Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In the Company of Strangers Part 5



Go to hell.

Adair walked across the street, hands in his pockets. “What are you doing?”

“Waiting for a bus.”


He looked around the street, including Rivo’s which was closed at this hour in the afternoon. “We picked up all the kids from that gang days ago”


Adair shrugged. “Another runaway on your list-“

“Ritter gave you the lists?”

“He didn’t have a lot of choice. Sam someone or other and his girlfriend. Lucy Jameson.”

“I don’t know her.”

“She knows you.” Adair perched on the wall beside me.

“Aren’t police supposed to go round in pairs?”

“Actually I’m not on duty.”


He grinned.  “And what are you doing here?”

“Where were Mel and Craig killed?”

Adair pointed along the line of the street and round into the back streets towards the station. “Craig McDonnell on the station road. Melanie Keen at theMayfair roundabout. All city centre spots, all St. Giles kids, all hit and run accidents.”

“Was the HGV driver picked up?”


“What about the vehicle?”

“No forensic evidence this time. Besides, we found the car that killed McDonnell. It was stolen at nine thirty last night, and recovered in a ditch out towards Brinkley at five this morning.”

It took a while to work out why Brinkley rang a bell. Yesterday seemed several centuries ago.

“And you think the connection is the drugs? Elite.”

“Both Price and McDonnell were carrying Elite. And the Keen girl knew them both.”

Adair said easily. I glowered at him, hating his arrogance and his immaculate poise from hair cut to polished shoes.

“Mel had nothing to do with drugs of any kind.”

Adair smiled. “Au contraire. Apparently she was a girlfriend of McDonnell’s.”

“Rubbish. According to who?”

“According to this Sam kid- about fifteen? - and Lucy Jameson.”

Ridiculous. Totally and utterly ridiculous. Although Mel had never told us who was the father of her baby and we hadn’t really asked –

“They’re not all users,” I said irritably. Adair shrugged.

“You tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. Look at McDonnell.”

“You understand about as much about addiction as I do about English law.”

“You said yourself, Craig walked out of each placement found for him.”

“Unless you’ve got an incentive, it can be too hard.”

“I thought you worked on that- giving them an incentive to get out and keep out of trouble?”

“We do,” I said irritably.

“So why didn’t Craig?” Adair demanded. “You said yourself, some kids don’t take the opportunities. Some of them don’t want help. McDonnell was old enough to know what he was doing.”

“That’s easy for you to say with a home, a family, a job and an income. You’ve never had to get by on absolutely nothing.”

“What about you?” Adair said. “You told me yourself you had to fight to get work. You hold down a job. You’re independent. How much effort does that take you?”

“It isn’t the same.”

“Some people can do it and some can’t. Craig had plenty of opportunities.”

“Maybe he wasn’t ready to take them.”

“Maybe with people like you ready to keep on bailing him out, he didn’t need to.” Adair shook his head at me. “I haven’t got time for wasters. I won’t apologise for that.”

“Then I’ll get out of your way.”

Adair put his hands on the handles of my chair. A gesture that annoyed me so much I didn’t immediately argue.

“Suppose you stop trespassing on a police investigation, and have a drink?”

The chair made him nervous as hell, which cheered me up no end. He had no idea what to do, and mostly he hovered between grabbing at the handles, and walking backwards in an effort to talk face to face. I jumped the chair up the rough kerbs in the town centre and nearly gave him a heart attack.

We went to a straight pub.

“So what do you do when you’re off duty then?” he asked me flippantly at the bar. “Living with Mummy and Daddy? Or that bloody great mechanic of yours?”

“Hugh.” I pushed a pint towards him, enjoying the sheer dislike he raised in me. How often do you find someone to whom you can be as rude as you want?

“He works for Ridolpho Limited, doesn't he? The one that’s closing down.”

“If you’re telling me you’ve looked into Hugh as a suspect-“

“No.” Adair laughed and trailed me across to the pool table. “Just you. I always remember the details I’m interested in.”

“Is that a come on?” I inquired. “I’ll take it I’m no longer a suspect, or this would be unprofessional conduct wouldn’t it?”

