Personally I blame it all on George Dubya.
I mean, if he’d never invaded Iraq, I’d never have been sent to do the photographs for Ed’s article on the troops who got left behind. And then we’d never have got into that mess with the Forbidden Zone, and Alec – sorry, Sergeant Cowan, would never have had the excuse to do what he did.
So yes, the President of the United States, and our own dear Tony Blair, have a lot to answer for. Mind you, Ed bears a lot of the responsibility too, but that’s Ed. He makes his way through the world like a firework going off in other peoples’ lives, then turns round with that trademark innocent look and says: who me? but I didn’t do anything.
And he gets away with it, that’s what annoys me. Except, I must admit, with Alec Cowan. Which is a meagre sort of consolation, I suppose. Oh, all right, it was more than meagre. I’d have laughed my arse off if I hadn’t been holding on to it for fear of just that happening.
I suppose I’d better try to explain. Ed’s the words man, you see. I just do the pictures. We’ve been working together ever since I nearly got shot in Central Africa and decided that the glamorous life of an international war photographer was not for me, and maybe the domestic features desk wasn’t solely for has-beens, and never-weres after all.
The first day I rolled in on time, asked for Edward Fletwick, got misdirected completely round the building, and eventually, hot, flustered, 20 minutes late, and not a little pissed off, found the right desk only to discover that its owner hadn’t bothered to turn up yet
I had just finished working out exactly what I was going to tell him when he did arrive, including just where he could stick any idea of working together, when this rather good looking –no, strike that, extremely good looking – coal-haired vision with sea-grey eyes sauntered up, coffee in hand, smiled brilliantly, handed me a luke-warm latte and said:
“Great to meet you, Sam. Well, we can’t hang around here, you know, stuff to do. I’ll fill you in on the way.” And I was so taken aback that I forgot what I was going to say, and trotted meekly along behind, which rather set the pattern for things to come had I but known it. Especially since we ended up parking on a double yellow line, and guess who had to fork out for the ticket?
So as I say, when it was decided On High, where what is willed must be, that we were going to spend a couple of days at Markham Ford army base, interviewing soldiers who hadn’t been sent to Iraq about how they felt on missing out on the conflict, I suppose I should have been forewarned. Still, it seemed easy enough, the MOD were on board, we had a promise of unrestricted access to all low security areas and full co-operation from the base press liaison, and to be honest I thought it was going to be worthy but dull.
“You never know, you might pull some hunky squaddy,” he added as we drew up at the gate. For some reason, despite being famously straight, Ed is always trying to set me up with other blokes.
“I’ll pass, thanks all the same.”
“Let your hair down, live a little. When was the last time you . . .”
I lifted an eyebrow in my most forbidding manner. “I what?”
“You know - had some fun.”
“Fun?” Anyone else would have been too embarrassed to carry on, but it was all so much water off a duck’s back to Ed.
“Sex. When was the last time you had a good healthy fuck?”
“None of your damn business, Ed. Do I quiz you up for the gory details of whoever the latest conquest is?”
He grinned. “You never need to, because I tell you anyway. But you, you live like a hermit, it can’t be good for you. All those suppressed urges, bubbling away.”
If he only knew.
“Not everyone thinks with their crotch, you lecher.” And actually both the guard at the gate and the lad deputed to direct us to the press officer were cute, but since I prefer my men to look more than 12 years old I refrained from saying so. Ed needs to be quashed periodically to keep him from being unbearable, so admitting he’s right about anything tends to be a mistake.
Captain Hendricks, the press officer (or press officer officer, as Ed irritatingly insisted on calling him – it wasn’t even funny the first time), who was about thirty, thinning on top, pleasant, and efficient, had information packs ready and had set up some initial interviews and photo sessions for us for that afternoon. In the meantime one of his underlings would show us to our quarters. It was agreed that the Captain would give us an hour or so to settle in and would then come and take us to lunch in the mess hall, and on to the pre-arranged meetings for the afternoon.
“This way please,” said the flunky, a broad-shouldered girl with a pleasant, freckled face. We followed her at a brisk pace down corridors and out into the open air. As we were crossing along one side of a parade ground I felt Ed stiffen at my side.
“That bloke, over the far side, heading towards that white building.”
“The one in the brown beret? What about him?”
“Beige, not brown. I know him.”
