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When It All Comes Tumbling Down

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CHAPTER ONE

If heaven was a place on Earth then this was it. A dingy staircase, in a dingy converted Victorian end-terrace, in a dingy part of London following the rounded, denim encased backside of a stranger as he struggled up the stairs with a cardboard box in his arms and a bulging army kit bag thrown over his shoulder.

Now don’t get me wrong. God knows I’m not a shallow man but it had been a long, long time since Little Ray had had any excitement not provided by my own right hand, and that well-muscled backside swaying along right at my eye level was, unfortunately, pushing all of my buttons. Besides, there was no harm in looking, right?

The harder I tried not to, the more I could imagine the sensation of the strangers cock pushing persistently inside me, stretching me deliciously, his buttocks flexing as he surged forward, his balls coming to rest hot and full against...

"Hey Dad! Dad? Did you hear me?"

Toby’s indignation jerked me out of my inappropriate little fantasy and as stealthily as I could I shifted the carrier bag of groceries in my arms to hide my obvious erection. Not a moment too soon, as it happens. The owner of the Bum of the Year 1976 turned around and looked me straight in the eye. There was no way he could have seen what I’d done but I swear the smirk on his face said he knew all. And what a face he had! Shadowed by at least a day’s worth of dark stubble, his strong features were accented by arresting blue eyes in a shade I’d never before seen.

I forced myself to listen to Toby’s whining. "Dad, I said we’re going to miss the Top 40. You promised we could listen to it this week." Speaking like a typical nine year old Toby conveniently ignored the fact that it wasn’t me slowing us down. But of course it was entirely my fault. That was just the way of Toby’s world.

"Alright, alright, keep your shirt on." I muttered, returning the man’s steady gaze. Toby was oblivious to anything but his own need to get home and put the radio on, and was already pushing past the stranger and his belongings.

I felt obliged to offer an apology. "I’m sorry. He’s not usually so rude."

"Ah, the impatience of youth!" Even his voice was sexy. Unexpectedly his expression changed and the smirk turned into a full-blown and more genuine smile. "Are you my new neighbour?"

Thrown by the switch in topics, I struggled to regain my normal ability to speak to strangers. "I am if you’re moving into 36C. Name’s Ray Doyle. Toby and I live upstairs in 'D'."

Balancing the box precariously on his left forearm, he shoved his right hand out for me to shake. "William Phillips."

I released the strong grasp and once again juggled the bag in my arms, smiling at my new neighbour. "Welcome to Tredegar Square. It’s a bit rough and ready round ‘ere but the tenants are mostly a decent bunch."

William Phillips himself looked a bit rough and ready. His clothes were shabby: the jeans had worn through at the knees, and the once black t-shirt was faded to grey, stained and looking as if it had shrunk in the wash as it strained across his well-developed biceps.

Smile still in place, his answer was cryptic. "I’ve been in worse places."

I raised an eyebrow in question but he didn’t elaborate.

"Want to get past me?" He asked, standing sideways and breathing in. "Catch up with your son?"

I nodded my head towards his kit bag and box and grinned. "I think I’d better stay here and catch you when you overbalance and fall backwards."

"Never happen, sunshine. I’ve got the reflexes of a cat." And with that he turned around and started back up the stairs, leaving me to enter my backside-ogling dream world again. On the landing he once again shifted the box in his arms, dug his left hand into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. I left him to it and took my own keys out of my jacket pocket as I carried on up the next flight of stairs to our paint-chipped door.

"I’ll see you around." As he called out, I turned and nodded down to him before jogging up the last steps to catch up with Toby.

"If I never see another bloody Tyrannosaurus Rex again it will be far too soon." I muttered as I placed my brush into the jar of dirty water on my right and arched backwards, stretching my sore muscles. After hours of working on the 140lb hot press watercolour paper I now had an illustration I was proud of, even if it had put me off dinosaurs for life. And what’s more I was several days ahead of schedule and could look forward to an early payment, with bonus, from the publishers.

I was stacking the dinosaur books I had borrowed from Toby for inspiration when I glanced out of the window and saw William Phillips jog across the road. Damn, he looked good dressed all in black. He dodged between two parked cars just as a lorry drove past him and when it had gone William had disappeared into Tredegar Square Gardens. I turned my attention to cleaning up the paints.

Ten minutes later the flat door slamming announced Toby’s arrival home from school.

"School okay?" I looked up from washing my palette in the sink as he chucked his lunch box on the draining board.

"Yeah. Hey, guess what. Carl Brooks has got a skateboard."

"Good for him." I didn’t have a clue who Carl Brooks was.

"Dad, ..."

I didn’t give him chance to finish that sentence. "You know how I feel about them, Toby. Death traps."

"But..."

"It’s just a passing craze. Next year it’ll be something else." I remembered the orange space hopper he had begged me for three years ago, and how it was now gathering dust in Mrs M’s old coal bunker.

"Dad."

I just turned my patented 'don’t mess with me' look on him and hid my grin at his huge, put-upon sigh when he saw it.

Reaching up he grabbed a glass from the cupboard and then the bottle of milk from the fridge. "I just saw that man."

"Who’s that, then?" I set the palette on the draining board and started on the brushes.

"Mr Phillips, you know, from downstairs."

Focused on cleaning the brushes I was only half listening. "Yeah?"

"He was talking to someone in a car. It looked suspicious."

At that I looked up and laughed. "Tobe, mate, you’ve been reading too many Hardy Boys books. How can talking to someone in a car look suspicious?"

"I dunno." He shrugged. "The man gave Mr Phillips a package. He looked around before putting it in his pocket."

"It could be anything and is probably nothing."

Toby shrugged again and sauntered into his bedroom with his glass of milk. Soon the strains of the latest Cockney Rebel hit song filtered into the kitchenette from his tranny, and I turned my attention back to the brushes.

I was nearly done when a knock at the door interrupted me and I answered it whilst wiping my hands on a towel.

"Hello, Ray dear. I’m sorry to bother you when Toby has just come home."

"Don’t worry, Mrs M. How can I help you?" Mrs Montgomery, the sweet old lady with blue rinsed hair from the ground floor flat, had a tendency to gossip but a kinder heart you couldn’t imagine. I’d lost track of the times she’d helped me out by looking after Toby or by baking us cakes when she had too many eggs, and in return I did odd jobs for her around her small flat and patio garden and I ignored her obvious lie about the abundance of eggs.

"I’ve just put the bins out in the street and can’t get my gate to shut properly. It’s been warped for weeks, but now I can’t slide the bolt across at all."

"Let me get Toby fed, and then I’ll pop down and ‘ave a look."

"Thanks, dear. And I’ve a nice bit of Cherry Bakewell you can both have for your pudding when you’ve finished." She patted my arm before returning to her own flat.

And that is how I found myself on my hands and knees, unscrewing the bottom hinge of the gate, when William Phillips returned home.

"Hello, sunshine. Having a spot of bother?"

I jumped a foot in the air, fumbled the screwdriver and lost the screw I had just removed under the mound of honeysuckle escaping the garden over the wall.

"I wasn’t until you distracted me." I muttered, rummaging through the undergrowth and getting my bare arms scratched to pieces.

"Want a hand?"

"Uh, yeah, you can hold the gate up when I take the other hinges off. Just got to find the screw first."

As I hunted for the brass screw I sensed his scrutiny and felt strangely unsettled by it. By my own admission I wasn’t a self-conscious person, had been known to flaunt myself quite openly in the clubs of my youth, welcoming the admiring looks I had garnered. But William Phillips was something else, did something quite disconcerting to me. I couldn’t shake the conviction that those penetrating indigo blue eyes of his seemed to look straight into me and read my lustful thoughts in glorious Technicolor. And I’m not sure I liked it.

As I straightened with the screw in my fingers, William leant forward. "You’ve got lodgers." He murmured, reaching over and plucking some dead leaves out of my hair. His hand lingered, twisting a curl around his finger a little and giving it a gentle tug before letting go.

With a hitch in my breathing and heat pooling in my groin, I batted his hand away.

"For God’s sake," I hissed, hating myself for being flustered. "What the hell do you think you’re doing?"

"Always wanted to be a hairdresser. Could work wonders with those beautiful chestnut locks, sunshine." For a minute he looked serious and, ridiculously, I found myself believing him. Then the corners of his eyes creased and he gave himself away.

Shaking my head with a sigh, I returned to the hinges.

"So, Ray, what do you do, then? Carpenter?"

Without looking up I removed the last screw from the second hinge. "Not really. Bit of this, bit of that."

"Ooh, sounds interesting."

Was he mocking me? I felt myself bristling. "Hardly. I do what I can to earn a crust. When you’ve got a kid to feed you can’t be too particular."

"I guess it must be tough." He replied as I started on the last hinge. "I’ve only ever had to think of myself."

I glanced up at him then. The ridicule I had expected to see was nowhere in sight, only a look that was best described as wistful. My irritation died as quickly as it had risen.

"Your wife must be pleased to have a practical man about the house."

My hand stilled. "There’s no wife." Deciding to divert interest from me, I asked, "what about you?"

"What about me?" He unflinchingly met my eyes, but my instincts sensed the sudden tension in his body.

"What do you do for work? A bit of an odd-job man yourself?"

"Nah, managed to get a cushy little number doing some driving for a local businessman." He smirked. "Hours are good, can’t complain about the money."

I grinned. "You don’t look much like a chauffeur."

Hiding his own grin, he blustered and with a rapid switch to a plummy accent answered, "I’ll have you know, my good man, I come highly recommended." He shifted his grasp on the nearly free-standing gate and carried on normally. "It’s mostly delivering and picking stuff up, little bit of driving the boss around, backing him up if the situation warrants it."

I could imagine him being quite intimidating. Side by side there wasn’t much difference in our height, with him being marginally taller than me, but his broad shoulders and solid frame spoke of well-developed muscles much larger than my own earned from shifting boxes laden with fruit and vegetables down at Alf’s Greengrocers where I had a couple of shifts a week.

I opened my mouth to ask what situation would warrant ‘backing up the boss’ but was cut off before the first word was out of my mouth.

"Is this one of your odd-jobs, then?" It seemed he was as close-mouthed about his life as I was about mine.

Accepting the deflection, I answered his question. "Ah, Mrs M and I have an agreement."

He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

"Not that kind of agreement. She’s seventy if she’s a day." We grinned at each other. "She helps me out with Toby."

Working thereafter in a surprisingly companionable silence, we quickly had the gate off and repositioned. As I attached the bottom hinge in its new position Mrs Montgomery came out of her French doors onto the patio. "All done, Ray dear?" She looked enquiringly at William who stood next to me.

"Good as new, Mrs M. This is William Phillips, our new neighbour. Been a great help, he has."

William stepped forward and held out his hand, his smile pleasant and his attitude formal. "I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs M. What a beautiful garden you have."

Smarmy bastard, I thought uncharitably as I took a good look around the garden. I had been through it many times, either with the Suzuki motorcycle I stored alongside the redundant space hopper in Mrs Montgomery’s brick coal bunker or doing jobs for her, but I had never really noticed it before. Shaded from the worst of the sun by a large lime tree growing on the pavement, it was secluded and deceptively quiet. That same lime tree prevented my top floor flat from becoming an overheated death trap during the summer months.

Mrs Montgomery smiled widely and took William’s arm as she led him around the garden pointing out each individual plant and giving its life history. When William glanced over his shoulder, his face the very picture of misery, I couldn’t help but grin. "That’ll teach you." I mumbled, hopefully out of his hearing, and started to pack my tools away. I had just locked the door of the coal bunker when the tour finished, and it was my turn to follow Mrs M.

"Come and get that pie I promised you, dear. And William, would you like some as well?"

"Pie?" I have never heard a grown man sound so enthusiastic about pie. "What kind of pie?"

"Cherry Bakewell. With some cream to go on it."

He rubbed his hands together and positively beamed. "I love Cherry Bakewell." He sat down on the chair Mrs Montgomery indicated and tucked into the dessert. I stood watching him eat with amused bemusement while Mrs M dished up my two portions. Then William licked some cream from the corner of his mouth. Out of the blue I felt a surge of lust. Another two mouthfuls and he did it again. I couldn’t drag my eyes away from his generous mouth, watching as his tongue darted out from between the full lips. I swallowed, hard, and William looked up. There was no mockery in his expression and his lips didn’t twitch with the ready smile I was coming to expect from him. Somehow this quiet scrutiny was worse.

With my rock hard penis pushing painfully into the crotch seam of my jeans, and with a dish full of pie and cream in each hand, I made my harried excuses to Mrs Montgomery and rushed out.

Two hours after Toby had gone to bed I was still sitting with my elbows on my knees in the darkened living room, staring through the un-curtained window into the glow from the street light. I was flummoxed. It was daft to say I didn’t know what was going on. I’d been about enough to know that I was seriously, and I mean seriously, in lust with William Phillips. I don’t know how he had captivated me on such a short acquaintance, or why my resistance to him was so weak. Of course I had come across beautiful people over the years, men and women, but none of them had had this effect on me before. In the three days since we had met on the stairs, I had found myself thinking of William time and time again, my mind conjuring up inappropriate images of him at the most inopportune moments. Could it just be desperation? Brought about by the prolonged dry spell I had enforced on myself? I didn’t usually fall for just a pretty, or handsome, face. There had to be more: intelligence, wit, personality, common interests.

"Shit, I sound like an ad in the Lonely Hearts." My head sank into my hands in despair. I wasn’t sure William possessed any of those preferred traits. I certainly hadn’t been around him enough to know. And that led me to the next problem: I couldn’t get involved with a man. Oh don’t get me wrong. His being a man was not in itself a problem for me. Thanks to Art School and some even earlier experimenting I had long ago accepted my bisexuality, and was quite comfortable with it. In fact, I would go so far as to say I preferred men. But a man was not an acceptable partner for another man with a child. What the hell would Toby say if he found out his Dad was as queer as a nine bob note?

There had been no-one serious since Ann had left, just a few blind dates and one night stands set up by Jax or one of my other friends. All women and not one of them had enticed me enough to enter into a long term relationship, let alone another marriage.

Drawing a deep breath into my lungs, I was no nearer reaching a decision now than I had been all evening. My body knew what it wanted. It was my head that was giving me all this grief.

Was there really any harm to me coupling up with William just for the sex? Get it out of my system? He didn’t strike me as being the settling down sort, so as long as we both went in with our eyes open and kept it on the QT where Toby was concerned, who would know? Who would care?

I stood to put the kettle on, needing to do something even though it was probably too late for another coffee. While waiting for the water to boil, I found myself staring out of the window again, watching for movements in the shadows on the street. As the kettle clicked off and the room once again fell silent one of the shadows coalesced into the shape of a tall man hurrying out of the Gardens and across the road. I watched as he came down the pavement and turned up the front path to Number 36. Through the stillness of the late evening I faintly heard the chime of a doorbell, and muscles I hadn’t realised were tense relaxed: in my experience late night callers never brought good news and I was glad this particular one wasn’t paying me a visit.

I spooned coffee into a clean mug as muted voices from the floor below mine indicated that the visitor had called on William. Had I been wrong about him? Had I read too much into his actions? Perhaps he had not been flirting with me, and was actually happily in a relationship. When there was a sudden burst of laughter from downstairs I paused while stirring the coffee, my fingers tight on the painfully hot teaspoon. Oh my God, when did I turn into a teenage girl? I decided there and then I needed to get out more, perhaps ask Jax if he knew of anyone looking for a bit of fun.

A short while later, coffee drunk and bedtime routine completed, I lay awake in bed and gave into temptation. With closed eyes my mind drifted back to the first time I had met William, the sway of his buttocks as he climbed the stairs, the pull of fabric stretched tight over his arse and thighs, and my right hand glided under the waistband of my pyjamas, my fingers curling around my throbbing penis. A few short strokes brought me to full hardness then I eased off and shifted my hand back to cup my balls. Rolling them with my fingers I let the sensations build.

It was too easy to become aroused with his vision filling my mind. In the darkness of my room the fantasy of William took over: I could almost feel his mouth on my nipple, the teasing bite before he kissed the sting away, his strong hand pumping up and down each time with a slight twist that shot fire through my body. I could feel the wet heat as his mouth took in my cock and the exquisite suction. My breath came faster and my eyes scrunched tightly together as my body tensed seconds before spunk pulsed over my hand. I managed not to cry out loud by shoving my left fist in my mouth.

With the semen cooling on my hand and stomach, it took a long time to drop off to sleep that night.


CHAPTER TWO

I was on my way to Alf’s Greengrocers for my Thursday shift, running down the steps with a spring in my step, when a muffled voice yelled my name.

"Oi, Ray, got a minute?"

"For you, mate, any time." I grinned at Dave Martin’s oiled countenance as he stuck his head out from under the raised bonnet of his old Ford. "What you after?"

"Couldn’t rev the engine for me, could you? She’s not running very well at the moment but I’m buggered if I can see why."

Climbing in, I did as he asked. Dave had moved into the basement flat shortly after me and Toby had taken up residence on the top floor. When he wasn’t teaching mechanics at the local Tech he usually tinkered with his battered pride and joy out on the street. He’d helped me out with the bike when I’d needed it in the past, and I know he looked out for Mrs M as much as I did.

"Ease off, mate. I think I see the problem." I took my foot off the accelerator and waited for further instructions, looking about me. I saw movement out the corner of my eye and glanced up to the first floor window where I could see William pacing. I looked away before he saw me. When Dave shouted back that he had fixed the problem I climbed out of the car.

"You free tomorrow night?" He was wiping his oily hands on an old rag.

"Ooh, Dave, it’s so sudden."

"You wish, mate." With a grin he shook his head. "The organisers of the new Youth Centre round the corner have called a meeting tomorrow night to talk about their plans. They’ve asked me to teach a basic mechanics class and I wondered if you’d be interested in doing a martial arts one once or twice a week."

I grinned. "I don’t think the kids around here need a basic mechanics class. Enough of them know how to hot-wire a car already."

"You’re a sceptic, Ray, aren’t you?" He grinned at me. "The thinking is that if they have something legal to occupy themselves with, they’ll be less inclined to hot-wire cars."

"It’s a good idea. But I’m not sure I’d be any good at teaching."

"Come off it. You’re great with kids and know enough about martial arts. It’s not like we’re looking to train the next British Olympic team."

"You’d ‘ave a job! Karate isn’t an Olympic sport."

"Ha, ha, very funny." He tucked the rag into his back pocket and ran his dirty hand through his blond hair. I dreaded to think how much shampoo it would take to get the oil out. "What do you say?"

I gave it some thought. "I’ll come along tomorrow and listen to what they’ve got to say, but I’m not promising anything."

He beamed at me, knowing full well that I was interested. Now, all I had to do was brush up on my karate skills.

Alf’s was bustling as usual and I found myself run off my feet for the entire lunchtime shift. It was approaching two and my stomach was rumbling when I caught sight of William approaching just as I was handing a bag of Cape apples over to an old biddy.

"That’ll be forty five pence, please." Conscious of William’s eyes firmly on me, I took the note that she offered me with a thank you and forced myself to concentrate.

"And five, fifty, fifty, one pound, God bless you, darlin’." I counted out the change as I handed it over and then turned towards Will. "Yes, sir, can I help you?" With a quick dismissive glance I noticed more of him than I should have done. Close up, his outfit was eye-catching. He had turned up the collar of his black leather coat against the heavy rain fall outside, and I caught sight of the blue of a denim jacket over his tee shirt. I refused to allow myself the luxury of leaning over the counter to look at his lower half.

A sunny smile lit up his face through the dusting of dark stubble. "Yeah."

Well, that wasn’t very enlightening. I took pity on him and decided to help out. "What do you want?"

After deliberation he settled on a couple of ripe peaches and handed the correct change over when I asked. He opened the paper bag and looked in it, then looked up at me. I’m not sure what he expected to find in there other than his peaches. I raised my eyebrow in question.

He shook his head briefly and looked as if he was about to speak, but another customer arrived and my attention was taken up with serving her. I was busy weighing and bagging carrots when he leant towards me to get my attention. With a smile and a quick "I’ll see you around" he turned and walked away.

I glanced up to answer, but he had gone.

At two thirty my shift ended and Rita, Alf’s larger than life wife, brought me a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea and took over serving from me.

As I bit enthusiastically into the sandwich, Rita tutted and tucked a stray strand of hennaed hair back into the knot at her neck.

"You need to find yourself a nice young lady, Ray. You’re obviously not looking after yourself." Alf’s wife was not known for her tact and diplomacy. "If you had decent meals you wouldn’t be so hungry all the time."

I wasn’t offended. Rita had been trying to fix me up with 'a nice young lady for me and a mum for Toby' for years and nowadays I just let it pass over my head. Through a mouthful of thickly cut white bread I muttered "perhaps this is all part of my plan to attract a nice young lady."

She studied me for a long moment, no doubt deciding if I was being flippant, and then sniffed delicately. "There is no need to mock me, Raymond. I know Toby’s mother hurt you, but not all women want a career. Some girls are more than happy staying at home and raising a family."

I put down my half eaten sandwich and patted her hand.

"I could eat like a horse and still not put the weight on, Rita, as you well know. And Toby and I are doing fine on our own. If there is someone out there who is meant to be with us, that person will come along when the time is right." I had learnt that being philosophical was the best way to avoid Rita’s matchmaking.

She was still studying me intently, the maternal look that most women of a certain age got when they looked at me clearly evident on her creased face. Thankfully an influx of customers saved me from further comment, and I took the opportunity to finish my lunch and slip away with a quick goodbye before the conversation could continue.

Whistling tunelessly, I shut the door behind me and ran down the stairs, leaving Toby in Mrs Montgomery’s care while I enjoyed a rare Saturday evening out with Jax, an old mate from my Drug Squad days. It had been some weeks since I had decided I needed more action and, whilst not strictly on the pull tonight, I had made a point of dressing up just in case. I will admit after three weeks of teaching martial arts at the Youth Centre I was desperate for some adult company.

The Youth Centre was a huge success, and my twice weekly martial arts class was proving very popular. Dave Martin and the organisers had been right. The kids certainly seemed to be keeping off the streets: every night the Centre was well attended, not just the martial arts class. I was thrilled that already some of the quieter kids learning karate were gaining in confidence, and I had to give the others the benefit of doubt and assume they weren’t using their new-found skills for nefarious purposes.

There was a fine drizzle in the air as I made my way to the Morgan Arms. The thick smoke inside stung my eyes as I fought my way to the bar. The barmaid acknowledged my arrival with a nod while she finished pulling another customer’s pint, then worked her way towards me.

"Pint of bitter, please, love. Twice." I pulled a pound note out of my wallet and handed it over when she placed the two pints on the towel in front of me.

With perfect timing, Jax appeared at my shoulder.

"Want to brave the garden?" He yelled in my ear, fighting to make himself heard above the din from the jukebox and the other customers. Outside it was much quieter and tucked into the corner by the wall we were out of the rain.

"How are you, mate?" He looked me up and down, noticing the smart clothes with a smirk. "Hoping for a bit of action?"

"I have decided I need to get out more, but there will be no action tonight with an elderly babysitter waiting up for me."

"Least you’ve got a babysitter. I can’t remember the last time me and Marie managed a night out together without the kids."

"Probably the night you got her pregnant with Ruby." He thumped my arm. Thankfully it wasn’t attached to the hand holding the pint.

Jax had joined the Met at about the same time as me and we’d hit it off immediately, both young fathers struggling with life. But where Jax’s marriage had gone from strength to strength and he’d gone on to father three more kids, mine had disintegrated and not just from under the pressure of the job.

In hindsight, Ann and I had got married for the wrong reasons. Back then I still had dreams of becoming the next Andy Warhol and was putting myself through art school by night while working in a procession of shops during the day. I was under no illusion that I was her bit of rough. But we had fun, even if we didn’t have that much in common. When she found out she was pregnant there was a lot of pressure from her family to 'do the right thing'. I know her father had meant abortion, but we were young and thought we knew best.

