Towards the Decent Inn

XXIII

By Michael Arram

The rainy season came to Los Angeles, and the rain washed away the smog. The San Gabriel mountains appeared in their awesome grandeur, looming improbably over Pasadena. Matt and Andy had driven high up into them. They had parked near the Mount Wilson observatory, and were sitting on a bench amongst the mountain pines surveying the view. Across the vast Los Angeles basin, they could see the distant spikes of downtown and the light on the ocean beyond.

'It's not Nuneaton, is it?'

'Not Northampton either. What a way we've come, Andy.'

'It's been a rocky ride too, for both of us.'

'I dunno. Most of it I'd never swap, even some of the hard stuff. Especially the slaying of the Stepmom.'

'I wish I'd been there. Paul's sent his weekly bulletin and is itching to be with Rachel. There's been a leak in an upstairs radiator in your dad's house and he's in seventh heaven getting it fixed. Have you heard from anyone?'

'Rhiannon is fine, and freezing in her flat in Heslington, but she's got a new boyfriend to keep her warm. She says he's more handsome than me, so of course she's lying. Rachel is itching to be with Paul. Leo has just failed his teaching practice catastrophically and says he's finally realised that the woman he really loved all along was Katy, and he's going in quest of her in London... well there's a turn up for the books.

'Why am I not surprised?'

'And how about this... Alex is in the States, working out of Reuters' Washington office for three months and he wants to come see us after Christmas.'

'Excellent. He's going to be coming with Ben Craven,' Andy smiled at the look on Matt's face. 'He e-mails me. We've got a lot in common. I like the kid.'

'So it's really happened then?'

'Yes, they're a serious couple now. They've got plans to shack up in London once Alex is back home. Ben's going to work in a publishers. What a little cupid you were to those two. Oh, and he told me to tell you that - and I think I've got it right - "bottom is best". Do I really want to know what that was about?'

Matt gave a lopsided smile, and went on with his list. 'My mum and dad are OK. Oh ... and I had my first e-mail from Carl. He's into under-age drinking, and so he's sent me lots of pictures of him and his football team being very drunk. Apparently, now he's seventeen, it's cool to have a famous, if homosexual, brother who lives in America. Nasty little imp sent me a picture of his team in the showers, uncensored, and asked me whose bum I fancied most. I told him his, which should worry him, I hope.'

'I had one from my mother, would you believe. Routine crap about her genealogical ... sorry, prosopographical ... discoveries, went into three screens.'

'How far, by the way?'

'8,565th.'

'That's five dollars I owe you then. Twenty dollars if she's up to 10,000 by Christmas.'

'Done. You'll lose. It gets harder once they start becoming obscure. The last one was just a Mr, not even a Sir. The sting in the tail was that she wanted to know what I planned to do with myself. You don't really think that she's in cahoots with the Stepmom, do you?'

'What that "thin Californian trophy-wife"? No, I shouldn't think so. I'm afraid it's parents being parents. They can't stop themselves. It starts with nagging about homework, then length of hair, then exam revision, then unsuitable girlfriends - or in our case boyfriends - and finally the Future.'

'Ah, the Future! Hanging round the poolside with you isn't a future, then.'

'Not to them, though I can see the attractions.'

'You're a liar, Matt, and not a good one. I can see it in your eyes. The Future of Andy Peacher bothers you too.'

'A Future with Andy Peacher is what bothers me. Frankly, I don't care what shape it is. I just want to be in it.' Andy held and squeezed his hand.

'I know. Sorry to be a bitch.'

They sat quietly for a while, watching the picnickers setting up camp. A barbecue pit was being stoked up and blue smoke was rising into the even bluer sky. Kids were running about, chasing each other and kicking up the drifts of brown pine needles.

'On another subject,' Andy finally said, 'you've been at it for months like a workaholic Trojan. We need to go away for a bit. How about Christmas shopping in New York?'

'Yeah, absolutely. Love the idea. We can stop off at the UN and tell dear Kofi what a cow his special envoy to children is.'

New York was bright and crisp. A clean and frosty sky was a blue prairie for marching herds of small, brisk clouds. It was very different from the overcast and snowy city they had first met; they decided they liked it.

A quick call had brought Alex flying up from Washington for the weekend. They met him at the barrier at Kennedy on Friday night; one more young suit among others, his briefcase and coat over his arm, but his big grin lit up the place. They threw themselves at him for a triple hug.

