Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In the Company of Strangers Part 8


We nearly had a stand up fight on the drive way. Hugh was grimly implacable that I was not going to see, until I forced my way past him, out of my head with fury.

"You don't even know if she's dead!"

"She looks very dead." Hugh said unsteadily, following me. The car was parked bumper to bumper with Hugh's, all the doors closed. It was definitely Lucy. She was lying with her head against the near window, eyes closed, blood staining her hair and face. Shock crept over me, bringing with it a growing sense of hysteria. A blanket was over her legs and her seat had been tipped back.

"Someone drove her here." Hugh said behind me. "Look at her, someone drove her here and left her-"

"Howell help me for Christ's sake!" I demanded, interrupting him. He moved ahead of me like a puppet and opened the car door. We lifted her out between us, laid her gently down on the drive and I slid out of my chair to feel at her throat and mouth. No breathing, but she was warm. I tipped her head back and breathed into her mouth, watching her chest rise.

"The engine's still warm." Hugh said numbly. His hand was flat on the bonnet. I grabbed for him and dragged him down beside me.

"You do this. Breathe for her. I'll count fifteen, do two breaths. Come on Hugh, move."

One of our neighbours, attracted by my shouting, peered across the street, and then scuttled fast for a telephone as she realised what we were doing. Uncertainly, Hugh took Lucy's head from me and watched me start chest compressions, fifteen sharp pushes before I looked up to him. "Breathe. Two."

He did as I asked, cradling her head gently. I had some sense then of how hopeless this was, seeing the almighty mark under his hand on her forehead. Something far harsher and more sinister than a bruise. All I knew was I couldn't sit back and look at her when there was a chance, no matter how faint. Once we began, we were perfectly calm, working in synch like a well-practised team. Neighbours assembled around us, but we kept on going, pumping her chest, breathing, until we heard sirens at the end of the street and paramedics put us out of the way to continue the work with their equipment. I pulled myself together and hotched backwards on shaking arms. Hugh straightened and wiped his forearm across his mouth before he looked for me and came unsteadily across to the lawn. Defensively I pulled my legs towards me, out of the way of trolleys, police and paramedics trampling our drive. Hugh's jeaned leg was braced beside me, ending in one of his reinforced toe boots, then he crouched and his arm came down over my shoulders. He was shaking.

By now, I was getting good at giving statements. When the officer on duty- not Adair- realised who I was, and that I'd now found two of the bodies, he wanted more or less to arrest me. It took some fast talking and a lot of references to Adair before he changed his mind. Hugh and I retreated into the kitchen and let the police continue out on the drive. Lucifer, furious about the sirens and the invasion, removed from his windowsill and hid under the sofa. Neither of us went to bed. They took Lucy away in the ambulance, but it was nearly two am before the car was towed off. I heard the truck start up in the street and went into the hall to watch the lights move away. The last of the policemen nodded to me as they got into cars and left. They'd be back. I was so deep into their inquiries now, I was amazed I hadn't been forced down to the station. Hugh was sitting at the table with his head propped in his hands.

"They're gone." I told him.

He didn't answer. I put a hand on his shoulder and tried to turn him to face me.

"Hugh. Let's go to bed."

He was rooted to the spot. I'm heavier and in several ways I'm stronger than he is, but in the chair my centre of gravity is too low to wrestle effectively and I couldn't move him by coaxing or by force.

"Hugh." I said eventually, reaching frustration, "Come on. I can't manhandle you, I wish I could, but you're going to have to help."

That roused him, apologetic and quiet with shock, and he followed me into the lounge, but stopped there, running his hands through his hair.

"I don't think I can sleep."

I tried to pull him down to my level, and eventually he sat on the arm of the sofa where we were face to face. He was very pale and his eyes looked swollen. Lucifer moaned under the sofa, then got out and leapt onto Hugh's lap. Hugh pulled his ears absently.

"I'm sorry." I told him, and meant it. "I'm so sorry."

"This wasn't your fault."

"I wish I knew what happened. Maybe she was picked up by someone who knew her and they brought her here because they were scared- I don't know-"

"Maybe you've upset these people too far and she was put here to scare you." Hugh said wearily. "We don't know, do we? My God, how many have they killed? Four? Who can kill like this? One after the other – like they're flies."