Toby had come along and my artistic dreams had led nowhere. Resigned that I didn’t have the talent to pursue my first love, I turned to my second, the police. The career had progressed, the marriage declined. With support from friends like Jax, eventually I made it through the break up and embarked on single parenthood when Ann decided a career in New York was far more important than being a mother to a young child. Unfortunately with Ann out of the picture, I didn’t have the luxury of choosing my career over my child. Something had to go, and with unsupportive superiors in CID and a job with irregular hours and too much danger, it was Toby that stayed.

But despite everything, I wouldn’t be without Toby.

"And how’s the Drug Squad treating you? Still managing without my steadying influence?" It was an old joke of mine, originally designed to mask the hurt I felt. Nowadays it was just a matter of rote. As was his standard response of "nothing steadying about you, mate." We shared a grin.

"Willis has been promoted to Detective Superintendent."

"Never thought he had it in him to reach Chief Inspector, let alone Superintendent."

"You and me both. And there I am, still a lowly DS." He smiled brightly. "Still, it puts him yet another step away from me. Less chance of him breathing down my neck." He paused to take a long pull of his pint. "Hey, you’ll never guess what one of the new DCs did last week."

And with that he was away with stories which had us alternatively wincing and laughing out loud.

Making my way along the road one and a half hours and two pints later, I could hear someone muttering by the front door of Number 36. Cautiously I approached the steps, and saw a man leaning against the doorframe, his finger pressing down on the doorbell. He looked worn out and was running his left hand back and forth through his thick dark hair in frustration.

"Come on, mate, let me in."

I made my way cautiously to the top of the steps with my keys in my hand, my body ready for a fight. The visitor didn’t so much as blink when I stepped up beside him and I realised he must have been aware of my approach for some time. He moved to the side of the door to let me get at the lock. I saw he was ringing the bell for William’s flat.

"You couldn’t let me in, could you? I’m a bit worried about my mate." I looked at his finger. With a shrug, he took it off the bell.

"Perhaps he doesn’t want to see anyone tonight."

He sighed. "We were meant to go for a pint tonight, only he didn’t show. I just want to make sure he’s alright. How about you let me in, then you can escort me off the premises when I’ve seen he’s okay."

"Who are you after?" Daft question seeing as I was the only other adult male living here with access through this door. But I wanted to check this wasn’t random.

"Will Phillips."

I opened the door and indicated that he should precede me, but he hesitated a moment. "You live upstairs from Billy Boy?" I couldn’t stop the snort when I heard his nickname for William. He grinned at me.

"Yeah."

I followed him upstairs, not getting too close, and on the landing, he knocked on William’s door. I waited a few steps away from him. We heard a scrabbling behind the wood and then William’s "who is it?" His visitor looked at me, then sighed and rolled his eyes with frustration.

"Come on, Will, open up, it’s Murphy."

"How’d you get in?"

"Your neighbour’s just arrived home. He let me in."

We waited and I looked at him warily. Then I heard William’s slurred reply.

"Neighbour, what neighbour? Don’t have any neighbours." There was no doubting the man was drunk.

The man next to me looked directly at me and then grinned suddenly.

"Yeah, skinny lad with a mop on his head." I glared at him then I heard William’s raucous laugh.

"That’s Ray. He’s a good bloke. Hi Ray." There was a pause. "Hey, I do have a neighbour."

The tall guy chuckled good-naturedly and even I fought back a grin, despite his recent slur on my appearance.

"Come on, Will. I’m not going through this routine again for another ten minutes."

The door opened and I heard William’s enthusiastic welcome for his long suffering visitor. "Murph, my old mate."

"Just how much have you had to drink?" And then the door shut behind them and I carried on up to my floor, the only sound the creaking of the wooden stair treads as I stepped lightly on them.

Weather wise the next morning was a complete change to the night before. It was dry, hot and bright, and when Toby was invited round to his friend’s to play, I willingly let him go. Child free for the first Sunday in a long time and with all my jobs done I found myself standing outside William’s door before I realised I had actually made the decision to visit him. If I raised my hand once to knock, I must have raised it a half dozen times. What the hell was I doing? I could imagine how he would resent someone who wasn’t even a friend checking up on him.

A door slamming downstairs made my mind up for me and before I could chicken out again I knocked briskly, taking deep breaths to calm my nerves. Minutes passed and I was about to turn away when I heard the bolt slide and the key turn in the lock.

William looked rough. And that was being polite. His eyes were bloodshot; his short dark hair stood up on end; and his lower face had even more of the dark stubble I had come to associate with him than usual.

I’m ashamed to admit I took all of this in with barely a glance, my attention firmly focused on the jeans he wore zipped up but left unbuttoned, and his bare hairless chest, which he was scratching idly while waiting for me to talk.

With great effort I dragged my eyes back up to his face. "Morning, Will. I just wanted to check you were okay." It dawned on me that I had automatically shortened his name after hearing his friend last night, but he didn’t seem to notice.

He grunted and stood back, making room for me to enter, and then shut the door behind me without relocking it.

"Coffee," he muttered. "I need coffee." He headed to the kitchenette, and called over his shoulder "want one?"

"Yes, please." While he pottered about filling the kettle and getting two mugs out of a cupboard I looked around me at his spartan accommodation. There wasn’t much in the way of luxury or comfort. Hell, there wasn’t much at all. I assumed the flat had come furnished to a degree – my own had been equipped with a few essential pieces of furniture which I had then added to. William was managing with an old sagging settee, table and two rickety chairs. An upturned wooden crate served as a coffee table.

The layout of the flat was very similar to mine, one large living space separated from the kitchenette on the right of the front door by a table, and a door to the left that lead to a short corridor and the bathroom and bedroom. The only difference was the lack of spiral staircase in the corner which in my flat led to my own bedroom in the eaves.

There were a few books lined up on the window ledge and a guitar propped up in the corner, but that was it as far as personal effects were concerned. The papered walls had yellowed with age and stale cigarette smoke. I noticed absently the pattern left where previous tenants had removed pictures which, when hung, had prevented the wallpaper underneath from discolouring. All in all, I had to admit it was rather depressing.

"Milk and sugar?" I turned back to him and nodded. He put the mugs down on the small table which separated the living area from the kitchen, and then flopped down onto one of the hard kitchen chairs. When no invitation to join him was forthcoming, I shrugged and then sat down on the other chair.

The silence stretched while we drank, William with his eyes closed, and I was starting to feel uncomfortable. Then, with a flourish he set his half empty mug back down on the table and looked across at me with a smile on his face.

"That’s better. Never did do any good without my caffeine fix in the morning, even without a hangover."

"Yeah, I know what you mean." I swallowed another mouthful. "As I said, I just wondered if you were alright. Last night..." I trailed off, not quite sure in which direction I wanted this conversation to go.

"Last night is a little..." he paused before deciding on a suitable word. "Blurry."

I snorted inelegantly. "I can’t imagine why."

The grin turned sheepish. "Had a bad day yesterday. Needed to relax a bit, drown my sorrows."

"I think you did that alright."

"Yeah, probably went a bit too far. Hope I didn’t do anything... stupid."

"Nah, not with me, anyhow."

He raised his expressive left eyebrow then sank his head onto his hands. I took pleasure in watching the muscles of his abdomen ripple with the movement.

"Oh God, Murphy was here."

"Yeah, he seemed concerned for you."

"He’s a good mate, is old Murph. Him and me, we go back a long way."

"Yeah?"

"Always did like to tell me I drank too much. He’ll never shut up now he’s had proof."

I couldn’t help the laugh. He looked up at me with one eye and then smiled.

"Nah, Murph the Smurph’s a good mate. He’ll understand."

"Murph the Smurph?"

"Yeah, don’t let on I called him that, though. He’ll have my guts for garters." He finished his coffee. "His name is Murphy Michaels, we were together in Africa way back."

"Africa?"

He leant back in his chair and stared at me. I felt a bit like a rabbit caught in the glare of headlights.

"It’s a long time ago, now." He finally answered. "Things move on."

"So," I started and gulped another mouthful of coffee to give me courage, "you said you were drowning your sorrows?"

He gave me a considering look. "Nah, not really. Found out the bloke who murdered some mates of mine was executed. Wasn’t exactly celebrating, but hearing the news kind of brought it all back."

I remember hearing the news, as well, and I put two and two together. "Angola? Colonel Callan? What was his real name... Costas Georgiou?" He nodded. Costas Georgiou or, as he preferred to be known in Angola, Colonel Callan, was the ex-soldier who had become a mercenary in the Angolan war when he was kicked out of the British army for robbing a bank. He was one of several foreign mercenaries captured by the Angolan army and sentenced to death at a trial in Luanda. I had been horrified when I had heard that he had ordered and supervised the murder of fellow mercenaries as a ‘disciplinary measure’ after a botched attack. It had been no surprise when he had received his sentence.

My mind worked a bit more and I asked William "were you there?"

He answered me with another nod. "Not at that time, though, much earlier. But I had worked with some of the men he killed. They were good blokes in a bad place. Didn’t deserve what happened to them."

"Are you a mercenary?" I cringed as I asked that. It was none of my business.

There was that half smile of his again. "Not any more. I got out years ago."

I was well aware this man was made of many layers, and that I would probably never dig to the bottom of them all. But, sitting opposite him now, I felt unexpectedly privileged that William Phillips, the type of man who would only tell you exactly what he wanted you to know and no more, was sharing with me this part of himself.

William was rubbing his forehead absently and I remembered he must have the hangover from hell. I quickly finished my coffee and stood to leave. He followed me to the door.

"Thanks for the drink. Look, if you ever need to talk about... anything, you know where I am."

He subjected me to another of his appraisals then, as if he made a quick decision, he nodded and smiled one his rare genuine smiles. "I might well take you up on that, sunshine. You’ll regret ever offering."

"No, I’d never regret that." Oh my God, there I went again sounding like some teenage heroine in a cheesy gothic romance. Not that I ever read them to know that. With a quick "bye" I hurried away and left him standing in his doorway as I ran back upstairs.


CHAPTER THREE

I did my utmost to avoid William Phillips over the next three days, checking the coast was clear when leaving the flat and running past his door when returning home. I even went as far as to duck into the back of the greengrocers ostensibly to help Alf unload the latest delivery when I saw William enter the front of the shop, leaving a bemused Rita to serve him.

I was deeply embarrassed to be acting like a pubescent teenager experiencing my first crush, and even more disconcerted that I was resorting to the equally adolescent act of hiding from him. I know that it had been a long time since I had been laid, but it hadn’t been a problem until I’d met William. What was it about my enigmatic neighbour that attracted me to him? Yes, he was extremely good looking and he had a certain childish charm, but like I kept telling myself I usually looked for more in a partner. And I still didn’t believe in love at first, second or third sight.

My avoidance tactics worked extremely well until Thursday morning. I saw Toby off to school, washed the breakfast dishes, tidied up the kitchen, and bagged up the dirty laundry ready to drop off at the laundrette on my way to my shift at Alf’s. I had just sat down with my sketch pad for a rare couple of hours just for me when there was a soft knock at the door.

Ridiculously it never occurred to me that William might be on the other side of the door until I opened it and saw him propped by one raised arm against the frame. He smiled at me but made no move away from his casual pose, almost as if he knew exactly how irresistible he looked.

"Hello." It was too early in the morning for his voice to sound so seductive, but it was.

Without thought I licked my lips and swallowed. I could feel my heart rate quickening and deliberately took a calming breath. I was not going to behave the same way that I had on Sunday.

"Will. Hello. Um..." Could I sound any less sophisticated and in control? I tried again. "What can I do for you?"

He leant forward almost imperceptibly. I stood my ground, determined he wasn’t going to intimidate me.

"Wondered if you were free for a drink?"

I pointedly looked at my watch. "It’s only ten. Pubs won’t be open yet." For a brief moment I wondered if William had a drink problem.

"I meant a coffee, or tea." He held up a brown paper bag that I hadn’t noticed before. "I picked up a couple of cream cakes on my way back from work this morning, thought you might like to share."

I had an immediate flashback to watching him lick cream from the corner of his mouth in Mrs M’s kitchen, and instantaneously wanted him to lick cream from parts of me. I could feel the heat creeping up my face and down into my groin, and I physically shuddered. William’s regard turned predatory as he stepped closer to me.

"Think we’d better go inside. Wouldn’t want to upset the neighbours." A hand splayed out on my chest pressed me gently backwards and he pushed the door closed without taking his eyes off me. Then, in the next instant, he waggled the bag in front of my face and turned towards the kitchenette. The moment was definitely broken. I took a breath of relief and glared at his back.

"Make yourself at home, why don’t you?"

He unerringly found his way around my kitchen as if he’d been helping himself to my provisions for years. The kettle went on; the teabags, sugar and mugs came out; and with a dramatic flourish he placed the cream cakes onto a pair of side plates I didn’t even remember that I owned. William dipped his finger into the cream oozing from the end of a cream doughnut and then turned and leant on the work surface. He sucked his finger into his mouth and my heart stopped.

Christ! My arms hung uselessly at my side and my hands clenched repeatedly into fists. I was trying so hard to control myself, but it was hard to resist such a blatant display. And he knew it. His blue eyes swept down my body until he saw the hard outline of my cock and he licked his lips in anticipation. I couldn’t help the reaction in my body to that little display. My erection throbbed with a fresh rush of blood to it.

William blinked. "Come here, Ray."

The kettle clicked off but we both ignored it, and I disregarded William’s order.

"Aren’t you tired?" What a stupid thing to ask, but I wasn’t exactly thinking with the right head.

"Huh?" I decided there and then that the confused look suited William to a T.

"Been working a night shift? You said you’ve just come home from work."

I could almost see the gears working in his head as he switched from high arousal to more mundane topics.

"No, just had an early delivery. But now I’ve got the rest of the day off." He came towards me. "It’s time we got to know each other better."

"I’ve... er... got to go to work."

His fingers went to my hair and he played with a curl. "I love your hair, sunshine."

I looked at his closely cropped locks and wondered what they would feel like under my hands.

I could feel the situation getting out of my control, feel my body directing my head and I was not really sure if I minded all that much. I needed... I needed... Christ, I needed him like I needed my next breath and the thought terrified me.

"What do you want, Will?" I tried to pull away from him, determined not to be intimidated.

"You know what I want, Ray." He rubbed the palm of his hand suggestively across the bulge of his hard cock and then slowly between his legs to caress his balls. "And what’s more, you want it too."

I shook my head. "Toby..."

"Toby is at school." He took a step forward and I felt my back flatten against the wall as I unconsciously leant away from him.

"It’s not a good idea."

"Why?" Another step forward and there was nowhere else for me to go.

"Your... friend."

He looked puzzled. "Friend?"

"Yeah, Michaels." The shuttered expression that clouded his face was so brief I might have imagined it. Then he laughed. "Believe it or not, Ray, he is just a ‘friend’. I’m not seeing anyone at the moment."

"I don’t do one night stands." The lie came easily as my last line of defence. If he came any closer my resistance would totally crumble.

He took another half step. "Stop coming up with excuses, beautiful. We are both consenting adults, we both want it."

His hand came out again and he cupped my disfigured cheek. We both felt my full body shiver at the contact.

"Please." His plea whispered against my lips milliseconds before his mouth claimed mine, and I was undone. I couldn’t have pushed him away at that point any more than I could have stopped a speeding train.

His tongue pressed against my lips and I found myself opening willingly for him. With a soft moan his hands tangled in my hair and he angled my head with a gentle touch. By this time his body was tight against mine and his erection pressed against my lower abdomen. I needed to feel its smoothness, to handle its bulk and length, to wrap my lips around its fullness, and I slid my hand between us and manipulated the button on his jeans until it popped, then slid down the zip. My hand slipped under the waistband of his briefs, brushing against soft curls and then found the hardness that I craved. I curled my fingers around his cock and felt it pulse with the surge of blood through it.

He broke the kiss then, and lent his head against the arm still bracketing my head. "Oh God, what you do to me," he murmured, his eyes clenched tightly. He made no move to stop me as I fell to my knees in the narrow space between wall and body, and pulled his jeans and underwear down his thighs in one quick move. His cock sprang free and my mouth watered with anticipation. I looked up the length of him and his hand found my head again, caressing gently.

I took his cock into my mouth and savoured its taste and texture against my tongue. It had been too long since I’d done this: I had forgotten how good it felt. I swirled my tongue over the smooth velvety head of his glans, savouring how it felt, before pressing the tip of my tongue gently into the vertical slit at the end of his penis. With a groan William shuddered and I grabbed a handful of arse in each hand and pulled him towards me when his shaking legs wavered.

Looking up the length of his fine body I couldn’t break the eye contact I had with him. I needed to watch every reaction on his face, read every expression. He watched me through half closed eyes, and I saw him swallow thickly, fighting emotion, when I closed my lips tighter around the base of the glans and pulled gently.

"Christ." His voice was nothing more than a breathy whisper and I found myself repeating the action just to get the same response. His fingers tightened slightly in my hair and that did as much to ignite my own fires as performing this act for him.

I finally closed my eyes as I sank lower onto his cock, my tongue pressing against the thick vein running up the underside as it hit the back of my throat and halted there while I fought my gag reflex. With a conscious effort I made myself relax and took him in all the way, resting when my nose pressed into the dark pubic hairs below his abdomen.

He filled my throat and I found myself breathing heavily through my nose when his fingers tensed in my curls and he held my head firmly against him. I swallowed once, twice and then as his fingers eased I pulled away slightly, took a deep breath in and then sank down again.

I could have carried on like this for hours but all too soon he was pulling back, gently easing himself from my mouth. The sound of a whimper echoed around the room. I was aghast to realise it had come from me, but he was drawing me to my feet and kissing my hair, my eyelids, my disfigured cheekbone, and I soon forgot to be embarrassed.

"Not so fast, sunshine. If you carry on like that I won’t last five more seconds." He murmured between caresses.

I swallowed. Right then I didn’t really care. All I wanted was to feel him come, to know that it was me who had done that to him. The palm of his hand found the bulge in the front of my jeans and he pressed hard. I gulped. My hips swayed forward and I leant into the pressure. Deft fingers had my jeans undone and down my thighs in seconds and I groaned when his hand circled my erect cock as it sprang free. I rocked with the motion of his gentle tugs. Then his lips were back on mine and his tongue demanded access which I willingly gave him.

Gasping, he broke away all too soon. "We need to take this somewhere more comfortable."

"Bedroom... up there." I managed to sound almost coherent as I nodded towards the spiral staircase. His hand tightened round my erection then he turned away and led me by my cock over to the staircase. I didn’t think I could get any more aroused, but another surge of blood pulsed down my length and I felt his fingers squeeze in answer. I would allow myself the luxury of examining my intense reaction to his dominance later on, but for now I concentrated on shuffling after him with my jeans around my thighs.

Somehow we made it to the top of the stairs. He had released me at the bottom to avoid any mishaps on the way up, and I had missed his touch the second it was gone. But then his hands were pushing my jeans all the way off, and I helped him out by pulling my tee shirt over my head. He stood back and looked his fill. I felt no self-consciousness and no shame. And judging by the look of hunger on his face and his still very erect cock he liked what he saw.

His clothes came off without haste and I found myself pushed backwards onto the mattress. As he knelt between my splayed knees he gripped the base of my cock hard in the circle formed by thumb and index finger before taking it in his mouth. Without the firm hold I would have come there and then. He showed me no pity, his tongue dancing around the head, licking and caressing, teasing me almost beyond my endurance. I was so hot, sweat rolling off me, and I tossed my head back desperate for some release. With a final slurping suck he lifted his head but his fingers kept their tight embrace until my body retreated from the point of orgasm.

"Please." I whispered as he released me altogether, sitting back on his heels with a pleased grin plastered on his face.

"We’re not doing this dry. I don’t want to hurt you." He rubbed behind my balls with one of his fingers, the blunt nail scratching lightly against the taut skin. "Do you have anything we can use?"

I had an immediate vision of the cream cakes sitting uneaten on the kitchen table, but decided I couldn’t wait the length of time it would take to get them. I twisted and reached over to the top drawer of the bedside cabinet. "It just so happens..."

I handed him the pot of Vaseline, which he opened with record speed, and he scooped up a generous amount with his fingers.

"Just lie there and let me do the work."

"I was going to."

I pulled my knees up to my chest and without fear exposed myself to him. For long seconds he just sat on his heels looking then he leant forward to rub his index finger around my anus spreading the sticky petroleum jelly where it would do most good. I breathed deeply, relaxing and his finger slipped inside. By the time he had me fully stretched I was a gibbering wreck. I’ll never remember the nonsense coming out of my mouth but it didn’t seem to bother William.

He positioned himself and at my nod pushed in. The preparation had been so thorough I felt no discomfort, no pain, just a delicious sense of fullness that I had not realised I’d missed in all the years I had gone without. William’s eyes pressed tightly together, and he was biting his bottom lip. As he came to rest fully seated within me I flexed my arse muscles and he groaned.

I didn’t think I could stand his immobility for much longer and I flexed again. His eyes opened and met my gaze, and then he slowly withdrew until only the head of his cock rested inside me. A slight shift in his stance and then he thrust back in, his cock knocking against my prostate and sending sparks zinging through my body.

Breathlessly I lost myself in the rhythm, and no matter how much I wanted to keep my eyes open to watch the expressions on his face, I couldn’t. I became a slave to the glide and pull of William’s penis as it pounded into me, sending me closer and closer to the edge.

I was gasping for air, sweat dripping off me, when one final nudge of my prostate sent me flying, my cock untouched. I know I cried out with intense pleasure and rode out my pulsing orgasm as William thrust twice more and then, as he came too, my erratic breathing got the better of me and everything faded away.

Through the haze I became aware that William had left my body and now lay pressed along my side, his finger making patterns through the spunk that was cooling on my stomach and chest.

"I’ve never done that before," he said, his smirk firmly in place. I knew he couldn’t be talking about sex with a man and I said as much. His eyes twinkled as he brought his finger to his mouth and sucked it clean. My mouth watered at the sight.

"I’ve never made someone pass out before." He leant down and kissed me tenderly. I can’t begin to describe how sensual it was to taste myself on his lips.

"You had nothing to do with it, mate. Purely lack of oxygen." I found myself grinning back at him, and daringly ran my own finger through my ejaculate and then raised it to his mouth. My cock made a valiant attempt to refill when he closed his mouth over the digit, biting down gently to stop me pulling it out again.

For the first time since he had entered my flat, sense prevailed and I took myself firmly in hand, metaphorically speaking.

"Much as I’d love to try that again, I’ve a job I need to get to and if we go for round two I’ll never get out of bed."

With a pop, he let my finger go and lay back down slipping his arm around my shoulders and pulling me towards him. It felt very reassuring and comforting and I allowed myself the luxury of relaxing against him. There was plenty of time for a cuddle.

With the sound of his steady heartbeat in my ear, I let myself doze against the smooth planes of his chest while the fingers of his free hand curled loosely around the side of my neck and his thumb stroked across my cheek in a soft caress.

"What happened here?" The peaceful silence was broken when his thumb came to rest on my raised artificial cheekbone.

"Altercation with a burglar when I was still pounding a beat."

William pulled away slightly and looked down at me. "You were a copper?" His face was a study in blank expression, which I guessed meant the wheels in that brain of his were turning furiously.

"Yeah, long time ago now."

"Why’d you give it up?"

"Toby came first." It was as simple as that.

He studied me for long moments in silence, then relaxed back against the pillows and pulled me into his side again.

"Do you miss it?"

I thought for a few seconds. "I miss making a difference."

He didn’t answer. The thumb resumed its stroking. I was dozing off when he next spoke.

