by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 17

The following morning Stefan gave instructions on where to find the phone number, and Mort telephoned, making an appointment to meet directly after lunch. He was given clear directions to a park, told to bring sufficient money in cash, a sturdy back pack, to wear one sleeve rolled completely up and the other half way, and where to wait. The contact would make sure he was alone and looked reliable before making himself known.

Mort prepared sandwiches for his lunch, emptied his backpack, asked Stefan for the cash, and set off, taking the train to one of the northern suburbs and arriving with half an hour to spare. He sat on a park bench near where the meeting was to take place, ate his sandwiches and pondered the secrecy that had been demanded.

A minute before the appointed time he stood, put his paper in the bin and walked to the meeting place. Seconds later a spry, elderly man wearing a small backpack approached and, with a flick of his head, indicated that Mort should follow. They walked a hundred metres to another bench and sat.

'Smile and act as if we're old friends... I'm your uncle or something.'

Mort smiled and the old man patted him affectionately on the shoulder. They relaxed and sat back as if they often came here for a chat.

'Tell me what you want and why,' the man said, not looking at Mort.

Mort explained everything.

'Are you aware of the penalties for assisting someone to suicide?'

'But I won't be, he'll do it himself.'

'You will have assisted him to procure the means, and that is akin to murder, according to the law, so you will almost certainly go to prison. And if it is discovered that I sold you the equipment, I will suffer the same fate.'

'But he wants to do it.'

'According to the law, anyone who wants to kill themselves for whatever purpose, is insane. That means they are not responsible for their actions. As you are not insane, that means you are the responsible one, a murderer, deliberately talking him into killing himself so his wife can benefit from his death. You can be certain someone will suggest that you and the wife are having an affair, and that you have conspired together to share the money. But being a woman she will get off with a warning because you must have talked her into it. Our courts and judges ignore the well-published fact that wives kill husbands much more frequently than the media suggest. You will be sentenced to prison where you will be raped, tortured, made ugly and be an old man by the time you are released.'

'But... the law is insane! Why?'

'Because we are ruled by religion and religion feeds on fear, suffering, pain and misery, because then people are vulnerable to lies about god and salvation and all the rest of the garbage that lets people avoid facing the truth about themselves and their lives. Most members of parliament are devoutly religious, so they impose their dogma on everyone through laws. Religious corporations pay no tax so they're immensely wealthy, yet still receive vast amounts of public money to waste on their so-called charitable works which frequently do more harm than good. Naturally, they oppose laws that would lift people out of poverty of purse and spirit, otherwise they'd lose their subsidies and converts.'

'But surely they can't influence the government?'

'They threaten to tell their adherents not to vote for a political party if politicians don't do as they're told, which works because the sole aim of a politician is to get re-elected to office. Note I said in office, not power; they don't actually have any of that.'

Mort frowned. 'I was thinking something similar recently. If it's true it means there's no way to change things.'

'I'm counting on climate change and rising seas to perform miracles. Do you still want to go ahead with this?'

'Can it be done so they don't know it was suicide?'

'There's one sure way. Does his wife agree?'

'Not yet, but I think she'll come round.'

'If she eventually agrees, do you trust her not to change her mind?'

'Yes... No. No I don't think she can be relied on.'

The man sighed. 'I'm going to get what you'll need. Give me your pack and wait here. It'll take me half an hour. Think carefully and have your answer ready when I return. If you decide not to go ahead with it, I fully understand and will not mind in the least taking the stuff home again.' With that he put Mort's pack into his own, stood and walked briskly away, soon lost among the trees so Mort had no idea which direction he finally took.

Mort sat and thought. If this method leaves no trace, is undetectable, then with proper planning it should be safe enough. Stefan was already very ill, so a sudden death would seem probable. But whatever the risk, Mort had promised to assist and assist he would. He'd find some way to ensure Lydia made no problems even if she didn't agree. Having sorted his thoughts he relaxed and contemplated his future. What did he want to do next now the Nursery was being sold? How could he prepare personally for an impending climatic calamity? All he knew was gardening. He wouldn't mind making quality furniture, but the market for the sort of stuff he liked would be minuscule. He'd probably have another twenty years stripping for hen parties and birthdays if he was careful with his body, but he'd already been what the manager called overexposed at the three gay clubs, and would have to wait a few months before they wanted him again. Salacia's business was unreliable. And if stripping became his sole means of feeling useful it'd soon become drudgery instead of fun. Because, he realised, it wasn't the money – he had plenty, he had to feel as if he was useful in some way.

