Steve Burford © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Fierce fire across his chest, up his arms, burning the muscles. More intense than any he had ever known.
With one last, titanic effort and with a strangled, inarticulate bellow, Paul Best pushed the massively stacked barbell that last, all important, near impossible centimetre up over his heaving chest, locked his arms, held for one second, two, then let go. The men on either end of the barbell staggered as they took its weight, hauled it back, and let it drop with a crash on the support framework behind Paul’s head.
Face flushed, near blinded by his own sweat but grinning like a loon, Paul lay momentarily exhausted on the bench, gasping like a landed fish, and accepting his mates’ extravagant praises. A new gym record. A new personal record. A whole one point two five kilos over his last best weight, way beyond anything any of the other guys in that gym could bench-press.
But still not good enough. It was never good enough.
Paul waited for his heart and breathing to slow back to something like normal, dragging a towel one of the guys had thrown at him across his eyes to clear the sweat. The small crowd of enthusiastic admirers who had surrounded his bench drifted back to their own workouts, some inspired by what they had just seen; a couple completely demoralised. Still grinning, Paul sat back up on the bench and accepted the water bottle held out by one who had stayed, one of the two men who had taken the weight from him. “Thanks, Rob.”
His mate stood to one side, shaking his head in amazement. “That was just beyond, man, y’know?”
Paul wiped the towel across the top of his pumped chest and under both armpits before hanging it around his thick neck. “Was, wasn’t it?”
“Want me to spot some more, or do you want to stretch off?”
Paul squinted at the clock on the far wall. “Nah,” he said, standing up from the bench. “Think I’ll just grab a shower and get going.”
Rob frowned. “You sure?” It was a standing joke at the Heavy Metal gym that Paul would be there all the hours God sent if he could, and the staff frequently almost had to throw him out at closing time which was still three hours away. Even Paul might not have anything left to give after that last display, but hitting the showers without stretching off? That was like… Rob struggled for an appropriate comparison but couldn’t find one. Similes weren’t really his thing. But whatever it was like, it was wrong. Paul Best didn’t cut corners in the gym.
“Okay.” Rob sounded uncertain. “Fancy a shake then? I’ve got some of the new protein formula from that show up in Brum. Doesn’t taste like shit. Pure protein. That’s what it says on the label. I mean,” he added, “it doesn’t say, doesn’t taste like shit, just…well, y’know what I mean.”
“Nah, mate. Thanks all the same. Save it for tomorrow, yeah?” Paul pointed his finger at Rob as if aiming a gun, winked, and made a clicking sound with his tongue. “Things to do tonight, y’know?”
Rob shuffled his feet uncomfortably. “Oh yeah. Right.”
Paul laughed. “You in tomorrow?”
Rob nodded vigorously. “Course.”
“Good man!” Paul thumped his friend on the shoulder then made his way across the crowded gym to the small changing room and shower area. All around him, standing, sitting, lying and squatting, men, and some women, pushed, pressed, pulled and lifted barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and, in one instance, a sandbag. Soft grunts, gasps, and the occasional guttural cry punctured the air which was heavy with sweat and muscle rub.
He stopped just short of the changing room door. On the bench there lay a man, stretching out his arms and pectoral muscles, eyes closed, psyching himself to press the impressively loaded barbell resting over his head on its stand. Either side of the stand were two other men, ready to lift the weight up and over to him and stand by in case he needed their help. Paul came and stood over the man on his back. To the untrained eye, he might have appeared as built as Paul himself. His skimpy vest, like Paul’s, did little to conceal his massively overdeveloped chest and arm muscles. But with the eye of the obsessive, Paul could see the differences: the lack of definition here, the extra eighth of an inch of fat there. And the weight this man was going to try to press… Paul’s grin became positively wolf-like. It was heavy all right, heavier than anything else anyone was pressing in the gym right then. And a good five kilos short of what Paul had just shifted.
“Warming up, Danny?” Paul said, just loud enough for everyone around to hear.
