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About lomax61

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  1. lomax61

    Featured Story: Twelve Gays of Christmas

    Ah, @Puppilull, you are so kind. Such a lovely review. I wondered why I’d been getting more comments on the story recently. I penned this story largely on the fly, taking the comments and reactions of readers to adjust chapters as the story unfolded. This was my Christmas present to GA. I’m so pleased you enjoyed this.
  2. lomax61


    Hi @Will Hawkins - this second part of Kissing The Dragon takes place in the December of the same year as the first story. By the way, was the health report comment meant for @mogwhy?
  3. lomax61

    Secret Santa

    Seven-thirty the next evening, making smalltalk in the car on the way to the hospital where Longman is recovering, Ben tells me some of the history behind Saint Luke’s in South Kensington, not a hospital I am familiar with, but one with which the Met has a close association. Originally built in 1885, during the Victorian golden era that saw a period of significant advances in medicine and the founding of a multitude of hospitals around Britain, the site has been repeatedly modernised, retaining the classic old red brick and plaster facade but now with three modern wings, new medical units, with cutting edge technology and equipment. One of those new units specialises exclusively in bullet wounds, a sad statement of our times, but one reason Saint Luke’s has become the hospital of choice for the Met. Another unit, he tells me, deals in neurology and neurosurgery, which is why Longman is in the best possible hands. Somewhat mysteriously, we continue past the entrance to the hospital and the way to the visitor’s carpark, and instead park up in a space on the main road, some one hundred yards away. Fortunately for us, Wednesday night seems to be quiet, and Ben quickly finds a place to park. “Tell me, why are we parking here and not in the grounds?” “Because the restaurant we’re going to afterwards is just along the road from here.” Of course it is. After a brief walk in the chill evening air and weaving through cars in the half empty hospital carpark, Chaudhary meets us inside the over-heated building. Around the hospital reception desk, the members of staff have done their best to cheer the place up with a small, silver Christmas tree on the countertop and a smattering of paper decorations hanging above. Beside a small stool, there is even a bucket hanging from a stand with a label for what I assume to be the hospital’s Christmas charity of choice. Following Chaudhary’s lead, we step to one side of the reception area, out of earshot of others. Since the incident, Ben told me DSU Callaghan has transferred Chaudhary and put her in charge of investigations, having pulled her off another important case, the details of which he has not shared. To be frank, I am surprised he has been as candid as he has with me about his work. I can only assume he is comfortable with me being here right now because Chaudhary and I are already well acquainted. “I just spoke to the doctor. Longman’s now breathing independently, but he’s still not completely out of the woods. You missed Pollard. He came earlier, visiting while the parents were here. I think he wanted to placate them, let them know everything that can be done is being done.” “I still want to see him. Longman,” says Ben. “Even if he can’t respond.” “That’s why we’re here. Pollard told his team on the door to expect us.” “What team?” She looks at me briefly, before smiling and turning to Ben. “Internal Affairs want him protected.” Ben thinks this over for a second, before nodding. I am a little slower on the uptake. “Makes sense.” And although I agree with Ben about Longman, I wonder why Ben has not been offered protection, why he has simply been grounded. Does Ben know more than he is telling me? While the thought filters through me, I notice Ben and Chaudhary observing me, waiting for me to say something. “I’m fine here,” I say, realising they are about to leave. “I’ll find a coffee machine or something. Grab a seat and find something to read. Take your time.” Left to my own devices, I wander the corridor until I find a small cafe open for visitors, and get myself a very passable cup of Earl Grey and a scone. Rushing home from after-school meetings, I’d barely had a chance to change, let alone eat anything. Bringing the tea and cake with me, I sit on one of the rows of plastic seating and flick through a couple of magazines left by the hospital, thanking my lucky stars someone on the staff has had the good grace to include old copies of National Geographic, New Statesman and the Economist, all buried beneath a heavy pile of celebrity gossip magazines. Every now and again I glance up at the arrival of other visitors, or to observe the hospital staff either tapping information into computers, or frantically running around behind the desk, probably following a call from somewhere in the depths of the building. On one occasion, I notice three police constables entering, conversing with the staff, before heading in the same direction Ben and Chaudhary had taken. After watching them go, I feel the phone in my jacket pocket buzz with a message, and reach in to check the display. JANINE: How r u ME: Good. Having dinner out with Ben and Chaudhary. JANINE: Jo told me. Still gd for xmas shop tmw nite ME: Of course. I’ll make sure I’m home by 6pm, at the latest. JANINE: Gr8 pickup 7 ME: I’ll make sure to be ready. See you tomorrow. JANINE: Culater After I shake my head, shove my phone away, and hiss out an irritated sigh, I scan the people around me to see if anyone is watching. My sister has doubtless been influenced by her colleagues or her kids, but as someone constantly teaching his students to write full sentences, her shorthand texting is anathema to me. The one time I mentioned this to her—including asking why she ended each text with ‘Culater’ and being told this is a short form of ‘see you later’—she got antsy and shot me down in flames. Citing time issues, she challenged me to run a family household and manage a full time job simultaneously. Saving time writing shortened and often cryptic sentences apparently helped make her life easier. After twenty minutes, I decide I need air, the antiseptic odours and suffocating heat getting to me. I stand, toss my empty paper cup and napkin into the nearest litter bin and head for the automatic doors. Even as I take my first step outside, the drop in temperature takes the breath out of me. Frost has already started to turn the windscreens of daylong idle cars opaque. I would be surprised if snow is not far behind. Walking along the pathway, I discover a bench and decide to take a seat. Only as I sit, do I notice the cigarette ends peppered around the floor at my feet. Left by worriers waiting to hear the fate of their loved ones, maybe? I wonder if Longman’s family sat here, re-evaluating their son’s decision to join the police force. Fortunately for me, none of the smokers have braved the night air tonight and I lean back, breathe in the clean air, and think back on the past week. Tomorrow I need to talk to Janine about the ‘Ben and the baby’ situation. As Senior Information Manager with the Metropolitan Police, she is bound to know Anna. My sister organises a meeting every month for prominent female members on the force. If she does know her, she may be able to give me a steer on whether I need to be concerned. My instinct is to ignore the situation, let matters take their course. If I am going to be honest with myself, the one thing still making me nervous is the casual nature of our relationship, like self-assembly furniture that could be dismantled at a moment’s notice. Maybe I am being over dramatic. Thank goodness my sister provides a buffer for me, helping me to see different perspectives. Both Ben and I have agreed to spend Christmas Day with her, Mark and the kids, and then we’re going skiing in Switzerland together for the New Year, so maybe I can call that progress. After Ben’s mother passed away, his father preferred not to have a big family gathering this year, usually his late wife’s domain. Instead, his sister’s family will have their father over for Christmas. So Ben will drive up to see him on Thursday, the night of the school play, and then we will both spend Christmas Day being spoilt by Janine and Mark’s culinary prowess, and pestered by Janine’s kids and her dog. Ben will enjoy that. Even though he clearly cherishes our time together, a part of him comes to life when he is squabbling or laughing along with the kids, like an older brother. A small shiver runs through me, and I pull my quilted coat around me. If am not mistaken, the temperature has just taken a nosedive. To test my theory, I breathe out a long steamy breath into the evening air. Time to head back inside, I decide. Next to the reception, Santa Claus is now sitting on a small stool beside the charity bucket, done up from head to foot in a pretty authentic outfit. His attention is on a small holdall on the floor, where he is putting in what appear to be charity leaflets. People giving up their free time to collect on behalf of charities has always impressed me, the kind of selfless act I promote to the boys at school. Out of habit, I reach into my jacket and pull out my wallet, dropping a ten pound note into the bucket, before catching his eye and smiling. When he looks up, and despite the full-faced disguised of beard and gold rimmed glasses—currently in his left hand—something familiar registers, a split second, meeting the dark eyes of the man, who has removed the glasses in order to rub the bridge of his nose. Although I cannot be sure, I think realisation and recognition flash across his face too, because he shoves the glasses back on, with their rippled lenses distorting the eyes beneath. Once in place, he raises a white gloved hand, and nods his thanks before quickly turning away to chat with the staff behind the reception desk. Embarrassed, I hasten off and head around the corner to the rows of seats, noticing a slight increase in the number of visitors. After a quick scan, I locate a free seat and settle myself. Still pondering the familiar Santa, I spend the next ten minutes searching my memory for recognition. I know those eyes. Not intimately, but I have seen them before, know who the person is. Something like this will annoy me all night long unless I can put a name to the eyes. Maybe I could go back, introduce myself and ask his name. Or maybe he is one of those charity volunteers who are happy to dress up incognito and ask for support, but would rather not show their real selves. Those eyes are very distinctive, though, and I know I have seen them before. And then my brain’s memory cells kick in. I do know this person. Although I have only met him two or three times in the past, I am almost positive they belong to Ben’s superior. DCI Newnam. Who is currently at a conference in the US, according to Ben. How could that be? Unfortunately, making the connection has not made even the slightest dent on my curiosity. Why is he here? Is he collecting for a charity connected to the police force? And when did he get back? Or am I actually mistaken, and is he truly away in the US still, and has a doppelgänger? Wisely or not, the curious side of me gets the better and I decide there is only one way to find out. In order to pass by the hospital reception, I use the premise of heading back to the cafe for another tea. As I round the corner, I notice Santa Claus is no longer there. I enquire about him with the friendly receptionist across the counter, who has her head buried in a register of some kind. “Where’s Santa? I wanted to find out if the charity he’s supporting can use my help.” “Frankie? He’s only filling in for a couple of nights, and his shift just finished. He’s gone already. Raymond, our usual Santa, is back tomorrow, if that helps. He knows a lot more about the charity.” “Okay, that’s fine, thanks. I’ll try to get back tomorrow.” Instead of going to the cafe, I stride out of the doors and do a quick scan of the carpark. Nothing, no cars starting up or departing, just one entering the grounds. Still curious, I stroll between parked vehicles, to see if I can find a driver dressed as Santa. In private, the person—if it is indeed Newnam—might be more happy to speak to me. As I round the last row, having seen nobody, and with my feet and hands numb with cold, I decide to return to the waiting room. “Where the hell have you been?” says Ben, waiting by reception, an irritated expression on his face I know only too well. What do I tell him? That I am just chasing after the boss he believes is currently in America? I know exactly what he will say, if I tell him I have just been snooping around the hospital carpark, hunting down a ghost I believe to be DCI Newnam. I have experienced his reaction to that kind of behaviour a few times before. “Getting some air. This place is stifling,” I say, rubbing my hands together. “But be prepared, it’s bordering subarctic out there.” Ben’s frown combined with a quizzical look speaks volumes—he knows something is up—and, of course, he is spot on. Fortunately, I am spared by the timely arrival of Chaudhary who appears from around the corner. “There you are,” she says, smiling and upbeat. “We were about to send out a search party.” “All present and correct. What’s the news on Longman, Ben?” I ask, deflection being my middle name. Fortunately for me, he lets his scrutiny drop. “Prognosis is positive, barring any complications. He’s in and out of consciousness right now. But the doctor says they’re hoping he’s more stable in a day or two.” “How long before he can talk?” “I asked the same thing,” says Chaudhary. “Difficult to determine. They’ll need to do more tests once he’s strong enough, to make sure there’s no lasting damage to the brain.” “Come on, you two. I’m starving,” says Ben, checking his watch. “Let’s carry on this conversation at the restaurant. I’ve booked somewhere just around the corner. The Athenian. Thought we’d try Greek tonight.” Sometimes Ben and I enjoy Indian food when we dine out, but the one time we invited Chaudhary—an aficionado of all regional Indian cuisines—she spent the whole evening criticising one dish after another. So wherever we invite her along, Ben always chooses somewhere culinarily neutral. We stroll in companionable silence to the restaurant, nobody saying much. Chaudhary comments on how cold the air has become reaffirming my opinion about the possibility of snow. Once we are shown to our table, Ben excuses himself to visit the restroom so I address my concern to Chaudhary. “Have you heard from DCI Newnam?” “No,” she says, her hard stare searching my eyes, the same kind Ben uses before he begins to interrogate. “Why would I? Callaghan might have. All I know is he’s in Washington attending a global law enforcement convention.” “I see,” I reply, nodding and picking up the menu. “Colin?” She knows me too well. “Why do you ask?” “Nothing. Just my fertile imagination again. Father Christmas at the hospital had the same eyes as your DCI. Just a coincidence, I expect.” “What Father Christmas?” “The one that turned up while you two were seeing Longman. And no, that much I did not imagine.” Chaudhary makes me feel even more ridiculous when she chuckles aloud. “Oh, Colin. No wonder Ben likes you so much. He’s going to love this.” “No. Please, Jo. Don’t say anything. He’s got enough on his plate at the moment without having to worry that his partner is having hallucinations.” “Fine. Spoil my fun,” she says, before tilting her head to one side. “So you’re officially partners now?” She makes a good point. Have I begun to think of us that way? “Actually, I don’t know what we are. We’ve not really defined our relationship. And I’m not sure Ben’s in a secure enough place in his career to do so.” I wonder if he has told Chaudhary about Anna and the baby. Rather than pursue the topic, I return my attention to the menu and am relieved when I see Chaudhary do the same. “So,” she asks, in all innocence. “How do you feel about Retsina?” This time, I laugh aloud. Ben and I had been on the Greek island of Krystos when I turned my nose up at the classic Greek wine. Following which I received a lecture about the historical significance of the beverage which I still maintain is an acquired taste. “I’ll stick with my preference for the French grape, thanks all the same.”
  4. lomax61