“It would,” he agreed shamelessly. “No. You were excluded from Price’s death by the evidence of the HGV- which you wouldn’t have been able to drive, would you?”

“Not unless it had manual controls.”

“It didn’t.” He drank about a third of the pint and put it down, wiping his mouth with his hand in a way that fascinated and repulsed me. “Unless we find manual control cars I think you’re off the hook.”

I drank, surveying him. Thicker than Hugh across the shoulders, his hair was lighter and thinner on top, shorter and far more neatly cut. Muscular. I found myself dwelling on the possibilities of his chest and shook myself out of it.

“What do you do when you’re off duty? And not working overtime, or chasing ex-suspects.”

“Bit of this. Bit of that. What does your boyfriend do? Rugby ? Dismantle cars?”

“What do you want?” I said bluntly. He smiled.

“Finish your drink and I’ll show you.”

“Fancy blokes in wheelchairs, do you?”

“Just stroppy bastards with grey eyes,” Adair said mildly.

“Get lost,” I advised him. He didn’t argue.

“What’s the matter with your legs anyway? Some sort of accident?”

Either the alcohol or the conversation had relaxed him, he only looked faintly embarrassed. It’s a question everyone asks sooner or later, always with that same look of shamed apology for being so rude as to notice the disability. Either that or they frankly stare and give you the Spanish inquisition about how long you have left to live.


“That’s paralysis isn’t it? From the waist down.”


Everyone, everywhere, assumes it’s always the waist down. Heidi has a lot to answer for.
“About mid-chest on me.”

“Was it a fall or a car crash or something?”

“Spina bifida.”

He did the routine perfectly.

“I’ve heard of that. Spine and what have you, all outside the skin-“

“It was all sealed off a few hours after I was born, my back looks like yours does.”

“You can’t move at all from chest downwards?”

“Would you like to go somewhere quiet and make an examination?” I said sarcastically.

His eyes glinted at me.

I tracked Sam down at the station. It’s where a lot of our clients hang around in the evenings, where there’s warmth and easy access to the toilets and washrooms, where there’s plenty of food around and money being dropped, pockets easy to pick- there’s a limit to how many activities I want to know about. Sam was sitting under a timetable, knees under his coat, a cardboard notice beside him, which he slid under his coat when he recognised me. “Hey, Joss.”

“Sam.” I pulled close to the wall, out of the way of scurrying commuters. “Where’s Lucy?”

He shrugged. I took a deep breath. “Adair told me this morning, you thought Melanie was Craig’s girlfriend. Was that right?”

“It was Lucy knew Mel, not me.” Sam gave me a wary look. “You told me to stay out of all this, and I did. You’ll have to talk to Lucy.”

“Great, just tell me where.”

“How should I know?”

“Don’t give me that, of course you know. Do you want me to take official notice of the fact that you’re begging?””

He glowered at me. “You know the mission place by the park?”


“Yeah you do. Red gateposts and a yellow minibus. Gates always locked.”

“By the tennis courts. Yes.”

“She’s in with them.”

“Full time?”

“Mostly. She has to sneak out in the evenings, they’re weird about anyone leaving the house.”

“Okay. Where are you staying?”

Sam grinned. “Right out of sight, believe me.”

“Do you know anything about these drugs Craig and Steve were carrying?” I demanded. He shook his head at once, eyes meeting mine.

“No. Really. I never even saw one of the pills. Lucy did, but I never met most of that gang.”

“And Lucy did?”

“She was in the gang until the Bible-bashers got her.” He sniffed. “Don’t know which is worse. Them or the drugs.”

I parked on the street outside the gates, which were painted bright colours like the door frame and the windows. No nameplate marked the building, but a painted cross and a blue, eight point star was on the front door: the same symbol on the minibus. I rattled the gates but they were firmly locked. No way in that I could see. And climbing the gates wasn’t really an option. It was dark, and approaching seven pm. Unwillingly, I gave up and went home.

Dad’s car was parked on the street outside the flat: one, ominous maroon BMW. I nearly drove away again. Hugh met me in the hallway, hearing the front door. He looked tired and he was using more or less a stage whisper. “Are you okay?”

