Cal McCaffrey was woken up by the unpleasant sensation of the late afternoon sun getting into his eyes. Now that he wasn't working, what was the point of getting up in the morning? As he was now more or less awake, he staggered out into the kitchen to make some coffee. If he recalled correctly, he'd been out drinking at Hennessy's until the sun came up, then he'd made his way home and had a few beers right here. A cup of strong black coffee was probably the best thing, but his stomach turned at the sight of the dregs from yesterday's brew. Shaking his head, he walked over to the fridge to see if he'd remembered to buy orange juice, though the thought of that didn't exactly make him feel all cheerful either. Not that it mattered. All he could find in the fridge was a half empty beer bottle, some ancient butter and what might have been cheese once. He hurriedly shut the door again, so he wouldn't get sick.
A shower might be the best thing. Then perhaps he could go to some cafe and get what probably couldn't be referred to as breakfast at this hour. When he returned from the shower, dripping wet, with a towel wrapped around his waist, he was startled to hear the doorbell ringing.
The first thought that popped into his brain was Anne. She'd changed her mind and – But his imagination landed with a thud on the floor as he realized that whoever it was, it couldn't be Anne. It was all over. Just like his friendship with Stephen. He almost decided not to answer the door, since whoever it was, couldn't be anyone he wanted to see. But his curiosity reasserted itself and he began fumbling with the lock.
The girl outside looked tired, but startlingly fresh. Even her hair that had braved the smog of London's inner city looked surprisingly nice and glossy.
"We have to talk."
And without waiting for a reply, she brushed past him. If Cal had been a little more alert, he might have noticed how Della's eyes lingered wistfully on his chest, but as it was, he merely blinked and trailed after her.
"It's great to see you again."
For a second, Della's face was transformed by the beginnings of a smile. Could it be that he actually was pleased to see her? But she remembered what had brought her to his flat and forced the smile down.
"Great to see you too. What are you -"
She shook her head. It really wasn't any of her business what Cal did or didn't do, even if she wished fondly that it could be. Now that they weren't working together anymore, what right did she have to question his right to get pissed and sleep late? Poor Cal. It had to be dreadful, losing his job like this, and especially after getting the Herald such a major scoop. Not that he'd been able to rejoice in the victory. Not when the scoop involved the downfall of his best friend and the loss of his lover, the same friend's ex wife. She almost didn't want to bring him more bad news, but she thought she knew Cal well enough to be able to tell that he'd want to know.
"Never mind. Are you alright? Eating enough?"
There she went again. Prying into his private affairs. Fussing over him like a mother hen. What must he think?
But Cal actually smiled. He'd never seen this side of Della before. In the past, working together, she'd always seemed so manically hard-working and together. Always on the job, night and day. He'd been the same way, before this last – Cal's smile vanished as he recalled the look on Stephen's face when he began to confess to having arranged his lover's murder. Sonia hadn't deserved to die that way and no one, politician or not, ought to even consider hiring a hitman to protect themselves against someone who loved them. Hastily, he pushed down that thought. At least Della was here, asking about him.
"Well, not that much in the past couple of weeks as it happens. But never mind that. How are you doing? Still working at the Herald?"
He knew she was. People still kept him informed about his old job and especially about his closest friends. And about Cameron. No, he wouldn't even think about his old editor. Cameron was ok. He'd only done what he had to do. Nothing personal.
"Yes, but – Cal – it's Dan. His wife just died. Didn't you hear about it?"
"No. Not that I've been keeping up with the latest news. What happened?"
"Car crash. I think she'd been drinking. Dan just got back from an assignment when they came to inform him."
Remembering how Dan's youthful face had lit up every time he mentioned his wife, Cal thought he could imagine just what was going through the poor kid's head right now. This was really bad news. Poor Dan. He was filled with anger at the thoughtless girl who had caused him this pain, then repented. Why think ill of the dead? She'd probably suffered enough in her last few moments of life.
"When did it happen?"
"Early this morning. I just heard as I was leaving. Cameron got a call and he rushed out in the middle of a meeting. We had to finish up on our own. He had to go to the hospital."
"No. And Dan's mother is ill as well, isn't she?"
"Yes. Has been for years. Not sure what she's suffering from, though. Could be anything. Even drink or nerves."
"I know. Cameron seemed to be hinting at something when he used the medical bills to get at Dan."
Della didn't need reminding. True, they'd been right in the middle of a job back then, but she couldn't help noticing how Dan's eyes had widened in disbelief that his father could be so cruel.
"I called the hospital – I needed to get in touch with Cameron – and there was nothing anyone could do. Cameron said Dan just left, before he could stop him. He was going to get the doctors to sedate him -"
Cal stared at Della. Cameron being this forthcoming about his personal life? He must have been shaken up badly.
"Where could he have gone off to? He shouldn't be alone right now. Did Cameron know where he'd gone?"
