Dandelion Souls Serial Part 2

Dandelion Souls Serial Part 2

Dandelion Souls - Serial Part 2

Chapter 11- Catching Up

Al and Dee ate the simple casserole meal she'd prepared at the black glass table, neither being particularly forthright about events during their days apart.  Al dismissed her enquiries, with a shrug and a warm smile saying only,

"Duty done.  I'm just glad to get back to you.  It's all lots of visiting and sitting about with everyone trying to impress everyone else, and far too much food.  Everyone wants to feed you wherever you go."

"I expect they were glad to see you, though?"

"Yeah, I love them too but, you know," he answered vaguely.  "I don't need them.  I've got you."

"Mmm, " said Dee, knowing that he did need them, really.

"Anyway, " he added, with his energetic spriteliness bouncing back. "I've got lots on to deal with here.  Business is booming."

Yes, thought Dee, and so is mine, and she hugged the thought secretively, while smiling back. It occurred to her to notice that this business world of Al's had now entered the realms of normal for her.  She was getting used to shady dealings, she realised and slipping further into Al's world, morally speaking.  Besides, she had implicated herself in it already, she considered, when she let him take money from her brother's credit card.

Al told her, when they were sitting cuddling later, that there was still no intention to start development work on the mill yet, investment in the property having secured it but not yet at the stage of sinking what was needed into all that, so they were safe to stay there and caretake for free.  

"He's happy enough for now," Al said, (he being his older brother, Hamid, who seemed to act as head of the family).  "I keep him sweet, don't I?" and he gave her his top dog  grin, suggesting that while his brother was complicit in all the goings on and sharing in the profits, Al himself was the main man and the sharp one.  Dee gave him that, used to his need for praise for his abilities, saying how clever he was, but how about keeping her sweet now, because she had missed him?  Happy she was as pleased with him as he seemed to be with himself, he was glad to oblige.

Al immersed himself in activities over the next couple of weeks, out a lot driving between 'contacts' or busy with people down in the office area, which Dee very much avoided, leaving her free to complete her commission without too many interruptions.  Nathe and Frankie now had a regular delivery to Dream and Frankie was happy to parcel up the pictures carefully and take them in the trailor as discussed.

"You helped us out there, Dee.  We're doing well through Dream, getting recommendations too."

They had covered their tracks sufficiently by letting Al know Frankie had got an order from there, Frankie saying casually that she had thought of trying Dream when Dee had chatted with her about waitressing there before, and wrapping it up in a bouquet of thanks to Al for letting her and Nathe start up in the mill and get a proper foundation for their fledgling business.

"Well, you do me a favour, too," he said with a wink, alluding to what he called the medicinal side of their cultivation.  "It's not a bad place but what kind of deal have you got? Are they paying you properly for your stuff?  I thought they were a rip off when Dee was there, wages wise," (and so he smoothly covered a potential reason for her having left, while going on to suggest Nathe and Frankie should drive a harder bargain).

He had asked Dee afterwards what she had said about it, working at Dream,  and she assured him not much, that she had said she tried it for a while in there and it was nice but not for her, which he seemed to accept.  She said Frankie would keep an eye on her paintings for her, she wanted to leave them up for now, which he was fine with, having made sure Frankie wouldn't pass any direct details on to anyone about the young artist, because, he said, he'd handle any business side if anyone did leave a name and number at Dream (Frankie and Dee said nothing to that).  Frankie duly met Fliss, who declared herself reasonably satisfied with the outcome and paid up but made a bit of a fuss in the cafe bar about it all, being a theatrical type who enjoyed a bit of public posturing, which, Frankie reported back to Dee, had led to a few more people going to look at the pictures on the walls out of interest.

"You never know!" she said.  "I've asked them to take details again if anyone asks and I'll pick them up for you."

"Thanks!" said Dee, who was proud of herself.   "I might call in one day too.  But don't mention it to Al."

"All right," said Frankie, "You should.  They ask after you, er, Liz!"

"Oh," said Dee, "yes, I was serving alcohol underage, you see, so I didn't give them my real name."

"Ah, right," said Frankie, not questioning that minor subterfuges were sometimes required when one's activities were not quite above board.   

Andrew and Nolan's breakthrough seemed to have come to a halt.  Return visits to Dream did not find Debbie there.  Nolan broached the computer system, but only key management staff were on the payroll, bar and waitressing work being on a casual labour basis, with no actual contract involved.   There was an arty social cachet associated with being "in" at Dream, and so there was a plentiful pool of young people to draw on for that, as needed.  The 'agency' understood this, their own tax returns for a rather new and still getting established missing persons bureau being a somewhat minimised declaration.  Cash in hand was something they were familiar with, in a stretched economy.  This being so, they had to consider asking questions at Dream as well as doing occasional surveillance among their other current jobs (some debt chasing, cheating spouse checking and accountancy work helped pay the bills), but were reluctant to break cover.  In a place of such loose associations, they couldn't guess who might be close to Debbie and tell her that someone was asking questions and looking for her. 

Nolan had also tried to check out the apartment block but there was no clear way to finding out who was living there, a confusing and ever changing number of different estate agents seeming to deal with lettings and no overall owner identifiable.  The electoral roll was sketchy at best, too.  They decided on another indirect approach to a mystery shopper style visit in case it turned either Al or Debbie up.  If they were to inform Debbie's family, they needed to try and find out which flat it was and be definite that they really were there.  Since Andrew had only recently been there in person, this time Nolan went and tried each of the upstairs bells, the ground floor flat already being a known quantity.  He was allegedly trying to find a friend who'd invited him round but it was his first visit and he was a bit unsure which floor he'd been told, he said to those who answered.  People were in on the third and fourth floors but were unconnected and he had to retreat saying maybe he had the wrong block and would try the one across the street.  There were several similar sets of dwellings, so he was plausible.  He asked about floor two without much hope, but the residents, as he had expected, clearly kept themselves to themselves.

" Don't really know, man," they variously said and " I don't take much notice."

Since he had tried every other bell, for forms sake and not to look inconsistent if anyone were watching, he tried the ground floor one last.  There was no answer, but a white cat, alerted by the chime, jumped on to the inside windowsill and looked out at him.

"You're stuck out there" it seemed to say.  "And I'm in here.  Look!"

Nolan addressed its eloquent gaze.

" I bet you know more than you're letting on, don't you mate?" he said to it.

The cat blinked in reply.

"I might," its expression said.

The cat watched him down the path, the only creature who had shown any interest in his call, or so he thought.  The person in flat two had been expecting someone, but not him and so hadn't answered the door, but made a call to check.

"Who's doing the drop today?"

"I am.  Why?"

" O.k.  Just some guy at the door before, looking for a friend, he said.  I didn't answer.  Heard him asking.  Was here a while.  Persistent."


"I didn't recognise him.  Just some bloke, I think.  I took a picture in case you need to check him out.  You said people were trying to muscle in, didn't you?"

"Always are, we just have to be on it.   All right.  I'll take a look at him."

Nolan had made a point of crossing the road and trying another doorbell as he had said he would, where he was let in, as he used a conman entrance tactic on the doorstep, which gained him a good hour. 

"Oh, it's ok," continued the watcher, still on their call, seeing him go in but not who had opened the door to him.  "Looks like he's found his friend over the road."

"Hmm, I'll still hang on a bit, just in case.  See you later."

Nolan had a cup of tea with the elderly resident, who was delighted to hear that he was trying to set up a Neighbourhood Watch scheme following a break in at his own flat (allegedly across the estate) and he was sympathised with, both for the distress caused by robbery and for having to live on "that side," which was apparently a lot less respectable than "this side".  Getting ready to go after a long and affable chat on the subject, Nolan said that if he succeeded in drumming up enough interest, he would be in touch, and if not,

"Well," he said winningly, " At least I'll have tried, won't I?"

"Good lad!" said his host, thoroughly approving of him and having had a solitary afternoon enjoyably livened up.

Nolan let himself out, saying not to get up and without looking back at the block in question, rounded a few corners to the rear with discretion and slid into Andrew's car, parked where the flats' entrance was in sight but not especially visible themselves.

"No joy at the flats," he said, " but I just had a nice cup of tea and a chat across the way.  I think I made quite a hit.  Anything doing?"

" Yes, well the day you can't sweet-talk the old and gullible, hang up your hat, " rejoined Andrew, who had seen the person answering the door from his angle.  Nolan smiled serenely.  "No, nothing doing, " Andrew continued.  "Nobody came or went."

They conferred about the residents.  Nolan's calling there had narrowed down the possibilities.  If Al and Dee were there, the second floor flat must be the one, they thought, for in both of the other cases where Nolan had got an answer from residents, the male half of the couples Andrew had been told lived there had answered and definitely not been Al.

"There's a white cat," remarked Nolan.  "Ground floor."


"Cool name."

"I thought so."

"Cool customer as well."

"They always are, aren't they, cats?  We'd better go, you know.  Just because nobody answered doesn't mean no-one was in does it?  You were there long enough to be memorable and we're not parked that far away."

They drove quietly and casually away in a dull little taupe car, not one to catch an interested eye, avoiding passing that particular building again and realising that they had pretty much burnt their boats now as far as catching Debbie and Al there in person went, at least for now.  They agreed that they should pass on what they had discovered so far to Debbie's family and let them think about what they wanted to do next.  Andrew soon made his next visit to them, gently telling them what they thought they now knew at the agency and that he himself had, in fact, seen her.  He showed them the little clip on his phone.

"Now," he advised.  "It doesn't appear that Debbie is working there all the time, or even still, but the agency is getting closer to where she may be living.  The thing is, how do you want to handle it in terms of trying to make any contact because, and I'm sorry to say this, she's clearly not under any duress and if she wanted to do so, could clearly get in touch with you herself?"

He waited for them to get over seeing their daughter after so long.

"What a waste," said her dad, it seemed of all aspects of things.

"Would you like the agency to continue, or hand things back to you?" Andrew said, his considerate gaze resting on them without pressure, but hoping he hadn't made the wrong move (he and Nolan really couldn't afford to lose this case, office rent for one thing could be difficult next month if he had).

Debbie's parents retreated into the kitchen to discuss it privately and came back in shortly afterwards.

"We'd like you to continue," said her father.  "We haven't got enough to go on and we don't want her to run again.  Softly, softly, I think, as you have advised.  We'll go with your expertise.  Besides, we don't know what ideas that man's put into her silly head, do we?"

" She looked well, and... well, and happy," added Dee's mother reluctantly.  "We'll have to settle for knowing as much as we can and waiting for her to be ready.  We're relying on you for that."

Andrew breathed a sigh of relief as they signed the papers up for a further three month's work by the agency.

"Your daughter's case is our priority," he assured them, "being a young person, she's vulnerable.  The next steps will be to try to find a means of establishing some sort of dialogue between you, but it will have to be very carefully handled."

Being a young person to some extent also, and in their eyes, a bit awkward and vulnerable himself, Dee's parents felt that Andrew Munro had the right empathy and rapport to deal with bringing that engagement about, somehow, and to offset that shy aspect of him, in his favour he seemed to have a weight to his character which engendered confidence in them about his maturity.  They found, now, that they put real trust in him.  Andrew himself perceived this and while keeping his professional distance, appreciated it and wanted to do his very best for them.  They were decent, he thought, the kind of word people didn't use much now, but one which was appropriate and he respected their continued dignity, moist eyed occasionally but never giving up hope of a reconciliation and never less than warmly polite in their reception of him. 

There was a change in the air around the mill.  Cars of people came and went through the courtyard, much more of a crowd than before and it was noisy down there at times, shouting and rows or an intoxicated shrieking and excited yelling audible.  Nathe commented on it one day when Dee was with them both helping out again, saying that he didn't go down there any more because now it always felt on the edge of trouble brewing, that it was different somehow.  Dee thought Al was uneasy too, that there was a sense of an out of control element about it all that he was no longer quite in charge of.

Faisal was present much more often and took to calling in on them at the flat, whether Al was there or not, sometimes bringing someone with him.  It became the same person he would drop in with, a chattily attractive youth called Jud, and they would talk to Dee while waiting for Al.  The glass topped table was put into a different use, small scales weighing out white powder, skilfully scooped and bagged, occasionally a line chopped and shared by the two in the process.  Dee didn't question it, but she felt there was something else going on here, that Faisal was putting her in the way of someone else on purpose.  When Al came in and happened on them doing this, he was furious and called them out to the roof top where there were heated words, the door banged open.

"Not in my gaffe, and not around Dee.  Right?" 

"It's not your gaffe though, is it?"

"It is while I'm living in it.  Get him out and if you're using, don't do it round my lady."

"Sorry, man. "  (This from Jud).

Al continued to have a go at Faisal, saying things were getting messed up and that he should never have let Rashid in so closely.

"I don't like what he does.  You know that."

"Well I can't stop him, can I?  He's handling the goods in transit isn't he?"

"That's not all he's handling, though is it?  He's trouble, always was and always will be."

Faisal laughed pointedly.

"And you're not?  Get real, Al.  All right.  I'll speak to him. I'll get it calmed down a bit."

"Good.  And remember. Use the office and don't bring people up here."

There was a hostile silence followed by another murmured apology from Jud and Al brought them back down to see them off out of the flat. 

"Don't open the door to them again, Dee," he warned her, then said, "Come on let's get out of here for a while, go for a drive somewhere."

Andrew went back to Dream, thinking, as he had said to Nolan, that the vegetable box Debbie had brought in and its origins, might be a way of making a link.  He asked specifically, as a choosy customer who remembered a special he had had one day, if they still got deliveries of that produce and if so, what the best day was to come when it was fresh in.

"Bit of a health fad about all that," he said apologetically.

"You must mean Carrot Top, our organic suppliers?" the manager he had asked told him. "Yes, we get a weekly box, Monday mornings about eleven usually.  That's your best day to come in for lunch and take your pick."

Andrew made sure to be there when the delivery was due, working quietly at a window table on his laptop, where he had a clear view when a cheerful looking girl pedalled up outside on a bike with a box trailor behind it, from which she took a packed box.  Leonine elf locks tied up in a flamboyant bandanna, wearing purple leather, silver heeled biker boots, with denim shorts and a halter neck top completing the ensemble, she made a striking figure.  Andrew wasn't the only one to look up with a smile as she kicked open the door to back in with the box, saying bouncily,

"Grub's up!  Give us a hand."

