Mike Standing (Ed P.I.) now librarian and his friends and acquaintance (not forgetting the love of his life, Paul Martin) get into a number of difficult and occasionally dangerous situations. However, as in real life, there are sad as well as happy times, but when the situation seems to be at its most hopeless, remember that the ending is always resolved and Amor Vinci's Omnes. 'Love Conquers All'.
Chapter One: For Paul's Sake
"Hi, Paul," I called out as I came in through the door, as I did every day on returning home. "I'm back."
The 'I,' of course, you need to know so let me introduce myself. My name is Michael Standing but 'call me Mike.' (No, that's Moby Dick, but it's such a useful line, I'll keep it in.) I used to be a private investigator. Not always a particularly successful one, I must admit, and occasionally, it was a rather dangerous undertaking. In fact, on my last case, I was very nearly killed, a fact Paul uses to suggest that I might do better to change my job.
This brings us to the aforementioned Paul. Paul Martin is my lover, my partner, and to be honest, my everything. I don't know what I'd do without him, yet on occasions, I have had to and, usually, it's been my fault. I have to confess that sometimes my brain is overrun by an organ rather lower down my body, and this can lead to disruption of the beautiful life we lead together. It's my fault. I am ashamed to admit it. I will try to do better. Now back to the story.
There was the familiar smell of the flat, a mixture of furniture polish and air freshener--it had been one of Mrs. Craven's days, the cleaner who came round twice a week "to do the basic cleaning, Mike dear," as she used to say. I think she liked me--well, both of us, but me especially.
There was not, however, an answering shout from Paul, usually something to the effect that he had his trousers off and was waiting--a reply which had rather stunned my mother once when she had come to visit and Paul had forgotten.
In fact everything about the flat suggested emptiness--no radio or TV switched on--sometimes both--Paul was notoriously profligate with his entertainment as he went from room to room. Nor were there any smells of food cooking, or perhaps even singeing at the edges, and it was, after all, Paul's turn to prepare the evening meal.
"Paul," I said as I checked the kitchen, pristine in its tidiness and obviously just how Mrs. Craven had left it. Nor was there a note on the green laminate work top which was where Paul would have left it if, for some reason, he had had to go out.
I went into the living room. It was so neat, I knew Paul hadn't been in there either. I always used to say, with a faint air of critical amusement, that Paul had only to look into a room for books to fall, magazines to open spontaneously, and things to be scattered around so that it looked as if children had been playing a vigorous game of tag. Clearly, this also was Mrs. Craven's work undisturbed.
I went along the corridor towards the bedroom, on the way passing the bathroom, the door to which was open and certainly no one inside. Could Paul be playing a trick, waiting on our double bed in a seductive pose for my arrival? "Come and get me, Mike," he'd say. Waiting to be pounced upon and soundly ravished with expressions of laughter and glee, and finally lust and excitement? I almost convinced myself that this was the case, and as I opened the door, I had a smile of anticipation on my face. It faded as I saw the room was empty, the coverlet undisturbed.
Damn it, I thought. If Paul had been delayed at work, surely he would have given me a call on his mobile. I took out mine from my jacket pocket to make sure it was switched on. Then I went back to the living room to see if there had been any messages sent to the phone, but there was no winking red light.
I wasn't exactly worried, just slightly annoyed that Paul hadn't told me what was happening. I went back into the kitchen and looked into the cupboards and fridge. There were eggs, cheese, and tomatoes, so an omelette was possible, but there was no point in starting it until Paul actually arrived as it would spoil if not eaten immediately. I felt hungry, so I made myself a sandwich. The kitchen was painted white with the light green work tops. To save it from blandness, Paul had imbued the room with his personality with the bright watercolors he had painted, framed, and put on the walls.
I made some coffee and took it and the sandwich into the living room. I wondered whether Paul had been detained at work and, for some reason, had failed to let me know, so I rang the art shop where he had his own business.
The phone at the other end rang for a while and then was cut off by a recorded voice. "I'm afraid there's no one in the office at the moment. At the tone, please leave a message, and we'll get back to you as soon as possible." It was Paul's voice, made strangely impersonal by the fact that it was recorded.
