Sins not Tragedies 2/4Author:
(this part) 15Word Count:
(this part) 4,900Summary: Herc’s voice goes up. “I’m not sure you want to do this tonight, Douglas.”
“Is that a no?”
A silence, then Herc, slowly. “No. It’s a yes. But you will remember that I warned you.”
Some violence.Part 1 here
"Arthur! Take this to the cockpit and see if Herc would like it.”
Her son jumps up. ”Yes, of course.”
She stops him as he leaves. “What did I say, again?”
“Take it to the cockpit, see if they’d like it.”
“Not they. Herc. Lemon cake is his favourite.”
Arthur nods again, with a little less enthusiasm. “But if he doesn’t want it?”
“Bring it back here. I’ll have it later.”
“Ok. But if Douglas wants it? He likes cake.”
“I’m not offering it to Douglas. He’s quite heavy enough. Cake. Herc. Here. Got it?”
“Got it,” he says, rather sadly and scurries off with the plate.
She smiles. If even Arthur is getting the message then there’s no possibility that Douglas is missing it. She’s interfered in half a dozen disputes this week on Herc’s side. She’s made sure that Douglas has had the dirtiest, most tiring jobs. She’s pretty sure her pilot is already seething quietly.
She needs to act before he takes matters into his own hands, but that’s covered. They are flying without her in the afternoon tomorrow for the first time since Karachi, four weeks ago, and their take-off’s going to be unavoidably delayed for at least four hours. They are going to get into Vitebsk, Belarus, also known as the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, tired, fed up and hoping for a good night’s rest.
The phone call comes at ten past nine pm GMT (ten past midnight Belarus time). Douglas is not happy.
“Why is there only one room booked, Carolyn?”
“I’ve no idea.” She pretends to think. “Oh, yes. It was going to be a solo flight but then I changed my mind. Did I never get round to booking the second room? Oh dear.”
“Book it now. I’m handing the phone over.”
It’s late. They are very sorry but they have no more rooms, except the luxury suite. They quote a price and she hopes that Douglas is wincing.
When the phone is handed back to Douglas she says bluntly. “I’m not paying that. You can share Herc’s room or pay it yourself.”
“How is it Herc’s room all of a sudden?”
“Because he’s not the one complaining at me.”
“I have a right to complain. This trip has been a complete farce. First the delays, then halfway here you tell us the pick up’s moved to tomorrow evening and now this. You’re losing your grip, Carolyn. This is even less of a serious business than it used to be, and it used to have Martin, for heaven’s sake.”
“Find another job, then,” she says sharply. “And the sooner the better. I have a reliable pilot now to replace you and it would mean I can stop counting the spoons. But for tonight you can stop being childish and share a room.” She hangs up.
Two minutes later Herc calls. He speaks in low tones.
“This is really not a good idea, Carolyn.”
“Calling me at this time of night? You’re spot on there. Go away.”
“Listen to me, please. Douglas is in an absolutely foul mood and he’s blaming most of this on me.”
“Diddums,” she says, cheerfully. “I’m not remotely interested in pilots’ quarrels.”
There’s a pause at the other end of the line, then, in an even lower voice, “Douglas and I quarrelled in Karachi.”
“So it’s your lucky night. I’m even less interested in that. I’ll see you tomorrow evening. Goodnight.” She hangs up again. That bit’s rather fun.
She doesn’t have any control over what happens next. There is a good chance that nothing will happen. She doesn’t understand what Herc told her enough to be certain how Douglas will react, still less whether Herc will succumb again but it was worth a punt and a couple of hundred pounds for an air ticket via Frankfurt. She’s that determined to get this sorted out.
There are voices in the corridor outside her room, the noise of a key in the lock next door.. She moves the cushions onto the floor and settles down next to the adjoining wall with the selection of glasses she’s brought with her and a device that cost her thirty quid from eBay and probably won’t work at all.
It works better than the glasses do, to her surprise. She can’t hear every word by any means- Herc at least is keeping his voice down- but they are most definitely arguing.
“Might have known you couldn’t keep your mouth shut!”
