After Alex

X

By Michael Arram

'You've certainly been busy, Clive.' Ben was surveying a sheaf of manuscript chapters.

Dressner shrugged. 'It's the system I work to; it's nothing if not productive.'

Ben and Dressner were working over a table in the committee room of Wardour Publishing Ltd. Lunch was going to be at the firm's expense, brought in by outside caterers. The CEO would be joining them in an hour.

Ben lifted his red pen. 'Can we look at this passage where Enderby cross-examines the character Burbage in the Old Bailey? Does cross-examination happen like that in civil trials?'

'Oh yes, everything is under oath still, and if the prosecution wants to, it can hammer away at a suspect piece of evidence.'

Ben looked up. 'I have to say, I do envy the depth of your legal research. It's a remarkable feature of your writing.'

'Thank you.'

'How did you get to be so knowledgeable without legal training?'

Dressner gave Ben a cold stare across the table. 'I have a compulsive streak to my character. With some people it's train spotting, with others it's postage stamps. I became quite fascinated by the legal system as a boy... the influence of John Mortimer perhaps. I used to hang out at the back of the crown court in Basildon just watching the lawyers and judges in action.'

'I'm surprised you didn't become one yourself.'

'Oh no, I may have been fascinated by the law, but writing and books were always my first love.'

They continued on through the chapter. Eventually Ben shuffled his papers and smiled. 'This is shaping up to be one of your best yet.'

'Thank you, Ben. That means a lot coming from you. So... this new fellow?'

'Phil. He lectures in English at Stevenage. We met online last year, and have a lot in common. When things fell apart with Alex, I found him very sympathetic. Then when we met... wow! He's a dream come true. Hang on, I have a picture.' Ben proudly showed one of his new snaps of Phil - one of the decent ones, at least.

'He is very good looking. Congratulations, Ben, you deserve the luck.'

Ben rather fancied that Dressner was not being entirely honest in his reactions, judging by the immobility of his face.

'Tell me, would this man's full name be Philip Maddox?'

'You know him?'

'I know his book about my writing. My agent sent me a copy. It was disconcerting to read; I felt like a corpse after the pathologist has finished with it. Did that comment about my legal research come from him?'

When Ben stammered, Dressner gave him a tight smile. 'I thought so. Let's get back to chapter six.'

During the lunch that followed, Ben retired into his shell in the presence of the CEO and a director. He was astonished by the degree of indiscriminate sucking-up going on around the table. He knew that Dressner held the whip hand over Wardour with his share of the airport fiction market, but the crudity of the executive flattery directed towards the writer was a remarkable index of quite how much Wardour had invested in him.

At one-thirty Dressner made a few mobile calls, and then began his departure. As he picked up his thin attaché case, he turned to Ben. 'How about a quick social drink?'

Ben hesitated. 'I really have to get back to work.'

'Oh for heaven's sake, Ben,' the CEO hastened to intervene, 'you make us seem like a pack of slave drivers. Go and take the rest of the afternoon off.'

So Ben followed Dressner down into Long Acre. 'There's a new place around here, down towards Covent Garden.' Dressner gave him a glance Ben thought was a little accusatory. 'My latest call boy was raving about it last night.'

Ben shrugged internally. It wasn't his fault if Dressner had to buy company in bed. His heart warmed momentarily as he remembered how he had woken up that morning, to a pair of smiling eyes and the touch of warm skin against his own, to a happiness that he had once thought he would never feel again.

Dressner led the way into the bar of Orton's, Terry's club. Ben did not mention that he knew the owner. Even though it was a working day, quite a number of gay couples were around the bar. Americans and eastern Europeans were much in evidence. Dressner and he got beers and took standing places at a tall table next to a mural rendition of the classic picture of a naked Joe Orton, posed on a chair. Dressner looked around with some interest.

'So, is it the literary resonances of this place that attract?' Ben asked, a little mischievously for him.

Dressner relaxed and smiled. 'I'm not that sort of author, the self-destructive type. Some are like the paper they write on: they shrivel and wither as they burn brightly away. As I think I've said before, I'm an artisan, not an artist.'

'Yes, you did say that. I think you undersold yourself when you did. You do have a remarkable narrative gift.'

'I really am nothing special. I wonder why people make such a fuss.'

Ben gave him a sideways look. 'You do project an air of mystery.'

'It's not intentional, believe me. I just want to keep to myself.'

Deciding he owed Phil something, Ben was ready to pursue the point now. 'I'm sorry Clive, but I'm not wholly convinced.'

'Why do you say that?'

'You give contradictory accounts of yourself. You told me you were from a broken home in Basildon.'

'As indeed I am.'

'But in an American magazine, just after you made it big, you said you were from a professional background in north London.'