His reverie was interrupted by the return of Charon, as he had come to think of the old man. He carefully took Mort's now heavy pack from his shoulders, placed it on the seat between them, removed his own empty pack from inside, and sat gazing out across the empty park to recover his breath.

'In your knapsack is a cylinder of nitrogen with a regulator attached. The instructions are on a sheet of paper. An autopsy will declare death caused by his existing illness, but only if you do what?'

'Remove the evidence.'

'Yes! And yourself from the scene. If it can be shown that anyone was anywhere near the man at the time, they will be accused of causing death by failure to act. Someone should have called the ambulance as soon as he began to show symptoms of distress, otherwise it will seem as if they wanted it. So twenty minutes or so after he has gone, and while you are disposing of the evidence as far from the scene as possible, his wife must come in, discover the body and immediately dial 000 and call an ambulance. Got it?'

Mort shook his head in despair at the cloak and dagger insanity. 'Got it.' Shielding his actions from the view of anyone who might be passing, he took out his wallet, counted the money, passed it across, hoisted the heavier than expected pack onto his shoulder, and turned to the man. 'I admire you more than you can imagine. Thanks, and be assured your secret is safe with me, whatever happens.'

The man smiled. 'I know.'

Mort looked down to adjust the straps and when he looked up he was alone.

The knapsack with its contents was placed inside a locked suitcase under Mort's bed while they waited to see whether Lydia would overcome her religious indoctrination and see the humanity of what was happening.

The following day Mort had been invited to lunch with Steward, and Stefan decided to take a wander round the gardens and have his liquid lunch on the verandah with Lydia. Everything seemed so precious to him — the sun, the view over his nursery, and the fact that he now had a way to end the misery. The sense of relief was like a powerful opiate. He felt light. An insupportable burden had been lifted because he was no longer trapped by his illness. He wasn't at the mercy of doctors and nurses. He could stop it all in a minute. The knowledge wiped a year's accretion of frowns and wrinkles from his brow. His skin lost its unhealthy pallor. He smiled, and Lydia noticed.

'The medicines must be working, you look much better.'

'I haven't taken any today. I don't want to take them any more. They make me feel rotten, heavy, sluggish. I'm having a good day because I can now end my suffering when I choose.'

Lydia looked alarmed. 'Stefan, surely you…'

'I'm not suicidal, Lydia. Don't think that. I don't want to die. All I want is a reasonable quality of life. I'm not stupid. I know my present remission is temporary and if I don't take matters into my own hands I'll soon be forced to resume the drugs, have operations, radiation and chemo, then go to a nursing home from where there is no escape until medical science has tried every possible trick to keep me alive, granting me the modern medical miracle of years of sub-zero quality life.'

'Say what you want to say, Stefan.'

'Is it okay with you if I top myself?'

'Mort mentioned it to me last night and I lay awake thinking about it. At first I thought, No! Stefan mustn't! What would all my friends think? That I was unable to take care of you? That you were such a wimp you couldn't take a bit of pain? Thousands of men have cancer but remain brave and a model for us all. And then I thought of your suffering. And then I thought about Jesus telling us it is noble to suffer. And then I realised he meant suffering in defence of him, not suffering for nothing, like you. And then I thought about me. I'll miss you if you're dead, but then I'll miss you anyway if you're in hospital, in pain, drugged and unhappy. And then I'll be tied to visiting you as often as possible, otherwise I'll feel guilty, and that would be exhausting. So do it if you must. But I can't help you! You must leave me out of it.'

'Do you want to know how?'

'No!' The word came out as a shriek of fear. 'No! I don't want to know anything. Anything at all!'

'Thanks, Lydia.'

Awkwardly, they manoeuvred the conversation back to the usual subjects of seeds, potting mixes, orders, the weather, what was flowering… For that afternoon at least, life felt as if it had returned to normal.

The self-confidant young doctor took one look at Stefan, sniffed, said, 'It won't last. Get back on the drugs,' and walked out.

