Terry and the Peachers

III

By Michael Arram

Paul came home late on Thursday evening, the day after he'd sent Terry on his way to London. The house was dark, and the front door was locked. He opened up and flicked the light. Everything seemed in order. But when he got to the kitchen, cold outside air blew on his face. The window of the back door was smashed and shattered glass lay over the kitchen tiles. He pursed his lips. He thumped upstairs, and checked the bedrooms. All four had been done over thoroughly. Bedclothes were tumbled, draws and wardrobe doors hung open, papers were scattered. He went to the front bedroom last.

'Oh shit!' he swore. His laptop was gone, and all his notes and many books were thrown over the floor. 'This is going to take days to sort out. Just as well I backed up all me files, innit,' he muttered to himself. The disappearance of his laptop, Matt's old machine, he had half expected. He could get a better one, but still he had cherished it as a great gift from a beloved friend. He patted his jacket pocket, where his removable drive rested, keeping safe a lot of important information.

He rang the police, and two uniformed officers turned up fairly promptly. They took a full report, but didn't seem too fussed about processing the scene.

'There's a lot of this happening around Finkle Road, son,' said the elder uniformed officer. When he asked if he was insured, Paul realised that not much more would be done by the law. He shrugged to himself. It had all gone according to plan. He rang his housemates to spread the bad news, and because they were calls any listener would expect him to make. He left a message with a local glazier on his answer phone.

Next day, after the back door had been repaired, he headed at lunchtime into town. He took empty back roads, and made sure to cross the roads where reflecting shop windows would reveal any other people in the road. He was soon aware that he was being followed. It didn't seem to be Anson; maybe it was the man who had called himself 'Laurie'. He smiled grimly. He had half expected it, but it made things damned inconvenient. He went to the central post office, and, as insurance, sent off a small package containing his removable drive and some other papers to Alex in Crouch End. Then he went into a coffee bar and pondered his options. Laurie, on the pavement outside, looked innocently at the menu in the window and moved on down the road. But he didn't go far, and passed the window twice while Paul was drinking his Americano.

When they had talked on Wednesday night from a pub phone, Alex had warned him that Anson might not just stop at burglary if it failed to produce the goods. Now it looked as if he was right. One quick way for Anson to get the truth was to take Paul and put the question to him in circumstances where Paul would find it difficult not to tell him, eventually. Alex thought that Anson was ruthless enough and had been paid enough to do just that. If it produced the information Anson wanted, it wouldn't matter that Matt and Andy had been alerted. And indeed, Alex had suggested darkly, there was no guarantee Paul would survive the experience so as to alert his friends.

Paul wondered briefly whether he was strong enough to let Anson take him and tough it out, and play innocent. But he soon dropped that idea. He wanted one day to be a father, and wasn't willing to risk long term damage to his favourite body parts. He had to run, but there was running and running. If he just vanished, Anson would realise he had been detected and then one or two schemes Paul had laid would not come to fruition.

Finishing his coffee, Paul pushed on into the busier parts of town. He thought it out as he walked the crowded streets. He should expect an attempt to kidnap him within only a day or two. Union Events was organising coaches to a big concert in Reading tonight. With his neck prickling he headed back to the campus, and bought a ticket, he hoped, observed. He hung round the bar and met some mates. He stayed with them nursing his drink all afternoon, then played darts and pool with another group. If Mr Laurie was watching him, Paul was just having a stereotypical student afternoon. He guessed that it would be in Finkle Road that they would be waiting for him. But he never went back there.

At five he hopped last minute on to the coaches with a chattering and laughing group of concert goers, and was on his way to Reading. He would have bet that he had seen the coach flash past an open-mouthed Laurie as it left the campus. At Reading he skipped off to the station and on to Paddington. There was nobody following him, Anson would be waiting for the returning coach, he bet himself. But he would wait in vain. He was in Palace Road by nine.

Alex opened the door, 'Christ, London is getting so full of asylum seekers,' he said with a grin. 'Come on in Paulie, I was expecting you an hour ago.'

