Swimmers, take your mark.
The distorted words boomed incomprehensibly through the aquatics centre, and the conversations around John ceased abruptly as the swimmers mounted their starting blocks. They crouched uniformly over the water, toes curled over the blocks' edges. The boy in lane four wobbled suddenly.
"He's going to fall," whispered John to his sister, who was wrapped in a towel and chewing on the end of her plait.
The loud electronic tone to start the race blared, but it was immediately followed by a series of angry-sounding beeps, since the boy in lane four did fall, though he did a creditable job of turning it into a dive. However, he hit the water before any of the others had left the blocks, and several other swimmers followed him.
The sight of the five swimmers having to climb out of the water and take their places on the blocks again made John snigger.
Harry smacked him with the back of her hand. "Stop being a prat," she said.
"I wasn't the one who fell off the block."
"Everybody false starts sometimes," she said. "Don't make fun."
The race started again, this time without incident, and the boy in lane four won his heat, so John really couldn't make fun of him any more. He suppressed a yawn. This wasn't any sort of way to spend a Saturday, but Mum was adamant that he support his sister at regionals. At least Harry had only finished third in her preliminary heat, so it was possible that she wouldn't place, and they could leave when she finished swimming instead of having to wait around for the medal ceremony.
He glanced over to the diving tank, where men's three-metre springboard was going on. One boy had already smacked his head on the board, which had sent the medics running, but he wasn't even concussed and was going for his second dive. Unsurprisingly, it was less than spectacular.
Now there was a boy in a Harrovian blue Speedo standing at the end of the board with his back to the stands. He drew the eye because he was so pale he practically glowed in the dark. Probably anaemic. However, his arms were raised, and despite the fact the board was rising and falling, he was perfectly still until his legs flexed slightly, which caused the board to bow alarmingly, and he leapt into the air.
It was all over in a second. The diver spun and rotated, his pale skin flashing in a shaft of sunlight, and he shot into the water, barely leaving a ripple in his wake.
Harry let out a low whistle. "What a show-off," she said.
John blinked and turned to face his sister. "How so?"
She gave him a you're-an-idiot-look. "You do a forward two-and-a-half with two twists in international competition, not at bloody school regionals."
"Private conversation, Mum!" said Harry, scowling.
John watched the pale boy swim to the side of the pool and slip out of the water as gracefully as he entered it. He conferred with his coach, nodded, and walked off, not even bothering to look at the judges, who put out their highest marks of the day yet.
The fuzzy loudspeaker called the womens' two-hundred-metre breaststroke to the bench, and Harry sighed. "I'm up again soon," she said. "Hopefully I'll come in last and we can go home."
John felt a twinge of guilt for having thought something similar. "You'll do fine," he said. "You don't want me to have got out of bed at six on a Saturday for nothing, do you?"
Harry gave him a crooked smile. "I'll have to place, then, won't I?"
He smacked her on the shoulder. She snapped him with the corner of her towel, and went off, grinning.
"John, you should meet Professor Moriarty," said Mum. "She teaches biochemistry at Sussex."
The name conjured up images of solid figures encased in tweed, so when he turned to greet her he was utterly unprepared for the slender blonde in a sundress sitting next to his mother in the stands. She gave him a dazzling smile as she extended her hand in greeting.
"Please," she said in a throaty, Irish-accented voice, "call me Bridget."
John swallowed hard. "Nice to meet you, Bridget," he said, thanking his lucky stars his voice didn't break.
"Your mum says you're in medical school," she said.
"Yeah, at Bart's,"said John. "I'm in the Army's undergraduate cadet programme.
"Good for you. Are you planning to practice or do research when you get out?"
"I really don't know yet," he said. "I quite like biochemistry, but I don't know that I'd want to make a career out of it."
"It's a very exciting time to be in the field," she said, hazel eyes sparkling in a way that made John's mouth go dry. "My lab in particular is helping all sorts of people with muscular disorders live normal lives."
"Wow," said John, with what he hoped was a charming smile. "That's amazing."
She demurred with a dimple. "Your sister's a talented swimmer. I saw her first race."
"Yeah, she's all right. Should have won her heat, but she muffed the last turn and lost some time. Dunno how she'll do in the final, but I think Mum's hoping she'll be eligible for a sports bursary at university."
"If she takes her event today, she should have no trouble finding a school. There's more financial support for swimmers available than one might think. I'm hoping my son Jim may decide to go that way, but he has a few years yet, thank God."
The reminder that Bridget had a child nearly Harry's age barely registered. "What are his events?"