“And he is not only a thoroughgoing bastard, but a member of the SAS. That’s what the beret means. Sergeant Alec Cowan, 264 (SAS) Signal Squadron.” He said the last as if it left a bad taste in his mouth.
“Well, it’s an army base. Hardly surprising to find a soldier here.”
“Not an SAS base. They normally keep themselves to themselves. Troops are only sent for attachment to other groups when there’s something going on. I wonder . . .”
By this stage, however, our sheepdog had become aware that she had lost her sheep, and returned to chivvy us on.
“Corporal, what are the buildings around us ?” asked Ed, casually, as we set off again.
“Oh, that’s the main training block, all the classrooms, and that’s Central Admin.”
“And the white block . . .?”
“Is a restricted area, sir.” Firmly. She didn’t say Sir with a capital letter either, the way she had done to Captain Hendricks.
Ed smiled in his most high calorie fashion. “Ah, the Forbidden Zone. No problem, don’t want to fall foul of the Official Secrets Act.” I could see the tumblers clicking into position as he spoke. This had to be stopped before it was too late.
“Don’t you dare,” I hissed as discreetly as I could.
He did his wide-eyed innocent-little-me look. Fortunately I’ve known him long enough to realise that he’s about as innocent as Caligula.
“I mean it, Ed. I’m not doing time in a military jail for you.”
He looked a little uncertainly at our guide, and shook his head. I wasn’t clear if that meant no he wouldn’t do anything stupid, or no, he wasn’t going to talk about it right now. I chose to believe it meant the former.
Which was why at ten o’clock that evening I found myself with Ed trying to break into a high security area slap bang in the middle of a military base.
Evil company. My poor old grandma always warned me against it, saying it would lead me into ruin, and she was right.
“This has got to be a big story. Something is going on here, and the People have a right to know.”
Invocations of the People’s Right to Know were a sure sign he knew he was on dodgy ground.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I snapped. “Even if there is something here you won’t find it just lying around. And if you do find something it’ll be covered by the Act. The lawyers wouldn’t let you publish in a month of Sundays, and if you tried the Government would slap a D-notice on us. This isn’t about the People. This is about Ed Fletwick trying to get one over on this Cohen bloke.”
“Cowan. He’s a Scot, not an Israeli. And I’m not . . . anyway, why are you here, if it’s such a bad idea ? Ah, got it!” This was him levering up the window that he had noticed half open along one side of the building.
“I’m here to pick up the pieces afterwards and make sure you get a decent burial,” I said as crushingly as I could. “I’m not going in, there’ll be alarms.”
“Why would they need them in the middle of the base? Come on!” He hopped over the sill, turned and held out a hand.
Oh Ed, you stupid, pig-headed, blind, insensitive . . .
Scorning the proffered assistance I scrambled in rather less elegantly after him.
It appeared they did have alarms, or at least sensors, after all. We got all of 20 feet down the corridor before the lights came on and a lot of very large gentlemen appeared. With guns. Pointing. At us. In that very unwavering and businesslike way that suggests that they are loaded, and that the person on the blunt end is very well aware of how to work them.
In the middle of them was Staff Sergeant Cowan. It was my first opportunity to observe him close up. A big man, broad shouldered but trim waisted. Maybe late thirties. A little short in the leg for my taste, but evidently very well muscled, even under the uniform. Blue eyes, very very chilly blue eyes, and light brown hair. Sounds nondescript, doesn’t it? All I can say is that I can see why Ed picked him out right across the parade ground.
“Mr Fletwick,” he said. I’d expected a parade ground bellow, but his voice was quiet, the Scots accent lending it a certain precision. That was all he said, Mr Fletwick, but it felt like it might remove skin, the way he said it. His gaze impaled me for a moment. “You’d be the photographer, I suppose. Challoner.”
I nodded. I noticed that the gun tips never wavered from us, though the men were clearly waiting their cue from him.
“Your camera, please.”
“I . . .” my voice husked for a moment with nerves. “I didn’t bring it.”
Ed swung round to me.
“Stand STILL!” barked one of the men. Two of the muzzles jabbed into his ribs in a manner that was obviously painful.
“You didn’t bring it? How the hell did you expect to . . .”
“I didn’t expect to. I told you, Ed, there’s no way anything in this building will ever get into the press. And I want to work again.”