“I’m not talking about that! She called me a thief, Hercules. Why the hell do you think she’d do that, if not for you gossiping?”
“You’re after my job, now you’ve none of your own, and you told her about the whole bloody Air England mess so that you’d get it. I should never have believed you.”
Air England? She’s intrigued. Caught doing a bit of smuggling, Douglas had told her. Herc had never suggested otherwise.
Herc says something which might have been Karachi. Douglas is getting louder.
“Fuck that! If you’d told her about Karachi it would be your precious arse out on the pavement, not mine! Or didn’t you tell her how you begged me for it?”
Herc’s deep voice is also getting more audible.
“…suits me fine. I still don’t want your job, and I didn’t say a word about your thieving. She probably heard about that from someone else. It’s hardly going to come as a surprise, is it Douglas, the way that you behave?”
There is a thud, a pause and then Herc’s voice, too low to make out.
Douglas has dropped his tone too. “…you think so? Shall we see?”
…a good idea.” Herc’s voice goes up. “I’m not sure you want to do this tonight, Douglas.”
“Is that a no?”
A silence, then Herc, slowly. “No. It’s a yes. But you will remember that I warned you.”
She listens for several minutes. Neither of them speak audibly again and she can’t make out the nature of the noises but there are a lot of them.
Douglas is Douglas. Nothing gets under his skin, not really. Mud doesn't stick. He's always got a comeback. She hadn't for one moment expected him to take anything she said to heart. Of course she wasn't going to replace him. Of course she didn't think he'd steal from her - not much, anyway.
But she hadn't known about whatever this thing is that she still doesn't know about - something about Air England, something that Herc had known but never told her. And she hadn't guessed - how could she? - that Douglas might think his job was really under threat. She only intended to wind him up a bit, so that he'd work out his frustration harmlessly baiting Herc in a creepily sexual manner and she could waltz in at a suitably embarrassing moment and mock them both.
She's breathing too fast. Her heart is fluttering uncomfortably. She doesn't know what to do. The earphones amplify what sounds like a yelp, followed by Douglas growling something indecipherable. She knows nothing about their games really except that Douglas is very much in control and that it turns both of them on. She knows Herc well enough to understand that he might choose to make himself vulnerable but she can't imagine her Douglas, her clever, relaxed, self satisfied Douglas, getting angry enough to hurt anyone deliberately. Humiliate, yes. She's certain that he can be cruel. But physical pain?
She has to do something. She gets to her feet, takes her phone into the bathroom on the other side of her room and calls Herc. She can hear the ringer faintly through the walls without any amplification. It rings, and rings, goes through to voice mail. She tries again and this time it's picked up.
"Carolyn?" He sounds surprised, worried even. "Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine here. Did you settle your squabble with Douglas? "
"I'm working on it," he says and then there is a rustle and the phone goes dead. When she tries to reconnect she is sent straight through to voice mail. It's been turned off.
She tries Douglas's phone, hears it ring twice before it too goes dead. She sits in the bathroom wondering what to do next. It proves, she supposes, that Douglas is not behaving completely irresponsibly; he did at least let Herc take enough of the call to be sure that there was no emergency. But without the phones she's only got two choices; leave them to it or interrupt them in person.
The headphones are still lying beside the wall. She creeps back tentatively, puts them on. There is a loud crash and she recoils in panic before realising that it was a thump against the partition wall.
"I might remind you that someone's trying to sleep through there." Herc's voice is much louder now. He's close to the wall.
"Did I say you could talk?" Douglas's tone is good humoured and Carolyn feels a second of relief. It is quenched by the next sound; a dull impact, and a muffled cry.
"No more noise, and I’d like both hands flat against this rather unpleasant wallpaper. "
There is silence for a few seconds then a second dull thud. And a third. She can’t take any more of this.
There’s no reply to her first knock on the door, nor to the second. She tries again.
“Douglas Richardson! Open this door!”
A few seconds later it opens, a crack.
“Carolyn?” Douglas opens it a little more, but his body is still in the way. There’s no possibility of barging through.