    Beneath the Surface

    Hi Will, I first posted the story back in late 2015, but I’m so pleased to get your modern day spin on the tale. You’re so right. The path of true love is never smooth. But don’t forget here, that Kit is still in the picture...
  5. lomax61

    Ben's Disclosure

    Well, it’s very rare to be quoted with words from a previous novel I wrote, but you are spot on. However, in his defence, when Ben made that comment he was not lying. He was seeking gay solace in online hook-ups. Anna was in his past and he had no idea about the child. And yes. I love seeing you shiver. And I am a big Softie.
  6. lomax61


    “If you really want to conceal something where nobody will think to find it,” Uncle Dom once mused, in a moment of rare lucidity, “then put in plain sight, right under the seeker’s nose.” Six weeks before Christmas, and peering through the dust mottled net curtains of the stake-out council flat in Bermondsey, as first light began to silhouette the nearby high-rise office block and lighten mounds of snow in the street below, Ben Whitehead was taken by a sudden and incredibly vivid sexual image. Without thinking, and completely out of character, a smile blossomed on his face. Bad move. “The fuck are you grinning at, Whitehead?” growled Detective Sergeant Banner, seated to his right beneath a blanket, in the absolute stillness of the room. Ben’s superior purposefully lowered the night binoculars he’d been using to surveil the vacant shopfront of the Greek restaurant on street level. “Whatever it is, spill.” Thankful for the darkness, Ben cursed himself. Of course he had been thinking about Colin. Colin McCann. Almost a year on and his heart still raced at the thought of his partner. Partner. No hesitation in his self-talk anymore, Colin had firmly established a place in his head and heart as his significant other. Especially so with the particular picture that had just snuck into his thoughts. Colin lying naked face down on the hotel four-poster in Athens reading a magazine, those perfect snowy white globes of his muscular arse bouncing on the duvet, legs wide apart, as Ben had emerged one evening from the shower. It took a huge effort of will not to reimagine the next forty-five molten minutes of that scene. But at least he had the memory to keep him company in this frozen hell-hole, and maybe a replay to look forward to later today, once this ill-fated surveillance operation had finally run its course. “He’s been like that all year. Ever since his tumble,” came Trainee Detective Constable Longman’s voice from across the room. Bundled up inside a sleeping bag, propped against the wall, knees tucked into his chest, Ben had thought the new recruit was sleeping. “You think it might be brain damage?” In February Ben had been involved in a murder case that had brought him face to face with brother and sister professional killers. The tumble Longman referred to had happened when he tried to give chase to the brother, Carter Schwartz, through the rear grounds of a stately home. In hindsight, doing so in pitch black had not been such a good idea as he found out when he fell headlong into a ditch, broke his arm and fractured his ankle. On the upside, the case had brought Colin into his life. “Nah, not the brain,” said Detective Constable Singh, emerging from the small bathroom in the hallway to the sound of a flushing toilet. “Try further south. Reckon he’s got hisself a nice warm pussy waiting to wrap itself around his cock when he gets home later today.” “Is that so, Ben?” asked Banner, turning to him quizzically. “You got a puss on heat waiting for you at home that you haven’t told us about? Kept that one on the QT.” “Mind your own fucking business, the lot of you,” he muttered sternly, but when the three men laughed as one, Ben couldn’t help laughing along. “Objection, your honour. Witness deflection is tantamount to admission of guilt,” said Longman. “Piss off.” “Lucky bastard,” chuckled Singh, sitting to the side of the small round table and lighting up a cigarette. “My old woman won’t let me near her at the moment. Four kids is enough, she says. So until I get the snip week after next, honey’s off the menu. Least I might be healed in time for Christmas. Fuck, right now even the dog’s arse gets me hard.” “Singh!” came Longman’s disgusted voice. “Fuck’s sake.” “What about condoms?” asked Ben. “Wife’s not a fan of shrink wrap. And the pill gives her migraines.” “What do they do, Singh? For the snip?” asked Banner. “GP says it’s pretty straightforward. No general anaesthetic, just a local to numb around the ballsack. Then they use a knife to cut into each side, fish out the sperm tube—” “Fuck. Shut up, Singh,” cried Longman, horrified. “Too much information.” “And then seal the thing somehow, cauterise or tie the thing up—” “Seaman’s knot?” laughed Banner. “Then Bob’s your fucking uncle. Back to shagging the missus in five to six weeks, hopefully. Happy New Year. Although I’m seriously not sure I can last that long.” “Get yourself down the Bell and Whistle Thursday night. Banner’ll take you,” said Longman. Recently divorced Banner, usually discreet with Ben as his only confidante, had taken Longman under his wing during his training. Over a pint, he had inadvertently let slip to Longman about visiting the place. “Divorced, separated and widowed. Ladies gagging for a shag.” “Yeah, but I ain’t divorced or separated, am I?” “They don’t know that. Or how about an online hookup?” suggested Longman, a little too eagerly. “Sites like Fling or Dalliance. Twenty five quid a month. Full of bored housewives all wanting a bit of action on the side. Totally safe and private.” And soulless and shallow, thought Ben, but said nothing. Once a practitioner of the online gay friends with benefits scene, he now thought back to the cold detachment of those days and nights with a shudder. “Not a chance in hell. If my old lady ever found out—and, trust me, she would—she’d perform the fucking surgery on me herself. With a meat cleaver, kitchen knives and pair of knitting needles. Anyway, didn’t I hear somewhere that queers use those places? To offer straight guys like us blow jobs?” “And exactly how would you know that?” asked Longman. “Aren’t homos supposed to give the best blow jobs?” asked Banner. Conversations tended to get thin on the ground when spending too much time with the same team. They’d already covered work issues, old or cold cases, colleagues—including female colleagues with the best boobs—families, and even plans for Christmas which Ben kept purposely vague. Now that Ben’s mother had passed away in October after her long drawn-out illness, he and Colin agreed to spend Christmas day with Janine and her clan followed by a skiing trip over the New Year. Right now he could sense another of his lads' ugly and intrusive conversations about to raise its head. “Right,” said Ben, standing up and stretching. “Breakfast. My shout, sarge. It’s probably the last one for this op. Unless you tell me otherwise, I’m getting the usual.” “Send the newbie. That’s what he’s here for.” “Sod off, Singh,” said Longman. “I’ll go if you like. S’gotta be better than sitting here scratching our arses,” chipped in Banner. Every day and night for the past two weeks they had gone through the same routine. Rarely leaving the upstairs bedroom, watching the comings and goings on street level two floors below, taking turns to eat and sleep. Their cover had been the builders van parked below at the back of the flat, and the plaster and paint stained overalls they wore. To any of the neighbours they were simply a bunch of builders with an urgent renovation job to finish. A good cover, too, because building works were actually ongoing in this two-floor flat above the florists, the company having packed up early for the Christmas break. But Banner knew his men would be ready to jump into action at a word from him. Which is why they had been cherry picked; Ben, Nick Banner and Chandra Singh old hands on the force, and Luke Longman with only two years under his belt, but as old a soul as you could ever meet. “Saturday morning. McD’s doesn’t open until six,” said Longman, checking his watch, as Ben made for the open doorway. “So you’ll have to hit the Patel-e-deli.” “Hoi,” chided Singh. “That’s my people you’re dissing, sonny boy.” Two roads away from the back stairs fire escape sat a row of restaurants including a small deli open twenty-four-seven, run by an Indian family. Hence the men had been fed and watered regularly even though as yet—and now highly unlikely—none of them had caught one whiff of action. “No, it’s okay, lads,” said Ben, from the doorway, shrugging into his overalls and then his warm overcoat. “I could do with some fresh air.” “I’ll see you out,” said DS Banner, struggling up from the floor and following him. “Think we all could do with some fresh air after what Singh just unloaded in the bog.” “I’ll dump your head in the fucking bog if you keep on…” Downstairs, Ben checked his wallet while Banner stood to one side. They had joined the force together over ten years ago, and even though Ben was five years Banner’s junior, they were like brothers. Banner’s red curly hair and opaque complexion distinguished him from his colleagues. Handsome in a raw, rugby player kind of way, Ben knew he could rely on the man in any high risk situation, had on numerous occasions. Adverse hours and the tough demands of the job had led to Banner’s wife seeking solace in the arms of a neighbour eighteen months ago, which had ultimately led to their messy separation and even messier divorce. “Sure you don’t want me to go, Ben?” asked Banner. “Nah. Stick around and make sure those two don’t kill each other,” said Ben, nodding to the stairs, before turning and catching Banner staring at the bare wooden floor. “You okay, Nick?” “Yeah,” groaned Banner, meeting his eyes. “Tired. Waste of fucking time again, eh?” Without needing to answer, Ben simply grimaced and shook his head. “You don’t think the old man’s yanking our chain, do you?” Ben didn’t want to let on that he had thought the same thing. But DCI Newnam had served the force for the best part of thirty years and, in the eyes of those who had worked closely with him, watching his rise through the ranks, the man had flawless instincts. Having said that, he was known to play politics. Perhaps he had decided to keep Ben and his crew away from the action after his cock-up on the case before last, where a police officer had almost been killed because Ben jumped into action too quickly. “You know what they say. Nobody’s intel is bulletproof. So what’re you doing for Christmas?” asked Ben, changing the subject as he began unbolting the door. Like Ben, Nick Banner also valued his privacy and usually edited what he told his two other colleagues. “Keeping up appearances. For the sake of the kids. Meeting Janice and her new man at a local restaurant Christmas Day. One big happy broken family. Merry fucking Christmas.” “What about that chick from Bromley?” Ben asked, turning to his friend. “Thought that was going great guns?” “So did I. Until her ex decided he’d made a mistake. Never even returned a text message after that.” “Sorry mate.” “What can you do?” he said, with a grimace and a resigned shrug. “Next year, Banner. Next year’ll be your year. Mark my words.” “Yeah, we’ll see. Are