Nolan and Munro

Chapter 26 - Monument

The folly memorial was not easy to reach.  Its four stubby turrets, the fat stone balustrades between them blistered by the heights’ winds, guarded a central blunt topped obelisk.  Arching buttresses with carved finials rose from behind the towers to clamp into the sides of the obelisk, giving it the look of some ancient rocket waiting to be launched.  Stone laurel wreaths had withered in the weather.  It was no longer clear what the memorial was for from the evidence it presented itself, yet it still reached as eternally towards the sky as its builder had intended and drew people to it.  The monument was a hill walking goal and a lure for the lonely.

Tiny tracks twisted up to its viewing points from the dour looking hills above the treeline, dead bracken and coarse grasses its only winter vegetation.  In summer, bog cotton blew.  To the right, higher up again, a sheer grey rock face was like the bone plate of a vast whale’s mouth yawning open, stranded in a stone sea.

There was a large amount of grumbling by one of the walkers toiling up to the monument’s summit today, relating to it being a lot further to go than had been planned on.  The car had been abandoned way back, in the tame reaches of the pay and display, a gentle ramp out leading unwary strollers onwards and upwards.

“Where’s this?  Sheep Shit Lane?” had been a semi jovial enquiry some time back, as the ascent began to follow a rutted track.  Now, the same person commented, “Jesus, mate. We’re even above the sheep line, never mind the snow line,” surveying the wholly desolate scene around them.

“Come on.  It’s getting nearer.  You’ve got to take a look at it, Nolan,” urged Andrew, as Nolan stopped again to take a breather.

“It’s not.  It’s a mirage.  It still looks tiny and it’s probably as colossal as a cathedral close to.”

“It is amazing.  Getting it up here was some feat of engineering, wasn’t it?” said Andrew admiringly.  “It’s no beauty, though. We used to call it ‘The Devil’s Kennel’ when we were kids. No idea why, though.”

“I suppose it’s meant to be haunted?” asked Nolan.



As if to confirm this reputation, their view of it was blighted by a sudden drift of drizzly mist.

“We’ll have to crack on and use it for shelter,” said Andrew, whose native experience told him a heavy shower was travelling fast on the wind towards them.

“Oh, great!  I told you we shouldn’t have come.”

“It’s fine.  Don’t worry. I know the ways of the weather around here.”

“I’m not worried.  I’m pissed off!” Nolan bellowed into the mist but continued to scramble nimbly after Andrew.

The slender youth who had been watching their approach from the monument, jeaned knees pulled up under his chin in the lee of one of the towers, took off as they neared, his trainer soles slipping on the wet tussocky grass as he darted off to shelter elsewhere amongst the rocky outcrops.  He had estimated, from their increasingly frequent stops, that they would give up before they reached the monument but realised now that they wouldn’t.

“What was that?” asked Nolan, catching a glimpse of something as they got to within reach of the monument.


“Looked like someone moving for a minute.”

“Maybe someone else is up here with us.  You’d be surprised how many people come.”

“At this time of year?” queried an incredulous Nolan.

“Well, no, not so much.  But still…”

Close to and within its balustraded walls, the squat turretsstone arch doorways on the inside had spiral steps up to their sturdy, crenellated summits.  The monument was ugly, an inscrutable mishmash of styles, the central obelisk Egyptian, the four turrets full Norman English castle in miniature, the flying buttresses gothic.  Andrew led Nolan into the shelter of one turret and they sat damply on the bottom step, waiting for the squall to pass. The monument was constructed mainly of tenacious millstone grit but where there had been marbled inscription insets or carvings in less durable stone, the hill winds and rains had held sway over their endurance against the elements.  The rain began to clear, blown off course elsewhere again.

“Come on.  Let’s get a look from the top,” suggested Andrew.

They went up, viewing the scoured landscape and then went up each of the other towers to take in the different vantage points.  In the solid footings of the last, they came across, in its bleak shelter, a grubby green outdoor sleeping bag and a crocheted patchwork blanket.

“Surely nobody’s sleeping up here?” wondered Andrew.   “Must be left from some warm summer teen venture.”

“Probably - but I did think I saw something, or someone, didn’t I?  On the way up,” said Nolan.

“There’s no sign of anyone.”

To make sure, though, they mounted each turret again, calling out to the empty landscape,

“Hello?  Anyone up here?  Need any help?”

They walked the balustrade walls but saw nothing and, still uneasy, explored the immediate environs but, seeing nothing and nobody, they began the descent again because light would soon go once the middle of the day had been crossed.  With them safely gone, the watcher returned to his makeshift eyrie with the carrier bag of things he was using to survive on.  If he could manage one more night hidden away here in the monument, it might be safe to go down.

The private detectives, though, were too conscientious to leave without reporting that it was possible that somebody was out there alone.  Once they had retrieved the car and driven back to the village in the valley’s cleft, they went into the tourist information office and asked for the rangers to be alerted that someone was, or had been, trying to shelter in the monument on top of the hill.

“Did you ever try to sleep up there as a kid?” Nolan asked Andrew as they went out again.

“A night in the haunted monument?  To be honest, no. Bit too far away from home for me to get away with that one.  But it was a dare, of course, and some people boasted that they had.”

“I wouldn’t fancy it,” shuddered Nolan.  “It’s the kind of place to freeze the marrow of your bones, even on a hot summer night.”

Andrew agreed that it was.  They looked back up at the now distant monument, still visible on its skyline, as it was for miles around from any direction, forbidding obelisk finger pointed up like a warning and Nolan, who now he had seen it was interested by it, remarked that he’d like to know more about it.

“You’ll have to ask Dad,” said Andrew, who if he had ever known its background had forgotten it.  “He’ll know.”

Nolan had come for one of his occasional visits up with Andrew, whose parents liked him as being “a refreshing change round here.”    Over their evening meal, Nolan asked Andrew’s father, who was something of a local historian and had done a blog for several post retirement years about things of interest, if he knew the history of the monument.

“Ah!” he answered with relish.  “ ‘Lady Kitty’s Needle’, it’s known as.”

“We used to call it ‘The Devil’s Kennel,’” said Andrew.

“Really?  Why?” asked his father.

“I don’t know,” shrugged Andrew.  “We just did.”

“So - Lady Kitty’s Needle?” prompted Nolan.  “Who was she?”

“Well, it’s not her real memorial, rumour has it.  The monument was erected by one Sir Charles Grosvenor when his wife died in childbirth.”

“Lady Kitty?”

“Yes, she was Catherine Caroline Hambourne, a wealthy heiress Sir Charles (the usual rake and gambler type by all accounts) married to save the estate.  The four towers represent their four predeceased sons, who died in infancy.  The story goes, though, that in fact she was an unnatural mother to them and that she did not die in childbirth but this time Sir Charles intervened at once, took his last surviving son to be wet nursed in safety and had Kitty spirited off to live out her days looked after but locked up, giving out that she had succumbed in childbed.”

“Wow!  Infanticide, do you mean?”

“It was widely rumoured and to such local detriment of the family’s  reputation that Sir Charles built that very public, imposing folly monument  to her and their dead children to put paid to them.  The monument was supposed to have been built so all the cottagers and villagers, parsons and farmers could see it and know that Lady Grosvenor was dead.”

“I wonder,” said Andrew’s mother.  “Postpartum psychosis.  It did and does happen and it wasn’t understood then.”

“Brilliantly gothic, don’t you think?” said Andrew’s father.

“How could you have forgotten that?” Nolan asked Andrew, raising a well groomed and quizzical eyebrow.

“I don’t remember ever knowing it,” said Andrew.  “Bit gruesome, isn’t it?”

“Wild lonely countryside begets wild fireside tales,” said Andrew’s father, waving his fork sagely.  “Besides, you weren’t interested. It was all computer games, the modern world to get away to and the wonders of maths for you as a youngster.”

“Aww,” said Nolan.  “The makings of a happy future bean counter.  Touching, isn’t it?”

Andrew half smiled a silently derisory riposte.

“I expect that’s why the two of you get on so well,” continued Andrew’s father, quite innocent of any intentional reflection on them.  “Bean counters and computer geeks aren’t so far apart as all that, are they?”

Andrew exchanged a second, this time triumphantly amused smile with Nolan, who ignored it, asking,

“So, the last son, he survived, did he?”

“He did but he took after his father and although he inherited wealth, the fleshpots of London soon had it all, and him.  The big house is still up there with what’s left of its treasures - National Trust now, of course.”

“The inscriptions are all worn away on the monument,” commented Nolan.

“There’s a record of what they were.  You’ll find it if you google ‘Lady Kitty’s Needle’.  It will probably take you to my blog,” Andrew’s father added, a little complacently, at which Andrew and his mother exchanged an indulgent glance.

“Have you read Douglas’s blog, Nolan?” asked Andrew’s mother.

“I haven’t, Judith,” said Nolan.  “But I certainly will now. Andrew, you should have told me about it,” he admonished adroitly.

“I have,” said Andrew tiredly.  “But it’s about our local history here.  You know what you always say about history, Nolan.  Live for the present and to hell with the rest.”

“Yes.  Well. That’s different,” said Nolan obscurely.  “I don’t mean this kind of thing. It’s fascinating, Doug.”

“Don’t overdo it,” muttered Andrew but clearly Nolan hadn’t because his father went on:

“And if you go a few miles on round the back of the monument, there’s a grim looking place known locally as ‘Kitty’s Keep’.”

“Where she was locked up?”

“Allegedly.  It was a military look-out post for a small private garrison attached to the estate, so it’s secure and high up.”


“It’s said she long outlived her spouse, going on in her own secluded asylum to a great age...”

“...but nobody ever saw her.”

“Precisely,” Andrew’s father beamed.  “Nobody ever saw her.”

“Terrific stuff!” said Nolan.  “Let’s go to see the house and drive up to that keep tomorrow, Andrew.  We can probably get to the monument again from the other side? Get closer by car.”

Andrew gave him a searching look but it seemed that Nolan’s interest was genuinely fired because he did look up all the details of the long ago scurrilous stories attached to the Grosvenors and the allegation that Ignatius, the surviving child, having fallen victim to the temptations of the day and syphilis, had been doomed by his inherited bad blood to that demise.

The thick walls of the school house hemmed them in with the old story, which kept them intermittently entertained over the early part of the evening.  The village school had closed, leaving local children to be yellow bussed elsewhere and Andrew’s parents had been able to buy the place they had once rented while his father was in post as the school’s headmaster.

“I suppose,” commented Andrew’s mother, “it makes for a more interesting tale than the probable truth - that she did die in childbirth and the previous children sadly died as babies, like so many did back then.”

“Of course,” said Andrew’s father, trying to puff as contentedly at the electronic vape pipe his son had ostentatiously bought him for Christmas (a magnificently curving faux wooden one) as he would have done at his preferred original tobacco packed one, “they were a very unpopular family, anyway, to begin with.  Bad agricultural landlords, high taxers of their people, forcing young men into soldiering in cahoots with the official army to empty out the crofters and grab the land for sheep farming.  Said to be ungodly and notorious for failing to help the indigent in any way.  Plus, the big house was built with stone plundered from a ruined abbey, so naturally that was said to be a cursed venture, although a lot of locals helped themselves to it, too.  A ready supply of dressed stone doesn’t come cheap, does it? Stands to reason there would be plenty of aggrieved folk ready to sling any amount of mud at the Grosvenor family reputation.”

“How was Lady Kitty supposed to have killed her babies?” asked Nolan

“Smothered by her at the first opportunity after birth.  So they say,” said Andrew’s father.

“Maybe she just wanted a girl,” said Andrew flippantly.

“That’s why,” said his father, ignoring this and continuing to address Nolan “Sir Charles snatched young Ignatius from her disordered bosom the moment he was born.”

“Graphic,” said Nolan admiringly.  “We’re definitely going to see all that tomorrow, Andrew.  You wanted me to do proper sightseeing round here and we’ve got time.  I’m not on my usual flying visit.” He got up and went to the windowsill, swapping the guardian Chinese lion dogs ornamenting it around.  “The male one should be on the left. You’ve got them back to front.”

“Have we?  I didn’t know it mattered,” laughed Andrew’s mother.

“Traditionally, the male one has a ball under its foot and that goes on the left as you look out, the female has a cub under hers and goes on the right.  For good Feng Shui.”

“I didn’t know you were into that stuff?” said Andrew.

“I’m not but Billy is.  Now I have to keep making sure things are in the right place or I can’t settle!” complained Nolan.

“How is Billy?”

“Having a great time, Judith.  He’s on that long cruise he booked for his mum’s seventieth.”

“He’s at a loose end,” commented Andrew of Nolan.

“No, I’m not,” said Nolan, turning a full charm beam on to Andrew’s parents.  “I’m here and thank you very much for having me.”

“Creep,” muttered Andrew.

“Well, it’s lovely to have you both for a nice long stay.”

“Nolan didn’t want to go.  He’s afraid of the sea,” said Andrew.

“Listen, chum, I’ve paid for half of it as my get out of jail free clause.   I can’t imagine anything worse than being stuck out there, miles from anywhere on the ocean.”

“Each to their own,” commented Andrew’s father, adding,  to Nolan’s satisfaction, “You’ve never liked flying, have you, son?”

He put down the vape pipe with a little grimace and wandered off to have, as he put it, “a little bit of the real thing” in the privacy of the room he used as a study.

“I think the same,” said Nolan.  “I could do with a ciggie. Fancy a stroll to the local, Biggles?” He checked his watch.  “It’s only nine.”

“O.K.,” said Andrew.  “You don’t mind, mum?”

“Not at all,” said Judith.  “I can get on with something of my own for a while.”

They all knew each other well enough for nobody to have to stand on ceremony and Andrew knew that Nolan enjoyed the occasional opportunity to be part of his family’s comfortably comradely atmosphere, not having one of his own that he visited.

They were in the post Christmas hollow of the New Year, the real seasonal nadir for business, either detective wise or for their freelancing work and Nolan had been glad of the invitation, which would cover the majority of the time his husband would be away.  Sarah and Andrew had spent Christmas and New Year together and so this lengthy visit was timely in various ways for both of the friends.  There was plenty of room in the school house for everyone to get away from one another when they wanted to and they planned some time in B&B accommodation so as not to impose themselves on Andrew’s parents too much.  Nolan was still of the view that Andrew should be keeping his head down after Watson’s Wheatsheaf and their stay was another way to achieve that.

They duly drove all the way back out again the following day, starting at the big house, again a landmark site.  It wasn’t the time of year for it to be open to visitors but you could still tramp round the restored gravel paths to admire the magnificently decadent proportions of what had once been the finest and biggest ballroom of its day, from outside.  It was said that the rich candle blaze from its massive windows could be seen for miles around when the family was in residence and holding a ball there, Nolan recalled aloud from Douglas’s blog, as they stood regarding the mansion, now part rooms and part shell, respectfully.  

They continued on and found the building nicknamed ‘Kitty’s Keep’ on the outer reaches of the old estate, this one an unglamorous and utilitarian building within a small courtyard, again on top of one of the many hills.  Views of other hills, covered now with the drear brown sweep of dead bracken, were all that could be seen.

“If it was true,” commented Nolan, “I can’t imagine what kept her going for so long out here.”

“Me, either,” agreed Andrew.  “It’s desolate.”

“Come on, let’s get on back round to the monument.  To be honest, I want another look. That sleeping bag…”

“I know.”

“I mean, people are on the streets everywhere aren’t they?  But, up here, on your own, what chance would anybody stand in this weather?”

“Not a lot, I guess.  But as I said before, probably just left behind from a summer camp out.”

“Maybe.  I’d still be happier to check, though.  Even though we did alert the ranger service.”

Approaching the monument from a ribbon of top road winding by the edge of the hills, lozenges of distant reservoir water dotted here and there the only other sign of human activity up here, they were in time to see the ranger helicopter patrol doing its mid morning check of the area and it made a couple of close passes round the monument before continuing on.  Andrew and Nolan had parked up to watch.

“I don’t think that’s good enough, do you?  They didn’t land,” said Andrew, dubiously.

“No,” said Nolan, adding, “but they’ll have been camera scanning and using long range binoculars.  Maybe even heat seeking instruments, won’t they?”

“A bit high tech sci fi for round here,” scoffed Andrew.  “The service is kept going by volunteers and donations.”

“All the more reason for us to double check, then.  It was cold up here last night. There’s still frost, look, in the dips the sun hasn’t got to.”

They made their way down through the rough tussocks of the hill carefully and into the cold stones of the monument.

“Which turret was it?” Nolan asked.

“That one, I think.”

They went in, both fearing to find some pinched, prone figure, perhaps beyond help.  The sleeping bag with blanket was still there but it was, thankfully, empty. Andrew peered up the dark stairs and they both heard a faint scuffle above.  Nolan nodded that he would stay where he was and Andrew went up to look, calling,

“Hello?  Are you here?  Need any help there?” followed by an urgent  “Wait!” as a body hurtled into and past Nolan in an instant, leaving a fleeting impression of fear and youth during collision, recoil and flight.

“Hey, kid!” he called after him as he tried to follow.  “Don’t be scared. We’ve come to help you. What are you doing out here?”

There was no answer and no sign, as before, of where this apparition had gone.  Andrew ran back down.

“Could you see where he went from up there?” asked Nolan.

“Only for a moment.  No sign now.”

“He seemed really scared,” said Nolan, puzzled.

“We must have startled him.”

“Yes - but - I meant, of me.  When he saw me.”

“Understandable,” Andrew couldn’t help himself saying.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Nolan, “more like, maybe he thinks someone’s after him and I might have been it.”

“What should we do?”

“I don’t know.  He looked a bit starved as well as shocked -  eyes too big for the face kind of thing. Could be a druggie, I suppose.”

“Well - it’s a growing problem here, of course, as it is in all rural places.  But from the glimpse I got up there he looked more like a city kid.”

Andrew tried to recall the figure frozen briefly against the wall as he had come out of the turret entrance before it darted round and behind him to escape.

“Did he say anything?”

“No.  Just panicked and ran.  Like you saw.”

“Barged right into me like an electric shock, then took off.  Smelt a bit. Deffo sleeping rough right now, if not usually.  Thin like that, too, like I said.” said Nolan.

They tried again, walking round and calling out, offering help but there was no response.

“We’ll have to leave it.  If he needed help, he would have answered,” Nolan said finally.

“Maybe.  Maybe not, if you’re right and he’s afraid of us.”

“We’ll call in at the information centre again, get them to tell the rangers there is somebody definitely up here.  They’ll have to take a closer look and see if anybody’s missing anybody.”

“O.K.” agreed Andrew.

The boy on the monument, having come back and wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, poncho like, watched Nolan and Andrew’s retreat with relief and regret.  Had they been there by chance, or as he feared, there to find him? Nolan, in particular, had looked city linked.  He had no way of knowing quite what might have been worked out yet, so to keep hiding out was the only way forward but he might have left himself stranded for nothing if they had been genuine in their offer of help.  They weren’t the most likely of winter hill walkers, though, any more than he was, so he doubted it.

It was clearly time to leave the shelter of the monument.  Besides, the cold of the previous night had meant he had had to stay awake, afraid of dropping off forever.  He was pretty much out of food now too.  Those two had come back and there had been a helicopter buzzing the monument just before.  

In an odd way, he would miss its chilly sanctuary, where nothing could take him by surprise.  He had been to it before, a children’s home he had been at for a while in the area favouring adventure style camping and walking leisure pursuits.  It was why, that day last week, as usual being amongst the restless group of city street beggars he floated through in the day, like them to pick cash up before returning to squat or sofa surf depending on current circumstances, when he was gathered up once more by ‘Ste’, he had accepted the job in question.  It wasn’t the first time he’d ridden the mule train to places. In order to survive on the city’s margins you had to fit in, which meant you had to do what you were told by whoever counted at the time.  You might get a bit of trust and you might get a bit of protection, or you might not but the cost of refusal would make you an outsider and most certainly at risk.

“Sure, Ste,” he had said.   “I’ve been there before so I’m good as the contact.  I know it a bit from being a kid.”

“Right,” said Ste, indifferent to anything but his mission as middleman and passing the buck as quickly as possible.  “Zav - clean up - go to the hotel room, shower, pick up the clothes, instructions on the mobile in the sports bag in the wardrobe.”

“No probs,” agreed Zav, who knew the routine and took the hotel key card Ste gave him.  

It wasn’t the kind of place, one of those massive new dormitory style chain places springing up all over the city, where anyone was likely to notice that one young man had gone out and another had come in as him instead but with the same I.D.  It always worked, as it was a one off at each place used.  There were plenty of them.

Zav was ideal for this.  He looked a few years younger than he was, presenting with an air of harmless vulnerability which concealed well defined survival skills grafted on to an instinctive intelligence.  He was very good at playing people emotionally, which often proved lucrative before he slipped away from the helpers trying to assist him.  He called himself Zav but his real name was Xavier, which sounded aspirational, and he would use that name then, a bit shyly, as if it were too good for him as he was now but somehow right for his real way in life, having found it gained people’s confidence at once.  In street fights or knife fights, even if he were the instigator, his air of innocent bewilderment at apparently being targeted had got him out of many potentially complex circumstances.

“I just need to sort myself out,” he would say appealingly and, quite often, the well meaning marks believed him and tried to give him a new head start.

When he went, he left them happily thinking that they really had helped him, which Zav felt created a kind of two way street that made it all right, because he wasn’t cruel, just getting by, wasn’t he?  Besides, he didn’t like being too close to people for too long.  Early life had not encouraged trust and his mindset had been formed long ago, so that teachers, social workers, foster carers, key workers, probation workers, outreach workers, would be friends, or others, would all be met, when encountered, with an eager compliance which allowed him to elude them, when the time came, quite easily, as his emotive gratitude towards them made them believe that their good deeds had born fruit.  Zav, though, trusted his instincts and not very much else. He left the monument, abandoning the sleeping bag and blanket as a bit of a decoy for potential seekers and slipped his way down the hills to the small branch line station to move along to the next village, to lay low a little longer, until he thought it was safe to make contact with someone, as yet to be planned for.  He still had his monthly roving return ticket, so could use it anywhere along the way. Although he was the only person to get on or get off, it being a quiet time of day, all the guard checked was if the doors could be safely shut and nobody bothered coming down the train to check tickets, so his small journey was unremarked.  

The aim to do what he had began when he bought the ticket.  He fancied, he thought, a change and bought one for longer than the proposed day return.  This had morphed into a possibly pleasant prospect on the long journey up as mule, strangers becoming familiar faces next to him, opposite him or nearby for a time, dispersing into anonymity again when they left the train.  The less urban the stations in between, the more likely it was that passengers would exchange a word or two, striking up a bit of a chat, whereupon Zav would practice his well honed skills at sounding them out as to their being a bit of a soft touch or not.  He was rarely wrong but didn’t press his advantage too far above small fry fivers because this was just for for fun to pass the time and he didn’t want to be remembered.

Zav was being GPS tracked on the phone given him with the sports bag and clothes, but this didn’t matter.  He was going where he had been sent.  At this point, he intended to deliver but just to stay up here for a few days, peel off a bit of cash from someone, maybe, as needed, and just see where it went.  That’s what Zav did, just see where it went and look after number one. Then he’d go back and pick up what he was owed from Ste for doing the job (payment being due on his return rather than on delivery).  Reaching the main town station, he descended the train wearing the padded body warmer (in a striking bright red) which held the goods sewn into its puffy fabric and was the identifier for his meeter and greeter.  He walked through the barrier and stood unassumingly on the main concourse to wait for whoever would appear. It had been after this that things had gone wrong.

