Monday, February 15, 2010

In the Company of Strangers Part 2


"It’s a designer drug. Only been on the market a month or two; that was what pulled our attention. Elite hasn’t reached suburbia yet, and your friend had a pocket full of it.”
CID man slid a carton across to me. He’d introduced himself as DS Adair. Mark Adair, in another natty suit and no better manners than he’d had on Friday night.

“He was a client.”

“Yeah I’ve read the brief on St Giles.”

His tone implied what he thought of it. I flipped the pack over in my hand. Electric blue capsules.

“What do these do? What’s the effect?”

“Hallucinogenic. Basically it’s an LSD cut. Not as dehydrating as E, higher risk of heart failure.”

“What do I look for?”

He lifted the page of some report he had on the desk. Pathology. Somewhere, poor Steve was on a slab, thoroughly dissected.

“Unsteady eyes, blown pupils, racing pulse, shallow breathing. Strong hallucinogen.”

“So not good on unstable minds.”

“Was Price unstable?”

I thought about Steve; always something of a favourite of mine. “No. Impulsive, a bit on the reckless side, but then he was only seventeen.”

Adair turned over a couple of photographs. Steve, lying dead in the alley. They brought back memories I’d been trying hard to put away. I twisted to where I didn’t have to see them.

“To your knowledge he wasn’t using?” Adair said, quite oblivious.

“No. I never saw any signs of addiction.”

“And you don’t know why he rang on Friday? Might he have been in trouble?”

“He usually only called if he wanted a bed for a couple of nights. If he was ill or having a bad time. For all I know, he might even have wanted to hand the stuff in.”

“Okay.” Adair shut the file and got up. “Thanks for coming in on a Saturday. Sorry to bother you."

“Is his death suspicious?”

“No.” Adair held the door back for me. “The HGV’s been traced- blood and tissue fragments, paint fragments- it’s as we thought, it was an accidental blow. The driver never realised. It’s just the surprise of finding Elite on him. There was none in his bloodstream.”

The atmosphere at work was subdued on Monday. We met at the office for our weekly meeting at 
half past eight . Ryan lifted his hand in greeting and went on with his telephone call. Jenny, who is an amazingly efficient and capable woman a few years older than me, gave me a fierce look from behind a tissue. Weekends are bad for us: between eight and nine thirty on a Monday the phone never stops while Social Services and the hostels update us on emergencies, fights, runaways and all other crises occurring over the two day break. It usually took us most of the day to patch up, and today we none of us had the energy.

“The police came for Steve’s file.” Jenny told me.

I put my folders down and hugged her. A wiry little body, nothing like Hugh’s solid muscle. She put her arms around my neck. “I’m sorry it was you that had to find him. I wish I hadn’t phoned you.”

“Steve always asked for me.”

Ryan muttered something and put the phone down. “Horrible for you to see. I’m sorry.”

“What actually did it?” Jenny drew away from me and rubbed her eyes. “The police wouldn’t say.”

“Head injury and some internal bleeding. The HGV hit him threw him down pretty hard. It was the fall as much as the impact.”

The staff meeting officially opened with Craig. He’d appealed to Ryan for another place on a detox programme. Jenny sat back and folded her arms across her slim, jacketed chest. “Now I’ve heard everything.”

“You did say,” I reminded Ryan, “We were wasting resources on addicts with no intention of kicking the habit.”

“I said nothing of the kind, you did. And I say that’s no excuse for giving up hope.” Ryan dropped Craig’s file on the desk. “This’ll be his third try.”

“And you think he’ll stick this one out?” Jenny said acidly. “How long did he stay in the other places?”

“Three weeks,” Ryan admitted. “You were seeing him to find a work placement-“

“He wasn’t remotely interested in working. The man’s a walking disaster area.”

“I don’t know what else to do with him.”

Silence. Craig would go into another programme, we all knew it.


Steve’s body was released for burial on Thursday morning in bright sunshine at a freezing cold crematorium: the obligatory, short social services do arranged for those without next of kin. It was horrible, like something out of a film. Only Ryan, Jenny and I went: Ritter didn’t which infuriated us all. Steve’s parents, whoever they were, knew nothing of his death. No one even knew if they were alive to know, or care. I was hovering with Ryan in the carpark, feeling sicker by the minute while we waited for the funeral in progress in the hall to clear- funerals in sequence like a drive-through- when Ryan tapped my shoulder.

