Freddie Best loved dining with panthers. The boys were just like him, he mused as he lay back on a velvet couch. Not the rough trade rubble that walked the streets or hung about the cheap gin houses and music halls. The bakers, carpenters, millers, tanners, the working boys of the city, who serviced men because it was in their nature to desire other men and also because they liked to earn a quick coin or two. The need to hide their love from a hostile society had made them weary of too many strings attached. Like Best, the boys deemed themselves to be cunning and clever, always one step ahead of the game. They had learned to take advantage of opportunities whenever those presented themselves. Best prided himself on being a resourceful man, one who wasn't easily deterred by adversary. He sympathized with the boys' plight and admired their wheeling and dealing.
He lit another cigarette, inhaled the smoke deeply as he rested his head against a plush pillow and his feet on the armrest. Now that was better! It had been a long day at his office at The Star. The Ripper case had kept him busy at all hours. He's been glad that fate had thrown such a story his way. Everyone else might have called it a nightmare – five women brutally butchered, maimed and left for all to see – but to Best it was a journalist's dream come true. It was truly a juicy story, was it now? All that gore and bloodshed, the pointless brutality, the ineffectiveness of the new police force, the rumours, the terror, the accusations... So many suspects and so little proof. And then of course there were the human stories: those of poverty and degradation, cheap gin and even cheaper lives. But also of obsession and failure. The Ripper case was the story not only of the victims, of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, it soon had become a wild tale of suspects and conspiracy theories. When everybody from The Jews to Her Majesty's surgeon and even her grandson were lined up to take the blame, what did it matter if a few shady characters got roughened up by the vigilante squad that patrolled Whitechapel at all hours now? What did it matter that a few innocent men were blamed? And what of Chief Inspector Abberline and his H division?
Best snorted with derision as he picked up his drink. He swirled it around his glass, watched the amber liquid catch the light from the chandelier and grinned. Yes, what did it matter? He took a sip, savoured the taste and the warmth that pooled in his stomach and spread through the rest of his body. Yes, he had milked the story for all it was worth, had extracted every last drop from it but now it was dead. As dead as the five women. Best shuddered and gulped down the rest of his drink. He quickly poured himself another Whiskey and gulped that down as well. He lit yet another cigarette. There, that was better. His hands didn't shake anymore and when he closed his eyes he might actually go a few minutes without seeing the mutilated bodies. He took another deep drag and let the smoke fill his lungs before he exhaled. Blue-ish smoke rings floated from his mouth up to the ceiling where they evaporated. Best smirked and forced his attention back to his surroundings.
The world was cruel and he could not change that. He could however, profit from it and right now he wanted to enjoy the spoils of his success. It was still fairly early in the evening so the establishment was not yet overly busy. It was a molly-house frequented by gentlemen like Best. Gentlemen, who preferred the company of boys and men over that of girls and women. The bar was busy, as it always was. Newcomers were looking for liquid courage to indulge in their secret fantasies and regulars liked to silence their bad conscience or, like Best, simply wanted to unwind. Cheerful Charlie was at the piano again. The boy had learned to play tolerably well but the skinny lad who stood behind him and sang like a nightingale over Berkeley Square really stole the show. Best watched him over the rim of his glasses. He had never seen the kid before. At first glance he didn't look like much, small and underfed as he was. Best frowned and poured another drink. He continued to watch the lad as he walked around the room, still singing. He sat on a few knees and made he punters laugh and clap their hands.
“I'll give him that, the kid's got a fine face,” Best thought. “Full lips, red as a girl's. Strong chin, big dark eyes. Straight nose. Slight blush to the cheeks. Very nice indeed. Blond hair neatly slicked back, all shiny with wax. Clothes clean and of excellent quality. Whoever he is, he's no ordinary guttersnipe and not even a working boy.”
Against his better judgement, Best was intrigued. He might try his best to avoid falling into the trap that the love that dared not speak its name was, but he was not immune to affection. When the boy looked in his direction, their eyes met. Best felt a jolt of electricity rush through his body. He raised his hand and waved the boy over.
“Come here,” he patted the sofa next to him as the boy stopped a few steps away and stood gazing at him. His eyes were indeed huge. They were the colour of hazel and seemed older than his years.
“Not quite 16,” Best thought but quickly pushed that idea away. He was not here to see that the law be upheld. He was not even sure he believed in that particular law.
“Sit down,” he commanded. The boy nodded and was quick to obey. He climbed into Best's lab and arranged himself so that he had an arm around the older man's shoulder. Best smiled.
“And whom do we have here?” He asked.
The boy hesitated for a second, shot him a strangely intense look and then said:
“My name's Raoul. Raoul Sinclair.”