Now Dressner was frowning, his focus entirely on Ben. Finding the attention uncomfortable, Ben took a long pull of his beer. The alcohol and the tension were acting strangely together and he felt light-headed.

Dressner too seemed to be gathering himself. 'Your boyfriend at work again, no doubt. I know what you're referring to. I realised that particular misjudgement would come back to haunt me. But at the time, I so wanted to be a literary figure and have the right sort of background. I take it that Dr Maddox asked you to bring this up?'

'No he didn't. It's not important,' Ben replied, but as he did he felt the room veering a little.

'Are you alright?' Dressner asked.

'I feel a little ... anaesthetised.'

'It's been a long day. Let me hold you up.'

Ben sank suddenly on to the shoulder of the taller man, whose arm went round him. He was being directed towards the street and seemed unable to stop himself. Another man, one of the nearby east Europeans, appeared at his other shoulder. He was being more or less carried away. His eyesight swam.

Suddenly the way was blocked. David Skipper was directly in front of them. 'Hey Benny! Are you alright? You look weird. Who are these guys?'

'Outta way,' the foreigner growled at David. A big black car with the door open was standing at the kerb, and Ben knew it was waiting for him. He was powerless and mute.

David spun away to the side as Dressner shoved him. Ben heard the shout, 'Terry!'

An instant later the foreigner was propelled out the door and Ben fell as Dressner dropped him to the floor. When the confused skirmish above him ended, he felt himself hauled upright and held like a rag doll. Terry's face was staring into his own. 'Benny babes! You OK! Shit. Who did this to you?' Then Ben faded away into a dim and slowly-turning land.

***

Concerned eyes were peering into Ben's own as his sight returned. He seemed unable to speak. He was on the floor of Terry's bar, looking up at the ceiling .

'Easy, easy, Benny,' soothed David. 'The doctor's here. He's just taken a blood sample. You've been drugged.'

A drawling, familiar voice laughed nearby. 'Meself, I like the phrase "slipped a mickey". It has a familiar ring, since I've been slipped one by so many Michaels.'

David frowned. 'Terry! Now's not the time for it. First cos you'll shock the doctor ...'

'Don't mind me,' came a third voice.

'... and secondly cos Benny's in a state.'

'Wha ...?' Ben attempted. His tongue felt too big for his mouth.

'We found these guys trying to hustle you into a car. They put up a fight when we waded in to stop them, then they took off. Who were they?'

Ben croaked, but was unable to answer.

David continued, 'Terry, shouldn't we get the police?'

The drawling voice answered, 'Probably. But I would like to know a little more about what was going on first. How long before Ben can communicate, Dr Paolocci?'

'He'll be more in control in ten minutes or so. It was one of the date-rape drugs, I think.'

'You gonna tell the police?'

'Not unless you want me to, Terry. You're more or less the police anyway, now your dad's an assistant chief constable.'

'Thanks, doc. Glad you were in the bar his afternoon. Er ... this isn't on the National Health Service is it?'

'No, Terry. I'll put you down as a private patient for this one. It'll speed things up if I put this boy on a drip. David, you can be the support, just hold this. No more elegant post was ever seen.'

Ben's head began clearing, though his mouth remained dry. He had enough control to sit up unaided. The bar had been cleared and closed.

Doctor Paolocci smiled at him. He was in his thirties, well muscled and in a tee shirt, his head shaved. The pebble glasses contradicted the scene-gay style. 'Better?'

'Yes, thanks.'

Terry sat next to Ben. 'What wuz going on, Benny?'

'I was having a drink with Clive Dressner. The next thing I knew, I came over all woozy and found myself being hustled out between him and this other man. Did I see a car waiting outside?'

'You did. The intention wuz clearly to shove you inside it, sweet babe, and take you off somewhere. Now why wuz that?

Ben flushed with anger and humiliation. 'I think that he ... no, he wanted to have sex with me, and since I wouldn't do it voluntarily, he set me up to ... to ...' He found he couldn't say the word.

David obliged. 'The bastard was going to abduct and rape you? And he used our club to set you up? The fucking arsehole! I'll kill the fucker... no, better yet, I'll get my boyfriend to do it!'

'Clive Dressner, the author? Bloody hell,' marvelled Dr Paolocci.

David shook his head. 'The police are not going to believe this.'

Terry nodded. 'Not without a lot of supporting evidence. I can see him arguing that it was all a misunderstanding, and that he wuz helping his friend Ben Craven into a taxi because he wuz the worse the wear for drink. Hey Doc! What about the blood test? That should show the presence of illegals.'

The doctor shrugged. 'Maybe, but if it's ketamine-based, then his barrister will argue that Ben was taking K as a recreational drug, as people do.'