“What on earth is going on?” It’s Douglas who asks, though it could as well have been her question.
“Let me in.”
“I don’t think I want to.” He looks down at her. He doesn’t look much different from usual; a little more mussed, maybe. His trousers are sagging around his hips; she can see a streak of black underpants showing. “This is my bedroom. It’s late. Go away.”
“I paid for it.”
“Which still doesn’t give you the right to come in, unless I misunderstand employment law completely.”
“It’s also Herc’s room,” she points out.
“So it is. Herc!” he calls back. “Would you like me to let her in?”
Herc’s voice comes back, slightly nearer frantic than usual. “Not right now, no.”
“Two out of two. That’s conclusive.” He’s considering her. “Since you don’t have so much as a coat or handbag with you, I deduce that you also have a room, which I suppose is no weirder than you being here at all. Where is it?”
She gestures back at her door.
“Next door? I see, or at least I’m beginning to see. Why don’t we reconvene there in five minutes?”
“I want to see Herc now,” she insists.
“He’s a little tied up at the moment. Five minutes, Carolyn. And I trust you’re going to have some remarkably convincing, or at least moderately amusing explanations for all this.” He closes the door firmly in her face.
She spends five minutes tidying her room. It’s on the end of the corridor and above the bar; the poor sod in the room opposite might lose some sleep but in general she thinks they can talk without being disturbed. This is not necessarily a good thing.
When she opens the door to the quiet knock it’s Douglas, fully dressed again, with Herc looking sombre behind. She lets them in and they stand beside the bed, while she takes the only chair.
“What do you think you’re playing at?” she demands of Herc, because he has to be easier to deal with. He shrugs slightly, looks a little embarrassed, nods towards Douglas.
“Just because we were interrupted does not mean we were done.” Douglas tells her. “I’ll be doing the talking.”
She processes that for a second. They are still playing their game. In her room. In front of her. “You’ve got a nerve!” she tells him.
“That’s it? All this set up, all that eavesdropping, however much this must have cost and that’s your conclusion?” Douglas’s voice drips disdain. “I think we all knew that already. You’ve wasted your time and money, Carolyn. I can’t speak for your boyfriend’s mendacity but if you’d simply asked me I would have told you what we were doing.”
“So,” she challenges him. “Tell me then. What exactly were you doing next door?”
“I’ll go one better,” he tells her. “I’ll show you.”
There is an audible groan from Herc. “Douglas!” he protests.
Douglas turns to him. “Have you got anything to say?”
Herc glances between the two of them. “No.” he concedes.
“Do you really do everything he tells you to?"
“Of course not.” Douglas dismisses the idea breezily. “That would be ridiculous.”
This situation, she points out, is already about as ridiculous as she can possibly imagine.
“Then you aren't trying very hard.” Douglas clicks his fingers. “Kneel down there. And I can't help but notice that your attention keeps wandering. A little more focus, Hercules? I am going to some small trouble on your account here.”
Herc rolls his eyes at that last but he does what he's told. He's no longer even glancing at her. Douglas has turned away from her as well, his attention apparently all on the man at his feet. She doesn't buy that for a second.
It's just a silly game, she tells herself, and then Herc takes his jacket off. There are two narrow red-brown streaks down the back of his shirt and she feels a jolt of something - Anger? Shock? Confirmation? She really doesn't know.
“I don't want to watch this,” she says to both of them. Neither respond. Herc is peeling off his stained shirt now. There are several vivid scarlet lines but only two seem to have cut into the skin and neither are still bleeding.
It's her skin that Douglas has damaged. Hers. She stands up, reaches out to touch her lover's back, feels the heat radiating from the stripes under her fingertips. How dare they? For the first time since Herc told her about Karachi she knows for certain that she's angry.
“Get up,” she demands. “Get up now.”
Douglas shakes his head at her over Herc's unmoving scalp. “You'll have to do better than that.”
“Stop making him do this, Douglas!”
