'Hey you! What the fuck you doin' there?'
The hand on Phil's throat relaxed its grip. Its owner looked up, then sprinted off, running low between the lines of cars. The instant he raced out of sight around a corner, there came the sound of a vehicle gunning an engine and tearing away.
A walkie-talkie hissed and clicked nearby. 'Incident in west car park. Attempted mugging.' A stream of incomprehensible speech replied. 'With the victim now. Christ, Phil, you're a mess.'
Phil groaned and struggled to a sitting position. He spat the rag out of his mouth. His eyes were blinded with tears.
Jerry continued, 'That jacket of yours won't be much good in future. Oil like that won't come out.'
The radio crackled with noise again. 'Police are on their way. We'd better get you inside where you can sit down.'
The disabling pain from his balls had subsided to a debilitating ache as Phil limped back to his office, leaning on Jerry, who opened the door with his master key and lowered Phil into his desk chair.
'So did he get your wallet?'
Phil shook his head, wishing he could pack the crotch of his trousers with ice. 'The bastard wasn't after what little money I have.'
'What the fuck was it all about, then?'
Phil looked up into Jerry's genuinely concerned face. 'It was a warning.'
'What you got yourself into Phil? Is it drugs?'
'I'm not entirely sure what I've stumbled into. But whatever it is, it's a lot more dangerous than I had imagined.'
He sat quietly until a pair of police officers arrived to subject him to a routine interrogation. He gave what little description he could and refused their advice to go to hospital for a checkout.
'I'm sorry sir,' one of them said. 'I'll have to insist you don't attempt to drive home. You're too badly shaken. You should call for a taxi.'
'I need to get to London.'
Jerry butted in. 'I can drive Dr Maddox where he needs to go. My shift's just over.'
So Phil found himself in the passenger seat of his own car with Jerry at the wheel, speeding down the A1 towards London. Phil reached for his mobile.
'Where are you, Benny?'
'Back at Highgate, where are you?'
'Driving down from Stevenage.'
'What? Driving while using your mobile is illegal.'
'I'm not driving.'
Ben's voice took on a certain alarm. 'What's happened, Phil?'
Phil told him as best he could. There were sounds of distress from the other end of the line. Phil could not help smiling. 'It's not been the most uneventful of days for us, has it baby?'
A small chuckle greeted his attempt at humour. 'No, and Phil, I won't feel safe till I'm in your arms.'
'Won't be long. Jerry's driving like a bat out of hell.'
A cold-faced woman greeted Phil at the front door of Matt's house. He knew her. She was Jenna Rudat, Andy's chief of security. He had seen her accompanying Andy at events but they had not talked.
'This way, Dr Maddox,' she insisted, leading him to the front lounge, where the portrait of Matt and Andy presided from above the chimney piece.
She sat him down.
'Where's Benny?' he asked.
'I just want a few moments with you first. Describe all you can about the man who assaulted you.'
Phil obliged to the best of his ability.
'Eastern European, you said?'
'So far as I could tell, yes.'
'And he talked of his "client", not Dressner?'
'Yes, though the implication was obvious. What are you thinking?'
'The attack on Ben happened at around two in London. You were attacked at maybe three-thirty in Stevenage. The assaults were co-ordinated. This was organised some time ago, and the pair of you have clearly been under surveillance for a while. That annoys me.'
'It's my job to notice when the house is being watched, but we'd picked up nothing. They are good, these people, whoever they are. But now Terry O'Brien is on the case, the odds are more even.'
'Why's he involved?'
'He's known Ben for years, and he is very unforgiving of people who threaten his friends.'
'Where's Dressner at the moment?'
'A question you should address to Terry, who no doubt already has an answer.'
'Thanks, Jenna... er, I really must get to Benny.'
She gave a wintry little smile before allowing him to leave.
Less than a minute later, he and his lover were in each other's arms in Ben's bedroom. They checked one another over. 'Ooh! My belly's tender and... aagh! Those are out of bounds for a bit.'
'They look swollen.'
'They feel twice the size. Ouch. There's a sort of dull ache even when they're not being rubbed by my trousers and pants.'
'I'll run a bath for us.'
So they soaked together in hot water, Phil on top of Ben. Phil sighed. 'Oh, that's better... sooo much better: being with my Benny, and being still alive. How do you feel?'