we going for a drink after this is done?” “Don’t see why not. After we’ve reported in. Think we all deserve one or two, don’t you?” “Yeah, I do,” said Banner, but another thought clouded his brow. “And I need to talk to you about something. Bit sensitive, like. Without the lads listening in. Is that okay?” “You know it is. Always,” said Ben, even though he had an uneasy feeling in his gut. Hiding his sexuality from his work colleagues had become as natural as breathing but he felt sure one day somebody would stumble on his secret. Maybe somebody had. It would be just like Banner to want to give him the head’s up. So far only DS Chaudhary knew about him and Colin, and he preferred to keep things that way. Banner was not only a good cop, but a loyal friend, so whatever he had to say would be in Ben’s interest. “So,” said Ben, opening the door and letting icy air flow flutter the loose shreds of wallpaper on the hallway wall. “I’ll use the four-two-three-two. And I’ll switch my phone on. Put yours on vibrate.” “Roger that.” When he snapped the front door quietly closed behind him, cutting off the upstairs banter, he heard Banner lock up and bolt the door from the other side. His reason for volunteering to fetch food was only partly true. Something felt off about this case and, officially, he should call his superiors and voice his concerns. But apart from the fact that DCI Newman was away in the US on a conference, he wanted a chance to run things past Chaudhary first. Even though they were not working together right now, he continued to seek her advice and good sense. Besides he’d be meeting up with DCI Newman’s stand-in—hopefully DI Pollard—later and could talk things over with him then. Descending into the back yard, immersing in a bouquet of mixed floral perfumes emanating from beneath the locked back door to the florists, he walked the few strides to the tall wooden back gate. With a hand clutching the ice-cold handle of black metal he yanked hard. Iced hinges groaned under his effort but gave way. On the street outside, nobody had braved the morning. Flurries of snowflakes whipped up as he stood to survey the scene. Pulling up the collar of his overcoat, he scrunched across the virgin snowfall in the lane and headed towards the main street. For two weeks they had laid siege to the Greek restaurant, The Athenian, tipped off that the Russian owners were about to land some serious cargo. Uncut cocaine and, if his team had been called in, a shitload. No way would Newnam have sanctioned the stakeout without solid and reliable inside information. But over the fortnight, nothing. Usual trade at lunchtime, mostly from suited workers in adjoining business districts, and then painfully infrequent customers in the evening, leading Ben to wonder how the owners could justify the place. But then, according to Newnam, they had other more lucrative and less legitimate sources of income to fall back on. Last night, from his hotel room in Washington DC, Newnam himself had actually called the team, told Banner to shut up shop at lunchtime. Which would hopefully mean a quick face-to-face with whoever was standing in and then home to Colin’s bed. Maybe he could pick up some take-out Thai food on the way home, preempt Colin’s knee-jerk response to prepare something special for him. Not that he objected to his partner’s home cooked meals. Colin excelled in the kitchen. But he wanted Colin’s other special talents in the bedroom tonight. Sudden thoughts of his partner sunbathing aboard his father’s yacht, the Lady Chatelaine, last September warmed him again and despite the bitter cold, his cock began to swell against his thigh. When his foot slipped from under him and he almost fell to the ground, bracing his hands against a brick wall at the last minute, all thoughts and arousal vanished. “For fuck’s sake. Concentrate, Whitehead,” he growled at himself. Fortunately nobody had been around to witness his carelessness. When he turned into the second street, shops and buildings on either side sheltered him from the worst of the weather. Bermondsey, for all its urban renewal and gentrification, was not one of Ben’s favourite parts of London. Not that he spent much time there, but the district hugging the south side of the River Thames continued to be a hotspot of criminal activity. Although now long demolished, in Dicken’s Oliver Twist, the grim dilapidated wharfs housing Fagin’s homeless boys stood along the river in Bermondsey. Now the site provided a mixture of luxury residential and modern commercial accommodations, owned by the affluent and a far cry from the residents of yesteryear. Crime still continued under those roofs, just very different types of crime with a very different class of criminal. When he turned into the restaurant street he could well have been walking straight into a Christmas scene from the fifties, lined mostly with traditional wooden shop fronts, some with their Christmas lights still burning, with only the once institutional scarlet telephone boxes gone now, and only the omnipresent brown and green recycle bins hinting at a new millennium. Taking advantage of the lull, he pulled out his phone and scrolled through the names. Nothing would have pleased him more right then than to call Colin and let him know he’d be home that evening. Just the sound of his partner’s voice made him feel more whole, more substantial. Surely he should have been over this phase by now, past the honeymoon period of their relationship. But if anything, the connection between them had intensified. He only hoped Colin wasn’t getting overwhelmed by his constant hunger. Although nothing about his partner’s behaviour indicated that he wanted anything less. In bed, Colin gave as good as he got, which is what Ben loved about him. Ahead of him, the door to the deli opened inwards and an elderly woman emerged, carrying a small brown package. After hesitating to observe the sky, she shuffled off in the opposite direction. Ben selected the speed-dial number for Chaudhary while stepping into the cloying warmth and pungent medley of freshly baked pastry and smoked meats. “Usual, love?” Ben nodded to the Indian lady while waiting for Chaudhary to pick up. On the four occasions he had forked out for breakfast, the sari-clad woman had been there as regular as Singh’s bowels. A force of habit, he turned his head slowly each way to scope out the rest of the space. Beyond a small crack in the doorway behind the counter, somebody—probably the husband—read a newspaper at the table; at six in the morning, two other souls—one a teenaged boy the other an elderly man—had braved the weather and sat at opposite ends of the small cafe-cum-deli, hunched over mugs of hot drinks. Beneath the table, the boy’s cloth newspaper bag spoke of a paper round still to be completed. At the other end, the old man simply appeared lonely, staring through the shop window. Outside, the street remained empty. “Make the espresso a double. And throw in four of your chocolate mini muffins,” he added, after briefly pulling the phone away from his ear. “Bloody brass monkey weather out there s’morning, innit?” she said, in perfect cockney augmented by an Indian accent, as her thin hands tackled the industrial sized coffee machine with practised ease. Ben smiled and agreed. Early November had been mild compared to recent years, but the winter had taken hold with a vengeance mid month. According to media sites, parts of rural Britain had been cut off completely, and emergency measures were already in place to drop supplies by helicopter. Media coverage majored on the possibility of a white Christmas rather than the fact that some people might not even have food or heating. When his call to Chaudhary went to voicemail, he thumbed the red telephone icon to end the call and decided to try later. She might be on another call. But just as he was about to return the device to his pocket, her name popped up on the display. “Hi Jo,” he said. “Did I wake you?” “I’d have had to have been to bed for that to happen. I’m down at the station. Dramas aplenty last night. Someone broke into the bungalow of one of our key witnesses. Place got turned over. No idea what they were looking for, but yours truly got called out.” “The Morgan case?” “What else?” Constantine Morgan had been the business partner of Sir Jeremy Winterbourne. Video footage of an American businessman being executed as he sat in his car late at night, parked up in the WinterCorp car park, had come to light earlier in the year. Although the nighttime CCTV video images could not be significantly enhanced, there could be little doubt that the assassin was Morgan’s right hand man, Tomas Hand. Hand had been killed the night of the raid on the Winterbourne estate, more than likely shot by Morgan’s personal assistant, Nichole Schwartz. Unfortunately, except for Colin’s testimony that he had overheard Nichole admitting to that, nothing had ever been proven because she and her brother, Carter Schwartz had vanished. The Schwartz siblings, it transpired, were another story altogether—professional assassins themselves—providing more wheels within wheels than Big Ben’s clock. While Morgan’s legal team spent months building their defence case, convincingly distancing Morgan from the actions of his deceased henchman, and before the man in question had stepped one foot in the courtroom, he and a female friend died in a plane crash over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Tenerife, allegedly due to bad weather. Neither Chaudhary nor Ben believed that. Despite the deaths of the two main suspects, the crown prosecution had continued to pursue the case. Because, according to the British legal system, death does not vindicate the guilty. “Where’s the witness?” “Safe house. Has been the past two weeks. Taking no chances.” “No security detail on the bungalow?” “Of course there bloody is,” she replied, sourly. “But clearly not enough. So what’s up?” He understood why Chaudhary could give little away. Highly public and sensitive, information about the case had to be treated with kid gloves. After Ben finally returned to work following a fortnight in hospital and then another ten days of home rest looked after by Colin, he found their partnership had been dissolved. Ben’s tireless work, sound judgement, and quick thinking on the convoluted Morgan and Schwartz case had earned him praise, but his reckless pursuit of Carter Schwartz and consequential hospitalisation had Detective Superintendent—DSU—Callaghan shutting down any suggestion of promotion. Back on the job, he had been assigned to a couple of new cases under the watchful eye of Detective Chief Inspector Newnam—someone he at least respected and who respected him—while Chaudhary continued to work on the dubious dealings of Constantine Morgan with more than a passing interest in what had happened out in the Canary Islands. Following Chaudhary’s lead, Ben went on to explain about the failed stake-out. “Thing is, Jo, this is the third time Newman’s been wrong on this case. I know he usually has solid intel but I’m wondering if he’s being played by his source. That maybe we’re being distracted while the real deal is going down in another part of town.” “No,” said Chaudhary, quietly but firmly. “Newnam doesn’t make those kind of mistakes. If there’s something bogus about his informer, he’d