I didn't bother to leave a message. Presumably, Paul was on his way home and perhaps had become involved in heavy traffic. It was, after all, Friday evening, but in that case, why hadn't he used his mobile? I got out my own and punched in Paul's number, but a message said his phone was switched off. Well, if he was driving, he wouldn't want to break the law by tempting to answer it. Very law-abiding is my Paul.
I drank the coffee, but suddenly I wasn't hungry and the sandwich remained on the plate untouched. I tried the TV, but the idle witterings of nonentities remodeling their houses, trying to remodel their bloated figures, digging their remodeled gardens--apparently on all five channels (we didn't have digital)--pissed me off so much that I switched the set off.
I thought of phoning my friend, Ross, who was always amusing but whose anecdotes always involved his relationships with dangerously butch and supposedly straight artisans, and realized this would only depress me more.
Instead, I thought back to my own relationship with Paul, Paul whom I've already admitted I loved totally, obsessively, Paul who was my reason for existing--or so I thought--and with whom I had been living for the past three years.
Our partnership hadn't been all hearts and roses, of course, what one ever is? Paul, though, had the sort of sunny nature which, more often than not, ignored minor quarrels and disagreements and put up with the sulks into which I occasionally fell if things didn't go exactly as I wanted. Not that we'd had fallen out recently. In fact, we had been planning our holiday together, a trip to Italy. Plans were not exactly in the 'getting the tickets' stage, but we'd certainly worked out the details, where we'd like to go, how we'd travel, when we'd take time off from work.
I kept listening for the sound of his key in the door, but as the evening wore on and Paul didn't appear, I grew more and more worried. I kept telling myself that nothing could have happened, that, if he had been in an accident, the hospital or the police would have contacted me--his name and address and phone number were in his wallet, after all. I could have phoned his parents, but I didn't want to start them worrying as well. They weren't anyway all that keen on our relationship, kept telling Paul that he'd find a nice young girl to settle down with once this phase was over. I think they thought I had some sort of baleful influence over him and that he was being kept here almost against his will.
As it got later and later, I did phone the local hospital--feeling rather foolish--and asked whether a Paul Martin had been admitted, but they checked and said not.
Eventually, I couldn't stand the waiting, and, leaving a note as to where I was going, I went down to the local pub, the Fag and Fishmonger. It was full; it was, after all, Friday night and people were laughing and joking, a buzz of convivial noise that didn't do a lot to make my spirits rise. The Fag and Fishmonger wasn't a gay pub, but Paul and I had visited it so often together that we were accepted by some of the regulars almost as a 'couple' and the fact that he wasn't with me actually gave rise to comment.
A middle-aged guy with a mustache and a fruit cake accent asked where Paul was. I was forced to admit that I didn't really know. "Out on the town, pulling the birds," he suggested in his rather old-fashioned way.
I sincerely hoped he was not, but it sounded extremely unlikely knowing Paul's sexual tastes.
"I must pop in some time and see what your friend has on offer at his shop," the man said.
A couple of others offered me drinks, but I didn't really want to start on a drinking spree. I knew if I accepted, I'd obviously have to buy the next round--and so on. I grabbed a pie and had a half of bitter and, when they were finished, decided I'd prefer to be back at home, waiting, rather than out here wondering whether he might have returned and there'd be a perfectly rational explanation of the whole thing.
But when I got back, the flat was still in darkness and there were no messages on the answer phone, nor had my mobile buzzed.
There was nothing I could do but go to bed, where I tossed and turned, snatched odd periods of restless sleep, waking to listen to non-existent sounds of the key in the door.
* * * *
Morning eventually came, grey and depressing--just how I felt. I was still alone. There was no point in going to my office; I was sure there'd be no anxious client awaiting my services. So as soon as I could, I went down to Paul's shop. It wasn't open, and I stared morosely at the window with its tasteful arrangement of pictures by local artists and reproductions of more famous works. The really expensive stuff I knew would be locked away at the back and only brought out when dealers were expected.
