Towards the Decent Inn

XVII

By Michael Arram

When he made his way back to the room he found Paul and Rachel outside again. The door was closed.

'Doctor?' asked Matt.

'Nope,' said Rachel, 'it's his dad and the Stepmom.'

Matt opened the door and walked inside. Richard and Ellie Peacher were on either side of the bed. She smiled and held out her hand, and Matt took it and kissed the proffered cheek.

'Thank you so much for coming, Matthew. So kind. All the way from Britain.'

'I had to Mrs Peacher, you know that.'

Andy sat in the bed, looking unhappy. His stepmother stroked his hair. 'We've been talking about what we can do, once all the unpleasantness is out of the way. Obviously Andy has to leave Burnett, and I can't see where else he can go for the moment. Maybe in a year or so we can find another, smaller school, but we can talk about that again. For now I think that we must consider a stay in a treatment center where they have experience with Andy's sort of illness.'

Matt was surprised, he turned to Andy's father, 'Excuse me, sir, but this is not what I thought you had in mind.'

'No son, but my lawyers told me this morning that one chance of keeping Andy out of a federal or state penitentiary is for him voluntarily to undertake a course of treatment in a lock-down drug treatment facility, one that's been approved. They're meeting the judge and district attorney this morning. They think the drug dealing charge won't hold up. There's no proof, and no evidence of supplying. He tested positive for cocaine and marijuana, so there's no denying drug use. Our main concern is to keep him out of a state prison for the DUI charge. This will help.'

'Pardon me for doubting it, sir.'

Ellie chipped in, 'We've been through it all, Matthew, we really have. Andy hasn't left us many options.'

Andy's unhappiness had deepened. His father stood silent, but his hand rested on his son's bare shoulder, and Matt noticed how he was hesitantly and gently massaging it. Ellie moved over to the window and activated her cell phone. She began speaking quickly into it, her eyes on the street below.

Matt realised that he was expected to leave, 'I'll be back later, Andy. See you then.'

Andy nodded, but said nothing.

He left the room and swept up Paul and Rachel as he went. Through gritted teeth, he announced, 'Conference.'

They drove in silence in Rachel's car to a coffee shop in Collegetown, Matt brooding heavily over the new complications. The place looked abandoned without students around. They occupied the soft chairs in a distant corner and ordered their machiattos and lattés. Matt described the latest disaster. 'This is really grim. The kid will be destroyed by it. Loneliness is what hits him hardest, and centres like that will keep him isolated from anyone who means anything to him, even his father. And they're finally getting to understand each other. It's horrible.'

Paul looked at Rachel, who looked anxiously at Paul. She said, 'Paulie, I really think it's time.'

'Yes hon' I really think it is.' Paul leaned across the table towards a surprised Matt, 'Matt, have you thought where all the shit's coming from? Think about it.'

'Well... there was his mad mum, the press, fucking Chuck, Phil and Jim. All sorts of gargoyles.' He also said to himself in his mind, that there were Andy's inner demons too.

'No Matt, you're missing something. Let's think back fifteen months. You'd been to California with Andy at his dad's invitation, right?'

'Yeah. Where's this going?'

'Bear with me.' Paul took off his glasses and polished them, looking quite the forensic detective, 'You and Andy turned up in the first flush of young love.' He returned his glasses to his face and looked at Rachel with a grin, 'You should have seen them, Ray-ray, they were beautiful in every sense of the word. They thought they were being so cool and detached. Even a Trappist hermit could have worked out they were in each other's pants.'

'We were careful... really.'

'Yeah, believe it if you want. You might have fooled his dad, but you didn't fool the Stepmom, did you.'

'Well, no. She said as much when we met her that day for lunch three months after. I supposed it might have been Peter, his brother, who may have spotted us snogging one evening.'

'Let's focus on that day back home in Britain when the Stepmom came to visit. It seemed weird to me at the time, and I was - dare I say it - quite callow in those days. Not as sophisticated as I am now Ray-ray, believe me. Anyway, Stepmom turns up that day in March, three months later, sees you guys, then as soon as she's satisfied her curiosity about your sex life and sleeping arrangements, she slopes off to the vice-chancellor. She says that Peacher senior wanted her to address the issue of his son's security. I'll bet she jingled her gold chains at him, paraded her Prada and found the easy way into his snobbish and greedy little heart. The university was all over itself to make the most of its unsuspected new treasure. Oh, and she knew it too. She is so very, very cunning.'

'Now wait a minute...'