Best had to chuckle. Maybe the drinks had gone to his head. “That's a pretty unusual name.”
The boy inclined his head and regarded him in silence for a moment, then he smiled.
“Yes. I guess it is.” He rested his head against Best's shoulder and placed a hand suggestively on his knee. Best acted as if he hadn't noticed.
“And why haven't I seen you here before, little lark?”
The boy giggled. Best liked the sound of it. It reminded him of tiny bells, a sweet melody heard on the wind just before it faded.
“I only arrived in London a little while ago. Travelled with a circus before.”
“A circus?” Best was beginning to enjoy himself. “What was your act there, boy? Did you sing with the band?”
“No, sir,” Raoul paused and gave him that strange intense look again. “I did magic.”
“Magic,” Best exclaimed but the look on the boy's face made his laughter die in his throat.
The boy said nothing but Best clearly heard the words “Don't mock me”. They echoed through his mind, clear as crystal and just as sharp. Best blinked and arched an eyebrow. The boy's face gave nothing away. His smile was pleasant, seductive even. Best was suddenly hot. He yearned to be rid of the stiff collar around his neck, to have his waistcoat and shirt unbuttoned and to kick off his shoes. The boy shifted his weight a little, his hand moved from Best's knee to the inside of his thigh. Best sucked in a breath and bit back a moan. He grabbed the boy by the narrow shoulders and held him fast for a moment. Staring into those hazel eyes, he realized he would not be able to walk away from this place without having surrendered first. He pulled the boy close, crushed his mouth against those full lips and kissed him hard. Raoul offered no resistance. His lips parted eagerly and his tongue slipped into Best's mouth quick as lightning. This time Best could not hold back the moan. He felt the boy smile as his lips brushed against his cheek. A tip of a tongue licked across the stubble on his chin, teasing him, promising forbidden delights. Best closed his eyes. He let the kiss continue for a moment, enjoying the sudden heat between them, the tension that surely could've send off sparks. Eventually he pulled away, breathless and eager.
“Why don't we go upstairs?”
Raoul nodded and was already on his feet. Best marvelled at the boy's agility. Getting up was a bit of a struggle for him. The boy extended a hand. Best took it and allowed himself to be pulled up. He swayed slightly when he was back on his feet. Waiting for the world to stop turning, he studied his new acquaintance in more detail. Up close the boy looked even younger than he had first thought. Not that he would ask. It didn't matter. The boy was clearly not a novice at his trade and Best not his first customer, nor would he be his last. Best shrugged his shoulders. He was a pragmatic man. He knew he couldn't change the fate of those boys. All he could do was to pay them well, treat them kindly and be a friend if they wanted him to.
Raoul's hand closed around his. Best grinned. He was only too happy to be led away. First across the room, past more couches and small tables, past men locked into an intimate embrace while they swayed softly to a sad tune, which was popular at the music halls this winter, then down a short corridor and finally up two flights of stairs. Raoul opened a door at the far end of another passageway and led Best into a crammed little room. The huge double bed took up most of the place but somehow a wardrobe, a washing table complete with a mirror and a night stand had been fitted into the limited space. The narrow window was hidden by heavy curtains. The flower patterns of the wallpapers fought for recognition with the oriental ornaments of the carpets. The décor was as gay and full of vivid colours as it was downstairs.
The door closed. Best closed his eyes for a second to catch his breath. The next thing he knew was that he was laying on top of the bed, legs spread while the boy was on top of him, his tongue deep in his mouth, his lips sucking at his breath. Hands moved over his naked skin. When had all the buttons become undone? When had he been undressed? Best couldn't say but he didn't care. He let the boy take off his glasses. The world around him blurred but it was a pleasant feeling. He dimly wondered when the last time he had felt this alive had been and decided it must have been before the Ripper had struck. Back in the spring of 1888, before studying mutilations and gore had become his daily routine.
He watched as the boy undressed himself after another fierce kiss had ended. His silken neck tie landed on the floor, the brocade waistcoat followed, then the starched collar and finally the shirt. Best reached out to touch skin which was as pale as milk and smooth to the touch. The tattoos which were dotted around the boy's arms took him by surprise. Stars of various shapes and sizes stood out against the white skin with their vivid shades of blue and yellow.
“The boy's a puzzle,” Best thought. “He wears fine clothes and yet he's tattooed like a common sailor or a jailbird.”
Raoul stripped out of his trousers, pulled off his socks and fell back on the mattress. He giggled and pulled Best close for another embrace. He guided Best's hand down to his hips and without thought, they slipped underneath the boy's undergarment. Best groaned when his palms moved over coarse pubic hair and closed around the boy's rapidly hardening dick. Next there was only heat and bliss and their intertwined bodies. Best moved on top of the boy, his skinny body stretched out beneath him, boneless and wanton in his pleasure.