“Hmm. It appears that there is at least one functioning brain cell between the pair of you,” said Cowan scathingly. “A pity it didn’t function well enough to keep you out altogether.”
I shot him a look of mingled fury and misery. Trouble was, it was me I was furious with, for getting sucked in once again.
“It appears, Mr Fletwick, that our little chat the last time we met failed to make an adequate impression on you. I warned you what would happen if our paths crossed again in that way.”
“No, no, you can’t! Alec, you bastard, I won’t let you.”
Alec? Suddenly my reading of the situation changed completely. It was obvious that there was past history between them, had been from Ed’s first reaction. What I hadn’t bargained for was it being personal. Almost – the way Ed said the other man’s name had sounded almost intimate.
“I really don’t think you’re in a position to make demands,” said the sergeant. Then, leaning forward, he hissed into Ed’s face:
“Do you realise just how much trouble you’re in, you stupid wee idiot? They’re going to lock you up and throw away the key. This isn’t just something they’ll call you a naughty boy for and send you for a few weeks doing local news, this is a threat to the security of the state. Terrorism Act ring any bells?”
Ed paled. So did I for different reasons. Stupid wee idiot? That wasn’t how you talk to a mere acquaintance, even a friend . . . They couldn’t be – have been – could they? Lovers? Not Ed? Ed the office Don Juan? And this butch fantasy figure? Wasn’t it illegal in the army?
“If you so much as breathe on me I’ll make a formal complaint.” Ed’s voice shook raggedly. I was completely lost now.
“Then I have no option to charge you and your friend,” said the Sergeant coolly.
“No jury will convict,” said Ed.
“You don’t get a jury. New laws, remember. And both of you have been in the Middle East recently.”
“What? Egypt, we went on a diving holiday to the Red Sea for fuck’s sake!” Holiday wouldn’t have been my description of it – something else Ed had suckered me into, because his girlfriend du jour had cancelled on him.
The Staff Sergeant raised a sceptical eyebrow.
“This is Kafkaesque! I mean, it’s ridiculous. Even one of Blunkett’s secret kangaroo courts wouldn’t convict us.”
“You? Perhaps, perhaps not. Your friend here, on the other hand, has spent quite a lot of time in the world’s troublespots. Iraq. Iran. Sudan. Afghanistan. Indonesia. Still corresponds with people there.”
And you obviously did quite a lot of reading of the security dossiers they must have compiled on us, Staff Sergeant. I wonder why, when you had no reason to suppose we’d meet? Still, superficially my travel history did look bad. Could be made to look bad, by vast cool unsympathetic intellects.
“I – I’ve never done anything. I was a war photographer, of course I went to troublespots. I have friends in some of those countries, but they’re just friends.”
Ed turned a sick looking gaze on me, as if realising for the first time just what he’d got us both into.
“Sam – I’m sorry, I never thought.”
I sighed. “No Ed, you never do.” He grimaced. “It doesn’t matter,” I added.
“Yes. Yes it does.” He turned back to the Sergeant’s impenetrable gaze.
“All right. You warned me last time. I’ll take what’s coming. But you let Sam go. This was my fault.”
The Sergeant’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“I think I just pointed out that you aren’t in a position to make bargains. And believe me, you really don’t want to piss me off any further at this point.”
Ed stuck out his chin defiantly, and after a moment Alec Cowan made an exasperated sound.
“Oh, all right. The photographer can go.”
“Staff Sergeant,” corrected one of the men with guns. The military, so touchy about protocol. Behind their professional masks, though, I sensed a certain amount of amusement, even anticipation. They were enjoying the show.
“Staff Sergeant. It may have escaped the notice of you and my partner here, but I do have a say in this. Whatever happens to Ed, I’ll go through too. That’s what partners means.”
“No, Sam,” said Ed quickly.
“I really think you have no idea what you’re letting yourself in for,” said the Staff Sergeant.
I raised my own eyebrow. “Oh, I think I do,” I returned. I glanced meaningfully at his polished belt. For God’s sake, the man had Dom/Top stamped through him like a stick of Blackpool rock. Couldn’t have been more obvious if he dressed in studded leather and chaps and an evil leer. The only thing was, I’d never had Ed figured for a sub.