“Fine, I’m late, I’m sorry, where is he?”

“In the lounge-“

He wanted to say more. I edged past him and went to face my father.

There are a lot of downsides to being raised by a paediatric consultant. He wasn’t actually into paediatrics until I was two or three; he started out in neurology. I have never found it sweet that he changed direction, or that there are numerous papers published in medical magazines by him, on parenting, managing, operating on and orthopaedically supervising your paraplegic child. He was sitting in an armchair as if he owned the place, coat draped over the arm, legs comfortably crossed. He gave me a patently forced smile and said patiently, “Now what’s this all about?”

Numerous conversations have started this way. I was stiffer than hell and my neck was aching. I ignored the question and transferred across to the sofa, making my shoulders crack.

“You’re in that chair far too long,” my father said, promptly losing the assumed cheerfulness, “You ought to come out and lie down at least once in a day.”

“It isn’t practical.”

“You’ll end up with arthritis. Or another scoliosis. You don’t even swim regularly any more.”

“I’m fine.”

He sighed. “Look, I know you don’t want to hear this. You’re young, you’ve got a lot of other things you want to do, but if you don’t look after yourself, you’re going to lose what independence you’ve got.”

“I’ve got plenty, thank you,” I pointed out. “Work and home, I’m healthy, I’m fit, the whole thing is fine.”

“It won’t be if you go taking an unconverted house in the middle of nowhere.” Dad leaned on his knees, closer towards me. “Think of the extra work. You’ve got limited energy, you know that. If you have to spend more on transfers and mobility you won’t have enough for work- you spread yourself thinly enough anyway.”

“It’s an open plan house and we can adapt it ourselves.”

“You’ll be taking more risks.”

“That’s rubbish.”

“I’ll tell you when I’ve seen the house,” Dad said ominously. That blew my temper.

“It’s not your bloody decision to make!”

“When you have to make the best judgement for someone you love, then you come back and we’ll talk about it. These decisions are partly mine,” Dad retorted, just as sharply. “I know the risks and I know the care and support you need. Remember when you were at University? How tired you were? If you hadn’t been living at home you never would have survived the course.“

“I’ve managed fine here.”

“With your mother and me five minutes away. If something goes wrong, if you get ill, if you fall-“

“How often has that happened?”

“Often enough for me to know how dangerous it is,” Dad said grimly. “I’m sorry, Joss; I know why you want to do these things, I can understand, but you’re not at an age when you want to think about the facts. You manage here because the flat is safe and we’re near enough to support you.”

“And Hugh’s just for decoration,” I said curtly. “Of course.”

“Hugh’s a very good friend to you.”

“He is my lover. Think about it for God’s sake! I’m not supposed to be capable of sex am I? Joss Milliner, the eternal neuter-”

“Joss,” Dad said sharply. I glowered at him.

“I’m not planning this alone- although if I did, I still don’t see any problem with it- I’m going with Hugh. There will be someone else in the house!”

“I know for a fact, Hugh doesn’t know the first thing about your condition,” my father said bleakly. “He wouldn’t know if you were in serious trouble, never mind know anything about your day to day care. I also know he doesn’t do anything to dispute you. He isn’t going to nag you into keeping up with the physio or getting out of that chair-“

“Because I don’t need it!”

“I’ve watched your physical condition slide over the last eighteen months, and I’ve let it go because I thought you were entitled to some space. God knows I can understand, but there comes a point where you are going to force me to intervene. I’m not going to let you pay for the rest of your life for a couple years’ carelessness.”

My father looked at me, a look I’d seen before when we’d discussed surgery he insisted on and I didn’t want. In those days he’d been the one who signed the consent forms. His voice gentled but his eyes were unpleasantly acute.

“Once you lose muscle, once you scar your kidneys and you let yourself distort, you’re on the downward spiral. Your mother and I spent twenty years making sure you kept a body that wasn’t going to give you any more pain or deformity than absolutely necessary. You have got to be careful. I see this all the time in clinic- kids whose spines have tethered, with additional paralysis- kids who are worse off now than you’ll ever be because we were careful with you from the start.”