The notice on the door said 'Closed' and gave the opening time on Saturdays at 9.30 A.M.. There was still a few minutes to go, and I waited while the traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, passed busily by. I don't know if I thought Paul would turn up, but, on the dot of half past his assistant, a thirty-something woman called Pamela, arrived. She was dressed in a brown tweed skirt, a white blouse, and a sort of ochre top. Her hair was brown and tossed about in the breeze, but she looked efficient. I'd met her a couple of times before and knew that Paul trusted her.
She looked surprised to see me, but after greeting me, she unlocked the door and we went in. The familiar smell of linseed oil and turpentine greeted us. Sometimes, painters brought their newly finished works, and Paul did some renovating and cleaning.
"I seem to have mislaid Paul," I said, trying to sound light-hearted.
Again, there was the look of surprise. "I'm not expecting him," she said. "He told me yesterday he'd be away for a couple of weeks and I was in charge in the meantime."
"Paul told you this?"
"Yes. It was a phone call. I don't know where he was calling from; he didn't say and it was a bad line."
"Are you sure it was Paul?" I asked, ever the suspicious one--an attribute of my late job.
She looked at me strangely. "Well, who else could it have been? I didn't really recognize the voice, but he said he had a cold. At the time, I thought it a bit odd, but there was no problem with my taking over. I'd done it before, buying and selling."
"And he hadn't mentioned this before?"
"No, that was why I thought it a little strange, but I assumed something had cropped up unexpectedly so he'd had to make arrangements on the spur of the moment."
"Did he say where he was going?" I asked.
"I think he said Taunton."
"Taunton, in Somerset?"
She nodded. "What was also a bit odd was that he didn't say how he could be reached, an address or something, should there be some sort of a crisis. Not that I expected there to be one, but you never know. I've got his mobile number, of course."
So had I, but it hadn't done me much good when I'd tried it last night or this morning, in fact.
There was something distinctly odd about all this. Paul hadn't had a cold when he'd left me the day before. He wouldn't have left me just like that whatever the circumstances, not without telling me. I felt a twinge of premonition. Something was seriously wrong, and I didn't know what to do.
I'm twenty-seven. I decided I should be able to sort out my own problems. So, having thought that, I made a great mistake. On my way back to the flat, I passed the police station. I suppose my addled mind went something like: Paul Missing--Missing Person--Report to Police.
So up the steps I tripped, pushed open the swing doors, and went in. Inside was a cold, blank lobby with a counter at the other end. There were some posters on the wall, warning about pickpockets, wanted criminals, mobile phone mugging. A door with a frosted glass (presumably strengthened) panel to the right. No one appeared behind the counter, so I rapped on the board and waited. In fact, I waited some time, but still no one arrived.
"Hello," I called out. "Anyone there?"
Eventually, there were sounds of movement from somewhere round the corner, and a policeman in uniform, clutching a mug of something, appeared. He was young, smooth-faced, but he wouldn't look me in the eye.
"Can I help you?" he asked, looking somewhere to the right of my ear. I noticed the non-existent 'sir' and assumed he reserved that for people somewhat older than me.
"I've come to report a missing person," I said. I'd rehearsed that on the way in and thought it sounded pretty official.
The policeman got out a book from under the counter and opened it. He entered today's date and, glancing up at the clock behind him on the wall, also noted the time. "Name?" he asked rather curtly.
"His name is Paul Martin," I said.
"Your name," he said with what sounded almost like a sigh of resignation.
"Sorry," I said, fighting back an urge to tell him that I (and others, of course) paid his wages and perhaps deserved a bit more deference and respect. "My name is Mike Standing." Before he could ask, I also gave my address.
"And the missing person is?"
Patiently, I gave Paul's name again and added, "Same address."
"We're partners," I said. "Life partners."
"We haven't got that far but thinking about it."
"How old is Mr. Martin?"
"I don't see what...he's twenty-four."
"And how long has Mr. Martin been missing?"
Suddenly, I saw danger--or at least noncooperation--ahead. "He didn't come home last night."
"So he's been missing, what, some twelve hours approximately?"
"Yes, but it's not like him, just to not come home without telling me."