"Things must have been hard for you."

"How?"

"Raising Toby on your own, having to give up your career."

I chuckled. "It’s certainly not how I envisioned my life."

"Did you always want to be in the police force?"

"Nah."

"Don’t tell me you wanted to run away and join the circus."

I laughed out loud. "What kid doesn’t want to do that? No, I was going to be Andy Warhol."

He looked almost horror-struck at that.

"Not literally. I wanted to be an artist."

"Why aren’t you?"

"Not enough talent, mate. I do a bit of illustrating for a publisher, mostly lurid gothic romance covers, some kids books."

He laughed. "I’d love to see some of the gothic romance covers."

"There’s nothing explicit about them, you priapismic monster. Scary castle, virgin running away screaming, that sort of thing. Once you’ve drawn one, you’ve drawn them all."

"I bet you say that to all the boys."

Grinning, I shook my head and made myself more comfortable.

"Did I see you down at the Youth Centre last week? Bit old for that, aren’t you?" There was a twinkle in his eye.

"They asked me to teach a martial arts class there. It’s been running a few weeks now."

"You’re a man of many talents, Raymond Doyle." His fingers were in my hair again. I think he had a fixation with the curls.

"I learnt a bit when I was a kid, then did some courses when I was with the Met. Feel like I’m giving something back to the community."

"It’s a good thing to do." He sounded sincere.

I turned my head towards him. "What about you? What did you want to do when you were a kid?"

He was silent for a long while, staring off into space. "Don’t think I ever gave it much thought. Left school when I was fourteen, drifted into the Merchant Navy, then I jumped ship in Dakar. Never had time to consider what I actually wanted to do." He chuckled. "Never saw myself as the settling down sort. You know, wife and kids."

"No, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be."

"Says the voice of experience." He kissed the tip of my nose. "Want to talk about it?"

"Not much to say. We were too young, had an unplanned pregnancy. Turned out we didn’t have enough in common, and a glittering career in New York was more appealing." I smiled slightly. "Toby and me are better off without someone like that."

I realised that it was surprisingly easy to talk to William.

"I’m glad she left." There was another kiss, this time on my cheek.

"Oh?"

"Well, I wouldn’t be here doing this if she was around, now would I?"

His lips descended on mine before I could draw a deep breath and I surrendered once again to the almost bruising intensity of his passion.


CHAPTER FOUR

"So, Toby has been telling me about your new neighbour."

Jax and I were sitting at one of the picnic benches in a pub garden watching our kids climb over a rusty climbing frame set up in one corner. I felt my lips twitch involuntarily as I thought of Will. Yes, Will. Having a man shove his penis inside you takes away the need for formality, and I hadn’t been thinking of him as William for some time now.

"Yeah." There was no need to go into too much detail.

Jax took his eyes of the kids to look sideways at me and I forced the smile away. "And?"

It appeared that Jax the policeman was never off duty. I didn’t know whether to be pleased that he was looking out for me, or annoyed that he initially treated everyone with mistrust.

"He seems like a decent bloke. Does some driving for a local businessman."

I drained the last of my pint and turned round to put the empty glass on the table next to the paper bag holding the souvenirs Toby had bought with some of his birthday money from our visit to the Natural History Museum. I leant back and rested my elbows on the table, soaking up the warmth from the late afternoon sun. From the corner of my eye I could see Jax preparing to ask another question and it was with relief that I saw Marie winding her way back across the garden with a clean-bottomed baby in her arms.

I took the opportunity to completely change the subject with a nod towards Jax’s better half.

"Is Ruby sleeping through the night yet?"

"Yeah, thank God, two weeks now. She kept waking the other three up." He smiled indulgently at the latest edition to his family and Marie thrust the six month old into her father’s arms and then sat herself down next to me.

"You can do the next one. That was a real stinker."

"My baby girl does not do 'stinkers'."

While tough man Jax cooed at his daughter his wife and I carried on a more adult conversation.

"Think Toby enjoyed his birthday treat?"

My eyes went back to my now ten year old son where he was playing with Jax and Marie’s three oldest children. "There were dinosaurs and mammals. What more could he want?"

Yeah, he’d had a great day. He hadn’t stopped talking once, rattling off facts and figures long after my feet had done enough walking and my brain had stopped processing exactly what he was saying. The trip made up for the fact that he’d had to go to school on his actual birthday the Friday before, even if the school broke up for the summer holidays on that day. We’d celebrated on the day with an ice cream from the van on the street and a quiet birthday tea after he’d opened his presents. Later that night, with Toby tucked up in bed reading the new Hardy Boys book I had given him, I had found myself staring at the pile of presents Ann had sent from America and bitterly resenting her for making my paltry gifts look even less significant when compared with hers.

"They should all sleep well tonight," commented Marie.

I looked across to the climbing frame and wondered where the kids got their energy from. All I could feel were sore muscles and blistered feet and I longed for a soak in a hot bath.

"They’re not the only ones."

I’m not sure how I managed to make it from the Mile End tube station to home, my feet were aching that much. And there Toby was, bouncing along clutching his bag of dinosaur models and chatting ten to the dozen about the facts he was reading in the guidebook held in his other hand. I was pleased he’d had such a good day.

I unlocked the front door and we stepped into the blissfully cool hallway. I paused when I heard angry voices on the landing and recognised one of them as Will’s.

"You shouldn’t be here." He hissed.

"Where were you? You should have been there at ten. The old man was worried."

Coming up to the top of the stairs I looked up and saw Will locking his door, arguing with a blond man who had his hands raised somewhat in defence. Not wishing to appear nosy, I glanced back down to the guidebook that Toby was studying just as Will whirled around, his arms gesticulating wildly.

"This could ruin everything, Anson." He accused the other man.

I can only assume they hadn’t heard us coming. I registered the genuine shock on Will’s face as his flung arm smacked across my chest, and I couldn’t hold back my involuntary cry of fear as the force behind the blow sent me toppling backwards into thin air. My hand automatically went for the banister but I had passed the centre of gravity and the weight of my falling body pulled me back before I could get a grip.

Toby’s scream coincided with my shoulder and back crashing down hard onto the unforgiving, uncarpeted wood of the stair tread, and indescribable pain shooting through my whole body took away what little breath I had. I felt myself somersault over once, then again, and I grabbed at a spindle with my left hand. Pain from my shoulder kept me from getting a good grip but at least my descent slowed. I slid down the remaining few steps headfirst on my back and my downward plunge was abruptly halted at the bottom of the stairs when my head banged into the newel post and I thankfully sank into oblivion.

I know I opened my eyes, could feel my lashes separating, but sight was an elusive dream. Everything was blurry from the dark periphery of my vision to the bright spot above my head. I could hear voices as if through a tunnel, echoing and sounding far away, and I could make out words that I thought I knew, but their meaning was not clear. Nothing made sense.

I drifted, hurting. Gentle hands manipulated me, eased my limbs, held my head whilst pinpricks of light shone in my eyes and caused more agony. I blinked sluggishly and eventually found my vision improve marginally. I recognised the dark blobs around me as people, their faces creased in concern.

Someone was holding my hand, and then I felt a pinprick in the back of it. It was strange that I could feel that over and above all the pain radiating from elsewhere. Warmth spread from my hand, up my arm, across my shoulders and I felt myself relaxing and all my worries slipping away. Soon the pain faded completely and, with it, so did I.

When I woke again, things seemed much calmer. Dark shapes and bright lights no longer surrounded me, and the pain was a tolerable ache and a feeling of lassitude in my limbs. Hospital, I realised with a weird mix of both horror and relief. My hand still felt as if it were held in a tight vice, and I slowly forced my head to turn to look at it. Another hand clasped round mine, large and masculine. I followed the length of the arm up to the shoulder and don’t know why I was surprised to see Will slouched half in, half out of a chair. His other hand was propping up his head, the elbow on the arm of the chair, his chin resting on his chest as he snored softly.

And with the sight of my neighbour sitting there came the memory of falling endlessly backwards and Toby’s scream echoing round the stairwell. Fighting apathy with a sudden panic I jerked, trying to rise, and Will’s head came up sharply.

"Hey, hey, easy, sunshine." He soothed. "It’s OK, you’re in hospital. You’re going to be fine."

"Toby?" I managed to get out, gulping great breaths into my lungs.

"He’s fine. He’s with Mrs Montgomery. I’m going to bring him in to see you tomorrow. He’s fine, I promise." Whilst he spoke, his thumb was continuously rubbing the back of my hand, soothing and calming me down. When my breathing had returned to normal he spoke again.

"God, Ray, I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you, and suddenly you were there and falling, and I couldn’t stop you." I could see the fear and remorse in his face. I didn’t know what to say, so I just squeezed his fingers as best I could.

"What’s the damage?" I figured it might be better to find out whilst I was on the good drugs.

"Broken ribs and leg, concussion, bruised shoulder, cuts and bruises."

"Is that all? I thought I was dying."

He looked sceptical. "That’s more than enough."

I felt my eyes closing and forced them open. I think I said "Glad you’re here" before I slept again.

I drifted in and out of drugged sleep for the rest of the night and well into the next day. In the early hours I realised that Will was no longer sitting by my side and I felt a pang of loss that was most unexpected.

When Will brought Toby in to see me sometime in the afternoon I was grumpy and in pain from lack of restful sleep and the inevitable, and in my opinion far too soon, reduction of pain relief. But I took one look at my son’s scared face and held out my good hand, pulling him down into a loose hug as tears welled up in his eyes.

"Ssh, love. I’m going to be ok."

"I was so scared, Daddy." He gulped and I felt a pull on my heart that had nothing to do with injuries and everything to do with how he’d reverted to a small child with his use of Daddy.

"It probably looks a lot worse than it is." Over Toby’s head I could see Will raise an eyebrow in amusement. I tried to glare at him but his unmanly snigger left me in no doubt as to its success.

"We bought you some grapes and magazines." Will placed the items on the wheeled cupboard at the side of the bed before pinching a handful of grapes and shoving them into his mouth.

Toby looked up at him in disgust. "I don’t think they’ll be any grapes left for you to have, though. He’s been eating them all the way here."

There was no remorse on Will’s face as he flopped down onto the chair, chewing with bulging cheeks.

By the time he took Toby away I couldn’t keep my eyes from closing. A gentle touch to my shoulder made me force them open and I saw Will tenderly looking down at me.

"We’ll be back tomorrow, love." He murmured and then glanced over his shoulder. I almost didn’t feel his soft lips brush across mine. Then they were gone and Will was shepherding Toby along the ward and out of the door.

I sat on the rear seat of the car Will had borrowed from his employer and glared sideways at the stone steps to the front door.

"Don’t be stupid, Ray." Will squatted on the pavement in front of the open passenger door. "You know you can’t use the crutches yet." I didn’t need Mr Able Bodied pointing out that my deeply bruised shoulder would be too sore to support my weight for a few days. I knew it was. And I also knew I was not going to let him carry me, bridal fashion no less, up to my flat.

"I’ll hop." I muttered sullenly.

"We don’t have all day, sunshine," was his ever so helpful response.

I sighed the most put-upon sigh I could manage. Mrs Montgomery’s net curtain twitched and I saw Toby peer out. The expression on his face when he saw the car cheered me up no end.

"How about a compromise? I let you hop until we’re inside, then you let me carry you up to your flat?" Sometimes I hated the voice of reason, but I had to admit I didn’t think I’d make it all the way under my own steam.

"Fine."

"Come on, up with you, then."

I turned my back to him and he slipped his hands gently under my armpits, helping me as I shuffled backwards out of the car and steadying me when I put my good foot down onto firm ground. Once I had my one-legged balance, gripping the top of the open door, he gingerly lowered my plaster encased left leg onto the pavement.

The front door flew open and my whirlwind son jumped down the steps.

"Dad."

I grunted when he flung himself at me.

"Easy, mate. Your Dad’s not up to much at the moment."

Without Will’s support I would have fallen onto the car and been in a whole world of pain right about now.

Toby backed away and looked sheepish. "Sorry, Dad, I’m just pleased you’re home."

"Me too, Tobe, me too."

By the time I was halfway up the steps, gripping the iron railing so hard my knuckles showed white, I was panting and sweating hard. I paused, conscious that Will’s arm was still snug around my waist, and not caring one bit what anybody might think.

Toby stood in the open doorway, my holdall clutched tight against his chest, biting his lip with concern. I was grateful that Will kept silent. No way was I going to admit how right he was.

I was at the point of blacking out when we crossed the threshold and through a long, dark tunnel I heard the door shut and Will talking quietly. There was movement and I felt myself lifted. When I was next aware of anything I was lying on the settee in my own living room with a blanket thrown over me.

I slowly blinked my way back to consciousness and found Will sitting on the coffee table in front of me.

"Okay?"

I nodded, not too sure of myself. He twisted sideways and picked up a glass of water and the bottle of pills the hospital had prescribed for me.

"You really need to be in bed, but there’s no way we’re getting you up those stairs today." He handed me the glass, which I took without thinking, and shook two pills into the palm of his hand.

I swallowed them down obediently and handed back the half empty glass.

"You don’t need to hang around, mate."

He just tilted his head slightly and frowned at me. "Of course not, because you are so capable of looking after yourself and your son at the moment."

Ignoring the sarcasm I asked, "Where’s Toby?"

"He’s still downstairs with Mrs M. I thought I’d get you settled first."

I looked up at him and noticed the strain around his eyes and the beads of sweat on his forehead. Suddenly concerned, I sat up without thinking. And wasn’t that a bad idea? Groaning, I allowed him to push me back down onto the cushions.

"Where d’you think you’re going?"

"Are you alright?"

He snorted with amusement. "I’m not the one who took a header down a flight of stairs four days ago, sunshine."

"Yes, but you..." I trailed off, flopping my hand around and indicating his head with a nod of mine. His fingers touched his forehead and he looked genuinely surprised to see the moisture glistening on them. His lips twisted.

"Well, today’s a bit of a scorcher." Even through the haze of pain and drugs I could tell he was fighting back a grin. I waited patiently for the punch line. "And, all evidence to the contrary, you weigh a bloody ton." I didn’t have the energy to be indignant at the slur on my physique, tongue in cheek though it was.

"Must be the cast." I mumbled.

He leant forward until his face was mere inches from mine. His lips when they met mine were soft and gentle, the barest hint of pressure not enough to get me aroused.

"Get some sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up."

It was too easy to close my eyes and obey. I could hear Will moving around, cupboard doors opening and closing and bags rustling, but it took too much effort to see why he was making himself so at home in my flat. I could feel my breathing slowing down and my body relaxing as the pain relief kicked in, and I let myself drift away.

When I woke up the sun had shifted in the sky and was no longer shining through the leaves of the lime tree and straight into the south facing windows at the back of the flat. I realised that hours had passed. A glance at the clock on the mantelpiece confirmed that it was nearly five in the afternoon.

Toby was sitting on the floor watching Blue Peter on the television, the sound down low, and he turned when he heard me stir.

"Hi, Dad." His smile was blinding, and contagious.

I shifted myself to ease the aches that had set in while I had been motionless, and attempted to sit up. Nurse Toby had different ideas.

"Will says you can’t get up. He said you need to keep still."

"Well, Will isn’t here and I need to pee. Come and give me a hand."

Toby giggled but came over and helped pull me to my feet, or rather foot, anyway. If questioned later, I would vehemently deny that I stood swaying for several minutes while trying to catch my breath. Eventually, and with my arm across Toby’s shoulders, I managed to hop my way to the bathroom and do my business. Never before had I been so grateful that the bathroom was on this floor and not in the attic with my bedroom.

I was just settling myself back on the settee, now upright, when the door opened.

"I see Sleeping Beauty has finally decided to grace us with his presence." Will closed the door behind him with a kick and put the parcel he was carrying down on the table.

Toby giggled again. I just glared at the closing credits of Blue Peter, willing away the myriad aches and pains which had started up halfway through my trip to the bathroom. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Will studying me, but he refrained from asking any stupid questions such as "how are you" for which I was eternally grateful.

Behind me I could hear him moving about in the kitchen, the rattle of plates and cutlery, and eventually the scent of chips and vinegar wafted across to me. My mouth started watering at the same time as my stomach rumbled. A chuckle near my shoulder told me that Will had heard.

He handed me a tray with a full plate of fish and chips, and the knife and fork required to eat them, and then put a glass of orange juice on the coffee table in front of me.

"Okay like that?"

I nodded, my mouth already full of battered cod, and he returned to the kitchenette. Toby was tucking into his own smaller portion, back in front of the television, when Will flopped down on the armchair. He raised a can of beer to his lips, and my hand stilled where it had been cutting off a piece of fish. I watched him take a long swallow and then put the can on the floor next to his chair. As he settled back he saw me looking at him and when my eyes flicked down to the can, he grinned.

"Not with the drugs, sunshine."

"Has it occurred to you that alcohol might be better than drugs?"

He shook his head and tucked into his own dinner. Huh!

"Why are we eating so early, anyway?"

"I’ve got to work tonight." He looked up when I didn’t respond. "And as your self-appointed Carer one of my duties is to provide decent meals for you."

I wondered briefly when fish and chips had become a decent meal, but decided to overlook that point for a more important question. "Self-appointed Carer?"

He swallowed another mouthful. "Yeah. Look, it’s going to be a few days before you can move without pain. I’m around a lot of the time, and I want to help out." He looked straight at me and I could see a healthy dose of guilt written on his face. I decided I would tackle this another time, and turned my attention back to my food with a shrug which I instantly regretted.

Half an hour later I was re-medicated and comfortably dozing, letting the sounds of domesticity flow around me as Will and Toby tackled the washing up like a couple of school boys. In Toby’s case, it was acceptable. I wondered about Will, though. There seemed to be an awful lot of splashing and giggling going on.

"If you make a mess I’m not clearing up after you." I pitched my voice so they could hear me. There was a moment’s silence, then a snort and another fit of giggles. I shook my head and pulled the blanket higher up my shoulders.

"Can we go out tomorrow, then?"

I thought Toby’s question was directed at me and was about to reply what I thought to that stupid suggestion, when Will answered.

"Um... we’ll have to see, mate."

"But you said you weren’t working tomorrow." I must have missed that conversation. "I’m not, but I’m not sure your Dad would... approve."

And just like that I was wide awake.

"Dad might not approve of what?" I looked at them over the back of the settee. They both looked immensely uncomfortable... and guilty. "What’s going on?"

Toby was shuffling from foot to foot and almost tried to disappear behind Will’s back. "Um... nothing?"

I frowned at them.

"Okay, something." Will stepped forward, putting himself between me and my son. "It’s not Toby’s fault."

"I don’t like the sound of this."

"I bought Toby a birthday present."

"Okay. You didn’t need to do that, though."

"I know, but it was my fault his day got ruined." He looked down at Toby with a self-indulgent smile. "We spent a bit of time talking while you were in hospital."

"You didn’t ask for a present?" I looked aghast at Toby.

"No, of course he didn’t. We were just talking about things we liked, things we wanted, you know. Toby mentioned that he’d had a go on one of his friend’s skateboard."

Toby had never said he’d had a go on one. I raised my eyebrow at him. Was it possible for a kid to shrink any further? "I think they’re dangerous."

Will chuckled. "Yeah, Toby told me that after I’d got one for him." He put his hand on Toby’s shoulder and my indignant 'you bought him a skateboard?' died on my lips. "I told him I’d talk to you about it. Just thought the day you got out of hospital probably wasn’t the best time." I tilted my head in acknowledgement. "I told him I would teach him, if you agreed."

It seemed like they had it all worked out, and Toby looked so desperate for my permission. I looked at them for long minutes, not really intending to make them sweat but not wanting to give in too quickly either. I sighed deeply, prolonging their agony.

"Okay, but the first catastrophe and it goes."

Toby actually squealed and it was only Will’s quick grasp on his shoulder that stopped him jumping on me in his excitement. As I closed my eyes, a smile on my lips, I could hear Toby’s "Thank you, Dad, you’re the best." Stupidly, it made my heart swell.


CHAPTER FIVE
I lay on my back on the travel rug Will had produced from somewhere watching the slow progress of a plane across the cloudless summer sky, too hot and full from lunch to contemplate moving. The shade of the ancient oak tree under which I lay did little to reduce the temperature, but the police would arrest me for indecent exposure if I removed any more clothes, assuming they were daft enough to be out in this heat. Things wouldn’t have been so bad without the heavy cast which encased my left leg from thigh to foot.

With a quick glance about to see if anybody in this remote corner of Kent was looking, I popped the button of the shorts I wore and eased the zip down a fraction. Weeks ago when the temperatures had started soaring I’d sacrificed a pair of ratty old jeans to the great British summer, and my cast, by turning them into shorts. I had been living in them since.

Breathing easier, I settled back again listening to the shrieking and laughter coming from the river bank twenty yards away. Will had brought us on this picnic armed, not only with a travel rug and said picnic, but also with a large quantity of empty washing up liquid bottles. I didn’t know where he had got them all from although I had a sneaking suspicion that one of them might have been my own, which had been nearly full this morning. I knew from the moment Will caught me looking in the bag that he had been desperate for me to ask him what they were for, but I had refused to play along with him. I’d had a great time on the journey down changing the subject every time he tried to mention them.

Their purpose had become all too obvious when Will had picked his way across the cracked mud of the dried river bed to the narrow stream still flowing in the centre, and painstakingly filled each of the bottles. He’d made it back to the river bank, carefully avoiding the nettle patch that had stung him on his way out, and divided the bottles equally between himself and Toby. And then it was battle stations.

Watching them have a water fight was hilarious. It was hard to tell which one of them was the biggest child. I thought about reminding both of the children that we were in the middle of a drought and in some areas of the country people had to collect their water from standpipes, but I knew my comments would fall on deaf ears. At least they were able to cool off, unlike me.

"Look out, Dad." Toby’s screech came a few seconds too late. I opened my eyes to see Will hurdling me, closely followed by Toby in mid squirt. I don’t know what Toby expected me to do in the time I had available between his shout and the water landing. Despite the blistering heat, it was still a shock when the cold water hit my bare stomach.

There was guilty silence from both parties. I just glowered at them from where I lay prostrate on the rug.

"I think that’s enough now, mate." Will said quietly, taking Toby’s bottle from him and putting it and his in the plastic bag he’d brought them in. Together they collected the rest of the mostly empty bottles and added them, too.

"Why don’t you go exploring?" Will pointed down the river bank to a copse of willows and, with a quick look at me to confirm permission, Toby trotted away.

Will made his way back to the river and across the mud flats to where he had anchored another plastic bag half in the water as an impromptu fridge. Taking out two cans, he returned to me and flopped down by my side while I attempted to dry my skin with my discarded tee shirt.

"Sorry." He handed the beer over in apology.

"Wouldn’t be so bad if I could join in." We both looked down at problem.

"Yeah, I wish you could join in more." My quick glance at him proved he was no longer looking at my cast and, in fact, his gaze had shifted somewhat north, and I knew he wasn’t talking about water fights anymore. I popped the tab of the can, took a deep swallow of the ice cold beer and lay back on my elbows resting the cold can on my groin.

"Oh, that’s good." The chill through the denim was bliss, and reminded my cock that now was not the time to get excited.

Will’s swallow was audible. "You’re a bloody tease, Raymond Doyle."

I grinned. "You started it."

"Huh."

"That’s an intelligent way to win an argument, William."

"I only looked," he said petulantly. "If you do wear... that," he gestured to my home-made shorts, "and nothing else, what do you expect?"

"It’s too hot to wear anything else." I looked down at the now damp jeans and tee shirt combination that he favoured. "Aren’t you hot dressed like that?"

"Don’t want to burn my poor, fair skin."

I glanced at my own tanned body, seeing in my mind’s eye the contrast between it and his milky complexion. I adjusted the can against my groin again. "Ah well, we can’t all be delicate English Roses."

