|Primary Characters:||Neil, Ali Khan|
|Warning:||m/m sex, adult themes, language|
|Description:||Neil’s been acquitted for the murders of his wife and daughter. Now what? There’s still Ali Khan to take into account.|
It took Neil close to a minute to realize that Wallace wasn’t coming back. It was over. The short copper really was going to let him take his time coming in to answer the charges of manslaughter. It should be a relief, but Neil knew it would be a long time, if ever that he would feel truly free of the past and free to get on with his life.
Ever since the day he’d come home and found his wife, Alison, lying butchered on the floor, he had kept himself going by sheer force of will and by taking one small step at a time. Get out of bed. Watch his back in the shower. Child killers were at the very bottom of the food chain in prison, as he already knew when he was sentenced. Try to eat breakfast. Do the work he was assigned. Keep out of trouble.
He could use those tactics now. There was someplace he had to be. He’d go there and say his goodbyes, then the police could have him. Or the media or anyone who wanted him. It hurt too badly inside for him to pay much attention to the aches and pains that tormented his body. His body would take him to Alison’s and Sarah’s grave. After that, it could do what it pleased.
He swallowed hard and straightened out his back, a look of grim resolve on his face. Wallace and Ford had been very considerate and informative. It would be an easy matter to take a taxi out to the cemetary and – A taxi. The thought brought back the memories of Ali Khan and his taxis. Strangely enough, despite the urgency of his situation, he’d enjoyed the work. At times it had been almost too simple. He’d need to listen to music or make plans to fill the void inside, to keep the images at bay.
Blood. Alison’s body – Little Sarah. Neil bit the inside of his cheek so hard he tasted blood. The driver shot him an odd look in the rear view mirror.
He avoided the man’s look and stubbornly stared out the window until they arrived. He tossed the fare to the driver, through the window, without even looking back.
The directions had been quite specific. He had no trouble finding the grave. Someone – most likely Alison’s family – had paid for the stone. Though he didn’t want to, he found himself compelled to read the inscription. Alison’s name – her maiden name. Her date of birth and death. Sarah’s name and date of birth and death. Such a short life. And it was all his fault. If he hadn’t been so infatuated with the excitement, the empty promise of glory, she’d be going to school. Playing with her friends. Growing up. Meeting boys. Going to college. Getting a job. Marriage, children – but no, Sarah Byrne had no future, thanks to her father.
Neil was glad he’d chosen to show up this late in the evening. He had no idea where the rest of the day had gone, but the cemetary was all but empty, except for him. No one could stare at him and wonder –
He kneeled awkwardly in front of the grave and placed his hand on the grass. Tears dimmed his eyes, so he didn’t need to keep reading and re-reading the inscription over and over again. A pain so insense he vaguely wondered if he was having a heart attack, shot through him. If so, fine. It would save everyone time and effort. No trial, no media. Nothing. No more than he deserved. A hoarse cry tore itself free of his lungs and echoed in the deepening shadows.
The sexton who was closing up the tool shed, glanced uneasily over his shoulder. He had worked here and on other cemeteries for over forty years and he could tell a thing or two about human nature, if anyone cared to ask him. Death brought out the extremes in people. For better and for worse. Some poor sod was screaming out his grief and loss. It happened all the time. The world didn’t stop for anything as simple as that. And the sexton finished his work and walked away. He was no priest or psychologist. Let someone else sort the grieving next of kin.
When Neil became aware of his surroundings again, it was pitch dark. He must have blacked out or something. Time to go. There was nothing left for him to do. If he could have spent the night on his family’s grave, he would have. Where else would he go? He had no home to come back to. No co-workers, or place of work. There was no one or nothing waiting for him. Except another cell, other prisoners and wardens. Better get it over with.
No taxi would stop for him at this time of night, or perhaps it was merely the location. If he’d known how he looked, he might have understood, but he didn’t really care. His legs would take him down to the city.
After about twenty minutes of walking, as far as he could make out, he had reached more populated neighbourhoods. The street lights were at first few and far between, but as he approached the city, the lights became more frequent. He saw people standing around, or slinking by. Drug addicts. Heavily made up women in scanty clothes.
“Hey, love. Want some company?”
Neil whirled around. The voice was eerily like Edith’s, but the woman was probably about five or ten years younger. It was a bit hard to tell.
The woman backed off, startled by his reaction.
“Don’t bite me ‘ead off. Boys are over there.”
She nodded towards a narrow side street, a spiteful look on her face. He didn’t bother replying.
As he got nearer to the city centre, he saw taxis passing him by. That again reminded him of Ali Khan’s taxi service. Ali Khan who had saved his skin more than once, and nearly paid for it with his own life. How could he have forgotten about Al? Al was injured and it was his fault. The least he could do was to find out how he was doing. Perhaps he could do that from his cell, but Neil was sick and tired of the claustrophobia, the smell of men all cooped up together and the anonymity of the prison overalls. He’d had enough of that to last him a lifetime.
Without making any conscious decision he began to make his way towards the part of town now made familiar from his weeks of driving around there. Eventually, the shock, the emotional exertion and the fatigue began to take its toll. He decided that catching a ride with another taxi couldn’t be considered cheating. Who was he trying to impress anyway?
It seemed as if the drive took five minutes, but that, he realized, was because he’d fallen asleep in the back seat. The driver was eyeing him nervously, but at the moment, Neil couldn’t think of any reason for that. He fumbled in his pocket and found a banknote there. Hoping it would be enough, he handed it over. Judging by the quick grin that lit up the weasly driver’s face, he guessed that it was too large. In any case, he was long past arguing about it.
He opened the door and looked around. Skankie was sitting behind the counter, listening to music. The music was so loud Neil had no trouble hearing it, despite the headphones.
Skankie glanced uneasily towards the doorway, then smiled uncertainly as he recognized the newcomer.
“Man, you look like -”
Neil shot him a lopsided grin. He wouldn’t be surprised at all if he looked fit to scare children and dogs in the street.
The constantly nervous Jamaican decided that Ali Khan would want him to receive Spanish hospitably. Like the English would say. Besides, Skankie, no brave man himself, was always prepared to admire someone stronger and braver.