'No, you listen. I tried to tell you at the time, and you wouldn't listen then. Listen good, now. There's a legal principle called cui bono - 'who gets the benefit?'. Heard of it? It's a basic logical tool. Let's put it to use. What happens? The news inevitably leaks out of the university as she knew it would - because I think she helped it along with a tip-off, although I couldn't prove it - and Andy's protective anonymity comes to an abrupt and disastrous end. Oh, it's helped along too by the windfall of Andy's mum's lunacy, but it was a ticking time bomb anyway. "Randy Andy" was a real gift for the tabloids, wasn't he. And when they found out he was openly gay, it was even more titillating.'

'Yes, so where does cui bono leave you? No one benefitted from it. It was a disaster for everyone involved.'

Paul was beginning to get impatient with Matt. 'You think? Well you've missed something, haven't you. Let's move forward a bit. When you did your interview on the radio after Christmas, do you remember your conversation about the Stepmom after the recording?'

'Well, yes. The guy said he'd interviewed Ellie a year before, and I said no, that I'd thought it had to have been in that March, when she saw me and Andy.'

'Well,' said Paul, 'look at these two pieces of evidence.' He pulled from his inside pocket a web printout from a BBC site. It was headlined 'UNICEF envoy in London: condemns new Yugoslav government record on childcare.' It was dated 3 December and it featured the face of Ellie Marquesa Peacher, her sunglasses thrust back in her hair.

'And there is also this,' Paul pulled out a CD. It was the one that the BBC had sent him of his interview. 'Did you ever play it?'

'Well no.'

'I did. And it's not just your interview. The BBC guy obligingly included a recording of the interview he did with the Stepmom, and included the unedited bits, where she talks about her stepson being in university in England in a house share with two other students.'

'But... but!'

'Ah, the penny drops at last.'

'She couldn't have possibly known anything about me and Andy then, or how and where we lived. This was early in December, way before we went to Santa Barbara!'

'Oh, she very possibly could, you know. If she was having Andy watched, that is. If she had employed snoopers to feed her every detail about his life.'

'That's just... paranoid!'

'Paranoid! How else can you account for it? Even your parents had no idea what you two were up to, let alone knowing about my presence in our little menage. Yet she did. No, you were under surveillance. And it was her doing it, not Andy's dad. He was too scared of Andy's mum to trespass in Britain. He didn't know anything about it. It was her on her own.'

'But how did she benefit from any of this? What could she gain from driving him out of England?'

'She separated Andy from you, Matt. She made him lonely and desolate and vulnerable, and she got him in her grip. She is a prize, Chanel-soaked witch. Cos she intended to... still intends to... destroy our little Andrew.'

'The hell you say.' Matt's mind was reeling, but it was also clearing. At last he saw his enemy, and she was very powerful.

'Peter,' he gasped.

'Yes indeed, Peter. With Andy on the road to classic self-destruction his chance of inheriting fades and who benefits? Well of course, it's her own eldest son, the obnoxious Peter who's been taught so to love his big brother. And who by?

She came in December that year to find out what was up with Andy, now he was free of his mother and his public school. And in the end she found it was you... up him, that is.'

'Crude.'

'I could hear you through the bedroom wall. Shall I just say that you always knew when they were at it, Ray-ray, and they were at it most nights.' Rachel looked amused and embarrassed. 'So I'd guess she then went back home from Yugoslavia and suggested to his dad that he should have his eldest son over to Santa Barbara for that Christmas. Maybe she wanted to see if his dad might be able to talk Andy into an American university and so allow her to get her claws in him. But the fact that you tailed along increased the potential in the end. She knew Andy's dad was homophobic, and what a gift! Little Andy was obligingly not just gay but deeply in love with another man, and besotted enough to drag him into his father's house. If you two were indiscrete there would be a big row which could damage Andy's standing with his dad. He loves Andy though, doesn't he?'

'Yes he does, very much. He just can't show it, and Andy hasn't noticed.'

'She knew he loved Andy, and the fact that he was gay was one way to insert a lever between them. But you were discrete, and she was unable to make anything of it, at least at that time in Santa Barbara.'

'Wait,' interposed Matt, 'I remember her trying at Santa Barbara to talk me into ringing her up and letting her know what was going on with Andy.'

'She was testing you out, Matt, perhaps she hoped you could be bought too.' Paul continued: 'After Christmas she decided to up the stakes. She came over that March with one purpose in mind: to blow Andy's cover and get the tabloids on his tail.'

Matt interjected, 'Of course. As early as when I was there at Christmas, she was talking about the danger for Andy from the press.'

Paul continued, 'And she decided to make it happen. His dad had no idea what she was up to. She invented the cover story of his so-called concern for Andy's security, and she didn't tell him that she was going to see you. It was all so easy. When the storm broke, Andy couldn't defend himself 'cos he had no money, only us poor bastards to hold his hand. So Andy was outed and gibbeted. His father learned that his son was gay from the papers. There could be no worse way for the secret to emerge. She discredited him with his dad and got him under her power all in one go.'

