Read The Ties That Bind Online

Authors: Erin Kelly

Tags: #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Fiction

The Ties That Bind (4 page)


What
?’ he said. Luke knew who Aminah was, of course. It was just that her name wasn’t one you expected to find in the same sentence as the word ‘books.’ She was a girl from a sink estate in Bradford who had found fame through – in this order – a talent show, a grating number one single, a drug problem, a sex tape, rehab and a reality TV show about her comeback. Now she lived a clean life of workout DVDs and conspicuous designer luxury, which made her far less interesting to Luke. To him, glamour was not a gloss, but a tarnish. Naturally, Viggo adored her and she him. Luke had once referred to her as ‘the working man’s Kylie’. It was meant as a slight but Viggo had used the phrase as a headline in an interview and the epithet had stuck, Aminah even adopting it as her Twitter biography. She had appeared on the front cover of
Coming Up
an unprecedented three times.

‘I know!’ said Viggo. ‘She’s writing a memoir and two novels and she asked for
me
to ghost-write all three.’

Luke had never known Viggo to write anything longer than a three-page interview. While he had risen from the ranks of rookie reporter to features editor, Viggo had remained entertainment writer for the duration of his career at
Coming Up
.


You

ve
got a three-book publishing deal?
You
?’

‘Don’t be bitter,’ said Viggo cheerfully.

‘I’m not,’ said Luke, who was so consumed with envy he could barely speak. ‘I’m honestly pleased for you. It’s just, isn’t it a bit . . . commercial? Don’t you want to hold out for something with a bit more, like, integrity?’

‘I think even
you’d
dump your literary integrity for a twenty-five grand advance. I can pay off all my credit cards. And I’ll
like
it. You know how attracted I am to lowest-common-denominator trash.’

‘Good for you, then. At last you’ve found your
métier
.’

Viggo flicked him with a tea towel. Luke stared at his friend, wondering if he had always burned with secret literary ambition, but concluded that he had never known Viggo to read anything over a thousand words. That
he
should be the one to beat him to a book deal . . . he had to change the subject.

‘So you’re all right about Jem?’

‘All’s fair in love and war,’ said Viggo, utterly without edge. ‘How was it, anyway?’

‘Yeah. Good. Different.
Intense
.’

The story about the tattoo had been on his lips all day but he couldn’t bring himself to share it, not even with Viggo. His loyalty seemed suddenly, strangely, to lie squarely with Jem.

 

There was a condition: if they were going to be together, Luke had to stop smoking. Jem couldn’t stand the smell in his house, couldn’t bear the thought of Luke poisoning his beautiful body; and, most of all, he wanted to taste
him
, not an ashtray.

‘No worries,’ said Luke. ‘I’m good at giving up smoking. I’ve done it lots of times.’

Apparently the agreement took immediate effect. Jem, with concern that few would have shown, had already been to the pharmacy and bought enough nicotine patches to get Luke through the first week.

The twenty-grand painting had pride of place on the wall now and the bookshelves were slowly filling up. It had started with a paperback of
In Cold Blood
and now Luke had only to mention an author in passing for Jem to go to the big bookshop near his office and buy it at lunchtime, so that the growing library duplicated his own: Auden and Isherwood, Hollinghurst and Arnott (which Jem had actually read) as well as a handful of gangster memoirs and true crime classics like
The Profession of Violence
(on which the spines were to remain unbroken).

There was no love lost between Jem and Viggo. Jem was jealous of their shared past, no matter how often Luke tried to reassure him that the ten-day fling that had brought them together was the least interesting thing about their relationship. ‘We’re more like brothers now,’ Luke tried to explain. ‘Neither of us have family in Britain, so we have to be each other’s family now. He was there for me when no one else was.’ But Jem chose not to listen.

There was a corresponding cooling in the atmosphere at home, especially now that the novelty of Viggo’s book deal had worn off and he understood the marathon of work ahead. When Luke had mentioned that Viggo’s ghostwriting empire was slowly expanding to fill their little flat, Jem gave him a key to the penthouse and told him to work there whenever he wanted. Jem loved the idea of his home being used to create art when he was out at work. He said he felt like his money was finally being put to good use. He made Luke feel like
he
was doing the favour gracing the flat with his presence, never that it was an imposition.

