The Hope by James Lovegrove(This extra chapter is a stand-alone short story that is also tied directly into the continuity of the novel.)

Mel Hobbes met and fell in love with Joe Portside on his very first night waiting tables at the Neptune’s Trident.

Mel was polishing glasses behind the bar when half a dozen gang-members swaggered in through the door, shoulders hunched, hands in pockets. Hard men.

Mel looked on – somewhat nervously, it must be said – as the hard men commandeered a table: a military operation, surrounding their target, moving in and occupying, resting booted feet on the tabletop and leaning their chairs back at an angle. Their table now. Anyone got a problem with that?

Then Riot came out from the back room to greet them. Riot not only ran the Neptune’s Trident but was the leader of the gang, and the hard men drank at the Trident for free in exchange for their continued loyalty to Riot. It was an effective barter system.

Riot went around the table shaking hands and patting backs. For Mel’s benefit, so that he would recognise them in future and treat them with the proper respect, Eddy, the head barman, identified each gang-member as Riot came to him in turn. That one was Paolo, that one wearing the sailor’s hat was Popeye, the dopey-looking one there was the local dealer, Acid Cas, that one with the sneer permanently affixed to his face was Bateman, and so on. All of them were Riot’s lieutenants, his main men. Eddy himself was one of Riot’s lieutenants, too.

“And who’s that one?” said Mel, as Riot arrived at a gang-member with a long, puckered, fishhook-shaped scar curving around his left eye and a shock of blond, black-rooted hair and a firm cleft chin. For him Riot appeared to reserve particular affection. He stood chatting with him for a long time.

“That,” said Eddy, “is none other than Joe Portside.”

Clearly Mel was meant to have heard of Joe Portside. He nodded as if he had.

“Now why don’t you go over there and take their orders?” Eddy suggested.

Mel hesitated.

“Ah, don’t worry about them,” Eddy said. “They’re all right, nothing to be scared of. The only one you need to watch your step around is Riot. He can be a bit unpredictable sometimes.”

Somewhat reassured, but only somewhat, Mel approached the table. He stood there for a full minute, waiting for someone to notice him. It was Joe Portside who did.

Their eyes met.

Held.

Held for a fraction of a second longer than was normal.

A fraction of a second longer than was necessary for casual acknowledgement.

A fraction of a second that told Mel all he needed to know.

“Drinks,” said Joe, turning to his cohorts. “Who’s having what?”

“What specials have we got on tonight?” Riot asked Mel, drawing up a chair in order to join his lieutenants at the table.

“Well,” said Mel, stammering only slightly, “we’ve got a yellow cocktail and a brown cocktail.”

“Could you be a little more specific, perhaps?” said Riot. “Like maybe telling us what’s actually in them?”

Mel noticed that Riot had his name tattooed in tiny letters on his cheek, reversed either so that Riot could read it in the mirror or because Riot had done the tattooing himself in the mirror and had not realised that the end-result would be back-to-front to everyone else. (Given the narrowness of Riot’s forehead and the way his eyes were so close-set, Mel suspected that the latter was the more likely of the two alternatives.)

“I’m not sure I can,” he said, in reply to Riot’s question. “All I know is that one is the colour of septic piss and the other looks like the water in the toilet bowl after a particularly vicious bout of diarrhoea.”

Riot frowned. Everyone around the table went quiet.

Oh Christ, thought Mel, oh shit, that came out wrong, that sounded like I was criticising his cocktails, oh shit, me and my smart mouth, he’s going to kill me, oh shi-i-it, why did I ever take this job?

Then, to his relief, the frown disappeared, to be replaced by a big beaming grin. Riot chuckled, and the rest of the table started chuckling, too.

“That was funny,” Riot said to Mel. “I liked that. You can carry on working here for that.”

Mel, the least of whose concerns had been that his job had been at risk, smiled ingratiatingly, and looked over at Joe Portside again. Joe’s expression was one of quiet approval.

“We’ll have a round of the septic piss,” Joe said.

And so it began.

* * *

Over the course of the next couple of evenings, Mel found out from Eddy all he could about Joe Portside. He framed his questions carefully, asking about all of the principle gang-members, including Eddy himself, so that Eddy would not suspect that he had a particular interest in any one of them.

