The glow from my ex-lover’s cigarette lights up the warm night air and I catch a faint impression of his hand’s shadow before the darkness descends again.
In the silence, I sense rather than see his lips draw on the smoky pleasure, tingling tar and need into his waiting lungs. I don’t ask to share it and he doesn’t offer. More than anything this reminds me of the last time we almost had sex.
‘I suppose you’re wondering why I asked to see you, Paul,’ he says and his voice makes me shut my eyes for a moment. In the deeper blackness I can see the strong, sensual lines of his face as clear as if it were daylight. ‘I mean why now? Not the greatest of meeting places for us, is it?’
‘You're here, aren't you?’ I reply, and wait for him to speak. It's 2.02am. I've picked a disused chapel in Hackney for this meeting as it's near home, it's private and it's dark. Inside, it's a good place for sex, if you're desperate and don't mind the broken glass. I thought he wouldn't turn up, but I was wrong.
For a moment, he seems to be trying to choose his words, then he says, ‘I need your help, you see.’
I laugh. There doesn’t seem any other way of responding.
‘I’m serious. It’s a business offer.’
At once I shut up. Money is money, whoever it comes from. And five years, ten months and five days in my job as the proprietor of Maloney Investigations (anything considered) has taught me never to turn down business.
‘Go on,’ I say and, as I speak, a lone car swings into the street, its headlights illuminating our shapes and outlining the solid lines of the chapel which frames Dominic.
Instinct kicks in and I propel him back into the safety of the doorway. It smells of cannabis and urine. As the car approaches at a crawl, I shield him with my body, pull the cigarette from his mouth and kiss him. He tastes of nicotine and mint. The blokes in the car shout abuse out of the window but, thank God, don’t stop and after a tense few seconds they drive off into the darkness. I don’t want to stop either, but when the danger’s past I’m the first to pull away.
When I do so, I wonder who he’s screwing now – some young, good-looking bastard, I bet. Yeah, I can just see it, and the look on Dominic’s face when he gets what he wants too. Maybe I can try to mix business with pleasure? As he is the last man I’ve slept with, it must be three years, four months and one week since I had sex at all. At least with someone else in the room. I wonder if that makes me unusual.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Thought they might leave us alone if they didn't recognise you. Cruisers only.’
He nods. ‘You were right. Can I have my cigarette back now?’
I pass it to him, my fingers lingering on his before he eases them away. He doesn’t comment. Instead he wipes the back of his free hand over his mouth and I blink back tears.
When he speaks, he speaks quickly. ‘There’s a business I want to investigate, buy if the money’s right. Information Technology. They deal with Eastern European markets but there’s something not quite right about them and I want to know what.’
‘What is it? Drugs? Porn?’
At once he shakes his head. ‘No. I’d know if it was. But I want you to look into it anyway, see what you can find. My business has to be clean, there can’t be any dirt thrown that might stick. Do you understand?’
‘Sure. Sounds simple enough. You say something’s not quite right, but you don’t think it’s serious. So what’s got you suspicious?’
‘Rumour only. You know what the business world is like. I want to be certain, that's all.’
Again his answer is too fast and I don’t believe him.
‘Why don't you use some of your own hot-shot investigators? I know you have them. Won't they be able to do your leg-work for you?’
He drops his cigarette and crushes it underfoot before lighting another. In the flash of fire, I catch the intensity of his gaze.
‘Even my own people have been known to talk and I don't want to give my competitors reasons for suspicion. Not at the stage of negotiations I’m at now. I want someone who if they go down won’t take me with them.’
His reasons are too slick, too unconnected, but his last statement makes me blink again. He was always honest with me, something I never got used to.
‘Yes, I know what you’ll say,’ he continues. Even though I have no idea what that might be. ‘You’ll say we used to fuck each other regularly, in spite of my situation, and that would be enough to crucify anyone. But no-one knows this, except you and me. And that time-waster assistant of yours. So if it becomes public knowledge, I’ll know who to blame, won’t I? And when I hold a grudge …’
He doesn’t have to complete the sentence. I’ve read enough in the papers about the boardroom – and backroom – battles fought and won by Mr Dominic Allen to know the extent of his power. Oh yes, more than anyone I understand his strength compared to my weakness, and I’ve almost made up my mind to walk away from his problems and my past when he speaks again. This time his voice is softer.
‘And there’s another reason,’ he says. ‘You, Paul, are the only one I can trust. Please, will you help me?’