|Primary Characters:||Nigel, Harry|
|Warning:||adult themes, sexual abuse of minor implied, m/m sex implied|
|Description:||Nigel has some bad news. Suddenly, he has to live his worst nightmare again. Despite his fresh start in life, he feels he can’t go on. Can his friends do something before it’s too late?|
Professor Sam Ryan looked over the schedule for the next two weeks. At the moment, they were sadly understaffed. Since one of their pathologists had been arrested for abducting and assaulting one of their other pathologists, they were down to a mere skeleton crew, no pun intended. Fortunately, they had their prodigy, newcomer Dr Nigel Townsend, recently back from the United States where he’d been working at the Boston Medical Examiner’s office, while doing research. She glanced at her watch. It was about time her colleagues showed up. Work was piling up each day and the backlog just kept increasing. They’d be working over the holidays, if she wasn’t mistaken. At least she and Dr Townsend. Somehow, she had to make sure that Leo, Dr Dalton, was able to spend at least Christmas Day with his family.
As if on cue, Dr Dalton appeared in the doorway, nodding good morning. And he’d brought her a cup of coffee. She’d only just finished one, but she’d gladly have another, after staying up until two a m filling out reports. And that was only after she’d finished up the last body, around 10 p m or so.
“Is that for me? Thanks,”
“I thought you could use one. I suppose that schedule is for me?”
“I’m afraid so. As you can see there’ll be plenty of overtime at least until the end of the year.”
Leo nodded thoughtfully, as his eyes perused the printout.
“By the way, have you had time to visit Harry yet?”
Leo purposefully avoided meeting Sam’s eye. What could he say to Harry that would mean anything to him, after what he’d been through only a couple of weeks earlier?
Just as she’d thought. Leo was uncomfortable seeing Harry, after what had happened. And could she blame him? She herself hadn’t found the courage to face her young colleague yet, and unlike Dr Dalton, she was his superior.
“Well, I suppose we’d better get started -”
Dr Townsend’s footsteps could be heard in the hallway outside Sam’s office and when he caught sight of the open door, he slid to a stop. Sam couldn’t help smiling when she heard the soles of his plimsolls squeak against the floor.
“Are those the new schedules?”
“Yes. Here. As I was saying to Leo, there’ll will be quite a bit of overtime – I’m not sure what you’re used to from America, but there can be an awful lot of that here at times.”
Nigel smiled as he recalled all the times he’d been snatching a few minutes of sleep on the couch in the staff room at the M E’s office in Boston. He could hardly count the times when Lilly had been standing over him with a cup of coffee minutes before Dr Macy walked in and caught him asleep.
“It all sounds very familiar.”
“Oh, good. In that case, I suppose you’re not surprised.”
“Hardly. Well – I should -”
“Just one more thing, Nigel, did you manage to get over and see Harry at all?”
Nigel’s nostalgic grin vanished as he recalled his new friend’s haunted eyes and the way he’d begun to hunch over. It couldn’t just be his imagination. Harry had lost weight in the short time since Nigel had last seen him before his abduction. Now, he looked as if he was constantly cold.
“Yes. I was there last week and on Monday. If I can find the time, I’ll probably get over there on Thursday or Friday too.”
“And how did he seem?”
The expression on Nigel’s face told Sam the answer before he even opened his mouth.
“Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps a little better. Not quite so pale.”
Perhaps. He was lucky if he could get two words out of Harry the entire time he was there, and he tried not to stay too long, in case he tired his friend out.
Of course it was too much to hope for that Harry would be feeling better already after the ordeal Sam guessed he’d been subjected to at the hands of Dr Randall. It occurred to Sam that Harry would most likely prefer to get back to work, rather than sitting at home brooding. In fact, he’d offered to return almost immediately after being sent home from the hospital. But Sam had refused, arguing that he’d need to recover his strength.
Besides, for the time being, until the talk had died down, it was better for Harry to stay away from the public eye. To have people watching him and speculating and imagining what he’d been through, couldn’t help his recovery.
“Alright. Let’s get back to work, and maybe we’ll be going home before nine tonight for a change.”
Nigel walked into his flat, a distant smile on his face. It was late, and he ought to be tired, but his visit at Sandra’s place had left him feeling euphoric and energetic, despite the fact that he ought to feel quite the opposite. Especially after working so hard, so late and on top of that spent some hours with Sandra – getting reacquainted with her. Even now, his eyes hardly took in the dismal little one room flat, with its sparse furnishings. His mind was still on their – but it was getting late. He’d just look through that morning’s post.
He was trying to hang up his jacket, one hand leafing through a medical journal, when the phone rang.
His mind intent on his work, Nigel wasn’t expecting the familiar voice on the other end of the line.
“Mum? Are you alright?”
His first reaction was concern over his mother’s health. Next his mind leapt to his sister and her family in Australia. But once his mother had asked him where he’d been until so late, and reassured him that she was fine, she at last got to the point.
Nigel’s smile froze on his face and after his mother had finished the call, he remained standing, the receiver still in his hand. Not until a pain in his neck reminded him of the awkward position he was in, did he hang up and look around for a chair to drop down on.
It was too soon. He wasn’t ready yet.
All his instincts told him to run away, to leave everything and just go, without saying goodbye. Like the last time. But he knew he couldn’t do that. If he did, who would take care of his mother? There was no one else, unless his sister could somehow persuade her husband to sell his business and move to England, and that was hardly likely,
Grimly, he forced himself to accept that he was stuck. Somehow, he had to find a way of coping. With the decision made, he tried to tell himself that things would be different now. He was a different person. Besides, his work should keep him busy. He’d make sure his encounters with the old man were kept at a minimum.
Despite his misgivings, Nigel made an effort to act normally at work and to continue visiting Harry, when he had time. His friend didn’t seem to be making much progress. The only reaction Harry evidenced which could be construed as normal was when he expressed a wish to return to work. It seemed to Nigel that Sam might be a little more flexible. Perhaps a change of pace would do Harry good. As far as Nigel knew, Jess still came to visit from time to time, at least Harry’s mother mentioned her once in a while. And Sandra had said something about it as well. That, come to think of it, might be even more what Harry needed. After all it was at work that the killer had begun to stalk Harry.
Nigel should have known that it wouldn’t be long until he ran into the old man. He’d gone to see his mother, as he tried to do at least once a week, and was about to leave when his uncle walked in. If he’d been expected, Nigel knew his mother would have mentioned the visit, so he must have come unannounced. The dryness in Nigel’s throat caused him to cough and retch and there was a hard knot at the pit of his stomach. He was standing not two feet away from his uncle, in the hallway, feeling trapped, knowing he had nowhere to retreat.
A cry of pleased surprise from inside the kitchen greeted Ciive’s arrival.
“Hello, dear. I was in the neighbourhood and I thought I’d drop in and say hello. And there you are, my dear boy. Let me look at you. Edna, you didn’t tell me how he’d turned out. You must be taller than when I last saw you. Isn’t that right, my dear boy?”
Nigel thought it unlikely that he’d grown even an inch since his uncle had last seen him. He’d been 19 and would have been fully grown by then. More likely he’d lost his puppy fat. Not that he’d had much of that even back then.
“And that’s a nasty cough. These winters will be the death of all of us. That’s why I always like to spend at least part of the autumn and winter in the tropics. Here. Let me take a look at your throat.”
Before Nigel had time to even pull back, his uncle’s hands were on his neck, squeezing and prodding.
“Now open wide and say aah.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Nigel did as was expected of him. He knew his mother wouldn’t understand his reluctance to submit to the examination. How ridiculous. If he needed a doctor, he’d see his GP or ask one of his colleagues at work. In fact, for minor ailments, he preferred to treat himself.
Clive let his fingers trail across Nigel’s neck and chin, for just a little too long, causing a panic to build up inside Nigel. Another few seconds and he’d either begin to shiver or pull away. Before that happened, Clive smiled and caught Nigel’s gaze and held it, just for a second or two, then let go.
“I don’t think it’s anything serious. Try to stay out of the worst of the fog.”
Nigel swallowed a few times, then nodded.
“I’ve put the kettle on. You will stay a little longer now, won’t you, Nigel?”
“I’m afraid not. I really do need to go. We’re working double shifts at the moment.”
“Of course. I admire your dedication, my boy. You run along now and I’ll see you later.”
Not if I see you first, Nigel thought, as he slunk off, shaken by the unexpected encounter. Not that it should have been unexpected. He ought to have known that Clive would find a way of ambushing him. And his mother’s house was the most likely place for him to run into Clive.
Instead of going home right away, Nigel decided to go for a walk. He ended up going to a pub, although he didn’t have more than a pint.
Again, he felt an impulse to pack up and leave. Nothing had changed. He still feared the old bastard just as much as ever. More than ten years had gone by and he was still the same inside. And naturally, Clive hadn’t changed a bit.
Before returning home, far too late, considering when he had to get up, Nigel went down to the river and sat down on a bench. It wasn’t a good idea to take a stroll down here, at least not alone, at this time of night. But perhaps the cold had scared away most of the drug addicts and the homeless.
By the time it was getting too cold for him, he heard footsteps coming down the path in his direction. Nigel got to his feet, staring out into the thin mist.