Terry was glad to see Paul, but badly flustered. Things were getting grimmer by the day. They sat in conference in the small lounge, Ben sitting on the floor.

'But if you don' go back Paulie, they'll know you know about them.'

'True, Tel. But how long will they wait? They know the dossier isn't in Finkle Road now. The fact that we know they're looking for it isn't something that could possibly enter their worst nightmares. So if I disappear for a few days, they can't think it's because of them can they? It'll just be a feckless student taking off for a few days, as they do. And they're under time pressure too. Mrs Peacher is tapping the toes of her elegant high heels waiting for results. More sooner than later, they got to move on to likelier places.'

'Like where?'

'Matt's parents' house in Northampton for starters, and then the most likely place of all to find either the dossier, or some leads to its location: Matt and Andy's house in Pasadena.'

'OK, Paulie, logical as ever. What's the plan then?'

'We wait for tomorrow's post.'

'What?' said the other three.

'You'll find out.'

Alex looked down at his Ben and gave a grin. He loved it when Paul got devious.

Paul slept together with Terry on the lounge floor under the same duvet. Terry smiled shyly at him as he stripped. Shy smiles were unusual for him. Brazen exhibitionism was more his style. They lay together awkwardly, until Paul told Terry to do what came naturally. He laughed and snuggled into Paul, kissing his cheek and laying his head next to his and placing his hand gently on his warm abdomen, below his navel and just above his curling pubic hairs; he rubbed the smooth skin gently. It was like they were randy teenagers again. And that was a problem for both of them, they had no sexual barriers.

They listened to Ben and Alex talking in the bedroom. After a while Ben and Alex began making other noises, including a very strange one. Terry was laughing quietly, but the noises had their consequence between his legs. His cock was soon stabbing Paul's thigh.

'What if I let this go the way your dick wants it to go, Tel?'

'It's just sex, Paulie.'

'Not true and you know it. You're not goin' to get all Glenn Close and fixated on me are you?'

'I love you Paulie, and you know it. I'll always love you. But I've let so many guys up my arse and into my mouth that I'm not the moonstruck kid I was. Anyway I know about you and your special friend in America.'

'I'm not going to get into sophistry about chastity, Tel. And I can't pretend I love you in that way, we both know that's not the case. But that aside, this business has really rattled you hasn't it.'

'Paulie, we both juss had brushes with our mortality. Iss bad innit?'

'Yes it is. These guys are real bastards, and a body here or there makes little difference to them. And it might be my body if I'm not as clever as I think I am. You were lucky to get away from that Anson bloke, I think. If he sees you again, you won't live to regret sleeping with him.'

Terry embraced and kissed him again, while Paul turned to kiss him back. And holding each other chastely but comfortingly they both drifted off to sleep.

The post came as they were eating breakfast. It was Saturday morning. One of the letters was Paul's priority mail packet. He ripped it open, and the drive fell out. He looked triumphant. 'Boot up your box, Alex me boy, and get me on the web. You're on broadband ain't you?' He plugged the drive into a USB port.

'So what you got on there, Paulie?' asked Alex.

'Well here you have me unedited mailbox; not the one that Mister Nasty Anson took away on me laptop. There's no mention of Alex and Ben on what he's got, and only some innocent communications with Pasadena, and one not so innocent, a message which talks about 'the dossier' as something I had sent on, but I don't say where. But you also have this.' He clicked on an ugly little icon, and some software downloaded into Alex's machine. A complex new screen appeared.

'What's this?' asked Ben.

'This is a piece of spyware that a mate of mine on the Internet Computing MSc lent me. It's very new, so new I doubt that Anson's got it or an antiviral package that can detect it, and there's nothing he could do even if he has. When he took my laptop, he took a virus with it. Soon as he boots up, interesting things'll happen, not that he'll know about it. And blimey, here we go!'

The screen began scrolling at speed, then stopped. Paul clicked the mouse a few times, and a new display appeared. Paul laughed, 'Oh my God, the silly fucker's used my machine to access his own mail box. The worst thing he could have done. Fuck, we've got the lot! We've got the lot! This is really cool. The bastard's left town and he's opened a port in Oxford. '

'What's happened?' asked Ben.