"Frank...ie...ie!" greeted the manager Andrew had spoken to before, reaching out a long arm to assist.  (All the bearded hipsters were well over six feet, but then so was Andrew, sharing the generational increase in average height).  "Here you go, mate," he called across to Andrew, "this is what you've been waiting for," making it easy for him to approach eagerly. 

Andrew tried to get a word with Frankie, but she was in a bustle of checking the delivery items off and getting the next order organised and listed and also by being excited when the young manager continued,

"Oh, hey you know how you were asking?  You and Nathe can have a spot for an hour on Thursday night if you like?  We're doing another local talent week.  No pay, I'm afraid, just a chance to showcase?"

"Cool!" said Frankie.  "We'd love to!"

Thursday night.  Andrew looked at the poster up behind the counter, which said," eight till late, live music by arrangement, see the staff!"

"What are you called?" the manager asked, getting a pen to put her on the list of acts.

"Hydro," she told him. 

Andrew picked a large beef tomato and some greens to be made into a salad for him,  with a drizzle of dressing and french bread, he specified.

"I've come in specially for your stuff,"  he took the opportunity to say to Frankie.

She gave him her friendly smile.

"Cool," she said again.  "Good choice" and she cocked a gun like finger at him, miming pulling the trigger.  "Bang on."   She turned back to the manager.  "Anything for Liz?"

"Not this week.  She can change the gallery if she likes. Put a few new ones up.  Has she got any?"

"Think so," said Frankie, "I'll tell her," with that and another smile for the company at large, she picked up the now empty box and booted her way back out again to the bike and trailor.

"Where does she operate from?" asked Andrew as his salad was prepared.

"Don't know.  Trade secret, all we've got's a business card and a web address.  Her and her partner, I think.  They do home deliveries if you want to put an order in," and he handed Andrew a business card, with a cartoon like carrot on it topped with green fronds, and a web address to email in to.

He took it and his salad and went to eat.  Wondering who Liz was, he went to look at the paintings hung on the cafe bar walls and thought it would be all right to ask about them too, since he had overheard the conversation.

"Those are interesting," he commented, ordering a coffee to follow on with.   "Who did them?"

"One of the girls here," said the barman but he was busy with another customer too, so Andrew didn't get to ask any more about who Liz was.

He and Nolan came on Thursday night, because there was an outside chance that Debbie, or both she and Al might be in the audience.  The place was half full and from around eight pm a few ramshackle sets ensued.  Nathe and Frankie were on about ten but there was no sign for the private eyes of their sought after couple. Frankie sang and played drums enthusiastically, while Nathe played a loud guitar with a remote, dreamy concentration on raggedy riffs.  The overall effect was oddly endearing, like children let loose at random and occasionally hitting on something structural and melodic.  Frankie had an earthy singing voice which carried through the noise, although the lyrics were a bit of a mystery through the sound blur.  It was clearly all their own work.

"They're a bit post punk, don't you think?" said Andrew meditatively, when they stopped for scattered applause.

"They're a bit something, all right," said Nolan, looking pained.  "My ears are ringing.  I'm too old for this."

"Fogey," said Andrew.

"You're not fooling anyone, you know," Nolan told him.  "Your round, I believe."

Nathe and Frankie clattered their instruments off stage to make way for the next spot.  Andrew sidled round to them on his way to the bar.

"Well done!" he said to them.  "Great gig."

"Thanks," said Nathe.  "We're not everyone's cup of tea."

"Very original," Andrew asserted.

"Oh, hey, beef tomato man!" exclaimed Frankie, remembering him,  "How was the salad?"

"Exquisite," said Andrew.  "Can I buy you a drink?"

They looked like beer people, he thought, affordable, just.

"Oh, yeah, thanks," said Frankie.  "Jack Daniels and coke, please."

"I'll have Southern Comfort, if that's all right?  Oh, doubles are cheaper in here, by the way," Nathe added.

Andrew recovered himself.

"Oh, fine.  Fine," he said.  "Er, join us, we're just over there."

Nolan flipped a languid hand to signal back and they went happily across to him, taking out ready rolled joints at the table to slip out for a celebratory smoke, which they offered to share.  Nolan and Andrew did a bit of their double act bickering about having given up smoking, amusing Nathe and Frankie but these two, despite appearing to be open books, were skilfully resistant to being probed about the whys and wherefores of their world and lives.  If asked too direct a question, they just looked calmly back, smiling mildly but not answering, waiting politely for the conversation to move on.  Even Nolan, the better of the two at getting underneath a person's guard, with a flow of self deprecating anecdotes which invited a reciprocal sharing, got nothing but easy laughter and some old travelogue tales of backpacker life in return.  Andrew opted for the being fascinated approach, wonderfully alternative, music and gardening, wasn't it?  As this progressed, Nathe, naturally sleepy eyed, seemed to shut down a little further, deeply chilled.

"Hey, Frankie," he said finally.  "We should go, babe.  We have to take Mike's van back after we drop our gear off at home, remember?  Borrowed a mate's," he went so far as to explain to them.

"Yup," she said.  "Cheers for the drinks and the company, guys.  Next time.  Enjoy," and they got up from the table, went to collect their instruments and say their farewells and thanks for the chance of a spot to the manager.   

Should they follow?  They decided to, at a discrete distance in the traffic, for it was not so late that there were not still plenty of cars on the road.  The van, though, headed out in a completely different direction from the estate they looked for Debbie on, turning into the back of an old light engineering area and a small street of two up two downs, where they didn't follow, driving on past the end of the road because they would have been too obvious otherwise.  They were worried about this anyway.

"Do you think we pushed it a bit too far?" asked Andrew as they drove back home themselves to drop Nolan off first.  "Did they pick up on anything?"

"I'm not sure how much attention they were paying, really," Nolan pondered.  "I think they're just people who avoid giving much away as a matter of course.  Probably on benefits and not legit to work, moonlighting.  The usual."


"Or the other usual."


"Dealing or growing or both.  They're weedheads, that's obvious.  Well, he is."

"Maybe but he wasn't that stoned.  We were definitely asking too many questions for his liking."

In this they weren't wrong, but Nathe had actually got them pegged as undercover cops and he decided to have a word with Al about it, bringing up the fact that they were trying to find out where the market gardening was going on and obviously had an agenda.  He showed Al a picture he had taken on his phone which he had casually snapped saying, jokingly, that he had to have one of their rare fans and although it wasn't very clear given the lighting, it was enough to make Al frown and look twice, thinking one of these was a face he had been shown before.

"Hmm," he said.  "I think we need to be careful."

"It's pretty rowdy round  here, too, now, don't you think?" said Nathe.  "Not how we handled it all before.  I'm a bit worried we could attract too much attention."

"Don't worry.  I'm sorting that," Al told him, looking thoughtful.  "But yes, I know what you mean."

The weather took a rain filled downturn, and the gates of the mill were kept locked at night, Dee was pleased to find, "business" being conducted by day.  Her paintings done and inspiration temporarily exhausted, Dee was bored and wanted to go out more with Al, so again he would take her with him sometimes as he had the summer before.  On one of these occasions, they went back to their old estate, because he had to call in on one of the tenants, he said.

"Who lives there, now?" Dee asked idly.

"People, " he replied, in his amused, what silly questions you ask, kind of way, humouring her.  "Wait here." 

Disobediently, and really only out of a mischievous curiosity, Dee decided to follow him.   She stopped at a discreet distance but clearly saw who opened the main entrance door to him.  Gemma.  The very sight of her instantly fired up all Dee's fundamental jealousy of the girl and she started forward without thinking.

"Al!" she shouted.

He turned, displeased, as she came up to them.  Gemma's hair was short now, softly spiked around her face, prettying her features and enhancing large eyes, high cheekbones which were currently flushing up.  She was just holding her hand out to Al, as if expecting him to take it in his.  Al looked quickly around them.  The estate was quiet, no passersby and it started raining again.  He gestured Gemma back inside, where she retreated instantly, shutting the access door and hurried Dee back and into the car without speaking.

"Not, not in our flat!" she burst out at him.

"For fuck's sake," muttered Al, driving them quickly away.  "We've been through all this."

"Have we?" demanded Dee recklessly.  "Have we really?"

"How many times do I have to tell you, girl, it's business.  And I don't" he said, turning to grin at her unexpectedly, "mean monkey business.  Silly girl," he said.  "Who's mine?  You are."

The old trope still reassured, despite what Dee thought of as, the evidence.

"Yes, but, am I the only one who is?" she dared to persue, this time.

"Gemma's not with me," Al said, finally after a long pause.

"But she was."

"Once.  Long back.  She made a choice."

"To leave you?"

"No. To tempt fate and see what would happen.  It's not your business.  The past is the past."

As a statement, it stood up, but not, to Dee,  alongside the intricacies of Gemma and Al's interactions.

"She's living there?"

"It's a drop.  An arrangment."

"Like us.  We're an arrangment at the mill.  Aren't we?  And your brother is the one controlling where everyone lives, isn't he?"

"Something wrong with where we live?" asked Al.  "I thought you loved it."

"Mostly.  But...."

"But?" Al asked dangerously, as if she were edging towards tempting fate herself.

"I'm alone too much and I don't know what's going on there most of the time, and I'm scared for you!  What if something happens to you down there?"

"Oh, Dee," he said, softening.  "You've always been deciding that something has happened to me.  Everything's fine.  I know what I'm doing and how to look after myself, and more importantly, how to look after you."

She sniffed, wanting to be comforted in his presence, and in his presence, as always, she was, convinced by his words and his physical company, though in her head Faisal's words of warning still sounded:

"Al courts trouble.  And sometimes he finds it," Al's cousin had said.

"Look," said Al. "It's time to ease back a bit anyway.  Why don't we go away for a week or so.  Little holiday.  I'll take you to London, how about that?"

"Oh, yes!" she exclaimed.  "Just us together.  I'd love that, Al!

"All right, and no more of this silly carry on.  Gemma's no threat to you.  I promise you that."

She could only nod and try to believe him.

Andrew, on watch again more out of keeping the routine up than expecting anything,  had witnessed Dee's arrival and managed to get a picture of the girl who'd answered the door, the one he'd seen coming out of there before.  When Dee and Al drove off, she came out again, talking urgently on her mobile and being distracted, hadn't noticed him.  He couldn't chance following Dee and Al's car, he'd have been spotted immediately and Al was spooked, he could tell.  Andrew decided to risk calling at the property again, because if this was where Dee and Al lived, what had all that just been about?

The ground floor flat once more had the white cat, Malarky, gracing its window and when the man answered, looking a bit more with it this time, it shot out and wound round Andrew's ankles before retreating under the small low hedge from the rain.

"Hello.  Haven't I seen you before, mate?" asked the tenant, but not sure.

"Don't think so," said Andrew disingenuously, presenting his clipboard again.  " Electoral roll." he explained.  " I'm following up where people haven't registered.  Now, you're fine."

"Am I?" said the man, evidently surprised.

"Yes, but number two, I can't get an answer."

"Oh, she's just gone out.  He's not in though."

"Ah, I thought I might have just missed them.  He was leaving with another girl?"

"Oh, that's not him.  Looks a bit like him, yeah, but that's not him."

"Right," said Andrew.  " Not to worry. I'll call back on the rounds another day.  No message."

"Oh, we don't talk, " said the tenant cheerfully.  "It's all comings and goings up there."

Interesting, thought Andrew.  The rain had stopped again and the white cat resisted attempts to call it back in.

"Sod you, then.  Stay out there if you like," said the tenant after a few wheedling tries.  "See you, mate, "  he said in goodbye , closing the door and Andrew departed.

When he showed Nolan the photograph of the girl, he said,

"We've seen her."

"You know, I wondered about that, too."

Nolan pulled up what images they had scanned, on the lap top screen.  The old photobooth snap was one and they homed in on it, enlarging it.

"Well, well.  Old friends, and good friends, by the look of it.  So you saw them both, then, Al and Debbie?"

"Yes but only for a moment.   She ran up and called to him at the door and they were only there a second or two, then he hurried Debbie off again."

"Could you hear anything?"

"Not really.  She had her head down when they came back to the car and he just looked as if he wanted to get out of there.  He was keeping a good look out though.  I couldn't risk going after them."

"No. "  Nolan turned his attention to the car registration plate Andrew had managed to get a shot of, but when he ran checks, it was registered to a woman out of town.

"This Al is good at staying legally invisible, isn't he?"

"He likes to cut a bit of a dash, though, doesn't he, looks wise, dress wise? What do you reckon?"

"It all points to drugs stuff, doesn't it?  How much dealing I don't know yet."

"More than likely.  Let's look into that side.  Can you check police records again?  Have we got any mug shots for anyone so far?"

"Not for him.  He's got no record.  I'll have another go.  Let's see if any raids have gone down or are in the making.  I'll hack in to have a listen."

"Ok, good," said Andrew.  "Right, I'll have to leave this one for now.  I have to check on where my cheating wife case has got up to.  We'll pick up on this again later.  We're no nearer to where they are, but they haven't left the city, that's for sure."

"Not yet, " agreed Nolan, "but lets back off a little.  I think we need to keep out of people's faces a bit."

Andrew agreed and left to follow up on one of the other jobs on their books.


Chapter 12- Getting There

Al and Dee had driven off from the estate and Gemma, but not back to the mill.  Al's phone was repeat ringing but he ignored it, in favour of heading out on a lengthy detour instead. When Dee asked where they were going, Al said he was making sure they weren't being followed.

"You might have got us noticed back there," he said.  "You're not the only one people might be looking for, you know."  After a while more, he announced, seeming to have come to a decision, " I'll have to talk to my brother," and they continued on to the big house Dee had been to many months before.

The gilded balconies and faux pillars beside the brilliant blue painted front door looked as rawly new as ever, behind the over ornate black and gold railings surrounding the grounds, but this time Al had to use a remote control button to open the now electronic gates to go in.

"Do you want me to wait in the car?" asked Dee resignedly.

"No.  Come in," Al surprised her by saying.  They got out and he ran his eyes over the line of cars parked on the forecourt appraisingly, as if picking out one he might like.  " I'll have to change cars when we go," he said.  "This one's probably been spotted."

His phone rang again and this time he answered it.

"What do you want?" he asked, in none too friendly a tone.  "No, I can't.  You'll have to wait."