I couldn't argue with that. Hugh took a deep breath.

"Joss, this is getting very dangerous."

"Possibly." I argued. He looked at me, green eyes uncomfortably acute. Sometimes I feel he can see right through me.

"The fact she was put on your drive says something to me. You've been asking a lot of questions. If she's another murder-"

"We don't know she's dead."

"- then you're being implicated." Lucifer, annoyed at me distracting Hugh's stroking hand, gave me a green-eyed glare and went back to his windowsill.

"She might have been found and brought here."

"By who? Someone who knows where you live." Hugh said grimly.

"Any kid from St Giles. Hamish. Would someone who wanted to kill her, wrap her in blankets and leave her comfortable? She'd have been dumped on the doorstep. Whoever put her here was someone who cared about her and who found her after-"

After she'd been brutally attacked. Hugh saw my face and dragged me closer, burying his face in my lap. This was my first encounter with death – four attacks, three dead teenagers. I felt guilty about how unreal it seemed to me, when Hugh was trembling with shock.

At seven thirty am, someone banged on the back door. Admittedly, my heart jumped. Hugh came into the hall as I opened the door, standing at bay with the razor in his hand and his face still plastered in soap. We both expected the police. Sam stood there, shivering, arms tightly folded. Hugh gave Sam a grim look, but went back into the bathroom and closed the door.

"It was Lucy, wasn't it?" Sam said to me.

"Yes." I admitted. "Yes, it was."

He started to cry, quietly.

I felt more or less like he looked. I waved him into the kitchen and made him the strongest, sweetest mug of tea I could manage at that time in the morning. He hovered in silence, miserable and near to bolting.

"I didn't do it." he burst out eventually.

"You were with me at the time she was attacked, I think that pretty much clears you. How did you know, anyway?"

"I came up in the night, I saw the police here. I knew it was her. I knew-"

I took a second mug and buried myself in it. "Have you jumped from Rainbows?"

"I can't stay there, it isn't safe." Sam's teeth were chattering on the rim of the mug. He looked terrible. I got hold of him, suspicious, and felt his forehead.

"You're ill sunshine."

"No, just scared." Sam said honestly.


He wouldn't answer me.

"If there's no reason, why do you want a hostel place?" I said in the end, losing patience.

"You don't understand." Sam wailed at me.

"Neither do you, you must have a temperature of a hundred and one. Drink that, I'll find a GP who'll see you."

"I'm not going anywhere with you, if I go out I'll be hit next!" Sam said, sounding increasingly hysterical.

"Why?" I demanded. "Do you have any of this Elite?"

"No!" Sam said indignantly.

"Then they'll have to do me first, and I'm damn well not co operating." I said shortly.

Hugh leaned against the cupboards at the back of the kitchen, arms folded, face still. I wondered how long he'd been listening.

I left Sam eating cornflakes and hunted through the list of GPs for one likely to sympathise with unregistered and unco-operative teenagers on a Saturday morning. Hugh followed me into the hall and shut the door.

"Did it occur to you that you might be next on the hit list? And they might be a bit more efficient than Hamish?"

I looked at him. He shrugged.

"Lucy was deliberately dumped on your doorstep. Do you want to think that through?"

"No." I said bluntly. "Do you?"

"I still think it's possible you were being given a clear warning and you are going to have police coming out of your ears in an hour from now."

I glanced at my watch.

"Better get a move on then."

He didn't argue, but shrugged on his jacket with a grimness that I didn't like.

"How long were you with this religious group?" he said shortly to Sam in the kitchen. Sam gave him a faintly scared look. "About three weeks. But I won't talk to the police." he added, anticipating the next move. "I won't, so don't tell them. They'd think I was involved with Lucy."

"You could save Joss a lot of trouble." Hugh said grimly. Sam looked to me, appealing with his eyes and his voice with real terror. "Joss you won't tell the police, will you?"

Hugh looked at me, but Sam's vulnerability was far more demanding and I couldn't have turned him down. "No, I promise."

Hugh waited, arms folded like a body guard in the waiting room while I got Sam past a GP, collected antibiotics and returned him to the hostel, who promised to keep a close eye on him and try to prevent him running again.

"You are going to have to go home." Hugh told me in the car. "You can only keep the police back for so long, they're going to want to talk to the both of us."