He caught my glance, inclined his head. “Maybe you do at that.” Careful, Sergeant, that was almost a smile. “Perhaps you think I won’t do it? Or that I’ll go easy on you?”
“Oh no, I expect you’ll do your duty with ruthless efficiency.” I knew the type. I’d get what he thought was right, regardless of who or what I was.
“Hmm. Very well. Corporal, bring these intruders to the gym. They’re going to have a chat with Lang Aggie and Wee Ben.”
“What, both of them, Sir?”
“Is there a problem, Tayce?”
“No, Sir!” Still at gunpoint, though it must have been obvious by then that we posed no physical threat to 4 highly trained soldiers, we were hustled down corridors and into the echoing darkness of a much larger room. Wall bars and vaulting horses loomed vaguely in the dimness. Someone switched on a light, just one, over the corner with the vaulting horse. That confirmed it. I felt a bit like a French aristo being given a preview of Madame la Guillotine.
I heard Ed swallow. If I’d been near enough I’d have been tempted to squeeze his hand for comfort, but after a moment’s reflection I was glad I hadn’t. That kind of gesture of affection between us wouldn’t make it any easier for him with the soldiers looking on.
A door opened on the far side of the gym, a rectangle of light outlining a dark shape for a moment. Then Staff Sergeant Cowan strode towards us – I’m sure it was only my imagination that insists the darkness clung to him like a cloak. He’d taken off his shirt, and his vest did very little to hide the muscles that slid under his skin, or the solid power of his arms. He was holding a thick, dark leather strap, about 2 inches wide, thirty inches long, and maybe quarter of an inch thick. The other hand held a wooden paddle about 18 inches long and half an inch thick.
Ouch. This was going to HURT.
Ed’s gaze was fixed on the implements like a rabbit in the headlights.
“I warned you, Ed,” Alec Cowan said softly in his ear. “Now you have to pay the price, and your friend too.” He looked at me. “Thirty six with Long Aggie,” he held up the strap, “thirty-six with Wee Ben,” it was the paddle’s turn to be brandished. I saw one of the soldiers wince. “Divided between you. Military justice.”
“An oxymoron,” I said. “Like military intelligence.” Yes, I know it was stupid, trying to wind him up under the circumstances, but the words came out without engaging brain.
He smiled for the first time.
“Will you settle for military discipline, then?”
I felt myself smiling back, involuntarily. Damn the man. You should smile more often though, Staff Sergeant, it suits you.
“Who gets to go first?” I asked.
“I will,” said Ed at once.
“Oh no, laddie,” said Alec Cowan. “I’ll not make it that easy for you. You watch your partner take it, and think about whose fault that is.”
He looked at me, then, and I knew perfectly well that wasn’t the only reason for doing it this way. Anticipation is half the punishment. He wasn’t just making it harder on Ed. He was making things easier on me.
“Tayce, Williams, secure the doors. Preece and McMurdo get our guest over here. Henderson, keep the other one under control.”
Two of the soldiers grabbed my arms and pulled me over to the vaulting horse. It was the boxy kind, made up of sections that allow you to alter the height. The top was about 6 inches above my waist height. I dropped my trousers and underwear without waiting to be asked, stepped out of them, determined that I would retain at least that much control of the situation. One of the soldiers boosted me over the horse, the other roughly pulled my legs apart, secured first one ankle, then the other, to the handles of the lowest section of the horse. I nearly screamed to be let up then, and the devil with Ed. It didn’t feel like preparation for punishment. It felt like preparation for rape. Fortunately the panic subsided as quickly as it had come. No. I was fairly certain that was something I didn’t need to worry about.
The other squaddie went round to the other side, grasped my wrists firmly, holding me down.
“You sure about this?” he muttered out of the corner of his mouth, the horse between him and the Staff Sergeant.
“It’s not just soldiers who get belted,” I whispered back. “I’ve had it before.”
“Ah. Thought so. You’ll survive, then. You’ll just wish you hadn’t for a while.” He winked. I felt surprisingly encouraged by that wink.
“When you’ve quite finished your little chat, Private McMurdo.” Did nothing get by that man?
So there I was, bare-arsed over a horse in the gym, surrounded by soldiers and about to get the thrashing of my life from an overly muscled NCO apparently gifted with telepathy and an inexhaustible fund of sarcasm. It ought to have been Fantasy City for someone into the scene. Oh come on, you didn’t think I knew all that stuff without having some experience of it, did you? I’ve been spanked many a time, heavier stuff occasionally. And this was some people’s fantasy writ large.