be onto them by now. More likely they were tipped off. Who’s there with you?” “No way, Jo,” said Ben, horrified that Chaudhary would ask if one of his men might be involved. “I’m playing the A team.” “Not what I meant, Ben. So you’ve got Singh, Bradley, Banner, and the new kid?” “Not Bradley. He’s on paternity leave. But yeah, I’ve got the usuals including Longman.” “Fair do’s. You been called in yet?” “Last night. We shut up shop lunchtime.” “Today?” “Yep.” “There you go, then. So what time are you checking in with Newnam?” “Callaghan. Newman’s away in the states. Conference and then holiday. Nice work if you can get it.” “Shit, of course. Look, Ben, just give him the hard facts, okay? And don’t rise to the bait.” “It’s okay, Jo. Banner’s in charge, remember?” Most colleagues on the force knew that DSU Callaghan frowned on Ben Whitehead. Fortunately, many of those like Ben and did what they could to help out. “What time are you all meeting him?” “Two. Face to face.” “Good. Then let Banner do the talking and don’t be tempted to interrupt or chip in unless instructed,” she said, her tone firm, but then softening. “So you’ll be seeing lover boy tonight?” While the elderly Indian lady placed a carrier bag of thick brown paper on the counter, he couldn’t help the sheepish grin that lifted one corner of his mouth. Mistaking the gesture, the Indian woman provided a toothy smile in return before collecting the thirty pounds Ben had placed in front of her. “Uh-huh. Might take the boys for a couple of pints first.” “Good call. Send Colin my best. Tell him my mum thinks his banana bread is a knock-out.” “Will do. And thanks, Jo.” “Any time.” Ben was busy grinning at the phone, when the Indian lady’s voice caught him by surprise. “She sounds nice. Lucky you, eh?” she said, pushing his change across the counter, before running through his food order with him, tapping the lids of the hot drinks before piling on top the other wrapped food. “One double espresso, three flat whites, three bacon sandwiches, and one heated cheese and tomato panini. Oh, and four chocolate muffins. That should see you right, love.” By the time he reached the flat, whistling softly to himself on the stroll back, forty minutes had passed. Any scant daylight that was going to grace this dull day already filled the sky. But with the promise of a hot shower, a comfortable bed and his favourite bedtime pastime to look forward to, not even a miserable day could dampen his spirits. As arranged with Banner, he rapped a bare knuckle on the font door panel. Clunk-clunk-clunk-clunk. Clunk-cluck. Clunk-clunk-clunk. Followed by a balled fist. Boom-boom. “Food delivery, ladies.” While waiting for the door to open, he craned his head over the fire escape to the peaceful scene below. Cars appeared sporadically now beyond the rickety wooden fence, cautiously navigating the snowy lane, but none of the neighbours or other local residents appeared to have risen from Saturday morning slumber. “Open up, Banner,” he said, after turning back and resting his head against the door. To focus his hearing, he held his breath. Something felt wrong. Copper instinct on overdrive, perhaps. Too quiet, too still. And something else. A familiar smell—faint but there nonetheless invading the sharp odours of paint and turpentine. Quietly kneeling to the floor, he placed the bag of food on the ground, reached a hand into his coat pocket and pulled out his phone. Despite protests from his men, all of them trained AFOs—Authorised Firearms Officers—guns had not been issued for this assignment. Any serious developments and Ben had complete autonomy to call in the Armed Response Unit. Even if he didn’t always agree with the rules, he knew not to rock the boat. He flicked through the display, found Banner's number and connected. Distantly, from somewhere inside the flat, a phone buzzed, but nobody answered. “What the fuck,” muttered Ben, a coldness taking hold of him. Staunching his impulse to take immediate action, he dialled in the situation and waited until he had confirmed backup. Thinking things through clearly before acting had been systematically drummed into him by Chaudhary with her calm professionalism, and, strangely enough, Colin, who Ben had witnessed doing the exact opposite—ignoring logic and cool rationale. One more call to make before he decided what course of action to take. DSU Callaghan. “Wait for backup,” came the curt response. “Banner's phone rang from inside. And he’s not picking up.” “Doesn’t mean a thing. Remain where you are.” “Sir, with all due respect, someone could be injured in there. And I might be able to offer first aid or support.” “You say the front door is intact. No sign of breaking and entering?” “Correct.” “Then do as I say. How many times have you been told to stop acting before you think things through properly? Remain where you are until armed backup arrives. You’ve no idea who or what could be waiting for you in there. Our boys should be no more than a few minutes away. I’m coming too. Call me the moment you know what the hell is going on.” “Yes sir.” After the call, Ben stood glaring at the phone in his hand. What he wanted to do was to throw the device as far away from himself as he could. What he did instead was to take a few settling breaths before deciding whether to heed Callaghan’s words. Raising his head slowly and scanning the back of the buildings he saw no sign of cars speeding to his assistance, heard no distant sirens although that would not be unusual in this case. Although the man’s words of caution made sense, these were his men inside, trusted colleagues—his friends—and he could not in all good conscious wait around to find out their fate. Bracing a hand on either side of the door frame, he lifted his size twelve boot and kicked hard. As old and worn as the structure looked, the front door barely moved in the frame. After two more attempts, producing only dust and splinters, the thing began to yield. Eventually, he succeeded by turning his good shoulder—the one that hadn’t been shot in February—to the door and charging with his full body weight. Instead of the door swinging inwards, however, the hinges gave way and he pushed his way into the flat. Downstairs everything appeared as it had when he left. If anyone was upstairs they would know he’d entered by now, but he heard no movement or sound from above. Step by careful step he made his way up the staircase until he could see into the main bedroom. Nothing appeared out of place from his vantage point except for the corner of a mottled net curtain moving in the breeze. Had someone opened a window? And then the smell hit him. Fresh blood. During his career, he had visited enough crime scenes to recognise that oddly metallic but distinctive smell. A cautious step beyond the threshold, and the whole horrific scene opened before him. Singh’s body slouched lifeless in a chair at the table, the head lolled forward onto the chest of his bloodstained white shirt. In the ashtray, the remains of a cigarette smouldered still. Banner lay backwards prone on the floor, legs buckled awkwardly beneath him in a pool of blood. His body had been thrown back by the force of whatever had hit him in the head, the eye of the intact part of his face still staring up at the ceiling. Ben almost missed Longman, crumpled in the corner of the room, a huge gaping hole in the left of his skull and spattering of blood sprayed onto the whitewashed wall. Leaning over the young detective, he placed his index and middle fingers over the man’s carotid artery, to the side of your windpipe and found a pulse, weak, but there nonetheless. Glinting in the light then, Ben’s eye picked out something shiny on the floor, and he dropped down just as the whizz of a bullet cracked a hole in the window and buried itself with a powdery thunk into the wall above Longman’s head. Instantly he rolled towards the sole window and yanked at the cord for the window blind. With a soft rattle and a thunk, the blind fell into place and the whole room became gloom, cutting off from the sniper’s vision. Gripping Longman under the shoulders and cradling his head in one hand, he dragged the young policeman’s body out into the hallway and kicked the door closed. But not before another random bullet pierced an upper panel of the door and sank into the side wall. Struggling to the end of the hall, well out of the range of the trajectory of the shooter, Ben laid Longman up against the wall, trying to gather his thoughts and decide his next course of action. At one point he felt sure he heard a distant shot but perhaps that was a car backfiring. After what seemed like hours, shouts from below brought him back to himself and he crawled for the top of the stairs. “DS Whitehead,” called Ben, showing his badge to the young police constable breaching the stairwell, who introduced himself as PC Walker. “Don’t let your men anywhere near the front bedroom. Or near the front of the building, come to that. A sniper has the place covered. Two of our men are down in there.” “Christ! Is he dead, Ben?” came another voice coming from the top of the stairs that Ben recognised instantly. Detective Inspector Bartholomew Pollard. Thank goodness, a friendly face in the drama. “Hi Bartie—uh, sir. No, but he’s been shot in the head,” said Ben, rechecking the pulse in Longman’s neck. “Lost a hell of a lot of blood and his pulse is barely there.” “What the fuck happened here?” Ben glanced at the young police constable before giving Bartie a knowing look. “We’re under fire. A sniper, probably in the office block a couple of roads behind the Greek restaurant, picked us off in the front room. Took out two of my team. Probably waiting for first light. Can we get a unit over there? They may have scarpered by now, but we should take no chances. And before anything else, we need to get one of our boys to call an ambulance. We’re going to need Longman alive. If only to understand what the fuck happened. I’ll get PC Walker to help me get him into the small bedroom at the back.” “Roger that. We brought in a fly-car as a precaution. Almost here. Leave the on-site medical attention to them. They’ll do what they can. But I’ll call in the sniper and radio for an ambulance pronto.” “Thanks, sir.” DI Pollard did as requested quickly, efficiently, and with a frightening authority to his voice that Ben barely recognised. By the time all three had carried Longman into the spare room and laid him carefully on the make-do mattress—one his men had used to take sleeping breaks—the emergency response medics had arrived. Ben stood by waiting for an initial assessment which came in the form of a sympathetic grimace and shrug from the woman in charge. DI Pollard placed a steadying hand on Ben’s shoulder and was about to speak, but was stopped short by the sound of a familiar bass voice booming from below stairs. “Whitehead. DC Whitehead! Where the fucking hell are you?” DSU Callaghan. “Let me deal with him, Ben. Stay up here with Longman,” said DI Pollard, squeezing his forearm. “Until the ambulance arrives.” And even though Ben was grateful for the moment of respite—the eye of the storm—he knew from the DCU’s tone that they would be talking very soon, and hoped he would find the inner strength to remain calm. Because he—they both—had a hell of a lot of explaining to do.
  7. lomax61

