Towards the Decent Inn

XVIII

By Michael Arram

Matt and Paul sat behind newspapers in the hotel lobby, the soft light and groupings of tall plants and chairs helped lose them amongst the scenery.

'I still think a false moustache would have been a good idea, especially as I feel even sillier hiding behind a potted plant.' Paul was nervous, as he had every right to be. It was nine in the morning. Rachel would be ringing through from the hospital to Andy's father's cell phone any moment. She would pretend to be a station nurse on Andy's ward; the doctor would be wanting to see Mr Peacher with his son together as soon as possible. It was a serious and delicate matter that had arisen from Andy's latest scan. He shouldn't worry but he should get to the ward as soon as he could, he had to see them both together.

At nine ten Richard Peacher, on schedule, strode through the lobby into the sunlight, his coat flapping. His car had drawn up outside. He was gone.

Matt smiled at Paul, 'We probably have no more than half an hour, my son. You up for it?' Paul swallowed hard and nodded. He went to the reception and asked to place a call to the Peacher suite. Matt watched him muttering into the phone. He was being Charles Fettiman, known to a certain set of students as Chuck Fettiman. He was a friend of Mrs Peacher's nephew, Jimmy Rosso, and if she had a few minutes there's things that needed discussing which would be to their mutual benefit. He really must insist that she made some time for him, otherwise maybe he would be talking instead to the city police.

'She's not beyond fear,' Matt had said, 'even if she's beyond shame. We know she knows about Chuck, and the part he'd played in Andy's downfall. Also, if they'd ever met, it wouldn't have been for long, so a little imposture might get by.' She had barely talked to Paul before. He could do a passable American accent, passable at least over a phone. She would see Chuck. As her plotting had got more involved, and her lies more complicated, she must have begun to fear that she had slipped up and left herself exposed. The visit from "Chuck" was one she might have feared and half expected. Jimmy couldn't have kept his mouth shut, and must have mentioned for who it was he was working.

Three minutes later Matt knocked at the suite door. He was almost ready to run, and felt like a desperate kid knocking on a ferocious neighbour's door to ask for his ball back. Only his love for Andy kept him there. It opened and the Stepmom looked surprised and faintly annoyed to see him. That gave Matt a much-needed boost of confidence.

'Matthew. I didn't know you had been asked to call here. I'm afraid my husband is out, and I have another appointment just now. Could you call back?'

'Sorry, Mrs Peacher, it's a little bit urgent.'

She looked past his shoulder, 'Matthew, I'm really sorry but I must insist you come back, I'm expecting ...'

'You're expecting Chuck Fettiman perhaps?'

'What?' She stood back, her eyes widening.

'He can't make it, I'm afraid. I believe he's out of town at the moment. A long way out of town. Perhaps I should come in and explain it to you?'

He pushed past her, unresisting. He took a seat without being asked. His native courage was overcoming his nerves. In the meantime she had rallied.

'Look, Matthew, this isn't very convenient. Richard is at the hospital. There's been a development with Andy, and we're all very worried. I would have thought you'd want to be there.'

'No, Mrs Peacher, here is exactly where I want to be. Now tell me, how do you know a known drug-dealer like Fettiman?'

'I'm sorry, this is becoming tiresome. I know no such man.'

'Appearances to the contrary, Mrs Peacher. You just took a call from him. He certainly knows you, as a close friend of your nephew, Mr Rosso.' She started. Matt placed a pocket audio player on the table.

'Listen to this conversation between Mr Rosso and Mr Fettiman, Mrs Peacher. Then perhaps you'll know why I'm here.'

The slurred voices echoed through the lounge. The self-congratulatory bombast of Rosso, counterpointed by the crude and sinister sneers of Fettiman. The downfall of Andy was gloated over, and the squalid stratagems were laughed at. Mrs Peacher was rivetted despite herself... and fearful. Yes, there was no doubt. Her nerve was shaken. Love for Andy flamed in Matt's heart, and something of that flame glowed deep in his dark eyes, as she reluctantly met them.