“Isn’t that Hugh’s car?”

He was out of the overalls he’d gone to work in, and wearing the one decent suit he keeps at the office for the meetings he can’t evade. He looked uncomfortable, shy and handsome in a bewildered sort of way. He gave me a tentative smile. A little of the clouds lifted. We were in public and he cares about that sort of thing, but I spun across to him, pulled his head down and kissed him. “What are you doing here?”

“I thought you might need the moral support,” he said apologetically. “They could only give me until two-“

And this morning I’d been too uptight to even talk to him.

“I love you, do you know that?” I said under my breath. He grinned at my perfunctory tone, a hand on my shoulder as we approached Ryan and Jenny.

“I had wondered.”

We hung around in the garden where the trees were just breaking blossom, until Steve arrived with council officials. Ryan and Jenny both know Hugh well and politely took no notice of me clutching him. We endured the service which had all the charm of a chainstore sales transaction, and was punctuated by forms being signed.
Ryan went straight back to work. Jenny, red eyed and unconvincingly dignified, went home. Hugh and I were left in the carpark under early-budding elder trees.

“That was horrible.” I said eventually. He glanced down at me.

“The Dolphin’s only five minutes from here, come and have lunch. We’ve got an hour.”
The coffee thawed me out. We sat for about five minutes in solitary dignity, not talking, just sitting opposite each other and sipping politely at espresso, until I lost hold of my composure. Hugh moved around the table to me. The Dolphin is our local, and a well-known gay pub, no one looked twice at us.

“He was in and out of care most of his life,” I said eventually.

“I know; it isn’t fair.”

I buried my face in his shoulder for a minute, forcing my breathing under control.


His hand tangled in my hair. “Are you going home?”

“Office. I’ve got paperwork to do.”

“You look tired.”

He didn’t mean I needed an early night. Tired for me can translate as ‘can’t move’. You try keeping up with life when 40% of your body does 100% of the work.

“How did you get the time off?” I said to distract him. “You’re usually up to your eyes at this time of day.”

“The deliveries have been cancelled this week.”

I looked at him. He shrugged.

“There’s some talk about selling out again. I think it’ll probably happen this time.”

Guilt hit me in the stomach like a fist: it hadn’t occurred to me to ask him about work in days. I hadn’t even noticed if he’d looked worried.

“Will you keep your job if they sell?”

Hugh shrugged. “No one knows. I’m not sure how much I’d want to work for another company. I’ll start looking at other jobs now.”

“The options are a bit limited round here,” I said wryly. He gave me a faint smile.

“I’m not going to look beyond commuting distance, don’t worry.”

“Can I interrupt?” a voice said sardonically from across the table. I glanced up.
Adair. I waved a hand between him and Hugh.

“Hugh Howell, Mark Adair. 
CID .”

Mark inclined his head to Hugh, who gave the wordless, reticent nod he keeps for total strangers. Adair took the chair across the table.

“Price’s funeral? Your office said you’d be around here somewhere.”

“What can I do for you?” I said civilly, aware I was still probably red eyed.

Adair smiled. “I just wanted a quick word about this Elite. Another section called into us. There’s suspicion that to get Elite into this area, there would have to be a fairly serious gang running it.”


“Well organised. Well financed.”

“I haven’t heard or seen of anything like that.”

“I need client names and details.” Adair said calmly. I stared at him.

“For a start, not all of our clients by any means are addicts. Secondly, there is no way we’d release confidential information.”

“Actually we have the right to insist.”

“It takes a lot of time and effort to get the trust of most of our clients; there is no way we’d ever give their details to the police. Most of them have had explicit promises that we wouldn’t do just that!  You can insist all you want. And you won’t have any more luck approaching the senior manager either.”

“Ah. Ryan Bennett. Yes, I’ve heard of Mr. Bennett.” Adair said cheerfully. “Apparently makes himself very popular whenever we interview one of his clients.”

“He won’t cooperate over this, I promise you. We’d lose half our cases if you took names from us.”