"No. And he didn't seem to care."
Surely that wasn't possible? What father would be indifferent to his son's distress, especially at a time like this?
Della appeared to be reading his mind.
"He said he'd had it with Dan's outbursts. With his wife's illness and everything else, he just couldn't bother. Apparently, Dan's done this type of thing before. After girls break up with him, or when something else has gone wrong."
Amazing. This didn't sound at all like his cool, hard-headed gov.
"You're right though. He shouldn't be alone. And I happen to know where he is. I called in a few favours and a friend of mine was able to tell me where he was. No great mystery. The Stag and Hound."
"The Stag and Hound? Are we talking about the same place -"
"I know. No cheap backstreet pubs for our Dan."
You had to hand it to Dan. Even when he broke down and went out to drink himself into oblivion, he did it in style. Some kid. At times it was hard to reconcile the many images of Dan Foster. Spoiled rich brat. Brilliant young reporter. Charming and endearing. Even, if Della's and Syd's reactions were anything to go by, sexy, if you liked that kind of thing. Was there anything Dan didn't have? A tiny pinprick of jealousy stabbed Cal, before he remembered what Dan didn't have. Most importantly, it would seem, he didn't have a wife anymore. Which brought him back to the present. Dan alone, drinking recklessly. A rich kid floating about the streets of London at night, prey to any predator that might choose to target him.
Della stared at Cal. He wanted her to come along? That was totally unexpected and a little too close to her silly, school girl dreams about her colleague. Surely he didn't suspect anything? Suddenly she desperately wished she could go with him, anywhere he wanted to go.
Intent on helping his friend, Cal failed to notice the emotional drama playing itself out on Della's face.
"I'm sorry. My parents just came up and I have to go back to my flat. They're waiting for me. After all the attention our story got – Well, my father said he wanted to check on me in person. I'm not sure what he's concerned about, but it's no use arguing."
Briefly, Cal's attention was brought back to the present. Della. Partly for purely selfish reasons he wanted her to go with him. Trying to dissuade Dan from drinking, perhaps having to physically drag the kid back to someone's flat didn't feel too appealing. From what he heard, The Stag and Hound had become fashionable not only for professionals like himself, wealthy tourists and so on, but also a number of gay men. The potential misunderstandings didn't bear thinking about. On the other hand, Cal really wanted Della to come along anyway, just so he could see her again. He'd missed the old gang. Especially Della, despite her being the most difficult, impossibly stubborn and exasperating woman he'd ever met. In addition, her voice as she mentioned her father, seemed to hold some tone which he couldn't quite interpret. What was clear was that she wasn't too thrilled to go home. If he'd had time, he would have tried to sound her out more deeply, but at the moment, they were both in a hurry.
"I see. I'm sorry to hear that. Oh. I didn't mean I'm sorry that your parents are visiting, I just -"
"Don't apologize. You have no idea – but I have to go. I'll see you later."
"Yes. Looking forward to it."
And she was gone. Cal rushed back to his bedroom to pick up a few garments that wouldn't be too obviously crinkled and more importantly, didn't smell. As he knew from experience, they were picky at the Stag and Hound.
When they'd come to tell him, he just hadn't taken it all in. What they were saying didn't make sense. It was impossible. She just couldn't be dead. There had to be some mistake. He told them so. By the time he'd been made to realize that something really was wrong, and his father had shown up, he had reached the stage where he just yelled at the top of his lungs. For a moment, his father was there, saying things he didn't want to hear. He felt a hand ineffectually patting his hair, but he wouldn't have any of that. Twisting away, he tried to make someone take him to see her. Why wouldn't anyone let him see her? She needed him. Him. Not some stupid doctor or nurse dressed in white. He vaguely heard his father saying something about sedating him. Whirling around, he faced his father belligerently. No sedation. He was going to see his wife. No one had a right to keep him from her.
Then suddenly, someone was there, telling him to come along. Again, he could hear his father trying to reason with him, arguing that it wasn't a good idea. Not right now. He heard words to the effect that she was in bad shape. Something about her face. He didn't want to listen. The doctor with the low, persuasive voice took him gently by the arm, leading him towards a room further down the corridor. If his father was coming along, he didn't care or wanted to know about it. They had been right. Her face – This time, he couldn't fight his father off anymore. When he felt the strong arms pulling him into a hard embrace, he just let it happen. Pressing his face against his father's chest, he seemed to lose track of time. The next time he was aware of his surroundings, they were in some other room, and a nurse was trying to give him a cup of tea. His dad was still there, keeping a watchful eye over him. The sound of a pager got his attention. If that was for him – No. It was for his dad. He was left alone for a while, trying to fight down the dull ache inside him. She was gone. It was true. He would never ever see her again. Never hold her in his arms, never see her smile, never go on any surprise outings, never – Angrily, he brushed away a few tears. He just couldn't accept it. There was no way he could live without her.