'Woah! Ease up lads! People'll stare.'

'You hope. It didn't bother you that day at graduation. That was such a classic. You came out of the closet with style and a bow to the galleries,' laughed Matt. They headed over to a nearby bar and got beers, Andy asked, 'How's Ben?'

Alex's face took on a soft smile, 'Beyond great. Benny's the most marvellous thing that ever happened to me... apart from you of course, Matt.'

'Understood.'

'He went home after the big scene at graduation, but I enticed him down to Essex for a week, and we... er... consummated our relationship, bigtime, like bunnies on aphrodisiacs.' Alex sat quiet for a second, his eyes faraway and the soft smile still on his face. 'He squeals when he comes. It's so exciting when he does that: I actually make my lover squeal with ecstasy when I take him. It's me that does it. I could never get a girl to do that. So now I know why you two are always smiling. He's fantastic, up for anything. He says he'd had sex ed off you Matt, and I wonder what he meant by that. But it wasn't just the sex, it was... oh, I dunno... better than anything I ever had with a woman. My heart was in it. I love that guy so much...'

'... that it hurts,' interjected Andy. 'We know the feeling, it's the real thing.'

'Amazing how we always think we're the first to invent sex, innit? Sorry guys. I see him walking on Pennsylvania Avenue, riding the escalator at Dupont Circle, in restaurants in Georgetown. I'm beyond infatuation. If it wasn't for e-mail and masturbation, I don't know how I'd have survived the past month. I think I understand now what you went through Matt, when Andy left you. It really sucks, as they say here. Sucks that I can't suck him off? Funny thing language innit? But he's been busy back home. He's finally got a job in history publishing. He begins in February as a trainee production editor. That's just when I get back from my tour in Washington. He's looking for some sort of flat we can afford in North London, and it's not easy. His father kicked him out, you know, when he told him about him and me after he got back from Essex. Apparently being gay doesn't go down too well in Brighouse. Go and live with your nancy-boy, he said. So he came back to Nancy.'

'Oh God, no, I didn't know that, he never said.' Andy was shocked.

'S'alright, cos my parents then proved how brilliant they are by inviting him to stay with them in Harlow as soon as I told them; no prompting at all. My mum thinks he's wonderful, and my dad thinks he'll be a good influence on me: make me more serious about life. He's working in an off licence for the time being, saving up for his ticket to LA.'

Andy beamed, 'You guys are welcome to stay as long as you like in Pasadena. In fact, I want Ben to stay with us till you go back home, so you can come over to us, or he can go over to you for weekends and you can be together and squeal for England, bless you both. We've already got your room sorted. It's your honeymoon as far as we're concerned. It'll be so great. How long can you get away from the office.'

'I've got a fortnight saved up.'

'We'll make it special, believe me.' Matt looked fondly on his Andy. He was never more lovable when he was being kind and generous.

Andy had booked them all into one of the big Upper East Side hotels and they enjoyed some bracing walks through a Central Park carpeted with damp, golden leaves. They tried out the open air skating rink, a humiliation for all three of them. Small children scattered out of their way. They retired bruised to the nearest Starbucks.

They had two great nights out, between shows and the Greenwich Village gay bars, into which Alex boldly led them. There was nothing half-hearted about Alex's engagement with life. He and Andy had a great time dancing together, and Matt had to admit the two of them had real style as he sat watching them, cheerfully fending off passes from all sorts of interested parties with a growing expertise.

They hugged in the lobby as they saw Alex off in style in a limousine that Andy had summoned.

'We really are so gay, nowadays,' observed Andy.

'I'm not sure what you mean,' Matt said.

'Well, it's a matter of culturisation.'

'Culturisation? This is my field. Tell me about culturisation.' Matt was intrigued.

'You're becoming a real academic, you know that? Anyway. What I mean is we do gay things and we have gay friends, and we live in a little gay world. I'm not too bothered about it, but still, I never wanted us to be Mr and Mrs Gay: it sort of limits us.'

'OK Andy, I do understand. But on the other hand, we have - or had - Rhiannon, and we've got that hetero-dynamo Paulie as our closest and dearest, and there's Katy and Ed and Leo and all the others. We must resist, simple as that.'

Matt rapidly completed his shopping by Tuesday and he arranged the despatch of the goods to Britain. He was not planning on returning this year. He was beginning to ask himself how long Andy was thinking of staying in New York, but wasn't going to put the question. Stirring his Americano, he wondered how to convey appropriately his readiness to get back to his work.