"Office first." I put the car into gear and backed out of the hostel drive. "I need to find Sam's file."

"What for? You know as much about him as anyone."

"To see if there's anything specific about this sect."

Hugh leaned past me, turned the engine off, took the keys out of the ignition and turned to face me. "Why? What have they done? Joss you're taking a lot of risks. This amateur detection is all very well; I know how you feel about these kids. But the police are trained to do this job-"

"I'm trained to work out what my clients do and where they go." I argued, surprised.

Hugh cut me off without apology, which surprised me even more.

"Listen to me. You were attacked yesterday morning by this maniac from that nut house- Lucy's body was put on your doorstep- you have got to tell the police everything you know and then stay out of it! You don't know what you're doing and you're going to get yourself hurt."

"I'm sure Hamish has nothing to do with this."

"You can't be sure. You saw Lucy last night." Hugh said sharply. "Whoever is behind this, is not playing about, Joss. If they can kill your precious teenagers they can hurt you too. Maybe Ryan disturbed Hamish in time to stop him making a more serious attack yesterday. You've got to at least tell the police it was him who attacked you."

"That's my decision."

"No it isn't." Hugh said bluntly. "Not entirely. If you live with me, if you share my life, you have some responsibility towards me, and you are scaring the hell out of me. I'm starting to worry about you being out of my sight."

"I can look after myself."

"It isn't hard to find someone on open ground where you can drive a car at them at sixty miles an hour!" Hugh said, raising his voice. "I am telling you Joss, I want you to get out of this, now, before I find you on some street corner with your head in pieces. Your job is to find beds for teenaged runaways, not to play tag with some psychopath!"

"Hamish is a confused schizophrenic and I made his friend cry! He wouldn't have harmed Lucy. Or me." I said, raising my voice to match his. "For Christ's sake, all I'm doing is trying to work out which of my clients-"

"If he found Lucy was still seeing Sam? You said yourself he was schizophrenic. He was violent enough to attack you! You're playing with a possible murderer and the lives of God knows how many of your precious clients who have to live out on the streets where they're at risk! I want you to go to the police and tell them what you know- everything, all the bits you haven't told Adair, or me, and then stay out it. Right out of it."

"This job has risks, you know that."

"If you're telling me I'm getting defensive," Hugh said grimly. I knew the answer to that and I was angry enough to throw it at him.

"This is exactly what I've been warning you about. Sooner or later everyone sees the chair first."

Hugh glared at his hands, which were fisted. My heart was thumping but the adrenaline was flowing now: I was quite ready to push him into a fight.

"I CAN look after myself, I do not need anyone standing over me, telling me what I can and can't do. No one has that right."

He got out of the car and slammed the door so hard the body rocked. I looked through the glass at him, standing there in the road, head down, hands on his hips. Then he started to run, his long distance jogging lope, across the street and towards the park. It took me a while to calm down enough to turn over the engine, pull myself together and head for the office.

Ryan was in the office. Sam's file was open on the desk in front of him, he had his back to the window and I saw the police car through the window. I waited, deliberately, until the two uniformed constables left, before I went in. Ryan was leaning with his hips propped against the desk, arms folded, his khaki green anorak up around his ears. The look he gave me was, like Hugh's, uncharacteristically grim. Apparently everyone was annoyed with me this morning.

"Joss. The police are looking for you. You were supposed to be at home to talk to them."

"Sam appeared on the doorstep at the crack of dawn." I reached past Ryan for the file.

Ryan shut it before my hand closed on the cardboard.

"Where is he now?"

"I took him back to Rainbows, he's got flu or something- probably stress related."

Ryan made a note of it. I frowned, taken aback.

"What's the matter?"

Ryan stuck the note in Sam's file and once more folded his arms. His eyes were hard, in a way I'd never seen before, and his voice was cool. "I want you to take a couple of weeks holiday. You're owed the time."

"Why?" I demanded. "You can't cover my work, I know you can't-"

"Allright then." Ryan said grimly. "I need a couple of weeks to consider your job here."

"What?" I said blankly.

He glowered at me. "I've never been into the professional conduct shit. You work bloody hard and you do a good job, Joss, I've never had to think twice about trusting you, but now-"

"What am I supposed to have done? Ryan?"