'"Leathery old cow". Tsk. How inelegant of your nephew, Mrs Peacher. What have you done to forfeit the boy's respect?' Her eyes glittered back at him, as hard and black as coal.

'This signifies nothing. I have no idea what you're trying to insinuate, but I can assure you if you're attempting blackmail, you're wasting your time. My husband will know how to deal with you.'

'OK, Mrs Peacher, bring him on. I have one or two other items that might interest him. Let me play on.' The measured tones of a BBC personality rang through the room. 'I wonder do you remember the day, and indeed the date, this was taped.

The Stepmom looked astounded, 'How in God's name did you ...?'

'Get hold of that rather revealing interview? Mrs Peacher, I am not by nature a suspicious person, but the catalogue of disasters that befell my Andy stopped seeming accidental a long time ago, and then I began to apply the principle of cui bono ... know it? You'd be amazed at what a little industry can turn up.' Matt dropped some typed papers on the table. The gamble was about to begin. '... Here, for instance is a series of memos from the vice-chancellor of my university, filed after your meeting, in which he records that you made some surprising claims on your husband's behalf. But your husband knew nothing of that visit did he? Not only that, but it seems that the vice-chancellor's internal investigations revealed no leak from the university to the local press. So where did it come from Mrs Peacher? I think we both know. It would only take a little digging to confirm it, I suspect. The dear vice-chancellor is no friend of yours after the legal action over Andy: he would be happy to help. And talking about your husband, I imagine he may be back fairly soon, so let's wait for him and discuss the edifice these little building blocks of mine can build.'

No longer elegant and composed, the Stepmom glared at him, but seemed uncertain of what to say. His gamble had paid off. Knocked backwards by what she had already heard, she was willing to believe any claim he might make. She did not reach for the innocuous memoranda on the table, which were in fact a collection of printouts, and a notice from Registry on university notepaper about his graduation hire of gowns. He'd shoved it into his bag as he had packed hastily in England.

'How much? What'll it cost to keep you quiet?'

The squalid offer of a bribe gave Matt the first surge of triumph. She was defeated, she was as good as admitting it all. 'I have to say, Mrs Peacher, you have just made another mistake. Why do you assume that my price is money? No, I want a favour; actually, a couple of favours. It's time you made up some of the damage you've done my Andy. This is what you are going to do ...'

Ten minutes later, while Matt was finishing off his terms to the Stepmom, and she was still glaring at him, Richard Peacher appeared in the lounge.

'Damn thing, Ellie. I get to the hospital, and Andy's asleep and there's no doctor. The call was made in error, would you believe, or so they thought. No one was sure where it had come from. Matthew? Why're you here?'

'Mrs Peacher asked me round, sir. She said she had things to discuss with me.'

He looked bewildered, 'Ellie?' The Stepmom had regained her composure.

'Richard. I've been thinking over the situation with Andy. I'm not sure the idea of that lockdown center in Montana is such a good one after all.'

'I did say ...'

'We need to get back to the lawyers. I think that there are alternatives. The main thing is to get Andy out of this place and back with Matthew. If Matthew could be persuaded, we should get them back living together. They're good for each other.'

'Isn't that ...?'

'Well now I'm agreeing with you,' she snapped. 'There's the new house in France, the one in Poitou-Charente. That might be a good temporary refuge for them, and then Andy could go back to England maybe. The press won't be so keen to target him after what you did, and the risk would be less. They should move around. Andy's addiction won't be able to find a supplier if they're on the road. And perhaps it's time to initiate that trust fund for Andy too. I know I was resisting it, but maybe once he has sorted himself out, it could give him some purpose.'

Matt feigned surprise. 'Why, Mrs Peacher, that's exactly what I would have suggested. I'm sure that would be Andy's best chance. Maybe we could find a focus for him, get him out of his own miseries, give him a purpose to work for.'