    Ben's Disclosure

    An unspoken rule about living under my roof is that Ben allows me to cook for him. No hardship, really. Fortunately, he demonstrably relishes my culinary creations so is happy to leave me to my own devices in the kitchen. Well, that is not strictly true. If I am cooking something aromatic, I often sense him come up behind, on the pretence of acting as taster, but mostly to press his hard body into mine, his groin appreciatively nudging my backside. I have also learned the hard way to allow him the dignity of contributing to household food bills and utilities. When he first offered, I declined, made a retrospectively ill-advised remark about him more than making up for anything monetarily by being my bedmate. At the time, I meant the remark in a lighthearted way, surprised when he became darkly irritated, citing the phrases ‘kept man’ and ‘sex object’. Lesson learned, I relented very quickly. Ben also likes to flex his culinary muscle every so often and today is one of them. Like most of us, he has a few recipes up his sleeve and likes to showcase them on occasion. Tonight, as soon as I enter the house, I smell the pungent aroma of garlic and onions frying. Something lightens in me because since he moved more of his things in on Sunday, he has been quiet and remote. Without asking, I wondered if maybe he had begun to rethink the decision. On my way to him, I arrange my briefcase in the study and remove my overcoat and jacket. Before I enter the kitchen, I make sure to acknowledge my cat, Mr Waldorf, curled up on the sofa but with one beady eye watching me. “Glass of wine?” he calls out. “Love one.” With him still grounded, familiar evidence of his presence about the house is everywhere; the newspaper dismantled page by page on the sofa; bills and other mail fanned out for me on the coffee table, including an intriguingly large envelope with an airmail sticker. Intriguing until the penny drops and I realise the envelope probably contains my mother’s traditionally oversized Christmas card offering, sent from Cyprus where she now lives. Despite being a fan of domesticity, the sight of Ben’s messy presence in the living room warms me. Sorting through other mail on my way to the kitchen, I filter out bills and a couple of cards addressed to Billy, before looking up and noticing something else that has me peering quizzically. Sitting in the armchair is the box from Denny’s house, with documents and books arranged neatly inside. “Any danger of seeing Billy tonight?” I call out. I drop Billy’s mail on the lamp table and decide to ask Ben about the box later. When I enter, Ben is in the process of pouring light golden wine, while smirking down at the two wine glasses. “Nope. Not until late, anyway. Wednesday’s spin and gin night. Spin class followed by an evening at the new gin bar near Charing Cross. I’ll put a plate aside for him.” When I move over and go to peck him on the cheek, he turns and kisses me full on the lips. “Want me to set placemats on the counter?” One of Ben’s idiosyncrasies—probably a childhood discipline—is that he insists on us sitting down together to eat, so we can talk over the day. Billy, Vaughan and I rarely ate together. And the only time Vaughan and I ever dined together at home was when we had guests over for dinner. “Done already. Go shower, and get changed.” With the kitchen island empty—where we usually eat—I turn to see the open door and place settings at the large dining room table in the conservatory. Another change is that Ben insists we use the bright space more often, but not usually during the week. “Are we expecting somebody?” “No,” he says, his attention back to a pan on the stove. “Just us.” “What’s the occasion?” “Does there have to be one? Go up and shower.” I decide to let the cross-examination go and do as he says. Even in our bedroom—our bedroom—there are signs of him everywhere. A book on the bedside cabinet, jeans and tees folded neatly on the pine trunk at the foot of the bed, waiting to be put away. Sometimes I have to give myself a pinch to remind myself that Ben is here, even though he has been living with me since last March, ten months ago. But during that time, despite the blackout weeks when he is away, we have developed a comfortable routine. Not too comfortable, though. I never forget that I considered living with Vaughan as effortless, while Vaughan told me—after we split—that he agreed, and saw our relationship as totally devoid of any shred of effort. Some differences are subtle but significant. I never want to be blindsided that way again. I return to the table feeling fresh and togged out in tee and sweats to find a large martini glass filled with shrimp, basil, watermelon and Mozzarella cheese. Not really the kind of appetiser I would expect on a cold December morning but the colours are vibrant and the whole effect is mouth-watering. For some reason, he is pulling out all the stops tonight. “Appetiser, too? Should I have dressed for dinner?” “Can’t I treat my favourite former murder suspect to something special every so often?” “You already treat me well. But I appreciate being spoilt once in a while. What other surprises do you have up your sleeve tonight?” While I sip my wine, he smiles and concentrates on pouring himself another glass. “First of all, the agent called to confirm our booking. Flights, hotel room and ski school booked in Crans-Montana for the New Year. Flights confirmed for the day after Boxing Day.” “Excellent. Can we go now?” “If only,” he says, while clearing away the empty starter glasses. “Secondly, I’ve been looking through the stuff from Denny’s house.” “I noticed. Anything interesting?” “Must be the detective in me, but I always wonder why people keep paper-clippings and old letters. I always assume—rightly or wrongly—there must be some deep-seated or secret reason for collecting old junk like that. Probably says a lot about the real person.” Personally, I am in two minds. To this day, my mother is an automatic hoarder, and we used to have kitchen drawers full of elastic bands, paper clips, plastic bags, flyers, newspaper cuttings, out-of-date discount vouchers, old greeting cards—things she rarely used or reused. Besides, even if the box of papers did mean something to Denny, I would prefer to let him and his memories rest in peace. “Didn’t you keep your school reports? Or your medical records or college assignments? I even used to keep theatre programmes and entry tickets to concerts when I was young. Nothing sinister about it, just one of those things. Boys at school store all those kinds of memories on their phones. And let’s face it, if Denny’s things were in the attic, he’d probably forgotten they were even there.” “As I say, it’s probably the detective in me.” “So what did you find?” He puts down his wine them, and props his chin onto his hands. “Did you realise, one of those old books from his bookcase is actually fake; a box?” “What do you mean?” “It’s just a container designed to resemble a book. People have used them for generations, sometimes to store their valuables inside.” “And?” “And inside this one, there’s a tied parcel of letters. I only scanned a couple. They date back to the late sixties bundled up with a couple of polaroids. Quite cute actually. They write to each other using initials and nicknames. I think Denny must have had a teenage crush on somebody. Do you want to take a look?” Again, despite a vague morbid curiosity, I decide against the idea. Maybe this is something Derek or Hugh might want to read. And then another thought comes to me. “Probably from Archie, his partner. But you know what? Let’s give the letters and the box of other stuff to Juliette Clanniston. Might be a nice angle for the personal story she’s writing.” Which is what we agree on. By the time we finish a very passable Moroccan style dish of lamb and apricots in rice, a small slice of apple pie with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream—because Ben’s sweet tooth cannot resist dessert—and a bottle of wine, we are both nicely relaxed. Usually I avoid caffeine at the end of a meal but when Ben puts the dishes into the dishwasher and puts on a fresh pot, I decide to join him. When he returns, I give him a recount of some the days’ events. Nothing earth-shattering, and reminding him of the date of this year’s end of term Christmas play, Phil Willoughby’s production of Measure for Measure. Not that I expect Ben to be there, but want to let him know I won’t be home until later that night. I tell him I am not the only teacher to question why Phil chose something so sombre for the holiday season. Ben is unfamiliar with the plot, so I give him a very brief rundown, punctuated by his snorts of amusement. Eventually we sit across from each other in comfortable silence, something I have come to relish. “Colin,” he says eventually, giving me the unwavering gaze he used when he originally interrogated me in this very house. Despite a full stomach, something curdles. “I need to come clean about something.” By now I am very familiar with his serious tone, so I bring the cup down from my mouth and give him my full attention, but I know instinctively this will not be good. “Is this going to explain why you’ve been behaving weirdly since Sunday?” The tiny smirk in response is more like a quick spasm. “You remember I told you that Anna came to see me on Sunday. Just after you left.” “Your ex-wife. I remember. You told me she’s wanted to talk over the divorce.” Amicably, fortunately, according to Ben. To be honest I half hoped she came to tell him she’s marrying the new man in her life, the one who fathered her child. “Okay, that wasn’t the whole truth. What I didn’t tell you—because I didn’t know how—is that the kid is my son. What I mean is, I fathered the child. I’m the boy’s father.” For some crazy reason, Michael Jackson’s song, Billie Jean, pops into my head. But the kid is not my son. Except in this case, it seems it is. I did not see that coming. Should I have? If he did not before, he has my full attention now. I just hope my expression does not betray me. “How can that be? I thought you separated over a year ago. The child looked like a newborn.” “He is. Born September this year.” “Then—how can he be yours?” Ben pushes a hand through his hair and throws himself back in his seat. “Last Christmas—before I met you—dad decided not to hold our normal family gathering because mum couldn’t be home, and he wanted to stay at the hospice with her. As you know, my brother and sister have their own families. Chaudhary invited me to Scotland with her bloke and their families, but I’d have felt like a spare part. Anna was home alone and so was I. Her parents had booked a cruise over Christmas. So we agreed to spend the day together, for old time’s sake. Seemed like a good idea at the time. I know, I should never have agreed, but the alternative was depressing. Anyway, we had a good laugh together, ate and drank far too much and then—” “You gave her an unplanned Christmas present?” At least he has the decency to look ashen faced. “If it’s any consolation, I felt like a complete bastard the next morning. I think we both realised it should never have happened. She knew about me, knew