'The weirdness has cleared up, but I still feel a bit sick in my stomach. Mostly it's my head. I'm sort of angry and terrified at the same time. He would have taken me somewhere and fucked me till he was tired of me... and what then? Would he have dumped me somewhere, confused and with no memory of what had happened, or would those henchmen of his have done me in? It doesn't bear thinking about.'
'What have we done to him?'
'Asked too many questions. It seems you were right, Phil. He has something to hide, only it's much bigger than just a CV with holes in.'
'What could it be? It's time we compared notes, baby. What do you know?'
'He told me he was taken into care when he was fifteen, after being chucked out by his parents. He said he was from Basildon and struggled to get an education. Oh yes. His name really is Clive, but he said his surname was... let me think... Dawson, yes, that was it.'
'Clive Dawson. Which explains why I made no progress with tracing his background.'
'Oh? What did you do?'
'When I was researching for my book, I contacted Bedford University to see if I could get some information about Clive Dressner's academic career. But the registrar gave me the brush off. Really shirty, she was. Student records were confidential and not covered by the Freedom of Information Act. You know... that's another funny thing. A bloke as wealthy as he is, you'd expect them to have given him an honorary doctorate by now. If I'd asked for Clive Dawson, perhaps I might have got further.'
'Are you going to try again?'
Phil swivelled around to smile in his lover's face. The bathwater sloshed. 'What d'you think, Benny?'
Ben smiled and kissed him. 'I love you.'
'Time you showed it.'
'My balls are out of action, but not yours, and you're very, very hard. Let me squat up here and lower myself. Wow! Yee hah! Ridin' my Bennyboy!'
'So you're out of a job, poor Benny.' Matt shook his head.
'All because I wouldn't be a corporate whore for Wardour Publishing.'
'Now you have your virtue and no job. What did the letter say?' Ben's dismissal had been delivered by courier that evening.
Ben unfolded the paper. 'It says I have been dismissed because of gross misconduct in handling the firm's contracts, and serious complaints from a major client.'
Phil gripped his free hand. 'What a load of bollocks!'
Matt nodded. 'It certainly is. Benny, you can stay on here as long as you like, rent free, you know that.'
'Thanks. But Phil and I have been talking. We love you guys but we want to be in our own place, however grotty. So now I no longer need to be in London, I'm going to move up to Stevenage and we'll cohabit in his temporary dive till we can find something better. I rang Alex yesterday to find out what's going on with our Clerkenwell place. I hope you don't mind, but he said he'd be up here to discuss it after work at nine.'
Matt shrugged. 'Whatever you want. I'll sit in if will help.'
'No, it's OK, but thanks for the offer.'
Matt looked at Phil. 'What happened to that bloke who drove you down?'
'Jerry? I told him to go and see Dave Evans. He was to park the car where Dave said. I haven't noticed him since then, so maybe I'd better go and check on him.'
Phil got up to leave the house through the kitchen. He walked down the garden path in the evening shadows, the sun low behind the garage-office, where lights were visible upstairs. He knocked on the office door, then again a bit harder, until a light finally came on downstairs.
Dave Evans was wearing just shorts and a tee-shirt. His glasses looked a little awry. 'Er... yuh?'
A low laugh sounded from inside. Jerry had come downstairs. His smirk, as much as his lack of clothes, were all Phil needed to know that Jerry and Dave had made an instant connection. Phil raised his eyebrows. 'So I don't need to worry about where you'll be sleeping tonight?'
Jerry stepped up behind Dave and clasped his waist, hugging him hard. 'No, me and Taffy here have discovered a mutual interest in his arse. I think we'll be exploring it for some time to come.'
Dave grinned. 'He's something else. Not met anyone like him since Steve. Er... hope you don't mind, but we've got pressing business upstairs.'
'No problem. Night.'
Phil laughed to himself all the way up the path. He was still chuckling when he got back to the lounge and found Matt gone. A new man had taken his place, one who wiped the smile from Phil's face. So this was Alex Johnson, the man who had made his Benny unhappy. Phil was not disposed to like him.
Alex had shaggy dark hair, slightly touched with grey. His square face bristling with stubble gave him the truculent look of Chris Moyles. Alex was a powerful man, and good-looking too. He nodded brusquely at Phil, then turned back to Ben.