When it was all over and his senses had returned to him, Best lay on his side, content in the moment. Raoul had snuggled up close to him. One of his hands traced lazy circles across his chest, played with the hair that covered it. A knee parted his legs, pressed carefully against his limp cock, promising more, should he want it. The boy's warm breath tickled his neck and sent shivers down his spine. He cupped the boy's chin with his hand and brought his face up. Then he leaned forward and placed a soft kiss on the boy's mouth. Raoul smiled and returned the kiss. He lay down on the pillow next to Best and fixed him with that strange look of his once more.
“You still haven't told me your name, sir,” he said in a mocking tone.
Best laughed. For a second he contemplated giving a false name but remembering how the voice of the boy had echoed through his mind, he decided against it.
“The name's Fred. Fred Best. You can call me Freddie, should you feel so inclined.”
“Freddie,” Raoul repeated the name with a smile. “I like the sound of that, Freddie.” He grinned. “And are you?”
Best frowned. “Am I what?”
That made Best giggle. He rolled over and reached for his cigarettes, which miraculously had made it onto the night stand. He lit two, handed one to the boy and lay back on the pillows. He inhaled a few mouthfuls of smoke before he answered: “Of course. I'm the best journalist The Star has ever seen. Got the best nose in town, can sniff out a story from the other end of this foul city. As for the rest...” he puffed out some smoke and let his hand move suggestively across the boy's chest. “I'm working on it.”
The boy didn't laugh. He sat up, hugged his knees to his chest and stared down at Best with a solemn expression on his face.
“I was right, then,” he muttered. “I thought I'd recognized you when you came in. They printed your liking in The Police News the other week.”
“Did they now?”
The boy threw him an amused look. “You don't have to pretend you don't know. I don't mind you being a bit vain. Shows that you don't lack in confidence.”
Best choked on the smoke he had inhaled and coughed. That comment had floored him. When he had recovered enough to speak, he said: “You've got a big mouth for a renter.”
The boy shrugged his shoulders. “I'm not just a renter,” he said. “But you've figured that out already. Haven't you, Freddie?”
Best nodded slowly. “Yes, I have. But what are you then?”
Ignoring his question, the boy said: “I could give you a story. A big one. But you have to help me get it.”
Now Best's interest was truly piqued. “What kind of story?”
Raoul took one last drag of his cigarette. He stubbed it out on the bed's metal frame, then tossed it to the floor. “One which has the potential to rock the foundation of this city.” He hesitated and fixed his eyes on Best's again. After a moment he nodded, as if satisfied and continued: “Have you ever heard of Gregori Volkov?”
Best whistled through his teeth. “Have I heard of him? Who hasn't? He's notorious. There are all kinds of rumours going 'round about him. Lot's of people have an axe to grind with him but no-one's ever been able to touch him.”
“Well, I could,” Raoul said. “Or at least I will be able to soon. Will you help me?”
To buy himself some time, Best lit another cigarette. He knew the answer before he even stuck the match. “I will help you. But in return you must give me every shred of proof you acquire. If I'm to build a story against him, I'll need it to be waterproof or else...”
“Or else, he'll destroy us all,” Raoul finished the sentence for him. “I know.“
“Why do you want to bring him down?” Best asked after a moment of uncomfortable silence. “Nobody ever dared to come forward. A lot of people disappeared once they voiced as much as their discontent with Volkov and his ways.”
“I'm tired of being his property,” Raoul said. He waved Best's question away and went on: “He calls it adoption but he's nothing like a father. I'm not the only one. Currently he keeps another boy. He's...” he hesitated once more and then said: “He's my friend.”
From the way Raoul tried to keep all emotion out of his voice, Best concluded that he cared very much for that other boy. Were they lovers? Maybe, Best had no way of telling and he would not ask.
Raoul took the cigarette from him and took a deep drag. “Volkov's dangerous. He needs to be stopped.”
Best faced the boy and nodded. “I tend to agree. But what are you to take him on like that? What's in it for you?”
Raoul laughed a short bitter laughter. “What am I? Dangerous, too, I guess. I can be, only I don't want to. And what do I have to gain? Freedom. All I have to gain is freedom.”
The words hung in the air between them for a long moment during which the cigarette smoke curled and rose to the ceiling.
“Do we have a deal?” Raoul then asked, face unreadable.
“Deal,” Best held out his hand. Raoul took it without hesitation. His grip and handshake were firm. Best grinned. He was vaguely aware that he had landed himself in trouble but he didn't care. A good story was always worth the trouble.