He had again a flash recall of the big white car as he’d last seen it as he ran, all the doors open as well as the boot, hazards on, half parked on street pavement, seconds away from someone, anyone, arriving to see what was going on.  The horn had been klaxoning a car alarm warning, as messed up as what had just happened.  Return down by train wasn’t an immediate option, although he switched off the GPS tracked phone back near the station, where he had been supposed to be, when he had used it to find his way back there, to stall concern from the city end and foil search.  What had been half conjectured as a short escape from city life, had now become a real escape.  They would be looking for him, no doubt of that, both those where he came from and those he had arrived to deliver to.  The cadged fivers from the train journey came in handy to get a few food supplies, the outdoor sleeping bag and a blanket coming from a charity shop.  Then he had got out to the monument.

Now, it was time to find proper shelter.  Somebody’s posh shed and then get into the house for food and warm clothing to hide out in it with.  It was the kind of area for top end garden sheds. He had bought a padlock and small hacksaw from a hardware shop on the high street, a depressingly blue-white halogen light making it look like a mortuary  dissection room rather than a shop, not an image Zav was presently comfortably with.  He shook it away from him.  The padlock was so he could replace the one bound to be locking the outside of any selected shed, secure the place and go in and out easily enough.   If the shed owners turned up, they’d just wonder why their own key didn’t work and put it down to the weather, hopefully. It wasn’t gardening season, though, yet, so less chance of being noticed, he hoped.

The day was already falling off and its dimly misty grey light favoured his quiet prowl around the back of gardens being unobserved.  The one he selected was in a garden on the outskirts of the village, quite a big shed and in good repair.  It was comfortably set up for something more than just garden tools and bric a brac, seeming to double as a bit of a summerhouse from the furniture inside it, he thought,  noticing a comfy looking sofa he might sleep on as he peered in the biggest of its windows, usefully at the back of it, looking down the garden slope bordered by wintering laurels and rhododendrons, rather than facing the house.  The high, mature bushes made it nice and private.  He got in easily enough, replacing the padlock with his own and keeping the original to put back on when he was out.  There was an electric plug in oil heater and sockets to use but no warmth in the shed, which boded well for it not being in active use at present.  There were some tools, which he reckoned might fetch a bit if he nicked them to sell.  He picked up a funny looking wooden thing pointed at both ends from a basket where there were several but had no idea what they were.  There was a sheet over something at the side and a pile of cut tree branches drying out but not, he thought, anything big enough to be fuel for a wood burning stove in the house, so again a good sign people wouldn’t be in and out of this shed.   He locked it and slipped out to take a look at the house, where he was pleased to see there were no lights on.  Better be quick then, you never knew.  The house itself had the kind of white gables which put him in mind of a gingerbread house.

Zav had another lucky find.  A small window on the blind side could be forced, being unlocked and left ajar slightly to ventilate, leading, when he slithered lithely in, as he had hoped, into a downstairs toilet and shower room.  Before he enjoyed the use of it, he made a quick reconnoitre.  Excellently, he swiftly assessed this as being an older couple’s house, ideal should he happen to be found, or perhaps, let himself be found, helpless pathos being a standby of Zav’s where seeming to need being looked after was a requirement.  It was early days for that, though.  Upstairs were two rooms with younger clothes in. Maybe they had a couple of adult sons who visited.  There were no cases or rucksacks around, though, just a an odd pair of jeans, a jumper or two, sweatshirts and sweatpants, socks and underwear, as if extras left to save packing too much when coming to stay.  One of the sets of clothes fitted roughly, the other being for a taller person.  Well, if they had sons who had flown the nest, maybe another piece of luck for Zav if he emerged needing a little tender loving care.  He checked but the beds were made and the rooms held no after scents of warm bodies having slept in them.

Satisfied, he went back into the downstairs shower room with a big fluffy bath towel he equipped himself with from the upstairs one and luxuriated in a thorough drench and a wash and shampoo of his thickly overgrown hair, which he rarely did much about as it added to the slightly pleading look when he peered through its elflocks of which he was past master.  After this, in the kitchen he was just helping himself to a couple of tins of beans with ring pulls, which he didn’t mind eating cold as a staple and an end of a block of cheddar from the fridge, searching for bread, when he heard a car pulling up and hastened back into the shelter of the downstairs shower room before the front door opened, where he waited till the comfortable rumble of an older man’s voice passed through the hall, followed by that of his wife, ambushing him by accident with their weekly shop, it sounded like.  No wonder the cupboards had been a bit bare, then, thought Zav, planning to come back later, probably after they’d gone to bed. They wouldn’t hear him, he’d make sure of that.

Their voices sounded kindly, he noted with his well practised ear but he’d spend a bit of time taking a look at them on the quiet before he acted on that assumption, if he had to.  Lying low was his main concern right now.  He did a bit of surreptitious damage to the window fastener so they wouldn’t be able to close it completely from the inside, if they ever bothered to, which he doubted they did, probably seeing it as way too small to be an insecurity which, if Zav were not so wirily supple as he was, it would have been.  He might look like a twig that would snap in the wind but he was made of sterner stuff and had once been encouraged to be a child gymnast only, as with most things concerning Zav’s redemption, it hadn’t, quite, taken.  Bringing his find back to the shed, clad in the warmth of several additional borrowed layers, he was almost cosy enough, once he warmed it through with the oil heater.   Still, as the temperature dropped rapidly with the promise of a frost to come, he took this as a good sign that nobody would venture back out again to the shed from the house, which they didn’t.  The beans and cheese were enough since he hadn’t eaten much lately anyway, so he tried to sleep after that and blank out the stress of planning what he should do.  A moment’s opportunism had left him stranded.  He had been right to run, though, he reckoned, because he was entirely expendable.

The couch, after the sleeping bag in the monument, hardened to external sheltering as he occasionally had been, was comfortable but he was too strung out to sleep well even so, alert to waking constantly with instinctive self preservation, cat napping rather than going right under.  When he occasionally did slip into a deeper sleep, the white car tracked through his dreams, car alarm horn a herald that danger was coming and it would suddenly be there as he had last seen it, doors and boot open, sirening disaster, Zav still scrambling to get away.  The stranglehold of the dream prevented him, the horn tearing at his nerves, louder and louder, a signal to his pursuer, until he woke himself with a  cry smothered by the dream and tried to doze again.

Andrew and Nolan had set off with minimised luggage for their short B&B tour taking them up into Scotland since, as Andrew said, Nolan seemed to have a fatal fascination with it.  They split the driving, which led to a lot of google map related detours round long-winded routes across barren mountainous places on tiny roads adding to the, slightly fraught at such times, sense of adventure, as they were never entirely sure of arriving at their destinations, these being little guest houses stranded deep in the countryside.  Views, when not being rolled over by mist and cloud were sheer, snow topped, or across winter sinister tarns and lakes which were darkly unreflecting.  A few days in, Andrew asked Nolan what he thought.

“You’re taking me out of my comfort zone,” he complained.  “I need a town.”

“We’re going to Oban next,” Andrew reassured him.  “That’s a town.”

“They do them up here, do they?” queried Nolan.  “Where is it?”

“Across from the Hebridean islands,” Andrew told him cheerfully.

“No way am I going to them!” objected Nolan, it being step too far into nature’s distant reaches for him.

“No, not this time.”

“This time!”

“Maybe in summer,” teased Andrew.

“Oh, yeah...maybe…” said Nolan, with heavy irony.

“You’ll like Oban.  We’ll do a tour of the distillery.  Get some tasters.”

“Ah!  Whisky!” Nolan brightened.  “That sounds like civilisation.”

“That apart, though, what do you think of Scotland.”

Nolan considered.

“It rains a lot.  Like anywhere in the countryside,” was his summing up.

Andrew laughed.

“You’re not fooling me!  Your phone’s full of pictures you’ve taken.”

“Yes, from inside the guesthouses.  Roaring fires, plates of tasty food, foaming ales.  I’m sending them to Billy to make him jealous.”

“And is he?”

“Not as far as I can make out,” said Nolan resentfully.  “He just sends back pictures of sea sunsets framed behind exotic cocktails and stuff.”

“Well, you can’t blame him for that,” said Andrew lightly.

“I can,” brooded Nolan.  “Trust me. I can.” 

When Zav had been waiting at the station, scanning the crowd mildly with the habitual disarming half smile he wore when exposed to the public eye (his shoplifter, thief and beggar’s standby distract expression), the station clock, in his view, ticked by a few minutes too many for his liking.  Was he being left standing, being checked out for being alone, or being abandoned a bit too exposed to view in one place?   He was beginning to decide he should move around a bit or people would start to notice him, when contact was made.  A young woman in tight skinny jeans and boots encasing ballet thin, sinewy legs, pushing a stroller holding a sleeping toddler lost in the depths of a padded one suit, came up to him.

“All right?” she enquired indifferently.  “Come on.”

Obediently, he followed her white puffer jacket, faux fur trimmed hood hanging extravagantly down her narrow back like an arctic fox tippet.  They got into a black cab outside, the child sleeping on in the stroller the girl parked on the broad taxi floor, its back to them, whilst, not letting go, she held it steady round corners, her sharp profile a closed book.  They hadn’t introduced themselves but then, there was no need. The journey continued in silence until the cab dropped them off, outside a high street which looked in the main closed and lost to shoppers in general, not just for the night.

“You know which one to go to?” the driver asked the girl, clearly also part of the rendezvous.

“Yeah,” she responded tonelessly.

They got out and she rapped on one of the metal shutters covered in indecipherable graffiti.  It seemed to be some kind of butchers when they were let in, taken through the shop, its trays and counters empty now, to the back, where preparation work was underway.  Lights were on and slit carcasses hung inside the doors of the walk in refrigeration unit at the rear, dark red and marbled with yellowy white fat.  There were workbench islands and at one a burly man was hacking off joints with the thick thunk, thunk of a meat cleaver, casting discards of bone, hoof and gristle into a big bin behind him.  It took Zav by surprise, although he tried not to show it, assailed by the smells of old blood and dead meat. The one who had let them in sloped off again somewhere.  The burly man looked up, nodded at the girl and shouted,


Another man emerged from the back of the cold room store, washing his hands clean of blood at the sink to one side.  The girl now took the recumbent toddler out of the pram and laid the sleeping form on the one of the spare counters, unzipping the one suit, the child’s head surrounded by the puffy, enclosing hood so little of a face was visible.  What was she going to do, change its nappy, wondered Zav?

“Give me that,” she said, slipping off her own coat and gesturing at the bodywarmer Zav was wearing.  

He pulled the poppers open and handed it across, watching her slip it on herself and carry the coat now, while the man, Leon, had come to stand by the child’s side, perhaps so it didn’t roll off the counter being left unattended by its mother.  Zav glanced across, distracted by a sudden movement, a flash of something.  To his horror, the man was plunging a filleting knife down into where the baby’s heart would be, with no time for even for a cry from it.  He cut the abdomen open with one expert slice through skin, rib, muscle and its tiny belly with a dreadful ripping sound and Zav cried out faintly as the man pulled the body cavity apart with his bare hands, as if it were a rabbit ready to have its entrails removed.  He hauled out, though, instead of body parts, a big clear plastic bag stuffed with packets of powder.  The shock of it ran through Zav like poison, the smell of cold blood still sickening his nose even as his brain made sense of what his eyes were seeing.  There was no fresh blood. Not a baby at all, then but a life size mannequin doll.  The girl was a courier too. He gave a slightly hysterical snicker on realising it.  The men looked at him and he silenced himself because it was important never to show alarm or weakness when you delivered.  Just do the job and go.  The girl turned a look of disdain on him for his credulity and he tried to steady himself, still trembling slightly.  Leon turned to her, saying coldly,

“Now,  give me that,” he said of the body warmer. “What have you put it on for?”

“No.  I deliver this in person,” said the girl.

Leon looked across at the butcher, who was stolidly continuing with his work dismembering the carcasses.  He nodded back impassively, so it seemed that he, rather than Leon, was in charge.

“What about him?” Leon said of Zav.  “You have to get him back to the station and get rid.”

“No,” said the girl.  “I was told to deliver the goods myself, next stop.”

Zav tried and failed not to glance at the refrigeration unit with its rows of dead animals swinging on hooks.  He didn’t like the sound of the phrase ‘get rid’ now he was superfluous to requirements.

“Well, you take him back there afterwards, then,” said the butcher and it was clear she would have to follow this direction.  “Take him with you.” He gave a smile, evidently enjoying Zav’s carefully contained discomfort. “I’ve got to bone, stuff and roll for a special banquet.  Pick up lorry’s here at two in the morning.  Leon, get back in time. You’re driving.”

This was a pit stop only, then, for the drugs she had brought and they’d go on disguised in the meat.  Zav showed no curiosity and the girl just nodded.  Leon took them both out, where another car was waiting, this time a big white mercedes gleaming under the streetlamp; a glossy, glassy carriage coasting on the ghost town street.  There was a driver, who lowered the window and turned a shining smile on them.

“Put him in the boot,” he said, when apprised of the situation.  “He doesn’t get to see where we’re going.” He eyed the girl. “Who asked for you to deliver in person?”  She flicked a warning glance at Zav. “Never mind,” said the driver because Zav did have ears and the fact they kept quiet before him he took as being a good sign he’d survive this experience and be sent back to the city again.  

“Get in the boot,” Leon said to him, opening it.  

“Don’t worry, kiddo,” the driver said to him, smiling pleasantly again. “It’s not for long.  Just stay put.”

Zav did as he was told, confined and afraid during the journey.  He could hear through the car’s richly quiet engine noise and after a while, their conversation, slightly blurred, came through.

“Let me go back with you?” the girl said. “Please.  Take me back this time?”

The driver gave a warmly chuckling laugh but there was no humour in it.

“Na, na, na, babe.  You crossed that line a long time ago.  You have to party later, try some of the stuff.”

“I don’t want it.”

“Try it, I said.”

“Wait,” came Leon’s voice.  “What’s this shit?  You know each other?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Pull over!  This isn’t the deal - no connections - that’s the deal.”

The car stopped.

“Don’t worry about it,” the driver said easily again.  “Come on, just tell me where the drop is. Your man tries it, he likes, we deal.  He’ll be able to see how it works on the girl.”

“No,” said Leon.  “I don’t like this.” There was a silence as something Zav couldn’t see was going on.   “Out,” said Leon, sounding like the person with the upper hand. “I’m calling the boss.”

There was a sound of car doors opening, then things happened quite fast.  A sound of shots had Zav kicking up the latch on the unlocked boot and rolling out in self preserving panic.  He was a sitting duck in there and something unexpected was going down.  The driver was dodging and firing back at Leon, who fired again but, hit in the arm or shoulder, went to run.  The girl was half slumped lolling against the driver, who was holding her upright with one arm and he bundled her back in the passenger seat.  Zav couldn’t tell if she were shot or just out of it as he melted into the dark of the nearest doorway and crouched down unmoving.  The driver realised he was not in the boot.

“Hey, kid, get back here, you’re not in trouble!  Fuck!” he shouted into the darkness and then took off after Leon, where the serious trouble was.

No doubt he’d be back to deal with Zav later.  Zav went quickly over to the car.  The girl, blue veins translucent against the pale skin of her sharp featured face, was helplessly under now, having done as she was told and tried the drug.  She didn’t look hurt.  Zav was going to be in trouble now anyway, through no fault of his own.  He’d seen it all and all of them and he would need some way of saving himself.  On the spur of the moment, he dragged the body warmer off the girl to put it on himself again.  As he did so, she fell forwards and sideways, her head pressing the horn, which went into a tattoo of screech alarm repeat blaring when it wasn’t released.  Zav ran for his life, the car doors all open and the boot too, unable to know if anyone were coming back for him, the sound drowning out footsteps but not the shot that almost winged him when the driver or Leon realised he, or somebody,  had the bodywarmer again.  Zav was young and a very fast runner.  He got away.  

He had interrupted a deal already gone wrong and not only did he know what everybody looked like and some whereabouts of activity, worse, everybody knew exactly what he looked like.  This, though, could be his chance to score big himself.  Hide out, lie low, go back to the city and slip the bodywarmer to Ste to give back maybe, play the hero at having saved the gear.  He might get a good pay off.  On the other hand, it might be safer to disappear altogether and make some black market deal with it himself, but off his home turf, that would indeed have to be handled with care.  He needed time to think.  Somewhere safe to hide out. He didn’t risk the train but followed the line of the track on foot alongside along to the next village, which he recognised the name of and that is where he came up with the idea of hiding out in the monument.

Zav now had to hide the bodywarmer somewhere instead of wearing it, it being too noticeable as his identifier.  There was a pile of hessian bags for life on a shelf in the shed with a print of a tree with red berries on the front and he had rolled it in one of them and stashed it in the body of the couch he was sleeping on for the time being.  This was temporary, though and he considered it would be safer in the house.  He had waited until the following day for its inhabitants to go out again, which he saw them do wrapped up well for what looked like a long countryside winter walk.  They seemed fit enough and moved easily, so he hoped they’d be out for quite a while.  Getting back inside the same way as the first time, he investigated what he had thought of as the best spot and in one of the now absent sons’ rooms, he found the top cupboard of the fitted wardrobe filled with amounts of serious walking gear.  Perfect, he thought, taking the body warmer out of the bag he had pulled it through the small window in and concealing it within all that. If anyone looked, it would just seem part of the presently mothballed collection.

The bag he took downstairs to the kitchen with him, taking the opportunity to help himself to more food.  On one of the worktop counters, a man’s card wallet had been left, probably pulled out of the pocket of his coat before he went out for the walk to avoid losing it.  Carelessly placed but handy for Zav who, rifling through it, found a contactless bank card, which he temporarily pocketed.  The key to successful thievery, if you remained in the vicinity, was to keep loss to a minimum.  If he left the wallet where it was, the man would probably, if and when he noticed, think he’d left the bank card somewhere else in the house and since they shopped together, they probably mostly used his wife’s anyway. It was a small bit of insurance purchasing power, pending Zav’s decision on what he would do with the bounty in the bodywarmer.  The couple might be a backstop for him if he needed to approach them for temporary waif and stray help but he should see what he could find out first and play a bit of God with the goods.

Ste, the butcher and Leon were middlemen, the smiling driver too, although he seemed more of a key player.  The girl, well, she already seemed to be collateral damage, shoved way down the pecking order from some better placed personal sounding relationship with the smiling driver, who had rebuffed her so completely when she pleaded with him to take her back and despite the urbane smile, had not looked at all pleased to see her.  Her voice was not local to here, holding the harsher nasal notes of the city Zav had come from.  Zav surmised, from the smiling driver’s response to her, that she had not been supposed to deliver personally at all and only Leon was supposed to show up.  Whatever she was for then had been for the later ‘partying’, which Zav could easily imagine a context for.  Leon had not been wrong, then that there were clearly connections.

Zav now reckoned his best bet was to see how liaising with his first contact, the butcher, might work for him.  He could go back to the city any time he wanted with his monthly ticket but that might not be the first wisest course.  He had found a safe berth and a temporary potential nest whose other birds had flown. If there were a way of taking advantage of things, Zav liked to find it.

In the borrowed clothes, hood up against frosty air and recognition, Zav had taken the train back to the main town’s draughty concourse, its Victorian pillared glass atrium open on all sides to the winds sweeping across the platforms.  Here, he switched the phone back on briefly to navigate his way back to the butcher’s, that being the last google mapped route on it. The phone was not programmed to make calls but there was one message on it through a fake ‘Whatsapp’ profile with a girl’s face on it.  Her speech bubble said ‘Missing you.” I’ll bet you are, by now, Ste, thought Zav, not yet ready to reply to it. He switched the phone off again, knowing his route.  They’d spot it going on and off at the station maybe via the GPS tracker but he’d looked around and there was nobody there now looking out for him, if there had been previously.  It wouldn’t do any harm for them ‘back home’ as he thought of it, to know he was still out here somewhere and he was sure news might have got back by now that he, of anybody, was most likely to have the bodywarmer. His first best contact, though, might well be with those he was meant to deliver it to.

The row of shops looked no less deserted by day than it had by night, only a Cash Converters, a bookies, a small bit player discount supermarket and the butcher’s itself looking in go.  Opposite the butcher, a boarded up pub still covered in brown glazed Victorian tiles offered, in its recessed doorway, enough cover to take a look from. Inevitably, it smelt of urine but Zav was reasonably inured to that.  

The shutters were up at the butcher’s shop and he could dimly see figures in there behind the counter.  Zav thought about it all again carefully.  These guys were the contact for his city guys. It had gone wrong due to the smiling driver and whatever personal agenda the sharp faced girl seemed to have with him.   Making a decision, he went to the shop window and looked in.  He didn’t recognise anybody serving and the shop had customers, which was reassuring.  Going in, he asked the woman who offered to serve him if he could speak to the butcher about a delivery.

“Well, Mr Morley’s not about, pet.  His driver’s hurt his arm so he’s having to do the rounds himself.  Is it for one of the B&Bs?” she asked helpfully, giving him a useful prompt cover story.

Zav agreed that it was and looking about, lowered his voice confidentially as if to avoid bringing the shop’s business into any kind of disrepute.

“Actually, it’s about a delivery that hasn’t turned up.   We’ve got one of those poncy chefs who relies on specialist fancy goods.” Zav wrinkled his nose.  “I’d rather a good banger and mash, me but it’s all the rage, exotic game, in there.”

The woman, a homely and congenial sort, laughed along with him.

“I know what you mean, pet.  Right, well I’m sure Mr Morley can sort it out and he’ll be glad no fuss was made about it.”

“No, well, that’s why they sent me in to ask in person.”

“And what do you do there, pet?” asked the woman pleasantly.

“Bagman and general dogsbody,” said Zav with a laugh.  “I’m the get him to do it boy. Can you tell him chef Ste sent his lad in to have a word.  He’ll know exactly who that is.”

“Right you are, love.  Chef Ste, you say? He could do with feeding you up a bit,” she said, looking at his spare frame.

“Like I say,” he said with a wink.  “I don’t like the food.”

“Here.”  She gave him a juicy looking hot pie for free which, given the recall of the meat locker room he was having, was less appetising right then than it might have been.  “Babies’ heads, we call these,” she told him, of the steak and kidney suet pudding.

Zav tried not to shudder, his nerves still not quite having got over the gruesome disemboweling of the baby doll in the bloody workroom.

“Wow, thanks!”  he exclaimed delightedly.  “Is there a number I can call him on later?  I’m doing some errands next.”

“Here,” the woman said again, handing him a paper bag with the butcher’s name and a mobile number printed on it.  “Try him late afternoon. He’ll probably be back by then.”

“Cheers,” said Zav and went off to find a phone shop to buy a pay as you go sim and a cheap second hand phone paid for with the contact card he had taken from the house earlier.  It wouldn’t do to negotiate with people on the one he’d been sent up with.

The woman had a customer waiting behind him so hadn’t questioned him further and he had no reason to think what she had asked him was anything but innocent.  Whatever was going on in the butcher’s at night bore no resemblance to its daytime trade.

Zav had hastened back to his hideout, having no intention of being caught out unawares.  The house was still quiet.  Maybe his unwitting hosts were enjoying a country pub afternoon stop off or a visit to friends (in which assumption he was right).  He got back in and went to replace the card but the wallet was no longer on the side, so he left it instead with its corner poking out of some shopping receipts which were there, as if it had been left with them by accident.  He went back to the shed and decided it was probably late enough now to try the number on the bag.