He learned from Eddy that Joe was a hell of a fighter. A poet of the switchblade. Fast on his feet and with his fists. A good man to have on your side in a scrap, a bad man to have against you. Not much of a temper on him, to be sure, but when provoked … well, let’s just say that the best thing anyone who made Joe Portside angry could do would be to take a lifeboat and get the hot holy fuck off this ship. And women? “Joe,” Eddy said, “is one of those guys who doesn’t like his life complicated by women. Not like me,” he added, with a grimace, referring to Diane, his girlfriend of a little over six months, who was pretty and sweet but who seemed to live entirely for and through Eddy, unnervingly dependent on him for her happiness.

Meanwhile, from his own observations, Mel learned that Joe was a regular at the Trident and that he seldom drank alone. Even if he came in by himself, invariably someone would call him over to their table and ask him to join them. Joe was that kind of a guy. Everyone wanted to be his friend, buy him a drink, stay on his good side.

Mel never got to exchange much beyond the basic pleasantries with Joe, Joe giving his order, Mel trying to leaven his reply with some kind of joke in order to make Joe laugh, and more often than not succeeding. Sometimes Joe did not talk to him at all and barely seemed to register his existence, but that was usually because he was deep in discussion with Riot or one of the others, planning a suitable response to the repeated forays onto their turf made by a rival gang led by someone called Lock. Always, though, in the brief moments of contact he and Joe shared, Mel sensed something there, something more than just friendly interest. If only there were some way of confirming what he suspected to be true. If only he could figure out how to coax into the open the real Joe Portside that lurked inside the Joe Portside that everyone else saw and knew.

* * *

On his way to the Trident one afternoon, Mel decided to drop by the Queen of the Seas and consult her opinion. He hadn’t visited the Queen in a while. It would be nice to see her.

Hanging in the porthole of the door to the Queen’s cabin a handwritten notice, reversible like a shop’s Open/Closed sign, informed visitors whether the Queen was “In For Sin” or “Out And Shaking It All About”. Happily on this occasion the former applied, and Mel’s knock was answered by a throatily feminine voice rasping, “Come!”

The Queen was seated at her dressing table in a gilded ballroom chair that had been filched from one of the ship’s state rooms. She was wearing an aquamarine satin mini-dress that showed off her long, shapely legs to full advantage, and, in front of a mirror surrounded by lightbulbs, about half of which still worked, she was busy teasing her gingery, lion’s-mane wig with a comb. The rest of the cabin was dimly illuminated by a single table lamp with a purple chiffon veil draped over its shade. Bright pink curtains covered the portholes, zebra-stripe wallpaper the walls, fake leopardskin rugs the floor, and everywhere you looked there were framed black-and-white photographs of long-dead movie starlets.

Using the mirror to see who her visitor was, the Queen let out a cry of delight, put down the comb, and spun round in her chair. “Melville!” she exclaimed, reaching out with both arms. “And where have you been these past few weeks? Come here and give your Queen a great big hug, now.”

No one disobeyed when the Queen commanded. Mel went and embraced her, and was rewarded with a huge kiss on either cheek. He told the Queen she was looking gorgeous.

“Oh, be off with you!” the Queen retorted, with a flattered gesture of dismissal. “Really? Am I?”

“Better than mortal man deserves,” Mel assured her. “Where’s it to be this evening, then? The Sailor Plexus? The Big Silk Pyjama Mama? Les Fruits de Mer?”

“I was thinking that tonight I would grace the Ssh! Conspiracy with my presence.” The Queen scowled in mock anger. “And how come I haven’t seen your pretty self in any of those places recently, young Melville? No, don’t tell me. A man.”

“Not exactly.”

“A job, then.” Spoken with some distaste.

“Actually, a bit of both.” And Mel explained how his parents had summoned him to their cabin the other day, and how his father had sat him down and told him that if Mel wanted him to continue funding what he referred to as Mel’s “dissolute” lifestyle, then Mel was going to have to go out and find himself some form of gainful employment, because, said his father, “That way you won’t be frittering your life away entirely at my expense.”

“What sort of job would you like me to get, Dad?” Mel had asked, to which his father had replied, “I don’t care what sort of job it is, so long as you bloody well get one,” and his mother had simply nodded her not-quite-all-there nod and smiled her far-away smile.