“Here. Have some chips. They’re almost fresh.”
At first his words didn’t seem to filter through to Neil and he had an uncanny impression the light was fading.
Skankie was afraid Spanish would faint on him, so he dragged out a chair and offered it to him.
“Sit. I’ll get the chips. Beer?”
Getting no reply, Skankie went to the fridge anyway, and brought a bottle over. Spanish looked like a man who appreciated some good beer. Skankie pushed the greasy paper containing the remains of his meal over to Spanish, then returned to his own seat behind the counter.
When Spanish didn’t touch his chips or even opened the beer, Skankie was beginning to worry about him. He hadn’t followed the news and the talk on the street had been contradictory. All he knew was Ali Khan had been taken by those men, beaten and nearly killed, but Spanish had brought him back. That was good enough for him.
What if Spanish was badly hurt himself, though? Skankie wasn’t one to ask unnecessary questions, but he knew a hunted man when he saw one.
Did he know someone who could fix Spanish up if the worst came to the worst? Ali Khan had some posh relatives, he knew that, but he also knew that Ali Khan didn’t have anything to do with his family.
His own family boasted only so many adults who weren’t in prison, so he had no idea who to ask. Aunt Phyllicia knew a thing or two about herbs and stuff, but he knew that she wasn’t much good at bullet wounds or knife injuries.
Anxiously he tried talking to Spanish.
“Aren’t you going to eat that?”
The way Spanish was looking at him, it was clear he didn’t really hear a word he was saying. He looked tired. Tired. Skankie’s face lit up. That was it. Spanish was tired. If he slept all night he’d be feeling better. There was a room out back, which Ali Khan used as an office, or so he said. In reality, he conducted most of his business in the front, but there was a mattress and things, for when someone had to work double shifts. Spanish could sleep there.
“Come on, Spanish. You look like you could use some sleep. In there.”
Spanish still didn’t move, so Skankie risked putting a hand on his arm to make him move. To Skankie’s relief, Spanish didn’t try to resist or go violent on him. When he finally got what Skankie was trying to do, he followed unresistingly. Though the mattress didn’t look very clean, Spanish didn’t even seem to notice. He just stretched out on it, pulling the worn blanket up to his chest.
Skankie remained standing in the doorway, unsure of what to do. Spanish just fell asleep right away, so after a while, Skankie got back to work. With Ali Khan gone, he had too much work on his hands, but he was also making more money. Now that his youngest sister was pregnant too, every penny helped.
The light got in his eyes. Neil tried to turn over to avoid it. Something didn’t feel right. The window in his cell never admitted that much light and it never fell on his face. Besides, though the bed wasn’t very comfortable, whatever he was lying on was worse. His back was hurting, just like his neck, head and arm. In fact, most of his body was sore. Regretfully, he opened his eyes and looked around. At first he didn’t know where he was. Then bit by bit, last night came back to him.
The morning was always worst. Sometimes, at night, when he was deeply asleep, he forgot that Alison and Sarah were gone. Waking up brought it all back to him. It got so he didn’t want to go to sleep at all, to avoid that abyss that opened inside him every time he remembered that he’d never see them again. Never hold them in his arms.
But he couldn’t lie here all day. His back, if not the need to relieve himself, made it a matter of urgency. With an effort he managed to get to his feet. He wondered if there was a sink somewhere or at least a lavatory. Though he’d worked for Ali Khan for weeks, he’d never been in the back before.
Some investigation revealed a reasonably clean lavatory. In there, he was able to take care of his basic hygienic needs, if not shower and shave. He opened the small cupboard and found a few toothbrushes still in the package. Ali Khan wouldn’t mind if he took one of them. Unfortunately, there were no razors, but the way he felt right now, it was probably just as well.
His clothes felt grimy and sticky and despite everything, he wanted desperately to get rid of the lot. He’d worn them when he confronted Connor. Connor who had killed his family. Connor and Elgin. Come to think of it, he’d worn the same clothes when he killed Elgin. Despite his past as a spook, he’d never killed anyone before, though he had the training for it, like everyone else of his fellow agents. He couldn’t regret Elgin’s death, but now that it was over, he wished there had been some other way.
For a long time, he kept staring at his hands. Even if he was innocent of Alison’s and Sarah’s deaths, he had blood on his hands. Elgin’s. Worst of all Edith. Poor Edith, who had only wanted a bit of affection. A few friendly words, maybe a little sex. Neil knew he’d been doing without for so long, he most likely would have given it to her, for both their sakes. Instead, Elgin had put a stop to her sad, pathetic life. Suddenly, what he’d had to do didn’t bother him quite as much.
Now he remembered why he’d come here in the first place. If only Skankie knew where Ali Khan was, he could go and see him, and make sure he was alright, before turning himself in.
He stuck his head out through the narrow doorway and looked around for the Jamaican. Another man sat behind the counter, someone whose name Neil had forgotten, but who worked here from time to time.
“Hello. Is Skankie around?”
Before the man had time to reply, the front door opened and Skankie walked in, carrying a couple of paper bags from some fast food place.
He placed one bag in front of the man on duty, then handed another over to Spanish. The last one, he held on to, and began to open it.
Lunch? Had he slept that long? Neil couldn’t figure out how many hours he’d been dead to the world, but decided it didn’t matter. It had been a deep dreamless sleep, which was rare these days. He’d accept it with gratitude and leave it at that.
When they’d finished their meals, Skankie moved over to the chair in the corner where he spent most of his days.
“Skankie? Can I have a word with you?”
Neil nodded towards the back room. The man behind the counter wasn’t paying any attention to them. Instead, he was leafing through a couple of porn magazines. Neil hadn’t seen them before. Ali Khan was always reading his book and Skankie listening to his music. Whoever this was, didn’t seem to have anything in common with his two friends.
Neil carefully shut the door behind them, making Skankie glance nervously around. So he still frightened people. Did Skankie know what he was wanted for? On the other hand, he had a feeling Skankie was always scared. There was nothing he could do about it, so he contented himself with keeping his distance, and leaving Skankie by the door.