He raises his eyebrows. “Do you see rope or handcuffs, Carolyn? Right now I can't make him do anything.” He smiles. “I've got some tape as it happens, next door. Maybe later I'll show you what we can do with that.”
He's trying to bait her. She doesn't understand why Herc won't do what he's told. “Get up!” she insists, again, coming round to face him. He won't look at her, won't respond. His face is blank. Douglas has him and she doesn't understand how.
“Forehead on the floor,” Douglas commands, and Herc obeys, still on his knees but now bowed down to the carpet, half naked. His back and shoulders are twisted sinew and muscle, tough skin and striped red. Douglas is unbuckling his belt, drawing it out from the rings on his trousers. She realises that she'd seen him without it when he opened the door to her and she'd noticed his trousers sagging.
“Don't hurt him! Why on earth would you want to hurt him? Stop it now!”
Douglas looks puzzled for a moment. “Why? Isn't this what you wanted, Carolyn? You worked hard enough to get it.” He is doubling the belt over now.
“No!” she protests. “Of course not!”
“Then what did you want?”
The belt swings up and she lunges forward to grab his arm. He blocks her easily with his other hand, the leather comes down and impacts with a dull thud. Herc gasps, flinching, and Carolyn squeaks in horror.
“Don't fuss,” Douglas says. “He's all right, more or less. I am painfully curious though. Everything you've done in the last week or so appears to be aimed at provoking my temper together with ensuring that I have an appropriate and, not incidentally, entirely consensual outlet for expressing it. You succeeded in manipulating both of us admirably, for which I suppose I should offer my congratulations. And yet you seem surprised. Now what elements of this situation didn't you predict?”
She has far more immediate questions. “Why does he let you do that?”
“Am I his therapist? You'll have to ask him later. Back to my question, if you don't mind.”
They are talking about Herc as if he's not there. He's kneeling still and silent in front of them, face hidden. She wonders what he's thinking, what it feels like to be down there. She wants to reach out and tug her fingers hard through his short greying hair, scream at him to stop this and talk to her but she doesn't want to fail again in front of Douglas.
“I thought,” she says, knowing her anger must sound barely controlled, “that you'd be a little more creative and amusing and a lot less of a thug. Tell me about Air England.”
That gets a flicker. ”I doubt that I could add anything sufficiently… amusing to the account you've had already.” The look he gives to the exposed back bodes poorly for Herc.
“I've been told nothing at all. The first I knew about it was hearing you two bickering half an hour ago. This,” she gestures at Herc, “might be argued to have nothing to do with your employment but the reason you were fired from your last job? I rather think that might. I'll have the truth, Richardson, or I'll sack you here and now and I imagine that any employment tribunal would back me all the way.”
“Given the present state of MJN's affairs, that threat's not particularly intimidating.” He crouches down, loops the belt around Herc's neck and buckles it close. Then he moves the desk chair forward, tucks the other end of the belt underneath its front leg and sits down on it. “Do take a seat.” He indicates the bed.
“You can't leave him like that.” She tries to imagine Herc's discomfort. A long slow twitch runs across his left shoulder, and then another.
“Oh, I can and will. You are interrupting us, Carolyn. The longer you insist on interrogating me the longer this takes. Air England. Sit down.”
“You called me a thief.” His voice has turned lazy but she's not fooled.
“You took my whisky.”
He snorts. “You'd already been paid lavishly for it each time. If anything it was Birling's whisky and he could afford it. Count the spoons, you said. Was that the only reason?”
She thinks about it. “What haven't you told me?”
“I make a point of telling you as little as I can.” He's drawling now, sounding more comfortable, settling back in the chair.
“I know that. But you're going to tell me now.” She glances down as Herc shivers slightly. The room is cold. “And hurry up about it.”
“Very well.” He pauses. “He really told you nothing? “
“Nothing about Air England, no. We don't talk about you much” she says, snidely.
“Hm. And is he after my job?”
“I've never suggested that there was a vacancy and he’s never asked. Back to Air England, please.”
He nods. “Some relatively valuable items were abstracted from the onboard sales collection. Repeatedly.”
She noted his use of the passive tense. “You stole them.”