Luke had never seen himself with someone like Jem – never thought he’d go corporate, always pictured himself with another writer or artist, or someone in the media at least – and now realised that was why he’d never held on to the same man for more than a few months. If a relationship was going to be close, there wasn’t space for two people to be the same.

It was part of the attraction, the utter mystery of Jem’s job, the arcana of profit and loss, the knowledge denied to everyone else Luke knew. Not that Jem took his work home with him. Once the suit was off, you forgot about his day job. He might be pushing forty but his intensity reminded Luke of himself at seventeen, unable to play it cool with the first boy who reciprocated his interest; Jem was texting him constantly, following him from room to room, playing the same songs on a loop and forcing Luke to sit down and listen to the lyrics. Occasionally he would say stupid things, marvelling at the strange cosmic forces that had compelled him to visit the gallery that night, musing on fate and destiny, concepts that Luke found excruciatingly embarrassing.

‘I can’t believe how confident you are, how comfortable you are,’ he said once. ‘I’m so glad I’ve got you to show me the ropes.’

‘There aren’t any ropes,’ Luke had snapped. ‘It’s not the Freemasons.’ He tried to rise above his irritation. It was obviously a natural consequence of Jem being in the closet for too long. Luke had to remember that in gay years
he
was the grown-up.

Still, he found himself behaving in ways he didn’t recognise. He would have been mortified for his friends to see the messages he sent when he was bored during the day:

 

Darling Jem, come home for lunch. ALA, Luke

 

ALA stood for All Love Always. The acronym was one of those little couples’ codes that you sneered at when used by others but that, Luke was now discovering, locked you together.

Work was going well, too. He couldn’t say whether it was the peaceful home environment, the motivating envy of Viggo’s book deal, or the confidence Jem had poured into him, but he had made more progress on his book in the few weeks since they met than he had in the previous six months. He’d gone from written correspondence with Len Earnshaw to telephone calls and they had arranged to meet for the first time.

He and Jem spent their one-month anniversary in the penthouse, ostentatiously relaxed in towelling robes after a long shared bath. Jem looked up from the interiors pages of the newspaper he was reading.

‘What would be a bohemian thing to have on that blank wall?’ he said. ‘I need something to balance out the painting. It says here that feature walls are the way forward.’

He showed Luke the page in question. One room was part-covered in wallpaper that looked like old bookshelves, another one hosted a selection of starburst mirrors, and another had a wall entirely covered in cuckoo clocks. They all looked awful and Luke trod carefully, knowing that to give anything his blessing, even casually, would mean that he would come home to find it installed.

‘It’s
your
place,’ he said.

‘What if it was yours too?’

The blood rushed to Luke’s cheeks.

‘You remember the night we met, when we had that conversation and we made that amazing connection? You remember what I said about Serena, that I loved her but there was no
investment
? Well, I want to invest in you, Luke. I’ve fallen for you. I don’t see any point in lying. I know you feel the same. You’ve opened my eyes to everything I’ve been missing. The least I can do is give you somewhere decent to live. Give up that gallery job that keeps us apart all week and be a full-time writer. I’ve got more than enough money for two of us.’

Of course he said yes, although even as the thought of having unlimited access to Jem thrilled through him, the word
transaction
briefly blazed across his mind.

Telling Viggo wouldn’t be a problem. Luke was sure he would barely notice.

At the maisonette, he was in his usual lotus position on the sofa with the laptop balanced on his knees. The sitting room was strewn with gossip magazines and blockbuster novels.

‘Could you afford to cover the rent on your own now? Jem’s asked me to move in.’

‘Wow, that’s quick,’ said Viggo, blinking. ‘Yeah, I can make rent all right. Your money’s just a top-up really. But can
you
afford it? A mortgage on somewhere like that must cost two, three grand a month, easy. You’ll never be able to keep up.’

Luke’s voice dropped to a mumble. ‘He says I won’t have to contribute and he’s going to give me an allowance.’