“Do you know where Ali Khan is?”
Skankie looked around uneasily, as if searching for a way out.
“It’s alright now. I took care of it.”
“I know that. Ali Khan was dead impressed, man.”
It seemed Skankie’s mind was working overtime, until finally, he seemed to come to a decision.
“He’s borrowed a cottage, up north. In the sticks. You know, in the wilderness, man.”
Neil didn’t have any money so he was forced to ask Skankie for the pay they owed him. Skankie didn’t appear to be at all surprised at the request.
“Ali Khan said to give it all to you. It’s in here.”
Skankie fished a key out of his pocket and unlocked a drawer in the desk that looked as if Al had found it in a skip. That lock was a joke. Neil could have forced it in thirty seconds, not leaving any traces of what he’d done – to the naked eye anyway.
Inside, there was an envelope, containing an impressive packet of banknotes. He couldn’t have earned all that in the short time he’d been working for Al. Neil’s tired mind tried to calculate what he really had a right to, but failed. In the end, he decided to take it all for now and return the rest of it to Al personally. He didn’t know if Skankie could be trusted to hand it over to Al. Not if he thought he could get away with it. Neil thought not, but he didn’t know the Jamaican well enough to be sure.
Before finding his way to the bus station, Neil bought some new clothes, then went to get that shower and the shave. When he sat on the bench, reading the time table, he felt a little better, at least physically. Skankie had told him Ali Khan was doing alright. Perhaps he didn’t need to do this, but a part of him wanted to talk things through with his friend, try to explain himself a little.
He’d seen the fear in Al’s eyes when he saw Elgin’s body, knowing who had been responsible for his death. Neil wanted to explain to Al that he wasn’t like that normally. Not someone who killed with his bare hands. It had been a desperate situation, and he’d been under a lot of pressure. Surely Al could understand that? Whatever the reason, Neil just wanted to see his friend again.
It was harder than he’d expected, to find his way out to the isolated cottage. He had to change buses twice and again, get a taxi to drive him as far as the road would take him. After that, he had to walk for a mile or so. He nodded approvingly. Connor’s people would have had a hard time finding Al out here, no question about it.
He couldn’t help wondering what a city man like Al would make of the countryside. Personally, his own experiences of rural areas only went as far as his escape from the train. He’d had holidays in coastal resorts once or twice as a child, and once he and Alison had been to Lanzarote, but other than that, the suburbs were as far from the city as he’d ever come.
Given his state of mind today, he didn’t mind the emptiness. Actually, it was a bit like he was feeling right now. Wild and empty.
As he approached the cottage, he was wondering what to do to alert Al to his presence without startling him too badly. He had to remind himself that Al might not have any idea it was over. If he had, surely he’d have been back already? In the end, when he found the cottage, he saw Al sitting in a deck chair outside.
Considering its location, the house was in good condition. Someone had spent quite a bit of money to make it both comfortable and practical to live in.
Al looked up, and though momentarily a frightened look crept into his eyes, he recognized his visitor and his face lit up.
“Hello, Al. It’s over now. You can come back any time you like.”
“Did you get them?”
“Yes. I got them.”
Spanish didn’t sound as if he agreed. And how could he? His wife and daughter were still gone. Nothing could bring them back. At least he was a free man.
“Sit. I’ll get another chair. Are you hungry?”
“What? No, thanks. I’m fine.”
You don’t look fine, Ali Khan wanted to say, but he thought better of it.
“Have you seen a doctor for that?”
It took some time before Spanish even seemed to hear him, and even longer before he replied. Fine? Didn’t look that way.
“Oh. Aye. It’s nothing. What about you? Did you see a doctor?”
“What for? I’m fine.”
“They cut you, beat you, kicked you. Did I miss something? That’s what for.”
“Oh, that. Yes, it hurts a bit, but it will alright. I put bandaids on and -”
If you’re fine, then so am I, Ali Khan thought. Besides, the truth was, he’d been too frightened to think of any delays. He’d come straight out here, after briefing Skankie on what to do if Spanish returned. Skankie had also more or less promised to come out and get him when that happened, but Ali Khan had known that sooner or later, he’d have had to find out for himself. Skankie wouldn’t go anywhere outside the city. Not even for his best friend.
Ali Khan went and picked up the other chair, returned and sat down beside Spanish. He’d known him a few weeks and already Spanish was beginning to feel closer to him than Skankie, and he and Skankie had known each for six years, give or take a few months.
For a while, neither man said anything. The sun was pleasantly warm for a change and the wind had died down to practically nothing. It was the sort of day that was only too rare up here. Ali Khan kept glancing furtively over at Spanish.
“Al, listen, I wanted to talk to you about – all this. I’m so sorry I got you into it. Put you in danger. If I’d had any idea -”
“You saved my skin first, remember?”
Neil sighed. That was true of course, but if he hadn’t been there, Connor’s men would never have shown up. Edith would still be alive, and Al – Still, what was done was done. He couldn’t take it back. At least Al was still breathing.
“I know. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that – I don’t go around killing people with me bare hands. Not unless I have to.”
“I know that.”
Al sounded sadder than usual. If he’d been any better at defending himself, Spanish wouldn’t have had to come and get him out of there. It was his fault Spanish had had to kill someone.
“Actually, it was the first time. I had the training of course, but -”
“So you’re really a spook? Never seen one of those before.”
“You’re not supposed to see spooks. That why they’re called that. And no, I’m not. Not anymore. I shouldn’t have told you that.”
“Told me what?”
Neil nodded approvingly. Exactly. What Al didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.
“Elgin. The one I – He and Connor did it. They’re the ones who killed my family.”
“You avenged them. What about that Connor? Will he get done for it?”
Neil hadn’t planned on telling Al that. It only reminded him of Annie. At that moment, her eyes had looked exactly the same as Connor’s had when he’d told him about how he and Elgin had butchered Alison and Sarah. His voice had sounded completely normal, as if he was just passing the time of day. As if none of it mattered any more than a couple of flies or cockroaches you squashed without giving it a second thought.