“According to a Mr. Ritter? Is that the name? That wouldn’t be a bad thing anyway. I’m afraid Mr. Ritter has already given us the go ahead to take the details from you- he said you were the more approachable of the three. I take it Miss Karall isn’t the easiest lady to get along with.”

“She won’t fall for an Armani suit and a pair of shades, if that’s what you mean,” I snapped before I had time to think. Another flash of that infuriating grin.

“Who staffs your office?”

“No one until four.” Ryan would be there then, and he’d make mincemeat of this arrogant sod. Adair rose to his feet and gave me a slight, mocking bow.

“Until we meet again. Good afternoon, Mr. Howell.”

Hugh said nothing but I saw the dislike in his face.

“How did he know to find me in here? I demanded as soon as the door was shut. “It isn’t as if this is the only pub in the area.”

“It’s the only gay pub,” Hugh said grimly. I glanced at him.

“We’re not that obvious.”

“He is.”

I snorted at the thought. “I’d love to hear what Ryan says to that sod when he asks for the records.”


Kerry was waiting in the lounge with a mug of coffee and sadistic enthusiasm when I got in shortly after five. He winked at me through the front window. Hugh’s car was already on the drive. I left my coat and briefcase in the kitchen and went through to him, ignoring his pointed look at his watch.

“Don’t start, the traffic was awful. Besides, you haven’t had to sit on the drive for once.  Is Hugh in the shower?”

“He is. He made me a coffee, muttered something with that please don’t talk to me look of his, and dived in there like a rabbit down it’s burrow. I never thought you’d be into the shy types.” Kerry knelt on the carpet and slapped the floor in front of him. “Lets be having you. I’ve got a home to go to.”

I slid down to the floor and lay down where he indicated. I’ve been seeing him two or three times a month for the last year or so: the physiotherapist I chose despite all of my father’s objections. Most of Kerry’s patients have sports injuries. When I first went into his office he protested like mad against taking me on, insisting he hadn’t got the experience. He said he did in the end as light relief. He’s uncomplicated, forty and has a sense of humour. He also, unbeknown to my father who only cared about his CV, lives with a local fireman.

I went looking for a physiotherapist when I left home, mostly to shut my father up. I’d sworn once I left school that I’d have nothing to do with physios again, but Kerry was supposed to provide qualified evidence that I wasn’t getting the broken bones, pneumonia or contractures my father prophesied if I lived alone. It turned out that Kerry was a good ally. Even now, when Dad has reached a wary belief that I might possibly last an hour or two out of his sight, I still go on making the appointments. I have one or two joints which get very stiff very fast, which makes mobility a nightmare. And Kerry introduced me to a new problem the paediatric physios never warned me of. Adult paraplegics over use their neck and shoulders on a daily basis, where their arms do the work of arms and legs combined; and a lot of the positions in which you constantly take that weight, aren’t ideal for preventing soft tissue damage.

I lay, watching him put my legs through the usual gyrations, one at a time. He’s a lot more careful with them than I am, although I do the exercises myself, fairly regularly.

“So how are your lunatics?” Kerry said above me, leaning on the knee he was flexing. I pulled a face. “You heard about the kid that was killed in town?”

“One of yours? It was in the papers. He was what- seventeen? Traffic injury.”

“Something like that.”

“Can you feel any of that?”

I glanced down. Right leg, right hip. Not my best side. He had my knee bent and was trying to open the hip out to the side. I watched his hand vibrate, shaking some of the tension out of the frozen muscle, and it gradually eased further over, an inch at a time.

“Nothing. Not even the pull.”

“I’d like a quiet five minutes with the surgeon who fixed this.”

It was one of the many operations done years ago between the ages of eight hours and sixteen years old. The school physios were always battling against the consultants, who were more than happy to dive in with scalpels and start cutting. Sometimes I thought that my father, being part of the medical fraternity himself, probably came under pressure to sanction surgery for me where other parents would have called a halt.

Kerry held out a hand. I pulled myself upright for him to start on my shoulders. “So what was actually in the papers? Did they name him?”

“No, it was just a paragraph. Homeless teenager in accidental death, that sort of by-line, I wouldn’t have known -”


“Come on, you can go further than that.”

I swore from under the strange angle he had my shoulder twisted at.

“Relax. You’re tight as hell.”

“It’s been a bad week,” I said darkly. He snorted somewhere behind me.