"Who was that?" said Dee.

"Your favourite person, getting restive, " he replied, unrevealingly.  Gemma, she presumed, or maybe Faisal, to whom Al had a sarcastic way of referring like this following his visits to their flat.  "Come on," and he took her hand so that when they rang the doorbell and it was answered, it was to a couple together.

Hamid, relaxing at home in casual joggers, was clearly surprised to see them.

"Little brother," he said, in his usual greeting to Al.  "What?"

"We need a quick chat," said Al.

Hamid regarded him for a moment, unsmiling and in charge, thinking about it.

"All right," he replied eventually.  "I'm home alone, so come on in."

He took them into the big front room Dee remembered, where he'd been watching motor racing on the huge wall mounted television, by the look of it.  Hamid switched it off and gestured for them to sit, which they did, side by side on one big leather couch, while he sat on the one opposite.  He didn't offer any refreshments, just looked at Al waiting for him to explain himself, and ignored Dee.

"I think we might have a bit of a problem," Al began.  "Two guys sniffing around, I'm not sure who or what for.  They've been cosying up to ask questions and watching the drop place, I think.  That other business is still hanging about like a bad smell and he's stirring all his shit up again round us.  I had it all sorted for you."

Hamid's heavy face had remained expressionless throughout, but he raised his eyebrows at this last.

"You did?"

"Well.  Yeah, pretty much," Al declared.

"And there's Faisal telling me it's him that has it sorted, and Rashid telling me it's him.  Three big success stories all in one go.  I am blessed," said a caustic Hamid.

Al looked insubordinate and downcast simultaneously.

"You wanted it all kept in the family, didn't you?" he asked, in his sulky tone.

"After your little break away venture, last year?  Too right, I did. I've had to put sugar in a lot of people's tea to keep them sweet."

"I know, and I still owe you.  I always will," Al capitulated, trying an impudent youngest brother smile out.

Hamid looked at Dee for the first time, then back at Al.

"This doesn't help, does it?" he said of her.  "We've already got one I've had to sort out."

"Dee's fine," said Al quickly.  "She's never caused a bit of trouble."

"Not so far. Not reached her sell by date yet, then?"

"Don't!" said Al, reaching to squeeze Dee's hand.

Dee was lost.  Two guys?  Who?  What Hamid and Al referred to she could only guess at, the trouble he had been in last year, she supposed.  And who was the one Hamid had already had to sort out?  Gemma?  Al was pressing on, though in a conciliatory, declaration for the defence sort of way, which was far from his usual style.

"You know Dee helped me out then, too," he said to his frowning brother.

"Yes," replied Hamid.  "And I thought once I'd organised paying it all back, that would be the end of that."

"It wasn't all paid back,"  Dee blurted out unintentionally.  "Only part of it."

"What?  That's the first you've said about it!" accused Al, immediately angry.  "What do you mean?   Gemma sorted it and gave you the card back."

Dee said nothing while this sank in.

"Bloody little bitch!" exclaimed Al, of Gemma, not Dee.  "So all this time, you've thought I was a liar to you?"

"No!  No, I didn't!" protested Dee.  "I thought you'd done your very best.  Anyway, her plan didn't work, did it? I expect she did that on purpose to cause trouble between us.  But it didn't. And it hasn't, Al!"

Al didn't answer, and Hamid said,

"You see what happens with these women of yours, little brother?"

"Listen," Al said to him, having exchanged a long look with Dee filled with angrily wounded reproach.  "Gemma's not my problem any more."

"Then make sure this one doesn't start being one, or I'll get her sent packing and you, too.  You can have a long holiday abroad visiting relatives.  "  

This sounded like indulgent bluster, even to Dee.  Hamid clearly had no real intention of sending this favoured baby brother into exile.  Al knew it too and relaxed a bit.

"Never mind all that" he persuaded.  "It's all this other stuff needs sorting out now so we don't get trouble.  I thought it might be good to go to London for a couple of weeks, me and Dee, keep our heads down and stay out of the way, let you deal with things with those two so I don't wind it up."

This seemed to achieve the effective approach, bowing to Hamid's authority over the situation in general.

"All right, " he agreed. " You did the right thing coming to tell me, Amjal.  I'll pull everyone into line."

In this house again, it was only the second time Dee had heard Al referred to by his full name.

"Can I change the car?" asked Al.  "Make sure no one can keep tabs through the wheels?"

"Not a problem.  The black Audi.  Take that."

Al looked pleased with the suggestion of this much more desirable vehicle, as the car keys were dug out of a locked drawer for him, until Hamid followed up with:

"No holiday for a couple of days.  I've got things I need you to do.  Tomorrow morning, I want you at the airport by ten. Pick up Jamil and look after him, he'll need running round places. Then bring him here to me by five.  Don't be late and do it alone. After that take the car you brought back and valet it.  Right.  Off you go. I'll talk to those two next."

Al didn't look happy with being gopher and chauffeur but clearly had to swallow it.  They left, Dee following Al out but not having her hand held this time.  He went over to their new car, which had a mean black gleam, as richly waxed and polished as the rest of the line up.

"I don't usually have to do that," grumbled Al, nodding towards their old car, resentful of the request to get it cleaned up himself.  "I'm being told, aren't I?" but he was talking more to himself than to Dee.

They got into the new car, which smelt of leather and a citrussy air freshener.  Al didn't speak to her.

"Al?" she queried, several minutes after they had set off.

"You'll have to give me a bit of thinking time over that in there," he replied coolly. "I didn't realise you were so good at keeping things to yourself.  It's not something I trust."

"But, it doesn't matter, Al.  Why would I have said anything about it to you?"

"You just did.  It would have been better if you had done it back then, instead of making me look as if you thought I broke my word now.  You made me look stupid in front of my brother. That's my honour, my respect looking bad."

Dee was suddenly spirited.

"Family honour!  I thought you didn't buy into all that stuff?  So you've always told me!"

"Not like that. My reputation in front of him, I mean."

"And don't give me all that respect 'gangsta' shit, either!" Dee continued, fired up.

"Oh?  Just a little bit of gangsta shit's o.k. with you, is it?  To glam things up?  If you didn't like a bad boy, you wouldn't be with me in the first place, would you?  Hold on."  Another thought struck him, clearly an unpleasant one.  "Is that why you really came to me, Dee?  Because you knew not all the money was paid back and you were afraid that it would be found out and you'd be in trouble with your family?"

 "No, of course not!" she denied, feeling duplicitous.  "I love you!  That's why I want to be with you."

"I know you do, Dee.  But, to be so secretive, and then so indiscreet?  It's not a good combo." He looked at her in the driving mirror, taking in that she was welling up distressedly in reaction.  "And don't turn on the waterworks," he advised.  "It's starting to get on my nerves. You let me down in front of my brother when I was trying to stand up for you.  Remember that."

The day had taken several turns for the worse for Dee already and they drove back to the mill in silence.  She looked at Al's set expression, which made him look older and harder.  Did she really deserve such a difficult time, constantly tested for loyalty against standards only he determined? She had brought the latest outburst on herself, she knew, but she was too young to see that there were going to be traps for the unwary all the time with someone like Al, and she felt the injustice of it without quite understanding it.  She wasn't grown up yet and he was, so it wasn't fair, she thought, childishly.

"You told him we were fine," she said, mutinous.

"We are, unless you prove me wrong about you.  What else don't I know? " asked Al.

"Nothing," lied Dee, thinking of Dream and her paintings, folding her arms and looking out of the window.

"Let's hope not," commented Al flatly, as they pulled into the mill yard.

Faisal emerged from the office and came over as they parked and got out,  clearly having been looking out for them.

"What's happened?" he demanded.  "Where've you been?  Gemma's going mental."

"Fuck her!" said Al aggressively, still put out by losing control of so many situations at once.  "And fuck you as well.  I know what you were doing bringing people up to the flat, trying to set Dee up.   You've got form for that, haven't you?  You know what, you're a fucking hypocrite, Faisal, with your arranged marriage and your mistress.  You're all the same, all cheating on one another and putting on the holy show. Oh, you thought I didn't know?  Well get this.  I do know and I don't give a shit!"  

Faisal looked at Dee significantly.

"Oh, you do," he said evenly to Al, having kept his cool.  

Dee looked away from them both.

"I'm going up, are you coming, Al?" she suggested, wanting to intervene.

"Yes," he said, clearly thinking it best to walk away right then.

"NIce car," commented Faisal drily as they went to go by him to the lift, him watching them approach.

This time Al did put his arm round Dee as they walked, not, she hoped, just for Faisal's benefit.

"That's right," he said to Faisal more calmly. "Time for a change."

Faisal's phone rang and he answered it, his expression altering.

"Hamid," Al told Dee, looking satisfied.

They went up in the glass lift past the floors where Nathe and Frankie were working, returning their waves.  In the flat, Al said,

"If I'm going to keep trusting you, Dee, I have to know that you trust me too."

" I do, Al" she promised him, yet again.

Al waited for her to rush to him, but she didn't, so after a moment's hesitation, resisting going to her instead, he said,

"I'll have to go back down and sort things out with Faisal, you know.  I shouldn't have sounded off like that, and we'll have stuff to deal with now Hamid's on the case."

Dee nodded and he turned to go out and back down again.  Dee went below, too, to be with Nathe and Frankie, who exchanged glances, picking up on disturbance.

"All right, kid?" asked Frankie, taking off her gardening gloves.

Dee nodded, not looking it especially.

"Al wants me to go on holiday with him to London," she told them inconsequentially.

"Cool.  Well that's good, isn't it?" said Frankie.

"Yeah.  I guess.  I haven't been since I was little."

"Nice, then.  He went out for a while again, did he, Al?" Frankie said.

"Gone back to the office to talk to Faisal.  I think something's going on."

"Were those two rowing down there?" asked Nathe.  "I thought I heard Al shouting."

"A bit.  I don't know whether they're friends or foes half the time.  I feel like there's a whole world going on between them all I don't know about," said Dee, kicking the counter she'd perched on with her converse pumps.

"Years of family history, probably.  They're as jealous of one another as brothers, those three," commented Frankie lightheartedly, referring to Al, Faisal and Rashid.  "You leave 'em to it, Dee and don't concern yourself.  Come on, let's grab a tea in the flat and pick out those new paintings for Dream.  I told you they suggested changing them round a bit."

Dee was happy to agree and they went up to spend an hour or so making tea and a discussing the selection of new pictures  to replace those that had been on display for while.

"Why don't you come with me, Dee?" suggested Frankie.  "We can take them before you go away."

Dee was still smarting under the demands of being under Al's jurisdiction and finding him unreasonable.

"Definitely, " she agreed.  "We're not going for a day or two and he's bound to go into business overdrive beforehand.  Anyway, Hamid wants him to pick someone up from the airport tomorrow.  Al didn't look too happy about it, he thought it was a bit of a put down, I think. He'll be out most of the day."

"Well, tomorrow, then.  You just bob down when you're ready, we'll pack these up and go."

Dee agreed, thinking again after Frankie went back down to Nathe and their work, that Al couldn't have things all his own way.  A wash of regret for her own family overcame her. Whatever she or Al thought she deserved herself, they hadn't deserved what she had done to them.  A little core of determination which had been building inside her began to harden. That was another thing, she decided, that she wouldn't leave too much longer to do something about.  After London, she thought.  She looked around the flat, the fantastical private eyrie that also caged her in.  They were walls she could walk through, if she wanted to, she realised.

Something about the day had released a little the bonds that tied her so deeply to Al. Hamid clearly despised and dismissed her, and if Al thought more of that brother's view of him than hers, wasn't that a warning?  Al was beautiful in her eyes, vain and tricky, yes but full of vitality and zest, and they were as much in sexual love as ever.  But Dee was beginning to see more selfishness than devotion in his controlling ways and had already started to chafe against them before today, instead of accepting them, as she had earlier, as the naturally jealous price of true love.  She did not care for this awakening and hoped that being in London with him would restore what she saw as the right balance of their relationship, wanting to go back to feeling spoilt and cherished, and that the two of them together were especially unique.

The following day, Al having set off to do his brother's bidding, Dee and Frankie went down to load up the trailer on the bike, both carrying down paintings and bubble wrap.  Faisal, in charge in the office, happened on them both in the mill yard, clearly getting ready to go out together.  Despite being banned by Al from the flat, Faisal had remained cordial to Dee and had reminded her once not to forget that he could be called upon if needed.  He winked at her now when she blushed hotly at being seen going out unattended by the man himself.

"On a mission?" he asked satirically.  Dee blushed even more and looked awkward, feeling caught out.  "Don't worry," he reassured her, looking amused.  "I won't say a word.  'Go fly little bird' " he added in a facetiously sentimental tone, making her laugh, for it did seem absurd to look so much as if she were making a guiltily surreptitious escape when about a basically innocent outing.  "My lips are sealed," continued Faisal in a stage whisper, tiptoing exaggeratedly away.   "Never saw anything......" he called back over his shoulder as they headed out.

"You know," said Frankie.   " I quite like Faisal.  Rashid's a bit scary and Al's just Al, but Faisal's quite funny."

"What do you mean, Al's just Al?" said Dee defensively, feeling him slighted somehow.

"Oh, you know.  That's his thing, isn't it?  Being Al and all that goes with it, Mr here, there and everywhere.  He's the best looking one of them, of course.  Don't look like that.  I'm not knocking him."

"My lovely Al," said Dee, with a mock pout.

"He's all yours all right, darlin', no question about that," said Frankie.

This pleased Dee, no sense from Frankie that there were any other women in Al's life.  They wheeled the bike and trailor down the street, Frankie getting on to ride slowly alongside Dee walking beside her and they made their way to the cafe bar.

"Al said Faisal's married but he has a mistress," Dee commented, to see what Frankie would say.

"A mistress!  How old fashioned!" said Frankie, laughing.  "I wonder if he has?  I thought he was all happy families."  She shrugged.  "Whatever," she added carelessly.

Frankie had no gossipy curiosity about such affairs, as they didn't feature as things that mattered in her life.  Dee hadn't been entirely innocent in mentioning it, as it had of course occurred to her that it could be Gemma, given the outbreaks of hostilities between the cousins. They said no more of it, soon caught up in dealing with changing the paintings and Dee enjoying a bit of a reunion with her old friends at Dream.