The man on the bench hissed in what might have been a reaction to Paul’s words or might have been part of his mental preparation. He opened his eyes but stayed staring at the ceiling. He nodded once to the men on either side of his head. They heaved the weight up from its rest, brought it forward until the bar was over his chest and he could grasp it, waited until they were sure he had a firm hold, arms locked, then let go and stepped back. For a moment, the weight stayed right where it was. Then, very slowly, teeth bared in a rictus of effort, his breath a series of sharp hisses, the man on the bench let the bar come down until the metal was just resting across his heaving chest. With a cry like a yelp of pain, he then thrust powerfully upwards. The bar moved, an inch, then another. On either side of him, the helpers shifted uneasily. Veins stood out on the forehead of the man on the bench as he strained against the weight. The bar moved another inch, then part of another. Then inexorably sank back downwards. The two standing men stepped in, seized the ends of the barbell, and hauled it back into its place on the stand.
Paul laughed out loud. “Bad luck, Danny,” he yelled, as he threw open the changing room doors. “Like to stick around and help you out but things to do, people to see. You know how it is.” He turned and stood for a moment in the doorframe, arms held out at his side as if inviting everyone there to gaze adoringly at his powerful body. “I mean, you know how it was. Keep taking the tablets.”
Dan Thompson lay on his bench, gasping like a man who had run a marathon, while his training partners shuffled uncomfortably off to one side, avoiding any eye contact with him. “Prick!” Dan gasped. “Fucking little prick!”
The door swung shut behind Paul but didn’t completely muffle the sound of his mocking laughter.
In the changing rooms, Paul pulled his sweat-sodden vest up over his head, tossed it to one side, and stood in front of the mirror, admiring his body in the almost dispassionate way a car enthusiast might admire a sports car he had built from scratch. Biceps pose. Triceps pose. Quad flex. Yeah, looking good. Looking big and looking really good. And burning Thompson had felt good too. So good it had just about made him forget the nagging in his gut. But not quite.
Rob’s confused surprise at his early exit from the gym had been a laugh but tearing himself away from his training so early had not been easy for Paul. Not at all! The obsessive compulsion that was part of his life, that was almost all of his life, that drove him through the pain and privations of bodybuilding day after day, week in, week out, was all but impossible to ignore. Besides, it would have been cool to hang around and bask some more in the mingled admiration and envy of the other guys there.
But when sweet deals came along, you had to make the most of them. And tonight’s deal promised to be so sweet Paul would be able to keep himself in allegedly delicious protein drinks for many months to come. And not just milkshakes. He whistled happily to himself as he took one last admiring look over his shoulder at the reflection of his flared lat muscles and enviable narrow waist before padding off to the showers.
As far as Dave Lyon was concerned, there were two questions you just shouldn’t ask on a first date. Not that this was a date.
Meeting someone you’d made contact with via a mobile phone app wasn’t going on a date, was it?
So, what was it? A getting-to-know-you session? A hookup? A quick shag?
No, no, and… Dave paused. Definitely getting ahead of myself there. And anyway… He glanced down at the jacket and tie he was wearing. Like this says, “Wanna shag me?”
He’d been working late at Foregate Street station, helping his immediate boss, DI Claire Summerskill, get on top of the backlog of paperwork that had been set to overwhelm her when the text had come through on his phone, and he’d had no time to go back to his flat to change. Not that he’d have known what to change into if he had. The other guy’s profile picture had been a head and shoulders shot, with no indication if he was a T-shirt and jeans or bow tie and cummerbund kind of guy. This, Dave thought, not for the first time that evening, is a bloody ridiculous way to meet anyone. He toyed with the idea of taking his tie off to try to strike a balance between smart and casual. Which’ll look really cool if he comes in and sees me doing it. “Nice to meet you. D’you mind if I start taking my clothes off now? It’ll save time overall.”