A boy came into sight. Nigel relaxed a little. Just one boy. The boy looked as if he was perhaps 16 or 17 and had a bedraggled look. He wasn’t dressed warmly enough for the season and was thin rather than muscular.
Just in case, Nigel kept an eye on him as he began to walk away up through the trees, back to the street. The boy followed. Nigel began to walk faster and was almost through when the boy began to speak.
“Are you looking for company?”
Company? Not drugs. Probably not a mugger either.
“No. I was just looking at the river.”
“It’s alright. I don’t ask much. Just a few bob. Five quid.”
“No thanks. Not interested.”
Again, Nigel picked up the pace.
“You married? No problem. She’ll never know.”
Nigel put his hand in his pocket and came up with two pound notes and a few coins.
“I’m not interested. Why don’t you go and get yourself a hot drink somewhere?”
The boy looked at the money in silence and Nigel could see that he almost held out his hand for them, then changed his mind.
“I’m not asking for charity.”
“No. Of course not.”
Nigel had an inspiration and put the money down on the wall separating the trees from the street outside, and continued to walk away. He could no longer hear the boy following. The encounter had upset him. A boy living in the street, scraping a bare living soliciting punters. What a world they were living in. And a good bloke like Harry, abducted and subjected to who knew what at the hands of a madman. And a man like Clive –
The thin mist mixed with tears on Nigel’s face as he stumbled blindly home. His hands were frozen stiff and he had trouble extracting the key and turning it in the lock. The safety chain gave him more trouble, but eventually he was safely locked inside. Except the door didn’t keep anything outside. Not really. He couldn’t do anything about what was inside his mind. The memories he’d held at bay for so long, threatened to well up and overwhelm him again.
No. No. No. He sank to the floor and sat down, his back to the door, burying his face in his hands.
After seeing Clive again, Nigel found it hard to act as if nothing had happened, but with all the work they were bogged down in, no one had time to notice anything out of the ordinary. Though he knew he was letting his mother down, for a while he couldn’t bring himself to visit her. At the moment, that didn’t seem to make much difference. She was feeling better, despite the weather and most likely she’d be occupied with her brother. Besides, she was always very understanding about his work. He suspected that she told her neighbour, Mrs Digby, far more about her brilliant doctor son, than Mrs Digby, whose son collected dustbins in Sheffield, would want to know.
He also couldn’t bring himself to go and see Harry. Even under normal circumstances, Dr Dalton and Professor Ryan didn’t socialize much with their colleagues, except for more or less compulsory receptions at the university, so they wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary in his behaviour.
When Nigel stopped visiting Harry, at first it didn’t make much impression on him. It took him almost three weeks to notice that his friend no longer came to see him. Jess still called and his mother was always there, fussing over him, bringing him his clean clothes or a meal. But Nigel, who was the one he usually had the most to discuss with, at least as far as work was concerned, was suddenly missing. Harry couldn’t help wonder why that was.
In fact, wondering and speculating made him snap out of the apathy he’d sunk into in the past couple of months. Could Nigel have given up on him? Harry knew that he was usually quite taciturn, at least since – it happened. For months, Nigel had sat there, patiently, trying to draw him out and he hadn’t responded. Perhaps it was time he returned to work, or at least that he went to see Nigel.
The thought of going outside both daunted and pleased Harry. At this time, the late Christmas shopping must have been in full swing. Harry vaguely recalled the excitement he used to feel at this time of year. Even as late as ten or twelve years ago, when he’d fake a calm indifference, he’d always look forward to Christmas Day and the stocking his mother would still hang up in his room. Later in the day, he’d receive the larger presents. One year he’d received a microscope from Aunt Dorothy and her husband Glenn, another year, probably earlier, a chemistry set. And of course, there would be the odd Gameboy and of course a Walkman radio.
Perhaps he should try to find a gift for Jess and one for his mother too. He was quite sure they wouldn’t expect that. For years now, he’d been too busy to remember shopping and his mother would buy presents for everyone in his name. This would be the first time for more than ten years, that he wouldn’t be busy either working or studying for his exams.
And afterwards, he could drop by Nigel’s place and ask him out for a pint. The least he could do was to pay him a return visit.
When he was being pushed and shoved by the crowds in the high street, Harry realized that he knew less than he thought about what his mother might want and practically nothing about Jess’ wishes. Or, wait a minute, perhaps he could guess what Jess might like, after all. He knew that she had two cats at her mother’s house. Some cat toys would be easy enough to find and why not look for a book about animals? A work of fiction, but something nice, a bit like – The Wind in the Willows, only for a slightly older audience. Or – In any case, she did love books and though she worked in a book shop, he thought he might be able to find her something after all.
In the end, he bought his mother a book and Jess a wall calendar and some cat toys, but instead of the book, he settled on buying her a box of CD:s with music he knew she’d been saving up for, but never quite managed to buy. She always ended up having to donate the money to the shelter where she volunteered.
By then, he was thoroughly fed up with the screaming, spoiled rotten children and their rude, pushy parents who didn’t hesitate to elbow their way in front of other customers to grab the last of some trendy object – the present of the year or at least one of them.
He was tired and hungry and most of all thirsty, despite the cold, so he decided to ask Nigel out for a meal at one of the pubs. A pie or a sandwich – Right now, that seemed exactly what he needed. And a pint to go with it.
He was sure Nigel would agree. So he jumped on the bus and soon he was in Nigel’s neighbourhood. The houses weren’t exactly posh but Nigel most likely only spent a couple of hours there each night. If he spent every night there at all. Harry had an idea that Nigel saw a great deal of Jess’ friend Sandra.
He remembered that he’d found the friendship between the two women somewhat surprising. The only thing they had in common was their love for animals. Though come to think of it, that might be the explanation. Sandra must volunteer at the same shelter. Of course. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? They just seemed so – different.
Harry had been to Nigel’s flat several times and even once to his mother’s house, so he had no trouble finding his way there. It was around half past eight and he thought it was just the right time for a visit to the pub.
Nigel’s flat was on the third floor of a converted Victorian house, and Harry began to trudge up the stairs, weighed down by his purchases.
There was no other flat at the top floor and the bathroom was across the passage, so the door typically stood open, if Nigel was in. The front door opened with a code, barring anyone who didn’t have access to the code.
When Harry arrived at the top of the stairs, slightly out of breath after the long period of inactivity, he found the door standing ajar as he’d expected. He put down his purchases on the floor of the passage and took the opportunity of using the loo.
Leaving the paper bags outside, he walked into the actual flat. There were only two rooms, apart from a kitchenette. Nigel wasn’t in front of the computer in the den, so Harry was beginning to worry that he’d caught his friend at a bad time. If Sandra was here – he’d just pick up his purchases and go. They could always go out another night.
As he resolved to leave, he heard a noise coming from the bedroom. Blushing all over, he turned to go, but he couldn’t help casting a glance towards the bedroom door, which was standing slightly ajar just like the front door. What was going on in there was odd enough to make Harry temporarily forget his manners.
Nigel was standing up, partially facing away from the door. It was as if he’d been about to leave, but had been stopped in his tracks just in front of the doorway. Someone was standing behind him, back to the door, blocking the view to most of Nigel’s body, but something in his posture made Harry realize what he was doing. He?
A man? And now that he was taking a closer look, he realized that the man was quite a bit older than Nigel. It was hard to say exactly how old, with his face turned away, but there wasn’t much hair on top of his head, and something about the man’s body suggested a man in his late fifties or early sixties at the very least. What was Nigel doing with a man and one of that age at that? All this reminded Harry uncomfortably of the incident he had been trying so hard to forget, but so far, he was failing.
The man turned his head slightly and Harry now saw he had a full beard. He was shorter than Nigel and only reached to his shoulder, giving Harry a good view of his friend’s face. His breath caught in his throat when he realized that Nigel was crying silently. Tears were glistening on his cheeks..
Something clicked inside Harry’s mind and he thought he recognized the older man. He’d seen a photo of him at Nigel’s mother’s house. It was Nigel’s uncle. The realization made it hard to breathe. Harry backed away, stealthily, taking care not to make a sound.
Outside he picked up his bags and fled down the stairs blindly. At the bottom of the second stairs, his mad rush was checked abruptly, as he tripped and twisted his ankle painfully. He sat down on the bottom step and began to examine the aching limb. It wasn’t broken, and he didn’t think the ligaments were torn. The sound of a door opening made him look up wildly, not knowing exactly what it was he feared.
It wasn’t Nigel or his uncle. A woman in her late sixties was standing there, staring inquiringly at him. He made an effort to collect himself. Smiling uncertainly, he cleared his throat to speak.
“I’m sorry. Did I disturb you?”
“Not at all. I was just coming back from visiting a friend. Are you alright, young man?”
“I was on my way to see a colleague of mine, Dr Townsend, on the third floor. I’m afraid I slipped on something and fell.”
“Do you need to call an ambulance?”
“No, it’s just a bit painful. I’ll be alright.”
The woman nodded.
“Right, then. If you’re sure you’re alright – Hold on a bit. I could go upstairs and get your friend – ”
“No, that’s alright. I’ll be fine, but I’ll have to postpone my visit for another day.”