So of course Mel had immediately gone down to the lower decks in search of the scuzziest bar he could find, and at the first suitably shabby-looking establishment he had come to, the Neptune’s Trident, had walked in and asked the barman, Eddy, if there was a job going, and it just so happened that there had been a vacancy, and that was how he had ended up waiting tables. And he didn’t mind it, was in fact quite happy with the job, even though it barely paid at all and, because of the hours, put a crimp in his leisure activities.

“And how did your dear father react when you told him what kind of work you’d found and where?” the Queen enquired.

“He only knows that I have a job. He’d blow a blood vessel if he knew what it was and where it was.”

“A good reason, I’d have thought, for telling him,” said the Queen. “And your mother? How is she?”

“Thanks to Dr Chamberlain, I don’t think even she has any idea how she is any more.”

“Ah, dear, handsome Dr Prescription. He’s still giving me oestrogen for my ‘menstrual cramps’, you know. One of these days I’m going to ask him for a full gynaecological examination. There’ll be one or two furrows in that smooth brow of his, I bet you, once he gets me in the stirrups!”

They laughed, and Mel chose that moment, oh-so-casually, to let slip a mention of Joe Portside.

He didn’t have to say any more. The Queen sensed exactly what was coming next, and stopped laughing and became angry – genuinely angry this time.

“Now you listen to me, Melville,” she said, stern and imperious. “You drop that now. You hear? You just drop it right now. Forget you ever laid eyes on Joe Portside. For a start, he’s straight, so you’re barking up the wrong tree, but the main thing is, you make some kind of move on him and you’re going to get hurt. I mean, physically hurt. Someone like Joe Portside has a reputation to think about. Even if you try it on when the two of you are alone, no one around to witness it, he’s still going to kick the shit out of you, because if word got out that some little nancy-boy fluttered his eyelashes at big bad Joe Portside and didn’t have the shit kicked out of him, Joe’s life would not be worth living. Take it from one who’s been there. It’s not worth the risk.”

“But –”

“Look.” The Queen of the Sea’s expression and tone softened, and she got to her feet and laid her big, crimson-taloned hands on Mel’s shoulders. “Life is hard for everyone on board this floating fucking rustbucket, but it’s harder still for people like you and me. We have to watch our step every minute of every day. One wrong move, one word said to the wrong person at the wrong time, and we can land ourselves in a whole fuckload of trouble. It’s unfair, but that’s how it is, and the sooner you learn that, the better. So, do you promise me that you’re not even going to think about Joe Portside again?”

Mel nodded.

“Cross your heart and hope to die?”

Mel nodded more emphatically.

“Well, good.” The Queen fished out a small lacy handkerchief from her cleavage. “Then let’s wipe that lipstick off your face, shall we? It just isn’t your shade.”

* * *

Mel left the Queen’s cabin disappointed and discontented. Usually the Queen’s advice was bang on the money, but in this case she was wrong. He knew she was wrong. He was not barking up the wrong tree, and he could prove it, if only he could somehow engineer a moment alone with Joe Portside.

* * *

In the event it was Joe who engineered the moment, by the simple expedient of leaving Mel a message in an empty matchbook placed carefully on the bar. As Mel walked by, Joe directed his attention to the matchbook with the minutest of nods, before moving swiftly off to greet an associate across the room with a clap on the shoulder and a raucous, bassy roar.

Reading the words scrawled inside the matchbook flap in scratchy, ungainly ballpoint capitals, Mel’s initial thought was that he must have made a mistake, that he had misinterpreted Joe’s nod, and that what he was looking at was nothing more than a jotted reminder of the venue for some recent knife-fight:

FORE HINGE
P DECK
MIDSHIPS SIDE
0600 TOMORROW

But as he reread the message, cupping the matchbook surreptitiously in his palm, he realised that Joe had chosen the perfect time and location for a secret rendezvous.

Mel slipped the matchbook into his pocket, and could barely breathe. The remainder of the evening, up to closing time and beyond, passed in a blur. Back in his cabin he set his alarm for 0500 so that he could be up in plenty of time, but he knew he wasn’t going to sleep a wink that night. Nor did he. Lying there in the dark, rocked by the ponderous heave and sway of the Hope, he thought about Joe and nothing else. Morning came, and not tired at all – too excited to be tired – he rose, washed, dressed, shaved, and set off for the fore hinge.