“Don’t make excuses. So what was the cause of death, did they establish it?”

“A lorry was turning in the delivery bay behind the supermarket. Didn’t see him, and the tailgate caught him. More or less instantaneous.”

We moved on from stretches to the balance exercises; the few things I could do as a kid before I got too tall and too heavy.

“Are you going to relax at all?” Kerry eventually demanded when he broke my third fall. “I’d even settle for a little concentration. You can do this when you’re thinking.”

I gripped his shoulders again, struggling to push up on my knees. Muscles at hips and stomach that I only had partial control over and didn’t use much were shaking. His hands tapped, prompting tendons and muscles to expand and contract and nagging me to get the balance right.

“We were at a funeral all morning,” Hugh said from the doorway as I collapsed in a heap again.

“Who, this kid’s?” Kerry looked down at me, not entirely unsympathetic. “It’s obvious you’ve got your mind on something, this is a waste of time.”

“Sorry.” I rolled over and lay back, out of breath. Hugh hovered where he was.

“Are you nearly finished?”

“More or less.” Kerry put his hands back on the tight hip, having another try at shaking it out. “You ought to teach Hugh to do this for you.”

“It’s my problem, not his.” I said firmly. That was about the one major ground rule of us sharing a house: I’d heard all the horror stories about lovers who ended up being unpaid carers. Kerry grunted.

“You need this properly stretched out, regularly. And your shoulders. You can’t do it far enough on your own, not on the tight muscles.”

“Is it a problem?” Hugh asked softly. Kerry glanced at him.

“We just about get by because I really stretch him when I’m here- a lot further than I’d expect either of you to do. It isn’t the ideal solution.”

“I can do what needs doing,” I said shortly.

Hugh didn’t argue. He never does. He sat down on the arm of the sofa instead to watch Kerry work. “Did you see Ryan tear strips off that copper?”

“Which copper?” Kerry paused to see my face. “What have you done now?”

CID . They found narcotics on the boy who died; he wants to interrogate half our clients. Ryan went up the wall and down the other side. He even got out all the paperwork to prove police immunity- we cooperate with inquiries only when there’s a clear suspicion or charge on a client.”

“Did he listen?” Hugh said with interest. I shrugged.

“He went away. Ryan said he’d burn the files before he handed anything over to the police.”

“I’m finished.” Kerry shook out his own shoulders and got up. “If you get any tighter, I’m going to drop by more often, just to do that hip.”

“Oh God.”

“It’s that or you ask your father to do it. I know he drops in a couple of times a week and he knows what he’s doing with you.” Kerry pulled his jacket on and jangled through his pockets noisily for his keys. “Think about it. Otherwise, I’ll see you next Thursday.”

He saw himself out. Hugh surveyed me where I was on the floor, his long hands interlaced between his knees. I rolled over and sat up.

“This has been going on for years. There’s always someone nagging me to do something, before I set, or crack or break etcetera et cetera et cetera. I’m still here.”

“You are stiffer than you were.”

“Don’t you start,” I said firmly.

I met Hugh in a bar one boiling hot evening in August. A mutual friend, who had dragged me into the one and only gay pub in town introduced us.

Hugh was sitting on the railings outside, defiantly knocking back water by the pint and listening to some diabolical drag act sing through the windows. He was actually at the only bearable distance for listening. He was perched, with his legs drawn up awkwardly on the bars, his arms bare to the shoulder and his hair in his eyes. Long, thin, pale skinned even under his summer tan and with his elbows and knees at angles as if he didn’t know quite what to do with them, he was gorgeous.

“Hugh Howell.” My friend told me once we were out of earshot. “Unbelievably shy, you won’t get a word out of him.”

After ten minutes sweltering in the bar, I was willing to try. We were the only ones boycotting the drag act that evening; the bar was bursting at the seams. Hugh moved over on his railings and gave me his crooked, sweet smile. His eyes were so dark a green they were almost black. We spent nearly an hour watching the traffic at the foot of the hill, scoring the cars out of ten. What he didn’t know about cars and engines wasn’t worth knowing.

When it started to get dark, he slid off his railings and nodded diffidently at the park.

“Feel like a walk?”

We were out through most of the night.

Continue on to Part 3 of In the Company of Strangers

Copyright Ranger 2010

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