'Dandelion Souls' - Serial Part 3

'Dandelion Souls' - Serial Part 3

' Dandelion Souls ' Serial Part 3

Chapter 14 - Happenings

Al was agitated immediately by Zulf's arrival. Hamid, he told Dee, Al himself not seeming to like it at all, wanted to organise a big get together soon, everyone to be there.

"What, in Zulf's honour, you mean?" asked Dee.

"No, more like, to show him there's nothing Zulf can get over big brother, that there's nothing he doesn't already know about us all over here already, that he can't be caught out, that he's in charge."

"That sounds a bit weird, not very brotherly."

"They're not very brotherly, Hamid knows Zulf's competing for the top."

"So when you say, everyone?"

"Yes, you too, Dee."

"But - Hamid doesn't even like me, he just ignores me."

"He doesn't approve, that's different.  But like I say, this is about a united front from us all, show he's across all our lives."

"Faisal too?"

"Yes.  So be prepared for whoever else you see."

" You mean, Gemma?"  Al nodded, confirming what she had already guessed.  " But, what about his own family?  His wife and kids?"

"They'll be there, too.  Appearances will be observed. It's not about the people so much as showing Zulf he can't get under anyone's skin with secrets, that Hamid already knows them all."

"It sounds just horrible.  I don't want to go!"

Dee could not imagine a more uncomfortable social occasion, if it were to be even social.

"I know, Dee, but we'll have to.  I don't want it, either.  I don't know when he's planning it for.  I'm just warning you."

"Will the rest of your family come over?"

"No.  This is for the business side of us, the ones working for Hamid.  Maybe he'll think better of it."  Al looked uneasy.  "I certainly hope so."

Dee heard no more of this plan for a while and did her best to forget about it. 

Andrew had enjoyed being able to tell Dee's parents that he had met her again successfully and now had every hope of being able to persuade her to allow him to liaise between them all.  Their pleasure in the news was a reward for persistence and they seemed sensible of the need for the continued caution he suggested in concealing his real role from their daughter.  Having done this, he set off for a planned visit to his own parents for a few days, leaving casework monitoring to Nolan, who was suited just fine by it, as this gave him valid time out from home which Billy wouldn't question, and an opportunity to return to the mill's gambling rooms.

On the night in question, it not being a weekend, it was people wanting to be involved in that who formed the main body of the clientele.  Since Andrew and Nolan's first visit there together, there had not been girls offering other prospects to the guests that Nolan had seen, which he had put down to it maybe just being a weekend extra.  He had relaxed his own vigilance, thinking he had got the measure of the place and not having realised that this change was actually a precaution against coming to police notice. 

Playing poker, he found himself on an unusual winning streak, attracting an audience, which drew the attention of the office.  Looking up from under the peak of the baseball cap he was wearing by way of an eyeshade, having become aware of people gathering, he found himself unexpectedly meeting the assessing gaze of Al, who looked as if he was wondering where he had seen Nolan before.  Nolan looked quickly back down at his cards, his face shadowed again, but he heard Al asking one of the other staff,

"Do you know this one?"

"He's been in before.  Likes the cards.  Doesn't usually make on it like this, though."

"Sort it," said Al.  "It's too much money.  Break it up."

Nolan inwardly cursed his luck and hastily sorted it himself, folding swiftly and throwing the game along with most of his winnings, with a show of sporting gallantry and trying to melt away quickly into the background, but Al had followed him.

"You made the right decision there," said Al, still surveying him with the cool stare.  "You wouldn't want to be carrying all that money on your way home would you?  It's not too safe round here at night."

Nolan knew what he meant, the game losers and the game hosts had their tolerance limits in such places.

"No," agreed Nolan, trying to sound harmless.  " I usually lose it all again anyway."

"Better to quit while you're ahead, then," advised Al.  "By the way, whoever it is you've been scouting round for, I'll know you again."

"Me?  I'm just a bit of a gambler, mate."

Al was not looking very matey.

"Yeah?  Well, you're out of this game, and tell your associates to keep their noses out of our business."

Al had decided Nolan couldn't be undercover police, because he was too noticeable, and he definitely was a gambler, that particular appetite was unmistakeable.  Not entirely certain yet that he was right in his suspicions as to having spotted a plant, Al nodded to two people behind Nolan, who came forward as escort, saying,

"Come through to the office."

"Sure," said Nolan easily.  "I'm heading on out.  No worries."

Once in the office, though, he was not allowed to pass through, the exit door blocked off by one of the other men.

"Sit down," said Al, taking out his phone and scrolling through it till he found what he was looking for, studied it and then Nolan, leisurely, who was beginning to sweat it a bit, not sure what was going on.

Al's observant memory for faces had not misled him.  This was the man Gemma had photographed outside the flats and, he thought, possibly one of the two Nathe had snapped at the gig night.  He was thinking quickly how to take advantage of this discovery.  He had a reputation to boost with Hamid now Zulf was here and being the one to get a grip of potential competition could help, but he didn't want to open up the field to Rashid, who was likely to be back soon and come in to deal with things his way.  Al had come down in response to a call from Rashid, because unusually successful winners were likely to be trouble and he wanted Al to keep an eye on things while he went out on his other nightly business dealings.

Al sent a quick text to Hamid, saying he'd pulled one of the guys he'd been warning him of, in the club, and what would he like him to do, question him, take him elsewhere so Hamid could deal with it, or rattle him and let him go, see what happened next?  Nolan's expression of innocent confusion didn't waver but he was seriously alarmed and at a loss.  Andrew was away and nobody knew where he was.

"What's up, man?" he decided he should ask.  "What associates did you mean?  I only come in to play."

Al said nothing, sitting down too, behind the desk, to wait for Hamid to respond.

Up in the apartment, Dee was deep in a long bubble bath, candles on the windowsill making a gentler light.  Floating in her own world, the crackle glaze rustle of bubbles bursting next to her ears, she half realised that all was unusually quiet, the murmering tv soundtrack of the programme Al had been watching when she went into the bathroom no longer audible.  She vaguely heard lift noises, as it came up and down, then up again with speedy efficiency.  She  lowered her head almost under to wet her hair through to shampoo it.  There was a sudden  banging on the apartment door, muffled through the water she was submerged in.  Someone had come up from the club for Al, then.  Never mind, she was in no rush to get out.  She finished her hair and waited a while longer, not wanting to emerge dripping in a bath towel in front of Rashid or someone, then shouted,

"Al!" to ask him if the coast was clear now.

There was no answer, so she called again, then got out.  Coming back into the main room she saw that there was no sign of Al. The sliding doors were all back and there was nobody there.  She looked out of the spyhole in the apartment door, which was locked, but could see nothing out there either.  No Al waiting to be let back in, or anyone else. The banging on the door had been unusual by night.  Where was he, down below in the office?  She rang him but he didn't answer, which was disconcerting.  She quickly got dressed again, threw on a coat and went up on to the roof garden, trying to look down into the courtyard, but as far as she could tell there was nothing to see going on.  She went back in, bolting the door behind her, anxiety rising, but then to her relief her phone buzzed back with a message from Al.

"Dealing with something.  Back later.  Don't worry."

Dealing with what, Dee wondered, puzzled afresh by the banging on the door and him going out without telling her, or maybe he had and she hadn't heard in the bath?  She hoped there wasn't going to be trouble.

Nolan, in between the two office men in the back of the car Al was driving, sat behaving himself, having, as Al had pointed out, made another very bad mistake.  When the text had come back through from Hamid and Al had said to the others only,

"He wants him," Nolan had panicked.

As the one by the door moved away to come for him he made a dash for it, and with an unexpected turn of speed and agility got by them all and dived into the lift for sanctuary, knowing he wouldn't beat them to the other side of the millyard and the gate.  It was Rashid he feared, knowing nothing of whom Al had texted.  He headed, instinctively, with moth like desparation, to the top and the lights of the apartment.  Once out of the lift, which went down again immediately, there was no way off the corridor, so he banged frantically on the door, with no real idea what he would do or where he would hide should Debbie or anyone else answer.  Nobody came and the lift was already back.  He was roughly and efficiently cornered and bundled  in to it by the men from the office and taken back down to Al, who somewhat to his relief said,

"Let's get him out of here before Rashid comes back."

"What?" he started, but stopped at Al's fierce look.

"You're one lucky man you didn't get in there and frighten my girlfriend," Al said with protective menace, having established with the men he hadn't.

"She's safe from me, believe you me!" declared Nolan.

"She's safe from anyone," returned Al.  "Because she's with me."

"I'm sorry!  I didn't know about her," whined Nolan, opting for humiliated fear.  "I just panicked. I'm only a sad little punter, pal.  I play cards that's all.  I was scared.  What are you going to do to me?"

"Get in the car," said Al, looking contemptuous but refraining from hitting him, which he clearly wanted to.

Nolan obeyed, giving up his protestations, deciding that whatever happened next, he'd have to try and work out what, or who, they thought he was, without giving the truth away.  They drove a couple of miles out, to an empty property, where in an unfurnished room, another man was waiting, who said gravely,

"Little brother," as they went in, to Al, then examined Nolan.

"I'd like to know," he said, conversationally, " how it is that you go to my club, visit my tenants at home and turn up with your friend to chat to my employees in a bar?"

"Mistaken identity?" tried Nolan.  " We are all supposed to look alike, you know." Nobody smiled.  "Seriously, guys, it's just coincidence if you're right.  I play cards in the club, I drink and chat in bars and sometimes I visit people.  What times do you mean?"

Al showed him the photo Gemma had taken on his phone.

"Well, yes, that is me.  I remember that now.  But, I was trying to find a different place.  I just had the wrong address."

Hamid looked at Al, who shrugged slightly, because Gemma had seen him go into another house.  Hamid waited a few beats, letting him worry, then said,

"My friend.  Let's not play any games here.  You've been seen.  I don't want to find you've been seen again, or it will be one coincidence too many.  Are we clear?"

"We are," Nolan eagerly assured him.  "No problem, buddy.  I don't know what you're worried about I'm doing, but I'll keep out of everybody's hair."

"I like a bit of blissful ignorance myself," Hamid told him.  "Let's keep it that way.  I don't want to find my business is all around the town.  You get me? " Nolan nodded, visibly shaken to such a degree that it was clear he was no hard man.  "Drop him off somewhere in town," Hamid told the two office men, taking a further picture of Nolan, this time on his own phone.  "Take my car.  You can take me home now," he said to Al.  "You did well, little brother."

Nolan could hardly believe he was to be let go unscathed, but assumed the magnanimous sounding warning off was meant to be sent via him as a calling card to whichever rival outfit they thought he might be working for.  His come uppance for gambling had been dangerously close to personal disaster and to jeapardising the real job in hand.  He wouldn't have to admit it to Andrew at least, not having been supposed to be there but he'd have to box clever around the Debbie issue and leave Andrew to it, as he had wanted.  They had searched him for i.d. but he had only brought money with him and his house keys.  They hadn't bothered asking him for a name, because obviously, he wasn't the important one, whoever he was working for was what mattered to them and showing they were on top of any attempts to infiltrate their business.  There was always going to be competition from somewhere in that world, the show of strength was the important thing.  The less people knew about one another the better.  He had better make sure they didn't get their hands on him a second time, or he knew he'd be facing a much higher risk of being made a serious example of to someone.  You just left the body to be found.   

Billy found Nolan to be very much a home bird over the rest of the week, choosing to work from there rather than the office and concentrating on the computer side of his investigations until Andrew came back from his visit, when he reported that things had been pretty quiet.

"Good," said Andrew, happily unaware of events.  "Right, then.  Coffee and picture buying next, I think.  I'll take it from there."

"Go for it," agreed the subdued Nolan.  "I'm taking a break from field work.  I'm getting behind with all the office stuff."

He wasn't, he had decided, cut out for Interpol.  Being picked up like that hadn't been the only thing to alarm him.  The ease with which the card games had consumed him and made him vulnerable had been a wake up call, and he felt reprieved to find himself safely at home again with Billy.  If Rashid had been the one to get to him first, he dreaded to think what kind of interrogation that might have been.  As it was, he had a few bruises to hide from Billy for a week or so.

Zulf's arrival had turned up the volume on the rivalries between the three cousins, and the new impetus to impress the two power players in the family was a toxic influence on this dynamic.  Al's quick action in picking Nolan out and supposedly exposing him as a front runner getting the low down for other concerns, whilst being the feather in his cap he had hoped for, had ratcheted up the cousins' personal jealousies and also levels of paranoia about people trying to muscle in on the business.  They spilled into each other's working territories, Rashid shouldering around in the day as well as at night, Faisal and Al both in and out of the club by night.  Rashid was the tough guy, the enforcer, and resented Al's intervention, grumbling provocatively to Faisal, Hamid and Zulf that he'd have sorted it himself, found out for definite intead of running to big brother and would have disposed of the opposition discreetly.

"Discreetly!" Al, to whom it of course got back via Faisal, told Dee angrily.  " Him!"

"I know," Dee soothed, but he was not to be mollified, feeling his moment of carefully managed glory tarnished.  He hadn't told her much about it, just that he had spotted someone in the club that night and had been 'on it', assuring her that no, there wouldn't be and hadn't been any trouble, thanks to him.

There was, however, following this, a heightening of atmosphere in the mill again as the cousins vied together.   Al could hardly stay in the flat, walking about restlessly when he was in and constantly checking his phone for the messages he was waiting for, then heading back out, to Hamid, to deals, down to the office, all over the place on required activity, forever on call.  Amidst this hectic distraction on Al's part, Dee met Andrew again more than once in Dream, the painting was bought, confiding coffees were had, and, feeling pushed out by the electric currents pulsing between the cousins, she was open to persuasion about her family and being led to want to make contact.  From there it was an easy step to Andrew offering to act for her as go between, being a neutral friend and to her agreeing that, yes, finally, she wanted him to.

The day soon came for the demonstration of a united front to Zulf at Hamid's, which Hamid hadn't, as Al and Dee had hoped, given up on.  Once again they drove to the showily fronted house, smartly dressed and in each case, for different reasons, a bit apprehensive about it.  Going in, both Hamid and the visiting brother were there to meet them.  Zulf, like Faisal, was physically another version of Al, but compared to both of them, he was the dark side of the moon.  The same eyes had a different light in them and there was no lively play of feeling across his face.  There was little affection, too, in his manner, especially when he looked at Al, whose own expression, in Zulf's presence, took on its sullen cast and the sun went in.  Dee's heart sank as she was introduced, the barest of glances passing over her, disparaging, superior and she went quietly across to sit on the couch next to some other people, whom she didn't know.  Al remained by Hamid, on the other side of him from Zulf, claiming his status place.