Again, a look of fear passed across Al’s features and Neil realized that Al had jumped to the wrong conclusion. He’d have to explain further. Exactly what he didn’t want to do.
“I’m not the one who did it.”
Neil hated to see that fear in Al’s eyes. He hated to be the one everyone feared. Even now, when his name had been cleared, everything he represented frightened ordinary, innocent citizens, like Al and Skankie. Most of all, he didn’t like Al to be frightened at all. He was a good, kind person and he didn’t deserve to live in fear.
Alison had been right, he’d enjoyed his work. The excitement. The adrenalin rush every time he risked his life. What a fool he’d been. Playing with danger just for the fun of it. All the pleasure had gone out of that the second he saw all that blood and realized what it implied.
“His people are done for now. They won’t bother you again.”
“Good. What about you? Do you need a job?”
Neil couldn’t help smiling. That was exactly what he’d been hoping for. Working for Al again would be the best his life had to offer. Unfortunately he couldn’t accept the offer.
“I wish I did.”
“I thought you told me you were out of a job?”
“Yes, I am, but – they’re going to charge me with manslaughter. Elgin.”
“But that was -”
“I know. But they’re going to make an example out of me. Wallace – one of the coppers – told me they didn’t stand a chance of getting a conviction.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I’ll be locked up for a year before the trial.”
“Oh. It’s not fair. If you’d been a Yank you could have sued them for millions.”
Neil laughed mirthlessly. Millions? What good was money, when it couldn’t get him what he really wanted?
“Perhaps I could. Later.”
“I see. Right. I’m going to make us something to eat. Stay here and get some rest.”
“No, that’s alright. I’ll come along and help you out.”
Ali Khan didn’t answer, and Neil hadn’t really expected any reply. He got up and followed his host inside.
In the evening, he helped build a fire and watched the kindling being consumed by the flame. It was almost hypnotic. Slowly, the logs caught fire, first just one end of one, then the fire spread and eventually the whole pile went up in flame. After making sure it didn’t burn up too quickly, Neil got to his feet again.
They sat down watching the dancing flames, a cold beer in their hands. Not until now did Neil think to wonder how a Pakistani came to be drinking beer.
Ali Khan caught his look and realized the reason for it.
“Oh. I’m not really religious.”
“Right. Me neither.”
How could there be a god when little girls like Sarah only were allowed to live four short years, before some psychopath used her to get to her father?
“Spanish – Neil?”
“Whichever you like.”
“If you like I could take you to Pakistan. I have some relatives in the mountains. They’d never guess you were hiding out there.”
Neil was touched by the offer. That really was generous. But he couldn’t face living on the run anymore. Besides, though he had nothing much to go by, he had read between the lines and suspected that Al didn’t keep in touch with his family or the old country. There had to be a reason for that, though he couldn’t find an excuse to ask about it.
“That’s very generous of you, but I’m tired of running. I should go back there in the morning and turn myself in.”
Once again, they focused on their beers, deep in thought.
In the end, Neil began to feel tired. Was he getting old? It seemed to be only yesterday he could go without sleep for days on end, and still be at the top of his performance at work. Especially when he was under cover, the adrenaline kept him going. Coffee and adrenaline.
He got up and put away the empty bottle.
“If the trial won’t start for a year, what’s the hurry? You could stay here a while and rest. There’s lots of food here and everything you need. Nothing to do, but if you need to rest -”
Neil was about to turn down this offer too, but something in Ali Khan’s voice made him reconsider. For a moment he studied his friend in the dim light. Al’s kindness touched him. And underneath that, he sensed the same kind of loneliness he’d already encountered in Edith.
For a second he wondered if Al’s eagerness hid the same sort of need Edith had, but he pushed the thought away. Why should he question Al’s motives?
And he really was tired. It would be such a relief to give up for a while. To lie low here and get his strength back. He’d need all of it in the coming months, so he might as well enjoy his break while he could.
“Alright. Thanks. I think I will. Who owns this place anyway?”
“A friend of mine. He doesn’t use it much.”
There was blood everywhere. His flat was covered in it. Frantically, he began to search for Alison and Sarah. He felt his chest constrict. Somehow he knew what he was going to find and he didn’t want to. He wanted to run, cover his eyes, hide in a corner like a frightened dog, but the images kept coming at him, over and over again. A scream tore through the silence, punctuated only by his abnormally loud heartbeat, waking him up. He was covered in sweat. His hair was sticking to his eyes and he brushed at it helplessly. Where was he? Still in his cell?
His mindless panic increased as he heard footsteps approaching. The light came on and he saw someone standing in the doorway, almost out of sight, as if whoever it was hesitated to come inside.
“Neil? What’s up? Trouble?”
The familiar voice made his pulse slow down a bit and he took a deep breath. Of course. Al. The cottage. It was beginning to come back to him. There was no consolation in the memory, but he felt a certain calm. Nothing left to do.
“No. Sorry. Just a bad dream. Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Oh, that’s alright.”
The relief in Al’s voice came through to Neil, loud and clear. He wanted to kick himself for waking that fear again in his friend.
“I’m fine now.”
“Right. Want some tea?”
Neil grabbed his t-shirt off the chair beside the bed and wiped his face and chest, while he was considering Al’s offer. He didn’t want to make any trouble, but it was obvious he wouldn’t be getting any more sleep for quite some time. Tea would be nice.
“Thanks. But I’ll make it. No need for you to -”
“No, that’s fine. I know where everything is.”
No need to get into an argument over something like a cup of tea.
Neil went to the bathroom, and splashed some cold water onto his face. He avoided meeting his own gaze in the mirror, but he couldn’t help noticing the dark circles under his eyes. He looked a right mess. No wonder taxi drivers and tarts looked at him strangely. He shook his head and turned out the light, pushing the door shut behind him.
The light was on in the kitchen, making him feel a little better. There was something so normal about drinking tea. It almost reminded him of – but the whole point of this nightly exercise was to forget his family, not bring back memories.
Al had the kettle on, and was putting two cups on the table.
“No, thanks. This will do. Thanks.”