Phil noticed the symptoms of Ben's nervousness, the knees hunched up and the hands clenched. With a fierce surge of possessiveness, he doubted that such a man as Alex had ever read Ben's moods and feelings the way he could.
Alex carried on with whatever it was they were discussing. 'That's a generous offer, Benny. I'm trying to be reasonable.'
Ben sighed, catching Phil's eye. They knew Ben was now in no position to bargain. 'Then I'll take it. When do the lawyers want me to sign the papers?'
'I have them here. I'll leave them with you. You can post them to mine, and he'll send the cheque by return.' The man flexed his shoulders and looked round. 'That's it then, I'm glad we've got it settled. Is Matt here?'
'He's in his study.'
'I'll go and have a brief word. See you, Benny.' A curt nod was all his acknowledgement of Phil, who made no gesture back, but settled next to Ben as soon as Alex was gone.
He kissed Ben's cheek and hugged him close. 'What happened?'
'Alex upped his offer to take account of the rise in market value as well as my contributions. He'll pay me £70,000.'
'Sounds a lot.'
'We can't turn down any reasonable offer now, can we? Phil, we can use it on a deposit for our new place... our place, once I get a job.'
'And there's the £97,000 Karen and Alistair will have to pay me. We'll be rich, baby!'
Ben relaxed into Phil, murmuring, 'I love you so much. You make all the struggle worthwhile.'
'You are my Bennyboy, and mine alone. Ready for bed?'
'Yes. Let's go snuggle. You have to be off early for work, and I have to start the job hunt. Phil... are you alright?'
'What do you mean?'
'You told me that I was your Bennyboy alone. Meeting Alex got you rattled.'
Phil sighed; he could not deny it. Ben could read him as well as he read Ben. 'It's only been six weeks since you and he split up, Ben. You were with him for ten years, not all of them bad either, I'd guess.'
'It's true, Phil. We had a lot of good times, and he was my first as I was his. But the thing is, our relationship was played out. I know now that it was a dead husk of something that had once been living, even before it ended. I know it because what you and I have now is vibrant, sparkling and growing. You've helped me get over him, Phil, and I have done. I suspect Alex, despite being the first out of the relationship, hasn't moved on so far yet. I could see it in his eyes. I think you could too.'
'Yes, which was why I had my jealous moment.'
'Feel free. Just don't get homicidally possessive.'
'No, I'm not the psychotic we have to worry about.'
Two people were up early to wave the red Clio goodbye. Dave Evans stood sheepishly next to Ben, watching as Phil and Jerry pulled off. Phil was driving back to Stevenage.
Phil glanced across at his neighbour. 'So, are you going to see him again?'
Jerry grinned. 'Taffy? You bet. I've never met a bottom like him. The things his arse can do, you wouldn't believe, and the noises! He's a nice guy too, and the stories he can tell... it's like living in a celebrity magazine.'
'It's an amazing house, full of amazing people. I'm going to miss it.'
'Oh, are you and your guy moving out?'
'As soon as we can find a place of our own, yes.'
'I'm going in the other direction, meself. I can get security work easy in London, and Dave wants me to think about moving in.'
'That was quick.'
'Matching needs, mate. He's got it and I want it, and vice versa. It'll be a very physical relationship while it lasts.'
'You don't have high expectations of relationships, do you.'
'Give Dave Evans a chance. He's quite a guy, a lot more interesting than your usual online associates, I'll bet.'
Although Jerry did no more than laugh, Phil was encouraged to hear his truculence and defensiveness were gone. For the time being, at least, Jerry was a happy man.
Sitting at his desk later in the morning, Phil pulled up the Bedford University website. He found the number of the registry and decided on a second attempt at Dressner research.
'Hello, is that the registry? I'm Philip Maddox at Stevenage. We've had an application to do a master's degree from a... Mr Clive Dawson. There's no transcript with the application, and I need to check his grades and date of graduation.'
'What course and year?'
'It says here BA English and the year would be 1990 or thereabouts, the writing is smudged.'
'Hang on.' There were the clicks and rattles of a keyboard. 'No one of that name and date.'
'Oh... strange. Can you check generally on graduates of that name, just to make sure there are no mistakes?'