The only one who seemed at ease on his arrival was Faisal, who breezed in with his wife and young family, creating an eddy of more natural chatter as he came over and introduced them, much to her surprise, to Dee.

"Chin up, kid," he advised her.  "Hey, do me a favour, will you?  You don't mind helping my wife out with these lot, do you, keep them entertained?  They're a bit young for sitting quietly."

A trio of small faces regarded her, hopeful of play and she was grateful to be unexpectedly included, though also, as she realised, at the same time being skilfully sidelined along with his wife and the children.  Faisal's wife, Zahara, who seemed well versed in the requirements, was immediately pleasant with Dee,  chatting about little nothings in a kindly, undemanding way as they paid attention to the babies, making an enclave of their own on one side of the gathering.  Dee glanced back over at the brothers just as Rashid came in, and with him, Gemma.  Although Faisal was nearby them, it was Al Gemma looked at in that hungry, resentful way she had around him.  Al didn't meet her eyes for more than a moment, holding his place but looking past her, impassively stonewalling her.  Faisal, playing noncholant himself, flicked a glance across them both, then turned aside to gather up his cousins' attention and the knot of men became an animated group, tensions obscured by loud, hearty talk, combined hosts together for the visiting brother and generating a kind of bombastic geniality for the occasion.

If Faisal's wife had any idea about Gemma, she had far too much social aplomb to show it and Dee wondered why, being with someone as attractively personable as this, Faisal would bother with the spiky, surly Gemma.  She remembered what Al had said about Faisal going after his women, just to show he could.  Dee wondered, though, if actually, Gemma might have made a play for Faisal, to stir things up with Al and let him know he couldn't take her for granted but had ended up paying the price by losing Al and winning Faisal.  She certainly hadn't moved on, that much was obvious.

Dee realised that the rest of the company, while eating light refreshments together and talking in the same room, had effectively been weeded out as well from the central male dynamic going on.  Gemma had been dispatched into another group of people away from her and Faisal's family.  Al, completely absorbed in the main action, never so much as looked over, and it was like last year when he left her stranded somewhere and got on with the important business on his own.  But Zulf did, observing them all, taking in where everyone stood in the little hierarchies at play, the coolness about him keeping that part of his attention aloof while still active in the men's talk.  Dee saw this, and Faisal's wife did, too, saying to her,

"Let's take the kids into the garden for a bit, shall we?  Those two can get on with it without us, don't you think?  We've shown willing."

The proposal was a pleasing suggestion of an alliance between them as one half of two established couples and Dee was glad to agree to going outside and avoiding the discomfort of the rancorous undercurrents in the centre of the room.  The garden was a peaceful paved terrace area where the children could play chase, or throw a ball, or ride about on the several tricycles and scooter toys left out there.  Of Hamid's own family, there was no sign, being kept apart from this business related gathering, Dee presumed and was glad, for she had no desire to come across his abrasively supercilious wife again.  After they had been outside entertaining the children for a while, Zahara said it was time to go back in and Dee followed her assured lead on whatever the right behaviour might be, happy that they had both successfully kept out of Gemma's way. 

When they went back inside, Zahara had timed it nicely, as the party was breaking up.  Dee looked for Al, who was still by Hamid.  Rashid and Gemma were gone.  Zulf and Faisal were mingling a bit with other visitors who were readying to leave.  Al and Hamid, deep in animated talk still, glanced over at them absently as they came in, then, conversation over, Al came to get Dee, looking pleased with her, as if her conduct had been approved of by people.  Zahara too said her farewells, smiling and saying how nice it had been to meet Dee and how much of a help she had been.  Collecting up her brood, she went over to Faisal and Zulf, where after another gracefully polite exchange with guests, she and Faisal left, followed closely by Al and Dee.  Al gave Dee a hug before they got into the car, saying,

"Well done."  For what, she wasn't sure, for enduring it, maybe, or perhaps  for being compliantly unobtrusive, playing the game so as to avoid any faux pas with Gemma, the brothers or the cousins.  Al didn't ask her what she thought of Zulf, assuming her loyalty to him ensured the same animus towards this brother that he felt himself, nor did Dee ask what they'd all been busy discussing together in their 'men's talk', more posturing than content anyway, it had seemed to her.  Playing with the children, though, had given her another pang about her own little sister and she kept her counsel too, for Andrew had now set up a meeting, to be between her mother and herself first of all, alone, in a couple of days' time.  The irony of her situation did not escape Dee.  Where once she had met Al in secret, now she would be seeing her mother clandestinely.

For the near future, Al, whilst about Hamid's business, was sounding out his own theory, which, although possibly setting a dangerous course, laid a foundation for doubt about loyalties.  He had been busy with ears to the ground and nowhere had he turned up a link to the two men who had been sniffing around the edges of their concerns, nor the one in particular whom he had pulled in the club.  Was it feasible that this was, in fact, part of an inside job, a move by one of the cousins to let Zulf get detailed knowledge of all aspects of the business over here and be ahead of the game when Zulf made his take over move, already on side?   He didn't think Rashid had the smarts for it, but Faisal did.  It wasn't impossible at all and if he could find out and expose it to Hamid, his own position would be permanently secure, as adult partner to be relied upon, not just little brother.

When Andrew took Dee to meet her mother, he had unknowingly slotted another piece into the fictional puzzle which Al was personally deconstructing.  Thinking, from what Dee had said, that Al would be absent from the mill, he had called back there between dropping her off and picking her up again, deciding it was time to start extricating himself from the promised financial commitment and avoid any chasing up which would expose his bogus identity.  He didn't want descriptions of him to act as an alert that Al might pick up on to then clamp down on Dee's freedoms again, thinking she was being sought after, just as Andrew was getting somewhere with the job in hand of getting her back in contact with the family.  Since Nolan had kept silent about it, he had no idea that a very different construction was being put on what they might be about by Al.

Al had come back and was with Nathe on the second floor discussing crop needs, when he looked out of the window and saw Andrew with Faisal, apparently in very friendly discussion (for Faisal was putting serious work into trying to re-convince a doubting 'George' that this was a very good deal not to be missed after his supposed second thoughts on such an outlay, unsubstantiated by anything but a paper plan).  Al thought he recognised him immediately as the other one in Nathe's photograph of the band night and when Nathe looked out, he was sure of it too.  Al said no more to Nathe but eager to find proof of treachery and oust Zulf, this seemed to him to confirm that it was indeed Faisal who was up to something with these two men.  An unsuspecting Andrew left to collect Dee, thinking he had smoothed the way for backing off unobtrusively and that everything was working out rather well.

Dee had told Al that she might go out and was thinking of calling in at Dream, as she had proposed in London, to ask about the odd shift again, by way of a change, and taken up as he was, he hadn't objected, just said let him know what they said and they could think about it.  It had been a long time since Nick had seen her in there and Al had other things on his mind at present, secure of her now in any case.  Dee and her mother were meeting on 'neutral ground' as Andrew had put it, when suggesting a first time would be better away from the family house.  They were at the cafe of a local garden centre which used the old railway station buildings, clock and all, as a restaurant, bar and cafe, with a large garden centre outside and greenhouses to wander around in.  Dee had told 'Drew' about it once, reminiscing, describing it as a place she used to go to with her mother as a treat outing, playing Wendy House in the garden sheds on sale there and adding to her collection of miniature flowering cacti with her pocket money.  He had thought it might provide a soothing environment for a potentially fraught encounter.

Indeed, at first, after the initial embrace and cautious greeting, Dee had been perched on her chair like an ill sitting hen, while asking how everyone was.  Her mother saw, not the schoolgirl she still had in her mind as a kind of amalgam of her daughter at previous ages and in young girlhood, but an actually separate and older young woman, who had of course developed and grown more into that in the intervening months since she had last seen her.  They did gradually relax together and by avoiding discussion about how Dee had left or if she would return, somehow achieved a renewal of the feeling of it being time out for them together away from others, as it had been there in the past.  They both parted comforted by the feeling that all was not lost in either direction and that there was a clear wish, on Dee's part, too, to come and see everybody at the family house next time.  Dee left with the pull of home resonating strongly, having seen her mother again, and Andrew left her to her thoughts as he drove her back, only asking how it had been and, seeing that she was happy to have gone rather than being disturbed by it, felt it wouldn't be long now for this particular job to continue.  Which was a bit of a pity, really, because he had got quite fond of Dee and her family in their little chats together.  Still, it was early days and there was a bit of a way to go. 

He reported back to Nolan positively, who didn't seem to share his reluctance to part ways at all, saying,

"Professional distance, Andrew.  You can't start getting separation anxiety over the clients, you big softy, you."

"What have you actually been doing anyway?" returned Andrew.  "You've been keeping a very low profile lately."

"I've been getting over a cold," said Nolan, with pathos.  "I got caught out in the rain."

"Now who's a big softy," said Andrew, with some satisfaction.

Andrew had only spoken to Nolan on the phone to update him on the situation with Dee.  When they met again in the office shortly afterwards, his business partner seemed restive.

"I'm fed up," said Nolan, who was fed up.  "I haven't had anything interesting to do for ages."

"Well check this out, then," said Andrew.  "There's another brother in the picture about, over from Pakistan, regarded as some big noise in the family.  I get the feeling from Dee it's going to go off royally any time soon between them all.  Find out what you can about him?"

"Well," demurred Nolan, "all right, but that's not what we're about with this case now, is it?  Besides if it's anything like the others, he'll be well off radar."

Nolan was reluctant, feeling again the tender parts about his person where ruffianly fingers had grabbed him.  It wasn't that he couldn't give a good account of himself, there were plenty of times when he'd got the advantage in a physical confrontation but he knew when to play dead, too and that had been one occasion for it.  A safe distance was his present preference but just as he'd been back to the mill and not mentioned it, he wondered if Andrew had too and eyed him speculatively.

"What?" said Andrew.

"Have you been back there?  Seen any of them?" Nolan asked.

"Yes, I went back to pull out of the flat deal.  I saw Faisal.  Why?"

"Just wondered," said Nolan casually.

"Why?  Have you?"

" No", said Nolan, but Andrew knew him well and picked up on the slight hesitation before he answered.

"Are you sure?  You have, haven't you?"

"No, well only once," pretended Nolan.

"Anything happen, other than you gambling, I don't doubt?"

"Not a lot," said Nolan evasively.  "But now you've got Dee back in touch with mum and dad there's no need for us to go in, is there?"

"I don't know.  We'll see.  I think we need to get a feel for how much trouble might be on the way, though.  We're kind of being paid to have a duty of care for that girl."

"We're not in loco parentis, Andrew!  If you're feeling broody get a hamster or something!" exclaimed Nolan.

"I know but, Dee's so young and naive, really, isn't she, and I don't think the boyfriend's exactly a model of sophistication, do you?  Baby of the family and all that."

Nolan had his own thoughts about that.

"But - it's his family where there'll be trouble brewing."

"Exactly.  But what, though?  If Dee needs getting out of there, I'd like to have a heads up about it."

"All right then," agreed Nolan.  I'll get what low down I can, if I can.  You're right, she's a nice kid and we are supposed to be looking after her interests."

Dee had spoken to Faisal since the meet at Hamid's and he had said nice things of her from Zahara which were pleasant to hear, and she'd gone on to chat to him about her paintings and spoken of wanting to go to college, which he approved of, as she had thought he might.

"This isn't a world for someone like you, you know," he had said kindly.  "I've told you that before.  I'm glad you're starting to realise it."

They were quite relaxed and friendly, standing in the sunshine just outside the office as she was passing by on her way back in with bread and milk shopping top ups.

"I liked Zahara, too," said Dee, meaning it, and then added, daringly, "Why Gemma, Faisal?"

Faisal just chuckled.

"Oh, don't worry about her.  I'm only keeping her quiet.  I'm not Al but I'm enough like him to pass muster.  Hamid wanted her out of Al's way.  I'm only obeying orders, as they say."

"Why did he?"

"She's too much of a rough diamond, too tricky, got a mouth on her she's liable to shoot off.  Hamid wanted her in safer hands, but can't get her out altogether.  Knows too much.  She's not too exclusive.  You've seen her with Rashid as well, haven't you?"

"Oh!" exclaimed Dee.  "I see."

"You don't, you know, " Faisal told her, still kindly.  "Hamid's got plans for Al."

"Al's got his own plans," said Dee stoutly. "And they include me."

"They do now," said Faisal, smiling still.  "As I've said before , they'll include you only as long as you want it.  You carry on with your own plans, Dee, as you've just been telling me about.  Once you've got some balance in your life, then you'll know what you want from it."

"All right!" said Dee, looking back at him with some defiance.  "I'll let you know."

"You do that, " said Faisal.  "I'm always here."

Even though he was saying things she didn't care for, Dee still found this a comfort.  Two big brother figures she had now in a way, she thought, Drew and Faisal.  Two more people to rely on a bit, as well as her beloved Al, she reckoned.  She looked at him hesitantly.  No, she wouldn't risk telling him about seeing her mother, not yet.  She said,

"Bye, then, see you later," instead, leaving him wondering what it was that she had been thinking of saying.

In the club, by night, things were spiralling.  Rashid, keen to show that he and not Al was the one in control there, was increasingly aggressive towards people, jacking up the violence in the atmosphere and threatening to throw customers out for any fancied transgression, to such an extent that it was only a matter of time before fights broke out between people who came tooled up to start with, and had to be searched and have weapons confiscated.  The office gained a collection of dangerous objects, not all of which were handed back later.  Al was increasingly hostile towards Faisal as his certainties grew about what he was up to on Zulf's behalf, though he had not shared these fully with anyone else as yet, but enough to make Hamid start to wonder.

One late afternoon, Dee was on the roof garden sketching out shadow changes after a day spent mainly helping Nathe and Frankie out with the vegetable gardening.  She hadn't seen Al since early afternoon but he was full of tension, clearly building up to something he had decided to act on and Dee was keeping herself out of the way, leaving him to his brooding thoughts.  Down in the courtyard, out of the peaceful blue,  there was a sudden vehement outburst of loud, angry shouting and she looked down to see Al, Faisal and Rashid bellowing accusations and denial at one another.  She couldn't hear the content, but it was obviously out of control and close to coming to blows.  She shouted down, but her voice was carried away by the height of the building and she started anxiously to the lift, because there was no doubt that this time it was very serious.  She went first to the second floor but the polytunnels were unattended, Nathe and Frankie having gone, so she would gather no help there to break it up.  When she came out on to the ground floor, they were no longer outside, so she ran across to the office, where the yelling continued.  It was Faisal who was defending himself and Al who seemed to have lost it, shouting that Faisal was double dealing with Zulf and firing Rashid up in the process, who was furious that there was something going on he didn't seem to know about.