my preference. That’s the whole reason we separated. I honestly think she felt as bad as me.” “You had unprotected sex?” “No, I used a condom. I always do. You know that. But I remember it broke. These things happen, Colin.” My blunt question has understandably irritated him. I am aware and supportive of Ben’s obsession with using condoms, largely because his job is dangerous and unpredictable, and brings him into close contact with blood and junkies. Nevertheless, odd thoughts are racing through my head. With a baby in the mix now, where does that leave us? Is this going to change things? Do we need to have that conversation yet? “And she picked now to tell you? After the baby had already been born?” “I know. Catholic guilt, she said. She’s already named him; Peter. Sorry I’ve been distracted of late, but what with everything else going on I didn’t want to worry you. I’ve been figuring out how to tell you.” I study him then and see afresh the genuine worry lines around his eyes. Surely the fact he told me means something. But I still cannot get my head around the fact that she never even thought to tell him about the pregnancy. “If she’d told you when she first found out, what would you have done?” “I honestly don’t know, Colin. But we’d have certainly discussed options.” “Why are you so calm? Aren’t you even the slightest bit angry?” “Christ, Colin. Two of my closest colleagues have just been murdered on my watch, and one is in a critical condition in hospital. I’m all out of anger. Unless someone finds the bastard that killed them.” Maybe he is right—pointless anger is something I preach about—but I hate to think Anna might be taking advantage of Ben’s good nature. “And you’re sure the child is yours?” Ben sighs deeply and then smiles. “She suggested I get a paternity test, but—I already know. The kid looks just like me. And you don’t know Anna. She definitely does not sleep around. The kid’s mine.” Feelings I have never experienced are bubbling inside me now, and I am trying to put a name to them. Anger? Fear? Confusion? Maybe a combination of all three. “I don’t understand. Why did you marry her in the first place?” “Colin. I already have enough things in my past that I’m ashamed about. Please don’t ask me why—” “I want to know. Are you bisexual then?” “For fuck’s sake, I’ve slept with two women in my life. One in college, and we slept together twice, and the other was Anna.” “And?” “And, what?” ”How many times did you sleep with her?” “Once.” “Apart from the Christmas surprise.” “That was the one occasion, Colin. An alcohol-induced moment of stupidity instigated by her. During all the time we were together, we had an arrangement. She knew about me, but we got on really well. Together, we were more like roommates. Our marriage was truly one of convenience.” “Then why the hell did you go through with it?” He throws himself back in his seat and scratches at his scalp with both hands. “To get other people off our backs. When mum was first diagnosed with cancer and started her treatment, every time I went home or to the hospital to see her, she would fret about me, about the fact that I was the only one of her children who hadn’t settled down with someone. ” “She didn’t know about—” “No, none of my family members do. At the time, Anna and I were good friends and, honestly, getting married did us both a favour. Her family and friends stopped commenting on her being in her thirties and still single, allowing her to concentrate on her career, and, for my part, my mother could be at peace when she left this world.” “Is everything you do about keeping other people happy?” “Until I met you.” Both of us sit silently for a time, both contemplating what has been said. What I am forgetting is Ben’s selflessness and how lonely life must have been for him, living a lie to put a smile on his mother’s—and probably his father’s—face, by tying the knot with Anna. That first day, when he walked into my school and my life, he tried filling his loneliness with faceless, emotionless encounters. When I spring up from the table, his eyes widen. But I come around his side of the table, straddle his lap, put my arms around his neck and kiss him. When I lean back, he is smiling again. “Well then, Mr Whitehead. We’re simply going to have to figure out how to manage the situation—” Right then, Ben’s mobile phone rings and I look down to see the name Chaudhary on the display. I dismount Ben. He rises too, scoops up the phone and heads for the garden door, leaving me with my thoughts. To busy myself, I go about clearing the table and setting the dishwasher going, before perching myself on a kitchen stool facing the garden. Logic tells me that if Anna did not inform Ben about the child until now, she had no intention of involving him in the child’s upbringing. Maybe now, she realises the need for extra support financially. I know Ben well enough to understand his sense of duty. Perhaps she does, too. If that is her intention, then he will contribute freely. My real worry, if I am going to be completely honest, is Ben himself. We have never talked about children and whether either of us had ever thought about having them. Communicating is not our strong point and I experience our commitment to being together by the little actions and gestures we provide each other. But now I wonder if he will want to insert himself into the child’s life, to be there for babysitting, parties, hobbies, schooling. Will Anna expect Ben to take the child—Peter—from time to time, or have the past few months of having him to herself cemented her resolve to bring up the child alone? And legally, where does Ben stand if he wants to share custody? One thing I know is that I should not push Ben, but give him time to make up his own mind. When he returns to the kitchen, he stands opposite me, arms folded leaning against the sink, his smile clearly one of relief. “Longman’s out of danger. Seems he has youth on his side. He’s out of the coma, but not awake yet, and still being kept in the ICU for now.” My sigh is deep and genuine. “Finally, some good news.” I notice Ben’s good humour slip momentarily and feel a pang of remorse. “About the case, I mean,” I clarify, opening my palms on the countertop. “If Longman’s stable, surely there’s a possibility he might regain consciousness and, as long as there’s no brain damage, be able to fill in some gaps?” “That’s exactly what Chaudhary said. She wants to go and see him tomorrow evening, in an official capacity. I thought maybe you could tag along and then the three of us can grab a bite to eat afterwards. Somewhere near the hospital in South Kensington. I know that means you hanging around the waiting room, but thought it might make a nice change. What do you think?” Funny, usually Ben prefers not to eat out, and although he has never said as much—and I have never questioned him—I always believed his caution is because of me, being seen out together, and his desire to avoid any speculation in case we are spotted by any of his colleagues. But I suppose Chaudhary being there would provide safety in numbers. “Sounds good,” I reply, before taking a steely breath. “And, in return, how do you fancy being my plus one for dinner this Saturday evening at Milton Shannonworth’s home? He invited us both.” Once the events surrounding that dreadful, fateful weekend at Winterbourne’s mansion had settled, I told Ben about the array of personalities I had met at the official function, including General Sir Hamilton Shannonworth and his wife. “The reason he invited us is because of the favour I’m doing him, persuading Dorothy to open a space for his grandson at our school. He came along Monday. So his wife wants to treat me and my plus one to dinner—Beef Wellington—if you’re interested. I said I’d find out if you’re free.” “Just us? Not some big dinner party?” I notice the concerned crinkle between his brows. And just like that, my hackles rise, sensing his caution at being seen in company with me, but I do my best to suppress the irritation. “No. Just the four of us. As a measure of thanks.” His silence does nothing to help soften my mood. “I’d really appreciate your company, Ben. You’ll like Milton. The man’s clearly seen a lot of action during his military career, has some interesting tales to tell.” “Okay, yes, fine. Count me in.” Again, I wonder if he is placating me, and decide to provide an olive branch. “If something comes up,” I offer. “I can always cancel or go alone. There’s no obligation—” “I said I’d come. Let them know we’ll both be there.” “I will. Thank you.” When he levels his gaze with mine, his face softens, and the ghost of a smile touches his lips. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m being an arse again, aren’t I?” “No, you’re not,” I reply, looking away, searching for the words while smoothing a hand nervously up and down my bare left arm. “You’re just being…understandably cautious.” When I return my gaze, I notice his eyes following the hand now resting on my shoulder. For a moment, his gaze lingers there before moving slowing to my face and darkening with lust. “Let’s not bother clearing the rest of the table,” he says, pushing away from the sink. With a practiced routine, we dance around each other, locking doors, and quickly switching off lights and appliances, before heading up the stairs to our bedroom.
  8. Dear readers, This is a story forum for readers of the second book in my series of The Croxburgh Chronicles, which began with Kissing the Dragon and continues now with Stroking the Flame. For those of you who may have found their way to this thread accidentally and not yet seen the story, there is a link directly to each of the books on the titles included here. Although this story has a very strong romantic theme, the genre is mystery/thriller in the mold of good old whodunits. The protagonist is a history teacher at a reputable boys school, and the setting is largely suburban London. Once again this a story about a person's emotional growth, this time against a backdrop of mystery when a seemingly normal and uneventful existence is turned upside down over one weekend by a tragedy close to home. On Kissing the Dragon: After getting some excellent feedback and comments from GA readers, and others from a couple of Beta readers, fellow authors who write with my publisher, I decided to send KTD to a professional editor. This person gave me some brutally honest feedback about things that were entirely ridiculous or did not wholly make sense; both in terms of character and plot. If any of you have used a professional editor, you’ll know they don’t pull any punches. Some suggestions I took on board, others I did not. Essentially, however, the KTD that you originally read, has changed significantly in places. Some of these changes are structural, plot related, allowing me to ramp up the suspense in the final two books. Below are some spoilers. I haven't listed all of the changes because some are cosmetic and do not affect the plot. I have only listed those that impact the second book, Stroking the Flame. For those who need a quick recap of Kissing the Dragon, I have included an outline of each chapter in a Word document below. Brian KTD1 - Outline.docx
  9. lomax61

