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The Crook, The Brief, His Wife and Their Lover

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1: Wednesday morning, Southwark

If anyone'd asked Bob twenty-four hours ago how he'd be feeling right now, he'd have told 'em to fuck off and stop asking bloody stupid questions. Shitting himself, obviously, 'cause he's heard all the stories about prison and he honestly doesn't know if he can handle a five-stretch in an eight by ten. ("Five years is the likely sentence," Mrs Fisher'd assured him. "That's the average sentence for handling stolen goods above a certain value. I have to tell you, your record's going to count against you.") He might've expected a crippling hangover from the send-off party. Maybe he'd be sore from fucking some bird in the back room of a club. Maybe his sinuses would be raw and nasty from one too many lines of coke. Maybe he'd have the spins. Maybe he'd be puking, and he does feel sick even though he skipped breakfast, but that's nerves as much as anything. 'Cause it's twenty to eleven and the hearing was supposed to start at ten, and why the fuck are they letting him stew like this?

There's a big window looking out on the court room. Everyone's milling around like ants. If Bob leans forward and cranes his neck he can just about see the front row of the public gallery, where Mumbles and the lads are sitting. He can't see One Two, but the angle's all wrong: doesn't mean he's not there. The judge is scowling, which doesn't bode well. Mrs Fisher, in the chair next to Bob, is sighing and fidgeting and shuffling the papers in front of her. Bob wants to tell her to calm down: what the fuck's she got to worry about? She's not going to be put away for five fucking years.

His head doesn't hurt: well, it does, but that's 'cause he's trying to think about last night and not think about it at the same time. And yeah, okay, some other bits hurt too. Which is the thing he's thinking-not-thinking about. Fuck, he's sore: it's been a while since ...

Some bloke in a shiny suit knocks on the door and comes in: beckons Mrs Fisher over and murmurs something to her. Bob can't make out what he's saying, but he looks pissed off.

"Well, that's simply not --" begins Mrs Fisher, shoving her glasses up her nose and lifting her chin. Bob likes watching people (which is going to come in handy when he's locked up with a bunch of crooks and hard men): he reckons she's pretty cross about something. A new witness? He's had enough of this shit: he just wants it to be over with. He just wants to go somewhere quiet and ... think.

Somewhere quiet ain't going to happen, not for the foreseeable.

The bloke -- he's got one of those twitches, tics, that mean he wants something, a fag or a drink or a fix -- is talking over Mrs Fisher. "That, unfortunately, is the situation. In a minute you'll be called into court, and the judge will tell you that he's dismissing the case."

Bob's entire body does a kind of spastic thing, which isn't cool but there's only so many surprises a bloke can handle in twenty-four hours. "What?" he says, and maybe it comes out a bit more aggressive than he meant. "What d'you mean, dismissed?"

"Apparently the paperwork has been lost," says Mrs Fisher, glaring at Bob like she wants to lock him up personally and throw away the key. "I must say, this is typical of the courts: wasting everyone's time and money and ..."

Bob stops listening. He's off. He's free. Someone's sorted things: One Two? Archy? Doesn't matter who. It's been sorted. He's not going down. He can go back to the Spieler and ...

Well. Fuck. This is going to change everything.

2. Tuesday night, Mile End

"Come home wi' me," says Bob, and One Two wouldn't shouldn't mustn't, but fuck it, he wants to. It's the last time he'll be seeing Bob for five years (One Two doesn't do prison visits: when it was him inside, it always made him feel like shit when his friends dropped by) an' five years is plenty of water under the bridge, plenty of time for them both to forget whatever the fuck is happening tonight.

'Sides, Bob is seriously out of it. One Two would never take the piss out of a bloke who gets weepy when he's had a few -- well, he'd never take the piss out of Bob, cause Bob'd kick his arse -- but Bob's weaving around, can barely stand on his own two feet. Was standing on One Two's, come to think of it: was all over him like Elastoplast, and One Two has to say (except not out loud, not to anybody) that it was ... nice.

So Bob's not going to push it, not tonight: he got his slow dance (and yeah, One Two wasn't too comfy with the way those guys were looking at him, but he made an executive decision to let it go: Bob's last night, an' all) and he's pissed and mellow and One Two can probably get away with getting him home (he hasn't been knocking back the beers) and dumping him on his sofa and legging it.

Except that's not how it turns out, 'cause by the time he's manhandled Bob out of the Range Rover and up the stairs to his third-floor flat -- why the fuck can't he live somewhere that's got a lift? -- and into the lounge, Bob's wide awake and unnervingly clear-eyed. He toes the switch on the floor lamp, pulls One Two down beside him on the sofa (and say what you will about Bob, he's all muscle) and just slouches there, staring at him, licking his fucking lips.

"What?" says One Two. Bob's pupils are wide and dark, his eyes are this weird colour somewhere between blue and green and grey; he'd best find his razor before he shows up in court tomorrow morning, and ... his mouth, his fucking mouth. "I took you dancing, din't I?" says One Two, and tries to look at Bob's eyes and not at any other part of his face.

"Yeah," says Bob. "It was nice. Well, I liked it."

"You said that's what you wanted!"

"One thing at a time," says Bob. "I've got a list when it comes to you, One Two."

"Have you now," says One Two. His stomach feels knotty. "So. Ah." Fuck, Bob's put himself out there tonight, he really has. That's got to take guts. One Two swallows. "What else have you got on that list, then?"

"I want to blow you," says Bob. He's smiling -- not just his mouth, his whole fucking self is smiling -- and that snaggle-tooth of his catches on his lower lip.

One Two is not gay. End of story. But nobody on Earth is straight enough to turn down that mouth. Can't be done.

"You're pissed," he points out.

"Am not," says Bob. "Three beers."

"You were all …" One Two lets it go, because he doesn't feel like reminding Bob that Bob's spent the evening getting all floppy and mellow and sentimental.

"That's not the drink," says Bob, and he fucking pouts like a girl. Fuck, that mouth. "That's … I really want to blow you, One Two. That's what I want."