Remission lasted two weeks and three days, during which Stefan felt he gained more pleasure, enjoyment and awareness of the wonder of life than in all his previous fifty-eight years. Lydia, too, managed to relax and was occasionally seen to smile.

Mort had decided he wouldn't stay long in the house once Stefan had gone, so began organising his affairs and wondering what to do next. So far he had done nothing with the name he found in Perdita's notebook, but one evening he searched the internet and discovered a likely candidate — Archibald Lintel; an architect of the right age, from the right area, now living in Far North Queensland. Mort had to become a member of the Internet site to see more, but he wasn't ready for that. Simply knowing there was a possibility this man was his father was enough for the present, in the same way as knowing he could end his suffering was enough to enable Stefan to face his future with serenity.

As the nursery was up for sale there was little for Mort to do apart from keeping it looking spick and span, giving him plenty of time to complete the five performances he had booked with Salacia. Four were the usual fun, but one was more fun than expected.

On arrival at the house he introduced himself as usual, was shown to an unused bedroom, Handed the hostess the CD, reminded her about turning the lights down, accepted, counted and pocketed the money, changed into his persona as a cute young mechanic, and waited just outside the door of the lounge until the music started.

Invisible in the darkness he peered through the slightly open doorway. The women were all in their twenties and thirties; a Hens' Night for the bride-to-be, who was seated on a chair in the centre of a circle, the butt of some game they were playing with lots of shrieks and giggles. The women were all tipsy, drinking liberally from plastic tumblers shaped like male genitals. Every time someone sucked on the erect penis they would squeal in delight.

Then he saw her — tits overflowing an insufficient lacy bra. Miss Bussty with girlish giggles was placing a paper crown on the bride-to-be. She returned on unstable feet to her seat as the music started... a deep throbbing beat, and all the lights were turned off apart from a table lamp, setting off further shrieks of excitement.

Mort's outer costume was faked greasy overalls over T-shirt, topped by a cap. With a grin of anticipation he tucked his hair up inside and pulled the peak well down. Lights were always dim during his shows because bright lights made the women self-conscious and too shy to let their hair down and have fun. With his face in shadow it was unlikely the teacher would recognise him, as we tend to only recognise people we expect to see.

He wasn't wrong. One by one the fourteen women were danced with and offered a piece of clothing to remove. In between, gasps of delight at his flexibility and wildly erotic dancing. He was down to the last pouch, offering the string to each in turn, and then withdrawing it at the last second to squeals of delight.

Then he advanced on Miss Bussty, miming that she could remove it… but only with her teeth. On all fours she crawled around attempting to grasp the cord in her teeth, but each time she was almost there, Mort moved slightly. Finally, he held her head in both hands and pressed her face against the pouch, allowing her to remove it, only to expose a tiny semitransparent bag that contained his manhood. Leaving her on the floor he zipped away, twisting and turning to the guest of honour who was allowed to remove the flimsy scrap of fabric while squawking with excitement. Tossing the insubstantial thing away, he hoisted the bride to be to her feet and they danced around the room.

After a quick dance with everyone else he took a flask of non-staining scented oil, placed a few drops on each woman's hand and to cheers and lewd encouragement each was allowed to apply it wherever they wished. Most of them gently massaged his buttocks, belly or chest, but Bussty, who felt she'd been ridiculed by having to crawl around the floor, grabbed hold of his penis. Screams of delight.

Mort stood stock still staring at Bussty, then winked and whispered, 'Hang on to it, gorgeous,' as he slowly backed away, drawing a mesmerised Bussty with him. When they reached the centre of the room, he whispered, 'Suck me, sweetheart.'

She sank to her knees and opened her mouth to receive his still flaccid penis, but was pulled roughly to her feet and held in what looked like a passionate embrace while Mort whispered in her ear. 'Don't you recognise me, Miss Bussty? I'm Mortaumal, the boy you had expelled from school. When the video of this performance goes viral on the Internet you'll be famous.' Shock deadened her face. She uttered a strangled whimper then raced from the room. Mort completed a couple of pirouettes, bowed and exited to ecstatic applause.