But it wasn't a bad dream. It was real. Suddenly, he couldn't take it anymore. He had to get out of this place. The hospital smell was making him sick. No one saw him leave. Outside, in the parking lot, some guy was staring at him, as if there was something wrong with the way he looked. Furtively, Dan sneaked off, and managed to get a cab. He gave the address to the first place that popped into his mind. The Stag and Hound. It wasn't one of their places, but he used to go there before their marriage, when he was just a snotty rich kid with no plans for the future. Right now, that sounded like a good enough place to be.
The bartender shot him a rather funny look as well, but had no objections to his order. Dan followed up with another Scotch, ignoring his father's advice. He knew he wasn't a heavy drinker. A couple of beers, a glass of wine, a cocktail or two at a reception. Mainly in the line of duty. That was it. But now he needed the alcohol. Anything was better than this dull, searing pain. After a couple of more glasses, that pain began to recede a little. He knew it was there, but he felt he could breathe again. That was when he heard the familiar voice. It took a while to fit a name to the face and the voice, but in the end he got there.
"Can I get you another one?"
Why not? It wasn't as if he was going anywhere.
"Cheers. Syd, isn't it?"
"You remembered. So, how are you doing these days? Busy with a new story?"
Story? It took Dan a while to make sense of Syd's words. A story? No. Or rather, he had been busy writing one, until the doorbell rang and -
"You know how it is. What about you?"
"The usual. Nothing major. How about another one?"
"Keep them coming."
"So, what are you doing? Celebrating another scoop?"
"No. Just trying to unwind."
"Well, you've come to the right place. Don't you just love it? The decor -"
Dan couldn't care less about the decor, and hadn't a clue what he was going to say, but he found he didn't have to, since his drink arrived as if on cue.
Dan didn't quite catch the last line, but he smiled and nodded, thinking that as long as Syd didn't expect any replies, this would work splendidly. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before he was reminded that Cameron was right. He usually was, though Dan didn't like to admit it. This much Scotch on an empty stomach wasn't a good idea. Soon he really managed to forget just about everything, including the loss of his wife. In fact, he hardly remembered his own name, let alone his drinking buddy's.
Syd's practiced eye took in Dan's state of inebriation and decided the cute kid had had enough. More than enough. If there was going to be a continuation of the evening, and he sure hoped there would, he liked his partner to be more or less conscious.
"Hey, Dan. Take it easy. I think you've had enough."
Dan was trying hard to figure out what he'd had enough of, and eventually realized that his friend – whatever his name was – was referring to the wonderful stuff in his glass.
"Oh. You could be right."
And as if that was a splendid joke, Dan began to giggle. This bloke – whatever his name was, was really funny.
"As it happens, I just might have had a little too much. Shh. Don't tell anyone."
"Alright. You have my word. Let's get you out of here. Your place or mine?"
Again, Dan had trouble catching more than a third of the other guy's words, and only managed to get the general idea. They were leaving.
"Right. Where are we going? Is there a party somewhere?"
Syd smiled hungrily. He sure hoped so.
"You tell me."
Dan began to fumble in his pocket. The bartender made a reassuring gesture.
"Don't worry about that, mr Foster. We'll put it on your tab."
"Oh. Thanks. You're the best. Here."
He managed to grab a couple of coins and a small banknote and tried to put them on the counter. Most of the money fell to the floor, on the bartender's side.
"That's for you, my friend."
"Thank you, sir."
Syd handed over his card and the bartender expertly dealt with the formalities.
The next thing Dan knew, he was standing in the street, with Syd's arm around his shoulders. Great fellow, this – whatever his name was.
When the cab arrived, Syd was able to get Dan into the backseat, while he was giving the orders to the driver. For once, Dan was paying attention. No, that couldn't be right. He wanted to go home. To – No, there was something wrong about home. But the flat – Yes, he'd go to the flat.
"I want to go to my place."
"Oh? Ok. What's the address?"
Dan was able to put this across with a minimum of trouble, due to long practice.
"Alright. Change of plans. We'll go to my friend's place instead."
Fifteen minutes later, they were standing outside Dan's door. Dan made a few unsuccessful attempts to retrieve his key, until Syd decided to give him a hand. Syd's hands going through his pockets, lingering here and there, didn't produce any reaction in Dan, other than an exploding giggle or two. He was having a wonderful time.
Eventually, they ended up in the living room, on the sofa. By then, Dan had forgotten everything that had happened earlier that day. Everything was just fine.
"There's some brandy over there. Help yourself. I'd get it for you, but I seem to be feeling a little tired. Don't worry about it. I'm fine."
"You look fine. In fact, you look stunning. Really hot."
Dan found this statement hilarious. Hot. Really? Wow. What a blast.
"Thanks. You're a great guy yourself. Where did we meet again? Are you a friend of -"
There was something about his wife that he didn't want to remember, so he didn't say her name. He also promptly forgot what he had asked his guest.