One Two has no fucking clue how to say "Yes, but ..." or "Yes, please," or even just "Yes."

Bob's a fucking mind-reader though. Bob's sliding off the sofa onto the rug, kneeling in front of One Two and looking up at him. He's got incredible eyelashes. His hands are sure on One Two's knees. One Two wonders, vaguely, how he missed Bob being queer.

'Cause oh fucking hell Bob has done this before. He's been practising. He's undoing One Two's zip with his teeth, which should be stupid, shouldn't be hot. He's -- when did One Two get this hard? He's hard enough to hurt: even harder when he sees Bob's mouth stretching, his lips paling, around One Two's cock. Bob's just staring up at him and One Two is positive the fucker would be laughing if his mouth weren't full.

"I'm not gay," says One Two through his teeth, trying not to come just at the feel of Bob's teeth, softly-softly, on him.

Bob rolls his eyes, and lifts one hand from One Two's thigh so he can point to himself.

"Right," says One Two, though the end of the word stretches and warps when he feels Bob's throat opening up for him. "You are. Silly me."

There is absolutely no point in pretending he's getting a blowjob from a girl. He can feel Bob's stubble against his pubes, feel the strength of Bob's grip on his thighs, feel those big capable hands holding him still, feel (oh fuck) something hard, Bob's cock, hard against his shin. Bob's moaning, and it's a disturbingly deep moan, not a breathy little gasp like his last girlfriend, what's her name, the one who went off with --

Bob does this thing with his throat that One Two is certain no woman ever managed, and that's it, it's over, he's coming right down Bob's throat: he's coming inside his best mate's mouth, inside, and he feels like he's been whacked with a two-by-four.

"Not gay," he says, when he can work out how to talk.

Bob's still kneeling there, between One Two's legs, grinning messily up at him. "It's okay, mate," he says. "It's just for tonight, eh?"

"Mmm," says One Two. He can't think with Bob right there.

"Just this one night," Bob's saying. He leans his cheek on One Two's knee, twisting his head so they're still staring at each other. "I'd wish I hadn't said anything: but fucking hell, One Two, you're ... you're fantastic, all right? An' if I'm going ... if I'm going to be locked up for ... at least I've got this to keep me going."

One Two does not actually want to think of Bob lying in a fucking uncomfortable bunk, wanking to the memory of what they just did. What he just did to One Two. And no way is he thinking about how it works in prison, what Bob'll end up doing to keep himself safe.

"So," he says. (His hand's in Bob's hair, rubbing it against the grain, it's softer than he expected and he can feel Bob's skull pushing up against his fingers.) "That list."

Bob blinks, and swallows (One Two is not going to think about what Bob can taste) and fuck, he's blushing.

"What?" demands One Two.

"I, er." Bob closes his eyes. His ears are red.


Bob's head moves, like he's shaking his head no. One Two tries again.

"Right," says One Two, because he can do this. "You told me what you wanted to do to me. Hell, you showed me!" He laughs. Bob doesn't. "So," One Two goes on, and it's like being at the dentist, bracing himself, "maybe, Bob, maybe you should tell me what you want me to do to you."

It feels really, really late. The soft light of the floor lamp is casting shadows over Bob's face, and he blinks again when his eyes slide open. He looks at One Two speculatively, and it isn't the same look as in the car earlier, but One Two can almost see Bob's brain trying and discarding different lines.

"I want you to fuck me," says Bob at last, and he holds One Two's gaze.

"Righto," says One Two, and wonders why he's not freaking out.

3. Wednesday evening, Islington

"Is that man one of your lowlifes, darling?" says Abby.

Stella takes her time answering, inhaling slowly and breathing out a delicate plume of smoke. Everything is under control. Bertie's parties are legendary, and it's Stella who makes them possible: her skills as hostess, organiser and wife are exemplary. She and Bertie, to be honest, make a good team. It's a shame that that's all there is to it.

She follows Abby's gaze and arrives, unexpectedly, at Bob, who's leaning against a wall flirting with Stella's ex-colleague Caroline. Handsome Bob, the boys call him, and Stella can see their point. He isn't really her type, for several reasons, but she can appreciate a good-looking man when she sees one.

"That's Bob," she tells Abby. "He's a friend of one of my clients."

Abby arches one overplucked eyebrow. "He could have made a bit more effort," she says. "Look at him!"

Stella shrugs. "I like to mix things up when we have people round. Though," she adds, stubbing her cigarette in the nearest ashtray, "I hadn't expected to see him here tonight."

"Do you mean he's a gatecrasher?" says Abby, with a thrilled little gasp.

"Of course not," snaps Stella. "Excuse me."

The party's livening up, and Stella has to dodge a barrister with a hunting-horn in pursuit of a half-dressed blonde (probably a call-girl rather than a secretary, judging by the lingerie) as she makes her way across the smoky room to the corner by the tapestry.

"Bob," she says brightly. "I'm so glad you could make it."

Bob smiles and shrugs. She makes him uncomfortable, which is never a bad thing.

"Actually," Stella continues, angling her body to cut Caroline out of the equation, "I wasn't expecting to see you here this evening. I thought you had a … previous engagement."

Bob looks down, and his mouth tightens. "They lost the paperwork," he mutters.

"That's ... unexpected," says Stella, though she's hardly surprised that the Wild Bunch have friends -- friends that they pay for -- in high places. "But I'm sure you're making the best of the situation."

"Course I am," says Bob. "It's what I do."

Stella has only met Bob in person once before tonight, and on that occasion he'd hung back, stayed in the car with his giggly girlfriend (sister?) while she and Mr Mumbles walked by the river, fine-tuning the details of some work she'd passed the Wild Bunch. She likes Mumbles, who's smarter than he lets on: she'd been happy to do business with him again. Bob had struck her as a nice boy, out of his depth in bad company and unlikely to be around for long.

Stella didn't get to where she is today -- rich, successful, sometimes happy -- by being afraid to admit when she's wrong.