“Well, good night to you, then, young man.”
After she’d closed the door behind her, he glanced anxiously up the stairs, but he couldn’t hear anything. He had to get up. Sooner or later that – man – Nigel’s uncle would be coming down the stairs, unless he intended to spend the night with his nephew – Again, Harry was seized by a fit of nausea. How fortunate that the neighbour had disappeared.
After a few tries, he was able to get to his feet and limping awkwardly, he made his way outside. The bus stop wasn’t far away, but it took him twice as long to get there as on the way from there less than an hour or so earlier.
Harry spent most of that night tossing and turning, haunted by nighmares, in which he recalled in startling clarity what Dr Randall had done to him and most of all, what Dr Randall had intended to do to him. He knew exactly what that was, because Randall had told him all about it, before – No. No. No.
He didn’t know he had woken up, until his mother was standing over him, anxiously calling his name.
“Harry, dear. It’s alright. Wake up. It’s just a dream. Just a bad dream, darling.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Never mind that. Let me -”
To Harry’s embarrassment, his mother placed her hand on his forehead and left it there for a while.
“No, you’re not coming down with anything. Harry – is this to do with that man – ”
“No, it was just a bad dream. I’m fine. Honestly.”
She shot him a glance which seemed to tell him she was humouring him, then smiled and began to straighten out the sheets.
“Mum. I’m alright, honestly. I can do that myself.”
“I know you can, dear. There. Do you think you could go back to sleep now?”
“Yes. It’s alright. I’m practically asleep already. Do you think you’ll be able to go back to sleep now?”
“Of course, dear. You’re sure you don’t want a glass of hot milk or -”
“Yes, I’m sure. I don’t need anything.”
But once his mother had at last shut the door behind her, he remained awake, going over the scene he’d witnessed at Nigel’s flat. Nigel’s uncle. Nigel crying. It wasn’t anything Harry had any experience of, at least not until – recently – but he did know of men like that, who took advantage of children or teenagers. Often a close relative, a teacher or a family friend. Could that explain what he’d seen last night?
Then why – Harry stopped to consider again. Perhaps, once you’d been the victim of sexual abuse, you found it hard to defend yourself even as an adult. He thought he’d read something about that or seen it on tv in a documentary. His own training only dealt with recognizing the signs of sexual assault on a body, not with understanding the psychology behind the crime. And the physical manifestations of a sexual assault was exactly what he didn’t want to dwell on.
In the morning, Harry had made the decision he would try again. He’d go and see Nigel and this time he would try to draw his friend out. After all, couldn’t he relate to what Nigel was going through? He, if anyone, knew what Nigel must be going through. No. Nigel must have been betrayed by someone he trusted, as a child or adolescent. That sort of violation – Harry frowned as he recalled other examples of violation that he’d much rather erase from his mind.
In any case, while he couldn’t very well have intervened, he felt as if he’d walked out on his friend and turned his back on him, when he ought to have shown more understanding.
He considered seeking Nigel out at work, then thought better of it. At work he’d be likely to run into his other colleagues, and until Sam was ready to let him come back to work, he’d much rather stay away.
Not knowing the current schedule, he was forced to guess at what time Nigel would be back. He spent the day walking around. Recalling the day before, he wisely stayed out of the shops, still filled to overflowing with last minute shoppers. He’d have to remember to wrap Jess’ present and bring it over to her flat. It occurred to him that he ought to buy something for Nigel as well.
Now something else struck him. Nigel had been kind enough to come and see him, week after week, trying to draw him ouf of his shell, doing his best to cheer him up. Despite the painful memories, knowing what had happened in that crypt. Harry wasn’t sure he’d have been generous enough to put his own feelings aside and selflessly be there for a friend.
In any case, he’d try to be that sort of friend now, no matter what it cost him.
But Nigel wasn’t in. This time, the door to the flat was closed and locked and there was no sign of his friend anywhere.
Once again the neighbour made an appearance – Harry had a feeling she kept a close eye on everything that went on in the building.
“Yes, a bit.”
He still limped, but he knew there was no real harm done.
“If you’ve come to see your friend, you’re out of luck. He left this morning early and I don’t think he’s back yet.”
If she didn’t ‘think’ he was back, then he most likely wasn’t. If he’d left at all in the morning. Harry considered the possibility that the old man might have spent the night and it had been him the old lady had heard leaving. On the other hand, she would know the sound of the footsteps of anyone living in the house. That left the possibility that Nigel was still at work – or that he’d gone out, to a pub or – perhaps to Sandra’s?
Harry didn’t think he could barge into Sandra’s flat, so he decided to go to work after all. if Nigel wasn’t there, he’d try again the following day. In any case, if Nigel was at Sandra’s he might not be in need of his friend’s help anyway.
“I see. Thank you for letting me know. In case my friend should come back, would you please tell him that Dr Cunningham dropped by?”
It appeared his title was working like a charm again. Amazing how ladies of a certain age never failed to be impressed by it. He was wondering what she’d be thinking if she knew that far from being a surgeon or a GP, he was – as Jess had put it early in their acquaintance – someone who was digging around in human intestines day in and day out.
When he arrived at the university, he was painfully reminded of how long it had been since he’d been going there every day to work. He didn’t have his card, and had to be shown in like a visitor. At least the guard recognized him and let him in without questioning his right to be there. Harry was hoping the man wouldn’t be too familiar with the reason for his long absence, but in any case, there was nothing he could do about it.
Fortunately, only two pathologists were on duty, and neither one of them was Professor Ryan or Dr Dalton. Harry knew them by sight, and could probably recall their names if he had to, but neither one of them was Nigel, so he was beginning to fear he’d come for nothing.
“Have you seen Dr Townsend today?”
“Yes, he must have left about oh, two hours ago by now, I should think.”
“I see. Thanks.”
Just in case, he’d look into the locker room – though he wasn’t at all comfortable seeing it again. After all, it was there that Randall had stolen objects belonging to him, from out of his locker. And it was there that he had found the first note from the killer. But he only needed to take a quick look inside. It was dark in there and the room seemed to be empty.
Next he looked into the office, on the off chance that Nigel was trying to get some paperwork done, but there was no one there either. Everywhere it was empty and the lights were out.
Harry decided to give up and try another day, when suddenly he recalled a small enclosed space which had been cut off from direct access by the addition of a new building. Only one door led into it and no windows. It was a slightly overgrown and neglected little green area, no bigger than an ordinary room. The only ones who used it nowadays were the pathologists and the other employees at the morgue. It was off limits to the students and as Harry knew, none of the professors seemed to know about it.
From the moment Harry had shown it to Nigel, his friend had been entranced. There was a look of magic about it, almost like something out of a fantasy novel, or a child’s fairy tale. Harry liked it too and they’d sometimes had their lunches there or simply gone outside for a breather.
It was bitterly cold today, and Harry was hoping his friend wouldn’t be out there, but he decided to have one last look before he returned home or perhaps paid Jess a surprise visit.
Too late Harry recalled that he didn’t have the key with him anymore. If it was locked, he’d better hope that Nigel wasn’t there or – he’d be forced to ask someone else to open it for him. But the door wasn’t locked. Harry had an unnerving feeling he might find Nigel out there. He was hoping he was dressed warmly enough for weather as cold as this, or at least that he hadn’t been there for long.
At this hour, it was almost pitch dark out there. He wouldn’t be able to see a thing, if he didn’t leave the door open, so he did. It was best anyway, since if it shut behind him, he’d need help to get out of there.
In the dim light, he took a few steps forward, looking around to recall which was Nigel’s favourite spot. Not that the place was large enough to hide a grown man for more than a few minutes.
In the end, he found his friend by stumbling across his feet. An undignified shriek told him that at least Nigel was still conscious.
“It’s just me – Harry. Nigel?”
By now, Harry’s eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness outside and he knew it was Nigel who had been sitting hunched over, his face buried in his hands.
Nigel’s voice sounded hoarse, as if he’d been crying for a long time.
“Yes. What are you doing out here? If you haven’t noticed, it’s freezing cold.”
Harry broke off, not knowing how to begin.
“It was you, wasn’t it? The other night at my place. My neighbour mrs Nosy-Parker told me I’d had a visitor. From her description I could tell it had to be you.”
“You saw us.”
It wasn’t a question, so Harry didn’t bother denying it. Neither could he confirm it. How did you explain that you’d been spying on something so private –
Nigel didn’t seem to expect a reply and after a while he continued.
“Do you know how old I am?”
“Well, not exactly. I assumed you were a couple of years older than I, but -”
“Thirty. I’m thirty years old.”
Harry nodded. It was as he’d guessed. Two years older. But he didn’t think Nigel was interested in the age difference between them, so he waited, and after a brief pause, Nigel continued.
“And after all those years, I still can’t tell him no. I’ve had combat training. I could probably kill him, if I – But when he came to see me, I could only stand there and let him -”
Nigel’s voice broke and though Harry could tell he was struggling to control himself, painful sobs were torn out of him. Not knowing what to do, or say, Harry remained silent, until the sobs had ceased.
Uncomfortably, Harry searched his mind for something to say that might console his friend.