So let me tell you I wasn’t one bit turned on. Not then. Scared as hell, yes. Not, curiously, embarrassed, but maybe that was where the experience helped. Plenty of people have seen my backside naked, I’m not about to get embarrassed about it now. But this wasn’t sexy, not in the least. It was punishment, it was something I wanted over.
I felt him tap the strap against my bare backside, tensed involuntarily. Then there was that momentary warning, that change of air pressure that presages:
Armageddon. The heavy leather smashed into my cold flesh, wrapped around to bite me just in the hollow of the muscle. Fuck, that hurt! The next was just slightly lower, and hurt worse. As the third and fourth blows followed with metronomic precision I realised I was in the hands of a master. There was just enough time between each blow for outraged nerves to blossom to their full fiery extent as he methodically covered my arse from top to bottom with welts. I grunted at the fifth, gasped at the eighth, was making little ‘uh, uh’ noises by the time the twelfth landed. I tried to twist, to find somewhere less painful for the strap to land but was securely held, and anyway there wasn’t anywhere. By the time the 18th landed I was bucking against the restraints. I’ve never been strapped so painfully and thoroughly, before and since.
It was only when I sensed him move away from behind me that I realised it was over. That bit at least. My arse throbbed and stung. I could hear Ed swearing in a monotone under his breath: I don’t think he even knew he was doing it.
“You will now receive 18 strokes of the paddle,” said Alec Cowan in my ear. I jumped. I hadn’t heard him come up behind me.
“Yes, sir,” I whispered, sensed rather than heard a certain satisfaction at the response. Not that it would gain me the slightest relief. As I said, men like Staff Sergeant Cowan will do their duty if it kills you.
Heavy. That paddle was heavy, a bruising impact on my poor, stinging backside. I thought I could feel my poor abused bum blistering with each stroke. I gave up any pretence at taking it well by the time he reached the fourth, cried and shouted and swore, and that fucking paddle in the hands of that fucking brute just came down again and again and again regardless. The soldier holding my hands squeezed until his knuckles showed white, a welcome distraction but it wasn’t quite enough.
Then, unexpectedly, it stopped, and left me floating for a moment in my little universe of pain.
“It’s over,” said someone. I felt my legs being untied, was helped to stand, shakily, in front of the horse.
Staff Sergeant Cowan looked at me impassively. “Get dressed and get over there,” he said. My underwear was cotton; it felt like barbed wire. My hands shook as I pulled my trousers up – very cautiously – and did them up.
And now it was Ed’s turn. I felt feverish, hot and cold, the way I sometimes do after a severe punishment, slightly detached from reality. But I couldn’t help noticing, as Ed was made to strip, what a nice firm bum he had. Good legs, too, with the long, taut muscles of a runner. No wonder all the girls love him.
Alec Cowan took up his station, raised the strap.
I found my emotions curiously divided. Part of me thought Ed damned well deserved every stroke, especially considering that I’d taken half of his punishment for him. That part of me rather enjoyed the spectacle, watching the crimson marks blossom on that pristine white flesh. The other part: well, let’s say it confirmed something I really didn’t like admitting, even to myself, about the true nature of my feelings for my partner. Totally one-sided, inappropriate, quite hopeless feelings.
Considering he lacked experience, he took it quite well. I knew if I could see his face that it would be rigid with the effort of trying not to make a sound, not to give Alec Cowan that much of a victory. He failed of course, but not until about two-thirds of the way through.
"Escort Mr Fletwick to his quarters," said the sergeant as soon as Ed had his trousers back on.
It took everything he had, I could see that, but Ed faced up to his nemesis.
"Not without Sam."
"Sam will be fine. We just need a little talk." Ed's eyes widened. "No, a talk. Go on, get him out of my sight. The rest of you go, too." This last to the soldiers, who hustled him, not without a worried backward glance at me, out of the gym. He walked quite well, considering.
"So. You took that quite well," observed Staff Sergeant Cowan. "But then you've experienced this sort of thing before."
"No. Not this sort of thing,
Staff Sergeant. This was very unpleasant. But yes, I know the scene. And so,
I think, do you."