Nor did she get this far, married to a lavender lawyer, without learning a few tells. And they're telling her -- Bob's whole body's telling her -- that whatever else Handsome Bob might be interested in, he has an eye for the boys. Which is ... interesting; and possibly useful.

She'd bet a considerable sum that Bertie'll find Bob interesting, too.

Over the music she can hear someone knocking on the door, and Paul greeting more guests. She can't make out what they're saying, but she'd recognise the accents anywhere. "Excuse me," she says to Bob, and nods to Caroline: Bob looks as though he's flexible when it comes to flirtation, and Caroline's quite entertaining when she's drunk.

One Two's brought along his friends, all right. Mumbles is there, with a slight, blond man and a greasy-looking character who's probably the dealer. Stella leans in a doorway and watches them sizing up, assessing, looking around. (Surely they're not stupid enough to actually steal anything. Not from her.) She nods at Mumbles, who's the only one to notice her. One Two's glance lands on Bob, who's laughing at something Caroline's said. One Two makes a beeline for Bob. He doesn't look happy.

"You'd better break it up," comes Mumbles' voice -- which is not a mumble at all -- in her ear. Stella starts: she hadn't noticed him slide up behind her. "Could be a bit of damage, the mood he's in."

"Oh, we can't have that, can we?" says Stella archly. "Has Bob done something to upset Mr One Two?"

"Fucked if I know," says Mumbles, and doesn't (thank God) apologise for swearing. "Something's upset him, and he weren't best pleased to see Bob show up when he should've been headed for the Scrubs."

"Really?" says Stella, wide-eyed. Her mind is presenting her with a series of facts and inferences. One Two's discomfort when she told him about Bertie. Bob's ... flexibility. Bob's supposed last night of freedom, and the kind of celebration that somebody like One Two would deem appropriate for the occasion. "Did something happen last night?" she asks, as guileless as she can get away with.

"Dunno," says Mumbles. "Bob din't show up at the bar, and nor did One Two."

"Shame," says Stella. One Two's growling and Bob's laughing at him. It's too early in the evening for a scene, and besides, Stella's rather fond of that lamp in the corner. She nods to Mumbles, catches Bob's eye and walks over to the two of them. "Evening, gentlemen! Help yourselves to drinks."

"Definitely," says Bob, looking shifty. Or perhaps he's eyeing the half-naked waiter with the champagne. One Two gesticulates at him, and then One Two's following obediently after Stella, and she hasn't had to say a word.

They end up dancing: well, she's dancing: she's not quite sure if that's the best word for what One Two's doing. The music's good cover for their conversation, and Bob's conspicuous by his absence. So's her husband, though he's probably turning up the charm for one of his young men.

One Two tells her he's going to find a drink. He doesn't offer to fetch one for Stella, so she heads for the kitchen, keeping half an eye on One Two in case he misbehaves. Mumbles is hard to miss, and Stella's fairly sure One Two's bringing him up to date on what they've just discussed. But One Two's distracted, and once Stella's moved a little closer she's not surprised, because the young man flirting with her husband Bertie, the man sitting on the back of the settee as if he owns the place, is Bob, and by the breathless look on Bertie's face he's ten seconds away from engaging in the kind of behaviour that'll permanently stain the leather settee.

"Fresh air," growls One Two, shoving past Stella.

"Where'd he go?" demands Bob, just as the front door slams shut.

Stella turns one of her slowest and most infuriating smiles on him. "I think Mr One Two was getting a little ... overheated," she purrs; and she almost loses her own cool when Bob laughs out loud.

4. Friday afternoon, Hackney

Fuckin' Bob. Fuckin' Handsome Fag Bob and his mouth and his hands and the way he fuckin' growled down the phone when he was chatting up his poncy lawyer boyfriend. And the way he'd as good as outed One Two to Mumbles -- and okay, Mumbles knew (and never fuckin' said) that Bob was a poof, but did Bob have to invite himself back to bed in front of the guy?

Sausage and beans all day, indeed.

That growl was not sexy. It was not. And Bob might be his best mate (though that's all up in the air right now, 'cause One Two really doesn't know if he can cope with seeing Bob every fucking day, working with Bob, turning his back on Bob) but One Two is still having a bit of difficulty getting his head round the fact that Bob, Handsome Bob who's got girls hanging round him like parapazzi at a premiere, who's nicked more than one bird off One Two himself, is a poof. A queer. A cocksucking --

'Cocksucking' is not a good thought to be having, because it makes One Two wonder what would've happened if he'd said yes to Bob when Bob asked if he could come back. Not that One Two'd have said that in front of Mumbles. Mumbles knowing about the dancing is one thing: Mumbles knowing that Bob's going home with One Two is something else.

Fuck, Bob's mouth.

Every inch of One Two's body aches. He's fit, okay? He works out. But running halfway across London with a pair of psycho Russian war criminals after him isn't his idea of fun. (Not to mention the fucking machine guns. One Two doesn't like guns. Doesn't want to be a killer.) He's shattered, completely wiped. And now his fuckin' cock is aching too, because he's remembering Bob the other night with his mouth on One Two's balls, and Bob this morning beating the shit out of that Russian bloke with a fuckin' golf club, and it should feel weird that that's the same bloke, but it doesn't 'cause it's Bob. There's something scary hot about Bob, and he may be a flamer but he's all man. Oh Christ yes.

One Two is not going to think about Bob going on a fuckin' date with that lawyer. He's just going to take himself off to bed, as promised: and if he's planning a detailed re-examination of how it felt to fuck Bob up the arse -- just like doing a girl that way except nothing at all like it with the noises Bob was making and the way his muscles tensed and rippled and the sheer fuckin' strength of him pushing back tight and hot -- then nobody's going to know, right? It's just him, and he's --

That train of thought gets mercifully derailed when One Two notices something in his flat, right there in his sitting room, that wasn't there before. It's an oil painting, it's stuck on a bloody easel, and it absolutely doesn't belong. There's a note stuck to the frame.