Leaving his tie on, Dave scanned the bar again. He’d been the one to name the meeting place and had deliberately chosen somewhere outside Worcester city centre. It minimised the chances of bumping into colleagues or, worse, anyone he might have advised, cautioned, or arrested recently in the course of his duties. Which was why he found himself in a small pub he didn’t know, halfway between Worcester and the nearest town, Malvern. On the map it had appeared ideal but, in reality, had all the charm of a bus shelter.
He drummed his fingers on the small bar table he was sitting at. It was already ten minutes after the time they’d arranged (although how many minutes either way did “ish” actually mean?) and there was still no sign of “Al.” Dave realised he was mentally putting speech marks around the man’s name. Who used his real name on a gay mobile app? And it was then, as if to ironically underscore his thoughts, a man’s voice called out behind him. “Lenny!”
So much for my bloody surveillance skills.
The new arrival had come in through an unnoticed side door and was now striding towards him, hand held out. Dave rose. “Al.” The man’s handshake was reassuringly firm. He wasn’t fat, he wasn’t bald and, given the pub’s admittedly dim lighting, he even looked around the age he’d claimed to be in his stats. A good start.
“Alan, actually,” said the other guy with a small laugh.
“Right. And it’s Len,” said Dave, wondering why either of them was being so particular with his lie. “So… What can I get you to drink?”
“What have we got to eat?”
Claire Summerskill, key still in the front door which she had just pushed open, regarded her eldest boy sourly. “Hi Mum,” she said, with sarcastically assumed jollity. “Good to see you. Hard day at work? Come in. Take the weight off your feet, and I’ll make you a lovely cup of tea while I run your bath.”
Tony Summerskill rolled his eyes but dutifully stepped up, pecked her on the cheek, took her bag from her and hung it on the hallway stand. “Sorry, but I am starving!”
“Where’s your dad?” said Claire, taking her coat off. “He was supposed to be getting your tea tonight.”
Tony was already on his way up the stairs heading back to the teenage sanctuary of his bedroom. “Emergency meeting. OFSTED. Or OFCOM.” He shrugged his shoulders. “NATO? Something like that. Sounded stressed.”
I’ll give him bloody stressed! “And where’s Sam?” Claire called up after him.
“He’s up here. Starving too!”
“Can I have beeeeeans?” came a plaintive cry before a curly head thrust itself through the bannisters on the landing and beamed down happily at her. “Hello, mummy.”
“Hello, love. I’ll be up in a…” But four-year-old Sam had already pulled his head out from between the wooden poles and run back to his room to continue with whatever was currently gripping his young imagination. “You are old enough to make your own food you know, Tony,” she shouted up at her eldest. “And to feed your starving brother.”
“True,” Tony conceded from the top of the stairs. “But only when there’s something in the house to cook in the first place. Which there isn’t. And I couldn’t go out to hunt and gather any because…”
He jerked a finger over his shoulder from where the happy cry of, “Beeeans,” was repeated.
“But the food shopping…” Claire began before realising too late the trap she had dug for herself.
“Was your job this week,” Tony completed for her. “It’s written on the fridge door. Can’t blame Ian for that.”
Claire frowned slightly. She’d noticed the way Tony had taken to referring to his stepfather as “Ian” rather than “Dad” lately. There might not be anything to it, but— “Shit,” she muttered to herself as she reached for the coat she thought she’d done with for the day.
“Shiiiit!” came a happy echo from upstairs.
Walking down the street, feeling fine. T-shirt so tight it might have been sprayed on. Sleeves cut so high they were hardly deserving of the name. It was getting chilly. Most guys would have had on a sweater or a coat, but when your body was packed with this much muscle, it tended to keep itself pretty toasty. And hey, if you had it why hide it away?
People told Paul he swaggered. He told them that was bollocks. When you looked this good, you didn’t need to swagger. And when your lats were this wide, it was bloody hard to walk any other way.
“Yo, Paul! Heard about the bench press at the gym. Sound!”