    Stroking the Flame

    Dear all, I'm opening up the second book in the Kissing the Dragon series again and, at the good advice of @Timothy M., will be resurrecting this story of Colin and Ben. It may be slow going, because the story is deeper and less whimsical than my recent stories, but I'm going to persevere. Thanks for being patient. Brian
  10. lomax61

    Milton's Grandkid

    One minor upside to the traumatic events that occurred at Jeremy Winterbourne’s estate earlier this year is that I made some new friends—almost by chance. Juliette Clanniston is one, the former political columnist for the Chronicle, until they fired her for supposedly haranguing high ranking nobility to get an exclusive. Maybe she had. A smart woman, and a tenacious yet principled reporter, nobody would have been above her scrutiny. Once the press furore died down about Morgan and his shenanigans—Clanniston no longer being privy to the minutiae of major cases such as those—and with the full support of Hugh, she agreed to pen an article about Denny’s life and death for a gay publication, with a ‘tragic life of a small-town gay tailor’ angle. More as a favour, actually, because there is little to get her well-seasoned investigative teeth into. Hence we have met for lunch on one or two occasions. By contrast, my other new friends are retired General Sir Hamilton Shannonworth—who allows me to call him Milton—and his wife, Deborah. In his early eighties, Milton has clearly looked after himself, sporting a full head of white hair, short and trim, and only the deep lines around his clear blue eyes hinting at his true age. They recognised me four months ago while visiting Croxburgh High School for Boys during an autumn term open evening. We had chatted only briefly at the business dinner party Jeremy hosted, and quite honestly, after the events that followed, I had all but forgotten the couple. One thing I do remember is that Milton used to move in the same circles as my late Uncle Dominic and talked about him fondly. Not just that, but before the dinner had begun, he’d had a serious disagreement with Morgan. I have yet to question him about that. Since the school visit, we have become firm friends. And since Uncle Dom’s passing, having someone older and informed with whom I can hold a decent conversation has felt like something of a reprieve. I feel sure I have mistakenly referred to as him Dom on a couple of occasions, but if so, he has never once corrected me. Odd really, because unlike Uncle Dominic, Milton, with his long and illustrious military career, has a very different take on world events—past and present—than mine. But what we do share is a love of history. And while I quote textbook facts about mid to late twentieth century military history, he listens with good humour before pointing out inaccuracies or filling in gaps with real life experience, something I find utterly fascinating. What I also discovered, mainly from his wife, is that not only does the Shannonworth lineage originally herald from Croxburgh but their son, Simon, lives in Holmwood Heath, a neighbouring town, with his wife and young son. In various subsequent discussions, I also learned that the grandson, James, a ‘sweet but sensitive soul’—Deborah’s exact words—was homesick and unhappy at a prestigious boarding school along the south coast. Hence the appearance of the whole family on the open evening. Which is also why I personally volunteered to show young James and his mother around the school that night, to see if the atmosphere might be more conducive. Which apparently did the trick and, even though Christmas break term is soon upon us, I managed to pull a few strings with Dorothy Humphreys—our newly appointed principal. James joins us today. Dorothy is delighted to have the grandson of a former high ranking dignitary at the school—another feather in her cap. She finally took over the role of head of school when our previous headmaster died peacefully at home after two month’s convalescence. Today, the first Monday of December, Milton has agreed to accompany James and his mother to school on his first day, and also to observe some of the classes and activities. “Deborah’s right, of course. He is a sensitive boy. But you must not, under any circumstances, allow him to be mollycoddled,” says Milton, strolling next to me. Ever the military man, he moves crisply from one classroom portal to the next, hands clasped behind his back, stopping as if to inspect the troops. If rumours are true, in active service the man had been a fierce warrior, unafraid of anything, something I find hard to get my head around. Then again, British campaign medals—of which, Derek tells me, Milton has an impressive collection—were not dished out without due cause or merit. Despite the commanding body language, Milton speaks softly, precise and with clarity, but during the few times I have met him, I have never heard him raise his voice. In my view, he is a gentle man in the true spirit of the expression. “You don’t need to worry about that. We may not be as uber-strict here, but we are far from lax. Academically, we’re more than on a par with his previous school and, trust me, he’ll be put through his paces. We also promote physical activities—our field hockey and rugby teams are top of the borough—and encourage our boys to join student clubs after school, to exercise their social skills. I’m sure James will find something to fire his imagination.” “Good to hear,” says Milton, stopping to appraise a notice board. “So do you still keep in touch with Winterbourne junior? The boy has a promising career ahead of him, I hear.” The boy. I almost laugh. Hugh is in his late thirties now. Satisfied with my answer to his question about his grandson, James, we continue to stroll down the long familiar corridor. “Sort of. My main friendship is with Hugh’s husband, Derek. But he keeps me informed about Hugh’s rise through the ranks.” As a friend of Sir Jeremy, Milton will undoubtedly know about Hugh’s successes, but we have yet to broach the subject of same-sex relationships. “Ah, yes,” says Milton, gently shaking his head, a hint of levity in his tone. “The husband. Heavens, how the world has changed since my day. We even have an openly homosexual politician serving as The Taoiseach—the Prime Minister of Ireland.” Although he clarifies the title of Ireland’s head of government in English, I am sure his pronunciation of the Irish Gaelic word—‘Tea-Sherks’—is correct. In the school at the moment we have two Irish brothers, Oisin and Cathal, pronounced Oh-Sheen and Ka-Hal respectively. I pride myself in taking great pains to correctly pronounce their names. “First gay prime minister of the British Isles,” I add, “Thoroughly deserved, too, if you want my personal opinion.” “Dear boy,” he says, turning stiffly to observe me with a humoured expression. “Don’t misread me. Yes, I am of a bygone era, but I do not, in any way, discriminate against those of a different persuasion. I wholeheartedly approve of Winterbourne junior’s rise to fame and of the appointment of The Taoiseach. But I doubt the latter would be the first gay prime minister in parliament in the British Isles, just the first openly gay one. Your generation did not invent homosexuality, you know. Some things were simply not discussed in my day.” Yes, because to do so would have equalled a prison sentence. Uncle Dom and I had often argued the topic. Although he praised advances in civil rights and liberalisation in the country, he also mourned the loss of danger and excitement during his days of clandestine liaisons with like-minded men, what he called being a member of the ‘naughty boys club.’ After Pollards recent conversation with Ben, I sometimes wonder how far we have really come. But Milton is not paying attention to me and continues on. “As an ex-military man, my views may lean towards conservatism, but not radically. Yes, I believe in institutions and tradition—being taught self-discipline is one of the greatest lessons in life for both sexes—but not where it’s clearly archaic and frankly, farcical, or where the system is merely there to provide old boys with an income. Take this school, for example. I am of the opinion that well-ordered and well run learning institutions such as these turn boys into well rounded men and, in turn, help to build lasting nations.” My own opinions are not wildly dissimilar, although I do know some fellow teachers who see Croxburgh all-boys school as an anachronism in a world filled predominantly with co-ed institutions. Almost ironically, we reach a part of the corridor where, in an effort to promote more cultural and religious tolerance and sensitivity, boys from all backgrounds are encouraged to create displays for their own customs. This section is reserved for all observed festivals—whether deemed religious or not; Chinese New Year, Diwali, Eid al-Fitr, Christmas. At this time of the year, of course, Christmas is the central theme, but this is also shared with Hanukah, some of the boys having created a beautiful nine candle menorah out of gold and silver mosaic tiles, and the Buddhist Bodhi Day, with a clay painted golden and red Buddha. Milton pauses for a moment to observe and absorb, but does not pass judgement. We finally reach the last doorway on the right before the heavy double doors leading to the outside playground—Dorothy’s room. At the moment, she has the red occupied sign showing on the door. Much to my amusement, Milton lowers himself onto one of the empty seats arranged along the wall, usually reserved for boys who are waiting to be reprimanded by the head. “When you lived in Croxburgh, did you ever visit my late friend’s tailor shop on the high street? Harrison’s?” I ask, not even sure why I ask the question. “To be perfectly honest, I’d have difficulty giving directions to the high street newsagents. And I’ve actually been in there four or five times during my life. Probably driven past the tailor shop. But you must remember that I joined the army on my sixteenth birthday and was posted overseas at seventeen which is pretty much where I stayed. So apart from the few times I spent at home on leave, I’d hardly call Croxburgh home. Why do you ask?” “Just out of interest. Thought you or maybe your family might have known him. So did you ever consider settling abroad?” “Now you must never tell Deborah this, but I rather took a fancy to southeast Asia. Would have been happy to spend my final days in Malaya or Singapore. But then, of course, I’d never have met Deborah or your uncle.” “One day, you’ll have to tell me all you know about him. I miss him dearly.” “Come over for dinner. Saturday evening. Deborah is insisting and she never takes no for an answer. She’ll probably spend most of the evening grilling you about James, but on the plus side, she is a magnificent cook.” “I’d love to.” “Nothing formal, you understand. Just the four of us.” “Four?” I ask, hesitating. “Don’t you have a long term partner? I’m sure Hugh mentioned that you live with a lawyer.” “Ah, yes. I used to. But he’s in Asia now. We parted company.” “Oh, dear. I’m sorry to hear that.” “These things happen. I live with someone else now, but I’m not sure he’d be free.” I wonder for a moment what Ben would make of Milton. Actually, they would probably have a grand old time, Ben mesmerised by Milton’s tales of military heroics. Might be just the thing to get Ben out of the melancholy funk he has been in of late. Sunday’s little visit by the woman who turned out to be his ex-wife, now with a new baby to care for, seems to have made him worse. He says she wanted to give him a gentle nudge about pushing the divorce along, maybe because she wants to remarry. He never said and I never asked. I wonder if he sees her as another person in the world he has disappointed or let down, along with the families of the colleagues who were killed. Maybe a night of listening to war stories would be right up his street. “Actually, I think you two would get along really well. Let me check with him. I have your number, so I’ll let you know later today.” “Excellent. If not, just the three of us. Now I imagine you need to go and educate young minds, while I need to get back home for lunch.” “This is a free period for me. And then it’s lunch break so I’m fine right now. I think Dorothy was going to provide some tea for you.” “Politely decline for me, will you?” he says, beginning to rise from his seat. “Of course. But before you go can I ask you something?” “Go ahead.” “At the Winterbourne gathering, you seemed to be having rather a heated disagreement with Constantine Morgan. I just wondered what had happened, if you’re at liberty to say?” Briefly, he looks off into the distance, but the hardening of his features is not difficult to read. “During my military career, and even into retirement, I have met with a lot of powerful men and women, often on the other side of a conflict. With very few exceptions, they have been driven—some ruthlessly so—but in each case have been both courteous and honourable. I know we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but that man was neither. Everything about him made me seethe. A braggart and a bore to boot. One-upmanship and filling his pockets at any cost were all he cared about. I’d warned Sir Jeremy on many occasions that he should watch his back around the man, should definitely not go into business with him, and did so again that night. Reliable friends of mine had hinted at dubious dealings in the Morgan camp. What you saw at the party was that heathen publicly tearing me off a strip, telling me to mind my own business. In front of my wife, of all things, which in my book is intolerable and why I retaliated. Of course, after the events of that evening and the subsequent publications in the press about him getting his thugs to threaten or dispose of ex-employees and suppliers—even your poor friend, the tailor—I felt entirely vindicated. Unsurprised, if I’m going to be totally honest, but most certainly vindicated.” Morgan’s hand in the silencing of former contacts had been proven beyond any doubt. Anonymously, someone—most likely Nichole Schwartz after her sudden disappearance—sent reams of emails and other incriminating documents by post to the CID and the press. However, only a few of us know that Denny, my tailor friend, was not one of those targeted by Morgan’s henchman, Kominsky. Carter and Nichole Schwartz had been behind his death, as well as the murders of Tony McDonald and Roland O’Keith, and the motive remains unclear. Both have disappeared from the face of the earth, so we may never know. Still, I share Milton’s assessment of Morgan’s character, had experienced Kominsky’s brutal tactics first hand. As always, Milton shakes my hand firmly and with genuine warmth. “I owe you a debt of gratitude, Colin.” “Don’t be silly. We’re honoured to have your grandson here.” “Nevertheless, if you ever find yourself in a corner, let me know. I may old but I am not without influence. Without going into detail, I have faced more difficult situations and been in more tight spots than any of my living counterparts and most of the dead ones. I also know a lot of people, if you know what I mean, and am not adverse to calling in a favour or two.” This time, he taps a waxen forefinger on the side of his nose and winks—a gesture that has me wondering exactly how influential the man still is—before he pulls out a card from his inside pocket. “Now, here’s our address. Deborah will probably try to impress you with her trademark Beef Wellington, so if you’re bringing wine, make it a full bodied red. Let me know if your partner can come. Either way, I’ll see you next Saturday. And if you twist my arm—our arms—we might even divulge a few salacious tales about your uncle.” While I scratch the back of my knuckles with the card, I watch him move away confidently, wonder at the kind of dangers he mentioned and how he managed to survive seemingly intact, while I still have nightmares about my one brush with death.
  11. lomax61

    Close To You

    Hi @Cachondeo, Tom and Marcus are from a story I posted here called Second Half, which was accepted by a publisher and I had to take the story down. I had to modify the story quite a bit from what I had here, but the final story is published as The Missing Ingredient. The Missing Ingredient available at Dreamspinner Press and Amazon Reviews of The Missing Ingredient at: My Fiction Nook (includes a deleted scene): Two Chicks Obsessed
  12. lomax61