'You're ready to go back to LA, aren't you?' Andy broke in.

'What!' Matt was startled. It seemed that it was true that living together with someone else opened up a world of non-verbal communication.

'S'OK. I don't mind. Look. Go back tomorrow and I'll join you at home in a few days. I'm quite happy to wander round on my own for a bit.'

'Er, I'll stay. It's not a sacrifice.'

'Seriously, Matt. Go. I'm not offended. I know how much your work means to you.'

'Well, if you're sure.'

He caught a flight back to LA the next morning from Newark, Andy waving him goodbye at the barrier. It was Wednesday. By Saturday there was no sign of Andy, and he couldn't raise him on his cell phone. A call to the hotel told him that Mr Peacher had checked out on Wednesday but had not mentioned where he was going. Now Matt was alarmed. He had talked to Andy on Thursday and he had not said that he had left New York. He e-mailed in every direction, but no one knew anything.

Finally he rang Andy's father, who shared his alarm. 'I was half-expecting it, son,' he said, resignedly. 'The fact is that addicts slide back, they never lose the need. I've seen it with people I've known and worked with. I've been bothering him, too. I should have resisted it, but you want to know that your kids have plans and ideas, just so you can help. Have you any clue where he might go?'

'None, sir.'

'I can pull some strings and get a trace placed on his cards. But if Andy doesn't want to be found, he'll know how to avoid leaving a trail. Addicts are devious.'

'Sir, I'm not sure that it's drugs that have pulled him back. Everybody assumes that Andy has the sort of personality that needs drugs. I've never been convinced about that. If it's anything, it's his sense of frustration getting to him.'

'I hope you're right, Matt. I hope you're right. Let me know as soon as you hear anything.'

The weekend went by with no news. In the middle of the next week, the first week of December, came the first clue. Paul e-mailed from Britain that Rachel's friend Sumner thought she had spotted a familiar face in Salonica a few days earlier and Rachel had heard several other rumours that he was in town. 'Sumner's convinced it was Andy, but she didn't get close enough to be sure. Anyway, I'm on my way. I'll meet you there.'

Matt flew out immediately and was waiting with a hire car at the County Airport when Paul's thin figure, wrapped in a thick coat, emerged from the terminal with a shoulder bag. He leapt into the car and hugged and kissed Matt.

'God, I'm glad you're here.' Matt said, as they pulled away.

'Be cool, Matt. I'm sure our little Andy is OK.'

'Wish I could be so cool. But why no word? It's not like him.'

'Isn't it?'

'What do you mean?'

'It is a bit like him. You forget how self-contained he grew up. Not many friends. A solitary boy with a weird mum. His first year, you told me, he hardly talked to anyone and didn't socialise. He may not have been happy, but he has got used to being his own boy. You may have changed that a bit, but what did he do when the press got to him? He took off and cut you out. I think we have a pattern of behaviour here. You may not like it, but there's a streak of the selfish thing in Andy. Maybe that's why I sympathise with him. Remember you told me how having family on your back all the time changes you.'

'Did I say that?'

'Something like it. Andy's hit stress point again about something, and has taken off. He's not going to let you back in until he's sorted it out. So you think it's the meaning of life that's got to him?'

'I guess so. He felt that everyone was on his case, even me. But what's he going to do? He gave me no clue. What hurts is that I think he did it with a certain amount of calculation. I don't mean that New York was a set up, but once he sensed he could manipulate me into leaving early, he played me.'

'Poor Matt. It's hard being the strong one isn't it? He loves you, but he has to lie to you because he can't bear the idea of fighting with you.'

'I'm not that strong. He has a talent for breaking me up. When we're not laughing, I spend most of the time worrying about him. I'm not laughing now.'

Matt pulled up at the bed and breakfast that he and Andy had stayed in. The proprietor was in.

'Hello Mrs Petersen, remember me?'

'I do. I always remember boys as well-favoured and well-spoken as you and Mr Peacher. I was wondering when you would turn up.'

'Really!' Matt's ears pricked.

'Mr Peacher was here for a few days last week. And here you are. He said I'd likely be seeing you. He left you a note. Do you need a room?' Matt said he did, and he and Paul went into the lounge where there was some fine hot coffee on tap.