He grunted and lay back.

I looked down the river to where Toby was pottering about in the willows. He gave me a quick wave, which I returned.

"You’ve got a good kid, there."

"Think he’s rather fond of you, too." I settled back down. "How’s the skateboard training coming along?" Over the last few weeks I had deliberately tried not to be overbearing and let them get on with it without my supervision. With my immobility it had been very hard to find something to do that would distract me when Will took Toby out with the skateboard. I ended up biting my nails quite a lot.

"He’s doing great. Would be good if there was some place he could go, rather than in the Gardens, though. We’re starting to get odd looks from the residents."

"That’s surprising, considering who the residents are."

We shared a chuckle.

I had another drink of beer. "There’s some waste ground behind the Youth Centre. Think it’s a bomb site left from the War, so it’s quite likely there’s concrete under all the weeds and rubbish. It might be worth having a word with the Centre Manager, see if you can turn it into something."

He gave it some thought. "Be a great place for the kids. I’ll call in to see them tomorrow." He grinned across at me. "If they say yes, don’t think you’re getting out of helping, broken leg or not."

"Oh, I’m very good at supervising." I huffed a little. "I’ve been doing enough of it down there as it is. Do you know how difficult it is teaching karate without doing it yourself?" I hadn’t liked letting down the kids at the Centre, so had been carrying on the lessons from the side lines. Thankfully, Toby already had some idea of the routines and was able to demonstrate them. I would just have to correct anyone’s imperfect moves and stances when I was up to full strength.

"I meant you could help design it. But, if you’ve got your heart set on supervising..."

"How about I do both?"

He grinned at me and raised his beer can in a toast. "To Bow’s first skateboarding recreation ground."

Once again relegated to the back seat of Will’s borrowed car when we returned to Town hours later, I lay across the back seat with my broken leg stretched out in comfort. Toby and Will were discussing plans for the waste ground, too soon in my opinion, and I balled up the rug into a cushion behind my head and let lethargy and the movement of the car lull me to sleep. Nearly four weeks on from the accident I found I still tired easily, and the blistering heat certainly didn’t help. Sweat did not make for a happy crutching experience: I had the underarm sores to prove it.

By the time Will found a parking space in Tredegar Square and switched off the engine I had been asleep for nearly two hours. In the sultry evening it hadn’t been very relaxing. I manoeuvred myself out of the car while Will and Toby collected our bits and pieces, then I led the way on my crutches to the front door. By the time we made it to the top floor I was desperate for a bath and knew the best I could hope for was a wet flannel. Seeing an envelope pinned to the door only served to make me feel more miserable.

Will gave me an enquiring look to which I just shrugged. I knew exactly what it was, and was surprised the landlord had taken so long to demand payment. I had heard stories of tenants in other blocks kicked out of their homes for being less than one week late paying, let alone three.

"Ray?"

I reached over and pulled the letter off the door.

"It’s okay, Will. I’ll look at it later." I certainly didn’t want to worry Toby, and wasn’t in the habit of discussing my finances with anyone other than my bank manager, and that only on rare occasions.

I opened the door, and let Toby go first. He dropped the bag of washing up liquid bottles and the rug on the table and then, oblivious to everything, disappeared off to his room. The radio soon switched on. Will placed his own bags on the table and turned to lean against it, giving me a considering look.

"How bad is it, Ray?"

"It’s nothing."

He wasn’t going to let the subject drop, though. "Is it your rent?" At my nod, he continued. "How far behind are you?"

I didn’t want to tell him but I knew I had buried my head in the sand for too long. "Three weeks behind. Next payment’s due a week on Tuesday." I found I couldn’t look him in the eye.

"So, we’re looking at two months here?"

"We’re not looking at anything, Will. It’s my problem." I was too tired to fight with him. He stood looking at me for what seemed like ten minutes then he pulled out a chair.

"Sit down, sunshine, before you wobble off your crutches." I hadn’t realised I was swaying, and let him take my elbow and lead me to the chair. When he had me settled to his satisfaction he took the crutches and lent them against the wall and then turned to fill the kettle.

Once he had made the tea, he placed a mug in front of me and then sat down with his own mug across the table.

"So, let me guess here. You haven’t paid your rent because you haven’t enough money. You haven’t enough money because you haven’t been working. You haven’t been working because you have a broken leg. All okay so far?"

I nodded.

"You have a broken leg because some clumsy idiot pushed you down the stairs, right?"

Again, I nodded.

"Is it just the rent?"

"Yeah, the last payment I got from the publisher and the Family Allowance we get have been covering the other bills and food."

"Is there enough there to pay at least one month’s rent?"

With a rueful smile I shook my head.

Will thought for a few minutes while drinking the steaming beverage. Finally, he put me out of my misery. "Right, this is what we’re going to do. First thing tomorrow I’m going to the bank and I’m going to get enough money to cover the rent." He swiftly held up his hand to stop me before my mouth was even half open to object. "It’s my fault you’re in this situation. Let me help you out now and you can pay me back when you’re back on your feet. It’s just a loan, okay? I’ll even charge you interest if it makes you feel better."

That made me smile, as he knew it would.

"I’ll go and see the landlord straight after the bank. Has he told you how long you have to pay?" He nodded towards the still unopened letter clutched in my hand.

I opened it and read it through. "Forty eight hours."

He beamed at me. "Plenty of time, then."

A knock on the door at eleven thirty the next morning had me hopping across the living room, clutching the back of the settee and then a chair to help me along. Even though I was getting quite adept at it now, I didn’t rush. It was most likely Will: since the heat wave had started Mrs M hadn’t set foot on the stairs. Given a choice, neither would I.

Will’s arms were full of bags from the local supermarket. "Took your bleeding time, didn’t you? My arms are about to drop off." The smile took the sting out of his words.

"Hello? Man with broken leg here."

"Man with broken leg does have a son." He pushed past me and made his way into the kitchenette.

"Son of man with broken leg is out playing with his friends." I shut the door and hopped towards the table. I reached for my wallet which I kept in the table drawer as he started to empty the bags. "How much?"

"Not this time, sunshine." Will had been getting our groceries for us since the accident. He had never refused payment before.

"What?"

"Groceries are on me today."

"For God’s sake, Will..."

He put down the box of one dozen eggs he had just unpacked. "I mean it, Ray. I’m celebrating."

"Oh, yeah?"

"I called into the Youth Centre on my way to the bank this morning. Outlined my plans for the waste ground and they said yes. So long as I and some volunteers, of course, can clear the site, the Youth Centre will help fund some equipment."

I hadn’t expected that. "That’s great news, mate. You still don’t need to buy our food, though."

"Please, Ray, let me help. I want to." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper which he handed me. "It’s a receipt from the landlord for last month’s rent to bring you up to date, and one in advance."

I took it from him. "Thanks." A word didn’t seem enough to show my gratitude.

"Now, when’s Toby going to be back? We need to start planning." He unpacked the rest of the groceries, rattling on about ramp heights and a whole manner of other things I assume were to do with skateboarding. I have no idea how he knew all this stuff. Either he had very eclectic reading tastes, and was there even a skateboard magazine published, or else he had first-hand experience. As skateboarding was such a new craze, I suspected the former.

On the first weekend in September Jax hosted his annual End of Summer Party, to which Toby and I received our usual invitation. Mobility being the issue that it was, when Jax called round with the invite I asked if we could bring Will. I felt it was past time that my friends met, although I was not about to suggest to either of them that Will was my boyfriend and this was a date.

I had never really told Jax that I was bi-sexual. It had certainly never come up in conversation, in fact I had been married to Ann when Jax and I first met, but I suspected that he knew. Over the years he had never given any indication that he had a problem with homosexuals. But, even so, there was no point in rocking the boat. Which is why, as far as Jax knew, Will was just a friend and my designated chauffeur for the duration.

On the Saturday afternoon Will double-parked on the narrow street outside Jax’s house and helped me out of the car while leaving the engine running, before jumping back in to find a parking space. We stood on the pavement waiting for him to return, Toby clutching a bag containing beer and crisps and me my crutches.

Toby nudged me when he spotted Will jogging back along the street some minutes later. "What kept you?" I asked cheekily.

He puffed out a breath. "The closest space was three roads away. It’s ridiculous. Why is everyone at home on a Saturday?"

I ignored his grousing and knocked on Jax’s front door.

Marie greeted us warmly, me and Toby with a kiss and a hug and Will with a firm handshake, and then invited us inside. Toby immediately disappeared into the depths of the terraced house with the other children present, and Marie led the adults into the garden where someone immediately relinquished a chair for me and another someone positioned a wooden box topped with a plump cushion under my leg. I grunted my grudging thanks: it was annoying that everyone treated me like an invalid, even if that’s what I was.

Marie grabbed two beer cans from a cooler as she passed a table laden with food and drink and thrust them at us on her way back into the house.

"Help yourself to food when you’re ready, boys."

Will perched tentatively on one of the stones of the rock garden next to me. Halfway through a mouthful of beer I realised how ridiculous he looked.

"You look like a gnome." Liquid inelegantly snorted through my nose as I spluttered. "All you need now is a fishing rod."

His answer was to pull the keys from his pocket and wave them in my face. "Just remember it’s a long way home without a car, sunshine."

Two of my old work colleagues stopped by us then and I had no opportunity to reply.

"Ray, me old son, what’s up with the leg? I thought you’d given up the dangerous work." They greeted me enthusiastically with a slap on my shoulder and a grin. I introduced Will to Rob and Pete, but we were soon deep in conversation, sharing reminiscences about past arrests and failures.

"Do you remember that raid we did down at old Stephenson’s place?"

"The one with the prossies..."

"And the vicar."

We all burst out laughing. I was wiping tears from my eyes when I looked across at Will. His usually expressive face was a blank mask and I realised with a guilty start that I had pretty much ignored him for the past fifteen minutes.

"Sorry, mate. We get carried away some times."

He blinked me into focus and his face thawed slightly. "It’s okay. I know what it’s like." Will knew I was still half listening to the conversation going on at my other side. "Look, I’ll go and grab some food, mingle a bit." I was about to object when he stood up. "It’ll give you time to catch up a bit more." He smiled across at a group of Marie’s friends sitting under a sunshade. "I’ll bring you a plate back."

Feeling even more guilty I watched him walk away. He was soon chatting away to a couple of women at the food table, and I found myself pulled back into the conversation about past glories.

I had totally lost track of time when Jax joined us. He handed me another drink and sat on the same rock that Will had used earlier. I looked at my watch and realised that over an hour had passed since Will had left and when I glanced around I could see no sign of him. I had a moment of panic when I thought that maybe he had left without us.

Rob and Pete drifted away to join their wives getting food. I was still surreptitiously looking around for Will and I jumped when Jax spoke.

"That the paragon, then?" He asked.

"Paragon?" I wondered if Will and I had given ourselves away.

"Yeah, Toby’s been talking." Ah, that explained it. Toby had a serious case of hero-worship going on with Mr Phillips.

"Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Ray?"

What was he going on about? "What I’m doing?"

"Look, I don’t know the man, I admit. But..." I’m not sure what Jax was going to say, but his hesitation made it clear what followed wasn’t his first thought. "Toby is getting too attached to him, okay?" I glanced behind me still looking for Will. "And I don’t think he’s the only one."

My head spun back round to Jax. "What do you mean?"

"You both seem infatuated with him for some reason."

I was getting annoyed. If I didn’t know better I’d say he was jealous. "You don’t know him. He’s a good man, done a lot for us over the last few weeks since this." I gestured to my leg. I didn’t go into details. Jax didn’t need to know how Will had bailed me out from potential homelessness.

I finally caught sight of Will leaning into Marie, the two of them giggling while they attempted to dance to a song I could only just hear over the chatter. Jax looked too, and I realised that his concern probably wasn’t for me and Toby. Will did look a little too cosy with Marie. He spun her away from him, keeping hold of her hand to pull her back in to his body with the next beat of the song. I couldn’t help but smile. I could see that Marie had more musicality than Will, but you couldn’t say either of them were expert dancers. In fact they were murdering the Samba they were attempting. But what did it matter? They were having a great time, and not hurting anyone except, perhaps, Jax.

I turned back to my good friend. "He’s okay, man. He’s a smooth talker, but he’s not a thief."

He didn’t answer immediately, his eyes firmly fixed on his wife. "I don’t know. There’s just something that doesn’t seem quite right. I can’t put my finger on it." He trailed off.

Without outing us both, there was little more I could do to put his mind at rest. We had never really discussed whether or not we were out and proud. I couldn’t imagine Will being anything other than comfortable with his sexuality, but I certainly didn’t have the right to drag him out of the closet if he wasn’t. And I wasn’t sure I was ready to confirm just now any suspicions Jax might have about me.

The song ended and Will let Marie go with a bow and an elaborate kiss to her hand. She was out of breath and laughing, her beautiful face alive. In that moment I envied Jax. Then Will looked over to me and his smile softened. He grabbed a couple of loaded plates off the table and wove his way through people and furniture back to my side. Hooking a spare chair with his foot he pulled it over and handed me one of the plates before plonking himself down.

"Phew, my feet are killing me. That woman can wear a man out on the dance floor." Will was oblivious to Jax’s tense and forced smile.

I realised belatedly that there had been no official introduction so I did the honours before Will could dig a deeper hole for himself. "Will, this is my old friend Jax. It’s his wife you’ve been dancing with." Will had the grace to look embarrassed. "Jax, my neighbour and chauffeur du jour Will."

Will politely held his hand out. Jax looked at him with consideration for a long moment before shaking it. I was regretting ever having the notion to bring them together.

When Marie called Jax away, Will wasn’t the only one who looked relieved. Jax stood up and stretched, popping the muscles in his back then he lent down to me. "Remember what I said, Ray," he muttered quietly.

As he walked away Will looked at me. "What’s his problem?"

I shrugged and grinned. "I think you got off on the wrong foot. I’ve never seen him jealous before."

"Who’s he jealous of?"

I really did wonder about him sometimes. My only answer was a raised eyebrow as I shoved a sausage roll into my mouth.

"Me?" He almost squeaked. It was hilarious. "He’s jealous of me?"

I swallowed the pastry too quickly. When I’d finished choking I looked up at him. "He thinks you have designs on his wife." He looked across the garden to Jax and Marie, deep in conversation with another couple.

"Well, she’s lovely, but she doesn’t exactly have the right equipment." I can’t begin to describe the warm feeling that comment gave me. I just sat there with what I assume was a completely gormless look on my face. "Didn’t you tell him about...?" He flapped his hand back and forth between us.

"I’m not sure he knows about me."

He nodded and speared a pickled onion. "Perhaps I need to spread my charm and good looks around all the ladies, you know, throw him off the scent."

"Heaven help us."

As soon as his plate was empty he jumped up and proceeded to do just that.


CHAPTER SIX

Though it hurts to go away, it's impossible to stay, but there's one thing I must say before I go: I love you.

"Urgh." With an angry flick, I switched off the plug for the radio and cut the song short before it had even got going. The last thing I needed this morning was the cheesy exuberance of the Brotherhood of Man belting out their Eurovision hit. I hadn’t liked it the first time I’d heard it back in April, and I certainly didn’t like it now.

My mood was as grey as the weather outside. I should have been grateful that the heat had finally broken and temperatures were back to where they should be for the time of year, but my newly cast-free leg was sore and aching and I was having a hard time not scratching the dry flaky skin and the scab left from where the wound had healed.

I’d had the cast removed five days ago with strict instructions to carry on using the crutches while the atrophied muscles strengthened. But of course I thought I knew best, and had decided to go downstairs for my post this morning without them. And now I was suffering.

It didn’t help that the only letter in the post was the bloody bank statement showing just how broke I actually was, and that was with Will paying the rent and refusing to accept any money for all the groceries he’d bought since he’d bailed me out. I didn’t know what I was going to do. But before I resorted to desperate measures I decided a visit to Alf was in order.

I grabbed my jacket and slipped it on and then with more sense than I had shown earlier, I positioned the crutches and set off.

"Ray, how are you doing?" Alf’s voice boomed down the aisle ahead of him. Well, at least he looked pleased to see me, and Rita fussed around, bringing a chair from the store room and insisting I sit down.

"Are you alright, dear? You look awfully pale. Are you eating enough?" She broke off from her mothering as Alf shot her a look and shook his head.

"I’m fine, thank you, Rita. Just think I’ve overdone it a bit today."

"You know what you need, Ray, a nice cup of tea. Put the world to rights." And with that, she blustered off into the back room and I heard teacups rattling together before the noise of the kettle heating up drowned out the ancillary sounds.

"What can I do for you, Ray?" Alf propped himself against the counter and folded his arms across his chest. That was definitely some formidable body language. He obviously knew why I was there and I knew what the answer would be before I asked for my job back. Masochist that I am, I still put myself through the humiliation.

"Thing is, Ray, when you had your accident I had to find someone else and, well, they worked out fine. It wouldn’t be fair to kick them out, and I can’t afford to employ both of you."

I closed my eyes momentarily to hide how disappointed I was. "I understand, Alf. You can’t blame me for asking."

"Of course not, you young fool. In other circumstances..."

I nodded and pulled myself to my feet, just as Rita pushed through the multi-coloured plastic strips of the fly screen.

"Ray, sit yourself back down and have your cuppa." I’ve no doubt she would have physically pushed me down if I hadn’t done as she asked.

Tactfully, Alf disappeared back behind the fly screen leaving me to Rita’s ministrations.

"Did you want your job back?" She asked gently.

I nodded. "It’s alright, I do understand."

"Just a bit disappointed, yeah?"

I answered simply by nodding again.

"How’s Toby?"

"Not too happy to be back at school now summer’s over. But I’m pleased to have some peace and quiet back."

"I remember those days. Couldn’t wait for the holidays to start but, by God, by the time they were over it’s a wonder I had any hair left."

While I slurped on the strong, hot tea I watched absently as she started bagging up bits and pieces off the shelves; some apples, pears, bananas that were almost too ripe, juicy tomatoes and lettuce, carrots, a cabbage starting to shrivel. She didn’t stop until a plastic carrier bag was full. I still didn’t realise what she was doing until she pressed the bag onto me as I was leaving.

"Can you manage this with the crutches?"

"Rita, what are...?"

"You can’t fool me, Ray. I can see you’ve not been eating enough. You were always waif like, now you’re positively gaunt."

"But... I’m sorry, I can’t afford..."

"Nonsense. It will only be fit to be thrown away at the end of the day if you don’t have it. This way, it’s doing some good." She patted my arm, and turned back to the shelves, adjusting the produce to hide any noticeable gaps.

"Thank you!" I could feel myself choking up, but before I turned away I caught sight of her sad smile.

What the hell was wrong with me? I should be happy, what with the cast coming off and my relationship with Will going well, even if he hadn’t been around so much in the last two weeks. The clearing of the Youth Centre site in preparation for the skate park had taken a lot of his free time and I hadn’t always been able to get down there with him. And I know he had increased his work hours on the quiet, probably in order to pay my rent. Great, now I could add guilt to my problems.

Two doors down from Alf’s, I hopped into the newsagents and fished out a few coins from my pocket to buy the local paper. Although Thursday was its primary jobs section, it usually ran the smaller, classified adverts on a daily basis. It was worth a look, at any rate.

My next stop was the phone box outside the Liberty cinema. I dialled the number for the publishers from memory, and studied the garish Bollywood movie posters while I waited to be connected. My luck wasn’t any better there. There were some jobs coming up, probably in a month or two, but nothing right now. I thanked the secretary who relayed the message and hung up.

Deciding I could achieve nothing more by hanging around Mile End I crutched my way slowly home, the bag of fruit and vegetables banging constantly against my knee. As I was passing the end of Rhondda Grove I could hear angry voices coming from the fore yard of one of the small industrial units on the left hand side. I wouldn’t have stopped but for recognising both of the voices: Will and one of my snitches from my Met days, Billy Jackson.

Keeping out of sight behind a battered custard yellow Ford Transit van, I unashamedly listened as best I could.

"You said you’d have it arranged by today, Billy. I don’t want to listen to any more of your excuses."

"It’s not my fault, is it, Phillips?" It was nice to see that Billy hadn’t changed over the years since I’d last seen him. He was still the same old whinging, snivelling little bit of dirt he’d always been. "I can’t help it if that Irish lot don’t want to play ball."

"If you don’t get it fixed up, Billy, the boss will send the heavy boys round." There was the unexpected sound of a hand impacting against skin. "This is nothing compared to what they’ll do." Billy sniffled wetly as Will paused for effect. "I’ll meet you here tomorrow morning at ten. If it’s not fixed up by then..." He left the threat unsaid.

Shuffling feet heading my way made me duck onto the road a little more to keep the van between me and whoever was coming. Billy, hunched into his upturned collar and with his cap pulled down, mumbled his way past me cursing all and sundry for his lot in life.

I waited until several minutes had passed but there was no sign of Will. I imagine he must have gone the long way home, and as I stood watching the dark shape of a figure turning onto Morgan Street at The Holy Trinity Church confirmed it. With a slight shrug and a puzzled frown, I turned back to Mile End Road and made my slow progress home.

The stew I was able to make from the vegetables Rita had ‘thrown out’ and some old potatoes I’d had lying around filled me up for the first time in weeks, and for once I ate as much as Toby. He hadn’t noticed that I’d eased up on food, and even now all he could do was moan about the lack of meat. I was too preoccupied with what I had seen and heard to bite back that he should be grateful.

The knock as I was drying up was no surprise and with some reservations I yelled out that the door was unlocked. Will poked his head around the frame and grinned at me.

"I come bearing gifts."

I dredged up a smile from somewhere as he brought his left hand out from behind his back, dangling a carrier bag from his index finger.

Eagerly, Toby yelled "what is it?" My son had no finesse!

Will smiled indulgently at Toby and handed him the bag. The chocolate cake he pulled out went some way to appeasing him for the awful vegetarian meal he’d had to endure.

Will had another bag in his right hand, this one for adults only. "Better have the drink now, sunshine. The beer’ll taste revolting if you eat the cake first."

I supervised Toby’s portioning of the cake, and then Will and I sat at the table each with a can of beer.

"You’re quiet," he observed after a few minutes. "Things on your mind?"

"Yeah." I took a deep swallow. "I went to see Alf today, to see about getting my old job back."

"No luck?"

"Nah."

"Things really that bad? You know I don’t mind helping out."

"I know, and I had to accept it while I was recovering. But now it’s time to stand on my own feet again, literally as well as figuratively."

"What you going to do?"

I shrugged. The paper had been a waste of money, there had been no suitable jobs in it. "Something will come up." We drank in silence for a few moments.

"What about you?" He raised his eyebrow at my question. "Work OK?"

"Brilliant, thanks." He almost looked suspicious, or was that me seeing things I wanted to?

"I saw you today."

His arm paused with the beer can halfway to his mouth.

"Oh?"

"Yeah, on my way home from Alf’s. You were talking to some bloke along Rhondda Grove."

He slowly put the can back down without drinking. I couldn’t read the expression on his face.

"Yeah, he was asking for directions."

I acknowledged that with a slight tilt of my head, and then took another swallow of beer. I would gain nothing by admitting what I’d heard, that was obvious from his now shuttered look. I would have to find out more by subterfuge.

We sat quietly, both of us suddenly on edge, and finished off the slices of chocolate cake Toby had cut. I didn’t feel inclined to break the uncomfortable silence, and Will made no move to, either.

I strapped my leg up with an elasticated bandage that I found in the back of my sock drawer. Yes, what I was doing was foolhardy, but I had to know what was going on with Will. A man on crutches was too obvious, too easily spotted and remembered.

At nine forty-five I secreted myself in the ivy-shrouded back gateway of the property directly opposite the industrial unit Will and Billy had met outside the day before. It was raining steadily and I was confident no-one could see me.