Let myself in. Thought your lady might like the painting. Love, Cookie.

Lady? thinks One Two. What?

The intercom buzzes: and five minutes later he's out and up and in, flat on his back on the couch with Stella gasping and moaning and hiccupping above him, wet and warm and totally not Bob, not a bloke, and frankly it's a huge fucking relief that he comes as quickly as he does because it means that what he did with Bob hasn't broken him, hasn't turned him gay.

Thing is, they've got nothing to say to one another afterwards. They tidy themselves up, and Stella lights a cigarette. (One Two's going to have to find her an ashtray: he chucked them all out when Bob quit.) He likes watching Stella smoke. There's something about a smoker's mouth, the way it rounds and opens, the way it worships the fa-- the cigarette. Wonder if that's why fags are called fags, thinks One Two.

Maybe he should tell Stella that Bob's got a date with her husband. Likely she already knows: there isn't a lot gets past this one. She probably even knows the sort of thing that queers get up to on a date, all that kinky shit, leather and handcuffs and ladies' underwear. One Two accidentally watched some gay porn once: just a few minutes, 'til he realised what he was looking at and headed back down to the video shop to give them a piece of his mind.

Can't imagine Bob doing that. Can't imagine Bob getting frisky with some random stranger in a pervy club, just for a quick fuck. (One Two glances at Stella. She looks calm. Bored, even. He should probably get her talking.) One thing about Bob the other night, he was really into it. Into One Two -- well, vice versa and very much vice -- into whatever One Two was ready to give. Didn't just want his body, wanted him.

If One Two was a praying man, he'd offer up a prayer of thanks when his phone rings. It's Mumbles (and Bob), and they're on their way over. Thank Christ that Stella's out of the door like a greyhound with that painting. One Two really, really wouldn't want to see the look in Bob's eyes when Bob walked in on the two of them.

Not that it matters what Bob thinks. But still.

5. Friday evening, Islington

Uri Omovich is the epitome of the Russian oligarch. He's rich, intelligent and charming. He's extremely good at what he does. He moves in all the right circles. And he has made no secret of his admiration for Stella, though she has made it clear that their relationship is strictly professional.

Now he's gone and fucked it all up.

And the fact that Stella's even thinking those words, those exact words in a voice she left behind when she left home, is a bad sign. One that she cannot afford to let show.

"Well ..." she temporises. "I think I might need a couple of days." The lapel of his jacket is smooth and luxurious under his hands. His skin will be smooth, too. And the heat in his eyes as he watches her fingers trail over the cloth is ... flattering. "Just to think about it," says Stella.

He's going to kiss her now, she's positive, and there's something dirty and hot about the expectation of being kissed by two men in one afternoon. Will Uri be able to taste One Two on her? She showered when she came in, but she can still feel a pleasant ache, a sticky wetness, from her visit to Hackney.

Uri's phone rings, and he detaches himself gently from her hand. The phone call's a respite, and it gives her time to think: she doesn't need a couple of days, just a few seconds. Uri pulls his phone out of his pocket. "Not now, Viktor," he's saying. "I'm busy."

She's a married woman, after all. She's quite fond of Bertie, who ticks all the boxes, rich and charming and successful and intelligent, but then there's that other checkbox for 'attracted to women', which would certainly be a bonus. They do make a good team. And he doesn't mind when she takes a lover. One Two isn't rich, or intelligent: she'll admit he has charm, but frankly that (and his body, which is pleasingly muscular and strong) is all he has going for him. One Two is never going to wreck things with 'a reflection of my appreciation'. Though he did give her that painting.

Uri's staring at the painting now, though he doesn't seem to have finished his call. (Viktor, he said. That's his hired thug, if Stella recalls correctly, which she does. Viktor was the dark-haired man who stared at her on the boat as though he could see through her skin to all her secrets.) Uri's fascinated by the painting: but then he does have exquisite taste.

"A very nice painting," he says, not looking away from it. His voice sounds odd: a touch of hayfever, perhaps. "How long have you had it?"

"Years," says Stella. The lie's an instinctive reaction to Uri's stillness. "Do you like it?"

"Beauty's a cruel mistress, is it not?" says Uri hoarsely; which is not a reply at all, and which sends a shiver of something (not sex, the opposite of sex) down Stella's spine. Uri's speaking into his phone now, asking Viktor to join them, and Stella has a very bad feeling about this. She isn't prone to panic, and she's talked her way out of some difficult situations before: but things are different in Russia, and she's missed something important here. She wishes Bertie would let her keep a gun in the house. Just in case.

There's the sound of a key in the door, and Stella starts violently. But Viktor wouldn't have --

"Home already?" says Bertie cheerfully, dumping his briefcase by the mirror. "Computers are down: I thought I'd head off early. Sorry, am I interrupting something?"

Stella takes a second to swallow an unpleasant cocktail of emotion: fear, relief, and the unfamiliar sensation of being pleased to see her husband. "Not at all," she says smoothly, remembering the jeweller's box in her hand and setting it down on the side-table as though it were unimportant. "You remember Mr Omovich, don't you, Bertie? He just called to ... to collect this painting."

Uri is a professional too. There is no sign of rage in his polished civility. He shakes Bertie's hand, and if his smile is somewhat fixed it might simply be surprise.

Bertie, for a change, doesn't flirt with Uri. "That's new," he says, walking closer to the easel and examining the picture with a practiced eye. "Where did you find that, eh? If it's a forgery, it's an awfully good one."

"It's not a forgery," says Stella tightly. There's a muted knock on the door, and she and Uri glance at one another (one beat, assessing, conceding) before she moves to open it.

"Viktor," she says. He's wearing gloves, though it's a hot August afternoon. Stella's stomach roils.

"Viktor," says Uri, unsmiling. "Would you carry the painting to the car, please? Mr Baxter, Mrs Baxter. A pleasure, as always, to do business with you."

His eyes are like ice, and his lips are cold when they brush the back of Stella's hand.