'Well, the virus reports back to me its location whenever the machine accesses the web. That's clever, but not half as clever as what happens if he opens a mailbox with it. That's a real Trojan horse. I get all the addresses it has stored on it, and the destination and home address of outgoing and incoming mail. It's a spy in the box, and it's quite undetectable, or me mate said it was anyway. Not only that, but I've got access to his other linked machines. They now report to me. They're me slaves.'

'Whass he doin' in Oxford?' Terry wondered.

'He accessed at 20.37 last night. He must have been studying me e-mails. He's staying over, on his way to somewhere else. He'll be on his way there now, wherever it is. Maybe the international airport at Brum, or... maybe Northampton.' They looked at each other. Northampton was Matt's home town. His parents still lived there. 'Let's have a look. Anson e-mailed at 21.55 an address emp330@peacher.com. I think we can be pretty certain who his employer is then... 'emp' equals Eleanor Marquesa Peacher, a.k.a. the Stepmom. The one thing the programme can't tell us is what they talked about. But she's e-mailed him quite a lot, six stored messages. She must be getting impatient, that's why he's moved on so quickly. Looks like I'm safe for a bit.'

'Phew,' murmured Alex, 'this is something else. Private investigation in the comfort of your own living room. But what do we do?'

'Do? We can't do jack, as me Rachel says. If we act on what we know, the bastard'll get suspicious. No, whatever he's planning, he'll get to do. We'll know by tomorrow, but by then you at least, Terry, have got to be somewhere else.'

'Yeah, where?'

'You're off to Heathrow, me mate, and the first flight you can get out to LA. Anson is somewhere in the Midlands at the moment. Now's the time to get ahead of him to the States. You need to see Matt and hand over the dossier before things get any more complicated than they are.'

'Why me? You and Ben and Alex are his big mates. Me he hardly knows from Adam.'

'Two reasons. We need to be here for a while, cos I think things are yet to happen that will require our attention, and if I go to the States Anson will know something's up. The other reason is that it's not safe for you to be home for a few weeks, and why not go where the sun and the action is for a bit, eh?'

'Well OK, but let me mum know, won't you?'

'No probs, Tel. Get down to the Broadway with Ben. He may not have any money but he's got impeccable taste. He'll fit you out with the clothes and bags you need. They'll never let you on a plane with that smelly chav crap you're still wearing. Then get a taxi straight to Heathrow. Spare no expense. After all, you're carrying enough cash to start a small war. Here's the address of Andy's house: you'll need it for the visa waiver too. Best of luck me mate, and I'll call ahead to warn the lads they have an unexpected guest arriving.'

Ben became a bit more relaxed with Terry when they hit the shops. It was true about his taste too. Terry tended to gravitate to earrings, chunky jeans, broad belts, check over-shirts and T shirts, if left to himself. All his sports gear was still sixth form vintage. Normally he looked something like a fey lumberjack with accessories. Ben got quite chatty and happy redecorating Terry with linen suits, loafers, sharp coloured shirts, cool jackets and an assortment of neat beach gear. As he topped off the ensemble in a changing room by placing a pair of hugely expensive shades on Terry's nose and spiking back his curly hair from his forehead with gel, Ben actually grinned at him, which made him look really beautiful. Looking pretty beautiful himself, Terry thanked Ben nicely and sincerely, and they left to find a taxi, trundling Terry's new suitcase, relaxed and happy with each other at last.

International travel was not an unusual event in the life of Terence Kevin O'Brien. His dad had a part share in a villa in Ibiza, and he had been to Florida twice before his twelfth birthday. What was new for him was to travel like an international vagrant. He had to buy shaving gear and even a comb at Heathrow. Also he had never before bought an airline ticket over a counter at an airport. He tried not to look shifty. He just managed to get coach class on an 11.30 American Airlines flight, although he had to run to the gate. It was not direct, he had to change at Detroit, but he was on his way.