Al’s mouth turned up at the corners. That was his only response.
He didn’t like the look on Spanish’s – Neil’s – face. Those eyes – Ali Khan forced himself not to remember the last time he’d seen eyes looking like that. It was a lifetime away, a continent away and he didn’t intend to recall any of it, if he could help it.
He focused on seeing Neil settled by the table. Soon the hot tea was simmering in the pot. Ali Khan liked his tea strong and he was hoping Spanish would too. Neil. That would take some getting used to, though he hadn’t really expected his friend’s real name to be Spanish.
Somehow, though, he’d come to associate those slightly slanted green eyes and the strong shoulders and hands with Spanish. Neil – sounded more like some posh professional, perhaps a stock broker. At any rate, he was hoping the tea would make Neil feel a little better.
Just as Neil had expected, he didn’t manage to doze off until the first traces of dawn were in the sky outside his window. By then, fatigue had once again numbed his senses to the point where he could let go of every conscious thought and allow himself to relax.
In the morning, as he was using Al’s shaving gear, he noticed that his bandage needed changing. When he was done, he unwrapped it gingerly, taking a dispassionate look at the wound. It wasn’t deep. No muscle tissue damaged, or so the paramedics had told him. It still hurt though and he’d been warned not to leave it unbandaged until it had healed over completely.
He went off in search of something to use as bandages. Al had mentioned bandaids, but he didn’t even know if that was before or after he’d arrived at the cottage. In any case, bandaids wouldn’t be enough for a wound of this size.
“Is there anything I could -”
“Let me look at that.”
“No, it’s fine. It’s nothing. Very shallow. I just need something to bandage it up again.”
“Right. I’ll take a look around.”
Five minutes later, Al returned, bringing a first aid kit. He looked quite pleased to have found it and Neil couldn’t help smiling. What had he done to deserve Al’s friendship? All he’d done was put his life in danger.
“Here. Let me do it.”
“No, that’s alright. I can -”
Al didn’t seem to hear him and a few minutes later, Neil had to admit that it had been worth it. His friend was surprisingly skillful and his light touch didn’t cause any extra pain.
A smile began to spread across Al’s melancholy features, but went out again so soon, it was hard to imagine it had even been there.
“Can I take a look at your -”
Neil’s finger indicated the worst cuts and bruises on Al’s face.
“What for? It will fine.”
“Perhaps, but that lump behind your left ear looks nasty.”
Ali Khan opened his mouth to say something, then appeared to change his mind. He turned his head slightly so Neil could take a look.
Letting his fingers lightly probe the swollen spot, Neil tried to guess at how serious it was. With a lump like this, it could easily have been concussion. Except Al didn’t seem to be suffering from headaches, dizzy spells or nausea – at least those were the symptoms Neil recalled from his training. An agent in the field needed to know a little bit of everything. Al should have seen a doctor. Instead, he’d been forced to take shelter out here. What if he suffered a blood clot or even a stroke?
“How do you feel?”
“I told you -”
“I mean, have you had a headache, been dizzy or sick?”
Ali Khan responded immediately to the unspoken command in Neil’s voice.
“No. Honestly. I’m fine. The ribs hurt a bit and me face, but that’s all. I don’t think I have concussion.”
“Good. What about the ribs? Do you have them bandaged?”
“Why? They won’t heal any faster -”
“No, but they’ll hurt a little less when you breathe.”
Neil noted that Al must have suffered broken ribs before, but he couldn’t think of any reason to ask him about that so he put the question out of his mind. That was Al’s business after all. If he wanted to tell him anything about his life, he would.
Ali Khan hesitated. He hadn’t bothered doing anything about the ribs. All he had thought about was getting away. Neil was right, though. A bandage wrapped around his chest would help against the pain. At least a little.
He pulled out the rest of the bandages and turned the package over and over in his hand. It might be better to do this in the bathroom.
“Go on then. I’ll help you out.”
Was Neil serious? Ali Khan studied him suspiciously. It did seem as if his friend meant what he was saying. Again, Ali Khan found himself obeying without a word of protest. He pulled off his shirt and tried to breathe as little as possible. His eyes darted away uneasily, trying to avoid meeting Neil’s. He had to admit that Neil knew what he was about. The touch was brief and light, but though there was no pain involved, Ali Khan squirmed uneasily.
Neil couldn’t help noticing some deep scars on Al’s back and chest. It looked like the kind of damage shrapnel from a bomb filled with scrap iron would cause. Had Al been the victim of a terrorist attack? Had he been in a war?
Neil tried to recall if Pakistan had been in any wars during Al’s lifetime. As far as he could tell, Al’s accent was the same as his own. That had to mean that Al had been born here or at least come here at an early age. Again, Neil put the matter out of his mind. He had no reason to pry into Al’s past.
Al’s breathing picked up a bit, and Neil concluded that his friend had been dreading any additional pain his touch might add. At least he was finished now. He put one finger inside the bandage to make sure it wasn’t too tight.
“There. Think you can breathe with that?”
“What? Oh, yes. Ta.”
Al jumped back so quickly, Neil was slightly taken aback. His friend really was nervous. He’d been hoping Al might be able to relax a little now that he had told him Connor and his people were off his back. Obviously, Al’s fears ran deeper than that. It upset him, but as he didn’t think there was anything he could do about it, Neil decided to try and ignore the fact.
They spent the rest of the day sitting outside in the sun, looking through old magazines. Fishing and hunting seemed to be the main topic of interest out here, but there were also a few rifle magazines. Neil felt he’d had more than enough of weapons and didn’t feel particularly interested.
They also turned up some old newspapers. After his time in prison, Neil hadn’t been able to keep up with the news, so he took the opportunity of catching up a little. Al eventually managed to turn up some old Mad magazines and began to browse through them. Neil noted that his friend never laughed and hardly even smiled. Not that those magazines had ever really amused Neil, but it was a bit odd all the same.
Neil woke up instantly. Al was calling out in some foreign language which had to be one of the languages spoken in Pakistan. Urdu was his guess. It was a language Neil didn’t speak, but the agony in his friend’s voice told him enough.