“Morley”, came a deep answering voice which he recognised as that of the butcher.

“Mr Morley,” said Zav deferentially, “Ste’s lad here, about the missing delivery.”

“Ah.  Betty said some skin and bone called in,” Mr Morley commented, flatly unflattering.  “Where is it? And do you have a name?”

“I have it safe.  Tell Ste it’s Zav.  He’ll vouch for me.”

“Will he?  Why haven’t you been in touch with him instead, then?”

“I daren’t.  He shot at them. Leon.   I didn’t know what was happening so I took the kit back.  I don’t want to mix it up by going back down the line with it and maybe causing trouble.  Ste’s only the fixer up for a courier.  I meant he would tell you I was the one meant to come with it.  I hid out with it until I could get it back to you because it looked like it was you I was meant to get it to. ”

“Very thoughtful,” said Mr Morley, not sounding entirely convinced.  “Only you have it wrong.  The girl was to deliver to me.  Yours was for the next pit stop.  They’re not happy.  This might cheer them up a bit,” he added, making Zav feel he had started to have a result at least.  “You could have been long gone but you did right to keep stum and come back to me.  We have to keep all our customers happy, don’t we?”   Zav agreed that we did and Mr Morley told him to hang fire until he heard back from him. “Might take a day or two now, this,” he added. “Delicate business, negotiations.  Leon was way too quick off the mark but he had his instructions and so, he thought, his reasons.”

“Yeah,” agreed Zav noncommittally.  

“You’ve got it all?”

“Yes.  It’s safe.  I’m around. You can get me on this number when you’re ready.”

“I’ll text you when and where.”

“Fine,” agreed Zav.

“Good lad,” concluded Mr Morley.  “Hang on in wherever you are, then.  I won’t ask where. Better that way.”

“Right,” agreed Zav, who had had no intention of telling him anyway and not just for his own sake, in case of a house raid to get straight to the goods with the people living there under duress or endangered.

Zav waited with the patience born of having learnt to go into himself when need be, retreating into a kind of hibernatory watchfulness.  He had decided it was time to come out of hiding and get into the warm but had to bide his time to be discovered.  If that didn’t work, he’d have to turn up at the door and tell them he had slept in the shed with nowhere else to go.  Lights came back on in the house in the late evening as a fine snow began to drift down, leaving a hard frozen rime on the garden grass.  Zav considered his predicament.  He needed other witnesses to his existence up here because, when he did reappear  again with the goods, he would still be entirely expendable and he was not at all sure of his safety given what he had seen.  Zav liked the city he lived in, where he had contacts and enough companionship to suit him and he would prefer to be living there safely when he returned.  He began thinking that he would weigh up, over the next few days, whether or not he should just turn up alone and bargain a bit first before handing over the vest, add to his collateral for doing the delivery and see what else there might be to be gained by way of establishing his usefulness credentials.  Night thickened and the light snow froze.  Leaving the shelter, Zav tracked prints from the shrubbery to the shed and from the shed to the house back door, round to the front, then back again to the shed, leaving them to freeze as evidence that someone was out there, then waited for morning.

He woke from the resumed doze that was all he could manage with the cold and the stress of the situation he had left himself in, as he had hoped, to the sound of the older couple’s voices right outside the shed door.

“Doug, look.  They stop here.  Someone’s definitely come to the house looking for help and ended up sleeping in the shed.  It must have been when we were out.  Nobody’s tried to get into the house, have they?”

“No.  Poor sod.  In this weather!  Careful now, Jude.”

The door was cautiously opened, a wintry sun brightening the interior of the shed from behind them.  Zav, suitably tousled and bereft looking, sat up from the couch, blinking at them as innocently as a baby owl who had fallen from his nest.

“Hello,” he said.  “I’m Xavier.  I’m awfully sorry but I didn’t have anywhere to shelter.  I’ve got a bit lost.”

Andrew’s parents regarded Zav doubtfully.

“Well, he can’t stay out here, Douglas,” said Judith, whose workshop was a precious private space to her, decisively.

“No,” agreed her husband.  “You’d better come inside then, lad.”

“Are you sure?” Zav said with wistful hopefulness.  They nodded kindly.  “Oh, thank you,” he said, keeping any note of triumph out of his voice as he followed them humbly inside, where he, along with the bodywarmer, would be safe for a while.  Taken into the warmth of the kitchen, he was made a cup of tea and toast.

“You know,” grumbled the husband, who was casting about vaguely, “I still can’t find my bank card, Judith.”

Zav, sitting on a stool at the breakfast bar, opted to be helpful.

“Erm, there’s the corner of what could be a card over there, in that paper pile,” he pointed out.

“Good God!” exclaimed the man.  “He’s right, Jude. That is my bank card!”

“I told you you hadn’t lost it in the shop.  He never puts things back where they should be,” said the woman, in an affectionately irritated kind of way.

“I’d put my feet on backwards if I was let.  Wouldn’t I, love?” said the man.  Zav smiled dutifully, allowing himself to droop a little.  “Come into the sitting room, you’re perished, lad,” said the man hospitably, responding in the paternal way intended.

They told him to call them Douglas and Judith but having established their surname was Munro, for a while, to consolidate his way of appearing younger than he was, he addressed them with more formal respect as Mr and Mrs. Munro, which they found rather touchingly disarming.  Zav retained the mild aspect which always stood him in good stead in the face of their gentle questioning.  He imbued his answers with a slightly elegiac air of personal loss which was fleshed out, as his story grew, with him telling of a childhood in care and how he had come to be up here.

“You know,” he said hesitantly, "how you can find out now who your parents are, when you’re old enough?”  They nodded gravely. “Well, I did but - long gone.  Not around, you see.  Weren’t from early days.  But I did spend quite a bit of time in the home up near here and I thought I’d come back, see if it felt like somewhere I was from in my bones, that maybe that was why I was put in it.  Sometimes you just want to see where home really might have been.  But it’s been a long time.  I couldn’t remember exactly where it was and found myself wandering around on a freezing night up here.  I’m sorry I took advantage of the shed. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” said Judith, rather crisply for her, perhaps not convinced by this, partly true, in fact, tale.  “Bit of a wild goose chase, I’d have thought,” she added but not unkindly.

“You poor lad” said Douglas, with more easy sympathy.  “Does it feel like home?”

“No,” Zav grinned suddenly.  “It’s just somewhere I once was sent to live.  Daft idea, really. I’m on my own these days.  It’s like that after care,” he added matter of factly, to point up that he had nobody waiting for him to go back to as such.

“Well, you’re here now.  You’d best stay a day or two,” offered Douglas and although she frowned, his wife did not object.

“That’s all I’ll need,” said Zav, still looking hopeful.  “Just sort myself out and get back on my feet.”

“There’s the box room,” said Douglas questioningly.  “We have a single bed in that. Mind you it’s full of all sorts of junk as well.”

“If you didn’t mind, said Zav gratefully,” that would be wonderful.  I’d still like to find where I stayed up here, and a couple of days would give me that chance.  After that, I’ll be off again.”

A couple of days being a loose but not too alarming length of time, this was agreed to.

“Well, we’re out of guests for now, so that will be all right,” said Douglas.

Having settled him in the box room and looked out a few items he could wear while the ones he was wearing were being washed, they tactfully suggested he enjoyed a good long bath to warm up before they made lunch.  These were the kind of people Zav was accustomed to turning to and he soon had Douglas pegged as a retired teacher, reading his blog with him, being helped with the internet to look up where the old children’s home might have been and being drawn out on various topics to mine for where any interests Zav might have could be encouraged in him to his future advantage.  He knew he was being reckoned up for his aptitudes and was being found articulate if not especially well educated, which always went down well with would be improvers, and a mutual game of helping someone to enjoy finding potential in him was one that he was well equipped to play.  Judith was less readable but didn’t seem to mind him being about.

Zav was on day three of the ‘couple of days’ when the text came through for him to go back to the main town station and wait for contact, bringing the goods.  He had no intention of taking those immediately, recognising his bargaining power and also that he might be at risk if he did.  He would establish relations with whoever it was and arrange a further meeting to hand over the bodywarmer, hopefully with a suitable reward for its return.  He therefore announced his intention to have another look for the children’s home as, with Douglas’s help, he thought he had an idea where it was and also, he’d like to visit round the area a bit, see if he could find anyone he knew.  He thanked them for their hospitality (thus leaving his return a little open ended since he wasn’t quite sure how things would pan out immediately following his meeting).

“I don’t blame you,” Judith had remarked in reply to him drily.  “It might give Doug a chance to draw breath.  Mind you, he does love a keen pupil.”

Zav smiled sweetly but picked up on a slightly barbed remark demonstrating that she, at least, was not entirely taken in by him.  He had better not try to gull them too far and get pushed out before he was ready.  He arrived back at the main station of the big town in good time but again was left waiting, perhaps on this occasion, he thought, to ensure that he was alone.  He was standing between two of the canopy pillars, whose iron work acanthus leaves flowing around their base and top were blurred by years of bottle green paint.  Looking back from one direction, he found himself watched by someone leaning easily against the pillar beside him on the left, cleaning at his immaculate smile with a toothpick as he did so, appraising Zav lazily.

“Looking tidy, kiddo,” he observed, “but where’s your bodywarmer?  It’s cold out.”

“It’s safe.  I thought I should check things out first.  Make sure I’ve found the right person.”

“Oh, the right one.  That’s a question in life, isn’t it?” said the other enigmatically.

“I can get it.”

“That’s good,” said the smiling driver, who was not smiling now.  “Let’s get coffee.”

There were a number of chain outlets near the station.  They went into one and picked a small corner table hidden amongst the chatter of shoppers taking a break.

“So, “ said the driver, once they had furnished themselves with a latte each and sat down, “last time I saw you I was shooting the breeze with someone.  Remember?”

Zav gave a little huffing laugh at the laconic description but said,

“I didn’t see anything.  I just got scared, secured the goods and ran.”

“Secured the goods?  You ripped them off a semi conscious girl!  No, no, you didn’t panic without looking after yourself.  Oh, I’m not criticising that,” he held up a hand.  “We need people with their wits about them, don’t we?  Only, you see, that is a very special package.  You could call it, salesman’s samples.  Samples of something quite new.  Straight from the lab.  Fresh from the slab, even,” he added, toying with Zav’s nerves. “ ‘Blood Moon’, they call it.”

“Blood Moon?”

“That’s right, because when you take it, it’s like the end of days, so they tell me.  Some Bible shit.  Not in my line at all, but hey,” he grinned, "they have to call it something.”

Zav was trying to read this semi amiable sounding explanation and wondering why he’d been told all this.

“So now, kiddo,” said the driver,, "you present me with some problems.  You’re holding something unique, by yourself. It isn’t yours.  You were asked to bring it and you didn’t because you’ve still got an eye to the main chance yourself.  Greedy boy.  You were to be paid for delivering it when you got back to base, no?  But you want to sniff out some extra money for holding it before delivering it.”

“I never said…”

“Oh, no.  You never said.  But you didn’t bring it.  Like you were told to.  Believe me when I tell you, you could never try to sell it on yourself.   So yes, that’s one problem.  And now,” he sat back, palms up, smiling as pleasantly as ever, “you know too much as well.”

Zav had begun to tremble slightly a while back, knowing he’d been outplayed altogether and regretting not having brought the damn thing in the first place.  He left his coffee going cold, because trying to pick it up would give that away.

“I’m staying with people, you know,” Zav hastened to say, recognising that although the smile did not look vulpine, it was and that he should not look too anonymous to pick off.

 “You mistake me,” the driver said, though. “I’m not threatening you. I’m reminding you of an obligation. Your task today do exactly as you are told.  This time.” He assumed a kindly and confiding tone.  “After all, it wasn’t your fault, was it, that Gemma tried to switch the agenda and panicked Mr Morley’s man?  Tricky thing, attachment to someone.“ He looked coolly at Zav.  “I doubt you suffer much from having it yourself.  Now, see me, I’ve had to come all the way back here and miss picking my kids up from school to deal with this.  I don’t like a break in my routine.”

With barely a change in his demeanour, he now looked the epitome of a genial family man.  

“What do you want me to do?” asked Zav.

“I’ve just mentioned my third problem.   Gemma.  She was not supposed to be there.  So I had to use her as a little demonstration model instead of her being, well, available socially later shall we say.  What I want you to do is go back into the station now, where the girl will be on the platform and get the train back down with her to the city.  You don’t talk to each other about anything that matters (I’ll know if you do) just look like a young couple.  You’ll both be met.  She’ll be taken off.   You’ll be taken off.  No, don’t panic,” he said seeing Zav’s expression. “You’re travelling light on the way down.  She isn’t. Coming back, you’ll have some more luggage.  The ordinary kind of gear.  You go to Mr Morley’s with that.  He’s had a bit of trouble, hasn’t he, that he wasn’t looking for?  Needs setting right.  As for Blood Moon, I will have to re-establish my connections there.   When things don’t turn up, people lose confidence in the product.  Now I’m taking it that my little samples will be quite safe where you have them?”  Zav nodded. “If they’re not, you will be held entirely accountable along with whoever is wherever they are.”

“No!  They’re just an old couple I landed in on.”

“Stray tomcat got in, did it?”

“Yeah,” said Zav, looking slightly defiant that his modus operandum was being sneered at.  “They don’t know anything or where it is.”

“All right.  Just remember that you don’t mess about this time - Xavier.”

He laboured the full name slightingly.

“I won’t,” said Zav.  “So, you know my name, since I know too much already why not tell me yours?” he chanced cheekily.

The driver chuckled at his impudence.

“Mr Saleem.  Oh, and as there is more than one of us, I, am Faisal.”  The Saleem brothers’ enterprise was known to Zav by reputation since they held sway now over a lot of business areas he was asked to dabble in.  You didn’t mess with the Saleem brothers.  He hadn’t been told the man’s name for nothing. “Blood Moon is a big, big secret.” Faisal touched his nose.  “If it gets out before I’m ready, one of us will be coming after you..and whatever most people think...most people are easy to find.  I’ve already checked what station you came from.  Very obliging people in the information office when it comes to train times, which people passed through what barriers and where, for the concerned person meeting a visitor.  If you know how to ask the right questions.  Villages are small places, wouldn’t you agree?  Unusual guests are likely to get noticed by the neighbours.  Play ball and I might bide my time looking too far into that.”

Zav looked at him and hoped that he could trust this offer, for his nice old people’s sake.

“Do I, do I have to go now?  Right away?”

“Correctomundo.  Exactly right away.”

Zav hesitated.

“You didn’t need to tell me about ‘Blood Moon’,” he said questioningly.

“I did, so you would leave it now till I want it and so you would know just how much you have already risked your little snake in the grass life.  I wouldn’t risk it any further, would you?  To kill a snake you have to chop its head off.  Hell of a mess.”

Zav thought of his return destination here, the butcher’s workroom and his memory of Mr Morley thudding his way methodically through dead bone and sinew a chilling recollection.

Faisal Saleem, seeing his mind working as transparently as if he were speaking his fear, continued to smile at him pleasantly.  Zav nodded and allowed himself to be escorted back across into the station.  The girl was there, hair tied back in a high ponytail pulling her sharp face even finer, white puffer jacket on but, he was relieved to see, no pram and no baby.  She carried this time a bubblegum pink vanity case the size of a large hat box,as luggage.

“Go meet your girlfriend,” said Faisal Saleem.  “Train’s in five.  Ditch that phone you were given and use this one.  Keep it on.”

Zav took it and went to the girl, who presented a cold cheek for his perfunctory kiss.  She didn’t look round at Faisal Saleem although, as they went through the barrier to the train already standing at the platform, she muttered bitterly,

“Bastard,” and said no more as they got on the train for their journey down back to the city.

Zav was a little sorry about Douglas and Judith, who might worry for a while but it wasn’t as if he didn’t know how to get in and out of the house himself without them knowing, if he had to.   They would probably assume he had found the home perhaps and managed to pick up with someone he knew, or that he had drifted back away to where he had come from because he had always been very vague with them about his intentions, other than that he wouldn’t put upon them for long and not to worry as he was “really very independent,” as he had told them, reminding them from time to time that he had “only got a bit lost making a spur of the moment trip up there.”

On the train, they did not speak much at all for a long time.  The girl put earphone buds in almost at once, tuned in to music which Zav could hear tinny notes and voices from, like a distant transmission trying to convey an urgent message.  Her pale profile was expressionless. Eventually, the drinks and snacks trolley was wheeled through and Zav touched her arm to suggest an invitation that they should partake. She nodded and said, 


Zav bought two sandwich packs and two cans of coke.  She drank the coke but left the food untouched. 

“Don’t you like that?” asked Zav, who had devoured his with the needy hunger of seizing the moment to fuel up when he had the chance, rather than seeming to enjoy it. 

“It’s fine,” she replied remotely, glancing at the triangular package. 

She had left her music off, just gazing blankly out of the window now but gave him a quickly flicked sideways glance of appraisal.  Noticing, Zav did the same and a covert glimmer of alliance passed between them; two of a kind in the world, tied in their forced journey like prisoners, shackles invisible but toughing life out with a resilience which they picked up on as being a shared trait in each of them.   After this, when he caught her scornful, narrow look again later, there was also a ghost of a smile colouring her expression. She even ate one of the sandwiches. Later still, Zav took out the phone he had bought himself with Doug’s contactless card and still had, silently showing her the number because he knew they would be being listened to on the phone he carried that Faisal had provided.  

“Mine,” he mouthed.  “In case.” 

She took her own phone out and typed it in as one among  several ‘hairdressers’ on the contact list. Zav nodded approvingly and when she showed him hers, he typed it into his.  They didn’t risk a test text. If they were going to be asked to work together, they would need to have a hope of subverting the control system with a self preservative connection of their own and if not, well, you never knew and they were both, clearly, on their own with it all.  Finally, they reached the city.  She picked up the vanity case she had kept on the table in front of her throughout the journey and they stood silently in line with the other passengers swaying gently with the slowing of the train curving in on the track to the station. Side by side again at the doors, nerves tensed behind steady faces, they exchanged another look as they reached their destination, knowing this was it.  They separated slightly in the crowd moving towards the barrier as instructed, so their meeters could gather them up discreetly. Zav did his best not to look where she went or see who she was picked up by, sure they were both under efficient surveillance, his last sight of her in front the boots, tight leg jeans and the vanity case she carried by her side. 

Once more, he was waiting alone on a station concourse, this one teeming with busy travellers.  After a while, a tossed coin landed at his feet from somewhere to his right. 

“You look like you’re waiting for spare change,” said an insulting voice belonging to the man who had flung the coin to land with a deriding spin and ringing clatter. 

Startled, Zav turned to find himself again met by someone with a baby in the stroller in front of them.  He looked at that first but this one moved and gazed at him limpidly with large dark eyes matching those of the adult with him.  The young man had a facsimile of the face Zav had met just prior to his journey but in him the features were indefinably better looking. 

“That’s right,” he said to Zav now, seeing recognition and alarm spring into his eyes.  “You’ve got it - Xavier.” 


“Al,” said the other of himself.  “Right then, Zav. Follow me.” 

Zav nodded at Al, wrongly conjecturing him from the resemblance to be Faisal’s brother rather than his cousin, not that it mattered.  The whole of them operated under the name of being the Saleem brothers and it was easier to melt identities when it was needed to under that guise.  Zav only just resisted the temptation to pick up the coin, which was noted with a mocking smirk by Al, whom Zav then followed obediently, travelling docilely down the escalator behind father and child.  Zav had been half hoping to be met by Ste, which would have been a kind of reassurance that things would be going along what passed for normal lines. This, he did not like at all. Outside, another particular black cab was waiting in line which Al went to, the child’s pram parked in to face his father, who, though, gave the baby scant attention, apart from putting a dummy, attached to the stroller by a luminous coil of green plastic, into the rosebud mouth in answer to a half cry to have something from him.  Zav sat beside them and the journey passed in silence until they reached somewhere on a small modern estate and were dropped there, the taxi waiting. The child had fallen deeply asleep sucking on its soother and remained so. 

“You’ll be staying here for a few days,” said Al Saleem.  “Nice little roof over your head, eh, scally? You’re running for us now.  Direct line. Quite a privilege for you, no? A bit of a step up, wouldn’t you say?” 

“Thanks,” said Zav submissively. 

“You’re welcome", answered Al, as if he wasn’t. 

Entering the building, he parked the pram and slumbering baby in the foyer, then took Zav up to a second floor flat, sparsely furnished but, thankfully, warm. 

“I’ll be off, then,” said Al, with a grin at Zav’s clear anxiety at not knowing where he stood.  “Don’t go out. There’s some food and stuff,” he added, gesturing vaguely at a kitchen area. “Keep your phone on and charged and wait.  Charger’s over there,” he told Zav, nodding towards the kitchen again.  “Jesus!” he exclaimed next, shaking his head in apparent disbelief at things.  “Fucking babysitting, just what I need!” 

Zav glanced down the stairs behind the still open flat door.

“Not him,” said Al resentfully.  “You, you tit!  Families, eh?” he concluded.  “What we have to do for one another to set things straight. It wouldn’t have happened if I’d been organising things but, hey, I mainly don’t live here anymore, do I?” he added to himself rather bitterly. Zav sensibly said nothing and the child, having woken up alone, started crying. 

“Oh, fuck it!” Al burst out crossly.  “All right! All right!” he shouted, not very comfortingly and shot off down the stairs, banging the door closed shut behind him. 

A moment or two later the taxi’s chunter started up and motored away again.  Zav realised that he couldn't go out. He hadn’t been left any keys and besides, he daren’t scarper.  All his connections here with people had holes in them like a series of tunnels, one inevitably leading into the next.  Talking rats ran through them. He was being punished, he knew but there were worse ways, and he was still alive. He found the tv remote and lay across the couch flicking channels in a semblance of passing the time.   There was no sound at all from above or below and he realised eventually that the other flats in the building must be empty, which was even less of a comfort than being dumped here so unceremoniously had been.


Andrew and Nolan returned to the school house with presents of whisky, chocolate and against Andrew’s advice, tea towels for Judith.   

“All mums like a new tea towel,” Nolan had insisted. 

“Mine doesn’t.” 

“Of course she will!  I always get them for Billy’s mum on our hols.  She’s got quite a collection. Never uses them, though.  Says they’re too nice to spoil.” 

“Really…”said Andrew pointedly but Judith had managed to rise to the occasion by saying, 

“Oh!  Tea towels.  How thoughtful,” when she was presented with them, although looking at them as if they were a bit of a mystery object. 

She had insisted prior to their arrival back that Douglas and she would say nothing of their ‘orfling’ (as her husband had taken to naming Zav after his departure). 

“He’s a scamp,” she had said when he failed to return, to her husband’s disappointment but not to hers.  “Don’t tell Andrew. He wouldn’t approve and he’ll worry we’re getting soft in our old age, putting ourselves at risk by letting strangers in the house.” 

“No.  Of course.  We don’t want to worry the lad,” Douglas had said regretfully, headed off from revelation by his wife, who knew he would have liked to talk about it. 

Nolan took on doing his and Andrew’s washing after their break up in Scotland, so as, he said, not to put on Andrew’s mother, who refrained from saying that it hadn’t occurred to her to offer to do it for them anyway.  It left Nolan, though, with few extras to use and so he and Andrew rummaged through Andrew’s cupboards. Pulling things out, Nolan dragged out the bright red body warmer. 