Paul turned, clocked his mate, Daz, and gave him a thumbs-up and a broad smile, but kept walking. Worcester was a small city. News travelled fast, very fast via social media. But not all of it, thank God. If tonight’s little job ever got out… Paul considered briefly. Actually, he didn’t give a shit if it did. And in any case, given who was involved, that was highly unlikely, wasn’t it?
He pulled his phone out of his back pocket, not without some difficulty given the tightness of his jeans, to check the time. Eight o’clock. Better ease off a bit. Wouldn’t do to be too early. Could raise some awkward questions.
Paul slowed his walking pace as he carried on to his destination. But he still swaggered.
“I have to admit, Lenny,” Dave’s new friend leaned across the small table and lowered his voice, as if the four other people in the tiny pub were dying to hear what they were talking about, “Alan’s not my real name.”
“No?” Dave did his best to fake at least some surprise.
“Nah. Not even Al.” He paused, waiting for Dave to pop the question. “It’s Duncan,” he said when Dave didn’t.
Dave raised his nearly empty pint glass in a toast to the other man. “Hi, Duncan.”
There was another pause. They both knew this would have been the moment for Dave to admit he wasn’t actually “Lenny.” “So, why Al?” Dave said.
“It’s after the song. Y’know.” Duncan paused, and when Dave said nothing, “‘You Can Call Me Al’.”
“Ah. Right.” Dave considered this. “You a Paul Simon fan then?” he ventured.
They considered their drinks. “So. You really Lenny then?” Duncan asked.
For a moment, Dave considered saying that he really was. But then what if this did…go further? At what point did he come clean? Second date? First shag? The morning after? Sod it. “Actually, I’m Dave.”
“Right!” Duncan beamed and returned the toast. “Hi, Dave.” His forehead furrowed in thought. “So, why Lenny?” Dave went to answer, but Duncan flapped his hands. “No! No! Wait, let me guess.” Duncan leaned in even more closely—closer than Dave would have preferred—and peered at him as if close scrutiny of his handsome companion’s face might yield an answer. Dave sighed inwardly. All part of the game he supposed. Duncan clicked his fingers. “That guy from the book. Mice and Men.”
“Of Mice and Men,” Dave corrected automatically.
“Yeah. That one.”
“Big, stupid Lenny from Of Mice and Men?”
“Yeah.” Duncan’s smile quickly faded as he realised the possible insult. “No?”
“No. But thanks for the comparison.”
Eager to redeem himself, Duncan pressed on. “Lenny Henry?”
“I’m not black.”
“I’m not Jewish.”
“I’m…not even sure who that is.”
“It’s an emoticon.”
Duncan sat back in his chair and laughed. “I give up.”
“Lenny the Lion,” Dave said, almost apologetically.
Duncan considered. “I have no idea who that is,” he admitted.
“A puppet,” Dave said, beginning to wish they were talking about almost anything else. “It was an old family joke. Because my surname’s… Well, my gran on my mum’s side used to call me that. She thought it was hilarious.” He ground to a halt before admitting, “No one gets it anymore.” He’d thought it was mildly witty and amusing when he’d chosen it. As a conversation piece, it was, he now realised, complete rubbish. He would never use it again.
Duncan laughed again, uncertain. “Right.”
And that should have been a cue for them to talk about families. Or lions. Or whether they came here often. Or any damn thing. But Dave was just a fraction of a second too slow, and before he could stop him, Duncan asked the first of the two questions which, so far, Dave had managed to keep them away from.
“So, Dave, what d’you do for a living?”
“So. How was your day?”
Claire’s husband, Ian, sank down at the kitchen table and leaned back. “Bloody awful.”
“Tony said something about OFSTED,” Claire said as she dished out the beans.
“OFQAL,” Ian corrected. “OFQAL tells us what we have to do. OFSTED comes along every three years to tell us how wrong we’re getting it. There’s been major reworkings of core syllabi. Again. Science department has completely cocked things up, so we all had to stay behind and get told off.” He regarded his plate dismally. “Beans?”