He was bored rigid before the flight left British airspace. He didn't have his beloved pink MP3 – his little joke with the world – and he wasn't a great reader in any case. In the end he read first a Telegraph, then a Guardian and then a Times he borrowed from the man next to him, systematically from cover to cover. This got him a quarter of the way across the Atlantic. After that he just tried to doze. The most up-to-date of inflight movies was some crap spy adventure. Living the real thing had spoiled it for him.

The flight disgorged at Detroit, where he claimed his baggage and transferred. Grimacing, he bought a few Pratchetts, which Paul had told him once that he'd love. The new flight was much smarter and less crowded. He sat next to an American girl his age. They chatted but she found his South Midlands accent difficult to understand and he kept on having to repeat himself. Regretfully, he began to modify his speech more towards the way Paul spoke, though he felt he was betraying his roots. In fact he had always switched the local accent off at home, where his mum objected to it as being common. He read and slept his way across the States. They landed at LAX early in the morning, just after sunrise. It was tolerably warm, and Terry felt definitely over-dressed. He stripped off the fetching hooded topcoat that Ben had selected for him, and packed it in his case.

Out on the concourse he felt suddenly lost; it was still early, so he went off to find breakfast. Uncertain, he opted for the familiarity of a MacDonalds. At eight, he found his way to the taxi rank, and gave the cabbie Andy's address. In the bright morning sunshine, the taxi pulled into the drive of a handsome mansion off a leafy Pasadena street. The air was sweet, warm and scented and the lawn sprinklers were sending a fine spray everywhere. Despite the long flight, Terry felt very much alive. He paid the cabbie his unreasonable fare cheerfully, and rang the doorbell.

A dumpy Hispanic lady of uncertain age answered the door.

'Sir?'

'Oh hi. Is this the Peacher house?'

'I'm sorry sir, are you expected?'

'Hope so. The name's O'Brien.'

Suddenly there were young male voices behind her in the house.

'S Terry, Mrs Fuentas! Go easy on the boy. Let him in.' She gave a slight smile and opened the door wide.

And there they were in the massive hall with its chandelier, barefoot in sweats and vests with mussed hair, straight from bed he guessed. Terry suddenly felt very shy. Andy and Matt were legends where he came from, and he didn't quite know how to talk to them. Then there was the problem of Matt. Pictures simply did not do justice to that sort of beauty. His mobile and perfect brown face, his magnificent eyes and smile were paralysing. Paul had warned him that it was like having an audience with an archangel, and he had not exaggerated. How did you ever get used to that sort of company? Andy was less of a problem, he was an ordinary-looking blond lad. But it was startling to remember that he belonged to one of the richest families in the world, whose wealth dwarfed that of the Rothschilds and Gettys in their day.

They closed in on him, and shook his hand. Andy laughed that he was so much more grown up than when they had last seen him. He'd been in a school blazer, he recalled. They wanted to know about Finkle Road and home, and especially about Paul, Ben and Alex. They ushered him to the poolside under the wide-spreading umbrella and asked if he wanted breakfast. When he said he'd had a MacDonalds at the airport, Matt asked if he'd like a stomach pump instead. He began to relax, but only briefly. A youngish woman in a tailored suit appeared behind Andy and asked if they could go through his diary. He gave a regretful smile and apologised, leaving Matt and him alone.

Matt smiled at him, causing Terry's bowels to turn to water. He really was painfully, intolerably beautiful, almost spiritually so. You could not fail to be moved by him. You couldn't imagine such a face and such a body engaged in sex or in any other bodily function. And now those dark and profound eyes were turned full on him with a considering look.

'Paulie rang last night, Terry. He filled us in. Things are bad at the moment. My parents' house was turned over yesterday by them. They made a real mess and my mum's very upset. I'm getting annoyed about it too. Paulie also told us how brave you'd been, and how much you put yourself through to help him and us. We're very grateful, really. You'll have to stay here a while and we'll make you as comfortable as we can, though I expect you'll get bored. But it's better you're under cover here for a while. This guy Anson sounds dangerous, and not one to forget a grudge.'

'Did Paulie tell you that he thought Anson would be here next?'