Al and Dee having departed for London, Faisal and Rashid were back in charge of affairs at the mill, one by day, the other more by night and although things were quieter following Hamid's caution after Al had talked to him, there was still a flow of activity in the office and by night in the club-like den, though they had gone as far as making sure now that there was always someone on the gate, to keep a look out and chuck out if necessary.

Andrew and Nolan had decided that following Frankie might be the safest option as a next step and so Andrew, dressed down in old combat pants, scruffy trainers and a baseball cap, was hanging about nearby outside Dream on his own bike when she did the next week's delivery and followed her unsuspecting return to the mill, where he watched with interest as she went through into the courtyard, nodded through the gates by a man who opened and closed them behind her.  Andrew suddenly got it.  "Hydro" she and Nathe had called themselves, hadn't they?  Hydroponics.  The market garden was in there.

He cycled nonchalantly round the outside of the old mill, wondering  what else might be in there.  The man who had let Frankie in looked like Al, but wasn't him.  He wondered, had it been Al he had really seen that first time on the estate?  There was too close a resemblance, however, for them to be anything other than very near relatives.  Here, then, was a clear connection between them all and to what they might be up to together.  He went back to Dream, where over a contemplative coffee, he noticed new paintings on the wall.  Liz had been busy, then, Frankie's artist friend who worked in there.  Could that, in fact, turn out to be Debbie?  It was worth putting out a feeler.  He made a show of browsing the pictures and then, having picked one out, went to order a second coffee and to ask about it.  He had plenty of time to raise the subject, as all the barristas were particularly precious about how long it took to prepare their expert specialities, with a signature swirl in the frothy milk top.

"Just right for my place" Andrew said, concluding his paean of praise for the chosen painting.  "How do I go about trying to buy it?   I see they're for sale."

"Oh, just put your name and number down on this," said the barrista, passing him a pen and scrap of memo paper.  "We'll pass it on and she'll get in touch with you.  I'll put a reserve ticket on if you like?"

"Thanks," said Andrew, complying, handing it back with the name, Drew, and his mobile number on it, because today, he thought, he looked more like a Drew than an Andrew.  Back at the office, he rang Nolan, (working from home that day), who agreed that this was exciting news.

"I'll drive back after dark, " proposed Andrew.  "See if any lights are on, what floors are active, check out what's going on, if I can.  If not, I'll just watch it."

"Good plan.  Any sign of those two?"

"No - but it's a big place.  If it's kitted out, you could certainly live in it."

Andrew spent two nights observing that there was indeed plenty going on, that it seemed to be like some kind of underground blues type of place.  It got a crowd in and it might be possible to get through, as entrance was clearly on a pretty informal, who you knew, word of mouth kind of footing.  He wasn't sure about the potential for volatility, or even violence, in there, though, it was a bit chaotic and disordered, he thought.  Normcal rules clearly didn't apply and he reckoned illegal gambling, as well as other activities, was very likely to be a part of things happening there.

Andrew was round at Billy and Nolan's having dinner a night or so later, to be followed by a work catch up session with Nolan in his home office. Billy being the chef, and also one of those hyper people, the occasion was fraught with his sense of occasion and perfectionism, from table settings to the niceties of each dish having to be eagerly described, so that it was a bit stressful to be a guest.

"Jesus, Billy," said Nolan eventually.  "Lighten up.  We're not on 'Come Dine With Me,' unless you've got a t.v. crew stashed in the kitchen?"

"I just want it to be appreciated," said Billy huffily.  "I've spent a lot of time on all this."

Nolan went to kiss the top of his pinkly heated head.

"We know and we loved every bite.  Now, you put your feet up with a brandy and we'll wash up.  Then we've got work to do."

In the office, Andrew put Nolan in the picture about the mill, which, combined with what Nolan had researched via hacking police computers, suggested a lot of people in competition in the area around drugs, prostitution, money laundering, gambling and sailing very close to the wind.  Nolan was excited about it all.

"We should get in there, infiltrate that underground club at the mill," he suggested.

"Are you mad?" asked Andrew.  "I'm a bean counter by training, not a risk taker. It's like asking a crown green bowler to take up free running!"

"You hate accountancy," said Nolan.  "That's why you do this as well."

"I know, but I didn't bargain for the kid having run off into the hood, did I?  Dream, I can deal with.  I can eat as mean an organic salad as you like.  Ask me if I can handle being knee capped in a drive by shooting, and on balance, I'd say no," said Andrew.

"Well, we'll think about it," said Nolan, clearly taken with the idea and intent on getting in there, as apart from anything else, it offered a bit of life on the wild side, which, since he was settled down with Billy, was a bit lacking these days, he felt and occasionally said to Andrew.

"You just want a chance to party again, " Andrew reproved.

"It's all work experience now, " quipped Nolan.  "Besides, I'd fit right into the black economy."

Andrew smiled.

"Well, you can be the one to tell that to Billy," he said.

A loud, off key singing was coming from Billy's direction by now, in the other room.

"Oh god, the poor neighbours," said Nolan.  " He's singing along with his headphones on again.  Oh, well, he's happy.  Don't forget to tell him how much you enjoyed dinner on the way out, will you, or I'll never hear the end of it?"

Andrew was putting on his coat and getting ready to go.

"I won't," he said.

"Oh, hang on," said Nolan, remembering.  "How's the cheating wife case going?"

"Do you know?" said Andrew,"It's all a bit odd.  I can't find any sign of a wife."

"What, another missing person case?"

"More like a not there in the first place person case. It's peculiar."

"Intriguing," said Nolan.  "But she's got an on line presence, I checked it all out."

"Yes, well it's all very strange.  I'm seeing the husband again tomorrow.  We've only just started on this one really."

"O.K." agreed Nolan.  "I'll check on births, deaths and marriages for you, then.  We'll come back to Debbie next time."

"Fine," agreed Andrew and went to say his thank yous again to Billy, who bade him a fonder farewell than usual, both very merry and gratified by Andrew's culinary praise.

After an exhilerating burn down the motorway in the Audi, Dee and Al had arrived at where they were to stay in London.  Due to Al's extended family connections, this turned out to be a house sit for a relation absent abroad, sparing them hotel expense, which made Dee think that some pre planning had gone into this seemingly spur of the moment trip, or else that Al had been asked to do it and it fitted in nicely at the time.  The house itself was just a modern box in a gentrifying area, but it being somewhere with money, Dee could see that having the Audi to drive in made Al feel good there.  Whatever the reasons behind the trip, Al put himself out to enchant Dee again.  Whilst living with Al may have meant he had lost some of his former mystery, he had lost none of his allure.  London suited Al's arrogant sparkle and he was once more master of ceremonies, planning their touristy days out and flying around flamboyantly with her.  Dee loved having him parade for her again, dressing up for shopping trips to Piccadilly and the West End, going into Harrods to pretend window shop and play at picking the most expensive items they wanted.  They enjoyed themselves, posing for each other beside the guards on duty outside the palace, going on a tour bus, taking a boat trip down the Thames and playing at being lah di dah.  They went on the London Wheel, a stately ride with views across the city which they laughed about as being too slow for a fast pair like them.  Al splashed out on tickets to a musical, and they indulged their inner child with "The Lion King".  Dressing up for that occasion, Al brushed Dee's hair into a long French plait, used to it, he said. As the baby bro' with older sisters, minding him had involved a lot of hairdressing on his part, he told her.  She felt privately smug about him playing happily with her crowing glory, recalling Gemma's now so short hair, shorn of her once long locks and how Al wouldn't let Dee cut her own at all.

When she looked back at the occasion at Hamid's house, Dee could see it now a bit more from Al's viewpoint.  Taking her in could have been a provocative step and he had made a clear demonstration to his brother that he wanted them to be viewed as an established couple, holding hands on the doorstep.  She wished she hadn't said what she did about the money, but she still resented Al saying to her that she had let him down.  What she did pick up now, though, for the first time, seeing his efforts to charm and please her again, was that his pride in himself depended to some extent on her pride in him and that he was anxious to ensure it.  In a way, this enhanced her feeling of growing inner strength, but because of it, Al also regained his stature in her heart, because she saw that her love was also intrinsic to the emotional barometer of his self esteem, and that it was not just decided by his image of his place in the world and of his older brother's regard for him.  She did try once or twice to ask what he had meant in his conversation with Hamid, about something hanging around like a bad smell and what he'd meant about the other things being trouble, but he said not now, this is our special time and she didn't want to spoil it, as they were regaining one another.

They both missed their mill flat and that sense of being apart, though thoroughly enjoying London, quickly becoming afficionados of the underground; the hot, burnt soot rush of air preceding a train soon being a familiar precurser to a new discovery somewhere in the city.  The two weeks went fast, and were never less than fun, but here, oddly, away from their own city, she began to dream of her family and home, as she had not done before.  The recurring theme was one of sudden loss, but this time, hers of them.  She was a child in these dreams, returning perhaps from school and rounding a familiar corner to find that the house was gone and neighbouring doors she knocked on knew nothing of her or of her family.  She would wake in the dark hours full of distress, until Al's sleep breathing beside her brought her back to herself and she knew where she was.  She didn't tell Al about it, recognising that this was the subconscious at work and that what it was telling her was that she couldn't hide any longer from her deep seated feelings that she wanted to see them, but at the same time, she couldn't imagine being the girl who lived at home any more and she certainly didn't want to leave or lose Al.

Andrew and Nolan were in the office finishing up for the week.

"Come on," urged Nolan. "You've scoped it out.  You know I can blag us into there.  Friday night!  Bound to be worth a look."

"Oh, I don't know," demurred Andrew.

"We'll go in together, then split a bit, mingle in, just low profile."

"What if Nathe and Frankie are there and spot us?"

"You've already said they go off home every evening."

"Yes, but...weekend?"

"Come on!" Nolan pressed him.  "Live a little.  See what we can find out, if there are flats in there.  A quick survey of the scene.  That's all."

He began to rummage through their props drawers.

"Well... not as a couple, though, " said Andrew.

"No, too noticable.  Go on.  I'll sort our look out.  I reckon nothing too much, jeans, t-shirts, a bit messed up and looking for a bit of something going on?"

They both liked some dressing up for the job.  To avoid being noticed on surveillance at the mill, Andrew had varied his routine so as not to be always in a parked car which might be noticed.  Being lanky and skinny, he could easily achieve the gaunt look required for squatting on haunches on a pavement, lolling baseball capped amongst the invisible destitute begging all round the city centre, or having a catatonic spell on spice hidden amongst the side streets fanning out of it, living in their doorways.  He grubbied his hair and used green make up to tone out the healthy glow of his cheeks.  This beggar was so common a thing that nobody looked twice, as they might have done at a repeatedly reappearing parked vehicle with somone inside it.  In the modern day, as in Sherlockian times, the really poor were walked by quickly to avoid being importuned and were an effective cover.  Nolan carried on looking through things they might wear.  Sensing interest and scenting victory, he said again,

"Come on, Andrew.  Any sign of a problem, we're out of there."

Andrew nodded reluctantly.  They met up again at around eleven pm, had a couple of pints for that authentic lager taint on the breath and made their way to the mill around midnight, when people were beginning to properly roll in there, in a quiet queue crowd respecting the place's unlicenced and secretive credentials.  Andrew didn't say much, leaving it to Nolan to identify a likely group they could latch on to and try to follow in with as if part of it.  They paid at the office to get in, where the man on the door looked at Andrew's suitably blank expression and said to Nolan,

"He out of it already?"

"No, he's sound, mate," Nolan said quickly, as they were nodded through.  Nolan was looking pretty street that night, so they got in without further questioning.  They went through into the series of back rooms.  In the first, the snooker room with drinks bar, serious games were already afoot, money down.  Andrew got a drink and settled down in the background there to look on unobtrusively.  Nolan took himself on through to the next, set out casino style with roulette, card tables, some gaming machines and another bar.  Music thundered through a sound system in a further cavern behind, where it seemed some covert lap dancing was going on.  The girls were young.  There was also general dance floor shuffling and shape throwing in a small, cramped area on one side. There was no glamour to lighting, decor, punters or punted, but clearly, there was not much which was not on offer, one way or another.  Adult men watched over proceedings, controlling activity with a nod here to a girl to go with a customer, or another to suggest the customers go over to them instead for a different kind of deal, done in other rooms off.  There was much coming and going in the shabby, dark setting, where as a visitor, you could easily be watched.  Nolan quickly realised that his apparent lack of purpose had been picked up on.  He gave an unsmiling nod back at the person observing him and made his way over to be assessed for trade.  He opted for a drugs purchase and some poker chips, then went back through to the games room to join a table.  After he'd spent some time losing and sat out, watching on for a while, he had realised there was no opportunity to go exploring around elsewhere in the building.  Once you were in these rooms behind the office, there was no way back out except via that, and that entrance was well staffed.

After a couple of hours or more, a row kicked off in the snooker room, where people were falling out over a win.  It sounded ugly straight away and Nolan went through to check on Andrew, who he spotted as having got well out of the line of fire at the back of the room.  Things were getting out of hand fast, yelling and squaring up suddenly turning into a knife being pulled.  The men in the front office shot through and got hold of them efficiently.  An older, bigger, rougher faced version of Al and the other man Andrew had seen before, took instant control.  He didn't mess about, turning the aggressor's blade back on him in a moment, nicking his neck with it and speaking with a very real threat in his voice as the opponents were unceremoniously removed and all winnings confiscated.  Having seen them off the premises, the men in charge returned as if they meant business, coming back through on the alert, scanning everyone for potential trouble, the leader carrying with him the unmistakeable presence of a man with a taste for violence, whose appetite for it has just been whetted.  Andrew and Nolan avoided his eye, slipping aside into the crowd and deciding it was time to go.  In fact, proceedings were already being wound up in the back rooms, no doubt in case of any call to the police, though it was unlikely anyone coming here would call them out.

As quickly as the underground world of the club had come to life, it was snuffed out, candle like, until some other enchanted evening.  Nobody argued with the orders to go, Andrew and Nolan leaving with the rest.  They walked into town to share a taxi home.

"Well?" asked Andrew.  "Get what you wanted?  A taste of the low life?"

"I haven't tasted it yet, but I've got some in my pocket," said Nolan.  He took it out and they both looked at the powder in the transparent packet.  "God knows what that's cut with," said Nolan with a shudder, scattering it on the night air and discarding the plastic envelope.

