad. You don't want to pick a fight. You know you always lose," and then later in rather more forceful terms, "If you can't control yourself, you'd better fuck off out of here." This last sank in and Mitch decided to do just that.

Why he decided to go down to the canal is your guess as good as mine. Even Mitch probably couldn't give a reason but that's the route he took retracing the path he had taken the previous Friday. This time it wasn't as dark. The moon was out and threw some light onto the way in front of him, making the shadows even more dark, the patches in between grey.

The few people he passed avoided him and when he turned off the pavement down the path that led to the canal there was no one around at all. Of course there wasn't. Who'd want to go down to the canal bank at that time of night? Mitch blundered on till he reached the bank. There he stopped and gazed at the flat grey slab of the water where a ripple at the other side showed where the late evening breeze stirred the surface. It was cool and the air cleared his head. He began to feel sorry for himself and he took a step nearer the bank peering down into the water wondering how deep it was. Unlike a river, there was no noise of running water.

Suddenly the moon went behind a cloud and there was a sound from behind him, perhaps a footstep, perhaps a kicked stone. Mitch was standing in the deeper shadow of a brick stanchion, a part of the wall of a demolished building. Suddenly apprehensive he crouched down. Someone was certainly coming down the path from the road. The sky was a background grey and the figure stood out as a silhouette against it. Then the moon came out again and Mitch recognised who it was - the black hair, the solid, square-shaped face, the bulky figure.

It was Tim Robson.

Mitch's alcohol-fuelled brain suddenly rebelled. From apprehension and a slight feeling of fear he accelerated to fury. It did not cross his mind that, if Tim were the murderer, then he might still have on him the knife that had so mutilated the body. Unthinkingly he leaped, arms whirling, fists flailing. But, as had been suggested before, Mitch was no fighter and the blows fell hamlessly either on unfeeling air or glanced off Tim's body.

Tim took one step back, aimed a blow from somewhere low down and brought it up to land on Mitch's chin. He crumpled and fell staring woozily at the dark figure now advancing menacingly towards him as he lay on the ground. He was unable to defend himself. He could see two arms reaching out towards him, two hands stretched out to grasp his neck.

He tried to push them away but nothing seemed to work properly and then he felt other hands grabbing him from behind and realised that there were two of them. He gave himself up for lost. But the hands behind weren't hitting him and Tim wasn't strangling him but helping him to sit up.

Mitch looked round and thought he must have died and gone to heaven. There was Frank's concerned looking face.

Mitch tried a word. "Frank," he thought he said though his chin hurt and it was difficult to move his jaw.

"You idiotic prat," said Frank. (So Mitch assumed he wasn't in heaven) "What the fuck are you doing?"

"He's a murderer," accused Mitch, waving his hands vaguely in the air in an attempt to point at Tim who had now hunkered down in front of him.

"Don't be so bloody stupid," said Frank. "He's a friend of mine."

The words came a bit more easily now though they still hurt. "But he's been following me around. He wrote me hate mail. He's been making threatening phone calls."

"I asked him to make sure you weren't picking up guys. I didn't know about the telephone calls and letters till he told me."

Tim's face swam into view. "I guess I went a bit over the top," he said. "But it upset me to think how you'd hurt Frank."

Mitch had the grace to feel a bit ashamed. He struggled and the two helped him to his feet.

"Fucking hell," he said to Tim, "you sure do pack a punch."

"And you fight like a wet nellie," said Tim pleasantly. "I'll have to give you some lessons."

"I still don't understand," said Mitch. "About the first time in the pub."

"Frank told me where you usually went. I just happened to find myself sitting next to you, so I got out as soon as I could."

"But how did you know it was me?"

"The landlord called you 'Mitch'."

"And the letter? You got into the house. It scared the shit out of me."

Tim laughed. "I never got in. I just gave it to one of the tenants and asked him to deliver it."

They got back to the road and turned in the direction of home.

"And I thought you was the murderer," said Mitch. "Still might be, of course." He still felt a residual anger for the blow to his jaw.

"They've got someone for it," said Frank. "It was on the news this afternoon."

Tim turned off along the way after Frank thanked him with what Mitch felt was unnecessary enthusiasm.

"I'm so fucking glad you're back," said Mitch. "I can't wait to get you to bed, though - " he rubbed his jaw "- I think one thing we usually do is out."

"Never mind,' said Frank. "I can take anything that's necessary into my mouth."

Mitch's penis twitched. "And there's lots of other things we can do," he said.

They quickened their pace.

* * * * * *

Date started: Thursday, March 3, 2005
Date finished: Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Words: 7,666

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