In a second, Neil was on his feet, tracing his way towards Al’s room. There was just enough moonlight to see where he was going. On his way, Neil hastily glanced at the windows, and the front door. Nothing. No one there, except for the two of them.
For some reason he wasn’t surprised. His own nightmares had reminded him that traumatic experiences didn’t go away, even with time. They were just buried deeper each year. With a sigh he bent over Al’s bed and reached out a hand to touch his shoulder.
“Al. Take it easy.”
More panicked shouting, still in that foreign language. The voice sounded so young and terrified, Neil’s heart went out to his friend. What could be causing such pain?
“Ali Khan. Hey. Wake up. It’s only a dream.”
Only? But what else could he say?
With a final scream, in a voice that cracked, Ali Khan came awake. The look of panic in his eyes made a shiver go down Neil’s spine. It was as if Al was seeing something he wasn’t. Somewhere far away? Al cowered back in his bed, as if fearing an attack.
“It’s me. Neil. Spanish.”
Eventually, the look in Al’s eyes became more normal. His breathing slowed down and he slumped down against the pillows. Neil sensed that Al would rather have kept his fear to himself. It pained him to see his friend feeling so shamed, but hadn’t he woken up screaming only the other night? There was no need to be embarrassed about it. He wouldn’t tell anyone at work.
“We’d been in the mosque. On our way home. My father was with his friends. A bomb went off in the market place. My – mother had been doing the shopping for dinner. And -”
Al closed his eyes and again, Neil had the impression he was seeing the market places a thousand miles away.
“My mother and my sister – they were – blood everywhere. When my father came my mother had stopped trying to speak. Jamila – she was screaming. My father lifted her up but she stopped breathing in his arms. I was – it hurt so much, and it was their blood and mine and everyone else’s and – ”
Neil wanted to tell Al it was over. He didn’t have to remember every last detail again and again, but he knew it would be useless. Feeling helpless, he merely stood, waiting for Al to finish his gruesome tale.
“When was this?”
“Twenty years ago. More. I was eleven. Jamila was fourteen.”
“Al, I’m really sorry. I had no idea.”
“Of course not. I don’t tell anyone. Not even Skankie. That’s why we came here. To start a new life. Me dad just didn’t like it here. He returned after I’d left school. I didn’t want to come. Not back there. I didn’t want to go to the mosque anymore. If Allah existed, would he have let them die like that?”
“I don’t know.”
Ali Khan closed his eyes. How could he have forgotten? Neil had lost his wife and daughter. He had to be feeling exactly the same, about his Christian god.
“For your loss. I – wasn’t thinking.”
“I’m sorry for your loss too, Al. And don’t apologize. It wasn’t your fault. Any of it.”
There didn’t seem to be anything more to say. Words couldn’t bring back their loved ones. Nothing could change the past. Neil sighed and shook his head. No matter how much he wanted to, he couldn’t make things right again for Al or himself. And he wanted to. He so desperately wanted the pain to end.
This time too, he ended up lying awake until dawn and he could hear Al tiptoeing around the house off and on, so he knew his friend didn’t have any better luck.
The next morning, the rain was pouring down and the sky was completely dark and overcast. Before lunch, the first lightning lit up the gloom which seemed more typical of late november. Neil wryly noted that the weather matched their mood perfectly.
He kept almost catching Al watching him, out of the corner of his eye, but each time he looked, Al’s eyes veered away. Did Al regret telling him his story? Or was it simply that last night’s nightmare had made the memories return in force? Neil couldn’t think of anything to do except keep out of Al’s way and mind his own business for the rest of the long afternoon.
There were still enough supplies to last them at least for another week, probably more, so there was no reason to go into the nearest town to do some shopping. No excuse for any kind of distraction.
There was an old deck of cards, but Al told him he didn’t particularly like playing cards. Neil didn’t either, but in jail, he’d had nothing else to pass his time. His problem had been finding someone to play with. A convicted child killer didn’t make many friends inside.
They both came to the decision that an early night would be a good idea. It was hardly more than ten when both men turned out the lights. Neil expected to lie awake for hours, as usual, but for some reason, he dozed off within half an hour or so.
Elgin was laughing as he cut up Alison. Her blood pumped out faster and faster, as she screamed his name. Neil. Why weren’t you there for us?
Sarah ran into her room and hid under the bed. Connor pulled her out again, and lifted her up. He looked at her as if she was nothing more than an object. Something of slight inconvenience that could be put to some better use elsewhere. Her mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out.
Alison had stopped struggling. Her skin was as white as the sheets had been in the morning when they got up. The eyes were wide open, but hardly more than the whites could be seen. Elgin wiped his hands indifferently on the wall beside the front door. Connor tossed Sarah over to him and walked outside. His hands were toying with a razor –
This time he knew what was coming, but he couldn’t stop himself from screaming anyway, though he knew that somewhere, even from beyond the grave, Connor was laughing at him. Connor who had wiped Sarah’s blood off on her dad’s hair, indifferently, smiling as if it was just an ordinary day, as if he’d merely done ordinary business.
Again, Neil’s chest constricted and he fought to draw breath. This time, it wasn’t working. No air seemed to make its way inside his lungs. His heart felt as if it was too large for his chest and he was drowning, suffocating. This time he wouldn’t escape. He would die and if he met Alison on the other side, if he met Sarah, what would he say to them? How could he ever be forgiven for letting them down?
No. He wanted to put his hands over his ears and hide under the bed. Like Sarah. It hadn’t helped her, but there was nothing else he could do. If it didn’t go away, he’d lose his mind.
“Spanish. Hey. Take it easy. It’s just a bad dream.”
Spanish? The voice wasn’t Alison’s. Something about it made him feel less terrified. It was calm and reassuring. He knew that voice. Not Annie. She could kill and not change her expression. Fuck her enemy and him too, but not feel anything.
Who was it? A name was beginning to make its way into his frozen brain, and when it appeared, it carried with it an image. Sad eyes, dark skin. A mouth that hardly ever smiled, but somehow gave that impression anyway at times. Ali Khan.