Viggo’s eyebrows disappeared under his hair. ‘Like a patron,’ he said. ‘What does that make you, then?’

‘I know how it sounds but it’s a great opportunity for me to buy enough time to really do something
worthwhile
.’ He hadn’t meant it as a dig, or not consciously, but Viggo interpreted it as such, and shifted indignantly in his seat.

‘I think,’ said Viggo primly, ‘that you are no longer in a position to lecture me about selling out. I’m a whore because you don’t like the work I’m doing, even though I’m working sixteen-hour days. But you
live
with someone just for the money, so you can pick and choose what you write. You can treat it like a
hobby
, and you still think you’ve got more integrity than me?’

‘Where’s all this come from, Vig?’ said Luke, bewildered. ‘I hoped you’d be happy for me.’

‘I am,’ said Viggo, not looking up from his screen.

Chapter 5

‘Are you
sure
this is a good idea?’ It was the day of Luke’s first meeting with Len Earnshaw and Jem had been drumming his fingers nervously on various surfaces all morning. ‘I’m worried about you, going off to fraternise with criminals.’

‘For God’s sake Jem, I’ll be fine.’

‘How do you
know
that?’

‘I just do,’ said Luke, gathering his keys and wallet. ‘I always have been in the past. Trust me?’ Jem nodded, then caught Luke’s hand and held it uncomfortably tight. Luke gave an answering squeeze of reassurance, pulled his fingers away – enduring a short sharp friction burn – and left.

But Jem’s concern was catching and Luke turned the conversation over and over as he waited for the bus. Working undercover was one thing; on previous journalistic assignments, Luke had always felt that because he was operating at a remove from reality, a similar insulating layer existed between him and risk. This irrational feeling of invincibility had, in the past, been bolstered by the presence of an editor, someone who would call to check on his progress and who could, in an emergency, marshal the resources of the commissioning publication. Books, though, were different. He didn’t even have a publisher lined up, which meant that he was walking the wire without a safety net for the first time. On the bus ride across the city he tried to think of a time when he had ever felt seriously threatened by an interviewee, and was vindicated when he could not recall a single incident. Confidence displaced the anxiety Jem had planted and Luke felt the protective bubble form around him again.

Len Earnshaw was disappointing in the flesh, and flesh he had in great spare folds. When Luke saw him, picking his way through a packet of scampi flavour crisps, goitre spilling over the neck of his shell suit, he realised he’d been expecting, somehow, to see a trim spiv in a three-piece suit emerging through a cloud of cigarette smoke. You couldn’t even smoke in pubs any more, which showed just how far ahead of reality he had let his fantasy run.

Earnshaw sank three pints of bitter to Luke’s one. He wondered if he should try to match his pace, earn his respect; he had after all soft-sold the meeting as two blokes going for a drink. His notebook and phone were hidden deep in his coat pockets. If Earnshaw said anything important, he would just have to remember it. Truman Capote had boasted 94% recall of every conversation he had ever had, and Luke was training himself to achieve the same.

Retaining tracts of dialogue was not to be a problem: Earnshaw remained monosyllabic, refusing even to begin to discuss his past unless he got money up front. Luke tried patiently to explain the catch-22 he was in, that he couldn’t secure an advance until he had Earnshaw’s co-operation. In desperation he pledged to give him half of anything he could raise. (This wasn’t as rash as it might have been a few months ago: thanks to Jem’s support, his financial motivation for writing the book was no longer as pressing as it had been. Although Jem gave him a generous allowance, he also insisted on paying for everything, from new clothes to the fast, light laptop that he now worked on and the kid-leather satchel he carried it in. Luke’s bank account was filling up without him even trying to save.)

Now Luke gave Earnshaw the hard sell. He showed him his scrapbook of cuttings to demonstrate that he’d done the groundwork, and told him the angle he wanted to take. ‘I think that the Leeds underworld has been very much overlooked,’ he said. ‘Your past links up with a few faces from Manchester and Liverpool that people will have heard of, and of course you knew the twins. People are always desperate for a new connection with the twins.’ By the end of it, he thought he could detect something spark behind the dead eyes, and he left the meeting feeling that he had done more to help his cause than hinder it.

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