“I’m not a child any more,” I pointed out for the several hundredth time this year. My father ran a hand through his hair and refused to look at me.

“I know that. But I can’t just sit back and let you damage yourself in ways that you are going to regret, bitterly, in a few years more when you’ve developed some sense. Twenty-three is nothing. I want you to be seventy and still healthy, without pain. This idea of moving is crazy. I can’t let you do it.”

“There isn’t much you can do about it,” I said icily. Dad gave me a rather rueful look.

“I’m sorry, my love; I won’t have to. I don’t think you’d get insurance on the new house- or possibly even a mortgage. Any company is going to want guarantees that you are fit and capable of holding down a job, and I would have to say in that situation, I don’t think it’s likely you’d manage for long. And you’d be a liability in an unconverted house. They’ll ask for a medical report, and you won’t find a consultant who’ll say anything different.”

“I grew up in an unconverted house!”

“With two full time carers,” Dad reminded me.

It was about that point that I lost my temper.

My father responded as he always had done when I lost my rag: he panicked. I was past noticing Hugh until he got hold of me. Dad was already on his feet, throwing out his one good cop-out line.

“I can’t talk to you when you’re behaving like this. Call me when you can talk rationally and I’ll be ready to listen.”

I called him several names, none of which made me feel any better. He escaped. Fast.
’You have a right to be angry’, he used to say when I’d thrown one of the really major paddies as a child, and was at the shaking, sobbing and exhausted stage. “It isn’t easy for you; it’s natural that you get angry.”

But there was always another message underneath it; the same message that meant I never cried no matter what was done to me by the numerous professionals we toured around. I understood the bargain at gut level years before I could put it into words. It was something that came alongside my knowledge that I cost them a small fortune in equipment, treatment and house conversions. That I was endless hard work to lift, to dress and to care for. That they lost hours of sleep on the nights when I needed turning, or every time I got ill. That they still choked up when they saw children playing on beaches, or boys running around football pitches.

Don’t burden us with your anger, your fear, your distress. We have enough of our own.
It always surprises me how strong Hugh is. I’m a lot broader over the shoulders, with a lot more muscle, but his hands- he had hold of my wrists and there wasn’t much I could do about it, effectively preventing me following my father or hurling anything after him. Gradually, his calmness sank through to me. Once I cooled enough to see straight, I was more than slightly apprehensive of what he'd think. It was the first time I’d ever really lost it in front of him. He let me pull my hands away.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m going to kill him,” I said, unconvincingly, compared to the threats I’d been making a few minutes ago.

“I heard. I didn’t know whether it was better I stayed out of it-“

“You couldn’t have made it any worse,” I said grimly.  “Who the hell does he think he is?” I spun away from him, still furious. “Did you hear what he was saying about the insurance?”

“You’re entitled to second opinions.”

“I know the medics in this county, it’s an old boys’ network.”

“Joss, he’s trying to scare you.”

“You don’t know him.”

“You can always try other consultants,” Hugh said again, patiently.


“Maybe,” he said tentatively, “If we talked to him, let him tell me what he wants me to know about looking after you-“

“I’m not ill.”

“I know, I just thought it might get him off your back.”

I blew out a long, slow breath and tried to calm down. “It’s okay. Really. They think I'm a child. They really can't get their heads around the idea of me having a life of my own… he still looks at me and thinks back ten years to when I couldn’t get out of the chair without being lifted. And he’s still bloody annoyed whenever I do anything he’s not in direct control of.”

“Its risk, isn’t it?” Hugh said ruefully. He sat down on the arm of the sofa, looking at me with his green eyes under dark brows. “If he controls the risks you take, he’s got some control over how worried he has to be about you. You are their only child.”

“They took one look at me,” I said acidly, “And he had a vasectomy. I came as quite a shock. This sort of thing isn't supposed to happen to doctors.”

Hugh shrugged faintly. “You’re late,” he said eventually. “What kept you?”

“Sorting out a placement.”

The lie slipped out before I really thought about why. It startled me; I wasn’t in the habit of lying to Hugh.

Continue on to Part 6 of In the Company of Strangers

Copyright Ranger 2010

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