Richard Peacher looked surprised in his turn. His wife seems to have achieved several u-turns in the course of one morning. 'If that's what you think, dear, I'm happy to agree with you. Good. I'll get things moving.' He wandered over to the window, flipped his cell phone and began a conversation with his legal advisers.

Matt looked directly into the eyes of the Stepmom. She glared back at him, but for the moment, was powerless.

'Don't ever forget, Mrs Peacher, that I have this dossier. You'll never be able to explain it away. If you keep your malice to yourself, you'll not hear anything ever about it again. Your children and your husband are your affair. Your homes and your causes are all your own. Though I have to say that I think you should at least let Andy see the twins from time to time. He loves them. You might try and stop poisoning Peter against his brother, if it's not too late. He may need Andy one day. And don't meddle in the settlement of the Peacher estate. Leave it to your husband. He's a good man and a wise one, if he's left alone. But something tells me that you haven't the sense to admit that to yourself.'

She hissed, 'All I've done, is for him and my children. What do you think I've gained for myself out of it all, only pain and this humiliation.'

'If you'd been a different woman, you might have gained another devoted child. Andy is nothing but kind, loving and generous, as I have every reason to know. But you made your choices. That's for you to live with and explain when the time comes.'

Matt stood up. He offered her his hand sweetly, and she had no choice but to take it. Richard Peacher waved absently at him as he left, closing the door behind him with a small grin of triumph.

Paul and Rachel were waiting in the lobby as he left the lift, whistling. He put his arms around their shoulders and walked them out the door to Rachel's car, telling them about the armistice he'd negotiated.

'To the hospital, my dears. We have some blinkers to lift off a beloved friend. And maybe he'll be the better for it.'

'Matt, you're more than a little bit amazing.'

'Not at all. Without you, my friends, we'd still be in deep shit. You got brains Paulie, and you're a good match with Rachel here.' They smiled at each other across him.

'So, you're telling me that all this shit, all this tragedy, all this agony was orchestrated by that mega-cow, my stepmother!' Andy's small ears had gone that bright red that they achieved only on the rare occasions of his genuine wrath.

'All to drive you to madness and despair, yes. I even think she had hopes of pushing you one day into topping yourself.'

'Why? What had I ever done to her?'

'You existed. You were an obstacle. I'm even willing to bet that she saw you as a rival for your dad's affections. She's consumed absolutely with jealousy, Andy. It's made her nuts. You stand in the way of total control over her world, so you must be removed and the way cleared for her own childen to inherit it.'

Andy accomplished the feat of looking astounded, while lying back in a hospital bed. Eventually he managed, 'I'll fucking kill her. She more or less murdered that kid in the car. If she'd not meddled with me, none of this tragedy would have happened. I'd still be playing soccer in the park with you and Paulie on Saturdays.'

'Er, playing soccer with me', interjected Paul, 'Matt just stood there so we could bounce balls off him. Y'know our Matt... brains, beauty and two left feet. And 'scuse me, but I'd not have met me Ray-ray if I'd not come here, so I can't share in that generalised condemnation.'

Andy subsided, his mouth hanging open. He rallied. 'My dad's got to know. He's married to a black widow. It's horrible. She'll stick him with a knife or something.'

'We thought of that, Andy. But I'm not sure we could prove it all to him. The proof we've got is circumstantial. We used her own fears to put one over on her; she invented the evidence to convict herself. We couldn't do it with him.'

'So I have to smile in the face of this Medusa, and kiss her on the cheek, and pretend she's the greatest thing on earth.'

'Yes, and don't think you're the first boy in this situation. This sort of scheming must have been going on daily in the courts of Europe two centuries ago. Yet they all did minuets together, went riding in the park and had their smiling family portraits painted. It's power and money, my love. Thank God you seem to be innoculated against it. Look at your brother Peter. Something tells me that it's got to him already, and he's only thirteen.'

'Yes,' said Paul, 'and luckily too, my liege, you have us loyal serfs to protect your back.'

Andy looked around at them. He winced as he pulled out the catheter, climbed painfully out of bed, wearing just a pair of old pyjama bottoms that sagged low on his waist, and solemnly embraced each of them in turn.