Steward had finished the painting and hung it in the centre of the wall immediately opposite the door to his flat. He said nothing while Mort inspected it carefully, waiting until he had taken a couple of steps back to ask with surprising diffidence what he thought of it.

Mort was impressed with the technique, the colours, the representation of the two figures and the physical likeness, and said so enthusiastically. Privately, he thought it was no longer a depiction of his inner state. Everything had changed so much since the relatively inexperienced lad first visited the artist. No longer a divided character, he felt like a whole, and he hoped wholesome, individual who knew who he was and where he was heading.

Steward was inordinately proud and very grateful for his subject's effusive compliments. 'I'd like to exhibit it, Mort, will that be okay? It won't be for a few months, a friend and I are exhibiting together in a gallery in the Valley. He's putting in several drawings of you as well as paintings of other subjects.'

'Will they be for sale?'

'Yes. But I can say yours is already sold.'

'Do you know, Steward, I'd be really thrilled to know that a painting of me by you was hanging in someone's house because they liked it. I'm moving on soon and have nowhere to store it, so…' he shrugged engagingly.

'Are you sure?'


'Mort, you're a brick.'

'And you, Steward, saved my sanity when I first arrived, so I reckon we're quits. In a few years I'll come back and commission another, how's that?'

'Excellent! Don't lose touch, Mort. I don't care what happens to most people, but with you I've found a treasure. An email now and again so I know that you're okay?'

'Of course.'

Curious about an email requesting his presence at "The Five of Diamonds", one of the Clubs he'd worked at, Mort took the train to Adelaide Street, jogged up the hill to Boundary, found the narrow cul-de-sac at the end of which was the service door with five red diamonds painted on it, and knocked loudly. It was ten o'clock. The trip had taken just under an hour. A few seconds later the door opened a crack and Paco the barman peered out.

'Mort!' His voice was shocked. 'What're you doing here? Go away! This isn't the same place any more. Go away, quickly!'

'Is that Mortaumal, Paco? Bring him in.'

Paco's fire was instantly quenched. 'Don't tell him what I said,' he muttered. 'Just be careful, okay?'

He stepped back to reveal a somewhat pompous, pale fellow of about forty in white trainers, jeans and a multi-coloured shirt from somewhere exotic. He gazed down at Mortaumal over a well-fed gut.

'Hello, Mortaumal. I'm Wiley.' He did not offer his hand.

Mort was relieved; pudgy white hands with long black hairs on the knuckles did not invite touching, especially after Paco's warning. And he had a feeling he'd seen the fellow before.

'We've met before, a couple of years ago,' Wiley announced, making Mort worry he could read minds. 'I was one of Perdita's first clients on her return to the city. You answered the door. You've hardly changed, what's your secret? Found the fountain of youth?'

Mort shook his head. 'Just a slow developer I think. I thought I remembered your face from somewhere. What're you doing here?'

'I've bought the place,' Wiley led the way inside and onto the tiny stage. The club looked less than inviting in the glare of 'daylight' fluorescent tubes. 'Got sick of only owning straight clubs so added this one to my stable. That makes five.'

'Congratulations. But it seems odd to have a straight guy running a gay club. Isn't it very different?'

'No. Sex is sex whatever the orientation; and men make up a hundred percent of the clientele at all venues. Gays seem quieter, less trouble so far, but the shows are pretty dull, that's why I wanted to see you. Still available?'

As it would seem decidedly odd to say no, after responding to the email invitation, Mort said he was, but only for a week or so.

'They told me you're up for anything.'

'As long as it doesn't hurt anyone.'

'Right. What I want to do is bring in a wider clientele by ramping up the sex quotient in the shows. Full on lesbian sex is the current thing in the other clubs and very popular, so how do you feel about that?'

'Mucking around with a lizzie? No thanks.'

'You know what I mean, the full works, with another guy.'

'Not my scene, I'm a solo performer.'

'Rap, come here!' Wiley called.