At ten Billy shuffled along from Mile End Road dressed in the same clothes as yesterday. In fact the only difference from the day before was the direction he was travelling and the lack of mumbling. Whistling from the opposite direction announced Will’s arrival, but I couldn’t hear any more over the rain and the drone of the traffic on wet tarmac.

No more than five minutes went by, and then the two men walked off together back the way Billy had come. At a safe distance I followed, trying my best to ignore the ache that had already started up in my leg. At the Tube station they went their separate ways, Billy on the Central line, and Will on the District. There was no decision to make, purchasing a ticket quickly I was able to hop on the same train as Will, a safe distance from him.

He changed at Whitechapel and for a heart stopping moment I thought he had spotted me when I got too close to him. I ducked back, keeping the crowd between us.

Will eventually got off at Surrey Docks and walked quickly to a derelict office block some streets from the station. I hung back and found a convenient doorway to tuck myself in out of the rain and out of sight. Will hovered in front of the office, periodically checking his watch and glancing up and down the road. The longer he waited the more agitated he seemed to get. When a black sports car pulled up to the curb by him, I could almost feel the relief he exuded.

He bent down and talked to the driver through the open window for a couple of minutes, and then the driver got out. I don’t know why I was surprised when I saw it was Murphy Michaels. The tall, dark haired man slung an arm across Will’s shoulders and together they entered the office building.

I eased my weight onto my right leg, and leant down to rub absently at my aching calf, my eyes straining through the rain to catch any movements inside. Half an hour passed before a second vehicle drove up and parked behind Michaels Jaguar. Will ran out of the office foyer, an umbrella found from somewhere, and held it ready for the newcomer. I was glad of the noise from the rain then, because I couldn’t silence the gasp I gave when I saw who this man was. Robert Gower.

I knew Gower from my days in the Met, when he had been a suspected arms and drugs dealer. There were even suggestions he could be involved with terrorists. Basically, you name it, he was suspected of it. But that was always as far as it went – suspicion. Obviously I didn’t know what had happened in the intervening years, but my gut feeling was that he was still bad and somehow still evaded capture.

Gower towered above Will, and must have outweighed him by a good two or three stone. He had been an amateur boxer in the Fifties before apparently deciding crime paid better. That or he had discovered he had no talent for boxing. I didn’t much care what his reason was. There were rumours that he had been involved with the notorious Kray brothers before branching out on his own, a brave move back then when the twins ruled the London East End with fear. Of course, with their arrest in 1968 Gower had been in a prime position to take up where they left off. And take up he had. He was soon running his own protection rackets and regularly organised armed robberies and violent assaults. I’ve no doubt there were as many murders with his name on them as there had been for the Krays.

Will lead Gower inside, and I was left huddled in my doorway, shivering as much with exhaustion as with cold and wet.

I lost track of time, but by the time anyone emerged from the office the rain was stopping and the sun was trying very hard to peek through the black clouds. I nearly missed Michaels exit because I was too busy watching the rainbow that had appeared towards the east.

With a squeal of tyres he drove off, and Will and Gower stayed conversing on the pavement. Gower was obviously giving instructions to which Will nodded and occasionally spoke. The handing over of a package, which Will slipped into his inside pocket, signalled the end of the meeting and Gower unlocked his car and lowered himself inside. He drove off marginally more sedately than Michaels, and then Will turned and made his way back the way we had come.

Limping badly, bedraggled and miserable, I lost him before I reached the station. Unable to dredge up the enthusiasm to care I caught the Tube back home.

I was still soaking in the now lukewarm bath when Toby arrived home from school. I’d almost had to drag myself up the three flights of stairs and had leaned senselessly against my front door for a few long moments while I tried to get the key in the lock. On the fourth attempt, and with a deep breath, I had succeeded. I neither knew nor cared whether or not Will was home.

I stripped out of my wet clothes and unrolled the bandage while the kettle was boiling, and then took myself off with my brandy laced coffee and a slice of left-over chocolate cake into the bathroom. The cooking brandy that had been languishing in the back of the cupboard since three Christmases ago didn’t taste too bad, and it was certainly welcome at staving off the chills.

Once the shivering had stopped and I could actually enjoy the feel of the hot water on my aching muscles, my mind shifted back to the problem I found myself in with Will. Over the last couple of months my feelings for my neighbour had been steadily getting deeper and it wasn’t just gratitude for the way he had looked after us since the accident. Nor was it the fantastic sex we shared. I loved his sense of humour, his childlike enthusiasm for the smallest things, and the way he knew me better than anyone. I had to admit to myself that I had fallen in love with the man.

But, and boy was it a big but, I could not accept a relationship with someone involved in criminal activities. And therein lay the problem.

I was no closer to solving the problem when Toby arrived home from school.

"You okay, Dad?" He called through the door.

"Yeah, just got soaked when I was out. Trying to warm up a bit. Be out in a few minutes." I balanced on my right leg while I dried myself off, refusing to consider how far back I’d set my recovery. I was due to see the consultant in three days and wondered what he’d have to say on the subject. No way did the term ‘gentle exercise’ include gallivanting around London without my crutches. Hopping out of the bathroom, wrapped snugly in my towelling robe and feeling one hundred per cent warmer, I met Toby’s ‘grown-up’ glare with a half-smile and a shrug.

"What have you done, Dad?"

"Overdid it, that’s all. It’ll be alright with a bit of rest."

I saw his surreptitious glance over to the kitchenette at the same time as his stomach rumbled. "Bread and jam and a glass of milk for now, and I’ll sort proper dinner out when my leg’s had chance to rest."

He passed my crutches and followed me to the table where he waited patiently while I cut and buttered the bread, and then slathered on strawberry jam. I made myself one while I was at it, and together we ate companionably while he told me about his day.

By nine o’clock, with Toby tucked up in bed, I had come to the conclusion that thankfully Will would not be showing up that night. The light knock on the door proved me wrong.

I ignored it. I didn’t think I could be civil with him tonight, and I wasn’t up to putting it to the test. He knocked again, louder and more insistent. I stayed on the settee with my left leg stretched out and propped on a pile of cushions.

"Ray?"

The banging grew in volume. He was going to wake Toby if he didn’t stop.

"Go away, Will. I’m tired."

"You okay?" God, what was it with everyone asking me if I was okay?

"I’m fine. Just tired."

"I’ve got just what you need." I groaned and buried my head in my arm that was resting along the back of the settee. What I did not need an amorous Will in my flat tonight.

I thought he’d gone away, but then I heard scratching at the door. I couldn’t believe it. The little... criminal was picking the lock.

I staggered to my feet and grabbed the one crutch, tucking it under my arm and hobbling to the door. When I flung it open I saw Will on his hands and knees with some dubious looking tools clutched in his hand.

"I may not be a copper any more, but if you ever break into my flat I will bust you so fast..." The smile faded abruptly when faced with my anger. "I said I wasn’t up for company tonight."

I wedged myself in the doorway, holding the door close against me to prevent him pushing past. He stood up, and slipped the tools into his pocket, unsure of himself now.

"Sorry, I didn’t..." he muttered a half-hearted apology, eyes downcast.

"Yes, you did." I wasn’t going to back down tonight. "What do you want, Will?"

"Company." He saw my sceptical look, and amended hastily, "just to talk. I..." He swallowed. "I could do with a friendly face and a bit of distraction right now. That’s all." For what was probably the first time since I’d met him his face was an open book and I found my resolve weakening.

"Can’t it wait ‘til morning?"

He studied me for a long moment. "Yeah, I guess it can at that." His lips twitched with a brief smile, and then he turned away. Pausing at the stairs, he looked back. "I’m sorry about..." He waved his hand towards the lock.

I nodded and shut the door, slipping on the security chain, just in case.


CHAPTER SEVEN

Acknowledging the need for the crutches the next day, I made my way through the Gardens to the phone box on the other side of the Square.

Jax was at his desk when the girl on the switchboard transferred my call.

"Ray, my man, what can I do for you this fine sunny morning?" I glanced around me. It was indeed fine and sunny after yesterday’s downpour. I hadn’t even noticed.

"Thought you’d be on a stakeout or something."

"Nah, got to catch up with the paperwork some times."

"I remember those not-so-good old days." We shared a chuckle.

"Listen, Jax. I wondered if you could check on something for me; ask a few questions in the right ears."

"You up to no good, then?"

"Not me, mate."

I had lain awake for hours last night, mulling over what I should do. I didn’t want to shop Will, and I didn’t want to give Jax fuel against him, but I couldn’t ignore Robert Gower and the possibility that he could be up to his nefarious activities again. In the early hours as dawn was just breaking I had reached the decision that I would call Jax in the morning, I just wouldn’t mention Will.

"Robert Gower. What do you know about him?"

There was a moment’s silence. "Why are you asking, Ray?"

"I saw him yesterday, south of the river."

"What were you doing south of the river?"

"That’s not important."

"Hmm." I could hear him rifling through some papers. "I haven’t come across anything recently, but we’re always told to keep an eye out for him. Yes, here we are. Confirmation that he’s moved on from drugs and prostitution. Now he’s playing with the big boys."

I don’t think I wanted to know who the big boys were.

Jax rang off with a promise to get back to me, and I returned to my more immediate problem of finances, and the added burden of refusing any more of Will’s assistance.

By lunchtime and with help from Dave Martin I had hocked the stereo, the television and a gold pocket watch passed down the Doyle family line and somehow ending up with me. I didn’t even know who had originally owned it and so had few qualms about parting with it, albeit temporarily. At a push, I could cover the rent and bills for the next month, giving me time to call on the bank to see if they waive the charges they had made and to sort out a proper job. I’d give my leg another few days to strengthen, especially after the jaunt yesterday, and then I’d look for work in earnest.

Toby wasn’t too pleased at the loss of the TV, but I paid little heed to his moaning. We still had the radio so I could at least keep up with the news.

Two days after I had spoken to Jax on the phone he turned up on my doorstep. I had barely got the door open before he was pushing me back inside.

"Toby around?"

"No, he’s still at school. What’s going on?"

"Gower."

I took one look at his stern face and lead the way to the kitchenette. He sat at the table while I filled the kettle.

"Word is Donald O’Leary is looking to buy enough fire power for his splinter group, and then some. "

"Fuck, he’s a mad bastard. Even the IRA encouraged him to leave."

Jax nodded in agreement. He carried on while I spooned coffee and sugar into two mugs.

"Gower, apparently, can get his hands on a large quantity of AR-18s and is willing to deal with O’Leary."

"Where’s he getting them from?"

"Ah, that’s the interesting bit. There’s an Irish merc, recently returned from Africa, who’s been making noises round the city that he’s in the market to sell. Turns out he has a friend who’s in Gower’s employment, and this friend made the introductions."

I shut my eyes trying to stop the sinking feeling of my heart dropping.

"Ray..."

"I know, okay? I know."

I looked at him then, saw the compassion in his eyes. Knowing he was waiting for my story I turned to pour boiling water onto the coffee granules.

"You know I didn’t take to Phillips, but I wouldn’t have wished this to get rid of him."

"I know, mate." I placed one of the mugs in front of him and then sat down heavily, my hand clasped around the other one. "What the hell am I going to do?"

He shook his head. "From what I heard, Murphy Michaels won’t deal directly with Gower, insists on doing his friend a good turn or he walks away. I assume Phillips will be in for a nice bonus when the deal is done."

"Where did they meet, Will and Michaels?"

"Africa. It appears Phillips saved Michaels life out in the bush. Michaels feels he owes him, I guess."

"Any link with my old snitch, Billy Jackson?"

"How’d you know about him?"

"I wish I didn’t. I saw him and Will talking, got me suspicious so I followed Will to a meet with Gower."

"South of the river?"

"South of the river." I agreed.

He grinned. "I wondered why the crutches were back in full use. Too much walking?"

I managed a smile and took a sip of the hot coffee.

"Billy Jackson somehow ended up in the unenviable position of being the go-between for Gower and O’Leary."

"Rather him than me."

For a few minutes we drank in silence. "Far be it for me to tell you what to do..."

"That’s never stopped you." I interrupted with a chuckle.

"No, well, you’re like a little brother to me. And Marie would never forgive me if I let you get hurt." Big bad Jax was just a softy at heart. "Anyway, you need to keep away from Phillips. Things with O’Leary always have a way of turning nasty, and you don’t want to be caught up in it."

"You don’t need to tell me, mate."

Jax stood up to go.

"Are the Met going to do anything?"

He looked down at me. "I’ve got some feelers out on the streets, as soon as there’s anything definite with dates and locations, I’ll go to Willis." Bastard though he was, Detective Superintendent Willis was as keen to bring Gower down as the rest of us.

"Thanks, Jax, I appreciate it."

He let himself out of the flat, shouting "see you around, Ray" as the door shut behind him. I stared into the dregs of coffee at the bottom of the mug.

The next morning I went to the bank, begging bowl in hand. I was surprised and more than a little grateful when the bank manager agreed to a temporary official overdraft and was prepared to refund the charges the bank had made when I had unofficially gone overdrawn. I thanked him and hurriedly left before he could change his mind.

It was unfortunate for Billy Jackson that I bumped into him as I turned onto the high street. I was not in the mood to take prisoners and felt little remorse as I grabbed him by the collar and hauled him into the dark alleyway which ran down the side of the local betting shop.

"Mr Doyle, Sir. What can I do for you? I was just on my way to a meeting." His eyes flicked to the wall of the bookmakers before he looked me up and down nervously.

"I seem to remember telling you, Billy, that the horses are a very bad habit to have."

"Had a run of luck, recently, ‘aven’t I, Mr Doyle? Things are looking up."

"I just bet they are, Billy."

He swallowed nervously and tried to straighten his collar while my fingers still clasped it tightly.

"I have heard a rumour, Billy."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah, about you and some deal that’s going down soon."

"What deal’s that, Mr Doyle?"

I twisted my hand slightly and saw the panic in his eyes as his airway was restricted.

"I swear, I don’t know..."

Another twist and he was hyperventilating.

"Okay, okay," he gasped. I let up slightly, but didn’t let go.

He gulped air back into his lungs. "I don’t know any details, Mr Doyle, honest. I just deliver their messages."

"And what messages are those?"

"I don’t know. They’re always sealed. They don’t trust me with the details."

Thinking back to the conversation I had overheard between Will and Billy I knew he was lying. "You see, Billy, I know that’s not true." I pushed him back into the wall. "I know you’ve fixed up a meet between two of the parties concerned. Now, all I want to know is when and where."

Beneath my arms I felt him relax slightly. "You’ve missed it, Mr Doyle. Was two days ago, an old office building in Surrey Quays. I can give you the address, if you want."

I had a feeling I already knew it, but let him tell me anyway. I was right.

Releasing him, I straightened up on my crutches.

With new found bravado he asked, "’ad an accident, ‘ave you, Mr Doyle?"

"Nothing you need concern yourself with, Billy."

He adjusted his collar and started to edge away from me. "Can I go now, Mr Doyle? See, I got to get a bet on before the race starts."

I waved him away, regretting that without authority there was little more I could do to gain any additional information.

By the time I regained the street and glanced in the open door of the Bookies, he was standing at the front of the queue placing his bet, I assumed.

I decided to pass onto Jax what little information I had garnered, but unlike the last time he was not at his desk. On the third try, the snooty switchboard operator told me that he was unavailable and would not be in contact for some time.

"Is he on assignment?"

"I’m not at liberty to say."

"Can you tell me when he’ll be back?"

"I’m afraid not." She hung up and alarm bells started ringing loudly in my head. I mulled over the reasons for Jax’s unexpected prolonged absence. It was feasible an undercover assignment somewhere had suddenly come up, but I never really believed in coincidences. Removing Jax and his questions was too bloody convenient to Gower’s imminent arms deal.

With a sense of foreboding I called Marie.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Marie, it’s Ray. I’ve been trying to get hold of Jax."

"Hi, Ray. He’s away for a while. Been sent up north for work."

"Bit sudden, wasn’t it?"

"Yeah, I think he was a bit puzzled by it. He had to leave late last night, just had time to throw some things in a bag before he was picked up."

"Do you know how long he’ll be gone for?"

"He had no idea. He did manage to call this morning, though. Said everything was okay, told me to let you know if you called." She paused for a moment. I could hear the baby crying in the background. "What’s going on, Ray?"

"I asked him to look into something for me, that’s all. Had hoped he’d have some information for me. Listen, if he calls again let him know it’s all cool, yeah?"

I said goodbye with a promise to pop in and see her soon.

Propped up against the inside of the graffiti covered phone box I allowed my mind to go where I’m not sure I wanted it to go. If Jax had been getting too close with his questions, and that was the obvious conclusion to jump to, someone in CID had to be involved, someone with enough clout to expediently arrange for Jax to be reassigned. And if someone from CID was involved, that might explain why in all the years of trying, Gower had never even been taken in for questioning.

A sudden banging on the side of the phone box jerked me out of my introspection and I adjusted my crutches before pushing open the door.

My apologies to the old dear waiting to use the telephone went unnoticed as she pushed her way inside, barely giving me chance to get out the way of the wheeled tartan shopping bag she pulled in behind her. Twisting to avoid it, I overbalanced and dropped my left crutch. Casting a withering glare in the direction of the now closed door, I bent to pick up the crutch.

"Here, let me help." Pausing, I looked up to see an attractive woman in a cream coloured business suit reaching down.

"Some people are so impatient," she observed as she handed the crutch to me.

"Takes all sorts."

She smiled as brightly as the sun reflecting off her large fashion glasses and then, with a flick of her blond bob, carried on her way past me. As she turned to enter the newsagents twenty yards away, I saw her turn and look back at me. "Sorry, darling," I thought. "My life is far too complicated at the moment as it is."

Crossing over the Mile End Road when the lights stopped the traffic I took my time ambling home, my mind turning over with indecision and fear. I was worried about Jax even though he’d phoned home this morning, and I just hoped permanently disposing of a policeman would not feature highly on Gower’s, or O’Leary’s, list of things to do. I knew I was impotent to do much more on my own with my contact in CID effectively unavailable and my mobility seriously compromised at present. And to be honest, what exactly could I do on my own even if I was fit? Someone like Gower was bound to have a small army behind him. An army... and Will, I reminded myself.

My stride faltered and I stumbled over a crack in the pavement. What the hell was I going to do about Will? Despite the hole he had filled in my life, I knew I had to break all ties with him. And in doing so, both Toby and I were going to get our hearts broken.

Reaching home, in denial of the tears that were pricking at the back of my eyes, the last thing I wanted or needed was to bump into Will. Obviously God, if there was a God, had a completely different view.

"Ray?" He was unsure of himself, his manner quite unlike the Will I had come to know. And his appearance was quite unlike the Will I had come to know as well. Someone had well and truly worked him over, leaving his right eye blackened and half closed, and his cheek from nose to ear covered in the mottled array of dark greys and purples of a deep seated bruise. His mouth hadn’t escaped the beating, either: the full, soft upper lip swollen and split by a scabbed over cut and his jaw bone red raw with an angry looking scrape.

I was not going to show concern, was going to do my damnedest to ignore the sympathy I could feel creeping up on me. He did not deserve my sympathy or compassion. "Right, keep telling yourself that," I thought bitterly. I was glad my hands were gripping the crutches: my fingers were itching to reach up and touch the damage.

"Will." I acknowledged his presence, then promptly ignored and pushed past him.

"Ray, wait." His long fingers curled around my right bicep and brought me to a halt.

"What’s wrong? What have I done?"

I looked him in the eye for long seconds, while he returned the look steadily, neither of us wanting to be the first to back down. I don’t know what I was hoping to see in the blue depths: remorse, love, empathy, caring? Disappointed, I swallowed my growing despair and shook my head.

"If you don’t know, Will, there’s little point in me telling you." I couldn’t bear it any more, couldn’t bear to stand on the pavement, people passing us by, going about their own lives not realising or caring that my life was falling apart. I shook his hand off and took a step away from him.

"Ray, please, I don’t understand."

"Well, understand this," I got out between gritted teeth. "I don’t associate with criminals."

"What do you mean?"

"What I mean, William, is that I won’t have anything to do with a man who works for an arms dealer."

"I don’t know...," he stopped his excuses short when he saw the look on my face. "Please, Ray, you have to trust me."

"I don’t have to do anything." I turned away but not before I had seen the tears sparkling in his eyes and the devastation as clear on his face as if written on with a felt tip pen.

I have no memory of ascending the steps to the street door or inserting my key in the lock and opening the door, and equally climbing the stairs inside passed without recollection. I came back to myself as the first sob tore from my throat outside my front door, and I sagged gasping for breath against the frame. At that moment I felt as if my life was ending. It wasn’t until the next afternoon that I realised my rejection of Will had only been the start.

It was five thirty. Two hours and fifteen minutes since school ended. Two hours since Toby should have been home. One and a half hours since I started worrying. One hour since the panic had set in, and I had set out to look for him.

I stood outside the Primary School on the corner of Coburn Street determining what to do next. I had followed Toby’s usual route home in reverse, the ten minutes it would have taken him quadrupling as I looked down every side street and alleyway, in every open gateway, asked every one of Toby’s classmates that I passed if they had seen him. The school caretaker had taken me to see the headmaster who was just leaving, but both confirmed that all the children had left the premises at the correct time.

There was one last place to look before calling in the Police – Tredegar Square Gardens. Toby knew my cardinal rule about never venturing there alone but it was possible that one of his more adventurous friends persuaded him to take the shortcut. At this time of the afternoon it was too early for the drug dealers, gangs and winos to be congregating there, but that didn’t mean some of the other miscreants the Gardens attracted weren’t already lingering.

The Gardens proved to be empty of all human life bar me. I stood in the centre and turned round slowly, having already walked every path and looked under every bush. In the pleasant warmth of the late afternoon sun I could hear bees buzzing around the few flowers that had survived the drought, and the distant roar of traffic from Mile End Road. It sounded like Dave was tinkering on his engine again, the occasional revving of the motor from our corner of the Square drowning out everything else. And still there was no sign of Toby.

I took the long way around the Gardens to reach the phone box, perhaps expecting Toby to have materialised whilst I had my back turned. I had my hand on the door and was pulling it open when I spotted a brown leather bag on the floor lying on the urine soaked patch in the corner. I didn’t need to pick it up to know that it was a school satchel, and I would have staked my entire life that it was Toby’s.

My hand was shaking as I lifted it up and noticed the wet piece of paper it had been obscuring. Lifting one corner gingerly, I had my worst fears confirmed. The note, made up of words cut from a newspaper, was succinct and left me in no doubt as to who had taken my son. Keep your nose out of my business and you’ll get the kid back.

Taking deep, gulping breaths to get the tremors under control, I grabbed the bag and note and stormed back across the Gardens.

I banged on Will’s door, hammering away until he flung it open with annoyance.

"For fuck’s sake, Ray. What the hell is wrong with...?"

Before he could finish I rammed him back into his living room with both hands flattened against his pecs, the kidnappers’ note, now pungent from the grasp my sweaty hands had had on it, squashed between us.

"Where’s my son, you bastard? What have you done with him?"

"What?" He must have been an amazing actor. The lack of comprehension on his face was very convincing.

"You know, Toby, my son, ten year old boy who lives upstairs from you, the kid that idolises you. Where the fuck is he?" I shoved him again, harder, and he backed into the settee and sat down heavily.

"Ray, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Has something happened to Toby?"

"Yes, something has happened to Toby. I’ve just received a letter from your boss."

"Boss?"

"Yeah, the bloke that pays your wages." I waved the piece of paper in front of his face. "Says I’ll get my son back if I stop asking questions. So... where... the... fuck... is... my... son?" My finger stabbing him in his chest punctuated each word of the last sentence.

He plucked the note from my fingers and read it intently. His face drained of colour.

"Ray, I swear I don’t know..."