"Goodbye, Mr Omovich," Stella says, and she's proud of the steadiness in her voice.

Bertie looks rather wistfully after Uri as the door closes. "Are you positive he's not --"

"Bertie," says Stella. She's blinking back sudden tears: she's cold, so cold, and she wraps her arms around herself. "Bertie, I --"


Stella has never been so grateful to have a husband who will simply hold her, and mean nothing by it. Who'll wait for her to tell him about the things that matter, and trusts that she will.

6. Saturday night, Mile End

Bob's bored, and he hates it.

It's Saturday night. He's had a lie-in, had a bath, done a Tesco run, phoned his mum ("They lost the paperwork -- no, honest, they did! Case closed, anyway, and you know I didn't -- look, it was a set-up, okay? Would I lie to you? Mum ...") He's been to the gym, read the paper, done the laundry, cooked himself an ace spaghetti bolognese.

It's only half past seven and he's bored. And he hates being bored, despises it, despises himself.

Any other Saturday night, he'd probably give One Two a call and they'd meet up in One Two's local ('cause Bob's local, the Crown, is full of pensioners and stinks of stale smoke) or maybe go for a curry or hit the West End and flash some cash. Or, if they're skint, they'd end up on Bob's sofa watching Match of the Day and drinking supermarket lager.

Everything's changed. (And Bob's dead certain that One Two will never willingly sit on this sofa again. Not after the things they did on it -- right here where Bob's sitting, and he wants there to be some sign of it but there's not; he's checked -- when they got back from Gents' Night at the Negra Leono.) Maybe One Two just needs a bit of time to get over himself. Yeah, and pigs'll fly.

Fuck it. Bob cracks open another can of Stella (fucking hell is there no escape from that woman?) and glares at some fucking dance show. Saturday night TV used to be better than this.

He wishes he still smoked, though yesterday's runaround would've been harder work. Anyway, he likes being in control, likes not being an addict any more. (And if he had been sent down, he'd've been trading blowjobs for fags in the nick. So that's one less problem.)

And yeah, he's glad he's alive, glad they all made it through yesterday (apart from Lenny Cole, but Lenny was a fuckin' grass and deserved everything he got, and he can't've been that smart if he crossed Archy. Bob is never ever going to get on the wrong side of Archy, 'specially not after yesterday night). He's glad he's alive, all right, but he'd be even gladder if One Two hadn't just given him a furious filthy look (like it was Bob who'd got caught with his pants down, first with the Russians and then with Archy himself) and stalked off without a word.

He'd be even gladder if One Two'd left a mark on him the other night, left him sorer. It wasn't what you'd call gentle, but it could've been more … more ...

"Fucker," says Bob out loud, and winces at the sulky whine of his own voice over the bright and zingy sound of the TV. The studio audience applauds, and Bob nearly chucks the empty beer can at the plasma screen. Luckily he's not that drunk. Not yet.

And fucking Mumbles had looked at him like ... what was that look? Sympathy? Amusement? There's nothing that man doesn't pick up on.

One Two didn't want it, what he did with Bob: he only did it 'cause he thought Bob'd forget about it, 'cause five years is a long time. (It's got to be five years since Bob started thinking about One Two in that way. Five years is indeed a fucking long time.) One Two only did it 'cause he likes, liked, Bob and wanted to do him a favour. One Two only did it 'cause he was pissed.

(He wasn't pissed. He wasn't drinking, Bob reminds himself. Drove home in the Rover, afterwards, wouldn't stay. It was already getting light.)

But fuck, maybe it's worse to have loved and lost -- "Fucked and lost," says Bob bitterly to the studio audience, who cheer -- 'cause instead of what he thought the next five years was going to be, which was wanking off to the memory of One Two ... instead, Bob's got to face him day after day after fucking day, got to try to pretend nothing's really changed -- got to pretend that hard enough for both of them. He's going to have to wait for One Two to be able to look at him without scowling or flinching, for One Two to forget about being so bloody scared that Bob's going to tell someone. Anyone. (Who'd give a shit?)

So One Two can't stop thinking about his Big Gay Night Out. Fine. Bob can't stop thinking about how One Two tasted, how his cock (which is pretty fucking impressive) felt on Bob's tongue, how that cock felt shoving up his arse, something he doesn't usually let anyone do, how when One Two was losing it he'd been swearing against Bob's neck and it felt a lot like kissing, how he put his hand on Bob's cock and Bob went off like a teenager and One Two laughed, but with him not at him ...

Right. Fine. Bob mutes the TV (because Arlene Philips' chirpy voice is really not going to help here) and palms himself through his jeans. It's not like he ever had a problem imagining One Two, but now he's taken the real thing for a spin he's just going to have to imagine it all over again.

Bob's not going to forget a single moment of it.

Right here, he dropped to his knees in front of One Two and looked up at him. Right here, he was humping One Two's leg and blowing him, and the noises One Two was making ...

Right here -- and he twists round and kneels on the rug, his back to the silent TV, and drops his head on the cushion and closes his eyes and wanks himself hard and fast.

7. Monday evening, Islington

On the way back to Islington, Bob sits next to Bertie and chats with the cabbie -- football, weekend television, the latest sex scandal -- as though he's not driving Bertie completely out of his mind just by being there.

Bertie had been rather disappointed when Bob had turned up for their date: good shoes, designer jeans, a Charles Tyrwhitt shirt in a provocative shade of pink. Still, he wasn't entirely cleaned up: he hadn't shaved, and Bertie'd distracted himself more than once by thinking about the rasp of stubble against his own skin.

"Where's the wife?" Bob murmurs as the cabbie's radio crackles to life.

"Out with the girls," Bertie tells him. He lets his gaze linger on Bob's mouth for a moment. "She won't be back tonight."

Bob's smile is sharp and dangerous. Bertie's hard already.

Bertie tips the cabbie more than he usually would, because he doesn't want to quibble about change with Bob watching. He can feel the tension in Bob, tightly coiled and full of potential, and Bertie is more excited about this than he's been for ages.