David was disgusted. 'Shit. So the only way of getting the law on the guy would be if he had really raped Ben?'

The doctor shook his head and didn't answer. Ben struggled to his feet, helped by Terry, who asked gently, 'You OK, sweet babe?'

'Bit dizzy, actually. But it's better than sitting. I need to get back to work.'

Terry looked across at the doctor, who shrugged. 'He'll give the impression he's drunk, with slurring voice and slow movements, but if he wants to take the risk ... You go with him, Terry.'

Terry and Ben walked slowly out through the wide doors and back up to Long Acre. No word was spoken until they came to the busy road, where Terry stopped Ben outside the Wardour offices. 'Look, Bennybabes, I gotta bad feeling about this Dressner guy. A man who would attempt to pull that stunt off is highly dangerous... a daylight abduction in the heart of London is recklessness bordering on insanity. Also, he's got accomplices, pretty mean ones. Those guys were familiar too, though I'm not sure why. I gotta think about this. I'll ring Andy's people. Jenna will ratchet up security at Highgate, and you gotta listen to her, right?'

'Yeah, fine, Terry. It's shaken me badly. I'll be careful.'

Before leaving, Terry gripped Ben's shoulder and gave him a serious look.

Ben's mind had been clearing as he walked, and - though he did not tell Terry - he knew what to do. Rather than going up to his office, he took the lift down to the basement and went into the windowless coolness of the empty records room. He pulled out the boxes of Dressner correspondence. There were six of them, but he was only interested in the first. He riffled back to the beginning, and then stared. 'Nothing... nothing!' he murmured to himself.

He went to the filing cabinet which held the contracts. He pulled the Dressner file. Again he stared bewildered at the earliest folder. He slotted them back, and took the lift up to the second floor.

The CEO was waiting at his empty desk, alongside two security men. He frowned at Ben. 'I don't want any fuss, Ben, but you are to go with these men.' Faces were craning to see over partitions. Amanda was looking shocked.

'What's the matter?'

'Your contract has been terminated as of this moment for cause. A letter will explain it. We will pay you two months' salary in lieu of notice, and you are to leave the premises immediately. Your personal possessions will be sent on.'

'It's Dressner isn't it?'

'I'm not at liberty to discuss it. Please leave.'

Ben shook his head as he found the security guards edging him to the lift. There was no choice. He left the office and found himself on Long Acre once more, bewildered and unemployed.

***

All in all, Phil thought, this has gone far better than I had any right to expect. He was just tidying his notes ready for a lecture on Scott Fitzgerald. The news of his being gay had been rapidly broadcast across the faculty, not that anyone ever said anything to him directly. But the appearance of a framed picture of Ben Craven on his desk did not go unnoticed, and students in his room for seminars and tutorials eyed it curiously.

Much to his surprise, the only person who directly remarked on his change of life was Max Jamroziak. He came shyly into Phil's room a couple of days after the news had got round and asked for some advice. Ben noticed a change. The boy was wearing a rainbow bracelet.

'Phil... y'know I had sex with that gay guy?'

'I remember all too well. The thought of it gave me a hard-on.'

Max giggled. 'You're not supposed to say things like that. Well, point is, now I know you're gay I can say what I didn't say then. I really wanted to do the anal thing... though not with him.'

'So you're out too, Max?'

'Well, sorta. I don't think I'm exactly straight, maybe mostly not straight. I dunno. But you're a gay guy. What should I do about coming out?'

'You're asking me? I was jammed in the closet for years. I'm only now coming to terms with it. I have a boyfriend...'

'Yeah, he's hot for an old guy.'

'Gee thanks. My advice is pretty worthless so far as it goes. But I'm glad I did it, whatever. There're costs to pay, that's only common sense to acknowledge. My father has broken off relations with me, and people look at me oddly. Then there's the divorce, which goes on and on. But I think, if you're honest now, it'll be easier for you in the long term. Is there a boyfriend?'

'Nah... not that lucky.'

'Maybe you should go to LGBT Soc. You'll find friends, I don't doubt, and maybe one day you'll find more. God knows you're hot.'

Max smiled. 'You think so? As hot as your guy?'

'In your dreams. Benny is more than simply hot, he's my man and I love him.'

'Wow. I like that. Maybe one day someone will say that about me.'

'I have no doubt about it. Fancy a coffee? Let's give people the wrong idea about us.'

So Phil and Max headed out of the department and found a table in the Union café. As they chatted and laughed, Phil found himself being enticed into descriptions of his sex life. He resisted being too graphic, for he could already see the results in Max's tight jeans. There was no doubt they were attracting curious looks from others, yet Phil found he did not care anymore.