"Breach of confidentiality to start with." Ryan said more quietly. "I thought the last time I talked to Adair that he'd had more information from you than you should have given. This time I understand you have something of a friendship with the man."

Oh God. I flushed, feeling the burn spread over my cheeks as I thought about it.

"I don't think I've ever said anything-"

"Whether it's been direct or not," Ryan said more kindly, "you've given Adair a foothold into this organisation and information has been taken about our clients that I'm not happy with. I know you're young and I know this was probably unintentional, but we work with extremely fragile people here. Most of the work we do is based on gaining their trust. The last three weeks have done a lot of damage. St Giles' name is being mixed up with the police, there have been police cars outside the office, people have even seen you drinking with that CID sod- you know how word gets around. It's going to take months before we lose the rep for police involvement, and while we do, kids who need help are going to be too afraid to contact us."

"I know that- it's hardly my fault-"

"How do you think you're going to get your clients to trust you when they know you're a friend of CID?" Ryan said quietly. "You've probably wrecked relationships that you've spent two years building with some of our kids. My first responsibility is to protect the clients. And I must admit, I also need to think about the death of this girl- Lucy Jameson?"

"Death?" I demanded.

"Dead on arrival. I heard you were there at the scene."

I closed my eyes for a minute trying not to think about her lying on the front lawn.

"She wasn't one of our clients."

"She was friendly with more than one of our clients and she might well have contacted us at any time." Ryan straightened up and slid Sam's file into the drawer. "I hate to say this, but I can't help wondering if you hadn't been so wrapped up with the police and with following up their investigations, Lucy might not be alive this morning. Or if your interference with this horrible business has meant that clients who know what really happened to Craig and Melanie have been too afraid to come forward. I can't allow this to get any worse. At the very least, I want you out of the St Giles office until all this is cleared up."

"Are you saying it's my fault?"

It was about the most terrible thing he could have said to me. He looked at me for a minute, then turned away to go through the remaining files on the desk.

"I'm sorry Joss. I have the responsibility for seventy kids on our books; they come to us for help. Sometimes we're the only option to real danger, be it drugs, suicide- you know all this. I can't in all good conscience keep someone on the staff who I think compromises client safety. I'll get a couple of week's holiday sorted out with Ritter, starting from today, and I'll ring you at the end of the month. I hope to God by then this will be sorted out and the police will have left us alone."

I was too stunned to say anything. Ryan stood and waited until I left, then he closed the door behind me. It had begun to pour with rain outside.

There were police at home, waiting. Adair was with them. I had very little idea of what I was asked, or what I said. Most of it seemed actually to be formalities. How I had known Lucy, when I had last seen her, what had been said about the Elite gang, the little she knew. I repeated it more or less verbatim.

Eventually the uniformed brigade left, and Adair took the kitchen chair opposite me.

"What the hell's the matter with you?"

"I don't believe it's these dealers." I told him, too numbed to care whether or not I made sense. "Lucy told me. Mel and Craig-"

"Leave it to us." Adair said exasperatedly. "What are you, Sherlock Holmes?"

"Sam said she was lying. I think you should investigate that sect- the threats they made to Lucy-"

"That's irrelevant."

"You can't know that! She was scared to death of them! Sam still is!"

"Joss." Adair ran a hand through his hair, looking hassled, then leaned on the table. "I shouldn't tell you this. We made an arrest last night, it's the guy we've had our eye on since Steve Price died. There were two previous deaths, four or five years ago in Birmingham. Both homeless teenagers, pulled into a well organised racket. The suspect's a well known and very affluent supplier. The Birmingham Met couldn't make the convictions stick, but he was seen in the area on the night that Keen and McDonnell died. Forensics are turning over his flat now."

"Why would he dump Lucy on my drive?"

"Because you've been shouting your involvement with these deaths to everyone except Lord Lucan." Adair said dryly. "Any bastard sick enough to do this sort of job would probably think it's funny to abandon a corpse in a residential area. Come on Joss. It's not hard to find people's addresses these days, especially not when they're working for a care organisation that operates a lot on mobile phones. I'd bet Lucy probably had Elite on her somewhere. These bastards are vicious, we see this sort of thing a lot. I'm sorry."

What about Steve?"

"I keep telling you. Price was an accident. A genuine accident. That's it, it's finished."