"D'you still sleep with her? Your wife?" says Bob, leaning in close as Bertie slams the front door behind them both.

"Do you mean 'sleep'?" enquires Bertie archly. "Or do you mean 'have sex with'?"

Bob growls (there's a glint of laughter in his eyes) and tilts his head back 'til he's looking Bertie in the eye. "D'you sound like that in court?" he says. "Might've been a bit more interesting if you'd been the prosecution."

"Are we roleplaying?" says Bertie, amused.

Bob crowds him back towards the door. He's not a big man -- Bertie's half a head taller -- and he's not overly muscled, though he clearly works out. But there's something deliciously menacing about him, a forcefulness that makes Bertie want to resist just to be overpowered.

"Your wife," says Bob, and he's very clear, very careful. ("You can sound quite posh when you want, can't you? When you're not with your friends," Bertie'd said earlier, over their second drink. "I'm a chameleon, aren't I?" Bob'd retorted, all Received Pronunciation and Home Counties drawl; then, in quite a different voice, "Why, d'you fancy a bit o' rough?" Bertie hadn't answered, just pulled out his phone and ordered a cab.) "Stella," says Bob, drawing out the vowel. "D'you fuck her?"

"Of course not," says Bertie, slightly annoyed and considerably aroused. He can't resist adding, "But your friend Mr One Two does."

He congratulates himself on his excellent instincts as Bob shoves him back against the wall, right next to the cheval mirror, and oh God, kisses him.

A lot of Bertie's liaisons won't kiss, not above the waist. Bob kisses in the same way he does everything: arrogant, cocky (just thinking that word sends another hard pulse through Bertie's body), entitled. He bites Bertie's lip, which is going to be sore tomorrow in court; he pushes his tongue inside Bertie's mouth, in and out, like a promise; his left hand's pinning Bertie's shoulder, his right hand's on Bertie's nape, forcing him forward into a kiss that Bertie has absolutely no intention of evading.

Bob pulls back before Bertie's ready to let him go. His mouth is red and swollen in the dim orange glow that's slanting in through the fanlight. His eyes are glittering. Bertie mentally gauges distances: the sitting-room, the stairs, the spare bedroom, the study with his ergonomic leather chair.

Bob's hands are at the buttons of his own jeans, quick and deft. (He's a thief, remembers Bertie.) He holds Bertie's gaze, steady and steely and just slightly amused, as he frees his dick. Bertie doesn't have to think twice, let alone be told. He drops to his knees, there on the parquet floor, and presses his mouth against Bob's groin.

If he could talk he'd be taunting Bob about One Two and Stella, making him angry, making him rougher. He can't talk, can barely breathe, but Bob's on the same page and he's fucking Bertie's mouth, not saying anything; there's a high-pitched, almost indignant noise coming from him, and when Bertie looks up Bob's biting his own lip (Bertie has to touch himself, has to) and he looks as though he's in pain.

Bob lasts longer than Bertie would have, but he comes down Bertie's throat (and Bertie belatedly thinks of the condoms in his wallet: he's been unforgivably lax) with a groan, a two-syllable groan that Bertie is going to pretend was his name. Bertie's still hard, aching with it. He's surprised when Bob hauls him to his feet and kisses him again, slow and inexorable, his hands holding Bertie still and preventing him from simply grinding against Bob's waist.

"I could be anybody, couldn't I?" murmurs Bob against his ear. "I bet you do this all the time."

Bertie shakes his head frantically. (It's been a month at least.)

"How often do you let them fuck you?" Bob goes on, his voice husky and emphatic, and Bertie has to bite back something very like a whimper. "'Cause that's what I'm going to do next."

"Is it, now?" manages Bertie, and he's amazed by his own aplomb.

"Yeah," says Bob, drawing back and grinning at Bertie, all sharp and dangerous. Bertie clenches his teeth (and some other parts of himself) and thinks very hard about the Expert Evidence report, about the tubercular busker at Holborn station, about Stella dancing at the party last week.

"Maybe we should go upstairs," suggests Bertie.

"Why's that, then?"

"There's a bed. Condoms." Then, as Bob raises an eyebrow, "Lubricant."

"So you do do this often," says Bob, letting Bertie take his hand and lead him towards the stairs. Bob's voice is smooth and cultured again, and his big broad hand wraps around Bertie's in a way that Bertie is aching to feel on his dick.

"Not really," lies Bertie.

"Fuck off," says Bob amiably, letting Bertie shoulder open the door of the spare room and pull him in. "I know your sort."

"And I know yours," says Bertie, letting his hands drift down to Bob's buttocks. Bob lets him do it; returns the favour, pulling Bertie hard against him, and Bertie can feel that Bob's getting hard again already.

"Is that for me?" he says.

"Undress," snaps Bob, and Bertie, thrilled, obeys.

8. Tuesday afternoon, Islington

It's a nice house: Bob's not seen it in daylight before. Nice area, too. He doesn't look too out of place, he reckons, in his posh jeans (liberated by the junkies and his for the very reasonable sum of fifty quid) and clean T-shirt. He rings the doorbell, leans on it until the door opens.

Stella looks annoyed at first; then she looks surprised.

"Sorry to bother you," says Bob, "but I think I left something here last night." Actually, this is a lie. He definitely left something here last night, 'cause he wanted an excuse to pay a visit on Stella.

Ta-da! The look on her face is classic, but it only lasts for a moment before she smooths it away. "I don't bother clearing up my husband's messes," she retorts. "You'll have to come in."

"Cheers," says Bob, and takes his time sauntering into the hallway, checking out the decor (nothing to see down here), letting his eyes flick to the full-length mirror, the spot on the floor where Bertie'd knelt, the staircase.

"So, Bob," says Stella, lighting a cigarette. "Did you actually come back to claim something you left behind?" She breathes out a plume of smoke. "Or are you here to tell me the shocking truth about my husband?"