"If Debbie's Al is seriously mixed up in all that," said Andrew, "We should tread very carefully indeed."

"We need to get her out," said Nolan. "She's too young to make that choice in life.  No future in it is there?  Even if he doesn't get caught and sent down."

"I agree," said Andrew.  "You know, when we came out, there were lights on in the top floor of the mill.  I reckon people are living up there."

"Probably.  Between Dream and the mill, I think we've got them nailed as to whereabouts.  Let's just not get nailed ourselves in the process.  That is one seriously dangerous guy back there."

"Told you it wouldn't be safe," said Andrew.  "We're just lucky they're not too heavy on who goes in the place."

"I didn't think we were noticed, particularly," said Nolan.  "Did you talk to anyone?"

"Only a bit, so as not to look odd," Andrew said.  "Nothing much, bit of snooker talk to people.  You?"

"I didn't like to try, I thought it would stand out.  Just bought the drugs and gambled.  I lost.  Heavy night."

"Your own fault.  We can't pay each other expenses, you know.  What would Billy say?  You're supposed to have given all that up."

"Meh," said Nolan.  "I have.  Expensive addiction, betting.  But I do love a casino, even a shit one like that.  It had atmosphere, though, as well as sleaze.  A bit of a charge in the air, didn't you think?"

"Definitely," agreed Andrew.  "It's an anything might happen kind of a place."

They picked up a taxi after that and went their separate ways back home, to consider things again after the weekend, feeling that they had definitely run risks that shouldn't be taken lightly. 

Back in the office on Monday, they began with a reprise of the cheating wife case, about which Andrew said he still had reservations.

"Why?" asked Nolan.  "She's real enough.  Births and marriages checked out, no deaths.  She's on the census and electoral roll there.  She's on line but not doing much, bit of internet shopping for clothes from Next, at that IP address."

"Yes, but anyone could do that," said Andrew.  "Couldn't they?"

Nolan nodded slightly.

"I suppose.  Yeah.  So what happened when you went back to see the husband after I told you all the certs were right?  What seems odd?"

"I don't know, exactly," said Andrew.  "He's personable enough, touchingly concerned about the risk of losing his wife.  I asked him to show me the wedding album, said it helped me get a feel for a couple over time.  That seemed eighties genuine.  They're early twenties, he's got a frosted mullet, she's all Lady Di, the same faces as in pictures now, just older."  They looked at a picture Andrew had of them recently, both a stone or so heavier, middle aged and dressed for some other occasion, his hair naturally frosted by now.  "He let me look round the house, there are her clothes and toiletries, make up, bits of jewellery.  It's just, I don't know, all a bit set out.  Not as if someone got ready and went out earlier that day.  You get me?"

"So," said Nolan, thinking about it.  "Does he want her followed?  Do you think she's maybe already left him and he's using us to try to find her?"

"It's occurred to me, in which case we shouldn't rush into letting him know if we do find her.  There could be a DV aspect we don't know about, rather than infidelity."

"The bashing the wife, well to do type?"

"Maybe, or just, wants to find her but she doesn't want to come home if she has left him for whatever reason?  I'm not entirely convinced as yet where this one's going."

"O.K. " said Nolan.  "But since he's paid up, we'll play along.  We don't have to come up with the goods.  It's not as if we don't need the money."

"True," agreed Andrew.

"Has he given you her mobile number yet?  I could try switching the mic on remotely, and  the camera?"

"Yes but that hasn't always got us very far, has it? You can't see or hear much from one that's stuffed in a handbag's depths or run out of battery.   Anyway, he says she hasn't had one lately, her's died and she hadn't bothered replacing it yet, and anyway she hardly ever remembered to charge it and never heard it if you rang it."

"Unusual for today?"

"Generational stuff, at a guess."

"Could be....."

After this, they went on to what they really wanted to discuss, what had happened on Friday.

"That business in the back," Andrew started.  "The girls were, young, you said?"

"Yes, not underage young maybe, but how can you tell, make-up and all that?  The older men were pimping them though."

"And people were just dancing, too, like any club?"

"Yeah, it was a huge room, bar, tables, bit for a dance floor, loud music and then the rooms off the side for the drug dealing and I presume for the girls to use for their clients.  There was plenty of coming and going back there."

"That guy...." Andrew said, of the one in charge, who had left a disturbingly memorable impression on both of them.

"I know," said Nolan.  "As rogues go, he's not a loveable one, is he?"

"The other two.  Al, and whoever the other man is, they don't seem like him, do they?"

"How do we know?  We haven't seen them in action like him, have we?"

Andrew was contemplative.

"Do you think, once we've made proper contact with Debbie, tried to get her in touch with the parents, we should anonymous tip off the police about all of it?"

"Oh, now," Nolan objected, "I don't know about that.  That would cross a line we've never crossed before, wouldn't it?  Besides, how anonymous is anonymous, really?  Of all people, we know about that.  They could start looking into us.  I'm always illegally hacking and tracking.  Let's leave out a new moral code.  We have to stay below the waterline for what we do.  Besides, there's a lot of police monitoring goes on anyway, letting things run to get the big guys, you know?  If we alert some local Percy Plod to go crashing in, it could do a lot more harm than good in the long run."

Conscience both compromised and appeased by this rather meretricious outlook, they agreed to continue to leave well alone as far as the authorities were concerned.  Andrew proposed his next line of approach.  He would make a day-time visit to the mill, this time as a suited young professional, who was interested in asking about mill apartment developments and keen to get his name down for one in advance if such were planned for that building.

"I can carry that off all right," he asserted.  "That way I can talk to the other one.  It's always him in the day, not that tough guy."

"Just be careful, then," cautioned Nolan.

"I will be.  I know when they have the gates open in the day and I'll watch out for the dudes."  (This was their nickname for Nathe and Frankie).

Andrew went on Tuesday morning, when he knew one of the two would be safely out delivering to Dream and the other would hopefully be occupied somewhere inside the building.  He hovered at the gate, assuming a naively hopeful expression.  Faisal soon appeared and took in his respectably affluent appearance.

"Can I help you?" he enquired.

"Oh, yes!" cried Andrew gushingly.  "Well, I hope so.  I work in town and I'm  looking to get my name down for a new apartment build.  Would I be right in thinking there are plans like that for this one?   It's a fantastic building!"

"You've seen our estate agent adverts for it, then?" Faisal said, unwittingly giving Andrew a credibility he hadn't expected.

"That's right!" Andrew enthused. 

Faisal smiled back in response and let him in, saying in friendly tones,

"It's a work in progress, but they're going to be top end designer apartments.   Come into the yard and get the feel of it.  I've got plans I can show you.  If you're interested, I can take your name down for a pre contract sign up and you can get a deposit sorted.  Best to get in quick.  These places are a brilliant investment and they go like hotcakes now, especially with all the Chinese students here being quids in these days."

Andrew recognised a sophisticated hustle when he heard one.

"Fantastic!" he agreed, following Faisal inside, saying, "I've haven't got long, I've got an afternoon meeting to get to, but I really do appreciate this.  I've often passed this place and wanted a look, it's in the perfect situation for me.  I've got plenty of money ready to invest.  In fact if you're interested, I'm a company stockbroker."

"You don't ask, you don't get," agreed Faisal, with generous charm, ushering him into the yard politely.

Andrew scanned around hastily, moving across to the shadowed side, so that he wouldn't stand out in case one of the dudes happened to be looking out from one of the many windows.  He looked up at the top storey.

"What a penthouse that would be!" he observed.  "Wow, is that a roof garden up there?"

Dee had planted out colourful window boxes, which fluttered brightly on the parapet walls and there were tub shrubs visible from the courtyard.  Faisal considered.  He had a bite already, and to secure some serious money down, perhaps only a little more enticement would be needed.

"It is, and there's a show flat set out.  You can see it if you have time?"

"Oh, yes, please!" exclaimed Andrew, a gullible sounding lamb to the slaughter.

Faisal took him up in the lift, but kept Andrew with his back to the doors by talking to him throughout, so that out of courtesy he had to face him and couldn't look around the mill floors, though he did notice a glimpse of polytunnels out of the side panel, bearing out his theory about the market gardening.  Since Andrew didn't want to attract any attention from that quarter, he was happy to keep his face animatedly turned towards Faisal as he continued his huckster spiel, painting a massively glamorous portrait of the future complex.  The apartment itself, though,  took Andrew's breath away.

"What a place!" he exclaimed, not needing to act this bit out.

"It's just an example of what we've got planned," said Faisal, allowing Andrew a chance to view the bathroom and kitchen splendours before briefly showing him the roof top garden.  Andrew had immediately noticed the paintings on the walls, a series of vivid abstracts and semi abstracts very like the ones on the cafe bar wall.  Bingo, he thought, another connection, even if 'Liz' were not Debbie.

"So, this is just a show flat now?" he asked.

"That's right," said Faisal blandly.  "But who's to say this one won't come up for you once it's all finished and developed.  It's a lot of money, of course, for the penthouse suite."

"Oh, wow," said Andrew.   "Where do I sign up?   I've got to have a piece of this!  Place of my dreams!"

Faisal smiled, gratified to have hooked this moneyed young man so easily.

"Come down to the office," he offered.  "We'll do the preliminary paperwork.  Then you can sort out a bank draft."

"Absolutely!" agreed the starry eyed Andrew.

He again kept his back to the mill floors on the way back down, telling Faisal that he would be happy to give him any tips, as he had a lucky touch with investments for speculators.  All in all, they were going down very well with one another.

"Maybe," said Faisal, evidently finding that this gave Andrew further credence as being a lucrative proposition, his appearance already entirely fitting him for such a role in life.

The office by day, staffed by the far more genial presence of Faisal, was quite a different place from its character on Friday night.  After he had shown Andrew glossy mock ups of the apartment plans, a set of papers were quickly printed out from computer held templates, for Andrew to sign as a pre contract.

"You're just in time, you know," Faisal said with kindly nonchalance, reeling him in for the final catch.  "We've already got quite a waiting list.  Of course, priority and choice will depend on how much you can put in first off as a down payment."

Since Andrew's money was as fictional as the proposed apartments (no doubt already fraudulently sold many times over prior to build, he reckoned), the sky really was the limit, so the deal was done after a little pretend haggling and Andrew had signed up to put £100K down for a £300K apartment, which, Faisal assured him, would put him in a very prime spot on the list and ensure an excellent return should he decide to sell on in the future.    They exchanged mobile numbers and Andrew departed, apparently delighted, saying he would get the money sorted as soon as possible because if he, as an investor, didn't recognise a good thing when he saw one, then what chance did anyone else stand?  He had given his name as George Carlton, (one of his aliases, for whom he had bank card and false driving licence provenance he could produce, a suitably rich sounding sort for this number, he thought).  Faisal smiled him out, contented that he had landed yet another sucker for the successful scam, without even trying. Andrew made a mental note to ring after an interval, saying it was taking longer to organise the payment than he had expected, as he found he had committed himself rather more deeply than he could immediately deliver funds for, but was almost there and would be back in touch as soon as he had it all arranged, to finalise.  He could probably let that one run a while before quietly dropping out of the game altogether, he considered. He wouldn't be the only one to duck eventually, in that kind of win some, lose some arena.  Meanwhile, it gave him a bit of an in.

In London, at the latter end of their stay, in a nod to Dee's artistic ambitions, Al took her to the National Gallery.  They looked around it rather dutifully.

"You know," said Al afterwards, when they were indulging in coffee and oversized slabs of cake to restore the vital tissues after this culteral overload,  "I don't know much about art but after that, I don't even know what I like."

Dee laughed.

"Al, when we go back," she began, " I want to do something again.  I liked Dream.  My paintings are still there.  You did set it all up for me and we haven't had any trouble since, nobody's followed up, have they?  You might have been wrong about me being recognised.  Although I'm sure you weren't," she added hastily, bethinking herself.  "It's been ages, " she pleaded.

"I'll think about it," said Al.  "I want you to be happy, Dee.  You love doing your paintings, don't you?"

"Yes, I do, but I like being in the buzz of things as well, the same as you do.  I could just do the odd lunchtime again and not nights, if you thought it best?"

"All right.  We'll look into it."

"And - I do need to think about a study course, too, Al.  I can't not do anything."

"You do do things, with me.  And you're already an artist.  But, I get it.  I do.   You're not like other girls I've been with, Dee.  I don't want you to get bored of me."

It was not like Al to admit to uncertainty and she realised that there was insecurity behind the braggadacio.

"I won't get bored of you," she promised, meaning, as he did, if she moved out of his orbit intellectually.  "But I don't want to get bored of myself.  I don't know.  We can look at some college courses, maybe, like you said before?  I've all but missed my exam year, now."

"Sure we will,"Al confirmed.  "But we're still on holiday, don't forget," and he dabbed some whipped cream off his cake on to her nose.  "Don't go all serious on me."

"I won't," she promised, dropping it for now.

This was of a pattern for Al, who shied away from serious topics where he could, deflecting them as not of his world.  There had been atrocities at home and abroad all year, of which he would only say,

"Mentallist wankers, making us look bad," and channel hop to something lighter immediately they came on the news.

In fact, in London,  he hadn't even wanted to go to Madame Tussaud's, saying stagily,

"I don't wanna see dead people!" when Dee suggested it.  "Too grim, baby."

On the last day, they went to Sea World instead, and stood holding hands under the arc of giant rays drifting overhead, Al messing that he'd feed her to the sharks if she didn't behave and kiss him right then.  Of the two of them, despite how they lived, Dee couldn't help feeling sometimes that she was the more mature in mind,  even though Al was the older one but she delighted in reverting to childish ways with him when encouraged, because he liked it and she wanted to please him.  He had bought her a toy Simba, after the Lion King, which she made sure to fuss over, though really, Dee had never been a cuddly toy sort of girl.  When they packed to return to the mill, Al had another set of designer clothes to fit in, and she teased him for being vainer than she was.

"I'll train you up to it yet, girl," was his jovial response. "Right then, hop in, madame, your carriage awaits," he said and they once more hurtled back up the motorway in style, mainly in the fast lane.  