Syd, busily planning tonight's event, didn't pay attention either. Besides, he was pouring himself a generous dose of the expensive brandy, and a rather smaller dose for his host.
"Here you go."
"You're the greatest. Cheers."
The brandy was a whole lot nicer than anything Syd normally got his hands on, and under different circumstances, he'd allow himself to savour the excellent beverage. But he had other, more pressing needs to attend to. That kid was a bit younger than his usual type, but it had been a long time since Syd had been around anything this hot and he didn't intend to waste any time. Besides, he'd seen the way Dan had smiled at him. It didn't take a genius to figure out the kid wanted him. Putting down his glass, Syd turned towards his host, with a hungry smile on his lips. Dan returned the smile, guilelessly. He was still playing with his own glass, and Syd pried it out of his hand, putting it safely out of the way.
"Hey. Do you mind? I was going to drink that."
"I think you've had enough."
"You know what? I think so too."
Again, this not so original statement made Dan break into a new attack of giggles. This evening was turning out to be a tremendous success. If only he could remember where he'd met this guy. He was sure he knew him from somewhere. When were the others coming? Because surely a party was planned for later tonight? He had to remember to be a good host. Brandy. What else should he offer his guest? Peanuts? Crisps?
"Can I get you anything?"
"Oh, you can."
That was quite enough as far as preliminary chit-chat was concerned. Time to get right to the heart of the matter. Syd inched closer and began to unbutton Dan's shirt. With some effort, he was able to undo the tie knot and pull it away.
"Thanks, my friend. That thing was strangling me. It is hot in here, isn't it? Good idea."
Giggling, Dan wriggled out of his jacket and tried to hang it over the back of the sofa. It slid to the floor, unnoticed. Syd moved closer still, his face approaching Dan's. In the state he was in, Dan saw nothing unusual in such proximity. He prepared to listen to whatever confidence Syd was going to bestow on him. You never knew when any piece of gossip might provide a lead to a story. To Dan's slight surprise, Syd proceeded to unbutton his own shirt, and while he was at it, he tossed his own jacket away as well. Dan still didn't see much wrong with this kind of behaviour. There was some extremely funny joke he'd heard only the other day. Why didn't he tell it to his guest, while they were waiting for the other guests to arrive?
"Hey, there was this guy who -"
The incoherent attempt at a joke didn't mean anything to Syd, but he took Dan's behaviour as encouragement, and tipped him over. From his lying position, Dan looked up, at first slightly startled, then overcome with another fit of giggling. Whatever Syd was up to, had to be another splendid joke of some kind, albeit of the more practical kind. Syd's practiced hands began to fumble with Dan's belt, and this, if nothing else would have produced some kind of reaction, but Syd never got far enough to open the buckle. A noise from the direction of the front door distracted them. Someone was coming.
When Cal got to the Stag and Hound, he couldn't see Dan anywhere. Dejectedly, he stood by the entrance, scanning the bar, wondering if he'd have to brave the men's room, to look for his friend being sick. A man who looked slightly familiar waved at him and Cal decided to walk over and find out what the guy wanted.
"You're a friend of Della's, aren't you?"
"She was asking about that Foster kid. Are you looking for him as well?"
"Yes. I'm a bit -"
"He was here. Left maybe twenty minutes ago with some poof -"
The guy broke off uncertainly, wondering if it was a bad idea to use this less than politically correct term with one of those reporters. He had a business to worry about and if word got round that he might be discriminating against a group of customers – Cal's worried look reassured him.
"They took a cab outside. That kid looked as if he'd had a couple too many if you ask me."
"I was afraid of that."
So McCaffrey was out looking after his gov's kid. Oh, well, anything to curry favour with the boss.
"I heard something about the kid's wife -"
"Uh – yes."
"I know. Thanks again."
Cal rushed outside. Some poof – exactly what he was afraid of. Well, anyone who might take advantage of Dan's helpless condition. It wouldn't take much for him to lose his wallet, his mobile phone, maybe the keys to his car and the flat – and who knew what else that man might be up to? He'd only been at Dan's flat once, but he clearly remembered the way. Fortunately, he was able to get a cab that was dropping off a couple of new customers for the pub. It didn't take him long to get to Dan's place. If that was where the two of them were heading. The door was unlocked. He could hear voices. Or rather, one voice and someone giggling stupidly. Cal had a bad feeling about the whole thing. And what he saw as he entered the living room wasn't reassuring. Someone was lying on top of someone else, on the sofa -
"Hey. Get off him."
Syd sat up, and staring in dismay towards the door, he realized that perhaps he shouldn't have taken things for granted after all. McCaffrey. He should have known there was something going on between those two.
"I don't want any trouble -"
"Hi. Look, I didn't realize that you and Dan were – Sorry about – I'll just get my things and go."