"What the fuck?" he was raging and as Dee came in, she saw that he had grabbed a gun in his hand from a desk drawer.

Instinctively she called out a warning and distracted them as they were at the point of lunging at one another.  Al saw the gun too, shouted,

"No!" and "Dee, get out!" as the inevitable happened and the gun went off in a confusion of turning heads and bodies in the confined space.

The report, a blunted sort of noise, was followed by a second of stunned silence, then by a shrill, unearthly kind of screaming from the person hit.  Dee realised it was Rashid himself, blood pouring from his leg, panicked and in pain.

"Christ almighty, has he hit an artery?" Faisal exclaimed.

"I don't know!  I don't know!" Al cried, beside himself.  "Fuck!  Fuck!"

"I'll phone an ambulance!"  Dee shouted at the same time.

"No!" Faisal instructed, taking charge.  "We've got no time.  Can't have them here.  Tourniquet it.  We'll take him.  Dee get towels!"

Dee turned to run back to the lift as Al stripped his t-shirt off and he tried to tie it round the injured leg, Faisal applying pressure, Rashid himself on the floor half conscious, surrounded by a pool of blood, his head in it.   Dee came quickly back with the towels, some of which Faisal ran to put in the back of Rashid's own car, before he and Al half lifted and half carried him into it.

"Clear it up, will you?" Faisal told Dee, pointing at the blood.  He turned angrily to Al.  "I'll deal with you later, you fucking idiot!  This is all your fault, winding him up like that!  Get in and drive, hospital A&E".

Al, completely shaken up, obeyed immediately, waves of stricken panic crossing his face.

"I'll be back as soon as I can, Dee," he called back to her.

"Move it!  He's dying here," shouted Faisal, in the back with Rashid and still applying pressure to the spurting wound.

Al did. 

Dee closed the mill gates as she had been instructed, then did her best to clear up the blood pool, ruining bath towels with it and then wondered what to do with them.  She went back up to the flat to fetch a large bin bag and put the towels in it, then took them up to go through the washing machine.  Cold water rinse first, she thought mechanically.  Then she filled the utility room bucket with Flash and hot water and took that and a mop down to finish cleaning up, because she didn't know what else to do, waiting for the others to come back.  What would happen?  Would he die?  Seeing Rashid's overpowering presence felled like that, the horrible shrieking noises he had made before passing out, was a huge shock, because he was so imposing physically.  Al had caused the row, according to Faisal but Dee didn't know why.  She had never liked Rashid, from what she knew of him, but she couldn't imagine him dead.  Al would be blamed anyway, whatever the outcome and what would happen then?  Rashid was in good stead with Hamid and Zulf, Al complained of his standing with them, and Faisal's.

The summer evening descended into late dusk and Dee was back up in the flat, waiting still, occasionally going up on to the roof garden to pace about, checking her phone for messages from Al which didn't come.  She considered phoning home but didn't, then eventually, she phoned Andrew.

"Drew?" she said.   "There's been an accident.  Al's at the hospital."

"What?  Why, what's happened to him?"

"Nothing, not to him.  It's his cousin.  It looks serious.  They've been gone hours."

"Are you all right?  You sound a bit shaken."

"I saw it all.  So much blood."

"Dee," said Andrew, anxious now.  "What actually went on?"

"Well, he, Rashid, was messing with something and it, it went off."

"A gun?" said Andrew, drawing the obvious conclusion from this description.

"Yes.  His leg.  They've taken him to hospital .  Al and Faisal have.  They were all arguing and then, it just went off."

Andrew thought about it briefly.

"Do you want to get out of there?  I can fetch you now if you like?"

"Oh, thanks, Drew, but no, Al will need me when he gets back.  I just wanted to talk to someone normal because it feels so weird just sitting here waiting.  What are you and Nolan up to?"

"Er, he's gone out," improvised Andrew.

"What, on his own?"

"No, just not with me.  I'm home alone."

"Like me," said Dee.  "I'd better go.  Al might be trying to ring any time."

"All right.  Let me know if you need me.  Or ring back later if you like and you're still on your own.  Hospital trips can make for long nights in the waiting room, you know."

"Yes.  Thanks, Drew.  I feel better now."

" Less stressed?"


"Good girl.  Take it easy, then."

Andrew phoned Nolan.

"Stand by.  I think it's all kicking off," he told him, then filled him in on what he knew.

"Andrew," said Nolan urgently.  "Don't even think about going down there.  Promise me."

"There's nobody there except Debbie, Dee I mean."

"There will be.  Look, she's safe enough for now.  Just leave it.  When the others get back they'll be on even more of a hair trigger."

"I know, that's the point.  What's your problem?  You're usually the reckless one."

"There's risk and then there's death.  One of them I seriously don't think is an awfully big adventure."

"Hmm", said Andrew.  "O.K.  I don't want to make things a problem for her, or me for that matter.  But if she asks me to get her at any point, I will do."

"Just don't go in there.  That's all.  If she does ask, get her to meet you outside the mill."

"You're not telling me something, Nolan.  I'm not a private dick for nothing."

"Yes, well don't act just like a dick, then, will you?" said Nolan in more of his usual manner.

"I didn't know you cared," said Andrew.  "I'm very touched."

"Yeah, right," said Nolan, ringing off and hoping he had got his message across without having too much explaining to do later.


Chapter 15 - Consequences

Dee finally heard a car coming through and ran up to the rooftop garden to look down.  It was dark now and she couldn't tell who got out, but it looked like two figures.  She hurried back down to the flat and on to the corridor as the lift came up and both Al and Faisal stepped out.  Al looked devastated and Faisal grim faced.  Dee went to Al, who clung to her emotionally in a way he never had done, so she knew.

"He died," Faisal said flatly.  "Shock and blood loss.  They worked on him.  Heart gave out."

" I'm so sorry," said Dee, as they all went inside.

"He was no angel, did a lot of damage in his time but, we all grew up together you know," Faisal continued.  "We could use some coffee, Dee.  It's been a long night."

"Of course," said Dee, going to the machine in the kitchen and putting espresso pods in, thinking a strong one was probably needed.

Al could hardly get his down, though, looking ill.  He put his head in his hands instead.  Dee regarded him worriedly, because this wasn't just shock and grief, it was fear for himself.  He was silent.

"I cleaned the office up, " Dee told them, "and I've washed all the towels."

"That's good.  Thank you," Faisal said, who was far more in command of himself than Al.  "Now, listen, he died so, even though we told them it was an accident with his own gun, obviously the police are involved.  The hospital called them.  Everything here's got to be shut down, pronto.  As far as they know, Al lives with his brother.  And now, we've got to go and see Hamid and Zulf."

"They don't know about - Rashid, yet?"

"No, we waited, in case he made it.  But he hasn't.  I'll do my best for you with them, Al," he said to his cousin, "but if you hadn't been stirring up all the trouble about nothing you have been, it would never have happened.  You've already implicated me in something to Hamid, so I'm going to have to stand up for myself there."

"What's going on?" asked a bewildered Dee.

"Nothing you need to know about," Faisal advised her.  "Your boyfriend, here, has a vivid imagination and built up some pretty lively conspiracy theories.  You know about those, Al?  The more paranoid you get, the more you'll believe anything.  You should have known me better than that."

Al, crushed and hollowed out, just nodded.

"Ring Frankie and Nathe," Faisal instructed him.  "They'll have to clear all their shit out.  We'll have to go to ground.  There's no record on any of us, but there is about other things.  We can't burn this down and make it look like an accident, can we?"

The allotment, thought Dee, and the murdered man.  Al pulled himself together a bit and made the call to Nathe and Frankie, telling them there was trouble, come in and take all the gear out, they'd have to set up again elsewhere now with it.  Faisal stood up and Dee cried,

"Don't take him!  Please!" but Faisal just said that they had to.  "Stay here," he told her.  "Lock up.  Just wait."

"I don't want to stay here alone!" protested Dee.

"Nathe and Frankie are coming.  They'll be here with you.  You'll have to burn the goods.  Help them get rid.  Do it on the roof garden, out of the way.  You're doing really well, Dee.  Keep it together to help Al this end," Faisal told her.

"Al!" she appealed to him.  Al looked up at her.  "What have you done?" she asked.

"I've messed up, my love.  Big time," he said, very sadly.  "It's not your fault.  I'm so sorry."

This sounded ominously like a goodbye of some sort, and Dee stood before them at a loss.

"Come on," said Faisal to Al, who got up and silently followed him out.

Then they were gone.  When Dee started after them, the lift was already going down, and when she called it back to follow, the car had gone and the yard was empty again.  Some time passed, then Nathe and Frankie came and Nathe shook his head at Dee's story, saying,

"I'm not surprised.  There's been way too much shit going down here.  We're best out of this set up, Frankie.  We've got enough saved for our plans anyway.  We can take a break."

"Plans?  What plans?" asked Dee.

"We're going travelling again," Frankie told her.  "Couple of years, maybe.  Me and Nathe never stay anywhere for long. We can start something up again after that.  Maybe this.  Maybe something else."

Dee felt bereft.  The little world she lived in was to break up anyway, it seemed, quite apart from tonight's disaster.  Nathe and Frankie had borrowed their friend's van to take the equipment and as much of the vegetables away as they could and some of the dope crop for personal use.  They made a heady bonfire of the remains on the rooftop. 

"What a shame," said Frankie regretfully, watching it go up into the night sky and waste its fragrance, as it were, on the desert air.

They offered to have Dee come with them and stay the night away from the place but she thought she ought to stay, as instructed, to wait for Al and Faisal.  Frankie said to ring if she changed her mind, just get a taxi over.  Dee said she would.  In the morning, after little sleep in what had been left of the night, she woke from troubled drifting dreams to find herself still alone, the sun already high.  Where was Al?  What was going on between the brothers and Faisal?  She checked her phone but there was no reassuring text and when she rang, Al's phone was off and it went straight to voicemail.  Trying not to let the alarm jumping through her take over, Dee made some tea, showered and dressed, then took a second cup up on to the roof garden.  The ashes of last night's ephemeral bonfire had blown away and the air was sweet only with sunshine breezes and the calming sense that now it was daylight, surely things must come right. 

She went down to the office in the deserted millyard.  What had Faisal said to her?

" I'm always here". 

Well he wasn't, nobody was, but overnight someone else had been in there too.  The office she had cleaned of blood was emptied of all its paperwork and of the weapons that had been stashed carelessly away in there with such a deadly result.  The big rooms behind were already like a relic of some long over action, pop up bars closed down, snooker tables looking like a scruffy recreation room nobody bothered with any more, sound system silent, furniture looking abandoned.  Dee's heart began to beat quite fast.  Surely she wasn't just to be left there alone?  Al would come.  He had to.  He loved her.  But Al didn't come.  Nobody did.

She waited until early afternoon, fretfully wandering around and occasionally calling Al's number, but there was nothing.  Finally, she rang Andrew again, telling him everyone had vanished and that Al's phone was off but she'd been told to wait.  He thought about it and said give it a little while longer, maybe an hour or two, and then if there was still no word, to ring him again.

"O.K.," said Dee, feeling both imprisoned and abandoned in the place, neither she nor Andrew having any idea that the seeds of this result had been planted when her mother and father had hired Andrew to find her, setting connections and wrong conclusions in motion.

She had just rung off from him when she heard the lift, with a leap of relief.  When the flat door opened a moment later, though, it was Faisal who came in, not Al, carrying a suitcase.  Dee cried,

'Faisal what's happening?  Where's Al?"

"I've come for some things for him," he answered, as if Al was under some kind of house arrest at Hamid's.  "Help me pack them.  A few favourite clothes will do to send on.  They'll get what's needed later."

He didn't explain more just then and Dee picked clothes out with him, because at least doing that meant some kind of link with Al.  As they finished and Faisal closed the suitcase lid, he said,

"Zulf's taken Al back with him today out of harm's way.  He's put a bomb under everything here.  Because of him, Rashid's dead."

"Because of Rashid, other people are dead, aren't they?"  Dee accused.

Faisal gave her a perceptively sympathetic look.

"Rashid's family.   I told you before, kid.  Al courts trouble and sometimes he finds it.  Because of his foolishness he's put everyone and everything at risk. We have to close it all down here for now."

"They haven't hurt Al!" Dee asked, all her concern being for him, but in the back of her mind was her memory of him walking out without a further word to her, and at the back of that, Gemma throwing an empty glass down in warning, saying "that's what Al does, to girls like us."

"Of course not, Dee.  He's the baby brother isn't he?  Hamid and everyone loves him. ."

"Zulf doesn't."

"He won't harm him, but he'll certainly take the opportunity to humiliate him for a while."

"He's gone, without me?  Without a goodbye?"

"He fought it, believe me, but he had no choice, they never let him out of their sight. He sends his love to you via me."

Dee looked back at him, the signals flying between them of, is any of that true, and, accept it, it's all you're getting. Faisal said gently,

"Dee, you have to go home now.  You do realise that, don't you?"

He spoke kindly.  Dee realised in an instant that for all Al undoubtedly felt for her, for all his rebellion, that he might be allowed to play house with her for a while, but in the end, the family still ruled him. It ruled Al as much as his married sisters, as much as each one of them, together a clan, separately people intrinsically attached to it and its demands of fealty.   Dee nodded at Faisal in response.

"Can you do that?" he asked.

She nodded again.

"Do you need my help, I'm happy to offer it?"

"No," said Dee, lifting her chin and looking defiant.  " I can deal with it myself.  I've seen my mother."

"You have?  And...will they take you back?"

"They've always wanted me back."

"That's what I thought," said Faisal.  "Then, go to them.  Al will be safe and so will you be.  I'll  be back later tonight to finish off here.  If you need me to sort things out for you then, I will do."

"Thank you," said Dee simply.

"He was a lucky man to find you," said Faisal, looking for a moment so like Al that Dee felt her heart fall away. 

"Tell him I love him," she asked.

Faisal smiled.

"He doesn't need me to tell him that.  Now, I have to go.  Take care of yourself, kid," he said, departing with the suitcase.

After a short time to take this in, Dee phoned Andrew again, explaining everything she had been told by Faisal.

"Right," said Andrew finally, "pack your bags, I'm coming to get you.  I'll phone your parents for you, don't you worry about that.  It will all be fine."