Chapter 13 - Coming Home

The mill apartment, their caretaking having been done intermittently by Faisal in their absence, looked slightly disarranged from how they had left it, but it was tidy enough and again felt a huge space at first, after the little, low ceilinged rooms they had been staying in.  They decided, it being a warm evening, to have their evening meal up on the roof garden, a pot luck of deli dainties they had stopped to buy.  Having arrived quite late, everyone had left for the day and the night shift had not yet got going.  When it did, gradually, it all seemed a lot more subdued than it had been, quieter all round and less people coming through, which pleased Al, keeping a look-out from their vantage position up aloft outside.

"Good", he said, with satisfaction.  "I think my little chat has done the trick.  He gets out of hand, that one, if he doesn't get a slap down now and again."

"Rashid?" asked Dee.


"Has he ever caused serious trouble, then?" asked Dee.

"It depends on what you call serious trouble," replied Al.  "In my book, yes, very much so."

The allotment murder hung between them once more, in an unspoken question.

"I had some good things going on last year," he reflected.  "But when you gatecrash someone else's party, you have to do it with some finesse, yes?  I was doing great, had people in the palm of my hand, Dee.  You know me, I've got style, some panache.  I could have danced us all out of danger without anything going badly wrong.   But no, that bruiser cruiser has to come steaming along and rattles everyone's cage, because he's a poacher."

Dee was careful to speak quietly, not to stop the unexpected flow.

"What does he poach?" she asked softly.

"Well it ain't elephants, is it?" said Al.  "If you think about it, you know exactly what he goes about trapping.  If it hadn't been for me, you'd have got caught up, too.  Then where would you be now?"

Dee remembered the sweetshop, how Al had discouraged her involvement from the first,  the time she'd got in a car with the two other youngsters and how afraid she had felt when she'd realised the driver was Rashid, then how she'd been dumped at the roadside immediately after a call, undoubtedly from Al.  Surely Gemma had tipped Al off and been instrumental in rescuing her too from a potential situation, their ambivalent trio working as always in ways mysterious to her?

"I wonder what happened to that girl from school?" said Dee, reminded of her again.

"Well, if she didn't take care of herself, he won't have," said Al.  "He doesn't stand by them afterwards.  They get passed on."

Dee looked at him, finding this a challenge to take in.

"Oh, yes," said Al.  "That's how the real world is, Dee.  You're lucky you've got me, aren't you?  If you stand by me, that could never happen to you.  If you don't, then that door gets shut behind you and you have to make your own choices next, but I never force any on people.  I'm not like him."

Dee felt shivers pass through her at his words.  The light had failed as they sat on and a night wind had begun to weave through the top of the building.

"Gemma called you that time, didn't she, when I'd got in the car, when you didn't meet me for my birthday?"

"She did," Al said, looking at her steadily.  "She said, 'If you do want this kid for real, you'd better step in right now or it'll be too late.  Rashid's picked her up with some others just this minute and she hasn't got a clue what's going on.'  So I did.  Because I cared about you.  I told you, I'm not like those other idiots."

"No," agreed Dee, having been given a lot to think about.   "You're not.  So, down there at night...." and she, too, looked down at the courtyard.

"You don't want to know," said Al firmly.   "You stay well away from there."

"Oh, I do!" she hastened to say.  "You know I do."

"Don't let it worry you.   I've dealt with it.   Come on, let's go in, it's getting cold.  You see now?" he added.  "That's the kind of shit I wanted stopping."

Dee said nothing, but thinking back to Hamid's reactions, although he had said he would pull Faisal and Rashid into line, he hadn't made any mention of interfering in what they were actually doing, had he?  Or did pulling them into line mean that he had done?  She didn't think Al would tolerate her asking that, though.

"And, Faisal?" she enquired before they gathered themselves together to go down.  This turned out to be a wrong move.

""Oh, him!" said Al shortly.  "You like him, don't you, see him as a bit of an ally?"  Dee began to shake her head in denial.  "I wouldn't if I were you.  He's always got an agenda, that one.  Divide and rule, that's him.  Oh, and he's not beyond trying to steal my women, just to show he can.  It doesn't mean he means it, right?"

"Right," agreed Dee, who had not been flirted with by Faisal anyway, but had felt that Jud was being introduced for a purpose by him.  "He's never...." she trailed off.

"O.k.," said Al. 

"Al, I wouldn't!" she insisted.  Not with anyone!"

"I know.  Not now you wouldn't.  Time will tell.  Won't it?" 

With this rather unpleasant rejoinder, Al went to go back in, having thrown her confidence in their strength as a couple somewhat, he having, as usual, put the onus on her to deliver.  But she felt that she knew now, after London, how much he really needed her and her commitment to him, and told herself that he had just rattled himself really, by opening certain previously closed  subjects.  What he had shown, was how right Frankie had been in her assessment of the jealous rivalries between the three young men.  Al had referred obliquely, surely, to the allotment murder, and whoever had done it, it certainly sounded as if Rashid's actions might have precipitated the fatality, if he hadn't, in fact, been the actual killer.  Murder, or manslaughter, then a cover up, accident, or design, Dee asked herself?  She'd be better off never knowing, no doubt, but she still couldn't help the wondering.  She shook herself free of it and went down into the light of the apartment, where she found they could smile on one another again, in a different mood from that strange one that had come over Al up there on the roof, Al too having put it aside. 

"Hey," he said, cradling her in his arms.  "Never mind them.  Welcome home, " and they settled down together on the couch, watching music videos on television, cuddled up as usual, before going to bed.  Al stayed with her all night, not choosing to go down and see what was happening below, though she knew he must have been itching to reassert his presence there.  She was glad of it, because, increasingly, she had felt the underground club was menacing and she didn't want Al putting himself in any line of fire, even more so after the conversation they had had earlier in the roof garden.

The first day back after their return, Al and Dee were cleaning the flat and washing clothes, tasks which they always shared without question, and not something Dee, coming from the household she did, had been surprised by at first, though over time, understanding a little more of what Al's world had been, she appreciated it as not the norm in that one.  Al was on his knees, head deep in a cupboard, rummaging in it for another detergent box, shouting,

"Dee, we've run out of washing powder!  Stick it on the list!"

She laughed at his undignified position.  Orange blossom fragrance wafted over them from the utility room, where the last load tumbled in a dryer, refluffing towels.  Al emerged, hair in some disarray,

"These cupboards are all dusty inside.  Our standards are slipping," he joked (under sink kitchen cupboards not featuring on their housework list).  " The shame of it.  How could we ever have people round for dinner?"

This reminded Dee of her father greeting guests at the door with studied self deprecation.

"Welcome to our humble...." he would say, every time, a long standing in joke now expected of him at any gathering.

Dee smiled at Al, with whom she'd had an amusing morning being taught some bollywood style dancing, sending up a schmaltzy plot he had invented to accompany some soaringly over the top film music he had found to put on.  Al turned out to be surprisingly good at this, for all he disparaged it as "hillbilly stuff". 

"Flipping heck, what do you expect, Dee?" he said when she mocked his expertise.  "I had older sisters.  It was kill or be killed with them.  I had to help them polish their moves.  I was at their mercy most of the time and they took no prisoners, believe you me!"

"Will I ever meet them, Al?" she had asked, trying and failing again with the side to side head and neck move. 

"No, like this," he said, showing her how once more.  "Nar, they're not so much fun these days.  Anyway they live near ma, not in this place."

"What about your other brother?  The other one not married.  Is he over there with them, too?"

"Mr Respectable?" said Al, executing a spin, turn and drop down on to one languishing knee, holding out an imploring arm to her, making her laugh.

"Why Mr Respectable?" she asked, spurning him with a hand pushing him off and trying a spin herself, slightly off balance.

"Oh, he doesn't get his hands dirty, that one," said Al, getting up and correcting her posture.  "Not the great hope.  He's still getting his training paid for by the rest of us, though, for all that.  He's going to be a consultant.  Final year next year.  Lives with ma, that's the deal.  Look after her, you get your training.  Ten years older than me and still at school," Al laughed, sounding scornful.

"Didn't they want you to....?" asked Dee.

"Of course, but this baby wasn't going to stick around for all that.   I like to live life to the full, on my own terms, Dee.  You know that."

To an extent, thought Dee, wisely not voicing it, but you have to do as Hamid wants, all of you, Rashid, Faisal and whoever else, the family's still in control, for all you say otherwise.

"Is Rashid your cousin, too?" asked Dee, finding him unusually open to this subject of conversation, perhaps born of him playing out childhood things with the dancing.

"Yeah.  I've got a world full of cousins," said Al. "Family the size of Lahore, Dee, and believe me, nobody ever lets go.  You try going on a visit.  It's quite amazing how much kin you've got who love you for what you could do for them.  Second cousins five times removed, they're your blood brothers.  If you're over here, you're rich, you see."

Dee smiled.

"Not that you're bitter," she said, as they both sat down to get their breath back.

""Not that I'm bitter," he agreed, turning the volume down on the high tonal singing on the sound track.  "What would I have to be bitter about?  Look where I live and look where they live.  Do you know, when grandad came over to visit when I was little, he was horrified that they had light bulbs in every room and all in use.  'One bulb, that's all you need,' he said. 'You're only in one place at a time.  You take it and move it when you need it.'  A luxury you see. We had to live like moles to stop him having a heart attack!"

This was a bit of a surprisingly vivid insight into two worlds, where something now so ordinary in the west was still a rare and expensive commodity in the east.  It struck Dee how quickly times had changed and why, for young men like Al, the top show of status and wealth to their peers, however precariously founded,  was so important.  Now, an hour or two after that energetic and revealing morning, Al was finishing their shopping list with her for a big stock up, because after this, he expected to be out and about again over the next few days as they were properly back.  Having sorted his hair out again to his satisfaction from the cupboard dust, which Dee immediately mussed up again for devilment, delaying them further, they spent time supermarket shopping.  After this, Al finally went down for a catch up with Faisal in the office, which Dee had been surprised he hadn't hastened to do earlier and had been touched when he said, as they had cleared up after lunch,

"I want to make the most of it with you before I get dragged back into it all."  He sighed.  "Summons to Hamid for the three of us tomorrow.   He texted me earlier.  Keeping his little ducks in a row," he added drily.  "I'll go and see Faisal when we're back from shopping.  Get the low down."

It had been surprising to Dee from the start of their time together, how Al seemed to enjoy the ordinary things about domestic life with her, a lot more organised about them than she was and as a couple, enjoying the fun side of messing about as they had done earlier with the dancing, while externally still being the mirror shaded showman she had first encountered.  When she had ventured to comment on this as they tidied, he had laughed, saying,

"Wild!  Who would have thought my hidden depths would turn out to be that I like doing the washing up together?  You do make me sound exciting, Dee.  And there was I, still believing I was a man of mystery."

Dee laughed too.

"Oh, you are," she assured him.  "I'm never entirely sure what you're thinking."

He smiled at this.

"That," he said," is because I don't tell you what I'm thinking."

"I know what you're thinking now," she said, dancing aside with a little shriek as he chased her, swiping at her with the tea towel he had been drying up with.  After the dancing session, Dee had, not for the first time, asked him if he would teach her some of his family's first language, but he wouldn't.

"I only speak that when I have to," he said.  "We're moving on."

"But, it's your culture," said Dee.

"Culture!" he said dismissively.   "Well it's not yours, Dee and I don't want you buying into it by the back door.  It's hardly a paradise for girls, is it?"

Dee reflected that he did have some of those views too, in spite of himself.  He wanted her at home with him, didn't he, not out in the world?  The words hesitated on the tip of her tongue but she held back because things were sweet between them just then.  Besides, she'd decided that any reveal of her decisions to move things on for herself would have to be gradual, or it would be too much of a challenge for him to deal with accepting.  When Al went down to the office, she mooched down to see Frankie.  Nathe was out on a delivery and at Dee's invitation, Frankie was happy to take a coffee break back in the flat, where she gave her the note Andrew had left at Dream.

"You're catching on," she told a delighted Dee. "Another interested customer.  Now, tell me all about London.  You look like someone who's had fun."

"Oh, yes!" declared Dee.  "Al took me all over the place.  We loved it!"

"You guys are good, then?" asked Frankie.  Dee nodded enthusiastically.  "Cool," said Frankie, evidently reassured.  "I knew you would be."

Dee put the note carefully away and when Al was out the following day at the family meeting Hamid had scheduled, she rang the number, catching Andrew, who had left it more than a week back, by surprise.

"Hi," she said.  "It's Liz.  About the picture?"

"Oh!  Oh, yes!  Thanks for calling back.  I've called in at Dream but they said you weren't in."

"No," agreed Dee.  "I've been away but I'm back now."

"Well, then, shall we meet in there to discuss terms?"


"The price.  I might want to buy more if I can afford it.  They're quite something, you know."

"Thank you," said Dee, considering.  "Well, I don't know....."

Andrew couldn't tell if he recognised the voice on the other end of his phone, just young sounding really.  Dee made a sudden decision. Al would be busy, he'd already mentioned being out again on an airport pick up for his brother.  She could do it.

"Yes, that's fine," she said.  "I can come into the cafe tomorrow, actually.  About two in the afternoon?"

"Great.  See you then," said Andrew, keeping it short and sweet and hoping that she would turn up  If it wasn't Debbie, he'd back out of the deal.  If it was, he could try to establish a bit of friendly rapport and encourage further meetings for his real purpose of getting her back in touch with her family. 

Following on from his visit to the mill and seeing the penthouse flat, this felt to Andrew as if he were getting very close to home indeed.  Nolan, impressed by Andrew's account of it and how he had carried off the encounter with Faisal, had whistled through his teeth to show his appreciation of this elan.

"So," he had said.  "You've found the dragon's lair."

"Yes, I'm sure that's the place."

"And to add to everything else, there's a property scam going down?"

"It looks like it, doesn't it?"

"Talk about a finger in every pie, they're picking the cherries off the whole of Mr Kipling's, that lot!" exclaimed Nolan.

They discussed all this again when Andrew called Nolan straight after Dee had rung him and agreed on leaving any mention of the place to Debbie, Andrew having to be, as much as possible, all innocence.

"Yes.  I'm sure that's the place they are living in now," Andrew said to him again. "But I'll know for sure once I meet the artist tomorrow.  I'll keep you posted," he added, ringing off.