Rap sauntered in, sweat pouring off chest and arms. 'Been working out, boss,' he said in the slow, hesitant tones of a mentally challenged child. Physically he was anything but challenged — lean and muscled, tanned to a deep yellowish brown. Nothing like the gym-toned bunnies usually associated with gay nightspots. No sleek layer of fat rendered his body smooth and godlike. He was all tightly corded muscles over strong bones. Craggy. That was the word. Craggy and primeval. And there was something distinctly feral in his face; lean with low, heavy eyebrows, eyes so dark they seemed black, prominent slightly bent nose, sharp cheek bones above hollow cheeks, and a protruding mouth with full, defined lips. All supported on a columnar neck and powerful shoulders. Sexy but terrifying to someone whose tastes in sexual dalliance could best be described as pale vanilla.

Every one of Rap's muscles looked useful; none were just for show, and that made him impressive — and scary. Tiny brown erect nipples on a smooth hard chest, flat taut belly, hairy legs and buttocks that could carry him and a couple of bags of cement up ten flights of stairs without tiring. Between the legs an impressive bulge that threatened to escape the tiny pouch of his thong.

No thank you, thought Mort.

'Mortaumal, meet Raptor — Rap for short. What do you think?'

Mort smiled at Raptor. 'You're one of the most impressive, sexually charged guys I've seen for ages.'

Raptor's eyes were amused, but his mouth hung loose.

'What exactly d'you want us to do?'

'Like I said... the works. The girls pull, stretch and turn their cunts inside out, fiddle and lick their partner's every orifice. Kiss and cuddle, and shove their fingers, toes and bits of fruit in their slash, then put on huge dildos and screw each other. Absolutely nothing is left to the imagination.'

'Some of those things sound painful. Rap's a powerful fellow who might forget his strength in the heat of excitement.'

'Nothing you couldn't handle, a fit kid like you. And once you've had a couple of Hanoi tabs you won't feel anything except euphoria. Rap can't get enough of them, can you Rap?'

'No Boss,' Raptor drawled from the exit door where he had drifted to join a couple of overweight minders in suits who were trying not to look as if they were standing guard in case someone wanted to make a bolt for it.

'When's the performance?' Mort's trademark insouciance was under threat and he covered a slight tremble in his voice with a cough.

'Tomorrow night.'

'How much?'

'Five hundred and as many tabs as you like.'

Mort pulled a face as if considering, then nodded seriously. 'You're on! We'd better have a rehearsal though. I'm meeting the fellow I'm boarding with for lunch and he doesn't have a mobile so I can't contact him, so I'll come back straight afterwards to prepare a few moves and sequences.'

Wiley raised an eyebrow. 'It's not even eleven o'clock, plenty of time to have a round with Rap. And I need to check the merchandise; make sure you haven't got yourself covered in sores or tats. And take a couple of these.' He handed Mort two dark blue tablets about the size of aspirins.

Mort accepted them cautiously. 'What're they for?'

'They're the one's I told you about, euphoria. Cost heaps but my boys can have as many as they like.'

'Generous,' Mort said with the hint of sarcasm. 'What's the catch?'

'No catch, I look after my staff.'

Mort nodded and accepted the pills. 'Any chance of water?'

Paco, who had been hanging around pretending to work, went through a door and returned seconds layer with a plastic tumbler.

Mort appeared to toss back the pills and wash them down, then while removing his clothes he secreted the pills behind a set of shelves.

The three men watching saw only the old Mort... serene and slightly amused as always, unaware of the increasing fear that threatened to overtake him. At least Raptor's instrument remained flaccid, while to his astonishment his own foolishly suggested he was keen for combat. Fear wasn't supposed to be an aphrodisiac.

They stood, facing each other.

Wiley's phone rang. He answered, told Mort and Raptor to get on with it, then took off for his office, followed by his minders.

Raptor quickly dumped Mort on the floor, landed on top, pinning him down, then whispered in his ear. 'What the fuck are you doing? This guy's poison. You're too good for this. Get out. Don't take any tabs, okay?'

'You do.'

'No, I toss them like you did.'

'Why're you here?'

'I owe him — drugs and other shit. I live upstairs paying off my debts by letting every fat arsed faggot who can afford it fuck me night and day. And I'm not even queer!'

'Why don't you just walk out?'

Raptor's laugh was sour. 'It's safer here. I've enemies outside, and the cops want me to help them with their enquiries, so this is preferable. How old are you!


'The truth, kid!'