“They didn't have enough evidence to prosecute.”
“But enough to sack you. Did Herc know?”
“Everybody knew.” He sighs. “It's not that big a company. I was unpleasantly notorious and apparently still am. If you'd insisted on references when you hired me I'd have been sunk. But you weren't asking too many questions.”
He smiles at her with a hint of genuine warmth, this time, the memory of humour. “I thought at first I must have got myself into part of some sort of smuggling ring. With you, Arthur and Gertie MJN could not possibly be a credible business venture. I was rather delighted to find that you were all three bona fide, if unique, and that whilst I might find myself out of a job again when you went bust I was unlikely to end up in a police cell.”
He sits back. “So that's the story. I imagine that it gives you the excuse you need. As you say, sacking me for playing games with your boyfriend is legally dubious, but you could pretend to hang it on this and probably get away with it.”
Carolyn draws herself up indignantly. “I'll have you know, Douglas Richardson, that I'll sack you for whatever I please and be damned to your fig leaf. I don't give two hoots for your previous sordid life of crime. All pilots are untrustworthy scoundrels but I still need them to fly my plane. If your last employers were stupid enough not to count everything not nailed down every time you set foot on their aircraft more fool them.”
Herc's bare shoulders are shaking. She wonders anxiously if he's in pain, then realises that he's laughing.
Douglas isn't. “So why did you bring it up?”
“Herc said that you needed to be irritated. I wanted to see what that was like. It seemed to work.”
“Yes, it did.” He looks thoughtful for a moment. “Your stirring has put me in a rather invidious position.”
“Really?” She wonders if he's going to have the nerve to apologise to her.
“In the absence of any other explanation I assumed that Herc's malicious gossip had to be behind your newfound hostility. This,” he taps Herc in the ribs with a toe, “was a fairly proportionate response, in the circumstances. But now you tell me that he's relatively innocent this time. “
He grimaces. “ I have, it appears, been taking it out on the wrong person. I doubt if Herc will object, given his particular proclivities, but I most certainly do. Games have rules, Carolyn, and this one currently doesn't abide by them. It's deeply unsatisfactory.”
“How is this my problem?” she asks. “I don’t know the rules to your stupid game. I'm not playing it.”
“You found out enough about it to know what you were doing when you set this up behind our backs. You might not be playing but you are involved up to your neck.”
She's not sure that she's entirely happy about his tone. “So now I’ve spoilt your little entertainment? Good. Let him up then.”
“You think that I can just call the whole thing off at this point?” He shakes his head at her. “You really don’t understand, do you?”
“Delighted to. The first reason is that, having got this far, I find myself disinclined to quit without a clear win.
“The second is that I am still quite remarkably annoyed. Your behaviour towards both of us has been absolutely appalling, Carolyn. I do not appreciate being jerked around for days so that you can get your kicks from being a secret voyeur, and I doubt if he does either. I don’t intend to simply let this pass.
“Since I imagine you are unlikely to volunteer for your own penance, I will have to change the rules a little. We’ll go back to your original plan and have Herc take the rap for your misdeeds.” His toe goes into Herc’s ribs again, harder this time. “He’s foolish and fond enough to go along with that, I imagine.”
“That’s why we are all here, Carolyn, in case you’ve forgotten. You wound me up and then fed me Herc to take it out on, for your entertainment. Your plan.”
She can’t find an argument for that. “It’s not fair. You can’t do that.”
“As you said earlier, you’re not in the game. It’s not up to you.”
Carolyn has known Douglas a long time. She is not stupid. She has seen the jaws of this particular trap looming well before she has to decide whether to stick her head inside. She pauses, briefly, but Herc is still kneeling on the floor in front of them, the marks of Douglas’s temper stark across his skin. She can’t walk away from this. And she’s still terribly curious.
“Then I’m in.”
Herc lurches upwards, the belt snapping tight around his neck. “Douglas!” he growls from a crouching position about two feet from the ground.
“Be quiet,” Douglas says. “I’ll deal with your objections in a minute.” And, to Carolyn. “I’ll need a little more in the way of freely given consent than that.”