The fore hinge, like its aft equivalent, was where two of the three sections of the double-jointed ship met and groaned against each other like manmade tectonic plates. A dozen chain bridges spanned the gap at each deck-level, slender silvery threads that bowed and straightened in accordance with the ship’s motion, emitting a clamour of clinking that resounded deafeningly between the sheer iron cliffs on either side. Signs posted at the ends of each bridge warned passengers to exercise extreme caution when crossing. People had been known to lose their footing on these precarious traverses and fall, and down below, dizzyingly far down, the hinge yawned and ached, a hungry mouth two miles wide, lined with the pulverised bones of the hapless and the unwary.

Mel arrived a quarter of an hour early. The dawn was chilly. Waves of spectral grey drizzle drifted between the bridges. As he had thought would be the case, he was the only living soul in sight. He waited. The bridges kept up their strenuous clinking, and the drizzle continued to waft down. 0600 came and went. Perhaps he had misconstrued the message after all. But he continued to wait, glancing every so often at his watch. He would give Joe half an hour. After that, he would know that he had been mistaken. 0630 passed. Bitter disappointment beckoned. He decided to hang on till 0700.

At five to seven, Joe came.

His first words were: “You know I ought to kill you.”

“I know,” said Mel.

“At the very least gouge out an eye.”

“But you’re not going to, are you?”

Joe shook his head. “What’s your name?”

“Mel.”

Joe held out a hand. For all his size, for all the breadth of his shoulders, for all that he sported an ugly knife-inflicted scar on his face, he looked like a child at a grown-ups’ party: awkward, clumsy, unsure of himself.

“No, that’s not how it’s done,” Mel said gently, and pushing aside the proffered hand, a hand that punched and slashed and slew, he came up close to Joe, raised himself on tiptoe, and planted a kiss on Joe’s lips.

At first Joe did not respond. His mouth stayed tight and fixed, his body stiff. But gradually, as Mel sustained the kiss, Joe’s lips softened, yielded, and then he was returning the kiss with a vengeance, passionately and greedily mashing their mouths together, while above and below dozen upon dozen of tenuous, chain-suspended connections flexed and clinked and quivered.

Suddenly Joe thrust Mel away.

“No,” he said. “Not here.”

“Where, then?”

“Your cabin.”

* * *

In Mel’s cabin on F Deck, in curtained darkness, while all around them other passengers were waking up, having breakfast, going out, clanging along walkways and up and down companionways in search of food or something to do, Mel and Joe made love. It was over quickly. Joe was rough and unforgiving, but when he was spent, he lay back pliantly and was happy for Mel to cuddle and stroke him and run a finger up and down the ridges of his abdominal muscles.

“So,” said Mel, “am I the first?”

“No,” said Joe. “There’ve been a couple of others. Nobody you’d know. Nobody anyone knows. Just sort of … collisions. Nothing said afterwards. Never seen ‘em again.”

“And am I just another of those collisions?”

There was a long pause. “No. No, I don’t think so.”

“I’m glad.”

And a little while later: “Joe?”

“Yeah?”

“Would it scare you if I said I think I’m falling in love?”

“No,” said Joe, and Mel repeated the word over and over in his head exactly the way Joe had said it, searching for a hint of a lie in its inflection, and finding none.

“It scares me,” he admitted.

Shortly after that Joe said, “I’d better go,” and much as Mel wanted him to stay, he knew that Joe was right.

When Joe had dressed, Mel let him out of the cabin, having first ascertained that the walkway outside was clear in both directions. Joe strode off without a backward glance, and Mel went back to bed, masturbated, then sank into a deep post-orgasmic sleep, lulled by the throb of the Hope‘s engines, the erratic mechanical pulse that had embraced him since birth, the all-pervasive heartbeat of his ocean-borne mother.

And in sleep, a dream.

A dream of the kind that each of us, once, perhaps twice in a lifetime, is privileged to have. A peek behind the curtain that stands between us and the truth.

In the dream the bolts tethering Mel to his body unlatch and he falls away, descending – intangible, invisible, weightless – down through the decks, through layer after layer of the ship, cabin after cabin, in each cabin briefly witnessing a freeze-frame vignette of life aboard the Hope for some of her million passengers. Men, women and children laughing, crying, scheming, screaming, arguing, despairing, praying, and in some instances – a very few – loving.