“It’s not your fault.”
He could tell that his words sounded empty and meaningless.
But that wasn’t how he’d intended for them to come out. They did mean something and he forced himself to try and explain.
“When – Randall – When we were in the crypt, he told me – He said I had somehow told him that I wanted him to – that I’d sent out signals to encourage him. He was wrong. It was just an excuse to – something his sick mind made up to defend his actions. And your uncle – whatever he said to you or did, it was his responsibility, not yours.”
“I know. But that doesn’t mean I can change anything. I can’t make him stop.”
Suddenly, Harry knew what to say and he was astonished at how pleased he was with the idea, though he had only just thought of it that very instant.
“If you moved to our house, he couldn’t come and see you there.”
He could tell Nigel wasn’t following his reasoning, so he went on with his explanation.
“If you like you could rent a room at our house. Mum’s always saying how she’d love to make a bit more to help with the rent. Unless -”
It only just occurred to Harry that Nigel might prefer to move in with his girlfriend, not someone who was just a friend.
“Perhaps you’d prefer to live with Sandra, but if you like, you’d be more than welcome at our place.”
Nigel swallowed hard.
“I don’t think I could bear to be with her right now. Not now.”
Oh. Of course. How stupid of him. He and Jess still hadn’t been able to – What an idiot he was. Living at Sandra’s place, with her voluptuous body right under his eyes, would only painfully remind Nigel of what he was missing. What a careless, insensitive thing to say.
“Oh. Right. Of course. So, anyway, I’m serious. If you’d like to move in, we’d be more than pleased to have you.”
There was no reply for a long time, and Harry was beginning to think he’d made a mistake, offering his hospitality to his friend, but finally, Nigel took a deep breath and replied.
“That’s awfully decent of you. I appreciate the offer. I’ll think about it. Thanks. You’re a good bloke. Listen – about that sick bastard, Randall – you’re right. They always have some sort of justifictication for what they do. Nothing that would make sense to a normal person. I know this is easier said than done, and especially coming from me -”
Here Nigel broke off and laughed mirthlessly.
“If you can, try to put it behind you. I know it must have been a bad shock and – but you have friends, people who care about you. Whatever happened – it doesn’t mean you’re any different. You’re still the same person. Don’t let him get to you.”
Nigel was right. It was easier said than done, but this well-meaning advice, coming from a man with Nigel’s background somehow touched Harry even more, knowing how Nigel himself must be feeling right now.
“Right. We’d better go now, before we freeze to death. I can’t feel my toes, and I shudder to think what yours must feel like. How long were you out here anyway?”
“I have no idea. But you’re right, we have to go.”
In the end, Harry had to give Nigel a hand, to help him get to his feet. Despite the late hour, they went to a pub, to warm up and unwind a bit. After the emotionally shattering evening, they needed a distraction. Anything to put off the silence and loneliness of bed, where they’d have no defense against the memories.
Nigel and Sandra always tried to see each other and preferably spend at least two or three nights together every week. It wasn’t always possible, considering their work load, but they never let an entire week go by without keeping in touch somehow.
When first one, then two weeks went by with no sign of Nigel, apart from one phone call, which she had to make, she naturally took notice. She knew of how overworked they were at the morgue and at first put his absence down to stress and fatigue. At the back of her mind, hovered the memory of how Nigel had just gone off to uni one day, and not returned, but she told herself that things would be different now. He’d needed to grow up just as she had, that was all.
At the end of the second week, Sandra had managed to get the entire weekend off, with nothing to do, either for her clinic or the animal rights group. It had taken quite a bit of planning and she now owed her partners and the others in the group favours until the end of summer, but when she’d had the idea, she’d been looking forward to spending the whole weekend with Nigel. Somehow, she now had a feeling she’d be spending it alone. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling.
She’d been telling herself to take things slowly with him and not expect too much. And she really had believed herself successful. However, Nigel, with his boyish smile and gangling body, had a way of getting to her unobtrusively. She should have seen it coming. It had been exactly that way when they’d both been first year students and they’d fallen helplessly for each other, though her friends had been gaping at the mismatched couple.
Now she could either let him go, without a fight, holding on to her dignity or she could try to find out what was wrong. Her first idea was to ring Jess and ask her to check if Harry knew anything. But was it fair to place Harry in that position? He and Nigel were friends and Sandra knew that if Harry had come asking questions about Jess, she wouldn’t have had anything to say.
Still, there was no harm in asking. Perhaps Jess had heard something she hadn’t. She knew Jess would tell her. Their loyalties went too deep for her not to. Just as Sandra would let Jess know anything she wanted to know.
Jess was just about to go and see Harry, and she promised she would sound him out discreetly. As an afterthought she added that she had the idea Nigel had stopped visiting Harry some weeks ago.
When she’d finished the call, Sandra sat down and had a sandwich, while pondering her next move. Nigel hadn’t gone to see Harry either. Was he seeing someone else? The problem was, she’d thought that Nigel was entirely transparent to her, yet she suspected there were secrets he’d never shared with her. For instance, he had never been able to explain why he’d left and joined the navy, when she could have sworn it was the last thing he wanted to do.
Uniforms and obeying orders. That just didn’t go with Nigel. Not the Nigel she’d known. But when she’d met him again, he’d seemed the same old Nigel. It wasn’t that she hadn’t tried to figure it out before. She just hadn’t come very far. Perhaps now it was time to dig deeper. She could go over and see his mother. The times she’d come over for a visit she and the old lady had got along well. But was that really a good idea? His mother would never tell her anything that would be of use to her.
Sighing, Sandra decided to go to the shelter anyway and help out. They could always use an extra hand. She might as well find those two cats Harry’s mother had been asking about.
Jess didn’t forget Sandra’s call and kept her question at the back of her mind. Besides, it was still very hard to draw Harry out. She’d realized soon enough, that after he’d been discharged from the hospital, he wasn’t happy about being touched. How ironic. There was a time when she’d been the one reluctant to accept his touch. In any case she’d backed off and done her best not to crowd him.
No matter what she said, he usually didn’t reply and had developed a habit of staring at a point somewhere above her head, an absent smile on his lips. She realized that he probably wasn’t looking at anything in particular, and was hardly smiling either. Lately, however, he seemed to have snapped out of some of his daze.
She was hoping that was a sign of improvement.
When they’d run out of topics to discuss, Jess decided to just ask Harry a straight question. If he couldn’t answer, fair enough.
“Harry – before I left, I talked to Sandra. She was concerned about Nigel. I realize this will place you in an awkward position, but – do you have any idea what’s going on? He hasn’t been to see her for weeks. And you know how they used to be.”
She couldn’t help smiling as she recalled how Nigel and Sandra had acted when they were together. Like two teenagers, hand in hand, totally wrapped up in each other.
She was wondering if she and Harry would ever have that – bond. Now she regretted her own impulse to push Harry away. If she’d been more tolerant, they might have had some months of happiness before that pervert abducted Harry and changed him into the ghost of himself that he was today. All they’d had were a few moments alone together, kissing and holding each other. Nothing more. She might have done more while she was still in school.
From Harry’s expression, she guessed that he did know something about the reason for Nigel’s absence, but would he tell her about it?
He looked as if he was weighing his words carefully.
“They are rather overworked at the moment – with me gone.”
His voice had a note of bitterness that wasn’t lost on Jess. She knew how badly he wanted to return to work, to get busy again, and frankly she didn’t know why Professor Ryan wouldn’t let him. Surely it would be better if he found something to distract himself rather than stay cooped up in the house all day, with nothing else to do than brood on what had happened to him.
“But that can’t be all, surely? I mean, they were busy before, but he always found a way to spend at least a few nights a week at her place.”
Jess blushed slightly, hoping Harry wouldn’t notice and perhaps begin to wonder how much she and Sandra really told each other.
But Harry’s mind seemed to be on something else and anyway, it did seem as if the lads talked among themselves too. Jess made a note of that and decided to tell Harry she would definitely draw the line at having their sex life discussed over a couple of pints, assuming they ever moved beyond talking and looking at each other.
“I know. She must be wondering.”
“Do you have any idea what’s wrong?”
There. She’d asked a direct question. If his loyalty to Nigel made it impossible for him to reply, she would accept that.
“He’s not seeing someone else. I’m not sure how much I can tell you. It’s not my secret to give away.”
So there was a secret. Jess had come to know Sandra’s fellow quite well in the past couple of months and she’d grown genuinely fond of him. He always could make her laugh and she knew he was making Sandra happy. If something was wrong, she knew Sandra would wish to know and she too, would want to do her best to help, if there was anything they could do.
“So something is wrong?”
She couldn’t help prodding a little.
The pained expression on Harry’s face told her the answer before he managed to find the words to reply.
“I can’t tell you what it is, but yes, something is wrong.”
He nodded, and the haunted look in his eyes, somehow made Jess shiver.
“Alright. If you can’t tell me, you can’t. I assume you can’t tell Sandra either. Is there anything I can do? Or Sandra? Or you? Anyone?”
“I don’t know. I hope so. Actually, I thought of something that might help in the short run, but I don’t even know if he’ll accept my help.”
“Would it help if Sandra showed up and asked him to his face?”