Dee didn't question this assertion, wanting someone to sort things out for her, too.  She said her goodbyes to the flat after she had packed, touching things she'd loved, saying farewell to her plants on the roof garden, watering them a last time and hoping someone would care for them, not just the rain.  When Andrew came, knowing it was a short window of opportunity, he helped her take her paintings too, saying,

"Now, it's all arranged.  Nobody's going to question you.  You're just going home that's all.  If you want something else later, then everyone will support you.  I'm always your friend to call on.  Remember that, Dee."

She thanked him and they took her things down in the lift, passing through the abandoned floors where she had once been with Nathe and Frankie and going out of the mill yard, where there was nothing left of their recent times there.

Andrew came into the house with her to greet her parents because she asked him to, and her father, hugging her close finally, thinking no harm of it now, said, over her head,

"Thank you, Andrew.  Thank you for finding her.  We knew we'd hired the right person in you."

Dee stiffened.


She looked round at Andrew, astonished.

"It's true," he admitted.  "I run a missing persons bureau with Nolan, but believe me, I truly am your friend."

Dee was stunned.  Not one person in her new life had turned out to be what she had thought them to be.  Perhaps, she thought, that's just what adult life is, nothing is as it seems it was in the certainties held by childhood, and what right do you have to expect them to be, once you've stepped across the threshold, in her case perhaps a bit too early?  Reunion, however, set these things aside for the time being.

There was a lot to do in rebuilding her own connexions.  Sophie took a long time to come around to her again and her brother didn't know what to say to her.  In spite of finding out that he had been hired to do a job when he befriended her, it was Andrew she turned to when she wanted to talk and when he finally revealed that he wasn't, in fact, gay, nor Nolan's husband, that part of the pretence she found quite funny in the end.  He took her to meet Billy and Nolan together, the real couple.  Billy treated her kindly and Nolan was affectionately amusing. 

Dee missed Al desperately but being in her old room at home was disorientating, as if, as in the time with Al himself ,this was now the real aspect of things and that other life was separate.  Their love affair had not run its course and she still adored him, but she knew there were things that hadn't been at all right, his controlling ways and taking her away from all her former world, for example, Gemma and all to do with that, and then, the differences between them in temperament, background and interests, over time, might have grown them apart, leaving aside the criminal aspects of his life, so alien to Dee's family.  She would check her computer at night, as of old, but there was never any message and when she tried his phone, all she got was,

"The number you have called has not been recognised.  Please try again."

She mourned the loss of Al constantly, but still believed he'd return one day, probably just bowl up in some new car, grinning and full of his old brio again, once they let him come back.  She saw and heard from nobody else. 

Andrew, along with her parents, supported her in approaching colleges to do a first art qualification and by the Autumn, Dee was enrolled in a small local college.   She began to make new friends of her own age on the course to socialise with, and whilst it was more like being back at school than she had bargained for, she got used to it.  She called back into Dream, free to do so as anyone else might do.  There was no Frankie coming in to deliver goods, though, she and Nathe having vanished too, as planned, on their travels again.  The mill gates were closed and there were never any lights on the top floor when she got Andrew to drive her by sometimes, trying to imagine Al was up there, waiting for her.  Al would be biding his time, she reckoned, behaving for now.

"He will come back," she would continue to say of Al, for a long time, to her family, and they, because he did not, didn't argue with her.

A few weeks into Autumn, Andrew, (who had been filled in now by Dee about the whole scenario with Al, from the allotment fire onwards and had with Nolan been keeping a surveillance over police investigations to satisfy all their curiosities and put Dee's mind at rest), revealed to her that the deceased Rashid had now been tied in with the allotment murder through forensics.  His family associates, however, were not implicated, he alone it seemed, linked with the drug dealing and prostitution activity that had led to it.  They had covered their tracks well, then, gone to ground as planned and Al was securely free.

Dee had never told her family about what had really happened at the last, taking Andrew's advice to steer and stay clear of it all.  She rather missed him being a couple with Nolan, but was happy to have him as friend and mentor.  He put up generously with her glooms over Al, lending her an ear, a shoulder, or tissues, as the occasion demanded.  Her parents were glad of the continued, if now unremunerated contact, seeing Andrew as a steady hand on the tiller of Dee's return to the life they thought she should be leading.

The landmarks of the year that had led up to Dee leaving with Al came and went: Halloween, Bonfire Night, her birthday, family occasions and get togethers.  By common agreement, Dee was welcomed back as unjudgementally as possible, the general reaction beyond her parents being bewilderment rather than condemnation and her recent history was swept beneath a large, deep pile carpet of consensual silence about it.  She was glad, because she didn't want to talk about her life with Al with any of them.  She had Andrew for that.

In early December, Dee took her little sister to the big shopping centre a bus ride out of town.  Decked out for Christmas, enormous bell shaped chandeliers of lights were strung along its boulevards, a ballroom of splendours.  Sophie wanted to put a coin in the indoor waterfall fountain and make a wish, to be directed Santa's way, about her presents list.  Sophie maintained a strict belief system about Father Christmas, despite her advancing years.  They walked together down the long hall from the bus station end towards it.  A couple was standing before the artificial cascade and as Dee and Sophie approached, the man turned towards the woman, showing his profile. 

"My god!" gasped Dee, starting forward.

Sophie was already ahead of her, running towards the fountain, and at the sound of her clattering, eager child's footsteps, the couple turned round, smiling.  The woman was Gemma and the man was - Al.

As she shouted his name, Dee realised her error.  It was not Al, but Faisal, who had thought it was his own name she had called out and exclaimed,

"Dee!" in glad sounding surprised.

Sophie had run past to put her coin in the fountain before Dee joined them.  Sophie looked up at Faisal in her solemn fashion and took tight hold of her big sister's hand, telling her very firmly,

"You're not to go off with him again!"

"That's not Al," Dee assured her.  "This is my sister, Sophie," she told Faisal.

"You look well," said Faisal approvingly to her, nodding pleasantly at Sophie.  "Family life suits you."

"How is he?" Dee asked, ignoring this.

"He's married," Gemma told her flatly, before Faisal could speak.  "Over there."

Faisal frowned at her.  Dee closed her eyes briefly.

"Married?" she repeated blankly.

"It's the way we do things, Dee," Faisal said.  "You know that.  I told you Hamid had plans for Amjal.  It's a good connection."

Dee looked at him, shocked.  An arranged marriage.  It really was all over then, and Al was still abroad.  He had capitulated completely.  She couldn't quite believe it, even now, after so long without a word from him.  Faisal had called him by his full name, too, as if Al today were a different person, fully back in the community fold of old. 

"You've moved on, Dee," Faisal continued.  " I hear you're at college doing an art course.  Oh, yes, I've been keeping a bit of an eye, making sure you're o.k."  (She hadn't been forgotten altogether, then, at least).  "I'm glad for you, you'll have your own proper life now."  He bent to shake hands with Sophie, who was still regarding him with deep misgiving.  "It's been a pleasure to meet you, young lady," he told her.  "Did you make a wish?"

Sophie nodded and with that and a farewell from Faisal, he and Gemma walked away.   Dee too threw a coin into the fountain, wishing that she were still young enough to believe that sympathetic magic could work on reality, but she knew, fundamentally, that it would not.


Chapter 16 - Afterwards

Andrew was having a trying morning.  He had already had a tearful Dee on the phone, who, having held it together for the rest of the shopping expedition with Sophie, had been in distress all night over the news of Al that had been so unexpectedly inflicted on her, and phoned Andrew, distraught, at the first opportunity.  He had made a lot of comforting statements, inwardly cursing the accidental meeting, because Dee had been making good progress until then, enjoying her new college life and doing her best to get over things.  He wasn't sure in retrospect that saying things like,

"Well, even if it's true, it's not a love match, is it?" had been entirely helpful, more likely to give her false hope that Al might still come back to her than anything. 

Dee had been inconsolable, saying how much she hated Hamid for sending him away when Al would loathe it over there and forcing him into a marriage that he would never have wanted.  Andrew had had a bit of a time of it talking her down from wild pronouncements that she would go to Hamid's house and tell him exactly what she thought and demand to know how to contact Al.

"What good would that do?" Andrew had said.   "We already agreed long since that any attempt by you to make contact would only aggravate things for Al and probably prolong his exile, if he is still in exile," he had added, then wished he hadn't.

"Well, if he isn't," Dee said, pouncing on shreds of possibility, "he might come back on his own, or it might be like Faisal and Gemma."

"You can't live like that," Andrew objected matter of factly, "and anyway, that's pure fantasy.  Nothing has changed from before that conversation you had yesterday.  You and Al are leading completely different lives now and have been for months.  You won't like it but I'm going to say it again.  If Al really loved you enough to go against them now, he would have done it.  He's not up to it, Dee.  Don't you think you deserve better than that?"

Dee had rung off in furious upset.  That went well, thought Andrew, making his way, now late, to the office above the veranda row of shops, where an ever extending grocer's was gradually taking over the space with more and more outside stalls creeping along the front.  It was bleakly cold up in the office, the central heating wall radiators, never more than feeble at best when cranked into action, having packed in yet again.  Nolan, the handyman of the two fof them, was away with Billy on a winter sunshine break, so after a couple of kicks at the  pipes that didn't work,  Andrew resigned himself to keeping his coat on.  The habitual carpet damp was currently set off by swags of black mould on the ceiling cornices and decorating the upper parts of the old windows, like sooty frost.

Andrew rang the landlord about it yet again, who said imperturbably that this was condensation caused by people breathing in there, or perhaps damp laundry.

"Breathing?  Laundry?  What are you talking about?" demanded Andrew.  "Are most of your tenants sleeping tenants, then, as apart from the dead, I think most of us have to breathe?   And why would I be hanging washing out in an office?"

But his landlord, who also ran a taxi firm, was busy saying,

"Five minutes, love, " to someone on the other line.  It was always five minutes, Andrew thought, waiting for attention to return to him.  He might as well say,

"What are you bothering ringing for, we're waiting outside already?" to the customers.

"Hello!" he bellowed into the receiver finally.  "Are you there?"

"Yes, five minutes, love," the landlord was saying to someone else now.  "Yes, Mr Munro, I'm here.  What can I do for you?"

"I want the heaters fixing," said Andrew again, "before I really do stop breathing."

"Heaters working fine," said the landlord.  " You just don't understand the controls."

"They're broken!" insisted Andrew.

"Not broken," said the landlord, following up with, "and you owe me over a month's rent.  Five minutes, love."

"How about you fix the heaters and I'll pay the arrears?"

"Heaters working fine," repeated the landlord infuriatingly.  "Anyway, it's bad to have room stuffy.  More condensation.  Five minutes, love, address please?"

"Oh, for pete's sake," muttered Andrew, giving up and ringing off, because they did owe rent and he couldn't pay it right now. 

He switched on the computer and rubbed his hands together, going across to put the kettle on for some tea.  If there was going to be condensation, it might as well be some hot steam to warm up the atmosphere, he reckoned.  He checked the electronic calendar, as if to make sure the one entry for the day were still safely there, for the new client would be due shortly.  They didn't usually see people in the insalubrious environs of the office but this client had said on the phone that there was no address to visit him at and that he would come there and since Andrew on his own was too short of funds to offer a business meeting over lunch or coffee somewhere, he had agreed.  He drank his rapidly cooling tea, waiting.

The loose letterbox on the entrance door leading up the steep, narrow back  staircase to the office, gave the distinctive rattle that meant somebody had just opened the door and struggled to shut it behind them again, thumping it back into the slightly dropped frame.  Andrew went to the door of the office and called out,

"Hello?" to encourage them up and let them know someone was waiting for them."

"Yes!" answered a well spoken but quavery voice, adding testily, "Bear with!  I'm on my way."

Really, thought Andrew, was everybody going to be at odds with him from the start today?  An odd snuffling was accompanying a slow progress up the stairs, as Andrew waited for the visitor to come into view round the corner of the landing.  He held the door open, trying to look welcoming.  A bent figure with a bad case of elderly scoliosis and a heavy grey cloth coat tied about him with what looked like a car roofrack spider tie in a fetching  green and yellow by way of a belt, came into view.  He was dragging an ancient shopping trolley stuffed with some kind of worldly goods up with him with one grubby hand, while the other held the lead attached to a small, sandy, terrier like creature with inturned, snappy looking teeth, the source of the snuffling. 

"Wilbur", said the visitor.

"Oh, good afternoon," said Andrew.

"No the dog."

"Ah", said Andrew.  "Do come in, Mr - Keats, wasn't it?"

"Yes, I know," said his guest.  " It doesn't seem very likely, does it?  But that's what they tell me."

He shuffled in, smelling, if anything, slightly more damp than the room.

"John Keats?" Andrew asked.

"The very same, apparently."

The man sat down heavily in one of the unmatched hairs they had in the office, picked up from dealers at random.  He had fluffy pink bed socks on above old army boots, which rather drew the eye. 

"That one might be worth a bit," he said, pointing at a different chair.  "Mind you I'm not really up with the market, these days."

"Oh?  Why is that?" asked Andrew politely.

"Don't humour me, young man.  I should have thought that was obvious.  Do I look in the midst of such business matters?"

"Well, now that you mention it, perhaps not, " agreed Andrew, thinking, oh great, a nutty time waster, just what we need on the books.  "Can I get you a tea or a coffee?" he offered.

"Oh, I don't know," said the putative Mr Keats.  He looked around the office doubtfully.  "Are your cups clean?"

"I can assure you that they are!" stated Andrew, thinking, well, really, again.

"Perhaps just one then, conceded the seedy looking visitor.

One's all your getting, thought Andrew, and if you're hoping for afternoon tea, forget the cream cakes. He did the honours.

"Now," he said, once the small ceremony was complete.  "What can I do for you?"

He didn't, truth be known, have much idea of there being any real job, or any real pay for it.

"I want you to do some research for me, into my antecedents, " said Mr Keats.

"Oh, I'm afraid the agency doesn't deal in genealogy or family history," said Andrew.

His visitor fixed him with a reproachful eye under bushy white brows.

"No, you don't understand," he said.  "Into my background. You see, I'm the missing person.  I don't know where I came from at all, but I do have this."

He dug in the depths of the greatcoat and produced a leather zip case, which he opened to show Andrew.  It was stuffed full of high value bank notes."

"I wonder," he said wistfully in his plummy, wavering tones, "whether I was one of the fancy and had a big win on the gee gees.  Perhaps," he added, warming to his theme, "I went on a massive bender and lost my memory.  One does hear of such things."

"But if you had," said Andrew, "You wouldn't have all the money, would you?"