He raised an eyebrow.
"Photographer's eye. When you were at work, I recognised something about the way you stood. It was a very famous photoset at the time, in certain circles, although you were much younger then."
He sighed. "Too young," he acknowledged. "But I needed the cash for the family."
"I didn't realise you were married!"
"No. My stepmother, the other kids. My dad - wasn't around much, and you couldna save much on a private's salary to send home." The accent had roughened as he spoke.
"I . . . see. And Ed? Why does he dislike you so much."
There was a long pause. I began to wonder if he would reply at all. Then: "Ed is always pushing. It's his way. He needs something firm to push against. I . . . stopped providing that, and I don't think he's forgiven me. We’ve had one or two run-ins since that haven’t improved matters."
And that summed up Ed Fletwick neatly enough, I agreed. Always pushing it.
"Were you - were you lovers for very long?"
A curious expression crossed the big man’s face. He seemed to be struggling with some strong emotion. Then he shook his head and I realised I wasn’t going to get an answer. Too much to ask of Alec Cowan the Staff Sergeant perhaps, that imperturbable monolith of the military virtues, but I’d rather hoped that I might get an answer from Alec Cowan the man.
“Ask him,” he said at last. “And stick with him. He needs a good friend, or more than friend.”
“Someone to push against?”
“If you like.”
“I’m afraid Ed doesn’t think of me as anything more than a mate.”
“I’m not so sure. You couldn’t see his face when I was taking the strap to you.”
Something sounded a set of chimes in my heart. No, damn it, I was not going to be manipulated by this big lummox into sorting out his emotional leftovers.
“I’m sure he’d rather be comforted by you,” I said.
“I really doubt that,” he returned. “I’ll take you back to your quarters.”
We walked, carefully on my part to avoid rubbing of any sensitive areas, back to the right building. I looked back as I went in, saw him turn away, shoulders shaking with sobs. So the monolith did have regrets after all.
Ed was lying on the bed in his room. On his stomach. He looked up once, flushed, and turned away.
“I don’t want to talk.”
“Well I do. Listen to me, damn it.” I slapped his backside, was rewarded with a yelp and a furious ‘Fuck off!’.
“Ed, you damned well owe me, and I intend to collect. I’ve been caught up in some sort of ex-lovers quarrel between you and the Incredible Hulk out there, and my backside is paying the price. The least you can do is tell me the truth about your relationship.”
He gawped at me.
“Oh come off it, it was obvious, the way you spoke to each other, everything. He even told me to ask you about it.”
“He – you asked Alec? About him and me being lovers?”
“Well – yes.”
I was prepared for almost any response but the one I got, which was helpless, incapacitating laughter. “He – you said – and he – Oh God,” he breathed at last, his eyes streaming with tears. “It was almost worth it for that – I wish I could have seen his face.”
“So what’s so funny?” I snapped. It was beginning to dawn on me that the emotion struggling to express itself on the Staff Sergeant’s face might well have been something similar to Ed’s, and that shaking shoulders might have been due to another response entirely than manly sobs. And I hate being laughed at, and any minute now Ed was going to get another slap on his sore arse to remind him of that.
“Not lovers, you goose. Brothers.”
“But . . .”
“Stepbrothers. My mother married his father when I was ten and Alec was 16.”
Oh God! Intimacy, yes, but not at all the kind that first leaped into my dirty mind.
“Ed – I’m sorry. I thought. Well, never mind what I thought. I’m sorry.”
“Why? I’m rather flattered at being the hero of your own erotic gay potboiler.”
My eyes narrowed. “Don’t push it, Fletwick. You still owe me for getting us into this mess. So what went wrong between you?”
He sobered abruptly.
“My stepdad was a violent man when he had drink in him. Alec used to stand up to him, stand between him and me, him and Mum. I can’t tell you how many times Alec took beatings that the old man originally intended for me. Then one day he came home and told me he’d signed up for the Army.”
“I suppose he needed a job.”
“He left us! He left us with that bastard. Luckily, the old man cleared off a month or two after that, but still Alec never came back. Never checked. I loved him, I worshipped him, and he left me. I’ll never forgive him for that.”
And was it his job to look after you, I thought to myself, and him not much more than a kid himself?
“What did your mum say?”