More rattles. 'I have here a Clive Dawson graduated in Humanities part-time in 1991, first-class honours.'
'There's a "P" against his name. That means he was taught through our inmates distance-learning programme. It was experimental at the time, and was wound up two years later. Does he mention that in his application?'
'No he doesn't. I wonder why? Well, thank you very much. You've been most helpful.' Phil hung up.
He stared at his screen. So, a piece had fallen into place. In 1991, Clive Dawson had been in prison for at least six years. But what prison was it, and what offence had landed him behind bars? Phil began to see why he and Ben had become targets. He stared out of his window. So the popular novelist of the masses had a criminal background. That might be enough to account for the attacks on Ben and him.
Then Phil had second thoughts. The revelation might affect Dressner's sales, he supposed, were it to get out. On the other hand, the public might applaud a man who had studied through his gaol term and made good as a best-selling novelist once he was free. Something was still missing.
There was a tap on Phil's door and a grinning face appeared. 'You free?'
'Terry. We've talked, but not met.'
Phil stood up and took the proferred hand. 'Thanks for helping Benny. And your warning yesterday was accurate enough, though I still got done over. Why have you come all the way out here?'
Terry gestured around the room. 'To take you away from all this, sweet babe.'
'What do you mean?'
'You had better come with me, cos someone's out to kill you, an' I can't have that happen. You gotta be taken into protection.'
'But my job...!'
'Yeah, bad that, but it'll take less than a fortnight to wrap this up, I think, an' your dean, when I just talked to him, said you had a reading week - whatever that is - starting Monday.'
'You talked to the dean? What did you tell him?'
'Oh, I introduced meself. Got a nice business card, ever seen it? No? Anyway, I said a mutual friend had employed me to mind your rather attractive little arse after the brutal attack on you in the car park yesterday. Your nice mate Jerry wuz there to back me up. He wuz really understanding, wuz your dean. He's given you two weeks' leave. Inn that nice?'
'Nah, doan thank me, sweet babe. S'all part of the service. Finish up what you're doin' like a good un so we can get on the road... we gotta long way to go. Inn' that an incentive, sweet babe?'
'Where're we going?'
'Oh... I'd love to tell you, but your room is probably bugged, innit Clive?'
Phil's mouth hung open. 'What?'
'Off we go now. Bring what you need.'
As they made their way out of the building, Phil had to ask, 'Were you serious about the bugging?'
'Your friend Dressner's employed the best, Phil. If I'd been them and wuz assessing the risk from you, I'd have bugged your phone and desktop. So I imagine they did.'
'Oh... then they'll know I've found about Dressner's time in prison.'
'What! He was in prison? Now that's damned interesting.' He got on his mobile. 'Hey Justy! Listen to this...' Picking up what details Phil could offer, he conveyed them down the line to Justin. Then he said, 'You know what to do now, sweetness? OK then, get to it.'
'Where are we going, Terry?'
'To me favourite place, sweet babe.'
In the meantime, Justin Peacher-White closed his mobile with a snap. He grinned at Ben across the bar table. 'This is great, Benny. Iss only once inna blue moon I gets to work wiv Terry. But here we is, me and him in tandem, like... giss an example.'
'Er... Batman and Robin?'
'Thass a good one, always had me suspicions about them two. Coulda fancied 'em both in bed. Loves the rubber. Phwoar!'
Ben did not see the humour. He was also well aware of the sexual tension between Terry and Justin. He was not himself immune to Terry, a situation shared by many of his acquaintances.
Parked outside Orton's, Justin's Jaguar sports had Ben's case in it. Ben knew they were on their way to somewhere, but he had no idea exactly where.
'Now, Benny, get on yer mobile and see if yer can raise that Amanda woman.'
'Are you sure about this?'
'Yup. Can't lose by it and we might gain; yer never know.'
So Ben complied. 'Hi, Amanda. No, don't scream like that. I'm outside, down the road. Can you get out for a quarter of an hour. I'm at a bar called Orton's on James Street. Yes, the gay one... no, I don't suppose you are surprised. I want to talk. There's a friend of mine here to talk to as well. OK, in ten minutes.'
Amanda tripped smilingly into Orton's. 'Mmm... always wanted to come in here. Nice.' She looked at Justin with interest. 'Who're you? No don't tell me! I know! Justin Peacher-White, minder to the stars, friend of Rudolf of Rothenia. God, you're gorgeous.'