“I doubt it. It’s not the sort of thing a bloke would want his girlfriend to know.”
“But we must be able to do something. I know Sandra would want to. Harry, I don’t suppose I need to tell you this, but Sandra loves him. She isn’t the type of girl who would say so, in so many words, but it hurt her terribly when he just walked away the first time.”
“I know he loves her too, but -”
Harry did look much more – alert – than only a few weeks ago. At least that was an improvement. Jess smiled, despite her concern for Nigel and Sandra.
It seemed to her that Harry was struggling with himself, as if trying to decide on a course of action. Eventually, it appeared he came to a decision.
“Look, I think we need to do something. This is just too – No matter how Nigel would feel about us knowing, we can’t let him suffer like this.”
“Right. You know I’m game. Sandra will do anything she can. And between you and me, she’s capable of a lot of things you might not guess at first glance.”
A hesitant smile began to play on Harry’s lips.
“Good. We’ll need all the help we can get, because I don’t have a clue what to do.”
After learning that Harry now knew his secret, Nigel fell apart. All he’d been able to do, in the past, was keep his secret. It now felt as if he’d lost every vestige of control. All he’d struggled for over the years seemed to break into little pieces.
How could he have thought he’d be able to hide his shame? Even if Sandra didn’t know, he’d been a fool to think he could pick up where they’d left off. He had abandoned her, in his blind rush to get away from his uncle, thinking he could leave the pain and stigma behind, just like he’d left his studies, his mother, his home and his love.
And now it seemed he had sacrificed it all for nothing. Clive would always be inside him. There was no way out. Or perhaps there was. Nigel hated himself for even considering this means of escape, but he couldn’t face his uncle again. He couldn’t face Sandra or anyone else. His secret wasn’t safe anymore, but where he was going, it wouldn’t matter who knew.
In the end, he’d had to come back to his flat. He couldn’t call it a home, because just like his mother’s house and the room he’d shared with Sandra all those years ago, its four walls had been unable to keep the outside world out. Clive had been able to walk right in, past front door, nosy neighbour, lock and safety chain. He could close as many doors as he liked between himself and Clive, but Clive would always be able to get in. In many ways, it felt as if he’d never left.
It would have been easier if he’d been at work. The appropriate tools would have been at hand, and what more suitable place for what he had in mind, than a morgue? Still, the flat would do just as well. As long as no one disturbed him, anywhere would do. He briefly considered going down to the river. With a strong sedative inside him, he would be unable to fight the currents for very long. But in the end, he decided against it. The memory of the boy the other night, pained him.
No, it would have to be here and it would have to be soon, because he knew Clive would be back. Any time now. Perhaps he was even on his way right now.
A sense of urgency sent Nigel into a feverish rush of activity, and he began to rummage through the kitchen drawers, pick up any blade which might be sharp enough, then discard it. He ran across the passage to the bathroom and tore open the medicine cabinet. The contents spilled into the wash basin, revealing a bottle of sleeping pills, but no razors, since Nigel used an electric shaver.
As he held the bottle in his hand, thoughts whirled around in his mind. The pills might be enough, but why take the chance? Still hesitating, he weighed the bottle in his hand, hearing the pills rattle around inside it. It was nearly full. He’d bought them to cure the jet lag, after he’d come over from America. They would be put to better use now.
Decisively, he opened the bottle and tossed the contents into his mouth. He bent over the basin and ran the tap to fill his hand with icy, but slightly stale water. His throat felt numb after swallowing enough to help the pills’ passage.
Now strangely calm, he walked back towards his kitchenette, where he picked a knife at random, then returned to the bathroom to get in the bathtub. Remembering his neighbour downstairs, Nigel changed his mind and returned to his bedroom. He wouldn’t have to clean up the mess anyway. Someone else would have to worry about consequences for a change.
Harry, Jess and Sandra had gathered in Sandra’s flat, trying to draw up a game plan. Now that Sandra knew what she was up against, she didn’t feel a bit intimidated. As long as Nigel wasn’t seeing someone else, or leaving for another continent, she could take on anyone or anything.
Though Harry and Nigel didn’t know it, she and Jess belonged to a group of animal rights activists who occasionally felt that the law didn’t equal justice. Not when it came to innocent lives being taken for no good reason.
Their group didn’t use explosives or any other type of weapon, but they did know a thing or two about breaking and entering, both literally and figuratively as in hacking a computer system or a web site. Drawing on their experience, Sandra was sure they’d eventually find a way to keep Nigel’s uncle away from his nephew, one way or another.
In the meantime, Sandra wanted to find Nigel. As soon as she realized what had been bothering him, a nagging concern had been eating at her. She had to see him and make sure he was at least physically alright. The rest, she would take care of later.
“Harry, do you think you could go to the university and find out if Nigel’s at work? If not, ask when he was last seen there.”
“Alright. Why don’t we ring him first and check though?”
“Because he isn’t answering his phone. Not the mobile either. I already tried that.”
“I’ll go over to his place and see if he’s there.”
“You could ask his neighbour on the first floor. She never misses a thing.”
“Yes, I remember her. Good. I will. Now, please go, Harry. I’m worried about Nigel. He shouldn’t be alone at a time like this.”
“Of course. I’m going.”
Jess, being the only one left out, had an inspiration. Perhaps there was something she could do to help.
“I think I’ll go and have a word with D I Pereira. Just mention that I know of someone who might be a paedophile, and ask him if he can find out if there’s anything on record. I think he feels he owes me one.”
Sandra nodded approvingly.
“Good idea. Lock the door on the way out. I’ll get going now.”
“I’ll walk you out.”
“Does he have a name, this retired doctor?”
Jess told DI Pereira.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask you, did you – what did you think about the material I sent you?”
Pereira made a face. He hadn’t had any idea of the horrors the material contained. The atrocities he’d seen still gave him nightmares, several months later.
“You were right. It is rather – hard to stomach. I suppose it’s lucky I don’t have to work cases like that anymore. Homicides are more straightforward. No need to worry about what’s right or wrong.”
“Don’t be too sure, Detective Inspector.”
“No, I suppose nothing’s certain. Right. I’ll see what I can dig up.”
“It’s urgent. I – have reason to believe he’s still active.”
“He’s still molesting children?”
“It’s possible. But I meant someone who is not a child anymore.”
Having taken a special course about detecting signs of sexual abuse in minors, Pereira thought he knew what she was referring to. Sometimes perpetrators would continue abusing their victims until they were grown up. Some victims didn’t escape their tormentors until one or both of them were dead. He couldn’t understand what it was that kept the victims in thrall like that, but he knew it happened.
And recalling the case when a young man had lured a man who had abused him as a child to a hill from which he’d pushed him, Pereira suddenly realized that homicides or in this particular case, attempted homicides could place you in moral dilemmas. Was it fair to sentence a former victim of sexual abuse to prison, for trying to rid the world of a pervert? Perhaps it was. Perhaps it never was right to take the law into one’s own hands, no matter what the reason or justification was. But he didn’t have time to ponder interesting philosophical points. He had work to do.
“Well, I won’t keep you anymore. I’ll let you get on with your -”
“Excuse me, ms Riley -”
“I was wondering – your group -”
He hesitated. He didn’t want her to get the impression he was asking for potentially incriminating information.
“Is it possible to donate money to -”
“Of course. We’d be grateful for any contribution.”
She had an idea that a policeman, even one out of uniform as DI Pereira, didn’t make that much per year.
“it’s just that – I don’t think it would look good if a -”
And suddenly she knew what he was asking. He wanted to make an anonymous donation. She smiled reassuringly. He’d be surprised how many people wanted to remain anonymous. The important thing was the work, not who was donating the funds to keep them going.
“We accept anonymous donations. Why don’t you just send it in the post, in cash? That would be easiest, I think.”
He thought so too. Less chance of it being traced back to him that way. And less chance of his being forced to give information about their bank accounts, should the need ever arise.
She hurried over to the university to meet Harry. While she was still on the bus, her mobile phone rang and she noticed that the number was unknown to her. Puzzled, she pressed the handsfree button and heard Pereira’s voice. That explained it.
“Ms Riley. The – person you were asking about does have a record – of a sort. No convictions yet, but he’s known by the police. You were right. He has been connected with several of these groups and we have had indications that he is still targeting children – but in South East Asia, not here, as far as we can tell. Of course we are cooperating fully with the police over there, but these cases are tricky. We’d need something concrete. Something he’s done here.”
“I see. Thanks, Detective Inspector. I do hope you find a way of catching him.”
“So do I.”
Sandra was glad she had the car today. Even though the traffic was unusually difficult, she had no patience for waiting at bus stops. If Nigel wasn’t at his flat – but she’d look there first. No need to worry in advance.
There was no sign of the old busybody today, so presumably she was out doing her grocery shopping. Sandra ran up the stairs, three steps at a time. At the top of the stairs she took a look around. The door to the bathroom was ajar, so she walked in. What she saw in there alarmed her. No razors but – an empty medicine bottle was lying on the floor.
Close to panic, she turned and made for the door to the flat. The door wasn’t locked and she didn’t waste any time calling Nigel’s name. If he was here, she’d find him.