“Snazzy!” he remarked, putting it on.  “Fits me. Can I borrow it? I like it.” 

“I don’t remember having it,” Andrew said.  “Mind you, there’s years of stuff about, not all of it’s mine.  Friends staying were always leaving things and mum just bundles them into my cupboards regardless.  Yes. Of course you can wear it.” 

When he came down the  next day ready to go out, wearing it, Douglas (who had watched Christmas reruns of ‘Back to the Future’ not long ago) remarked, 

“Blimey!  It’s Marty McFly!” 

“Marty McFly?  I’ll have you know the gilet is back in men’s fashion wear in a big way,” Nolan said, surveying himself smugly in the hall mirror. 

“A gilet!” scoffed Douglas.  “It’s a vest.” 

“It’s a gilet,” said Nolan, “if I say it is.” 

“Right you are, then,” said Doug, going off chortling and baffling Andrew, who was just coming through to join Nolan by saying, “Ah, Professor!  Off out with your sidekick? Mind how you go,” as he passed him. 

“Yeah.  Thanks, Dad,” said Andrew with a puzzled, humouring lift of an eyebrow.  “So,” he went on to Nolan. “Still want to go in to the ‘Big Town’?” putting ironic quotation marks around the title. 

“Hell, yes!” said Nolan.  “I need to see a bit of hustle and bustle.  Enough of the quiet life.” 

“Yes, well the main part’s all a modern shopping centre but it’s a bit past its best, hardly a throbbing hub of commercial activity.” 

“Oooh!  Throbbing,” said Nolan lasciviously.   “I like the sound of that.” 

“Shut up,” said Andrew.  “Come on, then, let’s drive in, see what there is to see.” 

“People, I hope,” said Nolan.  “I feel isolated.” 

“No inner resources,” declared Andrew.  “That’s your problem. Growing up here, you have to to keep yourself occupied, be self sufficient, learn to think a bit.” 

“Oh?  What went wrong in your case, then?” remarked Nolan, stepping out into the bright sunshine and still frost laden garden. 

“You look like a robin on a Christmas card,” Andrew told him disparagingly. 

“This, my man, is street style right now.” 

“If you say so.” 

“I say so,” insisted Nolan, who, since it had been jeered at, Andrew realised, would now insist on wearing the red bodywarmer at all possible times. 

In town, they walked round the main streets and down some side ones.  Those varied in looking successful (due to runs of independently alternative outlets) or unsuccessful, with a few traditional businesses lingering among closed shutters, betting shops, charity shops and the modern day pawnbroker, ‘Cash Converters’. 

“Oh, look, a pub,” said Nolan, who was always pleased to spot one.  “Let’s call in.” 

They went over, attracted by the brown glazed vintage tiles still on its frontage but it was closed down. 

“Bummer,” said Andrew.  “But it’s definitely pub grub time.  Let’s find one somewhere else.” 

A man with his arm in a sling was watching the world go by across the street, standing in front of a butcher’s shop and his eye was clearly caught by the bright red glow of Nolan’s distinctive garment, staring as the two friends crossed his field of vision while exploring whether or not the pub was open.  Andrew noticed and said, 

“See, you’re startling the natives with that look,” but when Nolan turned the man was walking along again on the other side of the road parallel with them as they continued themselves, seemingly taking no notice of them. 

“Picking up style tips, mate,” Nolan said jauntily, as they walked back through and found a place open to go into for lunch.


Zav wondered who would come next for him, flighty Al or the groundedly menacing Faisal.  Having watched the phone and listened for it, he finally went to bed, thinking he would not be called on until the next day.  He was sleeping, for once deeply, when, unheard by him, strain and fatigue having caught up, the flat door opened and he startled awake to somebody standing by the bed.  Zav sat bolt upright as if to a nightmare’s presence. 

“Your baby alarm went off,” said Al.  “Time for a night ride. Get up.” 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the phone,” struggled Zav, “I, I…” 

“It’s all right,” said Al, who had now snapped the light on and was surveying Zav’s panicked face with, for once, a little sympathy.  “You were asleep. That’s all. Come on. Up and at ‘em. Get a shower and dress. I’ll wait out there. I’ll make you a brew if you want,” he added grudgingly. 

“Thanks,” said Zav.  “Can I have coffee?” 

“You’ll have what you get.” 

“Thank you, Al,” answered Zav, trying out a look of round eyed dependency. 

“And you can knock that right off,” said Al shortly. Zav resumed his normal expression.  "Better,” said Al but there was a hint of dry amusement in his tone this time. 

Al went out, leaving Zav to prepare himself and when he had dressed and come out after a perfunctory wash, there was, in fact, a cup of coffee waiting for him.   

“Cheers,” said Zav. 

Al just nodded, now taking a call himself and saying sulkily, 

“Yes, I’ve got him.  Where to now? Right.  Fucking babysitting,” he added again disgustedly, having rung off. 

Zav waited placidly and just got up to follow when Al gestured him to do so, Al saying only, 

“You need a decent haircut,” glancing admiringly at his own as they passed a mirror. 

“I know,” concurred Zav.  “Yours is good.” 

Al, taking this for granted, just carried on down the stairs, indifferent to Zav’s attempted flattery, another signal that there was no point in trying to play Al, who already had all the moves and more, was the implication.  This time, a sleek looking number was outside, which Al was driving. There was, Zav was pleased to see, no actual baby this time, or perhaps he wasn’t, because the child’s presence was a kind of protection against violent events of any kind. 

Al drove fast through quiet night streets but not so recklessly as to attract too much notice.  Zav could tell he was waiting to be asked where they were going and why but he didn’t, which seemed, when Al glanced in the driving mirror at him occasionally but read no questions in Zav’s eyes, to gain him a little credit, as there was a suggestion of, if only slight, approval in Al’s voice when he said, stopping, 

“All right.  Get out.” 

Perhaps, Zav thought, he had passed some kind of test.  They were in the midst of some vast array of institutional buildings but it was too dark to see what they were. 

“Wait here,” Al said through his lowered window and sped off, leaving Zav alone but not for long.   

A man in overalls took him into a big storage unit, where he was equipped with a bike, laden backpack and destinations to go to via back roads.  The pattern was followed for the next few nights, Zav being picked up by Al, then whizzing on the bike through empty streets to the rear of underground clubs, where he shunted packets of goods through via bulky doormen, as if they were so many pizzas he was delivering.  There was something enjoyable about riding alone to the drops, a feeling of being relied on and allowed, if only briefly, some independence. 

“I’m a Deliveroo!” he said to Al once cheerfully on getting out, clearly looking forward to it. 

Al always collected him before and after, when Zav took the bike back to the unit and showed all had been delivered as instructed.  Arriving for Zav early sometimes, or staying on afterwards, Al took to spending some time in the flat with him, where, instigated by Al, they would play computer games together.  Al was never companionable, however, mostly maintaining a moody silence. Having gathered, though, that Zav was clearly starting to enjoy all this, when dropping him off at the unit one night he said, 

“Listen, don’t get too far into it.  If you’re ever asked to go in anywhere or something, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to sexually.  You look a bit rent boy,” he added. 

Zav, for whom there had not been many things he wouldn’t turn to if necessary, although he reckoned he was mostly straight, just nodded and said, 

“O.K.  Thanks.” 

“If anyone tries it, say Al Saleem’s minding you.  They won’t mess then. There are things I don’t stand for.  If they put someone with me, they know that. Because,” he added meaningfully, “these are not little streetcorner jobs.  You get me?” and Zav knew that Al was under no illusions about his likely past innocence. “I won’t have anyone pimped under my watch.  And if you’re given stuff to take, don’t. I’m guessing you’d know what it all is.” 

“Mostly,” said Zav. 

“Mostly ain’t good enough.  Anything happens to you, it reflects on me.  I can’t have that.” 

“No,” Zav agreed, recognising that Al’s reputation, if it stood up to Al’s own valuing of it, would guarantee his protection if he did as Al said. 

He played by the rules and never went in anywhere, tempting as it occasionally was to party.  Another time, in the flat, Al said unexpectedly, after a long gaming silence between them absorbed in the online contest, 

“I lived here with someone, once.” 

“You did?  Gemma?” hazarded Zav, who thought of that one himself. 

“No.  Not her.  I forgot you’d met.  Someone else.” 

Something in Al’s tone made Zav say tentatively, 

“It didn’t work out?” 

Al gave a short laugh. 

“Oh, I always know how to whistle my bitch up,” he said but then looked as if he repented of saying it and an almost wistfully ashamed expression crossed his face. 

“A nice girl, then,” said Zav. 

“That’s right,” said Al crushingly.  “A nice girl. Now mind your beeswax.” 

Having closed the conversation down, he proceeded to slaughter Zav in the next round with a savagery, Zav knew, which was born of Al having allowed a personal glimpse of himself to show unintentionally, which Zav filed away, letting Al win outright and honour seemed to be satisfied.  The game over, Al got up and said, 

“Laters,” which was more of a goodbye than was usually given before he left. 

Zav reckoned, then, all things considered, that as far as Al was concerned, he was starting to do all right perhaps.

The several days had become a week or more.  By now used to the night shift, Zav was asleep in the afternoon and woke up to noise from the kitchen.  Shuffling out of the bedroom, he found Al going through the fridge and binning things. Fresh food carrier bags were on the breakfast counter.

“Good food gone to waste,” Al castigated him.  “Don’t you ever eat, boy?” he demanded, rounding on Zav.

“I don’t cook,” said Zav candidly.

“No wonder you look like shit, then,” said Al.  “I’m not wasting all this again. I’ll make something with it for us both today.  Show you a thing or two. You're running for me, you need fuelling up.”  Zav looked doubtful.  “And mind your manners, you cheeky fucker.  I’m a great cook,” Al told him, grinning for once as he spun onions and vegetables out of the bags like bowling balls, ready to chop on the counter.

Zav looked on as ginger and herbs were fragrantly chopped and a set of spices was aromatically measured out with instinctive efficiency, chicken pieces being briefly marinated in something Al speedily put together.  They were almost enjoying themselves, Al flourishing his skills and explaining it all for Zav’s future benefit. Al looked up from his labours to say,

“Go shower and dress will you, scruffpot?  I’m not eating with someone who just got out of bed and smells.”

“I don’t smell,” objected Zav but hygiene was not always his first priority and used to rougher living, he didn’t always wash daily, which fastidiously well turned out Al, disliking it intensely,  loudly dealt with on arrival by ordering him straight into the shower as necessary.

Zav turned on the shower but gave it time to warm up, sitting on the bed end in front of the open door, savouring the cooking aromas which were indeed making him hungry.  Al always had his phone to hand whatever he was doing, ready for any communiques he had to take or make and due to the noise of cooking, when he answered its summons now, had obviously put it on speakerphone, believing Zav already to be in the shower anyway.  From his casual voice he wasn’t expecting what he got when the conversation followed. Zav listened because it concerned him.


“Little brother,” said a commanding voice.

“Yeah?” answered Al again.

“Word’s out.  Up there. Could be fucked up.  And Morley wants his present. Where’s the rugrat?”

“Here.  With me.  He’s done good.”

“What are you doing?”


“You don’t bond with the creepoids, little brother.”

“Who says I am?  I need to eat don’t I?”


“So - what’s up?  It’s not down to him whatever it is.  I’m minding him, aren’t I?” he added aggressively.

“I’m not sure yet.  I’ll find out. And when I do, I might be wanting you to sort it with ‘Blood Moon’.”

“Not Faisal?” said Al, now sounding dangerously neutral but with an undertone of belligerent triumph.

“Watch your mouth, little brother.  I tell you. You don’t get to ask. Do you?”  Al remained silent but it seemed mutinous. “Right.  Eat sweet. Listen up because I’ll be getting back to you.”

“Right,”  said Al. “Thanks.”

Zav sensed correctly that Al would check to make sure the conversation hadn’t been overheard and nipped swiftly into the shower as he heard Al, after looking in, shut the bedroom door for good measure.  Zav spent a little longer than needed over his ablutions and then came out attired, hair just towelled dry. Al was not, as Zav thought he might be, stomping about angrily as he cooked but instead was looking pleased, which was a bit of a relief.  He paused and came near enough to Zav to wrinkle a sensitive nose but he said,

“You’ll do.  At least you smell of shower gel now.  Don’t you ever need to shave?” he added derisively.

“No,” said Zav.

“Funny.  You’re not such a kid as you look. Probably comes in handy, though, eh?” Al observed perceptively.  “Go dry your hair. You’ve got time. Don’t drip in my sauce and ruin it when you’re eating.”

Zav retreated as bidden to use the hairdryer and returned with a flyaway mop as tangled as candy floss but this was let to pass.  Al served up and the meal smelt delicately delicious. They had only just gone to begin it, though, when the phone rang again. Al answered at the table.


“Bring him.  To mine, little brother.  Now,” Zav heard quite clearly, although the mobile was not on speakerphone now.

“I’m just eating,” said Al, frowning.

“Have it later.  Now, I said.”

“Right.”  Al rang off and Zav had already got up obediently with a glance of regret at his plate.  Al smiled slightly, liking the appreciation. “So you do eat. Come on, then. We’ll finish it after, when we’ve seen what he wants.  It won’t spoil.”

“O.k,” said Zav and they went to answer the unexpected summons.

He found himself overawed by the place they went to, admitted through electronic gates to park up among other top end vehicles on the gravelled forecourt of the pillared, grandiose villa style mansion.  Al noticed him looking nervously around as they got out of the car to go up to the house.

“You’re safe.  You’re with me,” was all he said and then opened the door for them both to go in.  

They went to sit in a vast living room and shortly a big man entered, his meaty bare feet padding heavily across the huge white fur rug carpeting it.  He nodded to Al and then opened a small packet of dark red tablets he was carrying, passing one to Zav with a small glass of water.

“Take it,” he said.  “I want to see someone try it.”

“No, Hamid” said Al.  “I told him he didn’t have to take anything while I have him.”

“That was then.  This is now,” said the big man authoritatively.

Zav felt the power drain from Al but he still said,


“I’ll do it,” Zav hastened to say before Al could intervene again and swallowed it down fast.

“Watch him,” said the big man to Al.  “I’ll be back.”

Whatever time had passed, Zav came back to himself to find his face being sprinkled with some of the water left in the glass by Al, who looked strained and anxious.

The other was sitting monumentally opposite, like an ancient statue whose impassive face was marked with indifference to the outcome of his experiment as far as the individual was concerned, only being curious to see what had happened.  Zav’s eyes were full of a blank wonder.

“Oh.” he said.  “Oh.”

“You see, little brother?” said the big man.

All was clearly unhappy at this turn of events for the person he was, in his view, caring for in some way, Zav saw.

“Are you all right?” Al asked, meaning it.

“Yes,” said Zav, sitting up and feeling the water cool on his hot face.  “ I am.”

He looked at the older brother, whatever it had been fading from his consciousness of it and yet he was relaxed, as tranquil as if he’d found something meaningful in himself and yet, he knew he hadn’t.

“So,” asked Hamid, “tell me what it’s like, the end of days?”

“It’s like nothing,” said Zav.   “What else would it be? You just, kinda, stop.”

“Nothing more.”

“No,” said Zav.  “There is nothing more.”

Al was now fixedly regarding the ceiling, subtle expressions of rebuttal of his brother’s commands flickering through, which Zav realised he could read in some heightened way, still affected by the dose of ‘Blood Moon’.

“Al,” he said, indicating that he wanted to be done here now.

Al turned to him and responded.

“I’m taking him back to the flat.  Enough,” he stated.

There was a short pause and then Hamid nodded.

“Well, well,” he said.  “You just stood up to be counted, little brother.  You want him under your wing? You’ve got it. But now, you have to deal with it all.”

“I will.”

“You’re not you, when you link up,” cautioned Hamid.

“I know.”

“I’ll give you your instructions when I’m ready.”

They left but Zav realised that Al was a little shy of him in some way as they drove back.

“I am o.k.,” he offered.

After a moment, Al said,

“I told you I wouldn’t let you be forced into taking stuff.  They haven’t had time to test that shit out enough to know what it will do,” he added angrily.

“I chose it.  What else could we have done?” said Zav.

“We…” said Al trenchantly.

“Do you always keep your promises, then?” asked Zav lightly.

Another silence.

“No.  It’s not always a given, is it?” said Al bitterly.

“Not if at the time you can’t,” said Zav swiftly.  “Doesn’t mean it wasn’t meant.”

A loaded silence, containing, Zav could see, layers of meaning for Al, followed.  Whatever he was thinking of, his look lightened and he said just,

“No,” and Zav felt he’d released some guilt there to flit away.

“We didn’t finish dinner,” he said now.  “I’m ravenous.”

“All right,” said Al, sounding relieved.  “You must be o.k., then. I’ll fix it all up again.  Can’t beat my cooking.”

Zav sat back and smiled to himself.  He’d won Al over, if only, perhaps, temporarily.  The residual feelings of the drug wore away and as he began to feel the come down, he hid it, hoping that he would be able to eat when presented again with his dinner.  In fact, he found he was as hungry as he had stated himself to be. He thought of what Al had said to him previously and in the car on the way back just now, deciding to push it while he might have a slight potential edge over influencing Al’s loyalties.

“You know your other brother, Faisal?  He said ‘Blood Moon’ was fresh from the lab.  So,” he intuited, interpreted from Al’s rare burst of confidence that its risks were unknown, “was it going to be tested out up there, out of the way, to see what happened to people before it got distributed as part of your family’s business dealings?”

“He’s my cousin.  Not my brother.”

No comment, then but Zav read something again here, confirming a rivalry he had suspected when overhearing the phone call earlier.  Al hadn’t liked the drug being given to Zav by Hamid, how much less would he like it that Faisal had given it to the girl, who seemed to have, or have had, closer links with them by far than Zav did.  ‘Take me back with you, this time', she had begged, hadn’t she? Al then surprised him by confirming,

“And yeah.  A small control group of paid volunteers.  Get the idea of any dodgy side effects well away from any chance of it getting circulated too soon.  We’ve got principles, you know.”

Up to a point, thought Zav, doubting that the ‘volunteers’ would in reality be either paid or cognizant of what was being tested on them but perhaps that was what Al had been told about it.  Al, it seemed, did lay claim to principles of his own, didn’t he and if he was being asked to lead on it now, it would have to square with his conscience for him to pursue shifty dealings, wouldn’t it?  A kindness perhaps, or insurance that he would do as he was told about it. Zav now tried pressing his advantage, just to see how Al would react.

“Did you know Faisal forced Gemma to take it?  In the car. She didn’t want to but he made her.  It was part of what went wrong.”

“What?”  Al looked across, dropping his knife and fork with a clatter on the plate.  “He shouldn’t have done that,” and his face darkened. “Not in the spec.” After a pause, he said, “But Gemma’s not under my protection any more in the family.”

Interesting, thought Zav.

“So she’s had to go to your cousin?”

“Not by choice.”  Al gave a short laugh but as if about more youthfully shared peccadillos he was recalling.  “Me and Gemma pushed our luck once too often. She has to do as she’s told now.”

Not just Gemma, Zav surmised.

“Faisal said she was supposed to be available for people, like, you know, like you don’t like.”

“I know.  But like I said, Gemma’s not under my protection any more.  I did my best to make sure she wasn’t thrown out altogether.  Despite all that, still safer with us.”

Zav left it there but whatever Al already reluctantly knew about how Gemma was being handled, as Zav had speculated, Al had definitely not liked hearing that she had been forced to take the untested drug.  He’d mark that one up to whatever checklist of things he might have to hold against Faisal. In such family empires, there were always shifting sands and if you were in the control of one of its powers, it was worth stirring the pot to find out what mattered to the one you were in the hands of yourself.  Well, so Zav reckoned. Gemma, he now inferred, was likely an ex lover of both Al and Faisal at some point. What of the ‘nice girl’ who had lived here with Al, the one he had accidentally told Zav about? It was up to Zav to find any way he could to make Al like him, as well as feeling a sense of duty to look out for him, since Hamid had passed Zav over to Al like no more than a stray dog to manage.  Besides, it might be safer to change the subject now.

“I expect you made quite a few of these fantastic meals when you lived here with your girlfriend?” he proffered as a next opening gambit, still eating appreciatively, seeing that Al had resumed his own dinner.

“Huh?  Oh, yeah.  Had to teach the kid how to cook.  Clueless, like you.”

The kid?  Slang or significant?  But Al was giving Zav his nobody’s fool look now, too quick on the uptake for him to risk probing further, unless very carefully.

“What did she like to do?” he asked, as if with guileless interest, still making murmurs of enjoyment as he ate.

“She liked to be with me,” said Al.  “What else?” But then he half smiled and said, “You must be pretty bored by now to be pumping me about my love life, or do you think you’re getting under my guard?”

“Of course not!  I just thought we should, well, talk about something else.”

“Very wise,” said Al.  “Or perhaps not. As a matter of fact, she liked to paint.”

“What, decorating?”

“No, you numpty.  Pictures. Paintings proper.  It’s what she’s gone off to do.  She’s at uni,” he added with a kind of pride, as he had had something to do with it.  “That’s it. Time’s up on the subject of me. Now,” he said, “how about you, Zav? What’s your story about yourself and why were you living like garbage before we got you?”

Zav presented Al with a more man to man version of his time in care and haphazard route since then, coloured by a few accounts of how he could be “pretty handy” if it came to it.

“What, you?” exclaimed Al.

“You have to be, or you wouldn’t make it on the streets for long.”

“Hmm.  I guess,” said Al.

“It’s true.  Ste picks me because I’ve got a reputation for being reliable.  That’s why, when the deal went wrong, I grabbed the bodywarmer and legged it.  Till I could deliver.”

Al now laughed heartily.

“Don’t give me that.  Till you’d weighed up the odds, more like.  You’re not as daft as you look.”

“Sound,” said Zav.

“Sound…” mocked Al.  “Well, if all that’s true, at least you got to please yourself most of the time.  Only now you don’t. You get to please me and the family. While you’re working for us.”

“Al,” said Zav, “I’m glad I’m with you and not Faisal.  Not after…”

“Yeah?  Well, so you should be,” and Zav knew he had successfully sent Al’s thoughts back to Faisal having forced Gemma to take the experimental drug against her will, confirmed when he said next, “And don’t take any more of that shit if you’re out there.  You were with me, so I’d have handled it if anything went wrong and made sure you were looked after.”

Zav let Al salvage his pride this way from having been overruled in that matter by his older brother, replying,

“I know you would have.  That’s why I didn’t worry about it.”

“Yeah, that and having taken all sorts in the past,” scoffed Al.

“How do you know?”

“Stands to reason,” said Al.  “The way you’ve been living and being used as a courier.”

It did but Zav opted to neither confirm or deny, assessing that it gave him a bit of street cred and, anyway, because in Al’s case, looking helpless in the face of life’s challenges simply would not do, not if Zav wanted Al to stand by him if need be.  He made sure he never asked Al anything about his present home life, sensing rightly that there was nothing to be gained there. From the way he had reacted to his own baby, not unkindly but almost on sufferance and the way he spent time with Zav at the flat quite apart from minder duties, Zav suspected Al was happy to be away from whatever his domestic sphere was now.  Maybe an arranged marriage, more than likely. Al probably played fast and loose as he chose anyway, Zav expected. He knew plenty who did, especially with the flash of dealing and all that went with it.

“So, what will we do next?” he asked Al.