When Cal realized what Syd was getting at, he felt his face heat up uncomfortably, but decided not to comment. As long as he got rid of Syd, the guy could believe what he liked. Cal didn't wait until he'd heard the door slam shut, before making sure Dan was alright. Superficially, he did seem perfectly fine. But then again, how could you tell? It was immediately obvious that he wouldn't get any intelligible answers out of the kid. Feeling awkward, Cal decided that if Dan looked ok, he probably was. At least as far as Syd's involvement was concerned. While he was performing his hasty observations, Dan was delighted to see him.
"Hello there. I knew the rest of you would get here event – eventu – in the end. Is Della coming too?"
"What are you talking about?"
"The party. Has to be some party."
"Party? Dan, are you -"
Stupid question. The flat smelled like a brewery, and Cal was guessing Dan had hardly had time to get to this state of inebriation in the brief time since he'd left the pub.
"Where did Syd go? I think he was -"
Yes, Cal rather thought so too, but then again, he had no idea where Dan's thought processes were leading.
"He – Never mind. Get up."
Dan giggled delightedly.
"Did I tell you how sorry I was about your job?"
"You know, how dad fired you. If it had been me, I'd have given you a pro – I wouldn't have fired you, Cal. I like you."
"I like you too. Dan, get up. You've had far too much to drink and -"
"Oh, alright. What do you want us to do? There should be some bottles around here if you'd like to – or some crisps or something. I always forget to -"
"Do you have any coffee?"
But Dan wasn't listening. He was trying his best to sit up. If Cal hadn't grabbed his hands and pulled him up, it was doubtful if he would have managed on his own. Now Cal was looking around for Dan's clothes. At least his pants were on and – Fighting down the feelings of awkwardness, Cal tossed the discarded shirt at Dan, but failed to find the jacket. No matter. The flat was warm enough. He eyed Dan uncertainly, wondering if he ought to bring the kid into the kitchen or just leave him on the sofa. In the end, he decided to let Dan be. It was obvious he wouldn't be any help finding the coffee. As it happened, Cal was able to find the coffee quite easily and before long, he'd made an impressive batch of very strong, very black coffee. He took one sniff at the brew, and considered himself lucky not to have to drink it. That feeling lasted for about three seconds. Then he realized that while he didn't have to force any of that stuff down, he still had to get it down Dan's throat.
For a second, he very cowardly considered ringing Cameron. After all, the man was Dan's father. Why on earth couldn't he take responsibility for his own son? But he fought down the impulse. Under the circumstances neither Dan or Cameron would thank him. He returned to the living room, only to find that Dan had tracked down his brandy glass and was about to sweep the contents down.
"Hey. Stop it. You've had quite enough already. Here. Let me take that."
"I'll get you one too."
"Never mind that. This is for you."
And ignoring Dan's feeble protests, he began to force the coffee down the kid's throat.
"No. I don't like coffee. Not this kind. Get me a cappuccino."
"Sorry. We're out of those. Drink it, Dan. You'll feel a lot better if you do. I don't even want to think about how your head will feel in the morning. Speaking of morning – look. The sun's coming up. Please try to drink that stuff."
Always eager to please, Dan smiled affectionately at his friend and idol and bravely tried to swallow a few sips of the scalding hot brew.
"I know. Drink it anyway. Come on. Don't make this any harder than it has to be. Drink up."
Making a face, Dan struggled on for a while longer, but suddenly his face turned a very startling shade of green and Cal only jumped back with seconds to spare, before the kid turned into a veritable fountain. Just great. A good thing that carpet didn't belong to him. He was fairly sure Dan could afford the dry cleaner's bill.
"Oh, come on. Let's get you cleaned up."
He dragged Dan into the bathroom, and managed to wipe his face clean, using a damp towel. The bathroom gave him an idea. It just wasn't a very appealing one. What if he could get Dan to take a cold shower? Dragging up memories from college, Cal recalled how that sort of shock treatment sometimes had a positive effect on an incipient hangover. But Dan didn't seem to be in any shape to undress himself, and Cal really drew the line at undressing other men. No. The coffee would have to do. And if he could just watch over Dan, until most of the alcohol had left his system, he should be safe enough. To his dismay, he now noticed that Dan was trying to unzip his pants. This could only mean trouble. With a sigh, Cal resigned himself to either having to pull the soiled pants off his friend afterwards, or he could help him now. Neither choice seemed appealing, but he seemed to be out of options.
"Oh, for crying out loud."
"Thanks. You're the best."
At least Dan was capable of handling most of the intricate procedure himself. Cal had to smother a smile, when he saw Dan very neatly washing and drying his hands afterwards. His mother could be proud. A very well brought up boy. Cal couldn't honestly say that he would have been quite as meticulous, with the same amount of alcohol in him. They returned to the living room, where Cal again had to remove glasses and bottles, and reassure his host that no other refreshments were necessary either.
"But I want to get you something."