Having made her call to Andrew, Dee was left thinking things over following  on from what Al had talked about the day before.  Faisal had been the one to say never trust anyone who tells you to trust them, and from what Al had said, as well as her own reservations, that seemed to include Faisal himself.  Maybe her first instincts about him had been right.  Al, though far from being as introspectively analytical as she was in terms of explaining things even to himself, had clearly rebelled against his background in his choices of partners, for love, rather than to exploit like his cousin, and she wondered, from the comments he had gone on to make about his older sisters' lives, whether this was in part from having seen them married off young to distant relatives and missing out on their own lives, perhaps unfulfilled later, or even regretting it.  He had carried on talking about his family for a little while the day before, saying that his sisters had been academically bright at school too, like his brother.

"But of course," he had said, "with the girls that's just to make them behave, keeping them at home doing their homework so they can be married off later with a good rep."

"You used to tell me I should be studying", she reminded him.

"Well, so you should have been," retorted Al.  "But you decided to run off with me, instead."

Dee couldn't really argue with that one and he had, in London, seemed to make concessions on the prospective college front, whatever subjects they might let her in to do now, having dropped out of school, if they would.  Waiting for his return from the family meet at Hamid's, she went down to help Nathe and Frankie out, and when Al did come back from it and whatever had followed on, it was the late afternoon.  Thundershowers had left rainbows stretching across the cityscape sky, caught on the fancy pinnacles and cupola domes of old buildings and the sharp, clean edges of modern towers.  He found Dee with Nathe and Frankie on the roof garden, searching out rainbows' ends for their pots of gold.

"Very sweet," said Al, who looked irritable and not in the mood for whimsy.  "How about the treasure downstairs?  Is that in its casket yet?"

"Sure!" confirmed Nathe.  "Bagged and sorted for you, ready for later on."

"Good," said Al.  "Here".  He paid them up for their harvesting.

Recognising his shortness for the dismissal it was, Nathe and Frankie took their leave, clear hint taken.

"Oh," said Dee, a bit disappointed.  "Was everything all right?"

"Yes and no," said Al, sitting down at the outdoor table with her, where cardboard tipped dogends still smouldered in the ashtray.  She saw him do a mental check that there were only two.

"Don't fret," she said smiling.  "I haven't started smoking your stock yet."

"I should think not!" he said back.  "You're not on payroll perks."

"What about cook's perks?" she asked, teasingly.

"Oh, did I miss smelling dinner being made on the way in, then?" he challenged sarcastically.


"I thought not.  Slacker," he said, but lightly.  "Anyway, no dodgy cakes, thanks, so don't be getting any baking tips from those two."

"All right, grumpy!  What's up, then?"

"Too many cooks," he answered cryptically, following the theme.  "My other brother's coming over."


"To England.  Visit to Hamid and family.  Zulf wants a look see at things this end."

The third brother, thought Dee, thinking this was the only one she hadn't heard him talk about yet, except in passing.

"Oh?  What does he do then?" asked Dee.

"He's a cleaner."

"Is he?" asked Dee, in some surprise.

" Yeah," said Al, amused.  "Not that kind, petal.  He buys land over there, puts into building projects that are up and coming.  Sorts it all legit."

"Sorts what all legit?"

"The money."

"Oh, I see," said Dee, who didn't.

"It means plenty of status and power for him with people that count, more by the day.  Quite the Amir, he is."


"Prince.  Keep up, love," said Al, who hadn't called Dee that for quite a while, so that she got the sense he was feeling the need to reassert himself in his own little kingdom, over her, Nathe and Frankie.

"But....doesn't Hamid run things?"

"Head of the family, yes, but Zulf's got to be someone now, brains of the accounting side and like I say, he's at the top of the the money tree.  I'm not his favourite person."

"Why not?"

"Because I came along and pushed his sharp nose out of joint as the baby, didn't I?  Hamid and the others all spoil me, but he still resents me big time, even now.  He'll side with Rashid and Faisal and I'll get off-roaded again."

"Really?  He's only visiting, though, isn't he?"

"Yes but he'll work on Hamid with them about me.  Feckless, unreliable, not toeing the family line, loose cannon, risky business.  You name it.  I've only just got Hamid's trust back after last year.  Oh, yes, I still get blamed for that, even though it was Rashid who made it all go wrong, like I told you, not me, for once."

So, there was a history to this then, Dee gathered, of Al being the problem child amongst them, quite apart from whatever had gone on last year, and due to more than his choice of girlfriends, as Faisal had hinted at when telling her that Al courted trouble, which she already knew anyway.

"Al," she said.  "What did happen last year?  You've never really told me all of it."

"No.  I haven't" he agreed. 

"And you're not going to?"

"Of course not.  Stays in the family, all that shit."

"All righty, then," said Dee, trying not to feel excluded.  "If you're only going to give me half a story I can only give you half an answer, can't I, because I don't know, do I?  So all I can suggest is, before he comes, keep on doing all you need to do to please Hamid and keep doing it while, Zulf, was it, visits?  Don't let yourself get riled if you know they'll be ganging up to press your buttons.  That way, all Hamid sees is you still eating your humble pie like a good boy and they've got no ammo to use against you with him."

Al laughed at this out of character picture of himself.

"It's not bad advice, as it goes," he agreed.  "Wait for the fly in the ointment to piss off again and keep it sweet."

"Well, if you want to put it that way," said Dee, amused as always by Al's ability to reduce subtly complicated elements to a pithy minimum.  Waffle wasn't his medium, unless as a self promoting gambit.  "If you can keep your cool, I'd do it.  You know how you can flare up with them."

"I know," he said.  "You're right.  I'll try.  You know what it's like for me just with those other two."

Dee did, having seen how easily the pot of the uneasy truce between the cousins was given to boiling over, given any opportunity.

"What time is it?" she asked, studying the sky.   Dee was trying to learn sun times, with an idea for a painting series involving sundials and shadows.  "Fiveish?"

"It's starving your ever loving to death time," joked Al, lightening up with a return to esprit.  "Come on, let's find something to eat.  I didn't get lunch."

"Good," said Dee.  "I don't want you getting middle aged spread."

Al pulled up his t-shirt to examine a smoothly toned stomach.

"No," he announced.  "Still perfect.  Middle aged!" he objected, in mock outrage.  "How very dare you, young lady.  Besides, I'm the one who exercises."

(Al was conscientious about various work out routines he did, though eschewing the gym as too boring.  He liked Dee to admire him in action instead).  They went down to the flat to hunt through the restocked fridge freezer for quick and easy fare, opting for pizza and salad, over which Dee said, as he was reminding her that Hamid had another full day for him acting as airport meet and greet again, that she fancied a clothes shop outing the next day.

"I want a couple of dresses," she said, "I'm fed up with my other stuff."

Al approved of this and gave her some money to get clothes with.

"Can't you take Frankie?" he suggested.  "Get her into something decent?"

"Frankie has her own style,"  Dee told him.

"That she does.  If you can call it style...."

"I think it suits her," said Dee, loyal to her friend.

"If you like that kind of thing," agreed Al, spearing another piece of chicken piri piri on his fork.  "Which I don't.  You get your dresses.  Tomorrow night, we'll do ourselves up and have a swanky night out, shall we?"

"Lovely", agreed Dee, wondering when Al would let her graduate from mocktails to more than one real cocktail.  Worse than her dad, she thought, who at least relented to the odd glass of wine with Sunday dinner.  On the other hand, Al liked to drive them from one fashionable drinking and dining spot to another in the affluent suburbs, so rarely bothered drinking himself.  Since she had never been old enough to start on it much socialising wise, Dee didn't really feel that she was missing out yet, but that time might come in the future.  I can go out with my college mates, then, she mused, having already fancied up, with her lively inner imagination, an escapist future student life of some sort including nights out with friends other than Al again, which Al, Dee being more grown up in this hypothetical future, had somehow relaxed into allowing.  Later that night, Al did go down to the office for a while, checking out how things were down there and on his return, still seemed to feel that his word to the wise with Hamid had been effectual in toning things down.

Dee timed her trip into town to allow for her clothes shopping before she was due to meet Andrew in Dream.  She found two summer dresses she liked after an enjoyable wander through her favourite chain stores, sales already on even though it was the season for summer wear, and arrived at her destination a little early, so that she could have a chat with the staff, tell them there was interest in the paintings and sound out the managers about a potential return to a lunchtime spot.  Right then, they didn't need her, but the students would be breaking up soon, so they'd be losing some of their regulars for a couple of months. 

"Give it a couple of weeks, Liz.  I can get in touch to let you know if you like, or will you be popping by?" said the manager on duty.

"Probably," she nodded.  "Cheers, Leo.  That's great."

She went to sit at a table near her paintings, so she could watch for 'Drew' coming in, the manager having said he'd point him in her direction if he came in asking for her.  Andrew duly came in and did so, looking round to where the manager gestured, and seeing Dee raise a hand in greeting.  They recognised one another.  Andrew with relief that it was Debbie as he'd hoped and Dee thinking that she remembered serving him a few times in there.  As he sat down to introduce himself with a handshake, she remembered he was one half of the couple she had liked, who seemed to enjoy a humorous intimacy together which she had found attractive in them.

"Hi!" she said, with genuine warmth.  "Did you ever get your couch?"

"My couch?" asked Andrew, who had forgotten that bit of the conversation.

"Yes, don't you remember, you and your husband were trying to buy one?"

"Oh!  Ah, yes," said Andrew, who had omitted to put his prop wedding ring on and saw her noticing its absence as she referred to his husband and glanced automatically at his ring finger.

"Yes, I've lost my ring, you're quite right," he said.  "Victim of a decorating accident."

"Really?  Oh, no!  How?" asked Dee, ready, he realised, to be entertained.

Andrew, as Drew, relaxed into the part, remembering to call her Liz.

"Well, I tell him it's his fault, Liz.  If he hadn't insisted on me repainting the hall again because he said I'd got it patchy, I wouldn't have had to wash more paint off my hands under the garden tap and dropped it down the drain, would I?"

"Oh, no!" cried Dee again.  "Was he very cross?"

"Furious," declared Andrew.  "We had specially made matching ones, you see.  In fact," he continued inventing, "He's still not satisfied with the finish, so I've come up with hanging original paintings there, starting with this one.  I love it.  It's such fab colours!"

"I'm glad you like it," said Dee.  "But does he?  Has your partner seen it?"

"Well, not yet.  I thought we'd talk first about price and take it from there.  Here, let me get us some drinks.  What would you like?"

Dee opted for a cappucino, and he went to order, thanking his lucky stars that it was Debbie after all and that she seemed quite relaxed with him as one half of a gay couple.  Andrew made sure during their conversation that he was at his most approachable, holding her gaze and looking interestedly trustworthy as he drew her out a little, establishing that she painted at home and was untrained, allowing him to flatter her skills.

"Your parents must be very proud of your paintings?" he suggested, having done so. "A talented young artist in the family!"

Dee looked away, and he noticed a pensive expression which seemed promising. 

"Oh, well.  They haven't actually seen them," Dee said, hesitating and then confiding in his apparently candid friendliness.  "I live with my boyfriend you see and, well, I haven't seen them, either, my parents, I mean, not for quite a long time."

Her lip trembled a bit, which took her by surprise.  Andrew gave her a moment, looking kindly.

"That's a pity, then," he said, "They'd love your work, I'm sure."

Dee nodded.

"I miss them," she found herself saying unexpectedly.

Andrew affected to notice nothing out of the way, saying just,

"Perhaps you can do something about that, then?  When the time feels right, maybe."

Dee responded immediately to this unjudgemental empathy.

"It's funny you should say that, " she told him.  "That's just what I've been thinking."

"Well I probably understand," offered Andrew and went on to make up a scenario which he knew would provide a sympathetic parallel, about how he had avoided having his parents know about him for a long time, including an extended absence when he was seeing someone.

"It's not that they'd have objected, necessarily.  I just let things drift because it was easier than introducing my boyfriend.  I didn't want any fuss about any of it.   Not from him, either. I also didn't think they'd get along, different worlds, different outlooks.  I don't know if it's like that for you, of course."

"Actually," said Dee, leaning forward eagerly.  "That's just how it is!  Well, in many ways.  I let it go on too long because my boyfriend wasn't anyone they'd understand about and I think he's scared I'll go back if he lets me talk to them.  Not that he stops me," she added hastily.  "It's not just that, it's, it's how I left."

Andrew waited but she had stopped, clearly uncomfortable that she might have said a bit too much.  He decided to back off.

"You know?" he said.  "It's something that just comes right in the end.  You can always worry too much about things."

He moved the conversation back on to her paintings for a while, asking how she got her ideas, and she told him of her new concept for a sundials and shadows series, which he enthused over and asked if she took commissions, which, she told him, she already had, actually, and so he heard the story of Fliss.  They discussed one or two of the other paintings up on the walls and 'Drew' offered her a bargainable amount for the first one, dependent on whether his husband liked it.  He also stated interest if she got going with the sundial and shadows paintings.

"Let's meet up in here again," suggested Andrew.  "I'll bring Nolan, and we can all discuss it together over lunch maybe?"  (He decided to give Nolan his real name as one less false one to remember).

"I'd like that, Drew," said Dee, who had, as Andrew had intended, thoroughly enjoyed talking to him and wasn't ready yet to conclude their first proper encounter.

She was a bit short of company outside the relationship, Andrew intuited, having given her an opening to wind things up that she hadn't taken, so he played up further to being companionably charming and an entertaining but listening ear.  He moved the conversation back to personal life, giving her plenty to be amused by and sympathise with in the way of fictional follies and peccadillos, together with vignettes of how he and Nolan had met and of their life together.  Against this colourful background, the little confidences that she dropped in herself now and again seemed harmlessly shared but Andrew learned a lot more than Dee had realised she might have given away, including her jealous doubts about Gemma, concerns about her position with Al's family, (although he noted that she was careful to avoid talking about 'business'), and her sense of being ready to do things herself now, like college and getting in touch with the family but needing to think about the right way of going about them.

"Well," said Andrew, who amongst all this had picked up that she was deeply in love with Al and that from her telling of their relationship, he seemed to feel the same, which was something positive in a way to tell her parents, though they needed preparing for the fact that Debbie was happy with Al and unlikely to leave at present.  (The seamier side of life, as it didn't involve Debbie herself, nor always Al, as far as he could see, he had kept from them altogether, not wanting them rushing off to the police half primed).  "If I can be of any help, I'm a good shoulder.  All my friends come to me.  It doesn't mean I give good advice of course," he said jokingly.