'You fuckwit! If Wiley learns that he'll threaten you with juvenile detention for indulging in underage sex unless you become his whore. Right you hairless bastard,' he suddenly snarled. 'I'm gonna ram my rod so far up your arse you'll be tasting the cum.'

Wiley had returned.

The two performers grappled, licked, played with bits and indulged in a little fellatio; Raptor doing all the things he intuitively realised Mort was reluctant to do. They finished, stood panting, and waited for a response.

Wiley's vulpine smile was not designed to relax anyone, but his words were a relief. 'Yeah, that's the sort of thing. A bit rougher perhaps, and proper fucking, I've got some new rubbers with no cum-sack that look just like naked flesh. But don't bloody cum inside him, take it out, whip off the rubber and spray it everywhere — your specialty, Mort, I believe.' His smile was patronising.

Mort nodded.

'I like the contrast, brute and beauty.' He turned to the most obese minder. 'That's how we'll advertise it, Beauty and the Brute.' Turning back to Mort. 'How're you feeling?'

'Sweaty, a bit light-headed, and super cool, thanks. But Raptor's tool's a bit of a let down.'

'That's because he takes too many tabs. Don't worry, an injection before the show and he'll be an animal.'

Mort nodded earnestly like a true professional. 'Excellent. Don't want to make idiots of ourselves — and give the club a bad name. Right then, I'll be back in about three hours to finalise things with Raptor when he's not... euphoric.' He frowned and nodded. 'I take my work seriously.'

'Like your sister. She must have made a packet.'

Mort's brain raced. Sister? What sis... Ah! Of course, Perdita. 'Yeah, what a role model,' he said with a laugh, hoping his lapse of attention hadn't been noticed.

'Ever thought of taking up the profession?'

'Nah. Fucking's just for fun, not for a job. And it's easier for a girl, if she's tired she can just lie there and pretend. You can't pretend a hard on.'

'There's always injections. You're an attractive lad and I could put you in touch with some very wealthy clients. All top drawer. No trash. You could even move in upstairs, I've renovated and there are several fine apartments. Cheap rents. What do you say?'

'I say ask me again when this gig's finished and I'm out of work.' He grinned boyishly and headed for the door.

'Haven't you forgotten something?'



'Ah yeah. Felt so good I forgot.' He dressed quickly, checked he had everything, then with a cheery, 'See ya,' accompanied by a cheeky salute, was out the door and sauntering through the sunlight and fresh air he had despaired of ever seeing again, terrified to look back in case… He wasn't sure in case of what, he only knew he was very, very pleased to be out of there. The second he reached the end of the cul-de-sac and was round the corner on the busy road he took off like the wind, head plagued by worries. Had he ever told the previous nightclub owner where he lived? No, he'd been living in the flats. Could they trace him?

He phoned Raul, who had put him onto the Five Diamonds Club in the first place, told him what had happened and asked him not to give out his address. Raul was shocked, especially about the drugs and forced prostitution, and detecting Mort's panic insisted he go straight to his place. His shift was about to finish, but if he wasn't home, to wait; he wouldn't be long.

Insanely relieved, but still somewhat paranoid, Mort hurried to the station.

Raul's motorbike was in the carport of the Spanish-style duplex. He was sitting on the front steps waiting and hurried Mort inside, set him down at the table and presented two packets of fish and chips and two cans of coke.

Mort opened his mouth.

'Shut up and eat.'

They munched in silence till the last chip was gone. Raul burped. Mort giggled. After stuffing the papers in the bin, they carried coffees up two flights of stairs onto the flat roof. It was surrounded by a metre high parapet, giving privacy as long as you lay down, which was preferable to standing as the view was less than exciting; acres of corrugated iron roofs, scattered trees, kilometres of power lines and a reddish haze marking the centre of the city. Taking a couple of padded groundsheets from a weatherproof box, Raul spread them and the two young men lay down.

'Okay, tell me all.'

Mort did, and afterwards lay on his back staring at the clouds scudding overhead.

'You were safe only as long as he believed you were really interested and you were seventeen. Raptor was right about that. Every day kids go missing. Most are running away from their families, but a few are taken by crims.'

'You've no idea how frightened I was, especially after Paco told me to get away but it was too late and.... and that Wiley is evil. I could sense it. Do you believe me?'