"That's alright. Maybe you should try to get some sleep. Come on. Which one's the bedroom?"
To his relief, Dan turned out to be very well behaved. And used to obeying his elders. That was something to be thankful for. Dan didn't even seem to find anything odd about his friend pulling out a chair and settling down to watch over him during the night. The only awkward moment came when Dan offered Cal the spare room.
"Don't worry about it. I'll stay right here. Go to sleep."
"Cal, did I ever tell you how much I admire you? You're just as good as a reporter as dad."
"Thanks. That's some compliment, coming from you. You do know that you're brilliant, don't you?"
But by now, Dan seemed to have given up his struggle against sleep. His head began to nod, and only moments later the sounds of his even breathing reassured Cal that his protege was sleeping soundly. He probably would be alright now. At least physically. The resilience of youth.
Cal woke up with a start. Some noise must have roused him, but he couldn't remember what it was. For a second, he had no idea where he was. The room was unfamiliar. Why was he sitting on this chair? But it all came back to him with a rush of concern. Dan. Where could the kid have gone off to? Shaking his head to clear it of the night's interrupted sleep, he got to his feet and began to investigate. The living room was empty, and the kitchen and the bathroom as well. Swearing softly under his breath, Cal began to imagine Dan vanishing into the morning rush hour traffic of the city. This just wasn't fair. But then again, Dan losing his wife like this wasn't fair either. And it wasn't as if Cal himself had anything better to do or anywhere better to be.
A faint noise from the only other room he hadn't entered so far made him snap to attention. The door was standing ajar and though the lights weren't on, he could clearly see the scene playing itself out in what seemed to be a tiny study. Dan hunched over the desk, brandishing a pair of scissors. From what Cal could see, he had smashed the frame and glass of a large, glossy photo. A wedding photo. It didn't take a genius to figure out whose wedding it was. But what was he doing to the picture?
"Hey, take it easy."
At first, Dan didn't appear to have heard him. Then he slowly turned around, still clutching the photo and the pair of scissors. With a stab of concern, Cal realized that Dan must have cut himself on the glass. One hand was covered with blood.
"Let me take a look at that. And give me those."
For a moment, Cal didn't think Dan was going to hand the scissors over just like that, then he appeared to give up. Meekly, he let Cal take the scissors and even examine the cut hand. At least the cut had to be superficial, even though it bled profusely.
"What are you doing?"
Suddenly, Cal realized what was going on. Dan wanted to remove every painful reminder of his wife. It was understandable, but Cal had a feeling the kid would regret it later.
"It's alright. Will you let me see to that -"
Staring dumbly in the direction Cal was indicating, Dan appeared to be at a loss for words. It was clear he hadn't even noticed the blood or the cut.
Ignoring his stricken friend, Cal grabbed him by the elbow and began propelling him towards the bathroom.
"Have you heard -"
"About your wife? Yes. I'm terribly sorry, Dan. I wish there was something I could do to make this easier on you – but -"
Cal sighed audibly, recalling exactly how it had felt when Anne walked out of his life without a second glance. An adventure. A little roll in the hay with a younger edition. That was all he'd been to her. It hurt to realize it, but it did no good denying the pathetic facts to himself. But this – Dan's wife was never coming back. Anne was fine. She merely didn't care. His words were falling on deaf ears. Dan's face was a stiff, white mask. Out of politeness or sheer indifference, he was coming along, allowing his friend to see to the cut, but it was obvious that his mind was elsewhere. Fortunately, Cal found a first aid kit and was able to quite easily clean and dress the cut. Just as he'd guessed, it was very minor. Nothing that would require medical attention. Even so, Cal knew that Dan most likely would need professional help getting over the shock and loss. He just didn't know how to make the kid realize that.
And even though Cameron wasn't his boss anymore, Cal felt impelled to ring the man up and inform him where his wayward son was. On the other hand, he suspected Cameron had enough on his plate right now, without having to hold Dan's hand throughout all this. And anyway, if Dan wanted his dad, he knew where to find him. Still, the way Dan had handled the scissors, and the broken glass, made Cal realize that it wouldn't be safe to leave the kid alone either. He made a face as he came to the realization that whatever he did, he had taken on a lot more responsibility than he needed right now. As he was trying to plan his next move, he became aware that Dan had ambled off and might be up to some new self-destructive behaviour.
Dan was standing by the sideboard, holding on to the bottle of brandy – Cal almost whistled when he saw the brand. This was definitely beyond his own means. But he forced himself to forget that. Dan couldn't be allowed to continue last night's binge. He might not have Syd around to worry about, but all that alcohol was the last thing he needed. Knowing how little his words meant to Dan, Cal merely pried the bottle out of his hands. To his relief, the kid didn't resist. It was as if putting up a struggle about anything was beyond his capabilities. That put an even uglier slant on last night's business, but Cal reminded himself that nothing had happened. Syd had gone, without causing any damage.