'So what does it say?' asked Paul anxiously, his long thin fingers wrapped round the hot mug.

'Exactly what you said. I was not to worry. He had something to do and would let me know when it was done. No clues. Not a sausage. I'll tackle Mrs Petersen a bit later. Y'know, I'm beginning to see what's going on here.'

'Well tell me please.'

'This you are going to think daft, but when I first met Andy and tried to get to know him, I followed him secretly and engineered "chance" meetings just so as to get to talk to him. OK, don't look like that, I know I'm sad. He used to tell me that he loved the idea of being stalked by me, he thought it was very funny. I think he wants to be followed by me, so the mad little idiot has left a trail. Yeah, I can see you think it's nuts... you want to go off and see Rachel, I guess.'

'I'll come back later.'

Paul went off down the path, turning up the hill to Collegetown. Matt stood in the bay window watching him go, flicking the note against his chin, thinking hard. What was Andy up to? What had called him back here? Where was the trail going to take him? He thought and thought about their conversations over the past year. But nothing leaped out at him. He shrugged and left a message for Andy's dad, it would reassure him at least.

Mrs Petersen couldn't help much. Andy had left no screwed up notes or receipts around the house. He had only used his own cell phone. He had no car, of course, but somehow he got around using the county transit and taxis. 'He did travel quite a bit during the daytime, but just watched TV and chatted in the evenings. That's all I can say, dear.'

Rachel and Paul turned up, hand in hand and very much post-coital. Matt was faintly jealous of them, although he couldn't immediately explain to himself why. He missed his own lover, most probably. Rachel flung herself on him, kissing him enthusiastically on the mouth.

'That was a bit passionate.'

'I've always wanted to neck with a dreamy gay icon. The rest of the girls will be so jealous.'

'Oh, you read that did you?'

'Matt, everyone has.'

'I haven't,' complained Paul. Rachel said she'd kept the cuttings and they could have a look at them later.

They headed downtown and found a decent restaurant, twinkling with Christmas lights and decorations. They talked long and late.

'So could he be after Chuck, to deliver payback on the bastard?' mused Rachel.

'I don't think it's necessary to check the gunstores. That's just not Andy's style. At least I hope it isn't'

'Chuck's still around, still in business. Jim Rosso and Minnie are gone, which has shut down the upper end of his operation, but there are still plenty of suckers out there for him to make money on. The boat's chugging up and down the lake as usual. What if Andy's bought a submarine and has had it floated up the Erie Canal?'

'It's a sign of how desperate we're getting when that scenario looks attractive. Come on Rachel. You knew his Burnett life better than us. What could have brought him back here? I know for a fact that he didn't have any library books to return.'

'I've no idea. He didn't have that many friends. He was too thick with Jim and his circle. He tried to join a soccer team, but Jim and Fred found ways to talk him out of it. No one really knew him that well. He was just this mega-rich kid that people pointed at in his Mercedes as he flashed past.'

Matt grimaced, 'He told me he got lonely. If only that hag had left him alone, he'd have found his level: decent and kind people who'd have liked him for himself. We're just lucky he bumped into you, Rachel. Oh well, to bed. Maybe we'll have some better ideas in the morning.'

In the morning, after a restless night, Matt climbed the long hill and wandered the campus aimlessly on foot. Finally, at about lunchtime, he passed the chapel where he and Andy had sat and listened to the organ. He pushed open the heavy oak door and found it empty. He'd half hoped that Andy would be sitting there in the back pews. He sat where they'd sat before; he prayed and he thought. And whether it was the place or the spirit of the place, a memory came back to him: a memory that had burned into Andy's soul, an incurious boy who had stared into Andy's eyes, just as he was about to die.

He hurried over to Rachel's apartment and got the pair of them out of bed, something that Paul was reluctant to go along with. 'Jet lag, honest.'

'Rachel, what was the boy's name, the young one who died in the crash last May?'

'Er, Martin Machihek.'

'That's where he went. The grave.'

Paul twitched. 'He wouldn't have been staying there for days!'

'No, but he'll have been there. I'll get the car. You find out where the cemetery is.'

They found their way to the town's biggest cemetery. It was well kept, a place of beautiful lawns studded with conifers and swept by leafless willows. The superintendent was friendly and didn't have to check his records to tell them where the Machihek plot was. 'The parents are there most weeks. Nice folks. Real sad, the whole business.'