Down further into the bowels of the ship he goes, Z Deck and lower, the haunt of stoppers and myths and other transient things. Down into the darkness of the hull.

And now, abruptly, he changes course, makes a right-angle turn and finds himself travelling horizontally along the keel, over one after another of the arching iron ribs of the Hope‘s skeleton, heading aft toward the growling churn of her turbines.

But before reaching the engine room, he comes upon a chamber, vast and vaulted. A place he somehow knows is nowhere on the ship’s specifications, never appeared in any blueprint.

And in the centre of this dark chamber of cold iron his eyes discern something immense and pale and bloated; something fleshy and organic that swells and contracts in time to the rhythm of the engines; something that pumps a black, viscous liquid through a number of thick, pulsing tubes which are also pale and organic and which writhe out of the chamber to other parts of the ship.

And he observes that this heart – for that is what it can only be, the heart of the Hope – is old and uncertain in its beating, and occasionally succumbs to a palsied, fibrillating twitch that seems to presage complete and utter collapse … but then the swell-and-contract rhythm begins again, and all is well. Until the next falter.

And then he notices, all over the place, thousands of small, scurrying white creatures, somewhat like rats, but hairless. On closer inspection, he sees that they have multiple pink eyes and rows of glittering steel teeth and are coated all over in some kind of sticky, greyish-white slime. These rat-creatures appear to be the heart’s attendants, and their job to be one of continuous upkeep and repair. They crawl all over the heart, and wherever one of them encounters a split in the heart’s aged skin it begins busily combing its back with its forepaws, gathering up a blob of that greyish-white slime, which it then smears into the fissure. And when the slime has hardened and set to form a seal over the wound, the rat-creature nibbles at it with those sharp steel teeth, trimming and neatening until the mend is all but invisible. And each time the heart performs one of its stuttering hiccups, the rat-creatures are thrown into panic and race madly around, and then, when the heart settles down again, the rat-creatures settle down, too, and resume where they left off with their neverending task of maintenance.

And, as Mel hovers there entranced and appalled by the hideous beauty of the scene, he hears a voice talking, deep and low. Sentences emerging from the grind of the close-by engines. A monologue addressed not directly to him but nonetheless spoken as if the owner of the voice is aware that he is present, eavesdropping.

– Every life is measured in heartbeats…

This, Mel realises, is the voice of the Hope, masculine even though ships are commonly thought of as female (“God bless her and all who sail in her”).

– And every life is allocated a number of heartbeats to use as it wishes, each according to its own.

And he recalls that the Queen of the Seas is also commonly thought of as female.

– Use them quickly or use them slowly, but you will never be given any more heartbeats than those you are allotted at birth.

And he listens hard now, because there is obviously a lesson to be drawn from this dream, even though he will probably not remember it when he wakes up.

– To live in love shortens life. To live in fear shortens life. Only indifference, that does not speed the heart, ensures longevity.

And after that he hears nothing more, as the voice subsides back into the engine rumble.

Then he feels himself lifted, withdrawing, floating back upward, his audience with the heart of the Hope at an end. Up through the ship’s iron strata he goes, gaining speed, past people who do not know – but may suspect – that each of them is an hourglass filled with a finite amount of sand whose flow each unwittingly regulates by the manner in which he or she chooses to live life.

And he understands that to be in love, as he is, and to be in fear, as he also is, can only hasten the onset of death.

And, as expected, he promptly forgets everything that has just been revealed to him the moment he surfaces from sleep, cresting a wave of waking.

* * *

Over the course of the next couple of weeks Mel and Joe saw each other regularly at the Trident. The war conferences were being held on an almost daily basis now, and as a consequence Mel was becoming familiar with the individual members of the gang, and the gang, in turn, were beginning to accept Mel as a fixture at the Trident. Riot, indeed, was actually becoming quite fond of him, because he found the droll, off-the-cuff quips and comments Mel made while doling out the drinks amusing. Mel, for his part, was not trying to entertain Riot. Joe, yes. Riot, no. However, if Riot also found his little impromptu jokes funny, so much the better.