I sat at the kitchen table and went on being numb after he left: too numb to think or to move. Lucifer got onto my lap, turned around a few times and curled up, purring. I had no idea of the time when I heard the front door open. I was expecting Hugh; I jumped at my father's voice behind me. Lucifer fled, probably clawing me badly in the process.

"Joss? What are you doing?"

I didn't answer. I heard his voice change as he came closer.

"Sweetheart? What's happened?"

I faced him with an effort. He lifted my chin, then stooped and put his arms around me. I shut my eyes and held onto him. Still big, still warm and safe in a way that no one else was or ever would be.

"What?" he said eventually. "What's happened? Have you and Hugh had a fight?"

"Yes- it isn't that-"

"You look terrible." He brushed my hair out of my eyes. "Come home with me for a couple of hours- why don't you stay the night, you look like you need a rest."

It was tempting. An easy escape from facing Hugh, from the police, from thinking about Ryan and St Giles.

"I can't."

"Of course you can."


He muttered but automatically went to put the kettle on. I wondered vaguely about how life and crisis revolved around hot water.

"I heard on the grapevine about you ending up in casualty." He said from the sink, amazingly casual. "Something about a client losing his temper?"

"Possibly. Or just a mugging that got disturbed."

"How do you feel?"

"Fine, I was only bruised."

"Must have put the fear of God up Hugh."

I looked at him. For eight months, he had given every impression of believing Hugh and I shared the house to play scaletrix together. He put the china down and crouched to pull my chair to him by the armrests. It was a position he used a lot to talk to me as a kid, I was a lot taller now, but I knew his face in every detail from the tiny scar on top of his forehead to the way his eyes moved and gentled when he talked.

"If I can help, you've only got to tell me."

"There's nothing you can do."

"I wish there was. Are you in trouble?"

Yes. Serious trouble. With Hugh, with St Giles and with some maniac on the streets.

"You can always come home." He said gently. "There's nothing wrong with that."

"I've got Hugh."

"I know he doesn't support you like we would. Joss I know. You haven't got that sort of a relationship with him. I wish to God you had, I wouldn't worry half as much."

"You don't know anything about him."

"Joss?" Hugh called from the hall. The front door shut. My father looked inquiringly at me and straightened up.

"Joss! "

"In here."

"I'm not looking for a row, I shouldn't have lost my temper-" Hugh came into sight and stopped as he saw my father. "Roger."

"Hello Hugh. Am I interrupting a domestic?"

"Just a mild one." I said unconvincingly. Hugh looked from Roger to me, eyes sharpening. "What's happened?"

"He doesn't want to tell me." Roger said simply.


He was scared stiff. I looked at Hugh and saw him mentally running through lists of accidents, disasters, murderers lying in wait in the house, all followed by the guilt of having left me alone. I shook my head at him.

"I'm allright, just a row with Ryan."

"Bennett?" My father looked blank. "How have you crossed him?"

"He isn't happy about the involvement I've had with the police." I said as lightly as I could. "We agreed to differ. I've taken a couple of weeks holiday."

Taken or given? I could see Hugh longing to ask.

"What are you mixed up in?" my father said darkly. "I've heard bits of it-"

"You don't want to know the whole story." I promised him. "Don't worry about it."

Silence. We all three avoided each other's eyes.

"You could do with a couple of days break from here." Dad said eventually, unexpectedly. "Go away somewhere. Get away from it all."

"Maybe abroad." Hugh suggested. It was an old joke and I smiled.

"You won't get me on a plane alive."

"Sea, sun, sand."

"British airways. No thank you."

My father put an arm around me. "I'll let you two fight it out. I'm always on the end of a phone, Joss."

"I know."

Dad patted Hugh's shoulder as he passed and let himself out.

I lifted my eyebrows at Hugh, but he'd switched off the humour the minute we were alone. "What happened with Ryan?"

I shrugged. "Like I said. He suggested I took a few weeks holiday."


"I don't want to talk about it." I said firmly. He hesitated, hands in his pockets.

"I'm sorry I lost my temper."

"I think you were provoked." I admitted. "Ryan repeated a lot of what you said."

"If I'm protective," Hugh said slowly, "It's to do with how I feel about you. It's got nothing to do with the wheelchair. It never has done and you know that."