"Don’t give me that, you bastard. I’ve seen the people you mix with, you’re into some right dodgy shit. Were you there when they snatched him? Is that how they managed to get him to go with them?"

"No! For Christ’s sake, Ray. I would never do anything to hurt either Toby or you."

"Well forgive me if I don’t believe you."

"Look, let me go and ask around. See if I can find out anything."

"Yeah, right! That’s a very sensible thing to do, isn’t it? Let you out of my sight and you’ll leg it."

"And what would I have to gain by doing that?" He closed his eyes momentarily and took a deep breath before standing up. "I promise you I will get Toby back." I’m not sure if I imagined the 'or die trying' that I thought he muttered under his breath.

I clenched my hands at my side and could feel the fear and tension, unbelievably, increasing. Without conscious thought my fists started flying, hitting whatever part of him I could reach – his stomach, face, ribs, arms – and he dodged where he could and absorbed the impact where he couldn’t. I heard him grunt at one particularly painful blow to his stomach, but still I didn’t, indeed I couldn’t, stop. Fresh blood from a gash below his left eye smeared his already bruised face, and my knuckles were aching, the skin split and sore, when he finally managed to pin my arms between us. He pulled me in to his chest where I had no room to swing and his arms went round me, holding me tight.

I struggled for a moment then, with tears rapidly welling up in my eyes, the fight went out of me.

"I can’t lose him, Will." I gulped. "I can’t lose him. He’s my life."

All the while the sobs wracked my body Will held me close and murmured soft reassurances that everything would be okay, that he’d find Toby. He lowered me onto the settee and held me for what seemed like hours, rocking gently in the same manner I rocked Toby when he was a baby, until I drifted into an uneasy sleep.


CHAPTER EIGHT

My eyes were gritty and sore when I woke. It took a moment to realise where I was and what had brought me here. Struggling upright I looked around and realised that Will’s small flat was silent and empty but for me. It was then that I found he had placed a blanket over me while I slept.

"Stupid, dumb crud." I berated myself, sinking my head into my hands. I’d known he’d run as soon as he had the chance. I took several deep breaths and tried to order my thoughts, plan what my next move was going to be. I didn’t know where Toby was, so obviously I had to find someone who did. And when I did, I vowed I wouldn’t collapse in tears like I had with Will.

I looked at my watch – it was nearly ten thirty. I had been asleep for no more than four hours. No wonder I still felt groggy and drained. I sniffed delicately when I got a whiff of urine. God, I smelled like the telephone box. I figured I had time for a very quick shower and change of clothes before I headed out looking for Billy Jackson in what I hoped were still his usual haunts. With Will having done a runner, Billy was my only other lead in this whole mess.

I was rubbing my hair vigorously with the towel when I heard the knock on my door. Unable to ignore the hope surging up, I ran to open it. I won’t pretend I wasn’t astounded to see Will standing there. Without waiting for an invitation he pushed me aside and entered the flat, shutting the door with the heel of his boot.

"Good news and bad."

He ran his hand across his face unwittingly showing his exhaustion and I watched, desperate to hear the news but afraid of what I might find.

"Good news is I know where Gower has taken Toby. As far as I can tell he’s okay, just scared witless I would imagine."

My body relaxed infinitesimally. "And the bad news?"

Finally, he met my eyes. "They’ve got him holed up in what amounts to a fortress in Rotherhithe, one of the old warehouses down by the river. I saw seven of Gower’s men around the place. From what I know of Gower, he will have plenty more in reserve." He sank down into the armchair. "I’m putting everything on the line here, but I think together we can get him out."

I could feel no pity for the self-sacrificing bastard. "Yeah, well, forgive me if I think my son is more important than a few pounds from an illegal arms deal."

He looked at me, his face stone cold. "Typical," he sneered.

"What’s typical?"

"You, with your narrow-minded copper’s view of the world. You only ever see everything in black and white, when really the world is full of shades of grey."

"There are no shades of grey where the law is concerned." My voice, still harsh from the earlier slanging match, was rising again. "Selling weaponry on the black market is illegal. Kidnapping children is illegal."

He didn’t answer immediately. "Sometimes you have to do unpleasant things to reap the rewards in the end."

"Will the reward be worth it if anything happens to Toby?"

He flinched visibly, recoiling as if I’d actually struck him. "Toby should not have become part of it. With some careful planning we should be able to get him out."

I thought hard, realising that antagonising Will now would just jeopardise Toby even more. "What do you have in mind?"

"A snatch and grab."

"You can get us in?" I asked

He nodded. "And once I’m in acting the drunken fool to distract them that leaves you to get Toby out."

For whatever reason, it never once crossed my mind that the safest option would be to leave Toby where he was and do what Robert Gower had demanded.

At four thirty in the morning we found ourselves slipping through a gap in the chain link fencing that surrounded the warehouse where Will assured me Gower was holding Toby. The derelict building was an imposing monstrosity, its soot blackened walls almost invisible in the bright moonlight. Boards covering the lower windows hosted an array of colourful and somewhat obscene graffiti, while what was left of the glass in the upper windows hung down precariously in lethal dagger-like points.

My involuntary shiver as we crept towards the building, keeping to the shadows and avoiding broken glass and rubble, had nothing to do with the cold night. I could feel my heart pounding and despite the cold, my hands were clammy with sweat. I nervously rubbed them down my trousers.

As we reached the building I ducked down into the shelter of an overgrown buddleia bush which had managed to establish its roots through concrete and fallen bricks and had obviously thrived in this landscape that man had abandoned. It still clung to its leaves, now shrivelled and withered, but its flowers had long since turned brown and dry and as I crawled through its branches the individual petals rained down on me and stuck in my hair. The open branches were a poor refuge against the wind chill but pressed into the wall at its back, they afforded me adequate cover whilst I waited for Will to recce the place.

The warehouse interior was in darkness and silent. I watched as Will eased himself through a once secured doorway, pushing a loose board to one side, and then as he disappeared into the cavernous depths. I tried not to glance at my watch, and instead found myself counting in blocks of sixty. I was on the thirteenth block when there was an almighty screech somewhere above my head as an owl swooped through the darkness. By the time my heart rate had returned to normal, I could see Will making his way back to me.

"They’re right over the other side where the old offices were. We seem to be in luck. There are only two men guarding the room where Toby is."

"Can we get to him directly from the outside?"

Will shook his head. "All the windows are boarded over. Moving them would make too much noise. I think we stick to Plan A."

I raised an eyebrow. "Pray to God?"

In the moonlight I could see his expressive lips twitch slightly. He shook his head. "Distraction. They’re playing cards in the room next to Toby’s. We both slip back in, then you wait until I’ve got them talking. It should be easy enough for you to get Toby and hightail it out of there."

Nodding, I agreed with Plan A, but in my head there was an awful lot of praying going on as well.

Will took a hip flask out of his pocket and uncapped it quickly. He took a healthy swallow and then splashed some on himself. He looked up and saw me watching him. "What?"

"Going to a lot of trouble to be convincing."

"Yeah, well, you don’t know what these guys are like." He was about to recap the flask then changed his mind, thrusting it at me. "Want some?"

I shook my head. "No thanks."

I followed closely behind Will, stepping where he stepped to avoid the broken glass which would have crunched underfoot and given us away, and we made it inside unseen and unheard. And Plan A would have worked a treat, but for the small problem that Will had overlooked – the third guard actually in the room with Toby.

His shouted warning cut off as my fist flew into his jaw, but enough sound escaped that I could hear the voices raised in alarm next door drowning out Will’s faked drunken ramblings. Toby had woken with the noise, and sat up rubbing his eyes like he used to do when he was a toddler.

With little more than a quick "Toby, it’s okay, it’s me," I grabbed his hand and pulled him after me across the open space of the warehouse, managing a sort of stumbling, limping run on my bad leg, no longer watching or caring where my feet went. Belatedly I realised Toby might not have had any shoes on, but he didn’t say anything and I couldn’t afford to take the time to check. Thankfully there was little glass in the centre of the room.

We had almost reached the doorway, dodging the numerous stacks of wooden packing crates and rotten old pallets, when something slammed into me and knocked me flying, wrenching Toby’s hand out of mine. I managed to get to my feet but all the time the healing muscles in my left leg were screaming their objections loud and clear.

I shifted my weight into a classic karate back stance which my old Sensei would have been proud of, mostly to ease my left leg but also to better balance myself for the attack I knew was coming. When the goon who had knocked me flying made his move, I was ready. I blocked his fist with a quick open handed slash to his forearm. He howled in pain, but came back for more. His next attack was a straight jab at my face, and I twisted slightly to avoid it, then brought my arm up and grabbed his fist. A quick twist and he was contorting to get away from the painful pressure exerted on his shoulder.

"Dad!" A sudden scream from Toby was my downfall and I glanced across to where another of the guards manhandled him. All that my opponent needed was a second of inattention on my part and a kick backwards into my groin had me releasing his arm and falling to the ground in agony. He bent down and grabbed my collar and a handful of my curls in one hand and threw a punch hard enough to make me see stars with the other.

My vision was still off when the kicks to my stomach and thighs started, and I curled into a foetal ball trying to protect myself as best I could. Through the haze of pain I could hear Toby’s broken sobs and Will’s voice, belligerent as only a drunk could be, in the background. I lost count of the number of blows that landed, lost track of the time I lay supine on the floor. In the end, it was a particularly hard kick that robbed me of my consciousness and cracked at least one rib as it did so.

"Dad? Do you want some more water?"

"Um." Technically I had been awake for some time, but the reality was that moving was best avoided, thinking was a challenge beyond me, and comfort was something I should have been giving Toby, not the other way around.

"Yeah."

He helped me lift my head and then held the mug of water to my lips while I drank deeply. In this position I could see the other side of our prison and the motionless form lying on a second filthy mattress.

"Has he moved at all?"

Toby’s eyes followed where I was looking and he shook his head. When I first woke up he told me that the guards dumped Will in the room some time after us following a lot of shouting and what sounded like fighting in the other room. Even from here I could see the blood, now dried and crusted, on the side of Will’s face, and I worried that his lack of movement was because he was already dead. I did not dare ask Toby to check, though. The situation was macabre enough without confirmation that we shared a cell with a corpse. And besides, in my mind he was still very much alive as long as I had no firm proof to the contrary.

I eased myself back down, swallowing the groan I felt like making as my ribs protested. My agony was something else I didn’t want Toby to see. Once the sharp pain had down-scaled into a mere niggling ache, I found the strength to be the adult that my terrified son needed, and pulled him down onto the mattress with me. He cuddled up against my side, his soft red curls tickling my chin. I stroked his arm gently with a regular, slow rhythm until his breathing grew deep and steady with sleep, and I found my own eyes growing heavy.

It felt like I had only been able to doze for minutes when fitful thrashing from the other mattress woke me. My instant relief that he was actually alive was soon overshadowed by worry when I realised that Will was deep in the throes of a nightmare, seemingly fighting off demons that weren’t there. Easing my arm from under Toby’s head, I slowly pushed myself up. The pain from dozens of blows to my torso flared up, and I had to hold my ribs tightly with my left arm, but eventually I found myself upright.

Shuffling across the room, more than grateful that my leg had come out of the beating relatively unscathed, I lowered myself carefully down onto a questionable brown stain by Will’s hip and sat watching him. I realised one of the smells assaulting my nose wasn’t actually from the ancient mattress. I fingered his torn and stained shirt, feeling a sticky residue coating it, and then sniffed my fingers. Alcohol saturated Will’s clothes, far more than from the earlier deliberate spill, and I would bet good money that it also saturated his blood stream.

Despite all I now knew about Will, the urge to comfort him was strong, and I couldn’t stop my hand from resting on his forehead. The heat I felt there was negligible but beads of sweat stood out regardless. As my fingers stroked across his forehead his thrashing stilled and he turned his head towards me and opened his eyes.

"Ray?"

"Shh. It’s okay."

"Christ, I thought you were dead. They said you were dead."

"Not yet, mate." I smiled to reassure him, but his eyes had closed and he didn’t see me. "I’m definitely down, but not out."

"What about Toby?" His eyes flew open in panic.

"He’s okay. They’ve not touched him."

He raised a shaky hand to rub his forehead and groaned. "Oh God, just shoot me now."

"What happened?" It was pretty obvious he had the mother of all hangovers and I would bet good money that his alcohol intake had not been voluntary.

He soon confirmed that. "They realised I wasn’t quite as drunk as I’d led them to believe. They thought it would be fun to rectify that."

Viewing his bruises, I said, "I bet it wasn’t easy for them, though, was it?"

He tried to grin but the effort reopened the cut on his lip. "Nah, I gave as good as I got until the third one sneaked up behind me and got me in a stranglehold. Came round tied to the chair with my head held back and a bottle of gin shoved in my mouth. Must have spilt half of it when I started choking." He paused, deep in thought. "It wasn’t even Gordon’s G and T, just some cheap second rate brand they picked up at the supermarket."

I couldn’t help it, I just had to laugh. Toby stirred at the noise and I turned to check he was okay then saw the mug of water next to him. I managed to lever myself up and hobble over to get it. Will took a long drink and then handed it back to me.

I sat down next to him again.

"What about you?" His fingers came up to my face, lightly touching the corner of my swollen eye.

"Bit more banged up than I was, but it’s not too bad. I’ve not seen anyone since I came round, other than Toby and you."

Will looked behind me to where Toby lay. "What about him?"

"He’s scared, but they haven’t hurt him. He said they brought him water and food, but mostly he’s been left alone."

"Just our luck they had a guard on him during the night." His hand dropped back to the mattress.

"Any ideas what we do now?"

He shook his head carefully. "Can’t think clearly at the moment. Try to get some sleep, and we’ll see what’s what when we wake up."

As plans go it was useless but I confess I had none better at that time.

I jerked awake with a start when the door crashed into the brick wall as someone threw it open with more force than was necessary. Will was on his feet before I had even managed to get to my knees, and Toby cowered in the corner of the room behind me.

"Boys, boys, boys." Gower entered the room, shaking his head in a mockery of resignation. "Been causing me a spot of bother, haven’t you."

I had never been this close to the criminal mastermind. Other than at his meeting with Will, the only times I had seen the man were in grainy black and white prints. Up close, he was more than terrifying. He was six and a half feet tall if he was an inch, his muscles as well-defined as in his youth. Rumour had it that his close cropped black beard hid a vicious scar that he’d carried since his teens. I wasn’t about to question him on it.

Will stepped forward suddenly humble and meek. I found my jaw dropping with astonishment and disgust.

"Mr Gower, Sir, I think there’s been..." I could almost imagine him tugging his forelock, he was snivelling so much.

"Shut up!" The pleasant persona vanished in an instant. Gower’s hand curled around Will’s collar and he tightened it painfully. "Did you learn nothing from the lesson I gave you the other day? You are not paid to think for yourself, you drunken fuck. If I didn’t need you, Phillips, you’d already be floating in the Thames."

He turned his glare onto me while continuing his choke-hold on Will. "And you, PC Plod, have caused me no end of trouble. Your sniffing around has raised too many eyebrows." I refused to show how much he intimidated me, and stood my ground defiantly in silence, shielding Toby as best I could.

Gower noted my body language. "Ah, we have a hero in our midst. I should have known, what with your foolhardy rescue attempt. Phillips here doesn’t have the brains for something like this. Fuck, he’s so soused half the time he probably doesn’t have the brains to piss." His comment raised an appreciative cackle from the black man at his shoulder and, as suddenly as it had arrived, his temper dissipated and he released his hold on Will with a slight shove that sent the younger man stumbling back over the mattress. He sat down hard on it, gulping in air. I didn’t look at him.

"I need William for this little deal I have going down. When it’s done in three days’ time, me and my lads will be out of here permanently and you, PC Plod, and your son will be free to go. Until then, you will remain here as my guests. Assurance, a little bit of leverage if you like, to make sure William here holds up to his end of the deal. I know how fond of you both he is."

He snapped his fingers and the black man and another goon stepped forward and, each grabbing one of Will’s arms they hauled him to his feet and dragged him out of the room. As he followed them, Gower pulled the door to behind him and I heard the key turn irrefutably.

Toby’s sob had me whirling around and I pulled him into my arms.

"It’s alright, Tobe. It’s alright." He cried for a few minutes and then, wiping his face with a grubby hand, bravely straightened.

"Will he be alright?"

I sighed, but couldn’t hide all of the bitterness in my voice. "I imagine Will is quite good at getting himself out of tricky situations."

"Don’t you like him anymore?" I remembered that Toby knew nothing of my disillusionment with William Phillips.

"Ah, Tobe mate, it’s complicated." Taking his hand in mine, we sat on the mattress and I continued. "Will is working with some bad men. Yes, he helped me to find you and yes, he tried to get you out as well, but I can’t ignore that what he’s doing is illegal. A lot of people in this country, and other parts of the world probably, will be hurt if they are allowed to carry on."

"But he’s still Will. You liked him before." In some ways my son was old for his years. Closing my eyes and sighing deeply, I wished this was one of them.

"Yes, but what he’s doing is wrong." My arm slipped around Toby’s shoulders. "Sometimes people do wrong things for the right reasons and it’s easier to understand that and forgive them. But Will is doing a wrong thing just to make money, and that’s the wrong reason. He’s still the same person that we liked, but there’s a part of him, a very big part of him, that I don’t like." I knew in life there were some things I could overlook and forgive, but deliberately enabling mayhem and destruction was not one of them. One day, I would explain all this to Toby.

"Will he help us get out of here?"

"I think it’s quite likely that he won’t be given the chance to, but I think he’ll try if he can."

Not being someone to make false declarations, I found it very hard to see the bleak look that entered Toby’s eyes. Total exhaustion overwhelming me, I leant against the wall to relieve some of the ache in my ribs and closed my eyes.

"Let’s have a bit more sleep, and then we’ll see what we can do to help ourselves, eh?"

Toby nodded against my shoulder and unbelievably I drifted away, listening to his steady breathing.


CHAPTER NINE

Twenty four hours, by my reckoning, after Gower’s goons dragged Will away my fingertips were raw and stinging and what nails I had were broken and torn, in some places down to the quick. I had blocked out much of the pain, fuelled by adrenalin, but fatigue was once again taking a hold and each minute movement was causing agony.

I had found a rusty nail kicked into one corner of our cell and had spent hours digging and scratching at the window bars while Toby kept watch. If I could get the bars out of the way I’d be able to dislodge the few remaining boards, I hoped. As darkness fell and with it the drop in temperature Toby had fallen asleep. I had carried on for several more hours, my work lit by the moonlight trying to shine through the boards and the soot stained glass, but now my body had decided it too had had enough.

I licked my parched lips and looked longingly at the empty mug. I had made Toby take the last few mouthfuls of water earlier and had hoped the guards would reappear with some more, but as the hours wore on nobody had arrived. All along I had assumed that the guards still guarded us, but there had been no sign that was the case and my hopes were beginning to rise.

Despite the hours I had laboured the bars remained firmly in their position and I pulled them violently, more with frustration than rage. They didn’t move. Whoever had cemented them into place had intended that they remain forever.

It was no good. I needed the rest. I lay down next to Toby and gently pulled him to me, trying to share body heat and block out the autumnal chill. Within seconds I was asleep.

I came awake with light across my face and slowly realised I had slept through what was left of the night. Without moving I tried to pinpoint what had awakened me. A voice shouted in the main warehouse and with dread I recognised Gower.

"Get the vans in here and loaded, clear out as much as you can. Now! They’re on their way."

I sat up and pulled Toby close, both of us watching the door. Five minutes passed, ten, fifteen, while we sat listening to the sounds of engines revving and boxes being moved and loaded. Gower was shouting orders left, right and centre. We both jumped when gun shots filled the air.

"Give it up, Gower. There’s nowhere for you to go." A Scottish voice rang out with authority. The only answer was more gunfire.

Frantically, I looked around our cell. Nowhere was really safe, but I pushed Toby into the corner where both walls were made of brick and got him to crouch down as low as he could. And it wasn’t a moment too soon. The door suddenly flung open and crashed violently against the wall, and Gower was there, his handgun waving around until he spotted us in the corner. With a vicious sneer he aimed it directly at Toby.

"I warned you to keep out of it. If I’m going down, copper, I’m taking you with me."

"Gower!" Will’s frantic shout from behind the arms dealer momentarily drew his attention and gave me the split second opportunity I needed to rush him. The gun wavered away from Toby and towards me, and then I found myself spun around by a powerful blow high up on my left arm. The force of the blast knocked me into the wall and I slid down it, dazed.

"Daddy!" Toby screamed as he crawled towards me. "Daddy!" I looked at him as if from a great distance. Tears were streaming down his face, but he was looking towards the door rather than at me. I followed his eyes and saw Will and Gower locked together in a battle for possession of the gun. Will had hold of Gower’s right arm and was forcing it behind his back, twisting the man’s wrist to loosen his hold on the weapon at the same time. A vicious kick aimed at Gower’s right calf took him to his knees and the gun flew from his fingers as he tried to maintain his balance.

Will had undergone a sudden and terrifying transformation. His features were set in stone, as hard as brass. The snivelling criminal low life I had come to see him as had disappeared and in his place was a warrior whose movements were controlled and almost beautiful to watch in their violence.

Gower’s eyes were firmly on Will as the smaller man circled around but the fingers of his left hand were reaching back. I shouted Will’s name in warning as Gower pulled a knife from a sheath strapped to his left leg. With abrupt momentum Gower lurched upwards, the knife grasped in his left hand slashing at Will as he tried to get close enough to disarm Gower again. Gower lunged forward and Will twisted away, grunting as Gower’s bulk crashed into his shoulder. Both men staggered, each trying to regain balance without losing ground.

I had to admire the strength in Will’s arms as he held off Gower’s knife arm with his left hand and pummelled his face and body with his right while Gower himself tried to both deflect Will’s blows and land a few of his own. A lucky blow for Gower against Will’s head sent him backwards and Gower took the opportunity to rip his left arm from Will’s grip. Before I had chance to warn him, Gower slashed his arm down towards Will’s back. Another grunt from Will coincided with him throwing himself to the side, swinging his leg in an arc towards Gower and toppling the heavier man to the concrete.

The knife went the same way as the gun, sliding across the floor, and Will took the opportunity to press home his advantage. He jumped to his feet and leapt towards Gower with fists flying. In spite of his size Gower was back on his feet before Will reached him, and managed to land several hard blows to Will’s stomach.

A roundhouse kick to Gower’s lower back sent him to his knees again and Will followed through, throwing punch after punch into Gower’s head and shoulders. The arms dealer finally collapsed while Will, on his knees, gulped in mouthfuls of air. He looked up at me and his bloodied lips crooked up into a slight smile. I think he might have spoken but hands grabbing his arms hauled him away from Gower, out of the room and away from my sight.

I sat propped against the wall, my arm hanging numb and useless and Toby shaking by my side. My vision was narrowing and I was only peripherally aware of movements in the doorway, handcuffs snapping onto Gower’s wrists whilst he was still prone on the floor, and a slight older man with thinning sandy hair coming towards me. Bemusedly I noticed his limp and I wondered if one of the shots had hit him too. He stooped down beside me and gently lifted my arm to examine it.

"You’ll be alright, laddie. It’s only a graze." He took his own clean handkerchief and pressed it against my wound, calling behind him for a medic, and then turned to Toby. "Are you okay, son? Och, that’s a stupid question, isn’t it?" He smiled kindly at my terrified son then looked back to me. "My name is Cowley. I’m the controller of an organisation called CI5." I nodded to show I was still with him and that I had heard of the specialist law enforcement agency. "I’m afraid you stumbled onto one of our operations, Mr Doyle." I was too far gone to wonder how he knew my name.

Despite the encroaching darkness I knew there was something important I had to get across to him. "Will... William Phillips. I know he’s one of them... but he saved our lives. Please..." I swallowed, not really sure what I was asking. "Please go easy on him... he helped us."