    Close To You

    Thanks Tim. Wow, I thought you'd read this story when it first went up!
  13. lomax61

    Gay Vacation Companion

    Dear all, Well, after 33 chapters, 64,000+ words, and 2 months of furious writing, Gay Vacation Companion has finally concluded. I hope you've enjoyed the journey as much as me (and that your suntan lasts longer than mine!). Thanks also for your 100,000+ views, 1200+ comments, 220 followers and 1 review (@chris191070) And my eternal thanks to @Timothy M. for his eagle eyes and sound plot line judgement. Take care, @lomax61 aka Brian Lancaster
  14. lomax61

    Epilogue: Three Years On

    Answers below, @FanLit (and I've sent you an additional message). And in case anyone else needs to know:- The story was called Second Half on the site, but I had to take it down at the request of the publisher; We decided to rename the story: The Missing Ingredient (which I kind of liked); It's now available in electronic or book form from Amazon or DSP; Amazon: The Missing Ingredient DSP: The Missing Ingredient
  15. lomax61

    Epilogue: Three Years On

    KIERAN ~ THREE YEARS ON “Where’s Kennedy?” asked Kieran, carrying a tray of pungent Indonesian appetisers to the outdoor table, followed closely by Matius, pushing a rattle-clinking drinks trolley laden with bottles of spirits and jugs of soft drinks. Kieran had spent the last hour watching—and occasionally helping—Maya prepare Indonesian dishes in the outside kitchen, mesmerised at the array of natural ingredients and spices going into the wok for each dish. Laurie and Claire sat enjoying the last of the afternoon sun, at a table beside the swimming pool. Steph sat several feet away from them, in the shade of the back porch cooled by an overhead fan, with little Polly in a crib next to her, rocking her gently from side to side. Even though Laurie had been the birth mother, their baby had brought out the maternal in Steph. “Inside. Feeding the twins,” said Laurie, enjoying a cool Singapore Sling. Kieran came over and joined them, sitting in the low two-seater rattan sofa. “He’s managed to get Link off to sleep, but Clint’s got a bit colic, he thinks.” “Maya will go help Mr Kennedy now,” said Matius, before turning back towards the kitchen. Lincoln and Clinton had been born nine months earlier, courtesy of a surrogate mother. Neither Kieran nor Kennedy had been expecting twins, but both had been as delighted as the other. This time around, Kennedy had been the donor, but Kieran had insisted on the names, in keeping with family tradition. “I can’t believe how he is with them. I swear he has the patience of a saint.” Not much in life left Kennedy speechless and in awe, but the arrival of their twins had seen a fundamental change in him, in his priorities. Even with their full-time, live-in nanny, Kieran often drove home at the end of a long day to find Kennedy already there, helping with the boys. Usually he dismissed the event as ‘working from home’ but Kieran knew better. If Polly had brought out the maternal in Steph, then the twins had brought out the doting parent in Kennedy. “Well, he does have practice, having to live with you and Ed,” came Steph’s voice, from the shade. “I heard that,” said Kieran, joining Laurie and Claire’s laughter. “Where’s Jeff?” asked Laurie, handing Kieran a chilled glass of white wine and clinking their glasses. “Doing me a favour,” said Kieran, quietly to Laurie. “He’s on his way back from the airport right now. Friends are over for a working holiday and having dinner with us before heading to their hotel.” “And tell me again why they’re at a family gathering?” called Steph. “Bloody hell. Does your wife have super-hearing?” asked Kieran, mugging at Laurie. “Meet Wonder Woman,” said Laurie, giggling. “You know Jeff,” said Claire. “Always finding waifs and strays to bring home.” “Mum!” said Kieran, with mock outrage. “I hardly think the son of the Earl of Stratham is either a waif or a stray. Nor is his partner, Trevor. They were the ones who helped arrange our wedding in Scotland at short notice, as well as the catering, and I didn’t hear you complain then.” Everything had fallen into place so quickly over two years ago, through friends of friends. Cole’s pals from Japan, returning in January from their holiday in Scotland, had sown the seeds in Kennedy’s mind when they met for a drink. And once Kennedy got an idea in his head, there was no stopping him. They’d referred him to their friends who, through family connections, had a slim window of opportunity to host the wedding for the newly appointed global CEO of Grey Steel Global and his gay partner. They, in turn, got in touch with the famous chef, Marcus Vine, to request his help in catering—something Vine was famous for declining because of a busy career running his international restaurants. But somehow, he’d found the time, and everything had come together beautifully, with Kieran and Kennedy finally married on a glorious day in early June with Loch Arkaig, Ben Nevis, and the stunning grounds of Mortimer Hall as their backdrop. “That lovely young man, Rudolph? Why didn’t you say so. Stephanie, I know I’ve said it before but it was such a shame you and Laurie couldn’t be there. So close to Polly’s birth, and all. But the whole ceremony was like something out of a Disney movie, with this world renowned chef actually there, catering the whole event. His partner even helped set up a couple of marquees on the grounds. Did we tell you? Absolutely adorable.” “Yes,” said Steph, while Laurie rolled her eyes at Kieran. They’d hated not being there, but Polly had been a difficult pregnancy for Laurie and they didn’t want to take any chances. “We saw the photos, Claire. The official ones, as well as all those posted by guests on Kieran’s Facebook wedding page. Even saw a couple of them featured in Attitude mag.” Kieran noticed Kennedy heading out to join them. Forty-five years old and he still looked good enough to eat. As he spotted them and walked into the sunlight, when Kieran saw a flash of gold on his wedding finger, his heart swelled with pride. In the last hour he’d changed his shirt to a loose-fitting, short sleeved Indian cotton one, in aubergine, opened at the collar to reveal his chest hair. Kieran knew the shirt well, because he owned the damned thing. Seeing Kennedy wearing his clothing, he felt himself getting hard and had to adjust himself, before waving Kennedy over to his seat. “Thought I might find you here,” said Kennedy, squeezing in next to Kieran, taking the glass of wine from him and having a sip. “Leaving the old ones to do all the manual labour.” Once they’d tied the knot—and probably because he’d warmed to little Polly—Kennedy had been the one to push for kids. And, as usual, he’d taken to the project like a man with a mission. “Why are you wearing my shirt? Not that I’m complaining.” “Little Clint puked on mine.” “Ah. How is he?” “Asleep now. Maya managed to calm him down. She’s amazing with them, insisted on watching them, even though I said I’d take the baby monitor. I wonder what it would take to persuade her and Matius back to England—” “Don’t even think about it,” warned Claire, while lifting her glasses in place to checking her phone display. “Reagan, Bernie and the boys are almost here.” “And here’s Dad,” said Kennedy, nodding to the driveway. They all watched as Jefferson parked up the Toyota. Once the engine had died, he brought the two passengers straight over to where everyone sat around the pool. Considering their long flight from England, Rudy and Trevor appeared remarkably awake and alert, even though their loose, rumpled, travel clothing told a different story. Rudy’s broader build complemented the slighter frame of Trevor, his dark red hair worn almost militarily short and odds with Trevor’s wild black mop, as though the latter had just woken. Maybe the time shift would hit them later. Kieran remembered only too well his own jet lag experience the first time arriving in Singapore. Kieran warmed to see them, had really gotten on well with Trevor, had felt a bond between them both coming from humble origins. After greeting everyone, and cooing quietly over a sleeping Polly, they made their way back to one of the rattan sofas. “So how are you faring?” asked Kieran, as the guys settled in their seats. “Can we get you a drink?” asked Laurie, at the same time. “Funnily enough, Jeff just asked the same thing on the way here,” said Rudy. “How we feel. Hadn’t really though t about it.” “But we’re both great,” said Trevor. “If a little disorientated. And I’d love a drink. But I’m not sure if we’re ready for an early evening vodka and tonic—” “—or a morning mug of hot cappuccino,” finished Rudy. “In which case, how about I fix you both an Espresso Martini,” said Laurie. “Then you can have a taste of both.” “Done.” Over drinks, and while the last of the September sun bled from the cloudless sky, Trevor and Rudy brought them up to date with their lives. Although still managing the gym in the south, Rudy was spending more and more time helping to run his family business, Mortimer Whisky, while Trevor was now managing the books of a stable, profitable portfolio of clients. “Yes, we’re in a good place. Not sure we’re ready for kids just yet, but we’re definitely tying the knot next year,” said Rudy, reaching out to hold Trevor’s hand. “Where are you thinking of doing the deed? Scotland?” asked Kieran. “You know, we both want something small and non-traditional. Some place with sun and sand. We’re thinking maybe a simple commitment ceremony on a beach in this part of the world. Trevor favours Vietnam, maybe Halong Bay or Da Nang. I’d really love Bali.” Kieran exchanged a glance with Kennedy, almost certain the idea had popped into his head at the same time. Kennedy smiled and winked at Kieran before addressing the two men. “Guys, we still owe you so much for helping with our own ceremony at such short notice, so if it helps, I have a four bedroom villa in Bali which is yours whenever you want. And apart from the villa, there are plenty of other villas around, if you want to invite a number of guests to attend. There’s even a private cove linked to the villa where you could hold the ceremony. Just let me know the dates, so I can alert the staff.” “Seriously?” said Rudy, his eyes wide. Kennedy nodded, while Kieran laced his fingers into his husband’s free hand and squeezed. “And if you’re not sure about Da Nang, Halong Bay or Bali,” said Kieran. “How about doing them all? And how about adding Ho Chi Minh, Singapore and Semarang in Indonesia to the itinerary?” “Whoa. Our budget’s definitely not going to stretch to that,” said Trevor. “Bali will cost you nothing. It’ll be my wedding present to you both,” said Kennedy, grinning. “Driver pick up, villa with a pool, all food and drinks in the villa. All you’d need to do is get there and take a little spending money.” “There you are,” said Kieran. “Make Bali your last stop.” “Nice idea,” said Trevor, the accountant in him rising to the fore. “But it’s the cost of the flights to each of those other destinations and then hotel accommodation that’s the killer.” “Could you fly into Hong Kong and fly out of Bali?” asked Kennedy. Kieran smiled, knowing where Kennedy was going with his question. “I guess so.” “So what if you could still see all those other places without flying in or staying there,” said Kennedy, clearly on the same page as Kieran. “Sorry,” said Trevor. “I don’t understand.” “What my husband means is, have you considered a cruise?” said Kieran, smiling at Kennedy. “Because, let me tell you, we both highly recommend them.” “In fact,” said Kennedy, kissing Kieran on the cheek. “We might even join you.” THE END

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