Dan slumped down on the sofa, apparently oblivious to what might have happened there only hours ago. Cal could see the kid's face crumpling up and knew he was in for an embarrassing moment or two, but the pain was so tangible, he immediately forgot his own unease and hastily sat down next to his friend.
"Her face – her lovely face – it was gone – all smashed up. Her eyes -"
"Shh. Don't think about it. She wouldn't want you to remember her that way. Dan, come on. Snap out of it."
"I'll never hold her again. How can she be gone like that? Only the other night – She was so alive. This is all wrong."
And now Dan really did began to cry. Just as Cal had suspected, he cried like a little kid, un-selfconsciously. He pressed his hands to his eyes, in a way that made Cal flinch. The pain seemed to be tearing Dan apart. Cal felt helpless. What did you do when someone was in so much pain? Because no matter how much Dan looked the part, he was no child. He was a grown man and just like every other British man, Cal cringed at the show of emotion. On the other hand, Dan was a friend. That was a different matter. Awkwardly, he put a hand on Dan's shoulder, squeezing hard. For a while, his touch didn't appear to have any effect. Then, suddenly, Dan threw himself into his friend's arms, pressing his face into Cal's shoulder. All Cal could do, apart from forcing himself not to shy away from the touch, was to put his arms around Dan's shoulders and continue patting them. He felt completely at a loss, but eventually, his wordless comfort began to filter through to Dan.
"I'm sorry to be such a bother."
"It's alright. Listen, if you'd like to – stay over at my place for a while -"
Dan's big solemn eyes fixed Cal's face, boring into him, as if he'd suddenly found a lifeline in the middle of chaos.
"Are you serious? You're sure it wouldn't be any trouble?"
"Of course not."
"Then – If you're absolutely sure -"
"Positive. If you want to pack some things, we could -"
"Cal, I – Thanks. You see, even though she never lived here with me, everything just reminds me so much of her."
"I understand. Come on then. We should get going. And you probably ought to give your dad a ring. He'll be worrying about you."
"What? Oh. Later. I don't want to talk to him right now. He never liked her, you know. He always told me she was wrong for me. And she wasn't. She was – perfect. I've never known anyone like her. He was wrong. He might be right most of the time, but he was wrong about that."
Cal didn't know what to say. Unhappily he listened to Dan spilling out his family's intimate secrets. Fortunately, no reply seemed to be needed.
After packing up a few necessities, Dan tagged along to Cal's place, where he spent the day alternately staring into space, and bursting into sobs that had Cal cringing, though he tried his best not to let on. After all, he could imagine how he'd feel if anyone he'd loved that much had died the way Dan's wife had. What was getting on his nerves was the fact that Dan was constantly on the lookout for new booze to take the edge off the pain. Who was Cal to argue with that logic? Being drunk meant being less aware, and that meant less pain. On the other hand, Dan couldn't go on absorbing that amount of alcohol day in day out, especially on an empty stomach. Try as he might, Cal could hardly get Dan to eat pizza, baked beans on toast or any other delicacies Cal's culinary skills stretched to. The Naked Chef he was not.
The nights weren't any better. Whenever Cal thought Dan had safely dozed off, he'd hear the crying or the endless pacing around the room. It was no wonder Cal slid into a pattern of drinking as well. Was his life all that much better at this time? A couple of beers was one thing, but the serious drinking ensued when Dan managed to unearth the one bottle of fine Scotch Cal had been hoarding for a rather more grand occasion than this. Whatever Dan said to Cameron, no concerned father showed up at Cal's doorstep demanding his son back. Cal guessed that Dan hadn't even bothered to tell his father where he was staying. On the one hand, he could easily imagine Dan's feelings being hurt, since it had been plain from the start how much Cameron disapproved of his son's choice of wife. On the other, what father wouldn't be concerned about his son's well being? Not that a son, especially one like Dan, would necessarily understand or care how much his father worried. The mother had to be another matter. Perhaps Dan did ring his mother some time, but if so, Cal wasn't aware of it. Whatever this might mean, Cal couldn't figure out, unless he asked Dan straight to his face, which was one thing he wouldn't do. He learned quite enough about Dan's personal life over the days that followed.
As the Scotch dwindled, Dan talked, telling his friend memories of the good days, the early days of his marriage, or about the time when they'd first met. This gave Cal plenty of opportunities to review his own miserable love life, especially the doomed relationship with Anne. But deep down, he suspected he actually enjoyed the companionship. Anything to shut out the memories of Stephen's return visit. Despite the sad occasion for Dan's visit, he was a friend, and someone Cal couldn't in his wildest dreams imagine would turn on him.