"Don’t worry about that, laddie. It’ll all be taken care of." He patted my shoulder kindly and then was moving away, making room for the medics to get close to me. As my arm was manipulated my vision swam again and I knew I was on the point of passing out.

"Toby?"

"Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll take care of Toby until you can be with him." Mr Cowley assured me and as I closed my eyes I saw him bend down to Toby.

It was mid-afternoon when I was finally released from Casualty with my ribs bound tightly, my arm bandaged and in a sling, and a prescription for some antibiotics and heavy duty painkillers tucked in my pocket.

Unbelievably my leg had actually come through the whole process in remarkably good shape. It had been examined and tutted over, but thankfully the verdict was that I had caused no long lasting damage to the recovering limb.

I listened to the prognosis with little interest. My primary concern since regaining consciousness to impersonal hands poking and prodding me had been getting out and finding Toby. I hadn’t given much thought to how I was going to do that, but as I hobbled into the waiting room a smartly dressed blond woman jumped up and came to meet me.

"Mr Doyle, my name’s Susan. Mr Cowley asked me to wait for you and take you back to headquarters."

It was the large glasses obscuring half her face that I recognised.

"You’ve been following me around for quite some time, haven’t you?"

She smiled ruefully. "We were asked to keep an eye on you, yes. It turns out we didn’t do such a good job of it, though." She shrugged and said "sorry" and then took a light hold on my arm and steered me down the corridor.

"Where’s my son?"

"Not to worry, Mr Doyle. Mr Cowley has him all tucked up at headquarters. He’s been checked out by our own doctor and there isn’t much wrong with him that a filling meal and a decent sleep won’t help to put right."

I breathed a sigh of relief. "I need to get a prescription filled."

"That’s no problem. We’ll pop by the chemist on our way to HQ."

Susan settled me in the passenger seat of her Government issued Ford Cortina, and as good as her word pulled up in front of a Boots, hopping out herself to get the drugs I was going to need. I dozed while waiting, waking some time later as she pulled up outside a nondescript building that I guessed housed the CI5 headquarters. She ushered me past security to a lift and before I knew it she was knocking on a door marked VIP Lounge and waiting for permission to enter.

"Come in." I wasn’t surprised to hear Cowley’s Scottish burr.

Susan stood aside and let me go past, then followed me into what turned out to be a small rest room filled with comfortable looking couches and tables. As she shut the door I turned to Cowley, a question on my lips. He just hushed me, and with a nod of his head indicated a couch previously hidden behind the door. Lying there fast asleep and with a blanket tucked over him was my son.

"He’s fine, lad. The doctor checked him out, and he’s eaten and drunk his fill. Just needs rest now, and someone to talk to if the nightmares take hold in the future." He turned to the blond agent. "Stay with the boy please, Susan, until Betty relieves you. If he wakes, let us know immediately."

I let out my breath and allowed Cowley to lead me back into the corridor and along to an office where he indicated I should sit in the chair in front of his desk. As I sank into the leather seat, he opened a cabinet behind his desk and poured what looked like very expensive malt whisky into two glasses. I took one of the glasses when he handed it to me, but held it in my hand without drinking.

Cowley settled himself behind the desk and downed his own drink in one gulp. He pursed his lips as the burn hit, and then placed the glass on the desk. I felt uncomfortable under the intense gaze he turned on me.

"Well, Mr Doyle, I expect you’ll be wanting to know what’s been going on."

"I think I have a right to know."

"Indeed." He paused. "Some while ago, CI5 was tasked with investigating a serial criminal by the name of Gower."

"Robert Gower."

"Ah, you have come across him before?"

I nodded. "He was active when I was in CID. We could never get enough on him to charge him."

"Aye, well nothing’s changed there. But things have been getting steadily worse over the years. What started out in the Sixties as petty criminal activities has progressed onto drugs, prostitution, arms and now terrorism. The man is a blight on society." He got up to pour himself another drink. I still hadn’t touched mine. "And what has become obvious over the years is that he must have a man inside the Met somewhere. Nobody’s luck could be that good for that long without a little help."

I had come to that conclusion myself.

"We have had our suspicions as to who this inside man might be but no proof. By bringing down Gower we hoped to end the corruption in the Met. So that is where we focussed our operations. We started the ball rolling as far back as last November. Then the opportunity to move forward presented itself when we got word that O’Leary was in the market for a large quantity of arms."

As Cowley talked I had the distinct impression that he was only confirming those facts that he knew I was already aware of, and I had to take my hat off to the wily old codger.

"We had hoped to take Gower and O’Leary at the handover which we were informed was to take place tomorrow. But the operation became compromised."

I had a suspicion why things had gone wrong and although I didn’t really want that suspicion confirmed I felt I had to show the proper level of interest. "And why was that, Sir?"

He gave me an appraising look. "For one, because of you and your son, Mr Doyle."

Even though I expected it, I still winced. It was somewhat galling to know that I was the reason a long-term operation had failed.

Cowley smiled slightly. "I can’t lay blame entirely with you, though. When our contact in Gower’s organisation missed several check-ins I sent a team to the warehouse in Rotherhithe to investigate. Imagine their surprise when they found you and Toby."

I returned his observation unflinchingly. I had heard stories about CI5, how its’ operatives did what needed to be done, no matter how unsavoury. Whilst I did not understand why they had blown the operation just for me and Toby, I was not sorry that they had.

It would appear that Cowley had the ability to read minds. "Sacrificing children for the greater good is not in the remit of CI5, Mr Doyle." Well, at least now I knew what would have happened if it had been just me in trouble. "I’ve no doubt that Robert Gower never intended to let you or Toby go."

I had to agree with Cowley’s assumption. "I am very grateful for CI5’s timely intervention, Mr Cowley." A sudden thought occurred to me. "But he knew you were coming."

"Aye, indeed he did. Despite my best efforts to keep it quiet, he was tipped off."

"His contact in the Met." It wasn’t a question.

"Quite." He removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "A most unpleasant business all round. We managed to disarm them all including Gower, as you know. Seconds after you passed out he got away from the agent who was escorting him out of the warehouse. We had no choice but to take him down."

"Is he dead?"

"He is not expected to survive." It was a matter of fact statement with no remorse or sorrow. Cowley was a hard man indeed.

"Have you managed to track down the leak in the Met?"

An unpleasant smile flitted across Cowley’s face. "We have. Gower’s own right hand man couldn’t spill the beans fast enough when Bodie questioned him." He paused and I was about to ask who Bodie was when he continued. "It would appear that the Detective Chief Superintendent of the Drugs Squad has been taking back-handers for many years. And not just from Gower."

"The Drugs Squad?" I had an immediate sinking feeling. "Sir, my friend Jax is in the Drugs Squad."

"Yes."

I nodded frantically. "He was making some enquiries on my behalf about Gower. Do you know...?"

"He was recalled from his unexpected undercover operation early this morning."

"He’s okay?"

"I believe so, yes."

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "Why didn’t Gower...?" I couldn’t finish the sentence with what I was thinking: why didn’t Gower kill him?

Cowley shook his head. "Perhaps the Detective Chief Superintendent didn’t have the stomach for sanctioning a kill of one of his own. I expect we will never know for sure." I became aware of a fine tremor in my limbs and finally I took a sip of my drink, trying to steady my nerves. "What about O’Leary, then?"

"There will be other opportunities to remove O’Leary from our shores. And in the meantime he is, at least, still short on armaments."

My stomach rumbling took us both by surprise, and reminded me that it was probably days since I had last eaten. Cowley picked up the phone and ordered a plate of sandwiches. When they arrived, I ate mechanically and didn’t really taste the beef which I’m sure was actually delicious. Cowley spent the time while I ate silently reading and signing various forms in a folder on his desk. Minutes passed after I swallowed the last mouthful and I wondered if he’d forgotten I was there.

I needn’t have feared. When he looked up, his eyes were calculating. "I’m afraid there is still a lot to discuss before I can let you leave, Mr Doyle. But I think a comfort break may be in order before we continue."

I found myself accompanied down the corridor by Susan who only left my side as I entered the Gents. With amusement I noted there was actually no other way out of the room: if there was, I would not have been surprised if Susan had come in with me. Once I had finished, and managed to wash my face and finger comb my hair, Susan took me to check on Toby.

In all the time I had been in with Cowley, Toby hadn’t stirred. My hand stretched out but stopped just short of touching him. Much as I needed to reassure myself that he was safe and sound, I couldn’t bring myself to disturb his rest. Both Susan and the woman I assumed was Betty stepped out of the room, leaving me alone with Toby. I didn’t need to check to know that Susan remained outside the closed door.

Fifteen minutes later to the second the door opened and Susan beckoned me out. Betty slipped back into the room, and we returned along the corridor to Cowley’s office. As I stood outside the door I could hear muffled voices from inside.

"It was a foul-up, three seven. You got personally involved and it very nearly ruined the whole operation. I’ve a mind to suspend you."

The reply was too quiet to hear.

"No, Bodie, I did not expect you to leave a child to die. But neither the child nor his father should have been put in a position where their lives were in danger in the first place." Another soft reply I was unable to pick up.

"Yes, I know how far under you were, and for how long. That does not excuse..." Cowley’s voice cut off, and then, "och lad, you’re out on your feet. Better be getting the doctor to look you over and then get some sleep. And I’ll have your report on my desk by ten in the morning."

Susan knocked and Cowley’s voice rose slightly. "Come in."

Susan held the door open to let me enter but as I went to step forward I froze when I came face to face with Agent three seven.

Bodie was no other than William Phillips.

He looked drawn and obviously hadn’t had the chance to wash or change his clothes. The garish bruising and cuts showed vividly through the blood and dirt, and underneath it all I could see that his usually pale face had a grey tinge to it.

Abruptly he stood up and grabbed the back of the chair to steady himself when he would have fallen.

"Ray." His acknowledgement was a breathy whisper as he just stood there swaying, looking at me.

I was incapable of movement or speech. I didn’t know how I should feel, whether to be pleased he wasn’t actually in cahoots with an arms dealer or angry that the subterfuge he and CI5 had woven had nearly caused the death of my son and me.

When his eyes rolled up in his head and he collapsed at his boss’s feet the numbness seemed to break. I went to move forward but Cowley beat me to it, dropping stiffly to his knees and feeling for the pulse point below Will’s ear as he barked out orders for the female agent behind me to call for the doctor. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Susan reach for the telephone on Cowley’s desk.

I watched silently, seeing the worry etched on the lined face as the Controller placed his hand on Will’s sweaty forehead. He looked up at me then, his features once again set in a blank mask as he realised he had an audience. In that moment I knew what it was like for these men and women. I understood the sacrifices they made to keep the country safe, the worry and fear they felt, just like us mere mortal folk. What was equally obvious to me was their reluctance to express those worries and fears. I imagine if they did give in to the emotion they would no longer be able to do the job. I didn’t envy them.

I could feel the blind panic start to claw at my chest and my breathing was becoming rapid. If I didn’t get out of there right now I would fall to the floor next to Will and sob over his chest.

I took deep breaths to stave off a full blown panic attack. "I want to go home now." I spoke either to Cowley or Susan or whoever else I sensed was hovering behind me in the doorway. Cowley looked up at me and, seeing some of my feelings on my face, he nodded. "Find six two, then drive Mr Doyle and his son home," he instructed Susan. The agent almost jumped to attention, whirled on her one inch heels and went sprinting out of the office and down the corridor.

Cowley turned to me. "Mr Doyle, we will finish our conversation another time." There was obviously no option of refusing. I nodded and, avoiding another look at Will’s supine body, I followed Susan out of Cowley’s office and returned to the rest room where I found Toby just stirring under Betty’s watchful gaze. I took Toby’s hand and pulled him into my body for a one-armed hug. He came with a small snivel and buried his face in my shoulder. I could feel the sobs wracking his small body as I held him tight. At that point I wanted to never let him go.

Susan found us there, still clinging to each other, ten minutes later.

"Ready when you are, Mr Doyle." She looked across at the other woman and smiled. "Thanks, Betty. I’ll take it from here."

As we exited the rest room I caught sight of someone entering Cowley’s office. I felt no surprise when I recognised Murphy Michaels.


CHAPTER TEN

Toby came into bed with me that night and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. We drew comfort from each other, and slept late into the next morning. It was a knock at the door that woke me and as I dragged myself upright I gritted my teeth against the pains that medication had deadened the night before.

"’Lo?" I called through the closed door.

"Ray, it’s Murphy... er... Michaels."

"I know who you are."

"Can I come in?"

"What do you want?" I opened the door, keeping a firm hold on the edge in a blatant show of denying the CI5 agent access. I was still fuming that CI5 had walked all over me and Toby, and I wasn’t about to make life easy for them.

"Well, first I’d like to introduce myself properly." His tentative smile faded when he saw my glare. "My name is Michael Murphy, I work for CI5, and my agent designation is six two." I ignored the hand he held out to me. Eventually he got the message and let his arm drop. "My best friend and partner is William Andrew Philip Bodie, who also works for CI5 and is known to one and all as Bodie or agent three seven. The only person who has ever got away with calling him anything else is you. Bodie and I have been deep undercover for nearly a year, trying to get enough evidence to bring Gower to justice."

I remained silent and Murphy finally faltered under my unflinching hostility.

"Cowley asked me to let you know that Gower died in hospital in the night. He never regained consciousness."

I nodded. "Is that all?" When he didn’t answer I started to shut the door.

I heard rustling behind me and saw Toby, wrapped in a blanket and still half asleep, dropping down on the settee. Making use of my distraction, Murphy wedged the door open with one of his size eleven trainers.

"He’s in hospital." It didn’t take a genius to know he was talking about Will.

The fingers of my left hand gripped the door until the knuckles went white.

Murphy pressed on. "It was a stab wound. They’ve stitched him up and topped his blood back up."

I swallowed and stared blankly at a distant point above his right shoulder.

"He’s still unconscious which is giving them a few worries. There’s a massive infection."

"Don’t." I finally found my voice, but it was barely a whisper. "I don’t want to know."

He ignored me. "It was in his back, high up. Got it when he was fighting Gower. Traipsed around all day without getting it looked at. It’s no wonder he collapsed."

"Stop it." The force of my grip on the door was making my wounded arm ache.

Murphy studied me, seeing the cracks appearing in my facade. He changed tack. "Bodie really does care for you. His friendship with you was not part of the operation."

"Maybe not, but because of him we nearly got killed."

"He saved your lives."

"If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have needed saving."

"If you hadn’t started asking questions in the first place..." he broke off, realising at the same time I did that we had started shouting at each other. Behind me I could hear Toby crying.

And then Murphy’s words sank in. If I hadn’t been so damned nosy, none of this would have happened.

I stumbled back. Murphy gently swung the door closed and I heard the catch click. He took my arm and led me to one of the kitchen chairs, lightly pushing me down. Through the roaring in my ears I could hear his voice but he was too far away from me and I couldn’t focus on what he was saying. I felt something pressed into my hand and looked down at it. The glass he had given me was only half full with water. If it was any fuller the contents would have sloshed out over my shaking hand. I stared at it mindlessly and then Murphy’s hand was back on mine, guiding the glass to my lips.

"Alright now?" he asked as I finished drinking.

I nodded and he turned away from me. My eyes finally focused, and I saw him kneeling by the settee in front of Toby.

"Hey, your Dad’s okay now. I’m sorry we were shouting at each other. We didn’t mean to scare you."

That was just what I didn’t need, yet another near stranger taking care of my boy. I made my way over to the two of them and flopped down next to Toby, pulling him into my arms. I ignored the twinge from the bullet wound. "I’m sorry, mate. ‘ad a bit of a melt-down."

Murphy moved away to the armchair to give us a modicum of privacy. Toby’s tears dried and I felt steadier.

I looked over at the tall agent, and manned up. "I’m sorry."

"S’okay. It’s been a rough couple of days for you." Murphy accepted my apology with good grace and a grin.

"Was there much trouble at the warehouse?" I was aware of Toby pressing into my side and didn’t want to frighten him by asking what I really wanted to know: did any other CI5 agents get hurt or die?

Murphy, clever lad that he was, seemed to know exactly what I was asking. "Bodie’s was the most serious injury. Gower’s mob lost a few though. Did you know it was the old man himself who took Gower down when he made a break for it?" He spoke with undisguised pride.

"I’m not surprised." I couldn’t imagine Cowley being unable to keep up with the men and women of CI5, age notwithstanding.

"Tell me something. Was I a suspect? Is that why Will got to know me?" I had a sudden desire to know, even if the truth turned out to be painful.

Murphy hesitated before answering. "When he found out you used to be in the Met and that you still had a contact in the Drug Squad then yes, you and your friend became suspects. But Bodie didn’t know that when he first met you. It was just pure coincidence that he moved in here." He rubbed a hand across his face with exhaustion. "Look, Bodie made some serious errors in judgement on this case. He shouldn’t have got involved with you."

"Because of the operation."

"Not just the operation. Yes, he jeopardised everything. But he placed you and Toby in danger." He saw my mouth open to reply and quickly held up his hand to stall me. "If he hadn’t got close to you, you would never have been curious enough to investigate. What’s more, he never gave a thought to how you’d feel when it was all over. I don’t blame you for being pissed with him. I would be."

I glanced at my son as Murphy swore. Either Toby had a previously undiscovered talent for acting or he had fallen into a deep sleep in my arms.

"I knew him as a low-life criminal called William Phillips. How much of that was an act?"

Murphy grinned. "Bodie’s certainly got a better dress sense."

I personally couldn’t imagine him looking better than when he had been dressed all in black. Oh well, each to their own.

"As to the rest, he can be infuriating and childish, but he’s also loyal, full of honour and integrity, and will fight for what he believes is right."

"So, most of Will Phillips was not an act, then?"

He shook his head. "Only the obvious criminal tendencies and the alcoholism, which was all for Gower’s benefit."

"And Africa?"

"Oh, yes, he was there."

I knew I would have to get the rest from Will himself.

"Is he in trouble?"

"The Cow is not happy." I found myself smiling at the nickname. "But it wasn’t a total cock up. Gower is permanently off the streets, and a crucial leak in MI5 has been plugged. Getting something on O’Leary would have been the icing on the cake, but..." He shrugged his shoulders then grinned widely. "I see a stint in Records in his future."

Murphy leant forward in the armchair. "If it’s any consolation, I have never seen Bodie act with anything other than complete professionalism. The success of the job has always come first."

"What was different this time?"

Murphy considered me, pursing his lips.

"He’s never been in love before."

I found out where Will was without too much difficulty, and the next day plucked up the courage to go and see him. The blond agent stationed outside the private hospital room had other ideas.

"Please, I just want to see how he’s doing."

He stood up, no doubt with the intention of intimidating me, when a familiar voice from inside called out. "It’s alright, Lucas. Mr Doyle is to be allowed access at all times." Lucas stood aside at Cowley’s words and, with a nod in my direction, let me enter. I hesitated in the doorway.

"You must forgive our precautions, Mr Doyle. It is standard procedure." He stood up. "Come and sit down."

He obviously thought I needed the seat. I had made myself look in the mirror this morning and I couldn’t blame him. Spectacular bruising covered one side of my face, unfortunately not the disfigured side, and the damage elsewhere made any movement stiff and uncoordinated. I shuffled forward and lowered myself onto his abandoned chair, the seat warm as if he’d been sitting there for hours.

"How are you and Toby doing? I can arrange for you both to see our Dr Ross. She is trained to help in such situations."

"I’m fine, thank you, Sir. Toby’s still struggling to understand everything that happened. I think he may need to talk to someone in the future."

"Contact me when that time comes. I’ll set it up." He looked around as if just realising something was missing. "And where is Toby?"

"Our neighbour, Mrs Montgomery, is minding him. He’s already spent too much time around hospitals this year, and I didn’t know what condition Will... er, Bodie would be in."

In the silence that followed, neither of us really knowing what to say, I became aware that I had been averting my eyes from Will and now made myself look at him.

A thin sheet covered him, folded back at his stomach, and I could see the bulky bandages covering his upper torso, wrapping over one shoulder and around his chest. He was propped at a slight angle, I guessed to take pressure off the wound. The once vibrant man who had held me and laughed with me and brought sunshine into my life had disappeared and left a gaunt shell in his place. I resisted the urge to touch him, instead focusing on the sheen of sweat on his forehead.

Swallowing past the lump in my throat, I asked, "How is he?"

Cowley looked at me in silence for long, drawn out moments before answering. "He could do without the infection, but the doctors are sure the antibiotics are working, and the stab wound itself was high enough to miss any vital organs. The blade did crack his collar bone but that will heal, as will the ribs. Everything else is just superficial."

"Has he woken up?"

"He came round briefly yesterday morning, asked..." he paused, aimlessly straightening the already perfectly aligned sheet.

I waited patiently.

"He asked after you and Toby, lad. Was quite lucid for a few minutes, and then the fever took hold. They think once his body has caught up on sleep he’ll recover in leaps and bounds."

I could no longer resist the urge to touch Will, and my fingers eased gently around his bruised wrist, the pad of my index finger resting where it could feel the steady pulse beating.

The minutes that passed seemed like hours under Cowley’s intense perusal. But I was not a coward and I was not going to hide what I was feeling any more.

"You do know Bodie can never return your feelings, don’t you?"

"He didn’t have any trouble before." I glared at the older man.

"He was deep undercover, indeed had been for many months. He was looking for a distraction."

I don’t know why Cowley was baiting me, but I wasn’t about to roll over that easily. "Whether or not I was a distraction for him, Mr Cowley, it is up to him to tell me and not you."

Was that a slight twitch of his lips? If it was it soon disappeared back into the stern persona.

"Well I must be off. I’ve seen the sick, now I must think of the able bodied." And with that, he abruptly whirled away.

Across the room he paused with his hand poised to push the door open and looked back at me for long seconds. Then, with a decisive nod, he turned and came back into the room. "Mr Doyle, I have a proposition for you. "

"Where the hell are we, Raymond?" Will had been unusually surly since I had picked him up at the hospital, answering me in grunts when he could get away with it and in monosyllables when he couldn’t. I refused to take the bait. Nothing could dampen my spirits today, not the cold drizzle that had set in as I drove to the hospital, nor William Bodie’s foul mood. I reversed the car into the tight parking space, applied the hand brake and turned off the engine.

"Your Mr Cowley asked me to keep an eye on you."

"That explains the car, but doesn’t answer my question."

"Well, while you’ve been lounging around on your back this past week, I’ve been a busy little bee."

The left eyebrow raised in enquiry.

I continued with a broad smile. "This, my old son, is my new home."

He peered out of the windscreen at the smart residential tree lined street. "You’ve gone up in the world."

"Well, the old place just wasn’t big enough."

"Big enough for what?" He looked suspicious.

"Mr Cowley didn’t think you’d appreciate being sent to a rehab centre to recuperate."

"Too bloody right." He shuddered with disgust. "Did that once, it’s like being in a prison. Wake you up at all hours, far too much healthy eating, then they torture you with something they call physiotherapy. Urgh."

I’m not sure how he knew what being in prison was like, but that was a question for another time.

"Right, so this is the next best thing."

He looked at me then. "Ray, I know I’m not firing on all cylinders at the moment, but I haven’t got a clue what you’re hinting at. You’re going to have to help me out here."

"You can’t stay on your own at the moment, you don’t want to go into rehab, so I’m the next best thing. You’re moving in with me and Toby. I’m going to look after you."

"You mean you’ve become a live-in home help?"

"Something like that."

He laughed at me then, some of his old humour breaking through the discomfort. Lewdly waggling his eyebrows he asked, "Will you wear a pinny for me while you’re dusting?"

With mock solemnity I said, "I’ll have you know I am not, nor ever will be, a French maid." I leant towards him and whispered, "I never knew you had a pinny kink."