They approached the grave apprehensively, but no one was there. It was a tall monument of grey granite, fresh and sparkling with mica in the sunlight. A stone angel protected it with his wings, and a ceramic portrait of a boy smiled out on them from the other side of eternity. A mass of flowers in a variety of states and many commemorative plaques were stacked at its foot. Matt knelt down in the wet grass and scrutinised them. The freshest and finest of the flower arrangements had a note in Andy's handwriting. So he had made his visit of piety. Rachel had brought her own flowers and laid them down besides Andy's solemnly.

'Any clue, Matt?' asked Paul.

'Maybe. But only if either of you read Latin.'

They shook their heads as they pored over the damp card. Matt copied it down.

'Let's get back to Burnett. The campus must contain at least one Latin dictionary.'

They talked their way past the library barrier, with Rachel's help, and settled in the opulent reference section. Matt produced his fair copy and they looked at it: In flectu profundo pro quoddam morte inscienti et in escambio pio. Vita pro vitâ. AWP. It gave Matt a very bad feeling. They scanned the dictionary and easily worked out that the last section said: 'A life for a life.'

'Oh my God,' sighed Paul, 'He is thinking of topping himself. The Stepcow is going to win!' Paul looked horror struck at the thought, as if a gulf had opened under his feet.

'Wait,' said Matt, 'it may not be so bad ... I think it says 'In solemn mourning? grief? for a ... something ... death, and in a pious? dutiful? exchange.'

'Still looks bad,' concluded Paul. Rachel agreed reluctantly.

'I'm not going to get desperate. Andy didn't sound or look suicidal to me last week.'

'Course not,' the others hastened to reassure him, a little too quickly. Paul looked very pale and agitated.

Matt rose, and led them out. 'Where next?' asked Rachel.

'Let's find our old friend, Fred.'

Rachel said that if so, it would be without her, but she told them where to find him.

'You!' snarled Fred when he came to his apartment door. He was not in good condition. The car smash had left him facially scarred, and he was still on a stick.

'Yup, me. Nice to see you recognise me.'

'Hardly likely I'd forget, with your fuckin' fag face all over the colour supplements. What d'yu want. And make it quick.'

'Nothing would suit me better. Andy's gone missing, and I think you might know something about where he is.'

'Ee's not quait in moy social circle,' Fred sneered in mockery.

'Then let me get down to the basics, asshole. In language you can understand, here's four hundred dollars to see if your memory improves.'

Fred's eyes glanced to the money and stayed fixed on it. Eventually he said, 'I might ... just might know something about him.' Matt added another two hundred dollars to the four.

'He was talking to Chuck last week.' Another hundred.

'It wasn't about drugs.' Another hundred.

'He wanted to know about Phil Esposito. 'S all I know.' Matt dropped the cash into his large hand.

'Wish I could say it was a pleasure doing business with you. Have a better life.' Matt and Paul turned and left, the door slamming behind them.

'Next stop, Chuck?' suggested Paul.

'I'm not sure we'll get very far there. And maybe we don't need to. I think if we find Phil Esposito, we'll find Andy.' Matt felt very unhappy all of a sudden. He didn't like to remember that another man had shared Andy's bed for a while, mingling sweat with his lover.

'So why this Esposito guy?'

'I wonder,' pondered Matt. 'But things all of a sudden look clearer. Let's go fetch Rachel. She may know something about the Esposito kid.'

Rachel got down one of her files. 'Here's the cuttings from the trials. I kept them because Minnie asked. Phil Esposito was convicted of possession and sentenced to five years in a state pen near Rochester. That's where he'll be.'

'And that's where I'm going.'

It was called the Hilton, because it was in the township of Hilton, Monroe County, NY, but its official name was Rochester District Medium Security Correctional Facility, as it appeared on the big signpost beneath the state seal. The grey waters of Lake Ontario formed the distant horizon. It was a dull and chilly day and the cloud was low over the treetops. There was a possibility of snow.

Andy and Paul pulled up on a lane leading to the low walls of the penitentiary. It looked modern but bleak, especially on a day when a vicious wind had stripped the last of the leaves from the trees.

'So what do we do, Matt?'

'We wait.'

'You think Andy's going to be here?'

'Yup.'

'According to the website, visiting today is at 3.00pm.'