"She was actually going out with my cousin Wilbur. But Wilbur was also seeing Clarice something or other and I was there when she found out about it. So we – ended up driving back to town together. I don't think I've ever enjoyed a drive that much. Someone like her with me -"
As it happened, Cal could easily imagine all kinds of women falling for Dan's boyish charm. In fact, there were times when he envied Dan every single thing about him. His looks, his writing skills, his nose for a scoop, his dad even. Unlike Cal's own father, Cameron had been known to show some appreciation of his work. Not to mention the money. What would it be like, growing up with that kind of wealth at his disposition? Vacations in the south of France, Italian racing cars, vintage wine and other beverages. A country house maybe. Cal wasn't all that clear on where Dan had grown up. Dan hadn't noticed his friend's preoccupation and Cal guiltily turned his attention back onto his distraught guest.
"You should have seen her smile. The way her hair would fall into place now matter how windy it was. And her eyes – Her eyes – And now she's cold and broken up and -"
A faint wail of distress escaped Dan's lips and he pressed his knuckles against his eyes, as if to blot out the sight of his dead wife's ruined face. Why on earth couldn't anyone have stopped the kid from seeing her in that state? Surely Cameron could have physically prevented his son from viewing the body? At least until the undertaker had done his work.
"Hey. Take it easy, Dan. Come on."
Cal could see how hard Dan was pressing his eyes. The knuckles turned white and what little he could see of Dan's face was turning a vivid shade of red. Helplessly, he racked his brains for something to do to distract Dan. He could think of nothing, except to grab his arms and pull him closer. Awkwardly, Cal held on to his friend, trying his best to calm him down, murmuring whatever came into his mind, words of comfort which he remembered his mother saying to him as a child. After a while, Dan slumped down and allowed himself to be held. The sobs were painfully torn out of him but didn't appear to give him any release from the grief that cut through him.
Eventually, that too, subsided, and for a while, Dan hung limply against Cal's chest. Cal let out the breath he'd been holding in. At last. Even if the old adage was trite, he knew from personal experience that time did help. It might not heal all wounds, but it certainly dulled the pain, until eventually you not so much forgot as learned how to incorporate the memories and the traces of pain into what made you who you were. Emotional scars and all. Dan pulled back slightly and he began to study Cal's face in an unnverving way. Cal couldn't read the look in the eyes that seemed a lot darker than usual. Tears still glittered in Dan's eyelashes, and he breathed in as if to say something. Whatever it was, he never said it. Instead, to Cal's horror, the distance between their faces closed and for the space of a heartbeat, he felt Dan's lips brush his.
Cal tensed up and all his instincts told him to push Dan away. This reminded him uncomfortably of that night, not so long ago when Stephen had paid him his surprise visit and – But Cal still had enough presence of mind not to shove his friend away too roughly. After what Dan had been through, he couldn't be so cruel. He didn't need to worry, however. Almost before Cal could register the sensation of the touch, Dan pulled back and turned away. Cal could see Dan's restless hands reaching for the glass he'd left unfinished on the table. The seconds ticked by, while Cal searched his mind for something to say, but failed to come up with a single thing. Instead, Dan's voice came out sounding close to normal again.
"Well, it is getting on, isn't it? About time for me to call it a night, I should think. Thanks for the Scotch. Wonderful stuff. Oh. You were probably saving this for some occasion, right? Don't worry about it. I'll get you another one. 12 years old? No problem. Dad got me a whole set of them for my 21 birthday. In fact, why don't you have two?"
"That's alright. Never mind."
"I insist. When would I drink all that anyway? Goodnight."
What had that been about? Cal hadn't seen that one coming. He would have sworn Dan was as straight as he was. In fact, already, he was beginning to think that somehow, for some twisted reason of his own, he had imagined the whole thing. How could it have happened? Then he remembered, the night his mother lay dying of cancer. How he'd been too far away and too tied up to get away, and how he'd gone out and picked up the first girl he could find that would have him. Some Russian or Polish girl, if he remembered correctly. He had an awful suspicion that she was a prostitute, but in any case, his memory was mercifully blurred after that point. He'd wanted someone to be close to him, to shut out the pain and provide any sort of sensation other than the dull, aching torment that wouldn't give him any peace. Could that be what Dan had been doing? Yes, somehow that made sense. On the other hand, Dan had realized on his own that this was a mistake.
Since the memory of that night had been awakened, Cal couldn't help but feel his own reaction too had been a serious mistake. It was sheer luck that he hadn't ended up robbed and with his throat slit. Or – since he made it through that night, that he didn't end up with a souvenir of the uncurable kind. Like Trevor, his old friend from school. Trevor had died weighing only 70 pounds, his body covered with skin lesions. Trevor's vice hadn't been women, but narcotics. Same infection, different cause, that was all. Perhaps Dan's idea hadn't been any more stupid than his own. Having worked out the cause for Dan's behaviour, Cal determined to put it out of his mind for good. That incident simply hadn't ocurred. End of story. They were still friends. Nothing had changed. The incident with Stephen hadn't happened either, but everything had changed because of that, though their friendship had been gone long before that night.