'Forewarned is forearmed, Terry. We've taken some precautions, and Paulie's little gadget is proving useful. We know that Anson's now in London, and he's been in touch with a security firm in LA, as well as the Stepmom again. So we're going to see if we can trump his hand.'

'Anything I can do to help...'

'We appreciate the offer, Terry, and I've got at least one idea how you can do that. I'm off to work soon, but Andy'll look after you. Mrs Fuentas!'

'Mr White?'

'Can you take Mr O'Brien to his room, and get him whatever he wants. I'll be at the library till two.'

'Sure. Please follow me, Mr O'Brien.'

He was given a very comfortable and large en-suite bedroom on the first floor, down the corridor from the master suite. There were fresh flower arrangements and a wide screen TV. Terry took a long bath, and lay out on the bed in a bathrobe with his arms behind his head feeling blissfully tired. There was a knock on the door and he sat up, clasping his bare ankles, still showing the red marks of Anson's restraints. It was Andy, who asked if he could come in. He took a seat.

'You'll take days to get over the jet lag, Terry. I know I do. Do you think you'll be up for lunch?'

'Sure, Andy.'

'Great. I'll have a car ready for twelve thirty. You're having a problem with Matt, aren't you?'

'What? No, I...'

Andy's blue eyes widened and sparkled as he gave his trade-mark impish grin. 'He does it to everyone, men and women. He doesn't even know he's doing it most of the time. You may find it difficult to believe now, but you will get used to him. He may not look human, but he is. He farts in bed, craps and picks his nose like the rest of us, although I have to say he does it with more style.'

'That sounds like heresy,' said Terry.

'Oh, you got it bad. You really have. When you get to know him, you'll discover it's not the body that's so awesome about Matt, it's what's inside it. Now I gotta get back to Sylvia, my PA; you met her by the pool. My dad insisted I have to have one, and she's the bane of my life. Still, she at least fends off people I don't want to talk to. I've got hopes she'll be able to protect me from my mum one day. See you later, Terry.'

Terry pulled on swimming trunks and wandered out the back of the house on to the beautifully-tiled poolside. The morning was already heating up, and he gazed up at the towering palms around the house. The lot out the back was quite large. Beyond the big pool was what amounted to an orange grove, the fruit ripe on the branches. A tennis court lay beyond a chain link fence on the right, and a low two-storied utility house closed off the garden from the road on the left. Terry wondered how many servants were needed to run the big house. He breathed in the scented air, dropped his robe and plunged into the pool, lazily completing a dozen lengths. As he lay floating on an inflatable raft in the sunshine, part of his question was answered as a young gardener in overalls passed by carrying a rake on his way to the front garden. Ten minutes after that, a maid in traditional black passed the pool edge. Somewhere in the house was the muted sound of music. The gardener was whistling from the front. Terry soaked up the sun and the atmosphere of wealth and drifted away into a comfortable doze.

'Señor!' Terry stirred. Mrs Fuentas was at the poolside. 'Would you like a drink of some sort?'

'Iced tea?' he suggested. She smiled. The young maid arrived a few minutes later, and punted the frosted, cold glass out to him on a little raft. He smiled at her as the drink docked with his inflatable. She smiled back as she straightened and headed back to the house.

Wow, Terry thought. Nothing to look forward to but this wealth and leisure for weeks. It was the best holiday he'd ever had, and he'd earned it too.

He was away in a warm and cozy dream when Andy found him. He took time to admire Terry's lithe and well-proportioned brown body. There was a lot to admire. Terry was one of those rare blonds who tanned easily and dark, much to Andy's envy: he was a pink blond. Terry had no tattoos, he was relieved to see. At first sight Terry looked the type who would have barbaric blue marks all over his body. The boy's butt was small and tight in his trunks. He was obviously quite strong too, without being chunky. A very handsome, physical and self-confident boy, Andy concluded.

'You'll get sunburned!' he shouted at Terry.

'Wassat?'

'I said you'll get sunburned.'

'Nah, Andy. I never do. I leap from white to brown without red. Just me luck.'

'It is luck... I peel like a grape. Ready for lunch?'

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