'Oh yes. Evil is as easily recognised as goodness. Raptor saw your goodness and responded; that means he's a decent sort.'

'He is.'

'Wiley didn't, that means he's morally blind, so don't go anywhere near that area alone. Promise?'


The two friends chatted until Raul fell asleep, exhausted after a night shift. Mort went downstairs and phoned Lydia to see if he was needed. He wasn't, so said he'd probably stay the night with friends.

Having noticed the place was a bit of a mess, dirty dishes, laundry basket full, dead flowers, dust under everything - not really dirty, but in need of a clean, he set to work and three hours later when he took the washing up to the roof to hang it on the line, the interior was spick and span.

Raul stretched, apologised for falling asleep, and came over all teary when confronted with his clean house and a light meal ready to be served.

'Ah, Mort, marry me! Please! I need you.'

'If I was your age, I probably would. I really like you. But there are so many things I want to do, places to go, things to see... and I'm sounding like a TV documentary. It's not because you're older, I actually like that, it's because I'm so young I haven't proved myself yet. If you're still available in ten years, ask me again.'

'I'll do that. But now I've got you, will you stay the night?'

'I thought you'd never ask.'

Sex with Raul was as far from that demanded by Wiley as it was possible to imagine, and deeply pleasurable and satisfying as a result.

They left the bed at eight the next morning after an hour of laughing, touching, kissing, petting and other equally enjoyable activities. Raul had to report at ten o'clock, so after a quick breakfast Mort suggested that as he'd be leaving town soon they ought to swap addresses and other contact details. That done, a saddened Raul zipped off on his bike and Mort jogged for an hour, arriving home to find Lydia standing in the lounge room. She looked up irritably when he entered.

'Stefan's decided it is time.' It sounded like an accusation. 'But he's fine, I made him take his pills this morning and he didn't object. He says he can feel a change coming and doesn't want to be unable to take care of everything himself, but...'

An icy fountain seemed to rise inside Mort. It was happening. Up to now it had been like a fantasy, something in the future that might never happen. But it wasn't. It was real. Stefan was really going to kill himself.

'It was your absence all day and night that set Stefan on this path, Mortaumal,' Lydia muttered as they approached his room. 'He was worried he wouldn't be able to do it properly without you to check things. You do realise that makes you responsible for his decision to kill himself?'

Mort stopped, shocked. 'No way, Lydia! Never say or even think that. It was Stefan who found the address and asked me to get the stuff.'

'Without you he'd not have been able to get it. So you are the one killing him. He's just doing what you've virtually talked him into.'

Mort took her elbow and dragged her back to the lounge, thrust her onto a chair then kicked the door shut and stood glaring at her.

'How dare you manhandle me like that! My elbow hurts.'

'Tough luck. I realise you're upset, Lydia, you are about to lose your husband, but you could try to be an adult and rational. I've made up pesticides for the nursery, but that doesn't mean I want to drink them. You've a packet of sleeping pills beside your bed that I got for you last month from the local chemist shop, but that doesn't mean you're going to overdose and try to kill yourself. Stefan will decide what he does with his life, Lydia, not you, not me. It has nothing to do with us. It is his life to dispose of or not. And don't ever think I have encouraged him, because I haven't. Not even once. Furthermore, I've stated bluntly that I will not assist him in any way whatever to use the stuff I bought. If he leaves it too late, then that's his problem, I will not lift a finger to assist him to do the deed. Clear?' Mort's voice was harsh and Lydia quailed.

'I know. I know. I didn't mean to suggest you had, I…'

'You did mean to, because you're a pathetic, weak minded woman, brainwashed by your insane religion to never think for yourself about important matters. I'm going to see him. Coming?'

'No. No, I don't want to. I'll go and wait in the garden. I'm sorry. You are right. I am silly and weak and everything you say. But... I can't help it. I…' she ran out.

Stefan was sitting in an armchair beside the bed looking serene and calm. He smiled at Mort and held up a photograph album. I've been flicking through old photos. It's a good life I've had and I regret nothing. I could have done different things, but then I wouldn't have done what I have done, and that would be a shame. And I wouldn't have met you.' He placed the album on the bed and took up the cylinder of nitrogen to which he had connected the hose, and placed it on his lap. 'It's quite heavy. Lucky I didn't wait much longer. Now for the essential.' He connected the tube to the plastic bag, placed it on the top of his head like a hat, then squashed it down to exclude all the air. 'Get me a mirror, Mort, this I have to see.'