"Bit o' both, really," says Bob, grinning. He likes Stella, despite everything. She's sharp. "Though I reckon you're hard to shock."

"Try me," invites Stella, turning towards the lounge and glancing back over her shoulder, inviting him to follow.

"D'you have sex?" asks Bob, because he wants to know if (and if so, how well) Bertie was lying. "With him?"

"With my husband?" Stella laughs, and it's not entirely false. "Good heavens, no." She sits down at one end of the leather-covered couch, legs elegantly crossed at the ankles. Bob can see her mind ticking over. "When I have sex, it's with men who like women."

"I like women," offers Bob.

Stella snorts smoke.

"I do," says Bob, indignant. It's the truth, after all. "I like ..." He lets his gaze run over her, and it's hardly a hardship: she's fucking stunning, and she knows it. Nice little cream dress, high heels (he loves the way good shoes lengthen and tauten a girl's legs), nice tits. "... women's bodies," he finishes, once he's looking back at her eyes.

"And yet you fuck men," says Stella.

Bob shrugs. He likes the way she says 'fuck', too.

"You fucked my husband," says Stella. "And you want to fuck your best friend."

Now that is out of order. Bob can feel himself flushing. (He can also feel a shiver of lust, just at the thought of it.) "What?" he says. "What the fuck do you think --"

"I like watching people," says Stella calmly, stubbing out her cigarette. "I've watched you watching him."

"He's not gay," says Bob. It sounds lame.

"Oh, I know," says Stella, with a sly smile.

Bob says nothing. It's not like he doesn't know that she screwed One Two. He hopes it was crap, though he's pretty sure it wasn't. Just One Two reminding himself of what he really wants. Which isn't Bob.

"Do you want to know what we did?" says Stella, and her smile now is purely wicked.

"Why don't you show me?" says Bob before he can think better of it.

"You know where the bedroom is," says Stella. "Why don't you go and get comfortable? I'll be up in a minute."

There are about a million things that could go wrong here, including but not limited to One Two showing up; Bertie coming home; Russians with guns breaking the door down; Stella calling the coppers; Archy popping round to borrow a cup of sugar. Bob, climbing the stairs, is honestly surprised to discover that erectile dysfunction is not something he needs to worry about.

The spare bedroom's full of sunshine, dazzling on the silvery stripes of wallpaper and brocade bedspread. Bob's watch is still on the nightstand where he accidentally-on-purpose left it, and the pale blue sheets are still rumpled and sticky from last night. Fuck. Bob has to laugh as he toes off his trainers and strips out of his T-shirt.

"What's the joke?" comes Stella's voice from behind him.

"All this," says Bob, liking the way she watches as he slowly unbuttons his jeans. "You an' One Two. Me an' Bertie. Now you an' me."

"What about you and One Two?" asks Stella, unfastening her necklace. Oh, she's sharp, this one.

"We went dancing," retorts Bob. "Did he tell you that?"

Stella looks politely disbelieving. "He didn't. But then, he's not a very good dancer, is he?"

"Good enough for me," says Bob. He's just in his briefs now, and he cups himself in one hand, watching as she slithers out of that dress. Nice lingerie, too. He wants to tell her about what happened after the dancing. Wants to tell someone. But One Two would actually kill him if he ever heard: and Stella isn't one to keep a secret if she can use it.

She's hot and supple and enthusiastic, and no matter what Bob thinks about One Two -- no matter what he thinks about fucking Bertie, hard and fast, right here last night -- he does love fucking women too. It's so easy. Besides, One Two was here: One Two's cock was right here, inside Stella, where Bob's thrusting slow and steady because he'd really like to see her fall apart for him.

"Is this ... what you did with him?" he asks her, once he's got her writhing above him.

"It was ... ouch! ... a bit faster," says Stella. Her left nipple's hard and swollen where he bit, and she evens the score by leaning down and nipping at Bob's jawline.

"Speed isn't everything," says Bob, and slows it right down, achingly slow, sliding into her millimetre by millimetre, flexing his fingers on her smooth thighs. "I'd rather make it last." Thinking, One Two just went for it, like I did last night with Bertie. Fuck'n'run.

"You're thinking about him, aren't you?"

"That makes two of us," says Bob, holding perfectly still so that Stella can screw herself down on his cock.

"One Two," murmurs Stella, slow and husky. "Is that because he can't count to three?"

If she's saying what Bob thinks she's saying ... He arches up into her, faster now, thinking about it: One Two and Stella, and him between them. He's never had a threesome with a bird and a bloke (two birds, tick; two blokes, tick) and, and --

"Just think of it," says Stella. "Your cock," her voice hitches on the word, "inside me, and his cock in --"

"Fuck," shouts Bob, and comes.

9. Tuesday night, Hackney

Big Brother is full of wankers and it hurts to watch it, but One Two hasn't got anything better to do. The rest of the so-called Wild Bunch are AWOL, Mumbles off to his sister's to sort out her laptop, Bob ... well, who knows where the fuck Bob's got to. Probably in bed with his sugar-daddy criminal-lawyer boyfriend, being a filthy dirty pervert and loving it. Bastard.

One Two puts the kettle on, mutes the telly -- really, it's painful listening to those middle-class twats whining on about each other -- and turns on the stereo. It's the 22-20s still, and he can't be arsed to find anything else. Should put on the headphones but fuck the neighbours: he turns up the volume and lets the music match his mood.

You're a fool to play things cool when you've got everything to lose ...

Stella's expecting to go dancing this week. Salsa, fucking salsa. One Two can't tell a lie: he loves to dance, though he isn't a patch on his old man. (Slow dances don't count.) He'd better give her a call. Tomorrow, maybe: it's getting on for midnight, and she's probably catching up on her beauty sleep. Yeah, right.

You shoot them down when they're too close, and you've lost another friend.

This is too fucking close to the bone, right now. He stabs the power button viciously, but the noise doesn't stop. It takes him a moment to register that it's someone buzzing the door.