I could see from the policeman's sardonic raising of his eyebrow that he suspected we'd had some sort of lovers' tiff. This was confirmed when he asked, "Had you had a quarrel recently?"
"No," I protested. "We were making plans to go on holiday together." I paused and then added inconsequentially, "To Italy."
"And you haven't heard anything from him since, what, yesterday morning?"
"No," I said and then remembered Pamela. "Well, not exactly."
The policeman waited.
"There was a telephone call to his work. His assistant took it. Something about he'd gone to Taunton on business for a couple of weeks, and she was to take over."
"Well, that's all right then," said the policeman, preparing to close the book. "Mystery solved."
"But she said it didn't sound like him at all, and anyway, he hasn't taken any of his clothes."
"I expect he'll be back to collect them in due course. Perhaps you'd let us know when that happens so I can sign off this entry." He closed the book and replaced it under the counter. Obviously, he considered everything as good as over.
I could think of nothing to say. I turned and went towards the door. As I reached it, I swear I heard him say, "Bloody poofs," but when I turned to face him, his face was bland. "Thank you, sir," he said--and the 'sir' came out like an insult.
I made the omelette, which I'd thought about yesterday evening for lunch, but when it was done, I didn't feel like eating it. I told myself that I'd got to eat something, so I forced half of it down and drank some more coffee. I was just finishing the second cup when the telephone in the living room rang.
It was such a sudden sound that I spilled coffee down my shirt and onto the floor, but that wasn't important. I rushed in, grabbed the receiver, and said, "Paul."
But it wasn't Paul's long-awaited voice that I heard but the rather effete tones of my old friend, Ross, he with the penchant--never satisfied--for rough trade, the rougher the better.
"I hear your friend's gone AWOL," he said.
"How did you know?" Even as I said this, I knew he wouldn't tell.
Ross was an incredible guy. He always knew what was going on, though where he got his information from, I could never understand. He'd have been a Godsend to MI5, the FBI, Mossad, or any intelligence organization. Perhaps he was.
"Oh, I heard," he said vaguely. "But tell me the details. No, better still, meet me for lunch. You haven't had lunch yet, have you?"
"To tell the truth, I don't feel particularly hungry," I said.
"Must be serious then. Right, you can watch me eating lunch, and I'll feed you delicious titbits off the end of my fork. Then you can tell me all." His voice changed from the flippant tone to one of genuine concern. "We'll work it out, doll."
I agreed to meet him at Silvano's, the Italian restaurant, an unpretentious little place with plastic flower decorations but food which tasted pure Tuscan.
As I went in, I saw him seated at a table in the far corner, a youngish man with short blond hair and a thin, almost ascetic face. Only his lips, which were wide and full, showed his sensual nature. I told him all and, presented with a sympathetic ear and moral support, found I could eat something.
"There's not the slightest chance that he could have skipped off for a little fuck dalliance of his own," he said when I'd finished.
"Not a chance," I said. "We were planning the holiday. Everything was fine. Relations were lovely. Sex was satisfying."
Ross raised his eyebrows, "Satisfying?" he said.
"Exciting. No problems at all."
Ross sighed. "You heavily married couples," he said. "What do you do for variety?" His gaze wandered to a heavily built waiter, with a five o'clock shadow and muscles, who had just come out of the kitchen.
"We made plenty of variety," I said indignantly.
"Of course, you did," said Ross as he watched the tightly trousered buttocks of the waiter disappear back into the kitchen. Then he returned his attention to me. "Right. You've told me what happened, or at least what didn't happen. Now tell me how Paul behaved in the last couple of days."
"Behaved?" I said vaguely. "Just the same as usual."
"Don't be shy. Tell me all the lurid details, and, no, I'm not just being lubricious. You never know, it may be important."
"Okay. Thursday night, which was the last time he came home." I stopped as I said this, and the food in my mouth seemed to dry into sawdust. I swallowed hard and tried to go on. "He was just the same as always. He had got in first and was preparing the meal in the kitchen. I came in. He was in high spirits. In fact, we..." I paused.
"You?" said Ross encouragingly.
"We had it off over the kitchen work tops."