They waited. At 2.45 a bus turned into the lane and emptied at the gate. Andy was not one of the passengers. A couple of cars drove up and parked in a lot near the gate. The last of them was a smart black saloon, and three men got out, one was Andy, bundled up in a black overcoat and scarf, the other two carried briefcases. They went inside.

'So you were right,' said Paul, as Matt turned back on to the track and parked in the lot next to the black car.

Matt rang Andy's father while they waited.

'Found him, sir!'

'By damn, have you now?' Matt explained how they'd tracked him down. He also said that he believed that Andy would have turned up in a few days anyway.

'So what's he doing, Matt?'

'Oh, I think I can guess, and I don't think you'll be disappointed in him, sir, But I'll leave him to explain it to you when he gets back.'

'Well done, son. This is such a relief. I'll look forward to hearing everything.'

People began emerging at 5.00pm. Finally, Andy came out with two men who were unmistakably lawyers, and pretty successful ones at that, judging by the sleekness of the coats and stylishness of the shoes.

Matt and Paul got out of the car and Andy spotted them as he and his companions returned to the lot.

He grinned a little mischievously in the old Andy way. 'Took your time didn't you? Watcher Paulie.'

'Watcher! You little bastard, do you have any idea how worried I've... we've been!'

Andy was taken aback, Paul, who had never been angry with him before, was now unmistakably and genuinely furious; his glasses positively flashed with rage and there were hot tears in his eyes. And Matt realised that it was because of fear; Paul had thought at one point he was going to lose Andy. Matt saw at last that Paul needed Andy almost as much as he did, though for different reasons. Andy may have been Matt's lover and soul mate, but for Paul he had become a substitute for the thing that family does: Andy was someone to steady him; someone to whom to bring home his school report.

Andy looked crestfallen and apologetic, 'Didn't Mrs Petersen give you the note?'

'Yes, as it happened she did,' said Matt, 'although she might very well not have. How could you be sure we'd track you to Salonica.'

'Well, I waved at Sumner in the mall. I did everything but knock on Rachel's door and give her my address. You were bound to stop at the guest house, you loved Mrs Petersen. Excuse me.' He turned and had a few concluding words with the lawyers, shook their hands and let them go. Their car crackled off across the chippings of the parking lot.

Andy rubbed his gloved hands. 'So, cup of tea lads?'

'Cup of tea!' Paul was reaching apoplexy. 'How can you not want to thump the little tick, Matt?'

'Reason one. I'm too glad to have found him. Reason two. You may not have noticed, but he's not just cheerful and happy, he's lost the hag on his back. Whatever he's done, the kid's cured himself. Alleluia.'

Andy threw himself at Matt and grabbed him round the waist. He looked up close into his face through suddenly wet eyes. 'I knew you'd understand.'

Matt's eyes too were brimming. 'Yes, my love, I understand.'

'God, I do love you.' He sniffed and wiped his eyes with his sleeve, then he laughed. 'Now, how about that tea?'

They found a roadhouse on the outskirts of Rochester and it did have hot tea, although it came in glasses with little wire baskets as infusers and the waitress couldn't understand why they wanted to put milk in it.

Andy looked at them across the table. 'So, Matt, what do you know?'

'I know that you came to Salonica as an act of dedication. That you came to begin a new life, a life for a life.'

Andy looked startled, 'Jesus, do I talk in my sleep?'

'No. But you did go to the Machihek plot, stayed there for some hours I think, knelt and maybe prayed, and left a message for the dead in a dead language.'

'This is weird. You went to the grave too then?'

'Yes and saw your card. Why did you write it in Latin?'

'I was afraid that if I wrote it in English and the poor kid's parents worked out it was from me, they might throw it away. Besides it seemed right somehow.'

'Then you went to Chuck and found out about Phil Esposito's circumstances, and I think he gave you some advice, am I right?'

'You're a very clever fellow, you know that?' Andy looked on admiringly.

'You followed up the advice, found and retained a firm of the top criminal lawyers in the state, and went to apologise to Phil for all you'd done to him, and offered to make amends.'

'How did you know about Chuck?'

'We bribed it out of Fred. Anyway, Phil may or may not have forgiven you, but he allowed you to begin the process of your penitence and employ lawyers on his behalf, to get him out of gaol and into rehab. That right?'

'Yes, and I was doing this ... why?' Andy was watching him keenly, as was Paul.