“When does it end?” she asks, cautiously.
“Whenever you like.”
“So what’s the point?”
“What’s the point of any game? To pass the time. To win.”
“So how do I…do we win?”
“You don’t. You just put off losing for as long as possible. I win.” He seems in better spirits that she’s seen him for ages. She wonders how long he’s been fretting about a revelation of his past.
“I am your boss,” she points out. “I don’t want to encourage you to be any more insubordinate than you are already.”
“It’s just a game, Carolyn. When it’s done, it’s done.”
“In that case,” she says, trying to sound matter of fact, feeling her heart race, “freely given consent it is. What do I have to do?”
“You’re in. Just follow my instructions. Now,” he turns to Herc, “your objections. Firstly, don’t be ridiculous. I wouldn’t dream of laying a finger on the lady. When have I ever been less than the soul of chivalry? Secondly, no she isn’t doing this to save your slightly bruised skin. That’s just her excuse. Tell him,” he says to Carolyn, “that it’s just your excuse.”
She’s about to contradict Douglas, because that’s what she does, but she catches the amused look in his eye just in time. It’s a test.
“It’s just my excuse,” she tells Herc, cheerfully. “I’m actually rather taken by the idea.”
He lifts his head from where it has been buried in his hands. “You really can’t do this, Carolyn
“Why shouldn’t I play if I want to?” she demands. “You do.”
“I like this sort of thing and he still makes it hell. You’ll just hate it.”
She bridles at that. “I’m certainly not intimidated by Douglas, of all people. Maybe I like this sort of thing too. How would you know?”
“I think I’d have noticed by now if you had the faintest hint of a submissive streak,” Herc says dryly. He draws himself up as far as the belt permits; she’s still looking down at him. “I won’t permit it.”
“So you think I’m submissive enough to take your orders, then?” She snorts. “If you didn’t want this to happen then you shouldn’t have taken up with Richardson behind my back.”
“This was hardly an obvious consequence” he complains. He appeals to Douglas, “You must see that this is a terrible idea.”
Douglas shakes his head, smiling. “Why? From my perspective it could be twice as much fun.”
“But,” Herc says. He seems to be floundering, “But…”
Realisation dawns. “Hercules Shipwright!” she snaps. “Are you seriously fretting about missing out on the gay bonking? With Douglas?”
“Of course not!” he insists.
“He's lying,” Douglas says from beside her.
“Enough of this jollity. Carolyn, get Herc's bag from next door.” Douglas slips the belt from under his chair and stands up. Herc perforce stands too. She nips next door as quickly as possible, unwilling to miss whatever they are saying to each other. When she gets back Herc had been freed, is standing looking slightly bemused. She drops the bag on the floor.
“Well, I'm going to get some sleep, now I've got a room to myself. Everything else can wait. See you in the morning. Goodnight.” Douglas nods to her politely and walks out.
“What on earth?” she asks Herc.
“Change of venue,” he says, looking around distractedly. “This isn't private enough, apparently.”
“So where and when?”
“Tomorrow, when we get back. At his flat.”
“And until then?”
“This particular game is suspended during work hours. Douglas didn't think you'd be capable of keeping it up for five minutes when there's freight to organise.” He looks down at her. “I cannot possibly tell you how much I think that this is a bad idea.”
“It's only Douglas,” she says, a little more lightly than she feels. “And for once he has the right idea. It's late. We should get some sleep.”
They have a lot that they need to talk about, betrayals and revelations, but by silent agreement they don't talk about anything. Herc falls asleep almost as soon as he gets into bed, snores gently, facing his side of the bed. After half an hour of lying awake Carolyn turns the bedside lamp on again and pulls the covers gently aside. The heat and the redness have gone now; there’s nothing but a couple of scratches to show for the night’s events.
“Oh, my boys,” she murmurs, softly. “What do you both think you’re playing at?” Somewhat reassured by the lack of real damage and the familiar solidity of Herc’s warm back, she turns the light out again and this time she falls asleep easily.