'I don't deserve you guys, I really don't.'

'Now that,' said Matt, 'is where you go completely wrong. You do deserve us. Who gave you the right to decide what you're worth? It's us who decide that. You're worth everything to your friends. We need you, and I ... you know I couldn't live without you.'

'Poor bloody Phil, what can we do about his pain; what about the family whose boy I killed? No help for them is there?'

'Beyond prayer, none. But I'm not willing to give up on prayer. Paulie and Rachel answered mine for me.'

Paul interrupted, 'Now that all is revealed, me and Rachel want to go and consummate this highly-charged and emotional morning by a round of passionate sex, it that's OK with you two queers.'

'And you complain about us,' said Matt.

'Bye for now.' Paul and Rachel left, they heard her scolding him loudly down the corridor. Andy sat back on his bed.

'Could I mention at this point that - apart from the bad bruising - you look devastatingly sexy in pyjama bottoms, with your sweet little toes poking out.'

Andy smiled painfully as he manoeuvered himself back into bed, 'Always joking, my Matt. You've given me back my life. You've done a noble thing for which there's no repayment. What can I ever do for you?'

'Just be with me, Andy. That's all I want out of life now. And if it's gift exchange that bothers you, don't forget how you gave yourself to me that October morning a world ago and changed my life; that was a gift that no one really deserves, and it entitled you to all I have in payment. I just want you, Andy. But don't be worried, you can have a day off from it once a week, in case it gets too cloying. I'm nothing if not reasonable.'

Andy sat staring at him through the bruises with a look that Matt might have, if he had dared, interpreted as something approaching adoration. He was not sure that anyone deserved a look like that from another human being, and it made him uncomfortable. Andy finally said, 'Where do we go now?'

'Hopefully, your dad can cut a deal to get you released from bail, and then we can leave this awful place and head ... To tell the truth, Andy, I think you should decide where we go. It's your pain and your burden, so the choice of relief should be yours too. Name it, and we'll head there. Your call. Yours alone.'

An hour later, the room was full of lawyers and Matt was squeezed out as they took depositions and made endless calls.

The state's attorney general was unwilling to let Andy go, in the light of the fatality. So Richard Peacher made the trip to see the family of the dead boy. He came back tight-lipped saying it was the hardest thing he had done in all his life. But the parents had said that having lost their son, they had no desire that he should lose his. The lawyers and insurers came to a rapid settlement, and the attorney general found that he had been outflanked. A plea-bargain led to Andy accepting a driving ban, a two-year suspended sentence and a massive fine.

He made a laborious trip in a suit to court, and two days later was released from bail and the hospital. Matt and his father walked out with him, Matt carrying his bag. Richard Peacher himself drove them down the hill to a beautiful guest house Matt had found in Salonica: a grand Victorian house with an American Gothick corner tower.

Richard took his son in his arms at the door, and embraced him as he gave him into Matt's care. For the first time since he was a small boy, Andy kissed his father. Richard looked deeply moved. They waved as he drove away.

Inside, the rooms were full of carved wood and the heavy scent of African vanilla from the potpourri jars. It was run by a Mrs Petersen. They sat in the biggest suite looking out on the tree-lined street.

'How come it feels like I've been let out of prison?'

'Funnily enough, I feel the same way too. Er, no chance of sex is there?'

'You've seen my bruises. Forget it. Also we haven't had the test results back yet. Who knows what I picked up from Phil? I was too depressed to care about protection. Talking of dreams, Matt. I think I want to go back to Finkle Road, maybe not for long, but I've missed it.'

'Great idea. Fully endorse it. Your dad said we could have the big jet. It's at the county airport. We can go tomorrow or the day after, whenever we get the results. What about Paulie and Rachel?'

'I don't know. Perhaps they'll come, or perhaps they'll carry on rutting to Olympic standard. It's up to them.'

'I think Paulie might come. A ride in a private jet would be too tempting. I'll tell him the drinks are free.'

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