The realization brought instant relief. Neil began to breathe easier. In a moment’s time his heartbeat had returned to normal. He opened his eyes and only now noticed that Al was sitting on the bed beside him. His arm was around Neil’s shoulder and his other hand was smoothing back the damp hair from the chalky white face slightly above him.
Neil’s first reaction was an impulse to laugh out loud. Here he was crying like a baby, being comforted by a friend who was much more in need of comforting than he was.
It reminded him of his first and only week away at boy scout camp. He’d been eight years old and he’d never been away from home before. In the middle of the night he’d woken up and cried for his mum. That might have been an eight-year-old’s equivalent of suicide, but another boy, a little older, had taken pity on him and held his hand until he’d fallen asleep again. Willie or was it Timmy? – had never mentioned the incident to the other boys, who had slept through the entire event.
Neil swallowed hard. He had to get a grip on himself. It wasn’t fair of him to make Al stay up every night worrying about his outbursts.
Al kept touching his hair and holding on to him, in a way that was, to be honest, quite comforting and more than a little touching in its intensity. Neil had to smile. Al was alright. A really good man and he’d never expected to meet one again. Not after working with the sordid underbelly of British society for so long.
His work had made him lose faith in other people. Every woman was a whore and every man a crook. How could it be any different, when little girls were murdered for no reason other than hatred for her father? And little boys had to watch their mothers and sisters die in agony, when they were only on their way home for dinner.
It was time he faced the fact that the past was the past. No agonizing would bring Alison or Sarah back, any more than Al’s mother and sister would come back to life again. Their pain meant nothing.
He was about to thank Al and retreat with what shreds of dignity he had left, when he realized that something had changed. The look in Al’s eyes had somehow almost imperceptibly turned from melancholy or fear to –
Al’s face moved closer. Closer – until their lips met. Neil felt a sudden stab at the pit of his stomach as Al’s tongue slid inside and made contact with his. Instinctively, his hands shot out and grabbed Al, pushing him away, so he could see his eyes again.
Ali Khan crumpled up inside. How could he have been so stupid? The last thing he wanted was for Neil to find out how he – Now he’d gone and mucked up their friendship.
It had all been going so well. Neil had agreed to stay for a while, so he could look after him a bit, before he had to turn himself in. Now – he’d be lucky if Neil didn’t smash him up as badly as Connor’s lot had, recently enough for him to feel it still, in every inch of his body.
It never occurred to him to try and get away. Someone like Spanish would catch him again, easily. So what was the point? Better get it over with. No physical pain would hurt more than losing Spanish anyway.
He hadn’t seen it coming. Though he’d sensed rather than consciously considered the possibility that Al had hidden the same feelings for him Annie did or poor Edith, he hadn’t really taken it into account. Ten years ago he would have – but it wasn’t ten years ago, or even two years ago. Much had happened in that time and he didn’t feel up to telling Al to get lost. He owed him far too much.
Besides – in a way, he’d been wrong. Whatever Al felt about him, it couldn’t be anything like what Annie had felt, if she’d felt anything. And Edith – he’d seen right away that she fancied him. That was probably all there was to it.
But Al – poor Al – at least he felt something more than that. He’d known it all along really. It was in his voice. In the way Al always looked at him, like a dog he’d had, years ago.
The mongrel had been waiting for him outside school every afternoon for weeks. It had followed him home, at a safe distance, and after he’d promised to take out the garbage every night and doing the shopping and the dishes, he’d been allowed to keep the poor bugger. His dad hadn’t let him keep the dog in the house, but there had been a space under the front steps where he’d put an old rug and a blanket.
The dog had never had much faith in people, but when Neil had taken him in, he’d taken to watching him with the same devoted look in his eyes Al had. As if he’d go to the end of the earth for him or anything else he asked of him.
In return Neil had protected him from all the other boys who liked to tie old shoes and sticks to dogs’ tails and throw rocks at them – or worse. After Neil took him in, no one had dared to touch him.
Somehow, Neil, found he felt that way about Al. He wanted to keep him safe and to make him smile once in a while, like the dog had wagged his tail, hesitantly, as if he didn’t want to risk feeling that kind of joy.
So he didn’t throw Al out of his bed. Instead, he relaxed his grip a little and prepared himself to tell him he wasn’t interested, but that there was no harm done, or something as meaningless as that. Empty words that only meant one thing – betrayal.
Suddenly, Neil caught himself wanting to feel that kiss again and more. Who else was there for him now? He’d betrayed Alison by lusting for Annie and when he’d finally tasted that forbidden fruit, it had been tainted, just like everything else in her world. His colleagues had turned their backs on him. No one else waited for him. There was no one who could say his name like Al did.
Al waited for whatever Neil would do to him. He told himself that it wouldn’t be like before. Spanish wouldn’t really hurt him. Not physically. If he could just forgive himself for making a mess of everything, it would be alright. Except he knew nothing would ever be alright again, not without Spanish. Neil. He’d never felt anything like what he was feeling for the stocky Englishman.
His first sexual experiences with other boys had meant nothing, he’d told himself. One day he’d meet a girl like Jamila or his mother and he would know the love his father had had for his mother until the day the bomb in the marketplace had torn her insides apart. But the few girls he had had sex with were vulgar, thoughtless tarts. They cared nothing about him and had only contempt for the paki.
By the time his father returned to Pakistan, bitterly disappointed with England, Ali Khan had known he’d have to disappoint his father even more. He wouldn’t be able to accept an arranged marriage any more than he could find a girlfriend he wanted to share his life with. But neither had he ever loved a man before.
Neil’s hand was moving towards him again, and Al instinctively closed his eyes. But the blow he had expected didn’t come. Instead, he felt Neil’s fingers lightly brush his right cheekbone. The fingers slid down towards his mouth and began to trace the outline of his lips. He had to open his eyes and see for himself. His imagination must have led him astray somehow. Neil couldn’t – he wouldn’t –
But when their eyes met, the look in Neil’s eyes made Ali Khan gasp. He’d never seen anyone with green eyes before. It was impossible to imagine anything as beautiful. And yet, they existed. Like pieces of jade or emerald, they shone back at him.