What passed across the table during the gang’s meetings was so much bullshit and blather to Mel’s ears, but even he could tell that something big was brewing. Lock’s gang’s intrusions onto Riot’s gang’s turf were increasing in frequency and severity, and other shameful crimes were coming to light, such as rape, theft and vandalism. There was only so much of that a decent person could tolerate before some form of extreme retaliation became necessary.

In front of the others, of course, nothing could be pass between Mel and Joe, not even so much as a lingering glance, for fear of someone else intercepting the glance and interpreting it correctly. It was agony for Mel to have Joe so near and yet so far away. It was agony, and yet the agony made their infrequent clandestine trysts all the sweeter.

Their lovemaking improved. Mel initiated Joe into the ways of gentleness, taming his raw urgency and showing him how to channel it, focus it, into passion. Joe learned to be solicitous of Mel’s needs, and the orgasms he gave him were the most intense and explosive Mel had ever experienced, and often lasted so long that Mel thought he was going to die from ecstasy.

* * *

Then, inevitably, disaster.

Riot had called yet another war conference, and this one was better attended than most because the word on the walkways was that he had an important announcement to make, and sure enough he had. He told the assembled company that he had, that morning, paid Lock an official visit and had informed the rival gang-leader that if he did not receive from him an assurance that the territorial incursions and other related offences would cease immediately, then he would have no choice but to declare hostilities.

“I regret to have to tell you,” Riot said, “that Lock has given me no such assurance, and that as of now there exists between our two gangs a state of war.”

At that there were hoots of outrage and approval in equal measure which all but drowned out the thump of the PA system, which was, just then, belting out a lengthy piece of baroque rock called “The Battle of Epping Forest”.

“Negotiations are under way,” Riot continued, “to set a date and venue for the fight. You are all, of course, expected to be there. This is the big one, boys. And girl.” He offered a deferential nod to the only female in their number, Delia, a lean-faced, crop-haired woman whom Joe, Mel recalled, rated as one of the deadliest among them. “This is where we sort it out once and for all,” Riot added, echoing a lyric of the song in the background.

The mood around the table was, for the rest of the night, aggressive and raucous. Boasts and insults flew. None of the hard men (or woman) was going to show that he (or she) was in the slightest bit anxious about the coming fight. Rather, it was imperative to appear keen for bloodshed and unafraid of the prospect of injury or death. Copious quantities of alcohol were consumed. Mel was rushed off his feet keeping the table supplied. Glasses were broken. A playful brawl threatened to turn nasty until Eddy intervened. And so it was hardly surprising, with all this boisterousness and bravado in the air, that Mel should stumble and spill the contents of a tray of drinks over Riot. Not least because the stumble was caused by one of the gang-members, Bateman, sticking out a foot and tripping him up.

The tumbling and shattering of glass and the splashing of liquid brought a stunned silence to the table. Riot, hair plastered to his head, best leather jacket soaked, sat there aghast.

Tableau. Not a word said for fifteen seconds. Half a minute.

Then somebody giggled. It was Acid Cas, off his face on homemade guano-extract speed. Couldn’t help himself, seeing Riot all wet and dripping like that, Mr Big General himself looking like a character out of an old slapstick movie.

And then everybody else began to giggle, too, and the giggling damburst into laughter, and the laughter torrented into hysterics, and soon everyone – except Riot, Mel and, significantly, Joe – was whooping hoarsely for breath and jabbing neighbours with an elbow and pointing at Riot. Individually none of them would have dared mock Riot in this way. Together – well, what could Riot do about it?

Riot remained in his seat, stock-still, seething. Mel stood transfixed with terror. He knew he should at the very least go to the bar and fetch a towel. He couldn’t move.

Slowly Riot turned round.

“You,” he said to Mel.

The laughter died away.

Riot clambered to his feet. He stood at least a head taller than Mel, and his chest was twice the size of Mel’s, and his handspan was at least half as large again as the span of Mel’s hands. He spoke quietly, with controlled fury. “Give me one good reason,” he said, “why I shouldn’t rip off your testicles and shove them up your arse.”

Mel could not reply, although inside he was screaming: It wasn’t my fault! It was an accident! Someone tripped me! I didn’t do it on purpose!

Riot took a step closer. All eyes were on him and Mel.