She could see at a glance that the den was empty, so she turned her attention towards the bedroom. The door was closed but she could see there wasn’t a lock on it, so she turned the doorknob and the door swung open easily.
A sickening smell hit her nostrils at the same time her eyes registered the blood. Even during her studies or while doing surgery she had hardly ever seen that much blood. For a second she stood transfixed, forgetting all her training and experience. But she knew every second would count, if it wasn’t already too late and she refused to consider that. So she regained her composure and forced herself to move on.
She tore open the closet on the other side of the bed and found a clean set of sheets. Ruthlessly, she began to tear them into strips, then turned towards the bed. This was the worst part. She forced herself to kneel by the side of the bed and place her fingers on Nigel’s neck. Her fingers shook, so at first she couldn’t detect any pulse at all. She tried again, this time with fingers slippery with cold sweat, but she thought she could feel a slight erratic movement.
Now she noticed that blood was still pouring out of the cut wrists. Both wrists. And the cuts were made in the right direction, as could be expected by a doctor. Damn you, Nigel, she swore under her breath.
Quickly but efficiently, she began to bandage the wrists. To her relief, the blood didn’t soak through the fabric as much as she’d feared. She grabbed the phone from the bedside table and after wiping her hands on her jeans, she punched in the number.
“There’s a white male, age about thirty, who’s in need of medical assistance. He’s slashed his wrists and he’s lost a lot of blood. Yes, he’s unconscious, but he has a pulse and I’ve bandaged the wounds.”
She gave the address then sank down onto the side of the bed, heedless of the huge wet stain on the sheet.
“Damn you, Nigel. Why didn’t you talk to me?”
The paramedics looked grave as they took Nigel’s vital signs, inspected the bandages, which seemed to meet their approval, then transferred him to a stretcher. Sandra rode with them in the ambulance, answering questions about the patient, her relationship to him and her knowledge of first aid. The fact that she was a vet, not a doctor or a nurse, didn’t give rise to any comments.
After their arrival, she stayed behind, watching Nigel’s immobile form being rolled away. She wondered if she’d ever see him again, alive. Finding him like that had been a bad shock, but so had finding out the truth about why there had always been parts of him she hadn’t been able to reach. Now she thought she could see why he’d abandoned her all those years ago. He hadn’t left her behind so much as fled from his uncle.
She wished he’d trusted her enough to tell her. Somehow, she would have found a way to help him. If nothing else, she would have followed him to America, Australia, South America or wherever he’d wished to go, or even joined the navy, just so they could stay together.
It occurred to her that she ought to ring Jess to tell her and Harry to stop looking for Nigel. She managed to find a pay phone which accepted her card, then rang Jess’ mobile. Harry and Jess insisted on joining her at the hospital. She opened her mouth to tell them it wouldn’t be necessary, but changed her mind before she’d spoken. If they wanted to keep her company, she couldn’t turn their offer down.
When they arrived, she sat on an upholstered chair looking as if it was made of hard wood, very upright.
Jess put a hand on her shoulder, and squeezed it reassuringly, before finding a chair and sitting down beside her. Harry sat down on her other side. Sandra spared a moment’s thought for Harry. How would he react to finding himself in the hospital again so soon after his ordeal? Strangely enough, he looked more his usual self. Not that Sandra had seen him just after the abduction, but Jess’ description had been clear enough.
Harry leaned closer and began asking questions. Sandra didn’t think the details would make any difference, but had a feeling he coped with his own concern and personal anxieties by resorting to what to him must have been familiar terms. Medical terms. She knew medical terms, so she gave him the full report.
“The cuts – ”
“They were by the book. What did you expect? And he’d taken a whole bottle of sleeping pills first.”
“What kind? Do you remember?”
“I gave the bottle to the paramedics, but yes, I do recall.”
She told him the brand name.
Again Harry nodded as if all this was making some kind of sense to him. It would. After all, he was a doctor too. Sandra wasn’t sure she wanted to know his conclusions.
“That’s alright. They’ll deal with it. It could have been worse.”
Harry’s calm tone suddenly made Sandra’s temper flare.
“Could have been worse? He’s lost so much blood I don’t think -”
“I just meant that the barbiturates aren’t the worst problem. How much blood would you say he’s lost?”
“How the hell should I know? The bed was soaked. Blood everywhere. Look at my sodding clothes. How much do you think that is?”
“I was just -”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. It was just -”
“At least you found him while he was still alive. You say there was a pulse?”
“Yes, a weak one, but I think it picked up a bit once I’d put on the bandages.”
“And you bandaged up the wounds. Any chance he has, is thanks to you.”
“I could have done more if he’d told me what was wrong. I would have found a way to -”
“Sandra, take it easy. Try to calm down a little. The doctors are doing what they can.”
Again, Jess put a hand on her friend’s shoulder.
“There’s still something I can do. I won’t let the sick bastard get away with it. Will you help me, Jess?”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ll tell you. Harry, would you stay here and – wait?”
“Of course, but what are you going to do?”
“I have a plan. Listen to this.”
And she proceeded to outline her plan as quickly and as clearly as possible. She could tell Jess liked the idea. Probably Harry too, though he looked a bit concerned. Sandra didn’t know if he was worried about Jess or simply ill at ease over the plan itself.
“Please. I know what I’m doing.”
“Alright. I’ll ring you if – there’s any change.”
The first step in their plan was a visit Sandra’s flat. They took a taxi there to save time.
Once inside, Sandra began pulling out the contents of her wardrobe, tossing them carelessly onto her bed, as she looked them over, then discarded them. She held on to a few of them and in the end, she appeared satisfied. Jess noted that there were enough garments for two people.
“Why are we going to change into – those?”
The clothes she was indicating were not the sort that she or Sandra would usually wear, to say the least. Not that they shared the same style normally. Sandra’s style was more colourful, almost flamboyant with strong colours and unusual lines. Jess almost always wore jeans and a t-shirt or occasionally an ankle length skirt with a neat cardigan. These garments were – scanty, to put it charitably. Jess put it rather more succinctly.
“I’m not wearing those. They’re – slutty.”
“That’s the whole point. You and I are going slumming. Remember those vile little cards in the phone booths? We’re going as call girls.”
“No. Sandra, I’m not wearing that. I didn’t even know you had anything like that.”
“Listen to me. In that neighbourhood, they’re bound to notice me. You could go as a Jehova’s Witness or a saleslady or – what do I know? – a pollster. But me, they’re going to notice. The only way someone like me is getting inside that house is as a prostitute.”
“What about as a maid?”
Jess knew Sandra was right, but she just didn’t relish the idea of exposing most of her body to the world.
“Who can afford a maid these days?”
“I could go alone, but I’d feel better with you keeping a lookout.”
“Never again. If it wasn’t for poor Nigel in that hospital bed -”
“That’s the whole point. We wouldn’t have to do it if it weren’t for him.”
Twenty minutes later, both girls exited Sandra’s flat wearing considerably less clothes than before, but considerably more makeup.
Sandra stared critically at her friend.
“Don’t walk like that. You’ll call attention to yourself. Try to forget how you look and just walk normally.”
Unfortunately, they ran straight into one of Sandra’s more obnoxious neighbours. Mrs Allen cried out in astonishment and Sandra knew she’d have to think fast, or her reputation would be in trouble.
“Hello, mrs Allen. How do you like our costumes?”
“Yes, costumes. We’re going to a masked ball at the uni. What do you think? Convincing, aren’t we? We’re going to surprise our friends.”
“I see, dear. You certainly surprised me. Whatever made you decide to go as – street girls?”
“We were thinking what would be the least likely costumes we could choose, and well, this was what we came up with.”
“Right. How clever of you. They’ll hardly recognize you like this.”
It seemed Mrs Allen had accepted their explanation. Sandra relaxed a little, while they walked away as quickly as they dared. Once around the corner, she made a face at Jess. Of all the bad luck.
They took another taxi, to the old doctor’s neighbourhood. The driver couldn’t take his eyes off them and Jess was worrying that they’d have some trouble with him, but eventually he dropped them off about a block from the doctor’s house. Sandra’s generous tip might have had something to do with his behaviour. In any case, he was forgotten the minute he drove off.
They began walking slowly, as if they were in no particular hurry. Outside the house, they found a vantage point where they wouldn’t be too conspicuous and looked the place over. Things looked promising. At this time in the early evening, the lights would have been on if anyone had been in. The windows looked back at them blindly, without a trace of light from inside.
Sandra glanced around the street, and noticing nothing out of the ordinary, she nodded to Jess to come along. it would just be too bad if they were picked up by the police before they had time to do what they’d set out to do.
She put her hand inside the small shoulder bag she’d brought and found the little instrument her former boyfriend had forgotten at her flat when he moved out. It had come in handy for some of their actions against pharmaceuticals companies or factory farms. She inserted it into the lock and moved her hand first to the right, then to the left in a series of complicated manoeuvres. The lock clicked satisfyingly and the door swung open. Hurriedly they stepped inside. Having already put on rubber gloves, Sandra turned on the light in the hallway.
To her relief, there was no burglar alarm, at least none that she could see. Fortunately, the old doctor appeared to be careless enough to leave his home guarded by only one lock.