“Oh she’d never hear a word against Alec. Always making excuses for him.”
Hmm. That figured, if Alec had been secretly sending her half his wage packet. And I wonder if he had something to do with the stepfather mysteriously clearing off too? Oh boy, families, family secrets, don’t you just love them?
“Oh Ed.” I ruffled his hair affectionately, was astonished when he flung his arms around me.
“Sam, you’re right. I did get you involved in a personal quarrel. I’m sorry.”
Stunned, I could only pat him feebly on the back. “It’s . . . OK, Ed. It’s OK.”
He pulled a little apart, looked at me hard.
“Really OK, Sam?”
I smiled. “Yes, really OK.”
And I can’t explain what happened next, except that there was some sort of question in his face, and obviously some sort of answer in mine, because he leaned forward, a slightly jerky, tentative motion, and fastened his mouth on mine like a limpet.
After a moment I responded with enthusiasm, and somewhere along the way we lost our clothes together with any remaining inhibitions, and indulged in a vigorous bout of enthusiastically smutty (if occasionally, as hands or other organs brushed the sorer spots, wince-making) sex. He turned out to be rather good at it.
A bit later we did it again, more slowly, and fell asleep cuddled together. Oh all right, on our stomachs I admit, but still cuddled together, which took some doing on those beds, I tell you.
Of course, in the morning the first thing I saw as I opened my eyes was the naked and sleeping form of Ed Fletwick next to me, which ought to have been enough to cheer anyone’s day. The trouble was, all I could think was: “Oh no, what have we done?”
I like working with Ed. Yes, he’s impossible, but he’s my friend. I’d really hate to lose all that for a night in the sack, and I was awfully afraid that when he woke up Ed was going to be so embarrassed that that would be our friendship and our working relationship gone. I started to work out a little speech about how it was the stress of the situation and we’d pretend it had never happened and carry on as friends, when his eyes flickered open and slowly focused on me.
After a moment he smiled.
“Hallo, gorgeous. Want to do something about this?”
His hand drew mine down to his crotch, which was showing considerable signs of revived interest. Not that embarrassed, then. But I was, when he whispered in my ear what he proposed to do to me. I blushed. Me, a hardened photojournalist, blushing.
I didn’t say no, though.
After we’d showered and I’d been back and messed up the bed in my room to make it look like I’d slept in it, we went and completed the work. My heart wasn’t in it, of course, or at least my mind was on other things part of the time, but I’m a professional and so is Ed, and we had an article to do.
It was only as we were getting into the car that Ed, seeing me wince as I sat down, turned to me with a rueful smile and said:
“Well, we did find one thing on this base that the whole world has been looking for since the Iraq war.”
“Weapons of Ass Destruction.”
I threw a pen at him, that being the most lethal implement to hand. “You’re going to be sorry for that, Fletwick,” I said.
“Yes. When we get back, I’m going to put you over my knee.”
His eyes widened, in horrified delight. “Oh please, Sam, not more,” he lisped in exaggerated fear.
“You may laugh now, but I mean it,” I said. “Someone has to keep you under control.”
He looked at me, lust and laughter warring in his eyes. “All right, you can spank me when I’m a bad boy. But I’m going to spank you when you nag. Deal?”
Hmm. This could be interesting.
At that moment a shadow fell across our windscreen.
Staff Sergeant Cowan.
“Mr Fletwick. Sam.”
“How come Sam gets the first name treatment?” asked Ed, plaintively.
“I seem to remember on a previous occasion you instructed me never to call you by your first name again. ‘It’s Mr Fletwick to you’ were your words, I believe.”
“Alec . . .”
The big man raised an eyebrow.
“I’m sorry.” Grudging, but an apology.
“That’s all right, Ed. I know.”
“Ring me? Or e-mail me? You do have e-mail?”
“We usually prefer parchment in a cleft stick, but aye, we do have the capability. I am in Signals, after all.”
Ed looked at him, silently. After a moment he sighed.
“All right. We’ll speak. In a bit. If you want to.”
“I want to. We can’t go on like this.”
Alec half inclined his head in acknowledgement, held out a hand.
After a moment, Ed took it.
“Goodbye, Ed.” He leaned in to me, offered me his hand in turn.
“You’ll do,” he said. “You’ll do very well. Goodbye for now, Miss Challoner.”
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© , 2005