Sam chortled. “And how about you?” Claire asked Tony. She genuinely wanted to hear about her son’s day, but she was keener not to sit through another of Ian’s rants about educational reforms. Well, he never wanted to listen to her bitching about police initiatives, did he?
“Same old, same old,” Tony mumbled.
“Done your homework?” Ian asked.
Tony gave an exaggerated sigh. “Yes, I’ve done my homework.”
Claire groaned inwardly, recognising the lie with a mother’s instinct, and anticipating the ructions it would eventually cause. “And how about you, Trouble?” she asked of her youngest, the only wholly happy face at the table, albeit one now covered in tomato sauce.
“Had beeeeans,” he proclaimed.
“No, I mean what about at school?”
Claire groaned. “We are so in trouble with social services if they ever find out.”
The family continued its meal in more or less silence for another minute or so.
“I led a multi-million-pound drug bust today,” Claire said finally.
“Really?” said Tony, showing signs of actual interest in his mother.
“No.” Claire’s tone was acid. “I spent eight hours reviewing incident forms and filing case notes.” She reached for a bottle of beer. “But thanks for asking.”
Dave gave a thin smile. Please don’t say it! Please don’t say it!
Duncan leaned in close again. “So, did you bring your handcuffs?” he asked in a low, mock-thrilled voice.
He said it.
“’Fraid not. I do, however, have a standard issue Taser if you’re up for something really kinky.”
Duncan laughed, with just enough uncertainty to suggest he wasn’t sure how far Dave was joking. “No, but seriously,” he began.
“What do you do?” Dave asked hurriedly. He had no interest whatsoever in knowing. He hated the fact that as soon as guys learned what his job was, they made all kinds of assumptions about him based solely on that. He hated even more that, very often, those assumptions were right. He nevertheless realised he did exactly the same about them. Couldn’t he and Duncan enjoy at least a brief moment of spurious excitement at the thought that one of them might be a film star while the other was a shy millionaire? Anything other than a police officer and…
“I’m in retail.”
So much for spurious excitement.
“Not very interesting, I suppose,” Duncan added with a self-deprecating shrug.
Dave’s small smile could almost have been taken as denial.
“Not as interesting as your job.”
Dave thought of the day’s paperwork.
“Guess we’ll have to make our own excitement then, won’t we?” Duncan said. “Another round?”
“Cheers.” Dave watched Duncan as he made his way to the bar. His jeans and jacket hit the right note of smart casual that Dave had missed. No tie. Should I take mine off now? Too much of a signal? Got to stop thinking about it. Feels like it’s choking me! He focused on Duncan to take his mind off the apparently shrinking tie. Nice enough guy. Not much of a spark. But… He studied Duncan more closely as he stood at the bar ordering their next round. Neat little arse. Okay, he concluded, he could probably spend another hour or so in pleasant enough fashion in this pub, just making human, non-police contact with another gay man.
Just don’t ask the other question!
Paul picked his way cautiously through the shadows. It hadn’t been this dark last time he came, he was sure of it. Hadn’t there been a light or something in the stairwell? Paul was massive. He took shit from no one. He only had to look pissed off at another guy to make him back down. Trouble was, he was also just the smallest bit…wary of the dark.
He came to the door. To his irritation, it was locked, and not just in the way he’d expected. It was chained, the padlock old-school and heavy.
“Hello?” His voice echoed, in a way he was bloody sure it didn’t in daylight. He steeled himself and called out again. “Hello.”
There was a sudden sound behind him. He whirled round, fists clenched tight, pumped biceps bulging…and dropped his hands the instant he saw who it was. “Thought there was no one here for a minute,” he said, his adrenalin rush giving his words an unwanted edge. It wouldn’t do to sound scared. Definitely not good for business.
There was a flash of light reflecting off metal. The key to the padlock. “Let’s go in, shall we?”
Paul laughed, keen to completely erase any suspicion he might have been spooked, but a little louder than he intended. “Yeah, let’s! After you.”
Claire lay in bed and groaned. Then she threw her arm across her eyes to keep out the damn light. “How much longer?”