Neil pulled him closer and Ali Khan let himself be enfolded in Neil’s arms, unresistingly. His skin tingled as it made contact with Neil’s bare chest. Ali Khan could feel his nipples stiffen almost painfully. Neil’s scent filled his nostrils and he let his own hand reach for Neil’s.
He pressed his lips against the palm of Neil’s hand. For a long moment, Neil accepted the touch, but eventually, impatiently, he grabbed Al’s chin and tilted it upwards. He closed the distance between their faces and covered Al’s mouth with his. A long, hard kiss banished the rest of Al’s fears. He slid even closer and waited.
When he felt Neil’s hands moving down his body, he felt his own excitement mounting. To his relief, he found that Neil shared his reaction. Al shuddered pleasurably as Neil lay him down on the bed beside him, and he felt the hard muscled body pinning him down. Again, he allowed himself to taste Neil’s lips and tongue and –
It was late in the afternoon when they finally woke up. For the first time since his childhood, Ali Khan didn’t recall any bad dreams disturbing his sleep. He didn’t think Spanish had had any nightmares either.
On the day Neil had decided he would return to the city and turn himself over to the police, they stood outside the cottage, in the rain. Once again, Ali Khan had tried to persuade him to stay a little longer, this time, with slightly more emphasis, but they couldn’t go on like this. As long as the manslaughter charge was hanging over his head, Neil knew he would never know peace, not even in Al’s arms.
To his own surprise, he effortlessly kissed Al again, lingeringly, until he finally let go, regretfully. Once inside the city, they wouldn’t be able to touch like this.
“Time to go. Look, Al, why don’t you stay a while? I’ll let you know through Skankie when you can visit me.”
“No. I’ll go with you, Spanish. Can you see me, rotting away out here? Without you? The city is me home and that’s where I belong. Let’s go, then.”
“Right. Suit yourself.”
Secretly, Neil liked having Al there. Even if they wouldn’t be able to hold each other and definitely not kiss. They could talk. Say goodbye for the time being. And they could always devour each other with their eyes. It would be something for him to live on the months he’d have to spend in a cell again.
At least now he had something to come back to. Not just the job. Al would be there too. Suddenly, even a year in a cell didn’t seem too daunting. It would be alright, just like Al had kept telling him and he’d kept telling Al.
They didn’t say much on the way back to the city. Each man was lost in his own thoughts, planning ahead for the time they would have to spend apart.
Neil stopped on the way to ring Wallace. As he’d expected, the man didn’t even sound surprised. He merely said it was good he’d turned up. No more than that. Something told Neil the coppers hadn’t been out looking for him day and night since he’d left.
Outside the police station, Neil was surprised to find Ford there too. He had been trying his best to convince the younger copper of his innocence, but he had never expected to be believed quite as easily. It looked as if he’d made two new friends during their manhunt for him. That was odd, but he really preferred Al and Skankie anyway. Still, having a few coppers on his side couldn’t hurt either.
At the last moment, Neil turned and faced Al. It looked as if Al was going to say something, then changed his mind and closed his mouth again. It must have occurred to him that anything he had to say would have to pass Ford’s and Wallace’s ears too.
The formalities didn’t take long. He was used to them by now. Only this time, it was a little different. No one used more force than necessary. There were no little ‘accidents’. No bruises on his face to explain away. All they did, was lock him up in a small cell, while he waited for the transport to come and pick him up and take him to the lockup.
When the cell door had closed behind Neil, Ford shook his head. This was insane. Totally unfair. The way that poor man had suffered, and now he was going to suffer even more. Elgin had been scum. How could his life count for more than Byrne’s act of self defence?
Of course the defence would throw the case out of court, but until then, Byrne would be stuck in limbo, unable to even try to rebuild his life. There were times when Ford was beginning to doubt if he’d made the right career choice. Nowadays, increasingly, the lines between his side and the others’ were getting blurred.
Wallace, too, was thinking of the remarkable man they’d just locked up again. He wasn’t feeling any more elated at the day’s work, but his mind kept moving in other directions.
“I’ll buy you a pint, if you like.”
“Thanks. Just one then. I need to be getting back. It just seemed as the right thing to do, being here when Byrne turned himself in.”
They got into Wallace’s car and drove a few blocks away to Wallace’s favorite pub. Before they went inside, Wallace turned to face Ford, a look of discomfort on his face.
“Wasn’t there a very rum look on Byrne’s face as he was looking at that paki? And the way he was looking back at Byrne – It’s almost as if – but that doesn’t make sense, does it? I mean, Byrne was married, right? I also heard he was doing Connor’s tart too. But they were -”
Privately, Ford had thought there had been something very rum indeed about the emotions he’d sensed between Byrne and the little Pakistani taxi driver, or whatever he was. Extremely odd, when you thought about it. He never would have thought Byrne would – but they had to remember the circumstances and it really wasn’t for them to judge.
“I can’t see that it’s any of our business, DCS Wallace.”
“Right. But – I mean, have you ever heard of anything like that? And a paki too.”
As if that made it all the more unbelievable. But DI Ford had had quite enough of speculation of that nature. He’d done enough harm to an innocent man. His guilt wasn’t in any way relieved, when he recalled that Byrne wouldn’t have killed that lowlife Elgin if he hadn’t ended up innocently accused of his wife’s and daughter’s murder.
“If – and I’m not saying that there is – but if there is something like that going on – remember that he’s been in jail for – Who knows what happened to him in there? If he’s become – I mean – if you’re right, then we did it to him. Just leave him be, DCS Wallace. I had a chance to spot this conspiracy against him, but I didn’t. Whatever he’s done – it’s on my head.”
Wallace coughed uncomfortably. He hadn’t known Ford would take on so. Still, as it happened, Ford could be right.
“Ahem. Quite. Well, shall we?”
Ali Khan drove back to his business to see if Skankie was still looking after the place. He felt as if a lot had changed since the last time he walked into the little dingy office. For the first time since he could remember, he wasn’t afraid anymore. Spanish would be back, and in the meantime, he would be able to visit him in there.