Justin was deeply amused. 'Well, now we're introduced. You can help us maybe.'
But Amanda had turned to Ben. 'Why didn't you ever tell me you knew people like this, Benny? Everybody thinks you're so totally boring.'
Ben was miffed. 'This from the biggest celebrity-mag reader in the UK.'
'Scuse me,' intervened Justin, 'but our time here is limited. Look, Mandy... can I call yer Mandy?'
'You could call me Edna and I wouldn't complain, love.'
Justin grinned fetchingly. 'You know those bastards at your place sacked our Benny for no reason?'
Amanda looked ferocious. 'The managers said he had upset Dressner. More likely you refused to go to bed with him. Isn't that right?'
'Not too far off the truth,' Justin confirmed. 'But the thing is, Mandy, Benny also discovered something sinister in Wardour's basement.'
Ben began. 'Just before I was sacked, after Dressner assaulted me...'
'He tried to assault you?'
'Abduct and rape me actually... can I continue?'
'I went to look up the earliest files of correspondence with Dressner, especially the letters concerning his first novel, Enderby's Chambers. It had been pulled. Just a slip inserted saying, "Refer to CEO". Likewise his first two contracts. They're gone, with the same note inserted in the file.'
'Why do you reckon the management did it?'
'I wondered about that. My guess is that, when Dressner was signed up, it was under his real name, and the firm did not check too closely at the time who they'd contracted with. Or if they did, they ignored the fact that he'd been in prison. I think they know now what he was put away for, and it's so unsavoury that they're desperately covering their tracks. They're caught both ways. Dressner owns them.'
'Oh you bet, and in more ways than one,' added Justin. 'Terry checked Wardour's stock register. Dressner has been taking shares for years in lieu of royalties. He owns 30% of the stock.'
Amanda looked first astonished, then suspicious. 'You're going somewhere with this, aren't you.'
Justin gave a broad, Machiavellian grin. 'Oh yes. I need the current door and lift codes. I got me overalls in the car, and I fancies a sneak around, to see what I can find.'
Ben gaped. 'You'll never get away with it!'
'Thass what they said to Hannibal when he went off to conquer Rome.'
'Justy, he failed to conquer Rome.'
'Did he? Or was it Napoleon and Moscow?'
Ben shook his head.
Justin continued, his grin unaltered. 'Iss not as random as it looks. I got this delivery routine that never fails. All I needs from you two is where the CEO is to be found in the building. Is he in today?'
Amanda scoffed. 'He's rarely ever in except when there's entertaining or dirty business to be done. Doubt we'll see him for a fortnight now.'
'OK, Mandy, describe the layout for me.'
Between them, Ben and Amanda managed to sketch out a plan of the office on a bar napkin. Finally Justin smiled and thanked Amanda, telling her to get back to Wardour's.She walked off with a rather happy look of mischief about her.
'Benny, I'm gonna get meself changed out back in Davey's office, then I'll be gone for a bit. Don't be surprised at whatever happens. Shouldn't be more than three-quarters of an hour.'
Justin re-emerged as a very convincing UPS delivery guy in the complete uniform, including a package in the company's approved parcelling. With a cheery 'See ya later!' he disappeared out on to James Street.
Ben sipped on a latté in the corner and watched the gay couples and cruisers arrive and depart. No one showed any interest in him. After about forty minutes, he heard a loud alarm sounding in the distance. Ten minutes after that he saw blue lights reflected in the shop fronts as fire engines roared screaming past the end of the street.
Fifty minutes after he departed, Justin returned with the same grin on his face and the same parcel in his hand.
'What did you do, Justy?'
'Usual. Spent a bit of time charming the receptionist - she loved me - and talked my way up to the office of the PA to the CEO, saying I had to have her signature for the packet. While she made me wait, I scouted out the floor, dropped a small smoke bomb in a waste bin and then hit the fire alarm. The place emptied in a blink, giving me fifteen minutes to ransack your ex-boss's office. His file drawer was easy, just a key. Whatever I found is on here.' He waved a sophisticated-looking digital camera which he took from the package. 'We'll have a look at it when we meet up wiv Terry.'
'And where might that be?'
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]