Mischief danced in Max's eyes as Phil and he got up to leave. They air-kissed as they parted, drawing everyone's attention. Phil winked at a boy who was staring at him open-mouthed. The boy blushed scarlet and glanced away.

Phil gave his eleven o'clock lecture, followed by his two midday seminars. It was as he was working through his e-mail at three that a series of mobile calls began.

'Phil Maddox?'

'Yes?'

'You don't know me, but you may have heard of me. My name's Terry O'Brien.'

'Oh hi! You're my Benny's friend.'

'I am. Benny and me go way back. Now listen up. There's been a serious problem - no he's alright, but he very nearly wasn't.' Terry sketched the events of that afternoon.

'Jesus! And Dressner did it?'

'Oh yes. I was there and I saw it. It was an attempted abduction alright, and if Benny had been taken, I don't like to think of what the consequences would have been.'

'I can't get there for a while... oh shit!'

'He is alright, don't worry. I saw him to his office door. But I may send one of my guys round to ferry him safely to Highgate after work.'

'Dressner! My God! He must be insane!'

'My thoughts exactly, as it happens. Insane enough to have a crack at you too, Phil. So I suggest you keep an eye out for yourself. Benny said you and he had been separately on the track of something about Clive Dressner which was fishy. I'm wondering if there's something more behind this than attempted rape.'

The second call came five minutes later as Phil was still trying to come to grips with Terry's information. 'Phil, it's me!'

'Benny! Are you alright.'

'Yes... well, no. Wardour's fired me!'

'Just like that? How? Why?'

'I don't know. They got security to frog-march me off the premises. It has to have been pressure from Dressner.'

'You gotta sue 'em! Sue 'em for unfair dismissal! They can't do that to you!'

'They just did. I'm standing here in Long Acre and I don't know what to do.'

'Go home to Highgate, baby. I'm on my way now. Benny, I just want to hold you.'

'Please hurry. But drive safely. I don't want you to have any more bumps. Kisses.'

Phil typed up a note cancelling his four o'clock seminar and pinned it to his door. As he was doing so, a voice said behind him. 'I'll have to put a report in about that.'

He turned. 'Oh fuck off, Jerry.'

'You're not allowed to use tacks in wooden doors. It's vandalism. The dean's administrator keeps a log. You're supposed to use blutack.'

'You're fucking serious, aren't you.'

'And that sort of language ain't no example to your students, is it?'

'Is this the bitterness of spurned love, Jerry boy?'

The man flushed and squared up to Phil. 'You just watch yer mouth, Dr Smart Ass!'

'Or what're you going to do? Tell 'em I'm gay? They know that, dickhead. It's no secret anymore.'

Jerry seemed about to lash out, but Phil only looked at him curiously, strangely unmoved by the possibility of an imminent assault. Once you'd slept with a man, he concluded to himself, you know whether or not he's capable of violence, and Jerry was not that sort of man.

For a moment Jerry appeared undecided. Then he sagged.

Phil could not help observing, 'You've got to get a life, Jerry. You have the look of a man tired of aimlessly cruising lay-bys.'

Jerry wouldn't meet his eyes. 'Yer gets used to it, sometimes it can even be great... you were great, Phil. Yer spoiled it for me. Ploughing yer butt was the best thing I'd done for years. Can't stop thinking about it.'

'There are other butts, many quite as pretty as mine.'

'Not so's I'd noticed.'

'Look, I gotta go. The boyfriend needs me.'

Jerry looked even unhappier. 'That's not somethink anyone's ever goin' to say about me, is it?'

Phil shrugged and moved off down the corridor, saying as he went, 'Don't give up hope, mate.'

The ground floor corridor of the Arts block ended in double glass doors that opened on some steps down into the small staff car park. It was an area mostly enclosed by windowless walls, its only exit a lane leading on to the campus ring road. Phil's little red Clio was parked near the steps. He opened the rear door and dumped his laptop case.

As he was going round the car to the driver's side, he became aware of a dark man in a leather jacket next to him.

'Hallo, Dr Maddox?' The accent was east European and the man smelt of foreign cigarettes

Phil looked up surprised. 'Yes?'

The punch in his gut caused him even more surprise, as did the kick between his legs that landed him on his back between two cars. Astonishing agony burst from his crushed testicles. He screamed briefly until an oily rag was thrust into his mouth. The man gripped him by the throat, holding him down and saying deliberately into his ear as he squirmed in silent agony, 'Now Doctor Maddox. I'm here to warn you. Your curiosity about my client is leading you into dangerous company. Keep yourself to yourself or really bad things are going to happen to you, starting now. You will not be walking for a while after today and your good looks... they'll be a thing of the past.'

A small knife was hovering at Phil's eye level, and even the agony in his groin could not stop him going rigid with fear.

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