"No", agreed the prospective client.  "But it might not be mine, you know.  I don't remember anything, you see, until last Monday.  After that, it's all as clear as day."

"What happened last Monday,then?" enquired Andrew. 

"Nothing happened, as such.  I just remember things from then.  I woke up from a doze to find myself with some other people sleeping in a railway arch, with this dog, this trolley of old clothes and as I recall, the previous Sunday paper broadsheet for insulation under my cardboard.  The Times, I believe.  When I found I had this money case, I made sure to hide it and clear off.  Since then, I have been doing my best to ascertain whether I really am, as the folk there said I'd told them, John Keats."

"Do you know his poetry?" asked Andrew with interest.

"I don't think that's very relevant, do you?" reproved his visitor.  "I don't think I'm that John Keats, you know. "  He thought for a moment.  "If I were I'd be dead, wouldn't I?  Not only that, but I'd have died young, which I clearly haven't."  He regarded Andrew plaintively.  "I haven't even got a cough," he added.

Andrew tried not to laugh.  Wilbur, who had settled down stoically on the floor after troddling about and weeing in a corner, which Andrew tried to overlook at present, wheezed agedly through his whiskers.

"If dogs could talk," said Andrew.

"I do detest anthropomorphism in all its forms," snapped Mr Keats crossly.  "Anyway, I can't have had him long.  Look at him.  He's on his last legs and we don't seem to get on very well.  I called him Wilbur since Monday but he doesn't answer to it."

"Perhaps you were a schoolteacher," suggested Andrew, becuse the chap was a bit pedantic and scholarly in manner behind the grime.

"Anything's possible," agreed the old man.   "I'd have retired, of course, by now, long since, I should imagine.  You could start there.  You'll take the case?"

Andrew needed the retainer, and there was ready money to be had, so slightly to his shame, because he had no real thought of doing anything meaningful, he agreed, and several hundred pounds were counted out.

"I'll give you an extra two hundred if you'll take the dog and home him somewhere.  I really don't like him and I'm having to hide him.  They don't allow pets in the hostel I'm in."

Andrew agreed to this too, what real trouble could the old terrier be, and he needed the money.

"Have you tried the police?" he asked.

"I have but I think they're rather busy.  They didn't seem very interested.   In fact, it was they who suggested I try a private eye, so I popped along to the library and looked one up.  That's how I found you, Munro and Nolan.  Where is Mr Nolan, anyway?" he enquired.

"On holiday at present," replied Andrew, who was expecting his return in a couple of days after a fortnight away.

"How lovely"" replied the visitor fondly, his face lighting up briefly with pleasure for the unknown partner.  "I do hope he's had a nice break.  Now, one more thing, Mr Munro.  Do you have such a thing as a safe?  I can't keep wandering about with all this on my person.  If you would be so good, a hundred will see me for the week and perhaps you could write me a receipt for the rest.  With what we've removed already, that should leave several thousand or so."

Having counted it out on the desk, Andrew found that it did.

"Are you sure?" asked Andrew.  "You've only just met me."

"Oh, yes," said Mr Keats.  " I shall return shortly for news and some more to live on.  You see, I've engaged you now, so it's a matter of honour for you to safeguard it for me."

"I think it would be better if I banked it," suggested Andrew.  "If you're happy with that."

"Oh, yes," said his client again.   "I'm quite agreeable to it.  If it turns out not to be mine after all, you'll have to return it to the rightful owner for me, won't you?"

They went over the activities of the week Mr Keats could remember, where he'd been, the hostel he was staying in, and Andrew took a few photographs of him, which his visitor seemed rather to enjoy, asking how Andrew would like him to pose.

"We have an extensive missing persons catalogue nationally on our computer files and my partner will be able to photoshop your image accurately to show you at different ages," Andrew explained.  "The police really should have looked into that for you."

"As I say, they seemed rather busy, dismissive, even.  In fact, I'm not sure they were even serious when they suggested that I should try a private detective, so I never mentioned the money.  The young man was rather sneering, in fact, but I thought it was a jolly good idea.  So here I am."

He beamed at Andrew with alarming enthusiasm, but although a little manic, it did show that he had all his own teeth, and in a decent condition, too, so that he couldn't have been living like this for all that long.  They made another appointment and Andrew was left with a dog and rather a lot of money, which was a bit of a turn up for the books, after the way his day had begun.

The dog had gone to sleep and ignored Andrew telling him to stay there like a good boy while he went along to the bank, bought some dog food, then a child's cellular cot blanket and some chipped bowls from the charity shop for Wilbur's use.  Andrew didn't think he'd mind second hand goods, not looking like a dog who had been used to the best.  He added some puppy pads from the pet shop, because the dog would have to live in the office and he'd rather its odours were not added to by dog wee, or worse.  He would decide what to do about Wilbur later.  On his return to the office, they maintained a mutual indifference for the rest of the day, while Andrew was working on someone's account books, but the animal co-operated when, after feeding him, Andrew put his lead back on to take him for a stately trundle round the block, poop scoop and waste bag conscientiously in hand.  If the little creature were used to rough sleeping, the office, cold as it was, would be a step up for Wilbur, who seemed happy enough to settle into the blanket while Andrew went to lock up and go home.  If he barked when left alone, there weren't any neighbours to wake up after all, as they were the only tenants upstairs in the delapidated block.

Nolan phoned in the evening when Andrew had gone home to his flat, to see how things were business wise, from the comfort of the self catering villa where Billy was making a suitably mediterranean dinner for them, which he had ensured he described in mouth watering terms to Andrew.

"Sounds all right," Andrew said, carefully unenvious.  "We've got a new missing person case," he went on.  "John Keats, aka, Johnny Fortycoats."

He filled Nolan in on the odd client and about the money.

"Where have you banked it?" Nolan asked, suspisciously, aware of Andrew's currently impecunious state.

"In the shared business account, of course," declared an injured sounding Andrew.  "Anyway, you should be nice to me.  I've got a lovely surprise for you."

"What?" asked Nolan, even more suspisciously.

"A really sweet little pedigree dog," Andrew announced, gilding the lily that was Wilbur somewhat.

"Who's dumped that on you, then?" asked Nolan perspicaciously.

"You'll love him," Andrew asserted.  "He's a real little character."

This was an exaggeration, since Wilbur had shown no character at all, other than mild animation when being fed.  Perhaps his passivity arose from old age and being handed on from one half hearted owner to another, so that he had become immune to being man's best friend.

"That old tramp's dumped him, hasn't he" continued Nolan.

"You'll still love him," persisted Andrew.  "Billy will too."

"Billy," called Nolan.  "Do you want a dog?"

An indistinct shout came back across the mobile.

"He doesn't want a dog," said Nolan.  "Anyway you'll have bonded with it by the time we get back."

I won't, you know, thought Andrew.  He might have to take him to the rescue shelter then, he was pondering, then another idea struck him.  After they rang off, he phoned Dee, to see if she had calmed down and was speaking to him again.

"Listen," he told her.  "I've got something to take your mind off things.  It's a nice surprise.  A little someone in need of a good home and someone to love him.  If you can I'd like you to look after him for me for a couple of days until I sort something permanent out.   A cute little dog.  I'll bring it over tomorrow?  You're not in college that day, are you?"

Dee wasn't.  Good, thought Andrew.  Get Wilbur in on a trial basis while her parents were out at work and maybe they'd give in on return if she had taken to him.  There was a place down the road from the office "Pamper That Pooch", which he could take Wilbur into in the morning for a wash and brush up.  Bit of a makeover and maybe the dog would turn out a treat, well, maybe.  When he went back in the morning, Wilbur had behaved but was keen to be taken out.  He made no objection to the shampoo and grooming session, as resigned to that as to anything else, it seemed.  He emerged, claws clipped, hair round his eyes trimmed, a shade or two lighter and looking sturdier, his coat fluffed up after a blow dry.  Andrew asked how old they thought the dog was.

"Only about five or so.  He's not old, just depressed," he was told.   Depressed?  This wasn't a condition Andrew knew dogs suffered from.  His snuffles were from his compressedly upturned muzzle rather than ill health.  "Nice little lap dog, that," suggested the poodle parlour lady.

Perfect, thought Andrew.  Wilbur looked back at him rather more appealingly than before and quite hopefully, for him, seeming perked up a bit.  Compared to his arrival yesterday, he looked quite presentable.  Andrew arrived at Dee's as promised, Wilbur having taken to the car ride equably.  He found Dee subdued now rather than angry and to pique her interest in the little dog, Andrew told her how he had come by him and that his name probably wasn't Wilbur at all.  Dee played on the floor with the animal, petting him and they tried a name guessing game, but as he didn't respond to any of their suggestions, Wilbur he remained.  Dee brightened, brushing the dog and finding a box to put his blanket in.  Wilbur went about finding the best near a radiator spots, but thankfully not christening anything with a widdle, perhaps aware that best behaviour was required if he were to get his paws under the table here. 

Dee agreed to having him for a day or two at first while Andrew thought about what to do for rehoming Wilbur.  She had run it past her parents on the basis of doing Andrew a favour and they had agreed, if she would walk the dog and look after him in general.  They, too, were hoping it would distract her from her reawakened preoccupation with Al and because Wilbur was unloved and unwanted, Dee soon took him into her affections as hoped, as did Sophie.  The couple of days extended and the dog began to play in return, chasing balls and giving voice occasionally to fretful little yaps of excitement.  All in all, considered her parents and Andrew, a result, because Dee's capacity for infatuated devotion needed some object of transference to act as minor displacement therapy, even if it were only a pet to start with.  The question of Wilbur moving on was quietly dropped.

Nolan returned.

"Where's the hound, then?" he asked, bounding into the office with a souvenir bottle of Grappa for Andrew, who said,

"Eew, cheap local fire water.  Cheers."

"Pour it over your Christmas pud, then, when you go up for Yule," suggested Nolan.  "All Scots are alkies underneath, your family will love it."

"Racist," said Andrew mildly.

(Andrew's family were from below the border in fact, but Nolan always insisted they were Hibernians and was liable to sing,

"Donald, where's your trooosers?" on visiting occasions, much to the puzzlement of Andrew's elderly parents, who just smiled at some in joke eccentricity between the two friends).

Andrew explained that the dog was in Dee's care and what had happened at the shopping centre.

"Jeez," said Nolan.  "I'll bet you had some fun times, then, with her."

"Bloody awful," agreed Andrew.  "Back to square one, I'm afraid.  I'm hoping having a pet will keep her busy enough to take her mind off him a little."

"Aww, poor Dee," said Nolan.  "It was all a bit of a bastard at the end, wasn't it?  No time to get used to a split before he's been whisked out from under her nose.  Even if we do think it's best in the long run."

"I hope it is," agreed Andrew.  "I don't think she's finding it easy being back at home as if nothing had happened."

"She's making new friends.  She needs some recovery time with mum and dad, anyway, before flying the nest to another flat or something."

"Or someone," said Andrew.  "If she ever lets herself get over that relationship."

"You, don't think, in the long run....?" asked Nolan, looking at Andrew speculatively.

"Oh, god, no!   Don't be ridiculous," returned Andrew.  " Far too young.  I'm firmly in friend territory.  Besides, can you imagine, I'd be having to listen to tales of the beautiful Al forever more."

"Well, yeah," said Nolan.  "Even you don't want to be grateful for playing second fiddle."

But this was a gibe too far and he had hurt Andrew's feelings, he knew, because he blushed deeply and went very quiet.  It wasn't often, in Nolan's time with him, that Andrew had had an acknowledged girlfriend but when he had, it hadn't lasted, his old fashioned ways usually falling by the wayside of some more forceful character who came along.

"Oh, come on," encouraged Nolan.  "Your day will come when they grow into you."

"Great.  I'll come in handy for pipe and slippers presents in my dotage,then, will I?"  said Andrew, trying to sound lighthearted.

Nolan was sorry.

"Mate," he said sincerely.  "You're a great lad.  I didn't mean it."

"I know," said Andrew, because he did know that Nolan hadn't meant it, not cruelly, it was just part of their byplay that occasionally overstepped the boundaries for one or other of them.

"You're a good friend to the girl when she needs one," added Nolan.

"I try," said Andrew.

They left this discussion at that and Nolan had a look at the photographs Andrew had taken of 'John Keats', which he had uploaded on to the computer and because they were face shots, the humbling clothes and stooped posture were not evident.  He looked more aware and clear featured than in person, a strong nose and jaw there.  The camera liked him.

"Well done," said Nolan.  "Those are good shots."

Nolan usually did that work, so this was praise indeed.

"Thanks," said Andrew.  "He seemed to like a studio session."

"I suppose there are lots of people called John Keats, anyway," remarked Nolan.  "We can start with the actual name and the photograph, do the missing persons list check, photoshop his age if need be.  Did he have an accent?"

"Not a regional one," Andrew told him, thinking about it.  "Just one of those posh sounding ones.  A bit put on, you know, learned affectation."

"Maybe it is one of those fugue states, then.  But all that money!  It's very odd.  How come nobody robbed it?"

"Well, he didn't look like someone who had so much as a crust hidden away, never mind money."

"I know, but, nonetheless, he can't have been on the streets for long, or it would have been stolen."

"Look at his teeth," suggested Andrew.

"Now that is one piece of very good cosmetic dentistry," said Nolan admiringly.  "Perfectly capped gnashers and a nice white smile.  But what for, in that face?"

They thought about it.  Dental records were a main form of identification.  But if that job had been done to hide his former self, why would he want to find out who he was?  They agreed that when he came next a tooth mold and searching dentists' records for recent work could be a possibility but a long shot, if he didn't remember himself.  They would ask about that.  His next appointment was for a couple of days time.

"Maybe he won't come back," said Nolan hopefully.  "We can keep the money.  He's probably just some batty dementia case who's got out of somewhere and drawn all his savings out."

"You've got no moral code whatsoever," said Andrew.  "I'm appalled."

"You're hoping just the same thing, admit it!" said Nolan.  "Your high horse is about as tall as a Shetland pony."  Andrew laughed.  "It's freezing in here," complained Nolan, suddenly noticing.  "Why aren't the heaters on?"

"They're broken."

Nolan went over to them and fiddled about a bit with the settings, then gave a neatly practiced kick to the side of each.  They hissed into life for him.

"No, they're not," he said.  "You just haven't got the knack."

"How do you do that?" demanded Andrew.  "I've kicked the living shit out of those two for days and nothing!"

"You know how it is," said Nolan, maddeningly quoting his favourite phrase.  "Some of us have it...."

"...and some of us don't" Andrew concluded along with thim.   "I've been on to the landlord about fixing them again."