“We?  I’ll tell you once Hamid’s found out whatever it is they think has gone wrong again up there and then, what he’ll want you to do about it.”

“Oh.  All right.  Will you be with me, Al?”

“I might, or I might not,” but Al looked gratified to be asked.  “Right,” he said, standing up and asserting himself again as usual.  “I can’t spend all night chatting shit with the likes of you. I’m going.  Clear all this up. I don’t want to find a heap of crap round the place when I come tomorrow.”


“Well it’s gunna be, isn’t it?  There won’t be much hanging about.” He grinned at seeing Zav’s newly unsettled expression.

“No run tonight?” Zav asked

“Nope.  So get this place cleaned up sharpish.  Take your mind off things. You seem to have a lot on it tonight, don’t you?” he commented, a knowing sneer in his voice.  “Well now, you’ve got something else to worry about,” and Al, having shown who was boss again, banged out of the flat as noisily and hastily as usual, belting down the stairs, slamming the door at the front and revving the car engine noisily before driving off at speed.  He always acted as if something else urgent was waiting for his attention when he left, just to point up that Zav had to sit there on his own, awaiting Al’s next orders.

The man called Leon had followed Andrew and Nolan for a while, letting himself be seen at first.  If this was a new set up for passing on the samples of ‘Blood Moon’, it didn’t seem that Mr Morley was the designated conduit.  Of the pair together, the one wearing the bodywarmer was not the one who had noticed him watching outside the butcher’s shop and neither had taken any opportunity to catch his eye at any time.  He also went into the pub they had entered at lunchtime but again, they remained alone and, seemingly quite at ease, like casual visitors. He had concluded that it could not be the same garment, sitting near enough to hear them chat, just desultory banter amongst friends passing the time.  Then, UV lighting strips travelling round big retro advertisement mirrors in the dark interior of the place (modern American diner decor illuminating it) when the man wearing the jacket shifted in his seat a little, picked out daylight invisible fluorescent initials scribbled on the back as a secret identifier, ‘SB’, for Saleem brothers.  This was momentary, however, as Nolan moved again and the bodywarmer was just once more its pillar box scarlet red. Leon wasn’t sure whether he’d really seen the symbol or was looking for it and it had simply been reflected light.

Nonetheless, he hastened back to the shop to alert Mr Morley, who in turn set his contacts in motion, the news shortly reaching Faisal Saleem, who had told Hamid but in veiled and vague terms, not wanting any further blame to be attached to himself.  Leon had immediately hurried back to the pub but the two men had left and there was no sign of them around the town afterwards, when a sweep of it was immediately made by car. Nobody knew, therefore, who they were or where they had come from. Had Leon been someone with the presence of mind to take a picture of them on a mobile, the case might have been different when the Saleems got to hear about the two men. Description was not really his forte either and so, ‘I don’t know, just two young guys from somewhere’ did not sent any pointers out as to their identity within the known circles being checked out at the other end.

This, Al learned, was the somewhat garbled tale which had reached Hamid and precipitated his wanting to see how the drug worked before setting things properly in motion again.  Hamid doubted that it had been the original mule’s vest but now, he decided, Mr Morley had to receive his recompense, and urgently, to avoid them getting a reputation for only doing half a job.  The original bodywarmer would have to be retrieved, and quickly. Hamid was already not happy with Faisal about what had happened, refusing to listen to his offer to track its whereabouts down himself by following up on his saying that he could find out where Zav had stayed.

“Forget it,” he had said.  “Too many cock ups already down to you.  Al’s got the kid. Let’s see how he does with it.  If they can’t get it back, well, I’ll think about it.”

Al, then, being told, to his satisfaction, part of this, Faisal having been instructed by Hamid to keep his head down if he knew what was good for him and leave Al to it without any interference, duly turned up for Zav the morning after their meal together.  Zav, for once, was up, ready and dressed. Al scanned the kitchen and dining area and seemed satisfied that proper clearing up had been done as demanded.

“Don’t look so nervous”, Al said, seeming amused by the tiredly anxious expression on Zav’s face which greeted him on arrival.  “So. You’re sure you know exactly where the bodywarmer is?”

“Yes”, Zav nodded.

“Good.  Right. You’re on, then.”  He threw a sports bag down at Zav’s feet.  “The stuff for Morley’s in the sports bag. It’s all marked but you can’t see it, so don’t get any ideas.  It goes straight to him.”

“Of course!” said Zav eagerly.

“After that, you go for the bodywarmer.”

“No problem.  Do I bring it back down to you?”

“No.  You don’t.  You cop on to it and get back to the main station with it.  Wear it.”

“And then?”

“And then you’ll get told what’s next.”  Zav looked at him. “By me”, Al confirmed after waiting a beat, still looking amused.  “Don’t fret.” This seemed to be a relief and although Al did not clarify whether it would be in person or not, he was obviously basking in Zav’s now established reliance on him to be his protector.  “You’ll be met at the station by the same person as before.”

“Gemma?  Or…?” queried Zav, deliberately looking a bit nervy again.

“Yeah.  Gemma.”

“But.  Why?”

“Why comes later.  I’ll need a witness to you being where you’re supposed to be.  Then she reports that in elsewhere. You - will answer to me.”

Zav was glad. He’d like to see her again.  Deposited by Al on the train with the monitoring phone again, he had an excuse to contact her on his own secret one, which he had always kept concealed.

“Mobile hairdresser,” he texted when part way along his journey.   “We have an appointment.”

After a time, she texted back,

“Ha hah, I know.  Still booked in.”

It was a small subterfuge but hopefully it wouldn’t get picked up by anybody else.  Zav had been sent off on an early train but it was still mid afternoon by the time he arrived.  He looked around but there was no sign of her and their rendezvous was not to be yet, only when he had the bodywarmer.  Zav had assured Al that he knew the way to Morley’s and could do that on foot, no need for any extra transport this time.  When he got there, he was met by Leon waiting outside, who today took him round the back to go in. Zav considered whether asking solicitously after his arm would be a good move but decided against it, a wall of firm lack of recognition greeting him, which was fair enough.  They were hardly expected to be on nodding terms, were they and it was best not to be noticed?

The door to the huge refrigerated cabinets were, thankfully, closed but the all too remembered smells of dead carcasses assailed Zav anyway from the workroom, where preparations had been ongoing throughout the working day.  Leon unzipped the bag and checked its contents, then opened the door into the shop and shouted,

“Fresh meat, Mr Morley!” (not a welcome description to Zav).

Mr Morley came through, wiping bloody hands on his overalls.  He clocked Zav and looked at Leon, who nodded that all was as it should be.

“Good lad,” he said.  “Bang on time from when your train got in,” thus showing that all was followed.  No doubt they knew if the trains were on time or late as well. “I’ll pass that back.  Now, then, straight on to your next job but you can have a comfort break. Give him a tenner, Leon.  Go get some scran. Plenty of places round the train station.”

Yes, thought Zav, I know.  There was one he certainly wouldn’t pick.  He only took half an hour, then texted Al to say, ‘Job done.  On way again’.

Al didn’t reply but Zav knew he’d have picked the message up.  He’d told Al on the way to the station that morning it might take a bit of time to get the bodywarmer, as he’d have to pick his moment and Al had said,

“If you have to.  One night. No more.”

“But - I haven’t got any spare clothes with me?”

“Sleep in the ones you’re wearing, then.  Wouldn’t be the first time, would it?” Al had grinned disparagingly.  “Only as a last resort, though. I don’t want any messing about.”

“There won’t be any,” Zav promised.

“And I don’t want loads of messages.  Least contact on the airwaves the better.  Essentials only.”

“Right”, Zav had agreed.

He got the train along to the village next and started his trek back to Mr and Mrs. Munro’s place, now under cover of darkness.  To tell the truth, for once in his life, he felt guilty about having abused his position with them. Fortunately, since the Saleem brothers worked on a less is more basis, to avoid being inextricably implicated in linked events, he hadn’t had to tell Al directly about the older couple as yet but being told,

“I’m trusting you.  So don’t let me down,” had been less of an encouragement to Zav than the threat it was meant to sound like.

The house, when he got there, was all lit up, but creeping round it to look in, Zav couldn’t see anyone.  There were sounds of small machinery coming from the workshed, so he avoided that. He slipped in again through the ground floor bathroom window and listened.  Nothing, so he slid out onto the ground floor. He estimated that Judith was carving in her hobbyshed, Douglas probably in his study at the far end. So he went upstairs.  The once empty bedrooms of the two absent sons, as he thought of them, showed signs of occupation. People had been back, so better hurry, then. He ferreted about in the cupboard where he had hidden the bodywarmer.  It was not there. A quick search of both bedrooms did not discover it, either. The box room he had been in himself had nothing new in it. What to do?

He went back down, back outside again and rang the front doorbell.  After a time, Douglas opened it.

“Dear God!” he exclaimed.  “It’s the orfling!”

“The what, Doug?  It’s me, Xavier.”

“I know that.  Come in, lad, come in.  Where have you been? Never mind, never mind, come in first.”  Zav was touched by the welcome. “Cup of tea,” suggested Douglas.  “Then let’s sit down. I’m not going to torment you with questions but I'm so glad to see you.  We’ve been very worried,” he added reproachfully, because he had been, at least.

Zav sat quietly in the kitchen with him as tea was made.  Then Judith came in the back door.

“Ah!  Finished your little bit of whittling, Jude?” said Douglas, adding fondly, “She thinks she’s off grid out there, you know.  I’m expecting a set of wooden spoons any time soon.”

“Huh!” said Judith.  “I see you’re back, then,” she addressed Zav severely.

Zav burst into desperate tears, heartfelt sobs tugging at their feelings.

“Judith!” said Douglas.  “You’ve upset him!”

“Oh now, there, there,” said Judith, patting Zav’s arm awkwardly.

They gave Zav a moment to compose himself, which he took his time over doing.  Then he said, hitching breaths,

“I didn’t mean to go like that.  I thought I’d be back.”

“Did something go wrong?” asked Douglas gently.

“A little bit, yes,” sniffed Zav, being handed more tissues.  “I get sidetracked. I don’t mean to…” and he looked at them pleadingly.

“Well”, said Judith more kindly, “What brings you back?”

“I wanted to see you both.  And, and I left something very important to me.  It’s a jacket. Was a friend’s. He died. It was, well, all he had, so I got it and I keep it with me always.  We were, often outside alone together,” he added wrenchingly.

“Oh, poor lads,” said Douglas, moved into an inner view of their abandonment which brought a sympathetic tear to his own eye.

“Is it red?” asked Judith, more matter of factly.

“Yes,” said Zav, abjectly forlorn.  “Bright red. I always hide it wherever I stay if I’m not wearing it. Very precious to me, you see?”

“Right,” said Judith.  “Well we know where it is.  And it hasn’t gone missing. Nolan took a fancy to it when he found it.  He’s been wearing it.”

“He and Andrew will be in shortly.  I’ll make sure you have it back,” said Douglas.

Judith nodded.  They took him into the living room equipped with more tea and biscuits for helpful moral fibre.  The sons of the house Zav would have preferred not to meet, being an unknown quantity but he had no choice but to do so if he were to fulfil his mission.

A little later, a cheery kerfuffle at the front door announced the arrival of Andrew and Nolan, who was indeed still sporting the bodywarmer.  Met by the sight of Zav, looking as distressed as when they had first encountered him, Nolan exclaimed,

“Bloody hell! (Sorry Doug and Judith).  It’s the kid on the monument! What’s he doing here?”

Explanations followed the path of Zav’s storyline for Mr and Mrs Munro.

“I’ve only come to say thank you and to ask for the jacket back.”

“But I like it,” said Nolan.  “Finders keepers, you know?” he added teasingly.

“No, you don’t,” said Judith firmly.  “If that’s what he wants, give it to him and he can go.”

“But, not tonight, Jude.  You can’t put him out tonight?” said Douglas.

“Tomorrow, then,” said Judith.

“No, no, it’s fine,” Zav hurried to say.  “You see, I’m also back because there’s something I’m going to here,” he invented. “The old friends I met up with when I came.  I’ve, er, been around with them places.”

“Without your beloved heirloom?” queried Nolan.

“It was my first chance to come here, “ quavered Zav, looking dangerously on the verge of tears again.

“Oh, for heaven’s sakes leave him alone,” said Judith.  “Hand it over!”

Nolan did so but pointedly, to her.  Judith shook her head and gave it to Zav.

“Thank you,” said Zav.  “I’m very very glad to have seen you again,” he said gravely, “and to have met both of you ,” he added to Andrew and Nolan.

“Oh, yes.  A rare privilege, that!” said Nolan.

Andrew had said nothing, just studying Zav as all this went on but he said,

“Well, why don’t you let me give you a lift to your ‘friends’?  It’s late, isn’t it?”

“You’ve been in the pub,” condemned his mother.  “You can’t drive and we’re not going anywhere this late.  He came on his own, he can get back there on his own.”

“I don’t know,” said Andrew.  “I think he should stay the night and then I’ll take him wherever it is.”

“Good thinking, son,” said Douglas.  “Quite right.”

Zav, though, was well up to being evasive and after thanking them, eating some soup which was all he would have by way of a meal, said he was exhausted and could he sleep in the box room again, if that was all right?  He turned in so early that the others were all still up chatting in the living room, so having remained dressed and putting on the bodywarmer, he slipped out of the downstairs bathroom window again and out into the night as quietly as he had arrived.  Andrew went to check on him some time later, opening the box room door quietly.

“I’m afraid he’s already gone,” he said, going back downstairs.  “I don’t know when.”

The grandmother clock on the wall struck a softly sonorous chime.

“Well,” said Judith.  “That’s that again, then.”

“Never mind, Dad,” said Andrew.  “Can’t save them all, you know.”

“No,” said Douglas but he looked sad.  “I know”.

The conversation in the living room earlier had, of course, concerned Zav for a lot of the time.  Andrew and Nolan had trained themselves up in a natural suspicion of what people proffered in explanation of things and Judith had never really welcomed him in.

“But, if he wanted to rob us,” said Douglas, “Why didn’t he do it before and why would he come and ring the bell to ask for his jacket back?”

“There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” said Nolan.  “Once he’s in, he’s in, isn’t he?”

“My view entirely,” said Andrew.  “Are you sure he didn’t take anything?”

“Not that we could tell.  We’re not entirely daft, you know and we did check,” said Douglas.

They had never wised up to Zav having come into the house through the downstairs bathroom and Douglas, if he ever remembered to check, was the least likely of people to notice or even question his card purchases and besides, it was not a very high amount.

“He didn’t take anything from my shed, to be fair,” said Judith.

“I still don’t buy it all,” Nolan had said.  “We need to get to the bottom of what he was doing up on that hill.  He looked so scared and unprepared.”

“Wouldn’t you have been?” said Douglas.  “He got lost and whatever you said to him, he wouldn’t have known if you meant to help or harm him really, would he?  I expect he’s wary anyway given how he’s lived.”

“Why did he have a sleeping bag up there?” wondered Andrew.

“Perhaps he had it with him in case of having to bunk down somewhere if he couldn’t find the place or the people he was looking for.  He said he has to sleep rough a lot.”

“Hmmm.  Maybe,” said Nolan, who was still prepared to put up a fight for the bodywarmer.  “That sob story to get the gilet back, though…”

“It’s not mine,” said Andrew reasonably.  “That bit might be true, that it’s his.”

“What about the tearjerker tale?”

“Dunno.  Probably not true.  But I suppose it could be.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Judith firmly.  “He’s got it now and he can go in the morning on the clear understanding that he doesn’t come back.  Right, Doug? If he’s told us the truth, he’s found his friends that he came to try to catch up with and if he hasn’t, well, too sad too bad.  I already know quite as much about him as I care to.”

“I’d still like another word with him tomorrow,” said Andrew, who was rather feeling for his father, ever the champion of the underdog whose lessons in disappointment never dampened his buoyant idealism, which at his father’s age, Andrew thought, was something rarely retained so completely in later life.  His mother, although not cynical, was far more realistic, often having to sound notes of caution to stop his father from being inveigled into backing yet another wrong horse to the hilt in the face of impossible odds, his father having been a lifelong campaigner on behalf of causes and people. It was shortly after this that Andrew had gone up to check on Zav and found him gone, which left mixed feelings amongst the company, possibly most sorely felt by Nolan for selfish reasons because he had really liked that gilet, as he called it.  He complained of this at intervals until Andrew told him to give it a rest.

“Come on,” he said.  “Let’s go on line and see if can’t buy you a new one of the same, if I have to go round with a walking eyesore.”

Having browsed, though, a pacified Nolan settled on one in a vivid electric blue as being, after all, perhaps more him.  Nolan’s sartorial notions of what was precisely ‘in’ and a must have for him were always bafflingly idiosyncratic to Andrew but having made the offer to buy it, he went along with doing so, if only, as he said at the time, to shut Nolan up from moaning.

Zav had not waited it out for long, only having gone up to stall for time until he could get back out of the downstairs window, avoiding anyone hearing front or back doors opening and closing behind him.  He was still in time to get a train back along to the main town station. He had texted Al to say he had the garment and Al had texted back to get to the station and just wait.

Zav had been sitting on a bench watching the station clock for a good three quarters of an hour, when Gemma appeared.  Nobody was about to put their faith in anybody any time soon but again there was that glimmer of comradeship between them.

“Come on, then,” was all she said, though and once again Zav followed her into a waiting taxi which was obviously part of the set up.

They were taken this time outside the town, almost, it seemed to Zav, driving on a road parallel to the way he had come.  Then there was a steep curving climb up one of the hillsides, turning off to a gated drive lighting up the way to a big but modern build house situated there.  The taxi dropped them off and departed. Gemma, who was now carrying a small case, rang the bell. A man in affluent looking casuals answered.

“I’m the girl,” said Gemma.  “This one’s for you,” she added, gesturing at Zav.

“Come in,” said the man, with a generically ready smile of greeting which didn’t seem particularly addressed to either of them.  “Would you mind waiting in the hall a moment?” he said to Zav, closing the door. “Come upstairs,” he said to Gemma. “I’ll show you the dressing room.  I’ll let you know when we’re ready for you.”

She followed him up without a word or a look to Zav, who was wondering uneasily what ‘this one’s for you’ was supposed to mean.  The man came back down to Zav.

“I’m having a little party later,” he said, “I need a hostess to put out the nibbles.  She’s brought a few goodies for the occasion. Now, you come through here.” He ushered Zav through into one of the downstairs rooms at the back, who was thinking that no doubt Gemma had had the ‘nibbles’ in the case, as well as something to wear.  “You can take that off now,” he said to Zav of the bodywarmer. Zav did so, hoping that that would be all that was required of him. The doorbell chimed.  “Ah!” said the man, as if expecting it and went to answer it again. To Zav’s surprise it was Al he walked back in with but the man was saying, “It’s good to finally meet you, Faisal.  I’m Adrian. Your gear’s arrived.”

So, Al was being Faisal, was he, thought Zav?  

“Good,” said Al, taking the seat he was offered.

“Right,” continued Adrian.  “Now, we’re all set up. I’ve the old hall on the hill booked for the open air concert tomorrow.  Main item’s one of those grizzly old heavy rock bands. Still draws a crowd, though. That’s where we’ll try out Blood Moon, on the punters.”

“It’s not a party drug like that,” cautioned Al.

“No, I know but they’re all pretty hard core people, they’ll try anything and nobody’s going to press any charges if it goes wrong.”

“Who’ll police the venue, then?”

“The bikers will do it for me.  Plenty round here. They like a gather up.  Bit past it but some of them still look the part. It’ll do.”  Al still did not look entirely convinced. “If I get good reports back, I’ll sell it on for you through my distributors.  Plenty of opportunity. As I told you, I do a lot of promotion work. Advertising’s awash, believe you me.”

“I want to know who’s taken it, though,” said Al.

“You’ll be there to hand it out.  Part of the deal. If anyone comes up to you to ask for it, give it to them.  They’ll have been primed. A sample in controlled circumstances, like you wanted.”

“It doesn’t sound all that controlled,” doubted Al.

“Don’t worry, it won’t be a free for all. How long does it put you under for?”

“About ten or fifteen minutes.”

“Right, well I’m going to have a crash out area.  Of course there will be people taking all sorts, no doubt and using that area too.  It won’t be just our guinea pigs but they will report back to me on how they’ve found it and they know to go to the crash out area when they’ve taken it.  I’ll have paramedics standing by. Have to for health and safety at events.”

“All right but I’m not doing it alone.  I’ll take him and the girl with me. I’ve got to send them back afterwards anyway,” said Al (Zav wondered if that were true or because Al had been told not to leave them roaming about on the loose after Blood Moon was tested).

“I’ve had to go to trouble for this, Faisal,” the man said, less smoothly than before. “You let me down last time.”

“Yes, we’re grateful.  It will be fine.”

“Right, then, would you like to join my little party tonight?”

“No, thanks,” said Al.  “We’ll look after Blood Moon for you.”

“Let’s see it, then.”

Al took out a knife from somewhere in his pockets and slit open the puffy material of the body warmer after removing the lining.  A number of packets of the dark red pills were revealed. Adrian looked at them but made no move to ask for any of it for his ‘party’, presumably wanting no trouble or fatalities at his own house, however light he was making of the risk to people taking it at a rock concert in the great outdoors.  Al then zipped the packets into the inside pockets of his own coat.

“Are we going now, er, Faisal?” asked Zav.

“We are.”

“What about…?”

“Send her to where I’m staying tomorrow, would you, Adrian?”

“Certainly.  I won’t be needing her then.  I hope you enjoy the concert.”

“Doubt it,” muttered Al.  “He might,” he nodded at Zav.  “Looks the right kind of mess for it.”

Adrian laughed breezily and walking them to the door, told them what time to get to the venue.

“We’ll speak later, Faisal,” he said, waving them off to the black cab which was waiting outside, presumably since dropping Al off shortly before.

“Why are you Faisal?” asked Zav.

“Continuity,” said Al.  “Faisal was the contact.  Adrian doesn’t need to know otherwise.  Family knows who’s doing what and what counts.

“Oh,” said Zav.  “Right. Where are we staying, then?”

“Hotel,” said Al.  “We’ll grab a takeaway first.  Needs must.”

Having eaten in the taxi, they were dropped off at a small establishment where it seemed they were already booked in to single rooms.  Al did not invite any further discussion and they went their separate ways to bed. Al told Zav to stay in his until the evening of the following day, merely calling in to throw him in a packet of sandwiches somewhere around lunchtime.  Zav passed the hours watching the room’s tv and getting through the complimentary teas and coffees on a small tray, having put up the do not disturb sign as instructed to avoid room service seeing much of him.

“I’ll knock on for you when I’m ready,” Al had said.

When Al knocked on the door for him, Zav learnt that Al had been back for further discussions with Adrian in the afternoon and was now content that he would not be linked with any personal responsibility for either the event or its outcomes.  Adrian had a particular spot set up for Al to be in, near the front and at the side, so people going to get ‘Blood Moon’ would know where to find him. Zav asked where Gemma was.

“Downstairs.  I got her sent back here when I was with Adrian.”

“Is she all right?”

“I don’t know.  I didn’t ask”, said Al.”

“Oh.  O.K. I thought she was going with us?”

“Yes.  You both know about ‘Blood Moon’, so we’re all sticking together until that’s done tonight.”

“Are we staying here afterwards? It’ll be too late for the train.”