Mel didn’t even see the punch coming. A detonation in his left cheekbone, and then he was sprawling on his side on the floor. A kick to the ribs: unreasonable pain. Another kick, this time to his temple, sending his head snapping over to strike the floor with a clang. Blood spurting from above one eyebrow.

Riot was not even panting.

Mel braced himself for further blows to come, cringing.

“That’s enough, Riot.”

That voice. Mel recognised that voice.

“He didn’t mean to do it.”

Of course he recognised it. It belonged to Joe.

“You’ve proved your point. Leave him be.”

Riot, icily: “Just who the fuck do you think you’re talking to like that, Joe?”

“He’s harmless. You’ve punished him enough.”

“The little sod soaked me!”

“Yeah, and I doubt he’ll do it again.”

“What, Joe? You keen on this little scraping of dick-cheese? You fancy his arse or something?”

No hesitation. Good on you, Joe. “Of course not. But he’s funny, remember? You like him. He makes you laugh.”

“Yeah, well, if this is his idea of a joke, then he’s gone too far.”

“So fire him and have done with it,” said Joe.

Mel peered up, blinded in one eye by blood. Riot was regarding Joe quizzically, Joe staring flatly back. Riot was trying to figure it out. It wasn’t like Joe to be squeamish about violence. It wasn’t like Joe to play peacemaker, either.

“You’re not going soft on me by any chance, are you, Joe?” said Riot. “The last thing I need right now is one of my main men going soft on me.”

“I’m not going soft on you,” said Joe.

Riot’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe I ought to test the truth of that statement. Maybe I ought to tell you to hamstring the little bastard.” He gestured in Mel’s direction. “See what happens.”

“You know that if you tell me to do something, I’ll do it, Riot. I’ve proved that to you countless times in the past. There’s no need for me to have to prove it again.”

“Maybe I think there is.”

“Maybe,” said Eddy, stepping up with a towel in his hand and offering it to Riot, “we should just have another round and forget the whole thing, huh? How about that?”

Two of his lieutenants now were advising Riot to back down, and a wise general knows when to listen to his officers and follow their recommendations – especially if that general has need of those men’s loyalty in the very near future.

“Right,” he said. “OK.” He accepted the towel from Eddy and, turning away from Mel, set about wiping himself. “Get that wankstain out of my sight. I never want to see him again.”

Eddy helped Mel to his feet. “Can you walk?”

Mel wasn’t sure, but he nodded.

“Then go. Now.”

Mel limped out of the Neptune’s Trident. He hadn’t gone more than a few yards from the door when he began sobbing. But not from the pain of his injuries.

* * *

A knock at his cabin door: soft, furtive.

“Yes?”

In came Joe.

Mel gingerly raised himself from his bed, wincing and clutching his bruised ribs. He braved a smile.

Joe did not smile back.

“Thanks,” Mel said. “For earlier.”

Joe nodded, his gaze averted.

“I thought he was going to kill me. You probably saved my life.”

Joe said nothing.

“Joe?” Tentatively: “What is it? What’s the matter?”

“This has got to stop,” said Joe, in a strange, far-off voice quite unlike his usual voice. “This can’t go on.”

Mel resisted the urge – strong though it was – to rush over to Joe, hold him, feel his muscular body, his heat, his power.

“No,” he said, hearing the word splinter as it emerged from his mouth, a faint echo of a much larger, louder fissuring within. “No, I understand.”

“No, I don’t think you do,” said Joe, taking a step forward. “I took a big risk back there. If anyone finds out the real reason why I stepped in…”

“But they won’t, Joe. I won’t tell anyone. I swear. It’ll be my secret. Our secret. And I’ll take it to the grave with me.” He was aware of his heart pounding in his ears triple-time. A vague, dislocated memory: using it up; using it all up.

“I can’t trust you to do that.”

“You can, Joe. You can.”

“I’m sorry, Mel.”

His heartbeat, racing now in an ecstasy of love and fear. Rattling to its conclusion.

“I understand, Joe,” said Mel, as he heard the snicker-snap of a switchblade flicking open. He refused to take his eyes off Joe’s face. “It’s all right,” he said, as the last few sand-grains of his life sifted away. “I really do understand.”

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• Filed under Extracts • 08/01/1990 •