"What did he say?"

"Five minutes," said Andrew laconically.

Nolan laughed.

"Come on, let's go to the pub for lunch.  I need a decent pint after all that foreign booze."

"My heart bleeds," said Andrew.   "Come on, then.  We can stand that now, at least."

"You know," said Nolan.  "Whenever we get a missing person case it's all a bit strange.  There was Dee and all that carry on.  Then the cheating wife one and now he's admitted she's left him anyway but still wants us to look for her."

"He gives me the creeps," said Andrew.  "I get the feeling he's keeping us at it to make sure nobody can find her rather than to find her."

"You think he's done her in, don't you?" asked Nolan, not for the first time.

"I don't want to think about it at all," said Andrew, grimacing slightly.  "Like I say, he gives me the creeps but I'll keep going.  He's paying us minimum rate so no rush.  We always need the cash."

"Maybe not, after Mr Keats!" grinned Nolan, still hoping this was easy money.  "We need to change our advertising.  We're getting oddballs.  A bit of easy sleuthing around was all we had in mind."

"You never know, though, do you, till you get started on a case?" said Andrew.  "Come on, let's get that pie and  pint.  At least it will have got warmer in here now by the time we get back."

They went down the road to one of the last remaining of the many pubs that had once flourished on the high street.  Tenanted by faithful old boozers popping in from the several bookies, it offered simple pub grub fare at lunchtime and they themselves, often going in for a warm up, passed in there for regulars. 

Dee's family had invited Andrew round for Sunday dinner, ostensibly to see how Wilbur was getting along, but also because her parents knew he was Debbie's confidante and hoped for advice on anything they should know, still uneasy that the bird could fly the nest again and that, given the time of year was fast approaching when everything had come to a head before, it was likely to be on Debbie's mind as much as theirs.

Andrew found Wilbur tricked out in many beautifying bows and clips, courtesy of Sophie's attentions and sporting a red diamante collar with a little glittering bone dangling from it.

"It was supposed to be for Christmas," Sophie told Andrew.  "But he simply couldn't wait, could you, darling?  I just hope Father Christmas doesn't find out and you still get something on the day."

Thus, she spanned reality and myth quite easily, kissing Wilbur on the nose and letting him lick hers.

"Don't keep doing that!" her mother said, coming in to greet Andrew, whom Sophie had opened the door to.   "You don't know where that nose has been, he's just come in from the garden."

"I do," said Sophie.  " I was out there with him."

"That'll do," said her mother hastily, to prevent her from enlarging on the subject.  "That's my point and don't let him lick your face.  Now, let Andrew take his coat off and sit down.   Dinner's nearly done, where's your sister?"

"In her room.  Painting...." said Sophie with heavy emphasis.  "I'm not allowed in, then," she told Andrew.  "She's a pain."

"I expect she is," agreed Andrew, who was amused by the forthright and trenchant child.

"Ed's about.  I'll give him a shout to keep you company while Geoff and I finish the cooking," smiled Dee's mother.

"I'm keeping him company," Sophie pointed out.  "What does he need Ed for?"

"Men's talk," said Andrew, to annoy her.

"Bor-----ing!" proclaimed Sophie, as Ed ambled in.  "Come on, Wilbur.  Let's play!"

This meant Sophie issuing peremptory sit, stay, come and fetch demands, which the dog mostly ignored, laughing up at her with a panting tongue lolling out, but it seemed to suit Sophie as an obedience training game.

"Soph!" said Ed disgustedly.  "Take those stupid bows off him.  He's a dog not a doll.  Give the poor thing a bit of dignity!"

"No," said Sophie.  " He likes it, don't you, boy?"

Ed shrugged and raised his eyebrows at Andrew as if to say, what can you do?  They had met several times by now and shared a liking for hill walking, enjoying discussing past or planned excursions.  There was a thought that, come Spring, they might do one together in the Lakes and stay with Andrew's parents.  They chatted about this now, roast meat smells drifting appetizingly through the midday air, for the family ate dinner early on a Sunday.

"How about Nolan and Billy?  Would they come?" asked Ed, who hadn't met but was intrigued by the notion of Andrew's business partner.

"Not Billy.  He's a town mouse," said Andrew.  "Nolan might, maybe, but I doubt it."

Dee's father, Geoff, came through, wearing a chef's apron, alerted by Dee's mother to Andrew's arrival, then Dee herself joined them.

"So, how do you think the girls are doing with your dog," asked Dee's father after they had all exchanged greetings.

"Ruined," said Andrew.  "He'll never be any good as a bloodhound tracker dog now.  No, I'm afraid you'll have to keep him.  He's fit for nowhere else."

They all laughed aimiably and went through into the dining room for a lengthy and sociable meal, but Dee was quiet.  Afterwards, Andrew was taken up to her room, to be shown and admire the current work of art in progress, she said, but while she had him alone, she asked,

"Andrew, will you and Nolan help me?  Will you try to find out for me about Al and what's really happening in his life, if he really is married?"

"Dee......" Andrew said, reproachfully.

"Please, Andrew? I need to know."

He could see the inner turmoil that was ever present in her for this lost love, whatever Andrew told her and she knew herself about the situation, and the shortcomings in the relationship as it had been.  Perhaps a promise to look into things would give her some ease, he conjectured. So, against his better judgement, Andrew made one.

"I'll see what I can do," he said.  "If it will help you to move on."

Dee looked at him thankfully, eyes a bit too bright, though, tearing up as readily as ever when talking of Al and Andrew knew that if he did find anything out, he would have to be very careful indeed what he told her, because Dee was looking for hope, still, not resolution.  On the whole, though, he judged that it might prove a positive thing, because Andrew himself was quite sure that, for Al at least,  there would be no going back.  He held back from sharing this with Dee's parents, though, it being only a hypothetical matter at present, giving them a reassuring nod on his return to the living room with Dee, which they interpreted as intended, relaxing again as they all finished with coffee together, before Andrew took his leave of them and headed for home.

"He's a very nice person, isn't he, Andrew?" mused Dee's father.  "But he's so droll.  That fresh face and that old fashioned manner."

"What's up with him?" protested Ed.  "He's all right, is Andrew."

"He is," agreed Dee, smiling at her brother gratefully on behalf of her friend, who in her father's eyes was forever fixed in some version of him that closer acquaintance hadn't shaken off.

Back in her room, Dee woke up the laptop she had been given for her birthday, so she could do college work properly and have one that was more up to date with applications than her old tower one.  She also had a new smartphone, courtesy of the same occasion.  Before doing anything else, she put on the bracelet Al had given her for her sixteenth, cherished by her like an amulet, and thought called him, the charm supporting her fancied conjuring up of a deeply felt link between them.  She wanted to believe that, when she concentratedly thought of him, Al would think of her, and vice versa.

Dee knew, because Andrew had told her, exasperated when she shared this romantic notion with him, that Al's apparently instinctive knowledge of where she was last year, turning up to collect her unexpectedly, was due to nothing more spiritual than a computer virus picking up her online conversations with friends which alerted him, but that, Dee reasoned, was before they had been properly together.  Besides, she didn't want to believe that prosaic and intrusive explanation even now, and resented anybody's attempt to tarnish their love for one another.

On the laptop, since the time she had seen Faisal and Gemma in the shopping centre, she had been sending message conversations from her profile to Al's seemingly dormant one, telling him what she'd been told, of his marriage, and that she wouldn't believe it until she had spoken to him personally, that she loved him, missed him, thought of him and wanted him.  She poured out her regret at their being so abruptly rent from one another and her passionate physical longing for him, unabated and acutely felt.   She told him of being at college and this drifted into her writing about Al's imagined doings.  Was he in a city, a village, somewhere rural?  Tell me, she begged, just tell me where you are, how you are.  Every now and then, she sent her new mobile number in the messages, just hoping. 

It had been a bitter blow when he hadn't got in touch, in the remotest way, on her birthday, but by now, Dee had convinced herself that this was purely due to the family preventing him from contacting her or living his life as he wanted to do.  Al became re-idealised in the course of all this and once more, unheard, she sobbed herself to sleep at nights over him.

She read back, now, some of her last typed one sided conversation, where she had speculated about, if there had been a marriage, how much of the hated socialising with endless family members he had had to endure, and whether he had had to sit on one of those crazy gilded marriage thrones?  She made no mention of the bride, though, because she couldn't tolerate the thought of her existence.  This time, Dee wrote,

"Next year, Al, after Christmas, it's your turn to run away, back to me."

By writing it, she made it seem possible to herself.  It's only waiting, she told herself.  I did plenty of  that before.  She held the letter charm of her bracelet against the pulse of her inner wrist as a heartbeat signal and spoke aloud to him as she did so.

"I'm here, Al.  I'm here for you.  I love you.  Come and find me, or tell me how I can find you."

She mentally sent him one of their now anguishedly remembered embraces and closed down the laptop, going back downstairs for the rest of family Sunday.

Al was in a house compound, furious and miserable, freedoms lost and with a stranger for a wife.  Dee dreamed of him there, sitting with his austere brother, Zulf, and others, in a hot, still, stuffy room with shuttered windows, through which the call to prayer meandered as they talked quietly together and shared sweetmeats that Al didn't want, because he was thinking of Dee.  She woke with a start, because in the dream he had looked up suddenly and locked eyes with her own gaze.  The call to prayer, the heated smell of the air and Al's longing face lingered an instant, then she was alone in the dark at home, without him.   I knew it was true, she told herself, that we can see each other because we love one another so much.  If the dream were just a dream, vividly real due to her own emotions only, she refused to believe it.  Al was yearning for her, just as much as she did for him, she was sure.

When Mr Keats arrived for his next appointment, now without the terrible greatcoat and its appurtenances, he had had a haircut, trimmed his eyebrows and was clad in a suit which, while it didn't fit and was an oddly unnattractive shade of tweed, was not too bad.  The bed socks and army boots were gone in favour of trainers and he had a metal social services issue walking stick to support his stoop, less severe in consequence.  The trainers were white boot tops, with a sporty neon flash down the side.

"My feet, you know," he commented ruefully, seeing Andrew look him over approvingly until his attention was caught by the trainers, "will no longer support a brogue." 

Andrew introduced Nolan, of whom Mr Keats said,

"How charming!", with one of his fondest smiles.  "Did you have a lovely holiday, my dear?" Nolan looked down at himself as if wondering if he were suddenly clad in a muslin dress or something.  "What a beauty!" continued Mr Keats appreciatively.  "Is he yours?" he asked Andrew.

"No," said Andrew.  "He's married.  Nolan's my business partner."

"Off market, anyway," remarked Mr Keats regretfully.  "Pity.  You might have liked me in my day, my dear," he said, adding realistically, "Not now, though, I suppose."

There was a slightly awkward pause, during which Mr Keats continued to admire Nolan warmly.  Nolan looked irritatedly at Andrew (who was enjoying this hugely), to move things along.

"Mr Keats," he said, finally, taking pity on Nolan's discomfort eventually, "let's continue our discussion in more comfortable surroundings.  There's a pub just down the road."

"Now, then, I do like a good old fashioned pub," declared Mr Keats.  "It's not a wine bar, is it?  The proper job?"

"The proper job", confirmed Andrew.

They duly repaired to "The Crown and Cushion" and settled in with coffees from the bar (it being only morning, although Mr Keats had a medicinal in his) and continued their discussions.  Mr Keats reported that he was now placed in "quite a nice little b&b for the present" and social services had had his health checked, hence, he said, brandishing it, the walking stick.

"I'm a vulnerable adult, apparently," he told them, rather proudly.  Andrew suggested that he might like to use some of the banked funds to get a place of his own.  "Oh, I don't know," said Mr Keats doubtfully.  "It might turn out, once you sort out who I am, that I already have one, mightn't it?  Besides," he gave them the benefit of a cordial beam, "I'm being assessed for my support needs, so I don't want to mention the money, it might affect my claim and it's all really rather nice.   Lovely people, you  know, simply lovely.  As I said, the money may not even be mine.  You know, also, somewhere in the back of my mind, I have a feeling that I'm supposed to be lying low for the time being."

Andrew and Nolan exchanged a glance at this glimmer of recollection.

"Oh, I've no idea why, my dears," added Mr Keats, anticipating the question.  "But it may come back to me.  There is something that keeps popping into my head, though.  'Black Tie Black Friday.'  Now, why would that be, do you think?"

Black Friday had taken place at the end of November, about two weeks previously and, beng a cut throat bargain discount day that had come across The Pond as a sale, was about as far from being a black tie event as was possible, being more a heartless melee of rough-house 'me first' pushing in than anything else. 

"Do you think it was something you went to?" asked Nolan.

"Now that you mention it, I do.  In fact!" he exclaimed, a little heated by the medicinal, "I was the curator!"  He stopped and faded out again.  "No, I'm afraid that's all."

Curator?  Nolan and Andrew exchanged another look that read, "bonkers."

Nolan, who had been eating a slightly stale Danish pastry with his coffee by way of a late breakfast (it was the kind of place where there was no knowing how long things had sat under the glass dome on the counter), dusted his hands off with the flimsy excuse for a serviette it had been served with and produced a brown envelope.  This contained print outs of digitally enhanced images of Mr Keats showing a suggestion of him at different ages.  Nolan had tried him with blond, brown, black and red versions of hair and of them all (Mr Keats having the strongly blue eyes often associated with it), they agreed that auburn hair seemed the best fit for the pure white floss that was his colour now.

"I say!" breathed Mr Keats admiringly.  "I did tell you I was probably rather a dish."

The youthful smile went rather better with these slightly matinee idol looking shots, in which, by some instinct, Mr Keats had posed for them in that manner.  Andrew said thoughtfully,

"I wonder, Mr Keats, if you are, or have been, an actor?"

Mr Keats thought about it.

"I haven't the faintest, my love," he concluded.  "But if I were, I hope I haven't suffered a breakdown after a mauling from the theatre critics.  They're quite malign, you know.  Perhaps they didn't care for my Lear or something?"

Far from being perturbed by the thought, he continued to beam at them with open pleasure, but it registered with Andrew that he had immediately referred to the theatre, rather than television, or the cinema, say, and he wondered if he were on the right lines, because the old boy was certainly something of a poseur, even as a down and out. It might be something that they could persue.  They concluded the interview and Mr Keats departed quite happily with the photograph copies to admire and see if they jogged his memories at all. 