“No.  I’m driving us back.  Car’s outside. I’ll drive us up there as well.  I still don’t like it. Too public. Hamid says go for it, though.  I want you to watch Gemma tonight. You both stay by me, all right? No trying to lose yourselves in the crowd.  There won’t be anywhere to go up there in any case.”

“Of course,” Zav assured him.

They went downstairs, where they found Gemma in the guest lounge.  Al clearly hadn’t spoken to her yet because she said, looking surprised.

“It’s you!  I thought Faisal was…”

“In name only.  I’m here to sort yours and his mess out but as far as anyone knows, I’m Faisal.  Keep it that way.”

A heated look flared momentarily between them, baleful blame in hers and in Al’s a barely disguised but pitying contempt.  No love lost there, now, then, thought Zav, picking the signals up, which would be why he’d been told to watch her tonight.  Well, he’d be better doing that than risk annoying Al, the real threat to Zav at present. If necessary, he could do it in the guise of being protective in the crowd, Zav thought, not that she looked much as if she needed it.  Al took them out to the car, a black VW it looked like and said,

“Anyone hungry?  I’ll swing by the drive in Kentucky Fried on the way.”

Once again, they ate in the car, a further bit of anonymity assured, Zav thought.  It was another steep hillside drive up to the venue but Al knew the route because, he said, Adrian had taken him up earlier at his request to show him and let him check it out.  There was a carpark next to the remains of a gateway leading into the walled, gravelled grounds where a stage was set up in front of the mansion house shell looming against the night sky behind.  There were pop up snacks and drinks stalls just outside and next to the car park. A crowd was already arriving, faded black t-shirts and sweatshirts adorned with gothic lettering giving the band’s name, ‘Skull Cup’, and its logo, a leering human skull with a celtic design silver helmet top and ramshead horn handles.  A number of motorbikes were already parked up and similarly garbed folk, with the addition of high vis jackets reading ‘staff’ which showed they were on duty. Al, Zav and Gemma looked at them all going in before Al gave them a permit entry each and they went in themselves, stationed quite near the stage at the side where they had a good view of both crowd and stage.

“Where’s the crash out bit?” asked Zav.

“Over there,” Al told him, pointing it out.  “Marquee thing at the back beside the house, cafe garden usually, Adrian said.”

It was a clear night with only a little cloud but the lights trained on the stage dimmed the stars.  This being a one off of some occasional come backs to showcase ‘Skull Cup’s’ once reasonably famous name, there was no support band, Zav, chatting to a couple of people before it started, found out.  Al, unobtrusive in a dark hoodie and jeans, the hood up, was standing right before a sign which in daylight had white fingerposts pointing from it, with ‘mansion visitor centre and cafe’ on them. It was visible in the stage lighting.  People started coming up to him for the promised drugs but it was done quietly so as not to attract any general attention.

The band erupted on to the stage from the mansion’s interior and its windows were suddenly lit by a flame like blaze from special effects within.  The noise of their playing was huge, careering into the night, the band members seeming to have retained hair and beards whose continued growth had drained their ravagedly lined faces of all remaining youth.  The base speakers thrummed through the ground. The singer, a big man given to guttural roaring in between ragingly menacing lyrics, paced and straddled the stage like a minotaur on the pull. The showmanship was almost tongue in cheek, it was so over the top.  The first set ended and he announced a short break. People had been coming up to Al discreetly throughout and as the lights dimmed slightly, fill in music being played, the lead singer, who must have seen that, suddenly appeared, a creakingly cracked looking biker jacket thrown round his sweating, heavy bare torso.

“Let me try some.  ‘Blood Moon’. Never had that one.”

“Who told you?” asked Al, holding back.

“Adie.  Last night.  Said we’re the big draw but there’s a new little sideline.  Told me to ask you. I’ll save it for afters, if you want.”

Al hesitated and then got a fresh packet out of his pocket.  He went to take one of the pills out but the big man grabbed the bag and tipped the entire contents down his gullet in one go.

“Nothing knocks me out,” said the singer with a wink from one lizardy eye.   “Ha, ha! Let’s rip!”

Leaping back into action on stage, the lights came back on and he belted through another number or two.  Nothing seemed to happen so Al continued giving out ‘Blood Moon’ to people. Next, the singer addressed the crowd.

“This is a special time in our calendar!  What do we drink from at Wolf Moon?” he bellowed.

“Skull Cups!” the crowd roared back in obedient exultation.

“There’s another name for Wolf Moon, people.  Blood Moon! Tonight, we celebrate the Wolf Blood Moon!  Who do you celebrate it with?”

He pointed skywards, where there was no moon up yet visible behind the increasing clouds but this didn’t seem to matter, as the crowd yelled back,

“Skull Cup!” in triumphant rejoinder to the rallying cry.

This led into the band’s namesake signature number, which everyone seemed to expect, arms waving and singing along.  Zav looked at Al, who shook his head, not happy at this grandstanding, if oblique, reference to the drug. The number ended with another titanic roar from the singer as he raised his own arms, spotlit.  He stood absolutely still, as if thunderstruck, then meaty looking gouts of blood, propelled by force from within, jetted from his mouth, ears, nose and, as he sank to his knees, every orifice, as his body exsanguinated violently in front of them all.  The debris around him was frightful.

“Awesome!” somebody shouted.

“The best yet!” yelled another.

A smatter of applause followed as the singer’s body slumped fully to the ground but the band had not begun playing again, looking horrified.

“Fucking shit!” Zav heard Al say, aghast.

The lights went off on stage.

“Send up the fireworks!  Distract everyone before they all start to panic!” shouted somebody.

A firework display began to crash into the sky above the mansion, exploding cascades of colour showering down but it was too late.  There was screaming now from the crowd and a crush to get out. Zav grabbed Gemma’s arm as she was jostled aside from them.

“Come on!” said Al to them both.  “We have to get out. I don’t want us caught up in emergency services.”

Already they could hear sirens from below.  They managed to battle their way determinedly back to the car in the confusion and Zav said,

“We should hide out. I know where we are.”  Zav had taken a lot in from Douglas’s blog about the area round the monument.  “Take that back top road and follow it round. There’s a secure place right out of the way.  We can wait there till later. Come on, Al! Will Adrian cover up?”

“He’ll have to,” said Al, thinking quickly as he followed Zav’s directions.  “I’ll take you to that place. Here, Zav, take the stash back and hide out with it.  I’ll have to get to Adrian.”

They drove round to Kitty’s Keep, which had nothing in it except the deserted and empty old garrison building, so it was not hard to get into.  Al tried for a signal on his mobile and as there were plenty of masts around the hilltops linking communities up, he got one.

“Hamid,” he said.  “ ‘Blood Moon’. It’s not safe.  It’s really, really not safe.” He rang off again.  “Right. I’ll come back as soon as I can. You’re sheltered here for now.”

There was nothing to make a fire with and only the bare floor or window sills to sit on inside but it was roofed still.  Al went. Zav and Gemma went to look up the straight narrow stone staircase but there was only a single room up there with a lookout window.  The glass of it was broken and wind came through the hole in chilly threads, poking at their faces with the feel of coming frost in its touch.  They went back downstairs to shelter on the ground floor. Gemma had cigarettes and a lighter. They smoked a couple, then warmed their fingers occasionally cupped round the tiny lighter flame and eventually, just huddled together for warmth.  Neither wanted to speak of what they had seen, so instead, Zav told Gemma the story of the Grosvenors and why this was called ‘Kitty’s Keep’, to pass some more time.

“Creepy but probably a crock of shit,” she opined.

They moved round to sit back to back, warming through a different bit of them together, smoking another cigarette each.  Because they were not facing, Zav found it easier to ask,

“Last night.  Were you all right?  With them?”

“What do you care?” was her smartly sharp rejoinder.

“Just asking,” said Zav.

“They weren’t too bad.  Nothing weird.”

“Oh.  That’s all right, then.”

“Well it’s not, is it?” she said flatly.  “But it’s how it is.”

“Doesn’t have to be.”


“You can come back with me instead.”


“Why not?  I can handle us hiding out from the Saleems,”  Zav announced confidently.

She gave a rather mirthless laugh.

“Maybe I don’t want to.”

“And maybe you do,” but Zav said no more after that.

They flipped their dimps and turned side by side again, looking at one another.

“No,” she said.

“I’m not asking,” said Zav.

“Good,” she said.  “Because you’re not getting.”

The narrow, scornful glance again had a small smile accompanying it, though.  Zav gave a little smile back. They got up to stamp about, really chilled through now.

“Where the fuck is he?” demanded Zav.

“That’s Al for you,” said Gemma.  “Mr Reliable.”

“Come on,” said Zav.  “We’re better trying to walk on ourselves than freezing to death here if he’s left us.”

After another little while, Gemma agreed and they set off again to go further along the winding hill road but after a distance travelled in silence, it started to rain a sleety drizzle.

“Great plan,” muttered Gemma.

“We’re above the monument now,” Zav said.  “We’ll go in there till it stops, then straight on down the hill path.  Look, I stayed with some kind people around here just before. I’ll get us there.  Nobody else knows where they are” (well,he still didn’t think so, at least). “We’ll get to them.”

They were in a serious fix now, so Gemma agreed they would not try to contact Al until they had found some real shelter, if, indeed, they chose to do so at all.  They made their way down to the monument and into the dry base of one of the turrets, waiting out the night shower. Zav took out all the packets of ‘Blood Moon’ and left them in the dark stairwell of one of the turrets because Gemma told him to get rid of it.

“That could have been me,” she shuddered.  “Faisal made me take it.”

“Hamid made me take it,” said Zav sombrely.  “So it could have been me too.”

“Bastards!” exclaimed Gemma.  “The way he died!”

“He took far too much,” said Zav.  “Let’s hope it’s not mass murder. We don’t know what happened to anyone else who took it up there.”

“No,” she agreed slowly.  “Maybe you’re right and we should just get away.  It’s not our fault. Let them all get banged up for it, if anybody does.”

“Exactly,” said Zav, as if this had been precisely his point.

Although up till then it hadn’t been, his instinct for self preservation coming first, like hers, brought them both into tacit agreement on that and to concentrating on their escape.

“Here.  Give me the phone they gave you,” she said suddenly.

Zav did.  With him holding the lighter so she could see, she removed both sim cards and flung them in different directions down the hillside, then did the same with the mobiles.  He showed her that he still had his own, so they did have some means of contact with the outside world. The rain had stopped again, so they pursued the slippery route down to the levels and then followed the road along the railway line, intending to get the first train along to the village where the Munros lived.

At the Munros’ house, the late evening news began to flash up local bulletins about a catastrophe at the open air rock concert held that night in the grounds of the old mansion home.  Ghastly details began to unfold of what people had filmed on their phones and smuggled onto social media, reaching the main media quickly. In one, as the singer was being shown at the start of his death throes, arms aloft, the film caught three figures lit up at the side as the phone scanned the crowd too.  One, with a hood up, was turned to the side, face concealed, next to him, quite clearly, a white faced Zav and a young woman or girl next to them. Most was darkness and confusion after that, the worst of what was going on with the singer pixelated out for the sake of viewers.

“It’s the lad!” exclaimed Douglas.  “Is he with anyone?”

It was hard to tell if he was, or just by people at the time.  Andrew and Nolan looked at one another. They both wanted to go and find out what was going on, professional curiosity woken in both of them.

“We’ll drive up to try and find him, Dad,” said Andrew.

“Would you?  I don’t want to think of him stranded in the middle of all that dreadful chaos,” said Douglas, as reports continued of a riotous pandemonium following on, with emergency services attending the stricken.

Further footage followed of the event’s promoter, speaking calmly from the hallway of his home, saying that it was early days but some kind of medical event had befallen the singer while on stage and assuring the interviewer that all was being done to assist concert goers to safety.  In the background amongst others in the lit doorway was again a figure of someone in a hooded jacket but the camera caught a glimpse of his face before he turned aside.

“Hang on.  That young asian guy.   Isn’t that..?” said Nolan.

“Who?” asked Andrew, who hadn’t noticed.

“Can’t be.  Seeing things.  Never mind,” said Nolan, not elucidating.

“Come on.  Let’s go,” said Andrew.

Judith, if she wanted to, had no time to demur, as Andrew and Nolan hurried out instantly before anyone could even tell them to be careful.  They reached the scene shortly afterwards and explained they were trying to find a friend who had been at the concert to the harrassed medics and police attending to people.  They were directed to the marquee if they couldn’t spot the friend in the crowd still there. There were crush injuries and other casualties in the marquee, not dead but some in a bad way from something they had taken, people were saying.  Nolan talked to a woman sitting by a man in the crash out area, a saline drip in his arm as he continued to bleed from his mouth sporadically.

“What happened?” asked Nolan.

“I don’t know.  Something new being circulated.  I think they were only supposed to take one but some people wanted more and passed them round to take a few at once.  They’re all bleeding, like Wally from Skull Cup, only not as drastic. He died on stage.”

“Internal hemorrhage and hemorrhagic bleeding,” said a medic grimly, checking on people nearby.  “We’re trying to stabilise them before we move them.”

“How many?” asked Nolan, appalled.

“About twenty here, so far.  Maybe more if it started after they left.  It’s bad. Very, very bad. No idea what damage might have been done to them.”

Ambulances on standby were waiting to take people away, while the walking wounded were being encouraged to accept lifts away from the terrible scene.  Andrew and Nolan searched carefully but there was no sign of Zav. Reluctantly, they left the place to go back to the house but agreed to come and look again first thing.  Both had one thought. He might be hiding out at the monument again if he were not with people. This being the case, they went out again as early as possible in the morning.  The mansion house was cordoned off and only had the odd policeman on watch. The news had reported that a number of bikers who had been on as security had been arrested for questioning as the likely source of any distribution going on, the latest on the victims being that several had been left in a perilous, if not moribund condition, others less seriously ill but their future uncertain.

They drove to the monument, went down to it and made a thorough search.  It was Andrew who found number of packets of dark red pills in the stairwell, together with something else that had been dropped, probably by accident.

“That,” he said, “is my Dad’s scarf.  Mum bought it him for Christmas.”

“Zav,” said Nolan.

“Zav,” agreed Andrew.  “Was he the pusher, then?”

“Well, they’re not smarties by the look of them, are they?  Look, let’s keep them till we find him. Safer with us than out there.”

“But - shouldn’t we hand them in?”

“Yes but we’re not going to, are we?  This is a serious case, Andrew and your parents sheltered him.  We need to find Zav and sort out what’s been going on. Can’t have your poor old mum and dad implicated in anything, can we?  They’d be devastated to be in any way to blame, even innocently. That bodywarmer. I wonder.”

“Could be what it was brought in.”

“But who for?” pondered Nolan, thinking again of the face he thought he had seen on television but still finding it inherently unlikely to have been Al Saleem.  “Listen. We’re going back tomorrow. I’ll sneak some of this into one of Billy’s lab colleagues. See if they can analyse it.”

Andrew frowned but agreed, reasoning that the police would have got hold of any other samples knocking about by now anyway.  Everybody affected who could be questioned would be soon, wouldn’t they, as soon as was possible, surely?

“Temporarily, then, perhaps,” he compromised.

Zav didn’t turn up overnight and they left to go back to the city with Douglas and Judith promising that if he did, they would contact Andrew immediately.  They had decided they would try some investigating from down there, once they had found out what was in the drugs because they were all sure, from what Zav had mentioned when he had been with Andrew’s parents, and from his accent, that he had come from the same city they lived in themselves.

Al had been kept at Adrian’s overnight trying to sort things out, far longer than he had intended.  They agreed to leave the blameless biker people being implicated.

“I didn’t ask them to do it for nothing,” said Adrian.  “Decoy fall guys for a cover up if we needed it. Should muddy the waters for a while.  That was the first batch, was it, that came out?”

“Yes.  But Zav and Gemma both tried one each and they were all right afterwards.”

“Could be inconsistent amounts in the doses and they only took one.  It’s more of it that seems to be dangerous,” said Adrian.

“Seems to be!” Al burst out.  “I told them I didn’t like it!”

“Good job you’ve a head on you, then,” said Adrian.  “Use it. No more deals with that stuff. Send that message back. Now get out and keep away.  What about those other two.”

“Safely gone,” lied Al, not having admitted to Adrian he’d left them alone with the rest of the ‘Blood Moon’ packages.

“Go, then,” said Adrian.

Al was glad to do so, anxious for those he had left all night exposed on the hillside in minimal shelter but of course, when he got there, the keep was empty.  He tried both phones but the numbers were dead. Reluctantly, he reported to Hamid that they’d gone and he couldn’t get hold of them, adding hopefully that the batteries had probably just run out.

“I’ll go to the hotel,” he said.  “I expect they’ve gone back there.”

He didn’t add to Hamid, either, that he had now lost the rest of ‘Blood Moon’ along with Zav and Gemma but while it worried him, he surmised correctly that they’d had had the sense to dispose of it.  They were not, of course, at the hotel, which left him thinking that they had panicked and run when he didn’t come. What to do about damage limitation, he wasn’t sure.

When it came to it, after the rest of the night spent in the small station waiting room, barely warmer but far more welcome than the outdoors, Gemma had demurred about the idea of going back to Zav’s elderly couple.

“You don’t know the Saleems like I do,” she said.  “They always find out.”

Zav thought uneasily of Faisal’s threat to follow up on where he had stayed and who had taken him in but decided not to mention it.  If Gemma was right, they’d be safe enough if he didn't turn up there again. Besides, he had to think of himself now and Gemma too, of course.  In the event, they took a detour train to a different main station and travelled down to the city again to hide out together, not with anyone they knew, but they would feel safer back in a big place they knew their way around.

“We’ll find an empty place to go underground in,” said Zav.  “I’m sure we’re both good at living on our wits.” Gemma looked at him and they both knew what that was likely to mean for each of them if they were not careful.  “I’m a great shoplifter,” Zav added.

“Me too,” said Gemma with her mean little smile and so, they were to become companions of a kind after all.

The first thing she insisted on before anything else was that Zav be shorn of his trademark locks.  She went to do the same, emerging together to meet, she from a small hairdressers and he from a barber’s, Zav with  a close cropped short look and she with hers cut blunt and coloured dull brown.  They looked young, poor and unremarkable. After that, they went to secure a base.

Al returned to his brother, whom he told that he had disposed of the drugs himself.

“What about those two, little brother?”

“I haven’t found them,” Al admitted.

“Right,” said Hamid.  “Fetch Faisal. He reckons he can find out where our little sewer rat stayed, even if you can’t,” and with that, Al knew that his own star had dimmed again.  “What a fuck up,” Hamid added. “By both of you. From start to finish.”

Al knew to resist the temptation to defend himself, and managed it.


Nolan and Andrew felt that there were limits to the way forward.  Nolan took charge of the tablets and making arrangements for analysis through one of Billy’s colleagues in the lab.  Andrew said he would try mingling around the street people in the town, to see if anyone knew Zav or who might have got him involved as the dealing vector.  Being a very fluid population, this would be difficult but he started with young people begging rather than seeking out the hidden homeless. There was a perturbing number of them in what seemed every shop doorway, inhabiting every set of steps, in front of food shops, cash outlets, on corners.  Even if you made allowances for what the official figures said, that not everyone doing this was living directly on the streets, Andrew felt you’d hardly choose to do it in the poor weather of winter unless, for some reason, you had to.  Sometimes Andrew pretended to be one of them and sometimes a voluntary outreach worker trying to reconnect with Zav, who Andrew claimed had said he wanted help but if anyone did know Zav, they didn’t tell Andrew.

News reports had continued to cover what had happened at the Skull Cup concert.  Wally’s was now not the only death and others remained gravely ill. Adrian was wheeled out a couple more times to make sombre statements about how important it was for people to know what they were taking in any festival context where, despite all precautions, ‘rogue elements’ as he put it, could always get things around.  Although no direct evidence had been found against the bikers, comments like these kept them in the line of fire for blame. Adrian reported too on having visited the ill, rather as if this were a graciousness on his part, since being the promoter of the event, he was distressed enough already but saw it as a duty. He came off well, all things considered.  Any recoverers who were fit enough to be questioned were quite unable to recall how Blood Moon had been passed to them, having been promised good money from the start for keeping quiet if anything went wrong, an offer Adrian had repeated at their bedside along with, reluctantly the messenger of it, a threat from ‘the Albanian mafia’ if they spoke up, Adrian of course, being an entirely innocent party.  Police investigations had not discovered any of the substance elsewhere.  Although Andrew and Nolan carefully followed the news reports which continued for a few days after their return, when Adrian spoke there were no further sightings of anyone with him in the background who looked like Al and when Nolan had tried to find the original one, it only have been shown on local news, it was no longer, if it ever had been, downloadable.  He still hadn’t mentioned it to Andrew when Andrew had a call from his father to say a very nice young man had called to see them saying he was Zav’s post foster support key worker from the city and was still trying to find him, which Andrew’s father had found comforting.

“Apparently, he did see Zav after he left us the first time and Zav had told him about how kind we’d been.  It seems he’s on the missing list again now and this chap wondered if he’d come back to us at all, or if we might know where he could have gone off to now.  He said it’s hard to get him settled in anywhere but he’s still determined to help with that if he can.”

“Oh?” said Andrew.   “What was he like?”

“Very smiley.  Pleasant looking fellow.  Puts you at your ease, good at getting you talking.  Mind you, that doesn’t take a lot in my case, I know.  As your mother will happily tell you,” he added self deprecatingly.  "Of course, I couldn’t really help him.”

“Did he give you a name?” asked Andrew, thinking that this was one very dedicated key worker if he’d come all that way but then, maybe you would be in that kind of work.

“Um, yes but I didn’t quite catch it, one of those complicated Indian ones.  He said his first name was Hal, or something like that.”

“Didn’t he show you any I.D.?”

“Oh, yes of course, at the door, plastic card with a picture, name etc.  Looked official. Pity I can’t get his name but names are something that I’m starting to lose these days.  He’s left me a mobile number.”

“So - what did you talk about?”

“General chat about how Zav came to us, how long he stayed.  Then he was asking if Zav was wearing anything distinctive that might help get him looked for.  I told him about that bodywarmer and all the fuss  he made about it when he’d come back for it. I said  that we’d seen Zav at that awful concert on the news, so my son and his friend had both kindly gone to look for him but no sign.  He asked if you’d met Zav too. I said yes but only for a short while. I think he was hoping to talk to you as well but I said you’d gone home now.  We were getting along very nicely. He thought it was funny Nolan wanted to keep that red bodywarmer, said it was a good job Zav had taken it back if it stood out so much.  I remember I showed him that picture I have of you and me hillwalking. I don’t know why. He just seemed so chatty and interested in everyone, especially the two of you. Nice chap. I must get that photograph reglazed.  I knocked the frame off my desk before Christmas and it’s been in my drawer ever since.”

“Did you tell him our names, Dad, mine and Nolan’s?”

“No, no I don’t think so.  Well, maybe, in passing. I must have because I tell you what, though, he did ask me something hilarious.”


“He asked if you’d gone looking for Zav because you were really private detectives.  You two!” hooted Andrew’s father. “I’m still crying laughing.”

“Right,” said Andrew, now feeling disturbed.  “So what happened then?”

“Well, he said did I think you'd mind if he contacted you, so I said I’d ask you first and if you didn’t object I’d pass on his number and you could call him." 

“O.K.  I’ll think about it but give me his number.”  There was a pause while Andrew’s father went to search it out from his desk papers and Andrew thought things over, asking, after making a note of the phone number, “Dad, did he seem especially interested in the bodywarmer?”