'Because, darling Andy, you know you carry a burden, and the best way forward is to shoulder it and not buckle under. You have a path to follow. You took a life in your weakness and God has told you that the life can be redeemed by giving yours to serve others. It's the old story, and it's a very great one.

Phil is the first and nearest life you can try to help. You may or may not succeed. Myself, I don't count you as having any blame in his fall. He was trying hard in his weakness to corrupt and bring you down. But he's a place to start, and by using your money you can give him at least a chance to begin his life again, and restore him to his family. That right?'

'Yes, it is,' he said quietly.

'Shit,' said Paul, 'you're not goin' off to be a monk are you?'

'Not unless I can come too,' said Matt.

'I've looked at the university courses and, do you know Matt, when you leave LA, I can come back home to Britain with you, use my existing credits and study for two years for a degree in social work while you finish your PhD. That's what I'm going to do. Work with kids, the disadvantaged. I want to learn the problems, learn the procedures and the system, and then do something where I can make a difference. I'll get experience before I begin to work off the debt, but also work for the satisfaction of it all. Then I can put my Trust to work properly.'

'And I will support you... enthusiastically. I think your dad will too. He's a good man. Your Stepmom won't dare say a word. She's arrogant enough to try to pass it off as you being inspired by her selfless example of designer charity.'

Matt stood at the kitchen window of their house in Pasadena. Outside was a climbing and flowering plant against the wall, whose name he did not know.

'Andy, come here, quick.'

A humming bird was hovering effortlessly in the sunshine, feeding from the flowers. It was tiny, delicate and movingly beautiful.

Andy hung on his shoulder, 'Wow. Never seen that before. It's an omen, I hope.'

'You packed?'

'Yup. Christmas in Aspen, and dad wants Paulie and Rachel there too, so he can thank them personally. The Stepmom will be so pissed at us.'

'And the twins will be delighted. Then Alex and Ben here for the new year'

Andy grinned, 'I can't wait to hear Ben squeal for his Alex; I've got their room wired.' Matt looked at him, 'Not serious. You sure you want to drive, it's a hell of a distance.'

'A thousand miles, same as Edinburgh to Bordeaux but without the sea crossing. We've not scripted our road movie, and there may not be time next year.'

'Then we're off.'

They hauled their bags out to the drive, getting wetted by the sprinklers which were soaking the lawn and throwing out a miniature rainbow in the sunlight. They said their farewells to Mrs Fuentas, who stood waving as they turned into the road. They sat, sneaking furtive glances at each other to check out each other's contentment, delighted at what they saw.

'Will we live happily ever after, d'you think?' asked Andy

'I wish,' responded Matt. 'But I think we invent the idea of happy endings because in life there are only happy interludes. Just like you said before, we need the story to reassure us that somewhere all problems end. After what we've been through together, I wouldn't dare say you were wrong. As it happens I do think there is a place where everything is resolved, but it's not in this world.'

'That's why you and I aren't ever going to agree. Your creed is a little too grim for me, Matt. And if there is nothing after death, as I believe, it's all the more important to find your happy ending in this world'

'And that's why your creed is too grim for me, Andy. We've found this much love and happiness, and it's unbelievably great. It may go on like this for as long as we are together, and I hope and I pray it does. But it's not betraying that happiness to realise that it could all tumble down in a week, a year or two years. So I will in the end bank everything on there being a place where everything that's good is brought together for ever, everything that's loving, all that's best in me and in you, my Andy.'

'The decent inn?'

That morning Andy had pointed out to Matt an old poem about roads. 'If only Leo could write like that,' he had said.

My friends we will not go again nor ape an ancient rage,

Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,

But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,

And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death.

He had fixed it to the dashboard on a post-it note.

'The decent inn sounds like a good place to aim for,' Matt reflected, 'although we'll end up there anywhere, like it or not. Sounds like a good place for a pint or two and a packet of fags maybe... especially as they won't do you any harm there, it being too late and all. But out the back, across a field, are the hills of that other place I want to find. But tonight at least it's Palm Springs we'll be sleeping at... you did remember the booking, didn't you?'

The freeway to the Mojave and Las Vegas was ahead of them, and beyond that was the road through life. Deserts and Vanity Fair. Maybe that was one way of looking at life, but the roads went on and through them nonetheless, to some other, better place as Matt confidently believed. And Matt prayed that he and Andy would walk a long way together clear-eyed and content before they found the hills of Paradise, by way of Forest Lawns.

THE END

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