"D'you know what fuckin' time it is?" snarls One Two into the intercom.

"It's me, mate. Bob. Let me in?"

Fucking Bob. Fucking hell.

One Two buzzes him in, and meets him at the door. "What the fuck do you want?" he says. "Boyfriend kicked you out already?"

Bob looks ... defeated. He rubs the back of his neck, stares at the floor: then visibly gets it together, and looks back up at One Two. "I wanted to see you," he says, simple as that. "I wanted to ... to talk."

"'I want' doesn't get," says One Two, viciously mimicking his mum's favourite adage. He can smell something, and it's not Bob's usual Lynx deodorant. He sniffs. "Bob, I know you're a poof, but do you have to wear fucking perfume?"

Bob flushes. "Stella," he says.

"What? What the fuck has Stella got to do with anything?" demands One Two.

"It's Stella's perfume, all right? I was with Stella."

"What d'you mean, you were with Stella. With, with?" One Two is honestly confused by this. He's only just got his head round Bob being gay, for fuck's sake.

Bob smirks. "I like girls too," he says. "C'mon, mate, you've met all my girlfriends."

"Yeah, and I knew a couple of them before you did," says One Two: then his thoughts catch up with him and he grabs Bob's arm and says, "Are you serious? Did you fuck them 'cause I had? Did you fuck Stella 'cause --"

Bob wrenches his arm free and glares. "I fucked Stella because -- never mind." He sighs. "Look, can I sit down? Are you going to let me in?"

One Two is not sure he wants Bob in his flat, where it's up to Bob to leave, where One Two doesn't have any memories of Bob and him doing anything. But it's Bob. "Come and have a cup of tea," he says. "Kettle's just boiled."

"You're turning into your mum," says Bob, grinning.

There's several things One Two would like to say to that (did you fancy me way back then? is that why you looked after my mum while I was inside? what did she tell you about me? did she know you're queer? how come everyone knew but me?) but he bites them all back. "Two sugars?" he says instead.

Then Bob's slouched on the couch, just like he's been a hundred times before except not the same at all.

"Stella's a wild one all right," says Bob, lifting his mug in a toast. "Fancies a threesome, she does."

"She what?" says One Two blankly. It's okay to sound blank when your mind's been derailed. It's like Bob's just tossed him a grenade or something. "You an' that husband o' --"

"You, and her, and me," says Bob, and he makes it sound like he's counting: one, two, three. He puts his tea down on the table, and One Two tenses: but Bob's not even looking at him. He's staring at the silent telly. It's the Olympics. "You know what I want," he says softly. "An' I know you don't want it. But I think we could find something that works even if it means Stella as well. 'Cause One Two, you're my best mate, an' I don't want to fuck that up. An' I miss you."

"I'm right here, you idiot," says One Two, wilfully ignorant.

"I know," says Bob. "And you're the idiot if you don't know what I mean."

"Fair enough," says One Two. He takes a sip of his tea, to buy himself some thinking time. "Thing is, Bob," he says at last, slowly, "I don't know what I want. I know what you want. You told me. You showed me." He tries a laugh, but just ends up with tea down his shirt. "An' it wasn't all bad."

"It was fucking fantastic," says Bob, and it's practically a whisper, like he doesn't want One Two to hear.

"I'd rather spend time with you than her," blurts out One Two, and really, can he not learn to think before he says anything stupid?

"Thanks," says Bob. He's still staring at the screen.

"An' I missed you too, you daft wanker," says One Two.

Bob turns and smiles at him, and it's a bit of a crap smile to be honest, all shy and hesitant, which isn't Bob at all. This is the bloke who, this time last week (and okay, it's been a hell of a week) had the balls to tell One Two exactly what he wanted. The bloke who beat the shit out of that Russian with a golf club. The bloke who growled down the phone at …

One hell of a week.

"I wouldn't do anything you didn't want," says Bob, picking at his fingernails.

Too right you fucking wouldn't, thinks One Two. "I told you, Bob: I don't know what I want." He puts his mug down next to Bob's, and if that means he's sitting a bit closer, well. They're mates.

"I've got a few ideas," says Bob, and the fucker is grinning. "Things we could try."

"I'll bet you have," says One Two. "And let's get one thing straight, Bob -- straight, hah, that's a fucking good one -- you are not fucking me."

"Yeah, right," says Bob. He's laughing. "Okay."

"You --" He could cheerfully throttle Bob for taking the piss. Or, it turns out, he could cheerfully pin him down on the couch and give him a clip round the ear.

Bob's staring up at him, all wide-eyed and scruffy and too close for comfort. One Two's got his hands on Bob's shoulders, his knee is grinding into Bob's thigh and it has to hurt -- he's no lightweight -- but Bob looks as happy as a pig in shit.

"Can I kiss you?" asks Bob, and his voice is doing that thing where he sounds posh. One Two will not admit that this is a turn-on.

"We didn't. Before."

Bob says nothing, just keeps on staring like he wants to …like he wants.

One Two is damned if Bob's going to keep getting his own way.

He does the kissing: he leans down and kisses Handsome Bob, his best mate, his queer best mate, whose mouth is just as hot against One Two's own as it was against his cock, who makes this amazing noise like One Two's doing a fuck of a lot more than just kissing, who's probably (okay, oh fuck, definitely) getting hard just from being kissed, and who's kissing him back.

"What about your boyfriend, what's his name, Bertie?" manages One Two after a bit, propping himself against the back of the couch and staring down at bloody Bob.

"Fuck Bertie," drawls Bob, red-faced and smug.

"Did you?" demands One Two, pressing him farther back into the cushions.

"Why?" says Bob. "You jealous?"

"Yes," says One Two, because maybe Bob's honesty is catching or something. "Yes I am."

"I don't want him," says Bob, shoving One Two back and taking a deep breath. "I don't want them. I want you, One Two. Any way you'll have me."

"I'm not fucking gay," says One Two: and Bob rolls his eyes and grabs the back of One Two's neck and kisses him again.