“Not especially, no, why would he be?  It was just to see if Zav might have been wearing something distinctive he could use in a description.”

“All right, Dad.  Do you think mum might remember his name?”

“No.  She wasn’t in at the time but if you ring him you can ask him yourself, can’t you?”

“Did you tell her about it afterwards?”

“Yes.  I don’t think she was very impressed that I’d let him in.  She never really trusted the orfling or anything to do with him, you know.”

“Maybe she was right, Dad.  Look. Do me a favour. If he or anybody else comes back, you make sure you say there is no more you can tell them and don’t let them in.  It might be genuine but it might not be. You never know. Tell me if they do and leave it with me.”

“All right, son.  Private detectives!” his father chuckled again delightedly as he rang off.

Andrew’s first act was to ring Nolan.

“Nolan,” he said, “tell me who it was you thought you saw on the t.v. with Adrian.  It’s important.”

“Don’t see how it could be.”

“Just tell me.”

“All right.  Al Saleem.”



“Because I’m pretty sure Faisal Saleem’s just visited my father looking for Zav, pretending to be some kind of social worker for him.  Of course, Dad fell for it.”

“Why do you think it was him?”

“Dad described him as smiley, good at putting you at ease and getting you talking, some Indian sounding name he didn't recall, first name he thought had been ‘Hal’ but not that.”

“Al, then, could be?”

“Not by the description.  Al’s too antsy and since when did anyone call him smiley?  No. No, I’m pretty sure it was Faisal smoothing his way in (he wouldn’t have given his real last name I’m sure but maybe his real first one, why not)?  Somehow the Saleems are involved and they know Zav stayed with my parents. Now, Faisal’s seen a picture of me my Dad showed him and he told Faisal the two of us went looking for Zav at the concert.  Dad also told him you wanted the bodywarmer.”

“Ah.  Could be a clutch of two and twos making five in Faisal’s head then, if you’re right.”

“Oh, I’m right.  He next asked Dad if we were looking for Zav because we were private detectives.  Dad nearly wet himself laughing.”

“Maybe that’ll put him off the scent.”

“Dad?  Doubtful.”

“Well, if we’re screwed we’ll get threatened.  They’ll remember just who we are. I think we should stick together.”

“Is Billy back?”

“No, not till Friday.  One thing, though, Al knows where I live.  He followed Dee and Finney once, turned up here.”

“Really?  You never said.”

“No.  Well.  No need, he fucked off sharpish.”

“Then, you’d better come to mine.”

“There’s no room and I won’t be persuaded to share your bed, no matter how much you beg.  No, you come here. Safety in numbers. I’ll keep us on lock down with all the security cameras live.  I’ve got loads round the place. I’ll put the software on your phone so we can both check the footage.”

“We’ve got Blood Moon.”

“Yes but nobody knows that yet.  I’m seeing my guy at the lab tomorrow, the one I trust to do it on the q.t.”

“O.K.  Well, even more reason then for us to keep looking for Zav ourselves as well.  We don’t know yet how the Saleems are involved but I’ll bet he does.”

“I reckon they think Zav’s still got Blood Moon and that’s why they’re after him.  They won’t want it getting on the black market if they’re behind distribution, especially if it’s lethal.”

“But why up there?  I mean, it’s way off the city territory,” said Andrew.

“City territory!  They operate internationally, don’t they?  Perhaps it was some kind of trial run,” guessed Nolan.

“Maybe I should just play dumb and make contact with him as the social worker.”

“Yes, might stop break ins to get to us at the office or our homes.  Give it till after I’ve had the stuff analysed though, to suggest meeting, if he does.  Tell him you’re away at your girlfriend’s for a few days. Don’t give away you’ve sussed, if you do recognise his voice.”

In the event, the call he made went to voicemail, so Andrew left an innocently helpful sounding message without mentioning his own surname, just in case he could get away with not being himself when it came to it and laying on a much stronger version of his regional home accent than he usually spoke with.

Nolan took a packet of Blood Moon to a rather more renegade colleague of Billy’s than most of the working scientists were.  One of the things he did on the side was to test out the new street drugs now and again for Nolan out of both personal and scientific interest, as there were so many substances being brought into the country.  He wasn’t above trying them himself, so Nolan warned him that he had been passed it while staying up at Andrew’s parents and that they’d gone along to the rock concert where the poor ‘Skull Cup’ singer had died.

You did?” asked the scientist, surveying Nolan looking out and proud in his new electric blue gilet.

“Show willing and all that, as a guest.  Andrew’s a musical dinosaur. Can’t help it when you come from the hills.”

“I’ll be interested to have a look at it.  Is it part of one of your cases?”

“Kind of.  The kid that brought it, he’s gone missing and I’m really pretty sure it originated from down here to start with.  I need to find him but I want to know what I’m dealing with in terms of what’s being put out there.”

“Right.  Well let’s see what we’ve got.”

What they had turned out to be a lethally toxic compound which in unregulated amounts caused catastrophic organ failure and hemorrhage bleeds.

“Think snake venom, Nolan,” the scientist told him.  “That’s how fast it works. I tried it on some lab mice.  Tiny dose, they just slowed right down, heartbeat and breathing.  Any more, they just kind of blew apart.”

Nolan grimaced.

“You didn’t try it, did you, Gerry?” he asked the scientist, who looked more like a genial surfer than a technical professional.

“Well, you did say the one tablet people had lived.”

“You did take it, didn’t you!” accused Nolan.  “Swear to me you won’t say a word to Billy when he’s back.”

“Do I ever?” asked Gerry.

“So - how was it?”

“Just, an absence.  You’re not there in any conscious way but it’s like the brain closing down, light flashes, a sense of out of body, then nothing.  When you wake up, though, you feel at peace, as if you’ve gone through something extraordinary.”

“Like a near death experience?” pondered Nolan.

“Yeah.  And if you take any more, an actual death experience.”

“I wonder where it’s come from…”

“No idea.  I’ll keep it safe and I might do some more work on it.  Have you got any more?”

“No,” said Nolan untruthfully, because although the rest of the packages were locked up in his home office secret safe, he didn’t quite trust Gerry not to try refining it himself to see if he could create safer amounts to deal in.  Gerry being so open minded about things was one of the reasons Nolan could avail himself of his talents.

Zav and Gemma had found a place on one of two remaining streets of mainly boarded up terraces in the old industrial hinterlands near the city.  Around, all was demolished and it was protected by huge hoarding fences bearing boldly imagined picture motifs of glories to come when the area was regenerated.  The utilities were still on because the odd set of residents remained on each of the once family busy streets and they soon reconnected gas and electric metres themselves, Zav knowing what to do. The place they chose did not seem long empty, bits of useable furniture left behind, decentish mattresses in two of the rooms not yet discovered by any other rough sleepers.  Both of them being as good at shoplifting as they claimed, they had soon equipped their bolt hole. They left the grills on the windows and ensured nobody saw them going in or out with their own keys, having put new locks on themselves. Hacking neighbourhood wifi systems with the laptops they had acquired, they kept an eye on things.  Zav worried that kids or someone else might have found the pills and that they should have got rid of them better. Gemma said no because only people who had been at the concert had been affected or died and anyway, so what, it was nothing to do with them now.

Indeed, they had other business they had been getting down to.  They were not so far away as all that from the Watersides area's bars and walkways.  At first, they just took a chance on rolling solitary passersby, preferably drunk.  Gemma would emerge from the shadows by a bridge wall, either seeming to offer to turn tricks or to be asking for post assault help, drably bedraggled.  When the person stopped, out of sexual interest, to ask if she needed help, or just tried to get by as if they hadn’t seen her, Zav would spring out at them from behind with a speed and ferocity they stood no chance against, taken by surprise.  If they were ever later trying to describe their attackers, there was little to describe, a thin girl and a skinny guy with a shorn head who was all over them like a spider monkey but who knew where and how to hurt. Once down, Zav and Gemma quickly robbed them of any valuables.  This way, whatever they couldn’t shoplift themselves, they purchased on the stolen cards. Couriers didn’t care what the home address looked like. Goods were paid for after all and they only had to drop it off. Sometimes in their muggings things escalated and if they met more resistance than expected, they would simply push people into the water and leave them to struggle, melting away themselves.  This had begun when one seemingly unconscious man had clutched at Zav’s ankle, bringing him to his own knees. Gemma had kicked his hand off and rolled him in the river in one quickly ruthless move. After that, they did not always hesitate to do it again.

There were frequent accidents in the waterways involving the drunk or high and so their robberies were not initially tied in, although they began to gain some urban myth status locally as shadowy robbers and possible assassins of the unwary.  To make sure they were not caught, or came to the notice of those they were already hiding from, they moved their activities online, changing tactics to a dating sting. It was easy, Zav said, to make people want you, or want to think they loved you.  

They did put ‘Elisa’ on camera but this blurry image, hood up, showed no detail of face or feature apart from an occasional glimpse of eyes.  It added to the allure of ‘Elisa’s' mystery. Sometimes it was Gemma and sometimes Zav and if anyone got hooked into a conversation after openers, intrigued by not being able to see the ‘Elisa’ whose more than glamorous picture decorated her fake profile, it was Zav who took over and showed Gemma how to work and milk it.

“You can start with a bit of sexy talk but the trick is easy.  You have to infatuate them, get Elisa right into their heads. Sometimes you answer, sometimes you don’t when they try to come on line to talk to you.  You push, you pull, you cause rows, you get them constantly on the run. You trust them. You don’t trust them. How do you know you can trust them?  They have to prove it because all you want is to find your soul mate in them. I know it’s cheesy but people love all that crap. All they probably really wanted at first is a shag but you’ve got to hook them well in to wanting to help you. We just want their money.”

“Too right, we do,” said Gemma, who was finding being with Zav suited her.  

They had their own rooms in the empty house but if they wanted to, slept together more for company than anything else.  It was not a particularly sexual relationship, although they tried it sometimes. They worked better as straightforward partners in crime and the bond between them remained more the affinity of survivors than anything else.  Since Zav understood people, he knew that, for someone like Gemma, not having to buy into a complete relationship made this one stronger between them because neither her love nor her body was being exploited. No, they both just took past resentments out on their victims instead.


 Chapter 27  Fallout


Faisal had returned to his cousins.  He’d spoken to the old man where Zav had been for a few days, he said but pronounced it to be a dead end, except that he was almost sure the man’s son had been one of the two private detectives “who had been sniffing round things the summer before last. Mind you when I asked him, the old man thought it was hysterical, nearly laughed himself sick.”

“So what’s the story, then?” Hamid had frowned.  “Why would they be connected, way out there?”

“Same names, I think, maybe, if I remember right and he showed me a photo of him and his son out walking.  I’m not entirely sure, they had woolly hats on, gloves, big padded coats and stuff but that same open, freckle face type I thought I recognised.”

“Think,...Maybe...Type,” cautioned Hamid.  “Not the same face?”

“Well, like I say, fresh faced like him but he has phoned me to leave a message.  Not the same voice. That local accent up there, northern country bumpkin with a bit of a Geordie lilt.  The old guy had nothing to hide, didn’t know a thing, just prattled on. One of them, the son or his friend, had taken to  wearing the bodywarmer but then, Zav had left it there, then came back for it and they just handed it over.  There’s only the old man and his wife there now and they haven’t a clue where Zav is. Poor old chap was only sorry he’d gone. Took a shine to him, clearly, little did they know.”

Al, who had listened to all this with an air of introspective disdain, now said,

“The bodywarmer doesn’t exist any more.  I cut the drugs out of it and Adrian got rid of it.  So if anyone really is trying to chase that down, they’re wasting their time, aren’t they?  And why would those detectives be involved? Nobody’s onto tracing where Blood Moon arrived at the concert from.  Nobody’s even given a description of me giving the damn stuff out, have they?”

“Not as far as you know,” put in Faisal slyly.

“Anyway,” Al continued after a challenging stare at his cousin, “I followed up on who they were back then.  Just two no mark amateurs Dee’s parents had hired to try and find her. That’s why they kept blundering in on things by accident.  It wasn’t us or anything we do they wanted to know about. Once she went, they went, didn’t they?”

Hamid cast his mind back through the many things they had all been involved in since and seemed to agree that this was so.

“Hmmm, well either a coincidence too many or no coincidence at all, as Al says.  I don’t want any more time wasting. Leave it. Finding Zav and Gemma to deal with is my priority for you two dunderheads  I don’t like loose cannons flying about. They’re the ones who know too much. Get your ears to the ground. If they’re back here, they’ll be hanging around with the rest of the mudskippers and they’ll crawl out of the slime again sooner or later.”

“I’ll take care of it,” said Al promptly.  “Besides, they haven’t got any of Blood Moon.  I told you, I got rid of it all.”

“So you tell me,” said Hamid slowly, eyeing him darkly.  “So you tell me…”

Al jumped up and exclaimed fretfully,

“What?  You don’t trust me now?” in high dudgeon.

“Sit down, little brother,” ordered Hamid.  “No spitting that dummy out. You lost them, didn’t you?”  Al conceded that he had. “Then you find them.” Hamid laughed sarcastically.  “Or maybe Faisal can hire your amateur detectives to find them for you. They probably stand more chance.”

Faisal’s smile was for once rather sickly because this was him being told to stand down again, since he hadn’t produced the goods after his trip to visit the old people who had given Zav sanctuary.

“Maybe I can do something else for you, Hamid?” he offered. “While Al’s dealing with that.”

Hamid’s hard stare now turned on him.

“If you can,” he said, “I’ll be letting you know.  Go play happy families for a while.”

“Fine,” said Faisal, trying to look affably unaffronted.  “Whatever you want, Hamid.”

Nolan got the remaining packets of Blood Moon out of the safe and he and Andrew looked at them warily while Nolan explained Gerry’s first findings.

“Should we just destroy it?” asked Andrew.

“I don’t know.  Maybe not yet. We might need it to hold over the Saleems’ heads if they do come after us.”

“But then they might threaten Mum and Dad!” objected Andrew.

“I’m not saying we’ll do anything, necessarily.  Just hold it for now. I’ll put it back, keep it locked up.”

“Look,” said Andrew.  “Billy’s back soon. I can’t keep staying here like this.  He’ll be wanting to charge me rent at this rate.”

“Don’t rush it.  He’s not back till Friday, you can go just before that.  If you’re right and that really was Faisal who went to see your Dad, one of them will come.”  

Nolan recalled, most uncomfortably, his own former encounter with Hamid (still kept silent about) and hoped that it wouldn’t be him, at least.  In the event, it wasn’t either Hamid or Faisal who came. It was Al, who contrary to what he had said at the time, had thought that Faisal was possibly right and if so, that if the detectives had been tracking Zav, he could now take advantage of that to force their hand into assisting him in secret to find Gemma and Zav before others did, especially since he had no idea whether or not they might have held onto the drugs rather than ditching them.  He went back to the house he’d once clandestinely visited before when he’d threatened Nolan and boldly rang the doorbell. The door opened before he’d even finished pressing the button.

“Keeping an eye on your cameras, I see,” said Al, indicating the ones he’d spotted.  “Thought I might as well just walk right up.”

“Al,” said Andrew, who was the only one in, Nolan having gone in to speak to Gerry again about Blood Moon and what else he might have discovered.

“That’s me,” said Al.  “Can I come in for a word?  Mutual benefit.”

Andrew let Al, who was looking as ordinarily uncomplicated as any casual caller might be, into the house.  Clearly Andrew had been right about it having been Faisal who had talked to his father.

“Well?” he asked.

“Where’s your mate? The one that lives here with his, you know,” said Al.

“They’re not here right now.”

“Right.  Now, don’t be worried about this,” said Al.  “Nobody knows I’m coming to you. I’ve convinced my brother and his cousin you’re not worth following up on, that he was wrong and you were just a couple of divvies from a missing persons’ agency Dee’s parents got in to try to find her.”  He gave a short, unflattering laugh. “Not much cop at it were you? Just crashing in everywhere and nearly getting yourselves in all sorts of bother with us.”  Andrew let this pass.  “Faisal couldn’t remember faces and names quite well enough so I’ve pretty much persuaded them it would be a laughably crazy coincidence for it to have been you up there at the same time as Zav.  Only, you were, weren’t you? You have to remember, I’m the one who was handling Zav down here and up there and he talked to me. I need to find him and there’s a girl he legged it with.”

Andrew evinced no awareness of any of this.

“You want us to find them?  I thought we were rubbish at finding people?”

“Don’t get cocky, now.  I want you to get hold of the fixer up to start with, the one who sent us Zav.  He’s called Ste. Fattish, baldish, thirties, looks a scally. You won’t seem that different, if you turn up looking willing, from his usual clientele.”


“Well, you know, lanky stringbean sort of look.  Be scruffy, though.”

“I get the picture,” said Andrew drily.

“You help me, I’ll keep my family well backed off from you and yours.  Ste can help us get a sounding on Zav at least.”

“So, er, where do I start with that?” asked Andrew.

“At the bottom,” said Al grinning.   “Where you belong. Go to the night places, the soup kitchens, get chatting to people a bit.  Tell them you’re looking for a bit of fetching and carrying work. That should bring good ol’ Ste out of his mousehole.  Then text me when you’ve made contact but leave it at that and we’ll meet. I’ll tell you where. I don’t want to find them to punish them,” said Al, his gaze holding Andrew’s eyes directly to convince him of this.  “I’m looking out for Zav and Gemma, too. I want them to stay safe.”

“You don’t think they are?”

“No,” said Al.  “I don’t think they are and it’s better I get to them first.   They had something I need to get back or find out where it is. Now.  Please tell me the truth about how you got involved.”

“Honestly, it really was just by chance.  Nolan and I were visiting my parents. We came across Zav hiding out in the hill monument.  We didn’t know who he was or why he was there or anything. He looked lost so we tried to help but he ran.  The somehow, quite by chance again, he found his way to my parents and they took him in for a couple of days. Nolan and I didn’t know, we weren’t even there then, we’d gone touring.”

“How lovely,” said Al, sounding unconvinced.

“My parents are completely innocent.  I mean, they’re retired. They don’t even know about our agency.”

Al’s mouth twitched slightly.

“No.  Sounded like your Dad found it as ludicrous as we do.”

“You say Zav and Gemma have something?”

“That’s right and if I don’t get hold of them and it first, you’ll get my cousin arriving back up there or to find you, tooled up with more than that shit-eating grin he pastes on his face.”

Andrew had to smile at this acrimonious description, delivered by Al with a fine contempt.

“Sounds about right from what I remember about him,” he said.

“Don’t be fooled by that.”

“I never was,” agreed Andrew.  “So, I’m not going to play dumb here.  This has to be to do with that Blood Moon drug at the concert, doesn’t it?  Zav was there, I know. Was he sent up there to push it at the gig?”

“Yes,” agreed Al, still looking him straight in the eye.  “I’ll tell you the truth, too. I was always against it but it wasn’t my call.  I was sent to liaise with the guy wanting to deal in it and then I got the clean up job.”

“So, Zav and Gemma, they were giving it out together, weren’t they, at the Skull Cup venue?  We saw him on the news and there was a girl with him.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Al, keeping silent about being the culpable distributor of Blood Moon himself at the event.  “I couldn’t find them when I went to look, though. My guess, they panicked and ran.”

“With Blood Moon still in that bodywarmer Zav had?” Andrew asked, trying not to look in the direction of the study and the safe where at least part of the goods was already in his and Nolan’s hands.

“A lot of it he definitely still had.  A dangerous possession. The family doesn’t want any association with it now or any link to it through anybody on the loose.  Seek and destroy. You get me?”

“Zav and Gemma, too, as well as Blood Moon?”

“Unless I get to them first and say I’ve done it but get them secretly away, yes, my brothers won’t hesitate about that.  The worst one’s on his way over here now.”


“Zulf,” said Al, with one of his flares of sullen resentment crossing his face.  “The one I’ve been forced to live and work with since I got married.”

Andrew looked unaware of this information, which he had already had long ago during Dee’s past outpourings to him about all things Al related.  He wondered if the packets he and Nolan had found had been the whole of the rest of the supply, or if Zav and Gemma still did have some of it. Either way, now they’d voluntarily left the fold, they were required to be lambs to the slaughter.

“I see,” he said, nodding.

“My cousin Faisal’s a leetle bit out of favour still right now,” said Al, “so lucky for you, I’m holding the ball.  Besides, you owe me.”

“I do?”

“For all the grief you caused me trying to get Dee back,” Al stated, with hard done by feeling.

“She’s all right, you know,” said Andrew gently.

Al just returned this with one of his keen, ‘I’m in charge’ looks and got up in his restive way, walking about and moving from foot to foot as he spoke but for all that, he seemed calm enough, Andrew thought.

“Remember, this arrangement is between us.  Get me Ste, like I said, to start with.”

He began to describe in more detail the kinds of places and where they might be that Andrew should start by looking in and what to say,  then sat down again, leaning forward and maintaining eye contact with Andrew as he spoke again of protecting people to keep Andrew on board but of course, Andrew already knew from what had happened with Dee that Al was a very convincing persuader.  He did feel, though, that there was an urgent warmth expressed in Al’s current intentions which lent credibility to his stated sense of responsibility towards the fugitives.

“You see,” Al was saying confidingly, “Gemma and me, we were once, well, long ago, very close.  I’d like to get her out of what she’s had to get into. The kid’s all right too, he was a good lad for me.  Fucking babysitting!” he added. “Me! Can you believe it?” but his question was rhetorical and so Andrew did not answer.

When Al left, he had succeeded in making Andrew feel on more sympathetic terms with him, that there might be a better character there than he had previously allowed for in Al.  Nolan did not share the sentiment when he returned and was told all about it.

“He threatened me with a knife when he was here!”

“Seriously threatened you?”

“Well, no, he said it was just for show to shock me into coming clean about Dee.”

“Perhaps it was.”

“He’s a snake charmer,” said Nolan.  “He won’t be mesmerising me, I can tell you.”

“It’s all right.  I’ll deal with him.  I’ve asked him not to come here again or send anyone.”

“Oh, like I believe he won’t now, then!”

“He said he wouldn’t, that he’d leave your house and my mum and dad alone and liaise with me.  So we’ll see, won’t we?”

“Well.  I’ll still have your back.  You know that,” said Nolan.

“Of course.  But as I said, Billy’s coming back and this house is his castle, isn’t it?  Let’s try and keep the drawbridge up. Al assured me he’d never told anyone else in the family about coming here.  He didn’t then and he won’t now.

“And as I said.  We’ll see.  Won’t we?” said Nolan, adding, thinking of Douglas.  “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Never mind, Snow White,” said Nolan.  “Let’s crack open some beer and I’ll tell you what Gerry’s been up to.  Enjoying himself with that stuff far too much if you ask me. Thinks it’s got potential.”

“Oh, no.”

“Exactly,” said Nolan.

Andrew’s circuits round the places Al suggested had born fruit.  He had caught up with and spoken to the man called Ste, who (when Andrew told him he was looking for Zav on behalf of a dealer who wanted to use him again through Ste and who had told Andrew to introduce himself to Ste for the same purpose and let them know when he’d made contact with the fixer)  had said he’d put feelers out because he’d always been able to find Zav when he wanted to. Andrew duly texted Al and was told to go to a small park to wait for him on a bench just away from the play area. A delegation of ducks came chuntering importantly up to this harbinger of food bearing visitors to come, before relaunching themselves disappointedly to go to the far side of the pond again, grumbling emerald green and brown heads bobbing away from him.