"Do extract your salaries from the funds, my dears," he told them.  " I shan't take any more myself after this" (for Andrew had given him a further one hundred pounds for living expenses).  "I have enough and because they and I don't know where I came from, the Council can't ship me off back anywhere on a one way ticket.  That's what they do, apparently.  Perhaps I shall think up somewhere nice and tell them I come from there.  I'll see how I go.  Au revoir, dear boys.  Au revoir." 

The suggestion of the theatre had immediately upped his affectations, and he brandished the walking stick again as a wave, managing quite well with it now and refusing the proferred lift as the walk to the bus stop and back from it to his b&b would be beneficial exercise.

"If you ever fall out with Billy," said Andrew to Nolan as they watched him go, "you could do worse.  He's taken to you and he's quite a catch, isn't he?  He is loaded, after all."

Nolan favoured Andrew with the kind of speaking look which contained withering words.  Andrew smiled to himself and they went back to the office after discussing looking up things to do with Black Friday and perhaps try acting agents' listings.  Nolan said next time he would take a bite mould impression of Mr Keats's impeccable teeth, to explore that avenue too, adding that he would keep at a safe distance while doing so, because having people like Mr Keats tell him that he looked good enough to eat, was more than slightly disturbing.  They were still at the start of the national missing persons scan, which Nolan was doing, but had turned up nothing there yet.  Andrew left him to it and went to a book keeping appointment with a self employed caterer, who was always massively disorganised as to records, but on the plus side used Andrew as a willing guinea pig for newly invented bills of fayre while he was there, saving him the trouble of at least one dinner for that week.  He was rather hoping for something festive, it being a time when it was coming up to the Christmas season. 

Chapter 17 - Making Discoveries

Walking back to his car, replete after experimental egg nog style desserts as a finisher for 'turkey and cranberry aux truffes en croute' and making his recommendations as to which worked best for him (ginger and nutmeg brulee, he thought), Andrew found the crisp air of the current cold snap refreshing, enjoying the stroll.  His client lived in expensive apartments in one of the better neighbourhoods but it was a fashionably 'green' modern complex that ostentatiously had no parking, except for a self righteous bike rack.  He was parked, therefore, in a nearby side street off the main road opposite this select community.  Reaching the car, in a low bright winter sun, the gold painted railings and gilded white balconies of a house on the other side gave an opulently burnished finish to its facade.  He paused to look at it, his eye caught by its extravagance and the number of high end cars gleamingly parked on its frontage.  Nothing green about this conspicuous consumption, he thought to himself, amused by the contrast.  There was a name picked out on a black metal plate in arabic gold script on the high electronic gates and he went idly across to look. It read, 'Salim'.

Salim was Al's family name, wasn't it?  He looked more closely.  This house, now he came to think of it, was in exactly the area Dee had spoken of and matched its description.  He took a picture of it, windows now molten with sun fires, to show her and check.  He had made her a promise after all, so this might be a conscience pricking coincidence, if he were right.  He made a note of the address and walked up and down the street a few times so as not to look as if he were hovering on watch, before driving home.

Once there, he checked through his phone for the contact number which Faisal had given him when he was masquerading as George Conway and he still had it.  Would it still ring, he wondered?  On impulse, he tried it.  After a few rings, Faisal responded.  Andrew recogised his voice.

"Yes, hello?"

"Hello, there, Faisal," Andrew greeted him.  "I'm calling about Prestige Holdings?"


"It's George Conway here, about the Stanley Mill apartment."

"Ah, Mr Conway!" Faisal said, clearly surprised.  "One minute please, I'm driving.  Can I call you back?"

"Of course," agreed Andrew, shutting down the call.

Now what?  If Faisal rang back?  He could perhaps stay in character and try a meet?  Faisal had no suspicions of him, as far as he knew.  He could maybe find out where the business was up to at least.  Faisal was chatty and relatively unguarded, he thought, he maybe could draw him out a little, see what he could glean in some way as news for Dee.  Faisal was friendly enough, the dangerous Rashid was dead and Hamid had never met him.  Perhaps, once again, Faisal was the best bet.  He would do this for Dee, but he wouldn't tell Nolan, who would balk at reinvolvement with that circle in any way.  He'd keep it on the back burner of their other business matters.

Faisal rang back about five minutes later, sounding curious.

"It's been a long time since I heard from you, Mr Conway.  I'm hoping this means our business deal hasn't fallen through after all?"

"No," said Andrew.  "I'll admit that I had reservations afterwards about such an outlay, but I've organised my affairs and I think I'm ready to talk turkey again." 

 Faisal gave his warm chuckle.

"You know what they say," he suggested.  "A turkey's not just for Christmas."

"I think that's puppies and kittens," said Andrew, for whom turkey seemed a theme for the day one way or another.  "But I know what you mean.  No, I know this is a long term commitment.  I get that," he agreed.  "Are the proposals still up and running?"

"For sure," confirmed Faisal, who spoke in the loud tones of one used to crowded family conditions and a carrying  voice being required to be heard.

"I'd, er, I'd like to come and take another look, if I may," proposed Andrew.

There was a short pause.

"Very well," agreed Faisal at last.  "I don't see why not.  Refresh your view of the place.  At present, the company is still firming up bids prior to development."

"Understood," said Andrew.  "It's a huge undertaking."

"It's not that big a deal," said Faisal drily and Andrew privately agreed that, since it wouldn't come about anyway, it wasn't, probably.  "I'll be in touch soon about it," said Faisal.  "Fix up a date and time.  I'm a bit pressed just now."

"That's fine," said Andrew.  " I shall be away from Christmas through New Year, but I'm about otherwise."

"I'll be in touch," repeated Faisal and rang off.

It was a bit of a start, thought Andrew and he'd show Dee that picture next time he saw her.  Here's another fine mess you've gotten yourself into, he rebuked himself, for not refusing her at the time.

Dee now had the college social life, once envisaged as time out from Al but now just time on her own with friends.  Things were getting busy.  There were pre Christmas outings and parties to go to, for they were a lively young crowd, the art students.  She was out with a group of them in the city, traipsing from bar to bar in the trendy quarter near to Dream, not all of them being underage and able to get in, as they were discussing buying some street drugs to party with.

"We used to go to this wild place," one of them was telling Dee.  "An old mill, it was, all sorts going on down there.  Three guys ran it, brothers, maybe.  I really fancied the youngest one."

"Did you?" asked Dee, adding, "What did he look like?", guessing the answer, and sure enough, Al was described.  "Did he like you, too?" she asked.

"I don't know.  I couldn't get anywhere, really.  Bit of flirting, that was it.  He'd just wink at me and say, 'I'm taken, love.  I don't mess about.'  Quite sweet, really.  Not that he was.  Sweet, I mean.  Too edgy."

"No," said Dee, because you could never have called Al sweet, even in his most endearing moments, but she was pleased by his fidelity.  There was, of course, Gemma, though.

"It's all gone now," the other girl continued.  " The club just vanished one day and they all did, too.  Pity.  You'd have loved it, Dee."

"I guess I would have," agreed Dee, not confiding her past to these new acquaintances, because it was too precious to squander by diluting it in the telling.  When they did buy drugs from somewhere, she didn't try them, because Al wouldn't have liked it under his guardianship and she didn't find she could slip the habits of behaving for him very easily still.

There was a boy in the group paying her some attention and in pre Al days, she would have liked him, perhaps, but it was too soon for her still to reciprocate, although she responded with friendliness to his diffident overtures.  She went out again, too, in a foursome with Ed, his girlfriend and Nick, this time for a meal but that, too, had lost any charm it might have held for her except as a social occasion.  She did learn, though, that it was Nick who had seen her at Dream all those months ago.

"I often wondered who that was!" she exclaimed.  "Fancy it being you, Nick, " adding, "Did you see Al, too?"

Nick glanced at her uncomfortably.

"I did," he said, regretting having mentioned it and reminding her of Al again when they were supposed to be taking her mind off things.

"He was right, then," said Dee.  "I thought he was just being over the top about thinking I'd been seen by someone who knew me."

"Mmmm, " said Nick, and everybody but Dee consciously changed the subject, so that she couldn't go on to ask, as she obviously wanted to, what Nick had thought of Al.  All Nick really recalled, thinking of it now but not telling her about it, was the look he'd been given back in the window reflection from someone very firmly in possession of his young girlfriend and who looked as if he could do something about proving that if need be.  

The meal was finished without further mention of it.  They didn't need to skirt around the topic of Al in the hope that it would dissipate his presence at the forefront of Dee's mind, because he was always there still, more so now than ever since she had seen his cousin but she didn't tell the family so, only Andrew really knew that.  

Andrew was round at Billy and Nolan's for the annual 'Christmas Tree Dressing Party' they threw, mainly so that Billy's artfully themed decorations could be admired by people other than a rather indifferent Nolan, who took the regular accusation of being a soulless philistine on the chin whilst dishing out hot punch to the guests, saying,

"Show Andrew, Billy.  He's a sucker for Christmas.  It's all Hogmonay up in Scotland, so he misses out."

Later, Andrew and Nolan picked their way through the festoons across and above doorways to seek sanctuary from carol singing round the piano (where Billy was playing a boisterous accompaniment) within the little home office which Nolan had retained as a tinsel free zone.

"Bless him, he's happy," remarked Nolan of Billy, smiling across at the gathering, which was robustly in the midst of a rendition of  'Hark the Herald.'  " Let's take a breather.  Got your drink?"

Andrew raised his glass in demonstration, now filled with a smoky malt whisky, also Scottish, which Nolan made a point of providing for him on such occasions.  By now, Andrew wasn't sure that it was so much part of an in joke  as a tradition that Nolan felt he had to carry on for fear of disappointing him. 

"Good stuff," continued Nolan.  "Now I think I might be on to something with our Mr Keats.  I've been searching and I've found an odd notice pop up.  I kept trying 'Black Tie Black Friday,' and I found this.  Look."  

He pulled up an item, featuring, most definitely, Mr Keats, in a stiff white shirt front and silky cravat, longish silver hair swept back, saying with one of his confidingly inviting shining smiles:

"If you've received your invitation, don't miss it!  Black Tie Black Friday.  Address within your email message.  It will be to your advantage......."

The little clip was momentary.

"Where did you find it?" asked Andrew.

"That's the beauty of the internet, isn't it?" answered Nolan.  "Once it's out there, it's out there.  It looks like targeted advertising, doesn't it?  I've tracked it back a bit to where it's been sent.  It's popped up because an auction house that received it published it on their website, by accident probably."

"Auction house?" 

They looked at the website in question, clearly a genuine business concern.

"Yes, and then this other reference came up, a piece in the local free paper about having an inside story on some very royal jewellery pieces coming back on to the market after years of history unknown, courtesy of 'The Curator', launched at a 'Black Tie Black Friday Event' for the specialist collector."

Andrew read the short article, which seemed to be written a bit tongue in cheek, ending, 'Christmas silly season or is it true?  This journalist will be investigating.....'

"Black Tie Black Friday and 'the curator'?" he mused.  "It has to link to our Mr Keats, hasn't it?  See what else you can dig up and maybe I can try and speak to the journalist, see how they got that tidbit, and if it was from the horse's mouth we might have a bit more to go on before he forgot himself."

They both thought silently about the hefty stash of cash sitting in their bank and what its provenance might have been.  Pondering this and looking out of the window, they saw the predicted snowfall had got underway.

"You'd better stay the night, Andrew.  You'll never get a taxi this time of year and you can't drive now," suggested Nolan.

Andrew agreed, because Billy and Nolan had a very comfortable spare room he took advantage of occasionally.  Deciding they should rejoin the party or Billy would take it amiss, they went back to the festivities and put the conundrum of Black Tie Black Friday and Mr Keats aside for the present.  

Andrew managed a telephone conversation with the journalist over the next day or two, who recalled it as something that came out of a chance conversation in the pub with some eccentric yarn spinner he'd encountered.

"Bit of an old soak but a good raconteur for the price of a drink. I thought there might be a bit of mileage in it for an article.  Watch this space in the New Year, he said, that's when they'll come on the market.  Talked about being the meeter and greeter for this Black Friday thing at some old place dressed up for the occasion and showing off some prestige pieces to be bartered for.   I asked him what they were, and he said,

'Queen Victoria's lost diadems and gems no less!'

"Load of old hoakum, no doubt, but I must say he told it well.  He was supposed to play the curator of this lost hoard for the occasion, he said, while the real sellers stayed off stage.  A taster for the dealers, he told me.  Then I think he got a bit panicky about getting carried away and telling too much of the story, because he said 'oh, dear, they didn't pay me to sing like a bird, did they?  But I do so love to orate!  It will be my downfall, mark my words'."

"What happened then?" asked Andrew

"Treated me to a lachrymose version of 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,' and tottered off into the night tapping his nose and winking."

"Should have been 'Ode to  a Nightingale' by rights, " remarked Andrew.  "Never mind."

"Huh?" asked the journalist.  "Same bird, different song.  Poetry stinks."

Andrew discerned a satirical tone and passed over this jibe at his own insinuation that the journalist would not get the reference.  The journalist did not sound like a young hopeful.  It was, after all, the free local paper the piece had featured in.

 "Did he tell you his name?" he went on.   "The Curator?"

"Er, no I don't think so, other than saying he was playing the curator, that was it.  Like I say, probably made it all up anyway to get his drinks bought him as long as the entertainment lasted.   What's your interest anyway?"

 Andrew considered his options.

" I work for a bespoke auction house and I read your piece, just wondering if there were any truth in it, because something like that would be a real discovery".  

The journalist laughed.

"I wouldn't hold hold your breath," he advised.  " I'd say there was a lot more fantasy than fact in that narrative.  He looked like a man on the slide.  But hey, check out on the market in the New Year.  You never know!"

Andrew agreed that you didn't, but considering the amount of money Mr Keats had had on him, and his feeling that he should for some reason be lying low, whoever he was, and the internet clip which the journalist seemed unaware of, there was definitely something that had happened.  Mr Keats, meeting them again in 'The Crown and Cushion' for them to tell him what they had found out, was intrigued.  He didn't remember the journalist or his story but when Nolan showed him the internet clip of him on his tablet, he suddenly declaimed, intoning richly:

" 'Hast thou from the caves of Golconda, a gem

Pure as the ice-drop that froze on the mountain?

Bright as a humming-bird's green diadem,

When it flutters in sunbeams that shine through a fountain?' ........

.......Ladies and gentlemen, behold it here!"

There he stopped dramatically.

"What is it?" prompted Andrew while there was still light at the end of the tunnel.

"The Emerald and Diamond Tiara."


"Why, Queen Victoria's of course.  That was the whole point."