"I’ve got lots of kinks, sunshine, but aprons are not one of them." Oh God, why did he have to say that? All the blood in my body rushed south and I glanced down at my suddenly hard cock.

His eyes followed mine and he grinned when he saw the unmistakeable outline. I shifted to ease the pressure against my jeans.

"I’m not up to much at the moment, but if you promise to be gentle with me."

"You’re not up to anything, mate, other than an afternoon kip. Doctor’s orders."

He scowled at that and, laughing, I opened the door.

"Spoilsport."

I hid my smirk and jogged round the front of the gold Capri to open the passenger door.

"I can do it." He refused to hold on to me to lever himself up, but halfway out of the car he faltered and would have sat back down without my hand under his left elbow. I ignored his scowl and propped him against the bonnet while I leant in to get his bag.

I hovered behind him as he crossed the pavement and took the steps like a geriatric tortoise. Leaning past him, I unlocked the front door and then waited for him to precede me into the gloomy interior.

I was suddenly hit by how strangely reminiscent this whole scenario was, only the shoe was now firmly on the other foot. Will saw my grin.

"What?"

"Nothing, just experienced déjà vu, that’s all."

He grunted and shuffled in.

"We’re on the first floor. There’s no lift, I’m afraid."

"Don’t even think about carrying me up the stairs."

"I wasn’t going to, mate."

He scowled but as my arm went round his waist he didn’t object. By the time we’d reached the landing he was leaning heavily on me.

"You trying to finish off what Gower started?" He grumbled as he rested against the wall while I sorted out the correct key. I ignored him while I reset the security alarms, concentrating to make sure I got the right combination then I took his arm and drew him inside.

"I’ll give you the tour later, mate. But right now I think you need your kip." It was testament to his exhaustion that he didn’t moan or resist me as I led him down the hall.

"Do you need the bog?" I asked outside the bathroom.

"That’s my Ray. No airs and graces." But he nodded anyway.

"Need a hand?"

"I’m quite capable of holding it myself, thank you very much." He staggered away and I pulled the door closed part way to afford him some privacy.

When he had finished I helped him across the hall to the bedroom.

"S’ nice." He murmured sitting heavily on the double bed, eyes already at half-mast. I helped him off with his jacket, and as he swung his legs up onto the bed took off his shoes. As he lay back with a deep sigh I placed a blanket over him, then stood for several minutes just watching his previously tense face relax.

"S’ off-putting, you know." I jumped when he spoke suddenly.

"What is?"

"You standing there, watching me. A bit stalkerish."

I snorted. "You’re obviously not as bad as I thought if you can make words up." He grinned but didn’t open his eyes. I lent down and gave him a quick kiss. "Yell if you need anything."

His fingers flailed for mine and held on tightly. "Stay."

It was only one word, but in context of everything we had been through and all the doubts I had had about him it meant so much. Through his fingers I could feel his body shaking, whether with exhaustion or a stronger emotion I didn’t know. I settled on my side facing him with my arm draped across his washboard stomach.

I thought he had fallen asleep, and was in fact on the point of dropping off myself when he spoke again. "I am sorry, you know. I never meant for you and Toby to get caught up with all of this."

I didn’t know what to say. ‘It’s alright’ didn’t seem to cut it as the right response. I shifted my hip which was lying uncomfortably on a spring in the mattress, and thought some more. In the end I settled for something equally simple. "I know you’re sorry." I ruined it somewhat by continuing. "Perhaps a little restraint should have been exercised."

Will’s right eye popped open and he glowered at me. "It’s really all your fault, you know."

"How?" I spluttered.

"Bloody skin tight tee shirts and painted on jeans. I’d have had to be blind not to notice you. Flaunting yourself at me, you were."

I knew he was teasing me, and decided to play along. "You’re a fine one to talk. You’d look great in one of my gothic illustrations, the brooding hero dressed all in black."

He snorted inelegantly. "I’ll let you paint me when my handsome good looks have been restored."

"Now there’s a thought." And wasn’t it just?

His fingers came up and wrapped around my wrist, his thumb drawing circles on the soft inner skin. "It broke my heart that I couldn’t tell you who I was or what I was doing."

"I know you couldn’t, especially with my connection to the Met."

"That day you walked away from me, the day before Gower snatched Toby..."

"You asked me to trust you."

He nodded.

"I couldn’t. It wasn’t enough, not then."

"I know." He whispered. "I wish things had been different."

I kissed him, trying to let him know I had already forgiven him. "Things are different now. It’s time to move on, Will."

He relaxed against me and his thumb ceased its repetitive motion on my wrist as he fell asleep in my arms.


CHAPTER ELEVEN

"How’d you manage this, then?" Will asked. He was eating a late breakfast the next morning. Shoving a forkful of scrambled eggs into his mouth he then waved his fork around.

"Manage what?"

"This place."

I refrained from reminding him about his manners but he must have seen my look of disgust because he finished chewing and swallowed the rest of the eggs before continuing. "It looks like a CI5 flat."

"That’s because it is." I turned back to scrubbing the frying pan.

There was silence. After braving it for what seemed like hours, I couldn’t resist the urge to turn around. Will was just looking at me.

"What? Cowley insisted you recuperated somewhere with adequate security."

"Why do I get the impression there’s more to it than that?"

I shrugged.

"What have you done, Ray?"

I hesitated, not knowing how Will would react. "I’ve taken a new job."

"Working for CI5?" He raised that left eyebrow in the way he did.

"Working for... how did you know?"

He ignored me. "And not just as my 'self-appointed Carer'."

"Alright, Einstein, you think you know everything." I crossed my wet hands over my chest and glowered at him, waiting for him to enlighten me.

"I can’t imagine you giving up everything just to help me out for a few weeks." I waited for him to order his thoughts. "So what did the old man offer you?"

"A good job, decent pay, the flat."

"Please don’t say you’re going to be a field agent."

I couldn’t believe it. After all we’d been through he didn’t think me capable of becoming a field agent. "Are you saying I’m no good? I was a copper, for fuck’s sake, can fight as good as you any day of the week, I’ve..."

It’s very hard to talk when someone has their lips pressed tightly against yours. I hadn’t even noticed him standing up, let alone stepping close to me.

Breaking away he took my face between both my hands. "I’m saying no such thing, you stupid sod. There is no one I’d trust more to have my back in the field. What I am saying, though, is that being a field agent is no job for a parent." He smiled at me with gentle fondness. "The hours are awful, sometimes the jobs are distasteful, and there is a real danger that each day could be your last." His thumb eased over the fading yellow of the bruise on my cheek. "You are more than capable of doing the job, but I couldn’t bear to see Toby without his Dad. Or me, without my lover." His lips claimed mine again, this time gentle, soft, both giving and receiving comfort.

As we broke apart for air I laid my head on his shoulder. "It’s a good thing, then, that he offered me the job of assistant trainer. The hours are regular, beating up people for their own benefit is never distasteful, and unless I get hit by a bus it is unlikely that each day could be my last."

He barked out a laugh. "You, Macklin’s right hand man? Oh my God. It’s priceless." He couldn’t control his mirth. "Those poor bastards won’t know what’s hit them."

"In a couple of months’ time, you’ll be one of those poor bastards." I reminded him with a grin. That stopped his laughing dead. "And no, I won’t go easy on you. One of Cowley’s stipulations."

"What is?"

"No favouritism."

"What the Cow doesn’t know won’t hurt him."

"He has eyes and ears everywhere."

"Don’t I know it?" He pulled away from me and eased himself back down onto his chair. It would be some time before he was up to full strength. "I hope his eyes and ears don’t stretch to my bedroom."

"Why? What are you planning to do in there?" I baited him.

"Well, I’m aware things will be awkward, but I was hoping that we’d... that we could... er..."

I sat down next to him and grinned. "Yes, we can er, if er is another word for sex." I was becoming immune to his scowls. "But there have to be some rules."

"Of course." He nodded, serious for once.

"Toby mustn’t know that we are lovers."

"He knows..."

"He knows that we’re friends and that, despite all appearances to the contrary, you are not a criminal. At the moment, that’s as far as I want it to go."

"And how do you explain this arrangement?" He waved his arm around, generalising the flat and the state of his health, his tone somewhat miffed rather than angry.

"He knows the flat comes with my new job, and I told him that you needed someone to look after you for a bit until you’re better which is why you’re staying with us."

"And when I’m better?"

"We’re going to cross that bridge when we come to it."

"Will you ever tell Toby?"

"I am not ashamed of us, Will." I squeezed his fingers. "But Toby has been through a hell of a lot these past few weeks and it’s going to be some time before he’s over it. At the moment, I’m not prepared to add to the trauma." Will nodded his understanding. "When the time is right, Toby will be the second person to know that I love you."

"Second?" He looked dazed. I don’t think it was just the pain killers.

"Yeah." I leant towards him. "Because the first person I’m telling is you, William Bodie. I love you." I kissed him then.

Some minutes later, as he pulled back, he asked, "You said there were rules. Plural."

"Yeah. Well, Toby is the easy one. As far as he’s concerned we’re just mates, separate bedrooms, the works."

"And the hanky panky?"

I frowned.

"You know, a bit of ‘ow’s yer father’." He nudged me.

"I know exactly what you mean, you imbecile." I sighed the sigh of the long suffering. "Only when Toby is not around."

He nodded in acceptance.

"And the not so easy rules?"

"Well, just the one and this one is going to be a bit tougher."

His grin faded and he put his other hand over mine where it was playing with a frayed corner of the table cloth.

"If we get to the stage where we do... eh... tell Toby, I’d want you to give up the A Squad." I rushed the last bit and looked down, waiting for the outburst. There was a long silence. I heard his deep breath and then his fingers tightened marginally on mine.

"My job is my life, Ray."

"I know it is."

"Why should I give it up?" He sounded puzzled, not mad, much to my relief.

"You know what you said about me being a field agent? Well, it goes both ways." I looked up at him then. "I couldn’t bear for anything to happen to you, even now. And I don’t think loosing you in the line of duty would be fair on Toby. He idolises you enough as it is. When he knows we’re a couple and you’re his other dad, it would be even worse."

Will pursed his lips and sat quietly for several minutes. I left him to his thoughts and got up to make some tea. My own thoughts turned back to one of the many conversations I had had with George Cowley over the past week when he had hinted at the plans he had for Will in the future. It was not my place to tell Will of those plans, and I wondered now if I should have kept quiet about wanting Will to take a quieter, less dangerous role in the organisation for my and Toby’s sakes. Perhaps I should have let things work out in their own time.

"It’s a three bedroom flat." I was expecting him to outright refuse to accept my demands, or to at least ask for time to think about them. I was not expecting him to backtrack to the part of the conversation about the flat, even if at that time I had wondered how long it would take his brain to catch up. The drugs were obviously buggering up his thought processes.

"That it is." I answered without turning back to him.

"Nobody gets a three bedroom flat. Cowley wouldn’t have assigned a three bedroom..." He trailed off.

"Who knows what he would or wouldn’t do?"

"Ray." I could hear that he was getting frustrated and turned back to him.

"Alright, you great Lummox. Yes, Mr Cowley knows about our relationship and I assume by assigning this flat he is sanctioning it."

"How does he know?"

"I might have made it a bit obvious the first day I visited you in hospital."

He raised his eyebrow in question. I was tempted not to elaborate, but then thought in for a penny, in for a pound. "I held your hand."

Will grinned up at me. "Did you weep over my fallen body? Did you sit in lonely vigil at my bedside?"

I closed my eyes and counted to ten. "Seriously, I wonder about you sometimes. Those drugs must be addling what little brains you had."

I put his cup of tea down with more force than I had intended and the liquid sloshed over the sides. Will just sat beaming at me.

"If this arrangement is only temporary, why didn’t Cowley give you a two bedroom flat?"

"He knows how I feel about Toby finding out at the moment. And that bridge we’ve got to cross when you’re better? I think Cowley is planning some strategic cost cutting in the future which will account for us still sharing after you go back to work. The third bedroom keeps up appearances all round. By the way, when you are feeling up to it I’m to help you clear out your old flat."

"There’s not a lot."

"More than you had in Tredegar Square, I hope."

"Yeah." He glanced around. "What happened to my books and stuff from there?"

"Murphy cleared that place out and brought them over. I put them in your bedroom for now."

I saw him wince when I mentioned Murphy’s name. "It is okay, you know. I understand that neither of you were in a position to say what was going on."

"He said you gave him a hard time."

"Not for long. And it had all been a bit of a shock at the time." I stooped down in front of him and rested my hands on his knees. "Like I said last night, mate. It’s time to move on." His only answer was to bend down and kiss me with a passion he couldn’t follow through with.

The last month had been a whirlwind. After I accepted Cowley’s job offer he had magnanimously allowed me two weeks off. I think it was probably more to do with nursing Will on the cheap rather than allowing my own body time to recover fully from the punishment it had received at Gower’s hands. The two weeks since that I had spent at CI5 headquarters had shown me just how frugal the Controller was in all areas except weaponry. Still, I guess he had the Ministry breathing down his neck to account for all expenditure, and to fight the criminals on the streets of Britain you needed at least the same level of arms as them. And that cost money. At least it put my mind at rest that no-one would question our living arrangements when Will was back up and running and we were officially flat mates.

Making an allowance for my recently broken leg Cowley expected me to spend time in all departments before I moved onto basic CI5 training. Once that was completed I would be thrown to the wolves, or at least Macklin. And the agents in CI5, led by Murphy, were delighting in telling me just what a bastard Macklin was. I’m sure Will, or Bodie as I was now learning to think of him, would have joined in with their ribbing but for the fact that he would be going through a course with Macklin himself before too much longer.

Will was determined to get back up to full strength as quickly as possible. His wound had healed well, but the damaged layers of muscle would require time to knit together properly. And Will was not a patient man. Several times he had done too many exercises and set his progress back. I had given up trying to get him to see sense, and I suspected that the doctors felt the same way.

After a week in Records (and wasn’t that just as boring as I’d been led to believe) Cowley deigned to give me a day off in lieu of the following Saturday he had told me I was working. I had no specific plans, other than the fact Will had offered to get Toby off to school and that meant I could have the first lie-in I had had for weeks.

Toby had bounced back from his ordeal, and the nightmares were finally easing off. I had decided to keep him at the same school for the time being, even though there was one nearer and getting to his old one was quite a challenge. Mrs M had agreed to look after him for a couple of hours after school each day while I was working, a plan which pleased both of them equally and took the pressure off me.

"Ray?"

I was dozing comfortably under the mound of blankets when Will returned. I pulled a blanket off my head and shouted "here."

I expected him to come in, but when he hadn’t appeared within five minutes I started to doze again. Another fifteen minutes passed before he came in, balancing a loaded tray. I stirred when I smelt the expensive coffee we had taken to buying. "What’s that?"

"Breakfast in bed, milord."

I pulled myself up and adjusted the pillows behind me. "Why?"

He grinned at my suspicion. "Can’t I treat you?"

My eyes narrowed. "Nah, must be after something." But I didn’t object when he placed the tray across my lap. As well as the mugs of coffee, there was a plate of buttered toast.

"You’re definitely after something."

"You know me so well." The smooth bastard cupped my cheek and delivered an exquisite kiss to my open lips.

Our love life had been severely lacking over the last month, due both to injuries and resident child, and we were both sorely in need.

With the tray balanced on my legs I could do little to reciprocate. Not that Will seemed to need much help. His hand slipped under the tee shirt I had started wearing as the nights got colder, and his fingers found my left nipple. His expert pinch and tug had me gasping, and he took advantage by pressing his tongue between my lips. My need became desperation.

And then he stopped. "Breakfast time."

"You... you..."

"It’s okay, love, you can thank me later."

The smug sod settled cross-legged on the bed and grabbed a piece of toast. He chewed in silence for a few minutes, staring at nothing in particular, and then he looked at me. With twinkling eyes, he said, "You look very wanton like that. Your lips are red and swollen and your eyes are dazed. I like it."

Then he shoved the rest of the toast into his mouth and carried on chewing. When he picked up another slice of toast I expected that to go the same way as the first, but he gently broke a corner off, lent towards me and held it to my mouth. I automatically opened my lips and he popped it inside. He fed me the whole slice that way, and when I had finished he held the coffee mug out for me to take.

"I’ve got plans for you today, sunshine," he said between mouthfuls of his own coffee. "Neither of us have to be anywhere until five, and we’ve got a lot of catching up to do." With that he took the half empty mug out of my hand, put it and his back on the tray, and put the tray on the floor.

He settled himself back on the bed and kissed me again. To sound like one of those heroines in the gothic romances I illustrated, but never read of course, I felt myself melt against him. His lips nibbled against mine, a gentle nip and pull before he soothed away the sting with his tongue. First my top lip, then the bottom, then the top again. I could feel my heart beating faster and my breathing sped up. When I felt his hand on my chest again I groaned aloud, and his tongue darted into my open mouth.

He rubbed around my nipple through the cotton fabric of the tee shirt and the cloth caught against my sensitive flesh before jerking free. I arched into his touch, begging for more. My lips felt bruised when he pulled back and I ran my tongue over them. His eyes were on the movement even as both his hands slipped under the hem of my tee shirt and pushed it up. With a quick flick he had the fabric over my head, but left it against my shoulders, effectively pinning my arms behind me.

He lowered his head to my chest and licked across my left nipple whilst his fingers teased the right one. The almost painful sucking that followed had all my blood rushing to my cock in a surge that left me gasping. Resting against the pillows with my arms trapped behind me I was at his mercy as he licked and sucked and bit until I was sobbing incoherently. Then he switched sides. Without removing his teeth from the current round of biting, he pulled the blankets away from my lap and grasped my erection through my pyjamas. I think I would have come there and then but for the pressure he applied to the base of my cock and balls.

"Please," I begged with a whimper when he released my throbbing right nipple. "Please."

"We’ve got all day," he murmured. "What’s the rush?"

"I need to come."

His hand stroked up the hard bulge. "How much do you need to come?"

Urgh, I had already succumbed to begging. What more did he want?

"Please." It was worth another try.

"What will you do for me?"

When I wasn’t quite so on the edge I was going to tell him exactly what a bastard he was. "Anything, for Christ sake I’ll do anything, just let me come now."

He slowly unbuttoned my pyjamas and eased them down and over my cock. It sprang free, red hot and leaking pre-come. He licked his lips before swiping his tongue across the head and as his breath whispered against the glans I shivered. I couldn’t prevent my hips from thrusting, and his large hands grabbed them and pinned me down.

Pulling away slightly he said, "Uh-uh, my rules this time, sunshine."

I lost track of time and lost count of the number of times he brought me to the pinnacle of release. Each time I thought he’d take pity on me he would pull back leaving me a gibbering wreck. Pinned to the bed by his broad shoulders pressing into my thighs and his hands holding my hips down, I’m not sure I could have broken free even if I had wanted to. My helplessness at his hands simply heightened the intensity of my arousal. If only my hands were free I could have reached down and touched myself. It wouldn’t have taken many strokes to find completion.

"Oh God, Will, you’ve got to let me come." I was not above a bit of grovelling.

I could feel his lips smile around my cock, and finally, finally he took pity on me. His movements sped up and the suction grew more intense. His tongue pressed hard against the underside of my glans, and I came. I lay back against the pillows, panting, my body twitching with every spasm of my cock, and I watched as Will swallowed all my release. He pushed himself back and released me with a slight popping sound. Absently, I noted the reddened skin on my thighs and hips where he had pressed me down, and I guessed there would be some bruising later. Oh well, it was definitely worth it.

Between us we managed to get my arms free and the tee shirt off. Will sat on his haunches, very pleased with himself if the grin was anything to go by. As I got my breath back, I decided a little retribution was in order.

"Can I finish my breakfast, now?"

He looked down at himself, at the hard bulge in his trousers, and then back up at me, his mouth hanging open.

"Don’t I get...?"

"Breakfast first." I leant over the side of the bed and reached for my coffee mug. I was pleased to discover that my hand only shook a little. I took a slurp and found the coffee was by now lukewarm. Oh well, it was fine for wetting my dry mouth.

Will just watched me. Speechless was a quality I could get to like in him. I grabbed the last piece of toast and started eating it. I couldn’t care less about the crumbs falling onto my bare chest: I knew exactly how I was going to get those crumbs cleaned up afterwards. I folded the slice in half and butter oozed out of the side and dripped onto my right nipple. Will bit his bottom lip; his eyes firmly glued to that spot.

"You did that on purpose," he grumbled.

I shrugged and arched my back in invitation, and he soon latched his mouth onto the hard nub. No-one had ever cleaned me so thoroughly before. A definite twitch from my groin told me I would soon be up for round two, and then Will would get his comeuppance. While Will licked the crumbs off me, I reached between us and undid the buttons on his dark blue shirt. I would have to commend him later on his choice of colour: it was a perfect match for his eyes.

When the shirt was hanging loose off his shoulders I surged up and pushed him over backwards. He landed with a breathy "oomph" and settled himself comfortably on top of the blankets as I straddled him.

"It’s my turn now." I kissed him, gentle and slow, while rocking my hips over his crotch. He groaned into my mouth and his fingers tangled in my hair before he pulled my head up slightly.

"Fuck me, please."

I’m surprised my cock could be so hard again so soon. But it certainly liked Will’s request and thought it was up to the job so who was I to complain. I got off Will and he soon shimmied out of his trousers and pants. I helped him out by removing his socks, and then remembered that my own pyjamas needed to come off. I soon stood before him naked, stroking myself. He lay there on his back, his open shirt ruffled about him and his legs splayed out. I had never seen such a beautiful sight. Now was not the time, but one day I was definitely going to paint him, just as he was now.

I grabbed the jar of Vaseline out of the drawer and eased myself between his legs. I had the lid off the jar in seconds and scooped up a large dollop of the grease. With slicked fingers I circled the rim of his anus, pressing against the puckered flesh without pushing inside; round and round, first one way, then the next.

"Don’t tease, Ray."

I just smirked and continued the slow motion. With an impatient grunt, Will pushed down and my finger slipped through the ring of muscle and into his quivering flesh. I swirled it around in search of his prostate and when I found it he moaned, loud and indecent. Inserting a second finger had him writhing senselessly on the bed and I knew this was going to be quick for both of us.

I withdrew my fingers and quickly ran them over my stiff cock, coating it thoroughly with Vaseline.

"Ready?"

"Just do it." Who could resist such a command? With one hard thrust I was inside and buried balls deep. I couldn’t tell you which one of us whimpered then. It was probably me, as macho man seemed pretty insensible lying there. I set up a steady rhythm, relishing the resistance when I pushed into his tight hole. Will’s right hand found his balls and he pulled them sharply several times while his other hand clenched tightly in the bedding.

"Gonna come," he muttered and then his body became rigid. I would have liked to watch his cock ejaculate, but as his buttocks clenched my own orgasm hit me hard and my eyes closed involuntarily. When I managed to open them again, his cock was lying spent against his pubic hair and his spunk was cooling on his stomach.

I eased out of him and wiped us both clean with a corner of the sheet. When I flopped down next to him he moved his arm so it was round my shoulders and pulled me in to him.

"We should do this more often."

"Yeah, must ask Cowley for regular week days off." We both chuckled. "How about suggesting that CI5 introduce a policy of half day closing like the shops?"

"I’d like to see you try, Goldilocks. I think Cowley would string you up by your balls if you did."

"It wouldn’t be Cowley stringing me up, mate. He’d get Macklin to do the dirty work for him."

Will’s fingers were aimlessly running through the hair on my chest. I could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he thought.

"You okay?"

He turned to me and asked, "Are you happy?"

More than you will ever know. With a smile I answered, "yeah."

I could see a slight smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

"What about you?"

He kissed my nose then said aloud what I was too afraid to. "More than you will ever know, sunshine."