Ian didn’t even turn from the sheaf of papers he was reading. “I’ve just got to get this last section mugged up for tomorrow. If I don’t, Alex is going to rip me a new one.”
Claire sniggered. “Alex? He’s your deputy head, not a mafia boss. The worst he’d do would be to tut, wag his finger, and give you more time.”
“I may not be out chasing criminals all day,” Ian said testily, “but my deadlines are every bit as important to me as yours are to you.”
Behind her shielding arm, Claire rolled her eyes in exactly the way Tony had rolled his eyes at her earlier. She recognised the tone of tetchy, wounded male pride. “I’ve not been chasing criminals. Not today.” She thought of Alex, the rather quiet, desperately serious man who was her husband’s line manager. Then she thought of DI Jim Rudge, her former line manager, and Chief Superintendent Clive Madden, the superior officer she reported to now. Now there were two guys who could really rip you a new one. She sighed. She wondered if Ian even knew what that meant. “You’re going to ruin your eyes, you know.”
“I don’t need glasses.” Ian’s tetchiness was even more pronounced. “It’s like I’ve said before, we just need…”
“…a brighter light in here. Yeah, yeah.”
There was an uncomfortable silence for a minute. “Why don’t you read your book?” Ian said. “I’ll only be a few more minutes.”
Claire briefly considered the latest soft-porn bonkbuster on her bedside table. Ian’s sister, Sal, had foisted it on her. “It’s great!” Sal had said. “A real page-turner. It’s about this woman who, y’know, does it for money.” Then she’d given Claire a small wink, pretending she’d done it so none of the men present could see, and added, “And it’s a bit of a turn on too.”
Claire had got one chapter into it and felt physically sick. The tastefully packaged, watered-down S&M had been so far removed from the lives of either the working girls or the victims of sexual violence she had dealt with through her work. The book had been on her table unopened for several weeks now. She decided that tomorrow she’d give it to the local second-hand bookshop. It was Christian Aid, but they seemed to like that kind of thing.
Unexpectedly, she found herself wondering what her sergeant, Dave Lyon, was getting up to right then. Hadn’t he said something about a date? No, not a date. Dave had gone so far out of his way to avoid that word she hadn’t been quite sure, at first, what he’d been talking about. She knew he’d broken up with his boyfriend, Richard, soon after starting at Foregate Street station, but then he’d told her that Richard hadn’t really been a boyfriend at all. If he was a suspect in an interview room, I’d be extremely suspicious of someone so bloody fussy over words. Well, whatever it was he was up to this evening, she wished him well of it. It’d be a waste if he wasn’t up to something spicy, a good-looking guy like him. She’d make a point of asking him tomorrow. She smiled sleepily. She’d also make a point of calling it a date and asking if he’d found a new boyfriend. That would get right up his nose. Be a good way to start the day.
Claire yawned pointedly and stretched out in the bed. Her toes came into contact with the bare skin of her husband’s calf. Lucky, lucky Sergeant Dave. She turned to Ian. “Don’t suppose…?” she murmured.
“Not a chance,” her husband replied, turning a page of his papers. “Go to sleep.”
“Nearly chucking out time,” Duncan said with a small smile.
“Is it?” Dave checked his watch. Rather to his surprise, the time had flown by quite pleasantly in idle chat. After the usual show of interest in handcuffs and a casually phrased question as to whether Dave had ever been involved in any salacious investigation into the wrongdoings of celebrities, which he’d rebuffed with a firm “no”, Duncan had seemed happy to move on from talk of Dave’s job. They’d chatted about films and music and local matters, and Dave had had to admit to himself, there had been a little chemistry there after all, though it was more of a slow burn than a flash and bang kind. Not that he’d completely ruled out a bang yet. He sank the last of his pint. “Better be making our way then?”
Duncan finished off his own drink. “Yeah.”
They stood and regarded each other over the bar table and its collection of now dead beer glasses and empty peanut packets. They’d reached that point. Shall I