Nervously, they moved along, searching for a computer. If the doctor didn’t have one, what they had to do would be much more difficult, if not impossible. But today, surely everyone had a computer, especially a man with the doctor’s esoteric tastes.
They found it almost right away. It was a laptop and it was hidden in a desk drawer, but it was easy enough to find. Sandra opened it and waited for the start screen to light up. The doctor hadn’t been quite as careless with the computer as he was with his house. On the screen a message demanding a password was flashing.
Sandra had expected this, and she knew this was the tricky part. She didn’t think the doctor would have anything truly sophisticated in the way of security system. Nothing self-desctructing if the wrong password was entered too many times – three times? More? But simple or not, the need for a password was difficult enough.
Fortunately, she knew what she was doing, just as she had told Harry less than two hours ago. She had a way with computers and knew how to bypass the password entirely, especially on such an ancient specimen as the laptop. It wasn’t anything she’d like to hold on her lap for any period of time. What did it weigh anyway? Close to ten pounds was her guess.
She breathed out her relief and stretched her back to relieve some of the tension that had built up inside her. They didn’t know how long they had. When the doctor returned they’d better be far away.
“There. We’re in.”
“That’s amazing. How did you do that?”
“Elementary, my dear Watson. Now let’s see what he’s got.”
Most of the files contained harmless data, like bookkeeping and a list of medical books. Next she found some ordinary photographs, depicting a woman Sandra recognized as Nigel’s mother, and some old black and white ones of a graduation ceremony from Oxford or Cambridge, no doubt the doctor’s own, and a wedding picture, faded and sepia coloured, which seemed to depict the old doctor’s parents.
That file couldn’t be the only one. Sandra wouldn’t accept that. There had to be more.
She digged deeper and finally found what had to be what she was looking for. These were password protected. Again, she was able to find a way of bypassing them and the second she set eyes on the material, she knew she’d succeeded. It was the most horrible photos she’d ever seen.
The other file contained movies. She didn’t bother opening them. The file names made her feel sick.
“This is it.”
She hadn’t needed to spell it out. Jess was looking as sick as Sandra felt.
“I hope this is enough. And when he’s sent to prison, I hope the other prisoners treat him the way he deserves.”
“Me too. Alright. Let’s pack up and go, before he gets back.”
They took care not to leave any traces of their entry.
Back at the hospital, they couldn’t see Harry anywhere. Sandra felt cold. Was it over? Had she lost Nigel, now that she’d finally had him back? And after all they’d accomplished tonight, would it still not be enough?
“Sandra – perhaps he’s just gone to the bathroom. Why don’t you go and ask at the reception desk? I’ll find a phone and talk to DI Pereira. I’m sure he’ll be interested.”
“Alright. Go on. Ring him. I’ll look for Harry.”
Anxiously, Sandra walked back towards the reception area.
“Excuse me. My – boyfriend was brought in earlier this evening. Attempted suicide. Could you tell me if there’s been any change in his condition?”
“What’s his name, love?”
The middle aged maternal looking woman, glanced at the computer screen.
“Right. He came to about fifteen minutes ago. His friend went in to see him.”
“Thanks. Will – will he be alright?”
“You’ll have to ask his doctor about that, love. But if you do ask me, they wouldn’t have let his friend in if he hadn’t been on the mend.”
Sandra turned on her heel and went to look for Nigel’s room.
When the doctor had come to tell Harry Nigel had regained consciousness, the slight Indian man looked as if he was looking for someone.
“Excuse me, wasn’t Mr Townsend’s girlfriend here earlier?”
“Yes, but I’m afraid there was another emergency and she had to leave. She’ll be back as soon as she possibly can.”
“And who are you, if I may ask?”
“I’m a friend and a colleague of Dr Townsend’s.”
“Dr? A medical doctor?”
“Yes. We both are.”
“I see. Well, you can go in and see him for a while, if you like. He’ll be sleepy, but he’ll make a full recovery. Whoever bandaged him up, most likely saved his life.”
“It was his girlfriend.”
“I see. Well, go on. Just for a short while.”
Hesitantly, Harry opened the door and peered inside. He wasn’t sure what he’d see in there, and frankly, hospitals now made him uncomfortable, after his own brush with death only a few months earlier. But he wanted to speak to Nigel and see for himself that he would be alright.
“Nigel? Are you awake?”
There was no reply, but now Harry could see that Nigel’s eyes were open and though his colour was extremely pale, at least he seemed to be conscious.
“Nigel, I know you can hear me. How could you? What about that speech you gave me last night? About how I have people who care about me and so on. You think you don’t? If so, you’re wrong. I care about you and if that doesn’t mean anything, Sandra does too.”
“You have no idea -”
“Yes, I do. I think I have some idea.”
Nigel bit off the sharp reply he’d been about to make. In a way, perhaps Harry did. And he knew he’d been a coward to run out on the people who cared about him. If he’d been prepared to let his mother down, he might as well have stayed in Boston. And after running out on Sandra all those years ago, he’d come back and built up her hopes again. Led her to believe he’d be there for her. Harry did have a point. He had a nerve preaching to his friend, while he himself hadn’t taken his own advice.
“Yes. I know you do. I’m sorry. How did you find me?”
“Sandra did. She’s the one who patched you up. Saved your life. Your doctor just told me so.”
Harry felt his cheeks flush an embarrassing pink. This was the tricky part. He had betrayed Nigel’s confidence by telling Sandra and Jess about what he’d seen at the flat. It was unforgivable of him. Such a secret that wasn’t his to tell.
“May I sit down?”
He knew he was a coward, but he was playing for time, so he could think of something to say. Would Nigel ever forgive him?
Nigel’s dull, muted voice only added to Harry’s feelings of guilt.
“I’m afraid I told her – about -”
To Harry’s surprise this didn’t seem to produce the indignation he had expected. Nigel looked as if he was past caring about who knew his secret.
“I’m sorry but – I was hoping we’d be able to think of something to do – to help you.”
“Help me? No one can help me.”
The noise coming from Nigel must have been intended as a laugh, but sounded more like a sigh.
“I think so. They’ve gone over to your uncle’s house and are going through his computer. Hopefully, they’re already done.”
This did seem to cause a reaction in Nigel, and Harry cursed himself for causing his friend’s agitation. In his delicate condition –
“Hey, calm down. Sandra said she knew what she was doing.”
“I know she does, but that’s not the point. I don’t want her anywhere near him.”
“I don’t think she you need to worry. She said something about a black belt.”
Nigel closed his eyes and for a second, Harry was worried his friend was slipping away into unconsciousness.
“I’d forgotten about that. I suppose other people won’t be as intimidated by him -”
Now Harry couldn’t help himself any longer. He had to know if he’d carelessly made his friend’s condition deteriorate.
“Do you mind?”
To Nigel’s astonishment, Harry placed two fingers against his neck.
“What are you doing?”
Harry blushed again, guiltily.
“Just making sure you’re alright.”
“Oh. I guess this must make a bit of a change from your usual patients. There’s still a bit of life left in this one. Well, doc, what’s the verdict?”
“Oh, I think you’ll make it.”
“You think? I knew I should have used something sharper than that dull old knife.”
“Don’t joke about it. Sandra said -”
“I’m sorry, Harry. You’re right. I suppose I shouldn’t have given up that easily. It’s just that – can you imagine what it’d be like to have one of your friends walk straight into a scene from your worst nightmare? To know that one of your friends knew your darkest secret?”
“You weren’t around at the time, but I’m sure you know what – happened that night. When – Randall had abducted me.”
“No, I don’t. I think I can guess, but -”
“No, you can’t. It’s not like you think. Oh, he was going to – he told me what he was going to do and right afterwards he was going to kill me and -”
Harry’s eyes closed and an expression of agony twisted his amiable boyish face.
Nigel felt his own throat constrict painfully and he opened his mouth to tell Harry to stop tormenting himself, but he kept quiet as he saw Harry rallying slightly.
“I found a way to buy myself a little time.”
This was spoken in such a bitter tone, Nigel at first had difficulty following Harry’s reasoning. After some thought, the meaning of Harry’s words struck him. Of course. How incrediby brave of him. That was more than Nigel would have given him credit for.
“Oh. That was brave of you.”
“Was it? I thought it was rather cowardly. The truly brave thing to do would have been to just accept my fate stoically and hope it would be over soon.”
“Would it? Well, that’s up to you to decide. Personally, I think what you did was brave.”
“What’s the point? I did it. I’ll have to live with it.”
“Exactly. You’ll live. To fight another day as they would say in the dear old navy.”
A knock on the door made both men turn and stare at the door.
It swung open and the nurse on duty looked in.
“Time to go.”
Harry got up. At the door, he was held back by a word from Nigel.
“Thanks. I – appreciate what you’ve done for me.”
“What are friends for? Now get some rest.”
“Of course, doctor. Whatever you say.”
There was a ghost of a smile playing on Nigel’s lips.
The nurse made a quick visual examination, then took Nigel’s pulse. Appearing satisfied, she seemed to hesitate.
“Your girlfriend’s outside. One visitor should have been enough, but – you do look much better, so I’ll let her come in for just a few minutes.”