"I'm sure you do," said Dee.  "And thank you."

"We all need a different friend to talk to sometimes," said Andrew.  "Someone outside the circle.  Helps with perspective, I think?"

Dee agreed and so Andrew was already successfully established on several footings at once with her after this first meeting.  Perceptive Andrew had realised as they swapped stories that Debbie was also missing her older brother, and so had channelled this kind of cameraderie into his manner, too.  They arranged the next meet up for a couple of days time, when Dee knew that Al's other brother, Zulf, would have arrived and Al would be in attendance at Hamid's, safely out of the way.  This would give Andrew time to prime Nolan.  He didn't think that, even if Dee mentioned him to Frankie afterwards, any connection would be made necessarily.  He hoped not but would have to come up with some "what a coincidence" suprise if she revealed any such conversation at their next meeting.  As it happened, Dee had already decided not to tell anyone anything, not wanting any interference and hungry for this new and potentially supportive friendship.  She trusted Frankie, but she might tell Nathe, and Dee wasn't always sure Nathe didn't tell Al more than he let on.

"So," he said as they finally said their goodbyes after a second coffee, "it's our little secret, is it, all this, I take it, as far as Al's concerned?"

"Oh, yes," said Dee firmly.  "If that's o.k.?" she immediately demurred, ready to defer to him if he thought otherwise, Andrew realised, a good sign, he thought, for him gaining some influence over her future plans.

"Fine with me, hun," said Andrew as Drew, airkissing her by both cheeks.   "Best way for now given he wants to do your business deals and you want to do them yourself.  It is your work after all.  Good on you.  Brave first steps.  Don't worry, I'll be with you all the way," he assured her, and she knew he meant if she decided on other things going forward too, like contacting her family.

Dee liked the approval and her core of inner determination was fed by it.  Things, she thought, walking happily back to the mill with her shopping, would probably work out just fine.  As Drew had said, you could always worry too much about things.  She felt lighter in herself, as if he had lifted invisible barriers for her without even knowing about them.  She was looking forward to seeing him again with his partner.

In the office later on, where the floor seemed to be getting more damply uneven by the week, spongey under its aged carpet, Andrew was updating Nolan.

"Well done, mate," said Nolan.   "What did you make of things?"

"I thought, she's happy, but in some ways ready to move on.  I'd say she's been growing up a bit.   Nice girl.  Sensitive, intelligent, a bit stuck maybe because he's controlling her freedom and luckily, seems in need of a good friend.  That'll be me."

"So we stay undercover then, when we meet up, two little lovebirds are we again?"

"Yes.  She misses the family for sure, so we can gentle things along and maybe I could suggest playing go between for them on the quiet.  She doesn't need to find out who we really are, that would ruin it all.  I'll have to warn her parents to keep it that way, too, if it works out, so they don't let any cats out of the bag."

"They'll be happy to hear all this, won't they?" commented Nolan, pleased for them.  "They've waited a long time."

"They have," agreed Andrew.  "I'll see if I can call on them tomorrow night.  I don't want to get their hopes up too soon, though.  She's a bit Bambi in the headlights at the moment and could run either way, because Al still calls the shots.  It will hinge on us gaining her trust and doing a bit of leading along in the right direction."

"Away from the car crash she's headed for," said Nolan.

"Yes.  He's always going to mean trouble for her, isn't he, Al, in the end?  Even if it's no worse than, suddenly you're thirty with no independence and no future of your own apart from what's tied up with him, assuming they're still together."

" That's if it doesn't end in tears one way or another long before," said Nolan.   "It's a very dirty world they're all mixed up in."

"Yes, and what if, in the future, he gets married?  It won't be to her will it?"

"Doubtful," agreed Nolan.  "Meanwhile, though, she's still living the dream and hasn't got to the nightmare."

"Yep.  So far."

"Right.  So we reconvene in the cafe bar," said Nolan, who had his own separate agenda and wasn't telling Andrew that he was also planning a private return again soon on his own to the underground club.  Just a game or two, he promised himself, because, like an ex smoker who chances just one cigarette on a night out, the poker game had woken his gambling streak back up, along with his own characteristic need to occasionally play with fire, good as the quiet life was at home.  Unbeknown to Andrew, he had already been back twice and on the second occasion had enjoyed a few wins, a deciding throw of the dice for him about returning. As far as Billy was concerned, it was work related surveillance he was out on, which in a way, he deceived himself, it was.  They needed to monitor activity to have a sense of when they should make a real move to get Debbie clear, didn't they?  He had kept a low profile, a vaping device usefully on the go if he spotted Rashid and his heavies doing the rounds, concealing himself behind clouds of fruitily scented steam plumes like dragon's breath.  He had once, too, caught a glimpse of Al in there, but Al hadn't noticed him, one of many blending into the scene.  He'd have to be careful, though, he advised himself, not to become a face as a regular.  Just sometimes, that was all.  Just for now.  Soon.

"Honey," he declared to himself aloud after Andrew had gone.  "Let the good times roll!" 


Nolan hadn't been to the club again yet before he and Andrew met Dee as planned in Dream about the paintings.  In character as a couple, Nolan was to be the one persuaded into Andrew's proposed purchases and encouraged towards being a patron of  'Liz's' future work.  Dee was already waiting, eager to see them.

"Hello again!" she said brightly to both as they joined her at a table and then to Nolan, "Andrew's told me so much about you and how you both met," she added, warmly emotional about it.

"Oh?" enquired Nolan. 

Andrew had invented a touching back story for Nolan, and for their romance, which took its protagonist by surprise as relayed to him briefly by Dee, in terms of how moving she had found it all.

"I was what?" he said, shooting a molten look at Andrew, who affected innocence, then rallied slightly.  " Since I fell off the back of a lorry, I've turned out rather well, haven't I?  I expect you think that's all down to Drew taking me in as a poor foundling?"

"Well...." said Dee, who had been given a heroically slanted account by Andrew of his  supposed rescuing of Nolan.

"Actually, darling, mine's more of a riches to rags story.  But that's for another time.  The truth of the matter is, that once Drew clapped eyes on me he was a lost cause.  It was a complete coup de foudre for him, love at first sight.  He followed me everywhere, so I had to let him rehome me to stop him pining away altogether.  Of course, it wasn't always a pity shag.  He won me over in the end.  Devoted types do, don't they?"

"Touche," Andrew mouthed at him over Dee's head, unobserved.

"Bastard," Nolan mouthed back , also missed by Dee, who had glanced down, thinking, then looked back at him.

" Riches to rags?  So, really, you're...?"

"That's right, poppet, your actual African prince.  You don't come across one of those every day, do you?"

Dee laughed.

"You're teasing me!" she objected.

"Only a bit," said Nolan.  "The last bit."

"I think it's a lovely story," she smiled.  "Even if you're not a real prince."

"I'm a prince amongst men," quipped Nolan.  "What more could he want?"

"I can think of a few things," said Andrew.  " Some excellent paintings for a start.  Now, that one there is the first I had in mind.  Come and have a look at it with me, then we can order lunch."

Nolan and Andrew got up and made a big deal of looking at the painting and her others, while Dee stayed at the table to give them some privacy to discuss it.

"I can't believe you told her I'm some raft person who bummed a ride from Calais in the back of a truck," muttered Nolan heatedly.

"She loved it!" said Andrew.  "In fact if you weren't gay she'd probably have fallen for you as well as Al.  She's got a soft heart for a hard luck story and for a good looking guy from the wrong side of the tracks."

"Oh, so I'm illegally here as well, am I?"

"Not necessarily.  I haven't filled in all the details.  It's all part of making Debbie think we get it, when and if she confides in us."

"Christ!" said Nolan disgustedly.  "Talk about blaxploitation!"

"Oh, shut up," said Andrew.  "What about when you told our last client that I was bipolar?"

"You are," said Nolan.  "You like passing for gay."

Andrew laughed.

"So, what do you think?" asked Dee, who had come up behind them now to encourage Nolan and Andrew along, but hadn't caught the gist of their conversation.

"I love it in itself," said Nolan, playing to script,"but I'm doubtful about the hall idea.  It needs good hanging space to do it justice."

"Oh," said Dee, crestfallen and thinking this meant no deal.

"But I do love it," Nolan assured her.  "I think....." he stepped back to make a further critical appraisal, "it would be perfect for the dining room.   Plain walls, the table and chairs and just that painting.  Let's get lunch and talk about things.  I'm quite taken with the sundial and shadows series idea Drew's told me of.  That would look great as a sequence in the hall, if it works out.  Tell me about it after we've got food sorted, Liz."

Andrew, having to stay in his chosen persona, had to put up with Nolan forcing him into having a measly vegetarian salad while he and Dee ordered the house burger with all the trimmings.  Andrew was just saying that this sounded good to him too, when Nolan got his revenge for the refugee story by saying,

"No!  You can't have that, lover.  What if you have one of your allergic reactions?  I don't want to have to stab you in the vitals with the adrenalin pen again, do I?"

"Oh, dear," said Dee.  "What's Drew allergic to?"

"Anything of interest," said Nolan, going in for the kill and giving Andrew a villainous grin.  "You'll just have to have the leaf side salad."

"Yes, thank you for reminding me," said Andrew, a bit sourly.  "He has to save me from myself when I get tempted.  I'll have the salad then."

"No dressing," added Nolan.  "You know what happened last time."

"All right!" exclaimed Andrew, getting indignant for real.  " You can leave it to me to order what I can have!"

Dee laughed at the spat.

"Do you always argue like this?" she asked.

"Oh yes," said Nolan.  "Sign of a healthy relationship, that is."

"I don't like it when Al and I argue," said Dee.

"Aww, is he a meanie?" asked Nolan

"Oh, no, but he can fire up a bit, not usually at me, though, luckily.  He's got a great death stare to go with it as well."

"What gets him going, then, your boyfriend?" asked Andrew.

"His cousins, mainly," said Dee, who felt easy enough with them already to confide.  "And one of his brothers in particular.  Oh, and me if he thinks I'm asking him awkward questions, or he can't be bothered telling me about something."

"Oh, awkward questions!" said Nolan  "We know all about that, don't we?" he said to Andrew.  "I had to answer a lot of those in my time, you know," he said to Dee, affecting a far away look as if painful memories were being reawoken.  "It was a fight to get my asylum status, but Drew fought to the death for me, you know.  That's true love for you."

Andrew gave him a "don't overdo it" frown, but Dee was responding to Nolan with a look of such melting sympathy that he managed to bring a tear to his eye.

"Oh, come on, love," said Andrew drily, patting his hand.  "Don't upset yourself.  It's all over now."

Nolan nodded with noble suffering and Dee said,

"How awful for you!"

"It was," said Nolan.

Food began arriving, under the cover of which, Andrew hissed to Nolan,

"I'm supposed to be the new bessie mate, not you!"

"Some of us have it," said Nolan loftily, "and some of us don't.  Relish, Liz?" he asked, turning to Dee with the condiments.

Andrew looked on enviously as the other two enjoyed succulently savoury burgers with maple cured bacon, blue cheese melt, thick hand cut chips and slatherings of tasty sauces.

"How's your salad?" Dee asked him kindly.  "Couldn't you order some bread to go with it?" she suggested.

"Gluten intolerant," said Nolan instantly, showing no mercy.

" Oh, it's lovely!" Andrew declared, with some acerbity, glowering at Nolan.  "I can eat cheese, though," he said, picking up the menu.

"You shouldn't," said Nolan blandly.  "Lactose intolerant."

"Oh, for crying out loud!  Forget it," said Andrew.  "Let's talk about your paintings, Liz, while I get on with my healthy eating."

"Actually," Dee found herself telling them.  "I'm not really called Liz.  I just used that name in here when I was working."

"Ah," said Nolan.  "Do we have a benefits cheat amongst us?  Don't worry, honey, we've all had to do it in our time."

"No, not that!" she said.  "It's just because, well, I've got a history too, you see.  I'm really called Dee."  Andrew and Nolan exchanged a glance.  "Well actually I'm originally Debbie but I prefer Dee."

"So?" prompted Nolan, since it was the sharing of his invented past which had made her see him and Andrew as kindred spirits even more.

"It's complicated."

"It always is," agreed Nolan encouragingly.

"I, er, I ran away from home to be with Al.   I used Liz because Al was worried about people looking for me.  There.  You know now."

"Bless you," said Nolan.  "That can't be easy.  I know what it is to be far from home."

There was a respectful pause from Dee.

"Oh, that was much worse, for you!" she declared.  "Anyway.  There it is."

Andrew and Nolan left things there so as not to put any pressure on her which might make Dee back off and reverted to discussing her plans for future paintings.  They concluded lunch by saying that Nolan would have a look at the dining room option again, paid a generous deposit to her and she proudly kept the reserve sign up that the cafe staff had already put on the painting when Andrew expressed interest. She promised to sketch out her preliminary ideas, and perhaps do a sample starter to give them a feel for what she had planned with her next series.  She was quite artless about wanting to see them again soon, feeling they were already firm friends, so it wasn't hard for them to suggest likely timescales or to agree that if she just wanted a coffee and a natter any time, that was fine too. 

"Nolan's always busy," said Andrew, also getting his own back.  "But I'm quite often free and just at a loose end.  I'd enjoy meeting up if you would."

Thus suggesting that he, too, was in need of a friend, Andrew hoped  Dee would feel that this would be a mutually satisfactory arrangement and since she was pleased to agree quickly that she would enjoy it, she evidently did.

"But I'll see Nolan as well sometimes, won't I?" she asked, smiling at them a bit shyly.

"Of course!" said Nolan, giving Andrew a triumphant look which he pretended not to notice, though his cheeks had reddened in their usual give away of his feelings, which were currently a slight chagrin at Dee's apparent preference.  When they left and Dee stayed for a quick chat again with her old work colleagues, Andrew said to him,

"Listen, sunshine.  Step off the toes a bit next time.  I'm supposed to be winning her over."

"Doesn't matter which of us manages that, does it?  So long as we get her back en famille, or at least talking to them.  Can I help my natural charms?"

"Yes," said Andrew stoutly.  "You can.  And now, I'm off to get a pasty, I'm bloody starving you utter, utter bastard."

"Yep," said Nolan smugly.  "Like I say, some of us have it, and some of us don't."

(Continued in Serial Part 3)  







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