I looked at him. He crouched in front of me, leaning his elbows on my knees. It was so familiar as position to be in that it was easy to kiss and make up, at first a few gentle touches of apology, then thankfully we softened into deeper and warmer exchanges. He slid his hands into my hair and his fingers massaged softly against my scalp.

"You hardly slept last night. Why don't you come back to bed?"

If there's something I could ever resent, it would be the problems with just getting carried away with the moment. Hugh has time, patience and a sense of humour which can cope with the ten minutes it takes for me to catheterise, get undressed and in to a position I can maintain for a while. I was seriously attracted to Hugh when I met him: twenty-two, and thoroughly wound up about the whole sex business- not least that he somehow appeared to be attracted to me. The combination of being gay and paraplegic is unnecessarily complicated. So much popular imagery is hooked around images of ram rod cocks and smooth backsides- not easy when you have no sensation in either place, no reliable erection at the best of times and no way of ejaculating. What actually happened is what he told me would happen, and what has happened to virtually every kid since the beginning of time. There comes a point where instinct kicks in.


I was shaking, braced against the wall on the street corner, when Hugh grabbed me. I had no reason to think Hugh would be here, but I knew it was him, even before he touched me.

"Easy, it's me."

"She's dead."

"I know." Hugh said quietly.

"It came straight for her." I closed my eyes, trying to shut it out. "She didn't have a chance, it came straight at her."

Lucy's body was sprawled, pathetic and broken over the edge of the kerb. Hugh's arm closed around my neck and pulled until my face was buried in his neck. He wouldn't let me go when I struggled.

"Joss stop it. Stop it, I've got you. You're okay."

It was unaccountably dark. Hugh pinned me with one arm and switched the light on. We looked at each other for a while, then I dropped back and closed my eyes, panting. Hugh stroked my chest. I felt him gradually settle and relax beside me.

"I can guess." He said eventually. "Lucy?"

"I saw the car hit her. It went straight for her."

"Okay. Okay."

"She's dead. She was dead on arrival."

"You need a break."

I laughed. He rolled over and pulled until I turned into his arms. He was warm, a comfort radically different to my father's and much more acute. His voice was muffled in our skin against skin, a tangle of arms and duvet and the sweet, familiar musk of him.

"Joss you can tell me for God's sake, it's me. Were you fired?"

"No, it's just because of the police hanging around me. Ryan's worried about scaring off clients."

He held me. I closed my eyes and felt his hand running slowly down my spine, heavy and practised in a way that reminded me he knew every bone, every muscle, exactly what he expected to feel. It made me feel more loved than anything he could have said.

We neither of us bothered getting up on time- there seemed very little point. Eventually the phone rang and I trailed Hugh into the kitchen, identifying the caller by the smile in his voice. His parents. He perched on the kitchen counter while I fumbled through the fridge for anything resembling breakfast. Hugh sorted through the cupboard below his feet and threw me a packet of biscuits.

"Feel like spending a few days in Gloucestershire, love?"

I shrugged. Hugh spoke for a moment or two more, then put the phone down.


"Who was it?"

"My Dad. Asking if we can come over for a couple of days, there's things need doing to the house that he needs another pair of hands for."

I nodded. He'd gone home for weekends regularly enough to help with the harder tasks of maintaining a house and garden. He and his brother split the responsibility between them towards their parents, they were both good sons in ways I never could be. Hugh gave me a near sideways look, something between tentative hope and appeal.

"Why don't you come with me? We'll go down for the week, ten days maybe, get right away from this place. Hey? Where no one's going to phone and no police are asking questions."

"Are the police going to let us go?"

"We can ring them and check."

"I'm not going to be much use for DIY am I?" I pointed out. He grinned.

"I thought you could do anything, you. Come on. We could do with the holiday."


He shrugged, visibly cheered up at the thought. "Now? We might as well drive down today as tomorrow. Take your car, then we can split the driving. Come on love. You need a few days out of here. Come with me."

I thought about it for a minute, mind mostly made up by his eyes, soft green black and coaxing. And the chance to get away. Leave the whole bloody mess behind.

"I suppose we'd better find someone to feed Lucifer."

Continue on to Part 9 of In the Company of Strangers

Copyright Ranger 2010

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