'Bloody hell, it's like dealing with Lady Macbeth.'

'Yeah, but Lady Macbeth made mistakes, didn't she? So did the Stepmom. And this may be the defeating of her. She is cold. She hadn't realised – still hasn't realised, I think - quite how much her husband deep down adores his eldest boy; she hadn't realised that he could forgive Andy almost anything. Rather than alienating the father and son, she forced him to reassess his prejudices. Andy's dad decided that his boy was his boy, even if he was gay. So Andy got as warm a welcome back home as it was in his dad's nature to give.'

'His dad would have throttled me blue if I'd turned up.'

'Maybe. Anyway, Cruella de Vil now has to find another, more desperate way to discredit Andy. Which is where Jimmy Rosso arrives on the scene. She knew all about her nasty nephew: self-centred, decadent prick that he is. If she could get Andy involved with a high-class preppy shit like Jimmy, no good could come of it. She could count on Jimmy to do the dirty on Andy, just for the hell of it, never mind the money. So Andy was packed off to Burnett and into the Rosso menage. But I think she went further than just put Andy into bad company. So you tell it, Ray-ray!'

Rachel sat up in her armchair and, with a wry glance at Paul, in a cool American voice she began her evidence. 'I was on the edge of Jim's circle. They were the dangerous wealthy set in school; very dangerous, very envied. We knew that he was related to Mrs Peacher and that was where a lot of his money came from. His dad has already decided that Jim's a loser, and he's stopped throwing good money after bad. Then Andy turns up in the house from England, and the money increases, and so do the parties and the drugs. Chuck more or less lives there.

Jim Rosso is - believe me - a bad, bad man. He hated Andy and he hated you even more, Matt. "Master Frodo and Samwise Gamgee" is what he called you both behind your backs. He was really enjoying the challenge of corrupting Andy, and that is when he made his mistake.'

'His mistake?'

'The guy is amoral and arrogant. He was flush with money from Mrs Peacher, loving every minute of devising Andy's downfall, but he was sniffing a fortune up his nose too. He was on the pink clouds with the demigods of Olympus, deciding the fates of Man, bursting with power. He had to boast, didn't he? He had to tell someone how clever he was.'

Matt held his breath. She continued. 'Minnie was once a friend of mine. She was a good person until that bastard got his hands on her. Even afterwards, after the drugs had eaten into her soul, still she did not like what it was doing to her. She depended on Jim, but she loathed him. She loathed him most of all when he gloated over the way he was edging Andy towards the abyss. It was pathetic, she said. Anyone could see that Jimmy was a puppet being twitched around by Chuck and his aunt. Anyway, one night she taped him when he was high. It was a few weeks after he and Chuck had pimped poor Phil into Andy's bed.'

'You've got a tape?'

'Oh yeah. Minnie passed it on to me when she ran. She's not with Jim now. He blew her out when he had to shut down his operation and head back to Minneapolis. She's gone back to her mom in Philadelphia, and they're trying to get her on a program.'

'What does it say?'

'Oh, they'd gotten Andy so high on pot he'd passed out and they'd undressed him and put him to bed. Then they stripped Phil and pushed him in with Andy and told him to play the faggot or he could go get his drugs on the street. They had to bribe him with a packet of coke. Phil was shaking. Jim thought it was dead funny. He loved humiliating poor Phil.

Whatever. Jim was crowing about the success of the plan, the way that Phil had got Andy to snort at last, but this is the clincher... he said the leathery old cow would be happy now he'd got the little limey faggot hooked.'

'Jesus and Mary. Just "the old cow", is that all he said?'

'Yeah. You don't think that it's specific enough?'

Paul chipped in, 'It's not going to come to court, is it? That's not why we need this evidence.'

Matt meditated, 'What we've got we'll have to make use of, and that pretty damned quickly. We've got to save Andy from the Stepmom's latest piece of viciousness. He can't go into lockdown. It'll finish him.'

Paul agreed, and after a hesitation, so did Rachel. But no one was sure about strategy. Should they tell Andy? Should they approach his dad directly? Should they go to the police and the district attorney?

Finally Matt summed up, 'We can't go to Richard Peacher, at least not to start with. Oh, we could play him the tapes and make our case. But is he prepared to swallow the monstrousness of her plotting all in one go? I doubt it. It took you long enough to convince me. What's more he seems a loyal sort of bloke. She's his wife, I think he'd defend her, never mind the allegations. He'd put it down to our malice and our misdirected friendship for his son. There's only one way. We've got to face the witch herself, in her own castle.'

'Oo, that's scary,' said Paul. 'What's the plan?'

'We're going to have to think it through. But we move tomorrow. We won't have much more time'

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