“I feel like a Cold War spy,” Andrew said to Al when he finally appeared, “and it’s bloody perishing!”

Al grinned, warm enough himself in a thick winter jacket, boots, sheepskin hat with earflaps and gloves.

“Well, you should dress the part better then,” he said.  “Like me.”

“I have!” protested Andrew.  “Only I’ve been sat here ages.”

“Traffic,” said Al, still grinning  “Don’t complain. I came to you, didn’t I?”

“Can’t we go somewhere else?  I’m an icicle,” said Andrew.

“Snowflake,” said Al.  He looked round, only one parent of a hardy toddler determined on an outing to the beloved swings, was gamely pushing one to and fro at a distance from them.  “No. Here will do. Update me,” he told Andrew. Andrew did so, as briefly as possible. “Good”, said Al. “See, keeps you to the point freezing your bollocks off, doesn’t it?  Right, go back and tell him the deal will be set up when he’s found Zav and that it’s a biggie. Then get me again when he has any news of him and, I mean, any. Right. I’m off.  Places to be,” and Al left again as abruptly as he had arrived.

The next time they met there, this time the only people in the still arctic cold of the park, Al too had a young, just about walking toddler with him, much to Andrew’s surprise.

“My kid,” said Al.  “Might as well kill two birds with one stone.”

“More babysitting?” asked Andrew sympathetically.

“Yep.  Come on, Tyke.”  Al unstrapped the bundled up child, whom he let struggle down sturdily by himself, just holding the stroller’s handles steady to stop it tipping backwards.  “No point trying to help him,” commented Al. “Just roars the place down. Likes to do his own thing.”

Andrew detected a little manly pride in this apparent criticism.

“Tyke?” he asked.

“It’s what I call him.  My nickname for him. He might look like a paki but he’s a Yorkshire lad, too, like me.”  Al laughed at Andrew’s shocked face. “I’m allowed to say it. You wouldn’t be. They call it self parody, don’t they?”

“I don’t know.  I suppose I don’t like to hear it whoever says it,” said Andrew, sharing some of the bag of crusts he had brought with him this time with the child, who took them and handed bread out solemnly to the gathering ducks as if they were communion wafers for the faithful, looking quietly pleased.

“Here,” said Al.  “Hold his reins if you’re going to go all ‘Old MacDonald’ on me.  I’m not feeding ducks with you like some lamearse. Oi, scoot!” he added, pushing the ones round his feet away with the toe of a boot but not roughly.  “I’m having a fag over here. Don’t let him fall in.” Removing himself from the feathered friends, he watched his son and Andrew from nearby. The small feeding ceremony over, Andrew turned to Al, who called over, “Take him on the swings!  You’re a natural! I might drop him off regular!”

But he was joking and came over himself to take charge.  The child, however, wanted the roundabout, so they both pushed him gently round on it while he stood proudly, with a Viking like sternness of purpose, gazing ahead as if on a prow and grasping the rails of the wooden platform with mittened hands.

“So.  Shoot,” said Al.

“There’s something…” Andrew told him.  “Ste says there’s something happening. Odd muggings, a bit brutal sometimes.  Nobody’s sure exactly who’s doing it but it’s supposed to be a young couple and when he’s asked around about Zav, nobody’s seen him as such but it’s rumoured one of them could be him.”


“Not much of one.  They’re too fast. Young, both skinny, she’s the bait.  He jumps them.”


“Watersides but they must be near there because it’s all been happening around the same locations.”


“Seems to have died down a bit.”

They left the roundabout to slow.

“That’s enough.  You’ll go dizzy.”  The child steadfastly ignored his father, who laughed.  “He’ll stand there pretending it’s still going round till I threaten to drag him off.”  He looked at Andrew. “Go on. You’re dying to tell me something else, aren’t you?  Give, then, and don’t big it up.”

“All right.  Well, I’ve had an approach for a case at the agency.  It’s about an online scam, dating stuff.”

“What, like Catfish?”

“Yes but the thing is, not that sophisticated.  Again, it’s luring someone out. The victims are convinced to bring money with them.  A lot of it.”


“Yes but they’ve been worked on.  Think they’re talking to a girl called Elisa.  When they turn up, there is a girl but she won’t come close, tells them to follow her into the the back where they’ll be private.  She’s all covered up in a big coat, hood up.”

“Let me guess.  There’s two of them and the guy rolls them.”

“Pretty much.”

“Who wants to hire you?”

“The father of one they’ve just hospitalised.  Bit lonely, mental health and depression issues.  Thought he was helping a kindred spirit. They left him beaten in a bad way.  Took all the money he’d brought, got his PIN out of him and emptied his bank account.”

“Sounds a bit brutal for those two of ours,” said Al thoughtfully.  “What makes you think it’s them?”

“I’ve been to see Matthew Lindsay at the hospital.  I asked the kind of things he was told. A lot of them fit the way Zav hits on people, the lines he spins about needing help, needing saving, like he told my parents.  Not only that, Matthew saw them up close and the faces, the builds, it sounds like them. I showed him the phone pictures you sent me of Gemma and Zav. He hesitated, sure but thought maybe.  If it is them, Zav has his hair crewcut now and Gemma had a long wig over short dark hair because it got pulled off in the struggle.”

Al was silent briefly.

“Come on, Tyke, get down now,” he encouraged, beckoning him to come to the edge where he waited to get him.  “Sometimes people get tougher when they work together, don’t they?  Separately, I doubt either of them would go that far. If, of course, it is them.”

“A folie a deux,” said Andrew.

“Yeah, that too,” said Al sarcastically.  “Zav’s had a tough life, said he could handle himself.”

“Didn’t you tell me they’d both been in care?” asked Andrew.  Al nodded. “Maybe together they think they’re getting their own back on people who’ve always had it easy.”

“Let’s not run away with ourselves.  We don’t know it is them, yet. Go on, then.  You look into all that. I’ll see what I can get on the Watersides stuff.  No! No more roundie roundie!” he declared to his foot stamping child. “Right.  Nothing else for it.”

He grabbed the youngster and swept him off to an immediate fusillade of kicks, punches and outraged screams.  The child held himself rigid and had to be forcibly folded into his stroller by his equally determined parent, who silenced him by plugging in a dummy on which the toddler sucked furiously as if getting some kind of calming fix, then promptly fell asleep exhausted.

“What have you dipped that in?” asked Andrew, who had watched this skilfully handled episode with interest.

“Ket.,” said Al.  “Should knock him out for hours.”

“Really?  Looked more like sherbert dip to me.  Bet that’s not allowed by mum, is it?”

“Listen, the boy has to do what the boy has to do when he’s with me,” said Al, spinning wheels round on the pram as if revving an engine to go.  “Now, for Christ’s sakes, let me get him home before he wakes up. I just couldn’t take it!” and with a last grin and quite matey wave, he hurried off to where his car was parked, loaded the baby into the car seat like an unexploded bomb, rammed the folded pram in the boot and sped off.

“Male bonding,” said Nolan when told.  “I feel a bit sick. How is it being bessies with Al?”

“Oh, it’s lovely,” said Andrew.  “I’m enjoying a bit of proper male company.”

Nolan looked daggers.

“What a bromance!” he said disgustedly.

“You’re only annoyed because you’re not involved yet.  You will be,” said Andrew and he told him about the new case in full detail since, as Nolan had been tied up with Billy’s homecoming recently, it had only been barely flagged up to him as yet.  “Will you take on some online searching?” Andrew asked him. “Have a look at where Matthew had his profile up and what he had on it when ‘Elisa’ made her approach. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t been the only one, there are site rumours.  Can you fake a profile up as a hook? Bit needy and vulnerable?”

“Of course I will.  I’ll smoke ‘em out. Mind you, needy and vulnerable.  Not really my bag, is it but I’ll do my best.”

“You do that,” said Andrew.  “And get over yourself.”

“Hard to do, my man.  Hard to do,” observed Nolan, smoothing the constantly sported electric blue gilet as if styling it out.

“Do you wear that thing in bed?” asked Andrew.

“I would,” said Nolan, “if I could.  Lines are drawn.”

“Not surprised,” said Andrew, getting up to leave.  “Can I borrow it to impress Sarah with when she comes up on Saturday?”

“Indian giver,” said Nolan.  “No. Buy your own.”

“I’m going to see Matthew later.  He’s back at his parents’ place now, recuperating.  Do you want to come meet?”

“ ‘Course.  I’ll be allowed out.  We’ve been one on one for ages now.  Billy will be wanting a break.

“Dying for one, more like.  Pick me up about 7.30 at mine?  It’s nearer.”

“I’ll be wearing blue,” said Nolan as a parting shot, closing the door behind Andrew. 

When they met Matthew, a shyly unassuming person, the main surprise to Andrew and Nolan was how quickly he had been entangled.  ‘Elisa’ seemed to have targeted people home alone for reasons of vulnerability, presenting as being equally a lost soul, living precariously and hiding behind a pretty picture because she kept her real private self for when she met someone special.  She was afraid to go out, she said. There was help available to get a place of her own, which would rescue her but she could not afford either deposit or rent. She and Matthew had discussed their dreams, their low points, that they needed to find someone together to save themselves and how close they had come at times to ending it all.  Once begun, their intense conversations went on all day and into the early hours. After a couple of days of this, Matthew would panic about her if she did not reply, begging her to talk to him, that he couldn’t rest without knowing Elisa was holding on for him. She would come close, withdraw, come close again. Rarely, she would appear in a grainy image on camera (it didn’t work properly, she said).  It took less than a week to have him desperate to meet her and give her any help she needed because he could afford it. Other people had let her down, she said. How did she know that he wouldn’t? The next stage had been him telling her to meet him and he would prove it, until she capitulated. 

The chosen rendezvous was in respect of her fear of crowds, other people generally and panic attacks when anywhere she hadn’t chosen herself as a safe space, Matthew told them. 

“Where was it?” asked Andrew. 

“Watersides.  In an old archway place that had been a shop or something once.  The old doors on the front were open. I went in and she was in there in the shadows, sort of hiding from the world outside going by, I thought.  She said to come through to the back where there was a separate space behind a partition wall and another door.” 

“She was alone?” 

“I thought she was.  I followed and it was really dark.  I called ‘Elisa’? Then someone jumped me.  It was like being tangled in barbed wire, just being grabbed by someone really strong who was everywhere.  I couldn’t even struggle and I got jabbed all over. When I tried to get away, she came at me too. I grabbed her hair but it came off, a wig, I guess.  It was over very fast. I was terrified. They took my money, cards, I gave them my PIN number when he asked for it because I thought they were going to kill me.  They hit me over the head with something then and left me. When I came round, I crawled out and some people coming by helped me and called an ambulance.” 

Police had been sympathetic, Matthew’s father told them but there was little to go on, the profile and IP address being fake, easy enough for con artist scammers to achieve. 

“Sometimes you just have to wipe your mouth with these things,” a cynical officer had advised, which although the police maintained enquiries would be ongoing, Matthew’s parents had not been happy to accept, so they had found and contacted ‘Nolan and Munro’s’ agency. 

It was clear that, in spite of all this, Matthew still mourned the loss of the Elisa he had been talking to, as if she might somehow remain a unique entity somewhere in her own right.  Andrew and Nolan agreed to take the case and said they would be in touch when they had got somewhere, no need for any retainer unless they did. It was, they both agreed afterwards, a very cruel trick. 

“Told you so,” said Nolan of Zav.  “I can spot tricksters a mile off.” 

“Then I’m sorry you were right about him,” said Andrew, forbearing to say that this firm opinion had not been given very clearly at the time. 

Nolan now set up a fake profile of his own as a hook.  No photograph, just a picture of Pierrot, the tearful clown, outlining that his once lonely Columbine had left him for Harlequin, so what was the point of trying to find your soulmate, not that he wasn’t still looking, if there was anyone out there worthy of someone who only wanted to give their all?   

It wasn’t long before there were a few bites but he didn’t respond until along came Elisa. 

Al’s low level enquiries around the Watersides area had got wind of small time dealers supplying a young couple with various highs around that location, just new faces among many but always together.  There were graffiti tags appearing, a white outline of a profile and long hair with ‘Elisa’ scrolled underneath hidden under arches along the river and canal sides. 

“Arrogant fuckers,” said Al at his next catch up meeting with Andrew, “whoever they are but I think it’s them, boasting and trying to add to the mystery.  We’re getting close.” 

The park, if anything, was even colder, with icy curds all over grass and paths.  Al had come alone that day. 

“Nolan thinks he’s had a nibble from Elisa on that profile,” Andrew told him.  “He’s working on it. So what’s happening your end? You said your other brother was coming?”

 “Mister Big Shot?  Zulf - yeah, he’s here.  Hamid’s called him over because of ‘Blood Moon’". 

“Ah,” said Andrew, picking up fast on the implication of this.  “It came through Zulf, then?” 

“Careful, Sherlock.  You don’t want to know too much as well, do you?” 

“Oh.  No,” Andrew assured him. 

“So for now, they’re tied up in repairing relations in places.  As you can imagine, what goes around comes around. There’s always been money outlaid and there’s always money owed.” 

“And Zulf’s the broker,” commented Andrew, unable to help himself. 

“What did I just say to you?” said Al but in fact, the very evident antagonism he felt towards Zulf was leading Al into indiscretion himself. 

“You’ve seen the reports, haven’t you, Al?  It’s a murder investigation the police are carrying out now into the supplier of ‘Blood Moon’ ".

 “Do I look stupid?” said Al sharply. 


“Then of course I know.  I’ll tell you what I want, Andrew,” he said after a pause.  “I want out. I’ve had enough. None of this is what I signed up for when I joined the family business and it didn’t start like that,” he brooded on, almost to himself, kicking stones around the bench they were on with the toe of his boot. 

Andrew said nothing at first, it being fairly clear that Al achieving any escape would take far more than wishful thinking.   

“Maybe, for now, if we find Zav and Gemma and make it look as if they’re dead, you can tell the family you’ve got rid of them and it will give you more power to make choices?” he suggested, as a bit of a pride salvager for Al, who, Andrew realised, was likely to turn tricky if he thought he’d shown any weakness but Al now went further than Andrew had expected. 

“Perhaps.  I’ve been thinking, though.  I’d like to set Zulf up for a sting.  He’s crazy to get his kudos back. I’d like to see him riding for a proper fall.” 

“How could I help with that?” 

“We could set up a fake drugs deal.  Nolan. He could look the part.” 

“Oh, I don’t know…” 

“Remember, we’re working together right now so my family don’t come after you and yours.  We can line up a bit more confusion.” 

There was, Andrew recognised, both threat and promise in this sudden proposal, which he very much doubted that Al had thought through in any way. 

“Let me think about it, I’ll talk to Nolan,” said Andrew.  “But it makes me think - why don’t we try to lure Gemma and Zav out that way first?” 

“They don’t go to the same dealer twice, being careful but word’s around these two have plenty of cash and although their all hooded up and stuff, it sounds like them.” said Al.  “We could, though. We could set up a little place, have Nolan staked out there as the main man after he’s done his stuff as whatever he’s called on meeting ‘Elisa’. That could work.  If they’re buying, they’ll want to deal as well.” 

Nolan and Andrew discussed everything in detail and came up with a plan which would get Zav, Gemma and Al himself neatly away and deal with Zulf as Al wanted, if it worked, getting everybody off their backs as the Saleem family would have plenty of other business to deal with afterwards.  Nolan’s conversations with Elisa were coming along fast, he said, it wouldn’t be long before he could tempt her out. 

Andrew had his next meet up with Al, again in the cold little park, which by now he was getting used to and went straight in. 

“Al, what you said before, about wanting out?” 


“I had a bit of a hunch about ‘Blood Moon’, where Zav might have hidden it if they did dump it.” 


“In the monument where I first saw him.  I guessed that after leaving ‘Kitty’s Keep’, they might well have sheltered in there on their way down.” 

“And?” said Al tensely. 

“I drove back up this week.  I found it, stashed in one of the towers.  Luckily, it’s been such poor weather, nobody found it before me, if anyone had been up there?” 

“Where the fuck is it?  Having it’s even worse, although thank God nobody else got to take it!” 

“In Nolan’s office safe.” 

“What’s this got to do with me wanting out?” 

“Well, why don’t we set Zulf up as if this is a new, refined supply, for him to take back home and test out there before channelling it back here?   It’ll give him the chance to think he’s getting ahead of Hamid and want to go it alone?” 

“More than likely.  So, go on.” 

“We get Zav and Gemma, get her to courier like before, get it to him at the airport, along with them.  We’ll disguise her obviously. With an anonymous tip off from somebody, aka me, he gets pulled before he gets on the plane, bang to rights with the real ‘Blood Moon’.” 

“Where am I?” 

“You’ve already gone back to Pakistan to look after things there, having got rid of Zav and Gemma.  Nolan can fake really good pictures up so you can prove that.” 

“And those two?” 

“They’ve headed out on a flight after handing the drugs over, to far away places with a reward and plenty of fear of comebacks to risk returning here.  You get to take over being the family broker over there. Hamid and everyone here will have to keep their heads down and rely on you. Once you’ve got some real power and access to the money, you’ll have real choices too to do whatever you want.  Even get out of it if you want to.” 

“So you want to get rid of me, do you?” said Al with a smile.  “And I thought we were such good pals now, old bean,” he added in a faux posh accent.  “It’s bold. So how do we force Zav and Gemma to cooperate?” 

“Your usual way.  Threats, promises of protection, money and a ticket to ride.” 

“Let’s go for it.  I’ll book my flight and we get Zulf to set his for later.  You can handle that part, the handover?” 

“We can.  I promise you.  They won’t know you’ve gone,Gemma and Zav, keep them worrying.” 

Nolan, with Al visible as a backer to begin with, took control of another of the Waterside’s abandoned archways.  It was shuttered off at both ends but the metal door behind the front had a new lock on it. Inside was a gilded looking throne chair (wedding banquet stock that Al acquired) and they would light it only with big thick candles to cast limited revelation of the place.  Nolan did a dress rehearsal for them, carrying himself with swagger, black clad with a hoody top pulled over his head underneath a battered leather jacket, which made him look bigger and dropped his voice a level. Al laughed and told him he had missed his way in life because he would have made a great pusher. 

“I passed my apprenticeship there years ago, don’t you worry,” said Nolan.  “Lucky for me, I had an out and I took it.” 

“I wish I did,” said Al. 

“Leave it with us and you might have”, Nolan told him. 

They were ready.  Elisa wanted to meet and yes, she was into coming with him to buy some goods for them to start life afresh, if he was. 

“My treat first,” he had offered. 

“So I’ll get to see Pierrot.” 

“You won’t like what you see,” said Nolan truthfully but he had played it skilfully and ‘Elisa’ said that she would decide that. 

In fact, Andrew would be Pierrot because Gemma had never seen either of them and if Zav was hanging back, he could get her inside first without him spotting Andrew.  After all, he’d seen them only briefly a couple of times in different circumstances. Nolan decorated Andrew up with puckered scar tissue down one side of his face like a burns case, which pulled at the corner of his eye, making it weepy.  Pierrot’s tear, Nolan said, having insisted on the touch. Pierrot had told Elisa where to come, that he’d be outside the unit, the minute he saw her approach, he’d bang on the door and they’d both slip in, get the gear and come straight out to go wherever she wanted to be herself.   

When he saw Gemma’s spindly figure approaching, Andrew banged on the door and they went in.  As Nolan was talking to them, eerily candlelit, Andrew slipped back and barred the door from inside.  Al walked forward from the shadows.

“Gotcha,” he said, restraining her as she jumped.  “Now scream”. 

She did.  Andrew and Nolan went to the door, pulled it open and as expected, Zav rushed in.  They grabbed him together because it was like trying to restrain a struggling cat, formidably fast, supple and determined.  Al, holding a now quiescent Gemma, rebolted the door. Seeing Al, Zav stopped struggling. 

“It’s over, lovebirds,” said Al.  “If you want to live, do what we tell you, but we have to make you look dead.  My brother’s after your hides as I’m sure you know. Been having quite a little party on your own account, haven’t you?  Time to play dead, clear out and lie low.” 

“I trust you, Al,” said Zav. 

“That’s more than I do you, you treacherous little shit,” said Al.  “I’ll tell you what you’re going to do. You don’t leave our sight now and you’re going to courier a new batch of ‘Blood Moon’ to my brother, Zulf.  It’s been refined, brought up to scratch, so the deal can still go down and he’s going to be top dog. He’s straining at the leash.” Zav and Gemma looked at one another.  “I’m making sure you can stay together, so you have to do it right.” 

Hamid was very pleased with the rather gory pictures Al supplied him with of Zav and Gemma’s demise and approved of his plan to fly back over, his wife and child already having returned to Pakistan.  Hamid agreed that someone who had sorted things out should be taking charge over there while Zulf was still here sorting the rest of his mess out. Al departed, leaving Gemma and Zav with Andrew and Nolan under lock and key in the old flat.  Hamid had no idea, when Zulf arrived greedily at the airport, that he had any plans to leave or begin any new deal, although someone else did, because Faisal chauffeured him there and went in with him. Al and Nolan between them had managed the lure without any problem, the batch having been made, it was claimed, from some smuggled out of the original concert gig by someone else with an eye to the main chance.  Zulf went through to the passenger lounge and appeared with a nod to Faisal that he had it concealed in hand luggage. Then he went to wait in line with his passport. The arrest was made swiftly, Zulf surrounded and carted out in handcuffs, as he went past Faisal’s shocked gaze giving him a saturnine stare of blame. Faisal looked round, amazed and his eye was caught by a back view of a young couple just going through a boarding gate further down the complex.  As if she felt his look, the girl half turned just as they were heading out of sight and for a moment he was sure he knew who she was and then not sure, the glimpse brief and at a distance. 

When he took this back to Hamid, who was in urgent contact with people to get everything in lock down, already having news of Zulf’s arrest, he said, 

“Al dealt with getting rid of them.  It’s done. He’s not even over here. How do I know you didn’t set Zulf up yourself?  You had ‘Blood Moon’ first and that girl was yours too. No. You’re flying a kite to try and save yourself.  I don’t trust you anymore, Faisal, nor Zulf. Both of you trying to have me over? Zulf knows to keep his mouth shut under questioning but it’s over for the pair of you with me.  I’ve got little brother to rely on over there and he’ll have to handle it all remotely now. The rest of us have our hands tied for the foreseeable future.” He regarded the still faintly smiling Faisal with a lowering intent.  “You just have to hope you still have one. Now go. Nobody goes near anyone now without my say so. Out.” 

Andrew and Nolan could barely believe they had all pulled it off. 

“Good for Al,” said Nolan.  “He made it out and the rest of them are in the shit.” 

“Unless, of course, “said Andrew thoughtfully, “We’ve just helped to create a new Godfather.” 

“You know.  I don’t think so,” said Nolan.  “He really did seem to want out.” 

“That will be up to him, won’t it?  Time will tell.” 

“But we won’t know.” 

“No,” said Andrew.  “We won’t know. We have to go and see Matthew now and give him all the money back they took from him.  They still had a lot and Al’s made up the rest as our payment in kind. We’ll just have to tell them they managed to get away from where we found them after we got all the funds back.” 

“We did tell the police where their derelict street hideaway was.” 

“That we did,” said Andrew.  “That we did,” and they went to make reparations as best they could to Matthew and his family, leaving the two runaways to be lotus eaters for a time, make a fresh start, or continue in their criminal ways. 

They, too, would now have a chance and a choice.


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