Mort took a hand mirror from the dressing table and held it up. They both laughed. Mort replaced the mirror and stood, leaving it to Stefan to speak.

'How's Lydia?'

'Upset in the garden. Doesn't know how to cope. Refusing to think.'

'Her parents sent her to a Catholic boarding school when she was eight. She had a terrible time with those mad nuns. Bonkers the lot of them. Married to Christ but fiddling with each other and their pupils in frustration. I'm pleased she's not here, she'd just make me feel rotten as if I'm a piker; chickening out of a fight; running away. I don't know why she married me. To escape her family I've always thought. With you I feel calm. You're so rational and clear-headed. I know you'll always either tell me the truth, or not speak. I seem to have spent my life among people who don't know what they want, but never tire of telling others how they should live. At least I'm ending my life in the company of someone I like, admire and feel happy with.'

'Thanks, Stefan. And I'm here because I like and admire you,' Mort said, wondering why it didn't feel mawkish.

Stefan took a painful breath, exhaled noisily and smiled. 'Have you worked out how you're going to dispose of the evidence?'

'Yeah, all worked out. I've been jogging up Mount Coot-Tha several times a week to keep fit, and there's a large commercial dumpster at a building site that'll be ideal. I'll just blend in with the other lunchtime joggers and no one'll take any notice.'

'Well, it's getting on for midday, so you'd better go and change.'

'You'll be alone...'

'Mort, we are alone all our lives, individuals trapped in separate bodies, constantly trying to make intimate contact with others, gathering as many friends and acquaintances as we can, always disappointed that they don't understand us, dreaming of being able to somehow get inside another person for a while. At least that's my experience. Why should dying be any different? I'm reconciled to my aloneness, not lonely, and do not want anyone to hold my hand as I walk through the portals of death, so to speak.'

'Yeah. Makes sense.'

'Thanks. So don't worry. I'm happy. Leave me to my final thoughts and go and get ready.'

Mort leaned over and kissed Stefan lightly on the brow. 'Cheerio, Stefan; you've been exactly the right friend, at the right time for me.'

After a quick shower he emptied the main pocket of his knapsack, zipped his wallet and phone into a waterproof pocket in the top, put a bottle of water in one side pocket, then in a sudden spasm of nostalgia for Angelo and their last run together, he replaced his usual running gear with his old cross-country gear — jock strap, pale blue flimsy shorts, and matching singlet bearing the number '5'.

'Everything seems to have shrunk,' he muttered. 'Guess I've grown.' A dark blue sweatband to hold his hair in place, and well-used trainers on his feet completed his preparations. Picking up the knapsack, he took a deep breath and returned to Stefan's room.

Stefan was slumped sideways on his chair; the only sound the soft hiss of escaping nitrogen. Mort felt for a pulse. There was none. He held the mirror in front of his friend's mouth. No misting. He turned off the gas, stretched the elastic round the dead man's neck and carefully removed the plastic bag, tubing and cylinder, which he stuffed into his knapsack. After a thorough search to ensure there was nothing left behind that might seem odd or incriminating or suspicious, he straightened the body's head and stepped back, trying to view the scene dispassionately.

After half a minute he decided it was too soon to feel anything except an urgent desire to escape. Stefan didn't look as if he was asleep. His eyes were closed, but the body was lifeless and so thin his head already looked like a skull. He'd think about his feelings later when it was all over. Now, he had to go. Hoisting the knapsack onto his shoulders, he saluted Stefan and went out to the garden to find Lydia.

'Has he gone?'

Mort nodded. 'Wait five minutes to give me time to get well clear, then call triple O. Tell them you were out weeding or something and came in to ask if he wanted anything, and found him like this. That's all. Say nothing else. Do not mention me! It is not their business that I lived here for a while. There's nothing suspicious in Stefan's death, so they won't even ask questions. Be brave.' He pulled Lydia to him, pressed a kiss on her forehead, touched her lightly on the cheek and ran to the rear of the nursery where a small gate gave access to the lane that led to the main road to Toowong.

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