When she stepped inside, Sandra held back, an odd look on her face.
Nigel was wondering if this was it. Was this when she told him she couldn’t deal with his troubled past? If you thought about it, it made sense. Sandra would want a family. Children. What sort of a father would he make? He could imagine how Sandra would be thinking. A man who had been the victim of sexual abuse – incest – what if he too was likely to become a child molester?
But Sandra’s first words seemed to point in quite another direction.
“Damn you, Nigel. Why didn’t you tell me?”
He stared wordlessly at her, wondering how to explain. How could he have told her, when he’d never told anyone, including himself, in so many words, what had happened to him? It was something he’d kept buried at the back of his mind, afraid that something would set it off, sending him into a spiral of self-accusation and self-contempt.
“I’m sorry. I wish I could have. It was just – I spent so many years denying it had even happened. I couldn’t even say it to myself.”
“No, I’m sorry. I just wish you could have told me, that’s all. If you had – ”
“It wouldn’t have changed anything. Even now – I couldn’t -”
To Sandra’s alarm she saw tears filling Nigel’s eyes, spilling over onto his cheeks. She reached out and wiped them away with her hand.
“It’s alright. Don’t talk about it. It’ll will be alright now. I promise.”
“No, it won’t. I’m not who you thought I was. Sandra – I’ve – had sex with other men too. In America.”
“Alright. Any boyfriends?”
“What? No, of course not. Not any girlfriends either.”
“Because – I wasn’t very popular, at least not with women. Besides – I couldn’t forget you. Sandra – I’m really sorry I ran out on you. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. I had planned on asking you to marry me and -”
“He was there. Waiting for me one day when I got back from a lecture. I thought you were there so I walked straight in, not suspecting he’d be there.”
“I see. What else? Did he – hurt you?”
“No, but he knew where I was. He’d found me. And I – panicked. I’d thought it was over, now that I was at uni and living away from home. But I realized there was nowhere I could hide. He’d find me wherever I went. At least in this country.”
“I understand. But he won’t be looking for you again. Jess and I went to his house and – checked his computer. Just before I went to look for you, Jess was ringing D I Pereira to inform him about what’s on your uncle’s computer. Believe me, he won’t get out of this.”
“You – you hacked into his computer?”
“Of course, silly. Remember who taught me?”
Again, a ghost of a smile flickered across Nigel’s lips, this time perhaps for a fraction of a second longer.
“Right. Of course. Was the door unlocked?”
“Well, it wasn’t at first, but – after a minute or so it was.”
“Cool. You’re something else, do you know that?”
“Was that American, cowboy? And am I something more than those men you were talking about?”
“Of course. There’s no comparison. Sandra – I’m not gay. My friend Bug used to pretend he thought I was, but I know he was just envious, because as unlucky as I was with the ladies, he was a lot worse. It was just that – they were there. They were interested and – I just wanted someone to like me.”
“I understand. But what about that skinny brunette in the slutty clothes in that photo of you and your colleagues at the M E’s office in Boston?”
“Jordan? Please. I wouldn’t mention her name on the same day as yours.”
“Well, I – wouldn’t have turned her down, but believe me, Jordan would be far more trouble than she’s worth. She’s one of the fighting Cavanaughs as she likes to refer to herself.”
“Oh, is that right? One of the ‘fighting’ Cavanaughs? Do you think she could take me?”
Nigel considered. It wasn’t an idea that was entirely displeasing to him. But there was no doubt in his mind who would win that fight.
“No. Not physically. She’d take you down with some dirty, underhanded trick.”
“Hm. We’d have to see about that, wouldn’t we? And what was it you said about asking me to marry you?”
“If I thought you’d have me now, I’d ask you, this very minute.”
“You’ll never know unless you try.”
“Are you serious, Sandra? Didn’t you just hear what I said?”
“I heard you say a lot, but so far I haven’t heard anything I’d really like to hear.”
This time, it really was a smile, and it lingered for almost long enough.
“Alright. I love you. Will you marry me?”
“Now that’s more like it.”
“I still haven’t heard anything I’d like to hear.”
“Oh. No, you haven’t, have you? But how can I be sure that you’re not just saying what you just said? How do I know that you really mean it?”
“What do you want me to say – cross my heart and hope to -”
“No. Not that. I would have thought a talkative lad like you could do better than that.”
“Alright. I’ve felt better, but how about this? I love you more than anything in the whole world and I want to spend the rest of my life with you and I’ll raid labs and farms with you and I’ll muck out kennels with you and I’ll help you take care of dozens of dogs and cats and bunnies and whatever you like, except for snakes. I really don’t like them. And I’ll eat tofu and sprouts with you and -”
“Slow down a bit. You’ll exhaust yourself. We’ll want you up on your feet again for a spring wedding.”
“Did I hear that right?”
“How should I know? I know what I said, but I can’t tell what you heard. Of course, if you’re not deaf from all that American traffic and loud people, you’ll have heard me mention our wedding.”
“That’s what I thought. And -”
“And – I love you more than anything in the whole world and I’d have joined the navy with you and I’d have lived with you in Boston, and I’ll break the neck of anyone who ever tries to hurt you again.”
By now, Nigel was looking overwhelmed by Sandra’s response. He certainly couldn’t have been more wrong about her reaction to his secret. As he thought about it, another smile made its way across his lips and without his being aware of it, it widened into a broad grin.
“What are you smiling about?”
“Oh, nothing. Just the thought of you in a uniform. I wish I hadn’t thought of that right now. In my weakened condition it might kill me.”
“What are you on about?”
Sandra glared suspiciously at him.
“You. And how incredibly hot you’d look in a little tight navy uniform. Here’s an idea. Let’s have something like that sewn up for the wedding. White, I think. Or red? Besides, come to think of it – what you’re wearing now is quite – provocative enough. It isn’t your usually style, is it? Did you put it on just for me? To – liven me up a bit?”
“You. If you weren’t so – weakened – I’d teach you a lesson. I had to put on this – ridiculous outfit to pass unnoticed in your uncle’s neighbourhood. His neighbours would have called the police if a black girl wearing jeans and a hooded jacket had showed up there.”
“Ooh. I wish you would teach me a lesson. Can I take a rain check on that?”
“American again, cowboy? We’ll have to do something about that. When we’re married -”
“I know, I know. I’ll have to honour and obey you too, not just love you.”
Again, Sandra shot him a suspicious glance. Was he having a joke at her expense? But if he was, it seemed to have been made in good humour and she didn’t have the heart to be angry with him. When she’d found him lying on his bed earlier that day, he’d looked dead. And that moment, she’d realized that there was a space inside her that would always have remained empty and barren without him. His confession about sleeping with men and worse still, about wanting to sleep with that Jordan slut, still worried her, but she wouldn’t let it spoil this moment. He’d actually asked her to marry him. That was more than she’d expected, even now.
“I’m sure you passed – quite unnoticed in that gear.”
Sandra decided to let his reaction pass unnoticed for now. At least it proved that it didn’t take men or slutty ‘fighters’ to turn him on. But she had to make sure he was serious about his offer, before she really allowed herself to enjoy the moment.
“Nige – you were serious just now, weren’t you? Because if not, then -”
“Now what are you on about? Serious about what? We’ll have to make it quick or that nurse will be back to throw you out.”
“If you’re not sure about getting married, I won’t hold you to it. I know I more or less twisted your arm.”
“Me? I love having my arm twisted, at least by someone as lovely as you. Honestly. Sandra, I’ve loved you all these years, but – I never thought I’d see you again. If I’d realized that you wouldn’t – that you didn’t feel disgusted by me, I’d have asked you sooner. You have no idea, do you? If I could have had any wish at all, it would have been that. To have you back and be forgiven by you for leaving like I did. And to marry you, so we’ll always be together.”
“Alright. You’ve convinced me. But Nigel – don’t ever say anything about me being disgusted by you. That’s not true. The only person who disgusts me is your uncle. And now you need to get some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She bent over to get a closer look at his face, hesitating. Would it be alright to kiss him – or would he still feel too traumatized by everything?
Nigel answered the unspoken question for her, by trying to sit up, reaching for her mouth. Anxious not to have him overexert himself, she quickly closed the distance between their faces and their lips met in a kiss that didn’t feel any different from the one they’d shared only the morning before Nigel had run into his uncle again.
“Just one thing, Nigel -”
“That uniform you were talking about?”
“Never. Put it right out of your mind, or the wedding’s off.”
“Alright. As long as there’s a wedding, you wear what you like. And I’ll -”
A look at Sandra’s face made him reconsider what he’d been about to say.
“And I’ll wear whatever you want me to.”
“That’s the sort of thing a girl likes to hear. Now hurry up and get better. That’s an order. You’ll be used to those after being in the navy.”
“Never heard one I liked better. Now go and get some rest yourself. Hacker. Burglar. Lovely apparition.”
She was smiling as she backed out into the corridor. Judging by that lecherous grin, he really was going to get better. She’d have to find Jess and tell her. Come to think of it, it really looked as if Harry was feeling better too, unless seeing Jess dressed so uncharacteristically had overexcited him. Not a bad ending to something that had been such a miserable period in their lives.