The tunnel darkened instantly as the light of recollection vanished from Mr Keats's eyes.  Andrew knew already that Mr Keats would not know now the whole point of what, but he asked anyway.  Mr Keats  was regretful.

"Perhaps another noggin of negus, my dears?" he prompted, "might stir the coals of memory into life?"

This plangent phrase sent him into a momentary melancholy for himself.

"You could afford to buy the pub itself, if you wanted?" suggested Nolan.

"Oh, no!" objected Mr Keats grandly.  "It is the pleasure of being bought a drink that counts. Sociability, my dear, is the soul of humanity and, of course, a seasonally Christian gesture.  Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat.  Please to put a penny in the old man's hat?"

"Christ!" muttered Nolan, going to do the honours.

Mr Keats duly returned to his now sheltered accommodation, where there was the promise of a bit of a shindig later, he reckoned, courtesy of the warden, who was going to be Father Christmas for them.  Andrew and Nolan googled the poem he had quoted on the tablet. 

"Keats himself!" declared Andrew.  "Hmmmm, maybe those were his lines, if he was launching the occasion as the curator ,and that's why he thinks he's John Keats?"

"Far fetched, but then, so is he, isn't he?"  

The internet informed them also that the item Mr Keats had mentioned was indeed present owner unknown. Nolan whistled warily.

"It's going to be quite big this, isn't it, if there is any jewellery, real or fake though?  O.K. , let's leave me to do my researches for now.  You're away for a while for the holidays.  We need to look out for the old chap a bit if he's legged it with some of the wherewithall after sales deposits were made.  I mean, I know he's a complete fruitloop and doesn't remember, but something's definitely gone down."

"Yes, let's leave him to his safety net in sheltered housing for now.  We'll pick up with caution."                                   

Andrew duly went to his family for Christmas and New Year, Dee found herself back home for it, Nolan and Billy did their own thing and Al, in secret, now read all Dee's messages to him, cherishing them.  Whatever anyone believed, he wasn't about to give up on his own take on the life he wanted and Dee had been a very integral part of that, all the more so for his being abruptly removed from her.  He couldn't swoop in now and retake her, there were other considerations, but he would lay his plans, he told himself, make no mistake about that.      

Andrew was walking in the countryside nearby his parents' place.  A milky white cloudbank mimicked a further hillscape behind the real one ahead of him.  Crossing historic ground and pausing at a familiar cairn, he was struck by the recollection of a mound of rough cut stones heaped at the bottom of the large garden in the cheating wife case, preparatory work for a project of the wife in question, her husband had said, going on to say that he hadn't had the heart to continue with it but now he knew she had really left, he might do something with it by way of keeping busy.  She had wanted a seating pergola above a rockery with water features, he had described wistfully to Andrew at the time.  The cairn's significance collided with that of the heap of rocks in the garden in Andrew's mind.  What if?  Andrew's unease about the whole set up and Nolan's prompts that Andrew thought she had been bumped off coalesced.  He hadn't been to that house for a month or two, had he?  Would this be a now completed project, chats to approving neighbours accompanying the developing garden feature?  Or were the rocks still as they had been, not a rockery but a plain burial ground?  Still looking at the cairn, he phoned Nolan, who said:

"Very festive!  Has Jacob Marley been rattling his chains at you through the Scotch mist?  It's bloody Boxing Day, Andrew."

"I'm serious, Nolan.  Will you take a look round there, tell me if he's built the feature or not?"

"All right.  What after that?"

"I think, if he's done it or not, but particularly if he has, I've got serious concerns about his wife.  He never reported her missing because he said she'd left him for this lover we found traces of.  No kids.  People feeling sorry for poor old, sensible Peter.  She might be under there."

"I'll look, but then what?"

"Anon tip off time, maybe.  I know you don't like the idea but...."

"Let's think about it once I've taken a look, see," advised Nolan.  "We can't just jump into a murder accusation.  Merry Christmas, by the way."

"Merry Christmas," returned Andrew absently, his mind not really on that just then.

"Never mind," said Nolan sympathetically.  "Soon be New Year, you can dance the Highland Fling to your heart's content,  then."

"Yes, yes," said Andrew, returning to the fray.  "And just how much of Billy's Christmas cake have you eaten?"

Nolan detested this homemade speciality but had to eat it on pain of a monumental sulk until the following year's offering.

"Let's just say he thinks I've eaten it.  There's a very busy bird table in next door's garden.  The robin and the squirrels are doing me proud.  Or maybe it's rats......" he added thoughtfully.

"Might be," agreed Andrew.  "Better get off.  We're at the pub for our Boxing Day gruel shortly."

Nolan confirmed he'd get back to him about the garden rockery feature and they rang off. 

Before going back, Andrew walked up to the top of the high escarpment and braced himself.  Washed over by cold winds sharp off the barren peaks and as strong as a rolling sea, cascading waves of air crashed around him and he thought of nothing but the experience. He had done that since childhood, going up to that edge and feeling the elements forging  round him on their way across the world, blasting through their wayfares with careless, purposeless urgency, unaware of the fragile strangers in their way.

Dee took Wilbur on regular excursions and he proved to be a resilient walker, game for a bark up when challenged and liable to vanish into camoflage when rooting and scampering among the dried banks of dead leaves lining the bridle paths which made walking and cycling ways out of old railway lines through the area.  They had all had some initial concerns about a lame back paw but then realised that he was one of those odd, low set little dogs which were liable to give a hop and skip in transit.  She had occasional family companions but mainly went alone by way of a break, because she had got used to having time to herself.  

In Andrew's absence, Nolan and Billy invited her for tea and a check up in between celebration days and Nolan was able to report back  that there had not, as far as he could ascertain, been any contact from Al, although, Nolan said, if he did make any, it was far from certain that Dee would use any commonsense about it.  Nolan, whilst being less brisk about the realities than Andrew constantly was with Dee, was less naturally sympathetic, even brutally frank.

"I met him once," he had said to Dee.   "It's obvious that he's a knob."  He hadn't forgiven Al for his own humiliation at his hands and the fright he had been given.  "Second rate hoods, that's all that lot were.  You're eating your heart out over nothing, you know that, don't you?"  he told her, because Dee had confided that she had tried sending some messages to Al but he hadn't replied.

"Don't be so rude!" Billy, coming through just then, had admonished him.  "Dee's our guest."

Nolan had charmed her with one of his more charismatic smiles by way of making up for his uncompromising bluntness, and had given her a brief hug.

"She knows it's only because I like her," he said, and Dee, who also thought that aspects of Al's behaviour had been less than heroic, and at the last, as at first, selfish, and was resenting by now the lack of response to her appeals, didn't actually mind Nolan calling him a knob.

It was Billy, however, who unwittingly gave her an idea about what she could do about things if she chose to do so and she thought about it later.  He had said, as they had gone on to discuss the dynamics of bust ups, that in his experience, those who begged could be ignored, but those who had something to threaten with, might have to be responded to in the end.

"Not like that with you two, though, was it?" he said innocently enough.

It wasn't, but it was with Faisal and Gemma, wasn't it, and she still had Faisal's number on the old pay as you go phone Al had supplied her with, from the time at the mill.  If she really got to that point, she did have leverage, perhaps, but would she want to do so and turn Faisal against her?  It wasn't something to be rushed into and Andrew had promised he would try and find things out for her, she should leave it to him for now, perhaps.  Besides, she was getting angry with Al, now, not just abject, and that slow burn emotion had been boosted by Nolan's plain speaking.

Nolan had taken the requested trip to the house in the cheating wife case.  There were no lights on, as if the occupant were presently away, so he could take a leisurely look at the garden premises.  There was indeed a mounded rockery area at the bottom of the garden now, designed, Japanese style, in little rock terraces with miniature waterfall features, planted up with the kind of exotic shrubs and grasses that offer delicate and coloured foliage for much of the year.  In front of it now was a decking area, with harmless looking garden seating on it, for outdoor enjoyment of the scene. It looked about as much like a murder site as an installation at the Chelsea Flower Show, but then, he'd hardly have put a sign up saying 'dig here', would he, Nolan thought, after a long study of it all. Some windchimes, blustered about by breezes, clattered together somewhere nearby, bright fragments of sound scattering through the lively air blowing coldly round Nolan's head.  

When he rang Andrew to tell him,  a similarly musical sound in the background turned out to be, when he asked Andrew what it was, the tops of masts of small boats beached at the mere in their winter quarters, spinning round like eerie little bells ringing in the wind. 

"Spooky!" said Nolan.  "Are you on your own?"

It concerned him, sometimes, just how much time Andrew did spend on his own, not sharing his penchant for enjoyably solitary walks where you could drift through the scene thinking your own thoughts.

"For now," said Andrew.  "I'm meeting up with people later on at the hotel near my parents' place.  Our annual get together, you remember?"

Nolan approved of this.  A  reunion of those who had grown up there but since moved away, they kept up their tradition with a party stay at the hotel there around Christmas.

"So, what did you think?" asked Andrew.  "About the garden."

" Well, there is a rockery, so you could be right and some wooden decking now, over a concrete base."

Andrew still had reservations, however, as did Nolan.

"I'll go to see him one more time when I'm back in the New Year and see what I make of it then," Andrew suggested finally.  "I could be jumping to some very wrong conclusions.  How was Dee?"

"All right, I think.  Billy and I tried to make some progress with her on what's imagined in your head informing the heart how it feels, without any other influence needed."

"You did?  And how did that go down?"

"As you'd expect, with a young romantic like Dee.  Listened but ignored the advice, I suspect."

(In this he wronged her, because she had seen how that applied to her own situation now, though resisting it).

"Pity.....Well, so long as himself wasn't in touch, that's still only a one way street, isn't it?" said Andrew.

Not for the first time, Nolan had been struck by some temperemental similarities between Dee and Andrew, and he still thought that, maybe, if the connection continued, that might deepen into something else.  Dee was seventeen now, after all, maturing in outlook and she seemed to rely on Andrew quite a lot.

"She likes going for long country walks, you know," Nolan added now.  "Like you do."

"So do a lot of people, Nolan," said Andrew, amused.  "It's not an entirely alien concept, you know."  He hadn't missed the point Nolan was making again, just didn't refer to it, used to Nolan's occasional and generally misguided attempts to set him up with somebody.  "Melanie's coming up this time for the get together," he said now, mischievously, (she being an old girlfriend he remained fond of, which Nolan knew).

"Is she?" asked Nolan with renewed interest.  "And how is she, these days?"

"Well, I'll find out, won't I?" said Andrew.  "The trouble with you married people is you want to get everyone else to settle down, just because you can't play the field yourself any more."

Melanie was, in fact, married herself now, as Andrew knew full well, having been a happy guest at the wedding, but he didn't tell Nolan.  Let him enjoy himself wondering, he thought.  They rang off with Nolan saying have a good time and privately laughing at the idea of Andrew playing the field, it not being the way he operated at all.

The hotel Christmas get together started slowly, the group of old friends arriving gradually, some with partners and some without.  Andrew, too, stayed the night for this rather than heading back to his parents, as it was dinner, plenty of drinks and late talk.  As part of the tradition they had set up, someone had to find and tell a ghost story for the occasion, a different one every year.  This year, it  was Andrew's turn and he had planned a rendition of 'The Upper Berth,' by Francis Marion Crawford, as being suitably atmospheric and Victorian in setting to disturb.  If anyone had night terrors as a result of the fireside tales, it was counted a triumph, and with this one, Andrew calculated, he was in with a chance.

He had arrived in his room and was getting dressed to go down for pre dinner drinks (for they liked to make a formal occasion of it as being more of an event) when Dee phoned for a chat, feeling stranded in the family holiday hiatus between Christmas and New Year and envisaging him being similarly adrift at his parents' house.

"No, no, I'm at a hotel," he announced to her brightly, surprising her.  "It's our 'Yule Do', I'm here to meet up with a gang of old friends for the night.  We do it every year."

Dee asked about it and he talked about them and former times together, saying that one or two had been old flames back in the day.

"Small pool up here, Dee," he laughed.  "We only had each other to go out with growing up.  Gone our separate ways now, of course, but great fun meeting up."

His attention was all on the prospective get together because he was looking forward to it and, used to having this given concernedly only to herself when they talked, Dee felt a pang of left out jealousy.  She had never given much thought to Andrew's love life, because, even though she knew, now, about Andrew and Nolan not being a couple, Andrew still sat in a kind of neutral limbo in her mind, his context being to provide solace to her about Al.

It sounded warmly adult, to be able to be in contact and on affectionate terms with people who had mattered to you, and with whom you might once have had a relationship. Dee thought it sounded like a very convivial, inclusive kind of occasion to be a part of and felt it made her own preoccupation with Al seem childish in comparison.

"Sorry, Dee, I've got to dash," said Andrew now.  "I'm struggling with cufflinks singlehanded here, I'm running late and I'm going down for drinks in a minute.  Oh," he added, as rather an afterthought.  "Did you enjoy tea at Nolan's?"

"Yes, thank you," she said, disconsolately feeling just now that that kind of outing made a child of her, too.  "Cufflinks?  Is it all posh then?" she asked.

Andrew laughed.

"Only because we like to dress up for it, full evening swag.  I've got a proper dress shirt to deal with here, hence the cufflinks.  Nightmare!"

He was full of a lot more eager anticipation than Dee was used to in him, a young man getting ready to go and have fun with his own circle, not, as she pictured him, solitary, or working with Nolan.  She wished she could be there to hear the ghost story he'd told her about and said so.  He laughed again.

"Well, we'll see how that one goes down later.  Sorry, Dee, I really have to go.  I'll call you soon."

Dee was in her room at the time with her laptop on, so she idly looked up the hotel he had named.  Its website showed it was high up, an old drover's inn, showing dramatic hill views above watersides, the interior dressed for Christmas, dark wood and open fires giving a seasonal atmosphere.  Holly berries glowed within real wreaths and there was mistletoe.  It was imbued with the whole notion of Christmas hospitality and Andrew's unselfconscious pleasure at being there to see good friends again left her envious.  I'm not part of anything now, really, she pitied herself. I had my own world and I lost that, now I'm half back in this one, she thought, but even as she felt the pathos of this, she knew that neither statement was entirely true.  Al's world had never been wholly hers and she was certainly a very accepted part of the new college world of friends here. Nevertheless, she was moody and resentful for a while, until she realised, really, how mean that was, both towards Andrew and to her own family.  I should appreciate people more for themselves, she told herself sternly, instead of concentrating on the one who let me down.  Andrew was right.  If Al really cared in the way that she thought of as caring and the way that Andrew did, then Al would have done something about contacting her by now. 

(Continued in Serial Part 4)









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