"Hundred metre freestyle and free relay. He's anchored the medley relay before, but they've got an older boy doing it. I'm not terribly concerned. Jim's time is faster, and he's young. He'll have other opportunities."
John's mum tapped Bridget on the shoulder. "Do you know who's favoured in the fifty metre free?"
Bridget pulled out her programme. "The tall lad from Eton," said Bridget, pulling out her programme. "Here, I'll show you." She smiled apologetically at John. "Swimming mum duty calls."
"Let me know when your son's up," said John, returning Bridget's smile. "I'll cheer for him."
"That's lovely of you, John. Thanks. And if you ever decide that you want to spend some time in a lab, give me a call."
As Bridget settled back into discussing the threat of top swimmers from public schools with Mum, John settled back into glazed-eyed boredom. Not even the divers were doing anything particularly interesting. After several of the boys' qualifying heats, during which John cheered half-heartedly for Bridget's son, Harry and the other girl's breaststroke finalists were called to the blocks, which snapped him back to attention. He scooted forward to the front of the bench and leaned forward, resting his chin on his interlaced fingers.
The girls ascended to their blocks. Assorted shouts came from the stands, but Harry had instructed them not to cheer, so John pursed his lips and closed his eyes, sending up thoughts that were half prayer and half threat not to muck up the final turn again.
Swimmers, take your mark.
The starting tone blared, and the swimmers leapt off the blocks.
Harry surfaced just about a third of the way down the pool- good start. She was bobbing her chin a bit more than she needed on her breaths, but she'd stop as soon as there were other swimmers in her peripheral vision. Soon, Harry and four other girls were in a dead heat, but it was still early stages. The first turn was fine. Harry even gained a bit of time and pulled into the lead, though the girl in lane three was back with her in no time, and others were pulling ahead. John closed his eyes. The first turn was not the time to get complacent!
Fortunately, Harry seemed to recognise her mistake and she pulled back up with the pack, and for the second length of the pool, they were neck-and-neck. The girl in lane two was at least three body lengths behind, and had practically given up. The second turn was strong, and Harry gained even more time. Now the girls in lanes one and two were lagging behind the pack, and it was just Harry in four and the girls in five and six. The three changed positions with nearly every stroke, and at the third turn, Harry was obviously getting tired- she didn't even have the air to finish her first glide after the turn, but she was still in good position- the other girls were tired, too, and no-one had completed the full glide before gasping for breath. It all came down to the final turn.
"Come on, Harry!" shouted Mum. John glanced back with a frown. Harry hated it when they shouted for her, but Mum looked as if she'd explode if she didn't cheer, and Harry probably hadn't heard her anyway.
But when John turned back toward the pool, his heart nearly stopped. The pale boy from Harrow was getting ready to dive, and he was doing a handstand- a handstand- on the edge of the platform. He posed there, motionless, like a perfect alabaster statue, and John had to remind himself to breathe. And suddenly, there was a flexion of the boy's hips, and he popped off the platform doing some rotating and some twisting, and hitting the water with a slightly larger splash than last time, but not too shabby to John's eye. But the image of the boy on the platform felt as though it had seared itself into his retinas.
The sound of his mum shouting broke the spell, and she was leaping up and down, shrieking Harry's name. The last turn had clearly gone well enough, and Harry was neck-and-neck with the girl in lane five.
"You can do it, Harry," whispered John, who was mildly annoyed with the poncy git in the blue Speedo for distracting him from his sister's race, and he felt as though his stare alone could power Harry on to a win. They were four strokes from the finish. Three. Two. One.
Harry slammed her hands into the touchpad a split-second before the girl in lane five, and John leapt to his feet shouting. She'd done it! Though there was something wrong- the timer over her lane continued to rack up seconds and milliseconds. Fortunately, the lane judge was also timing, and began to converse with the other lane judges before the poor girl in lane three had finished dead last, which she did with a half-hearted tap.
Harry was trembling when she got out of the pool and was breathing hard, but her face was spread in a broad grin. She hobbled over toward the bench where she'd left her towel and threw back a cup of water from the cool box before making her way back towards her family.
Mum burst into tears and threw her arms around her daughter, and John smacked her shoulder.
"Thanks," said Harry, grinning. "I didn't bollocks up the last turn. And I beat that girl from the posh club in Derby."
"Got water up your nose, though," said John.
She smacked his shoulder. "I did not! Not much, anyway."
"Right," said John, settling on to the stands once more. "Now that we're stuck here for the next few hours, entertain me."
Harry took a sip of water. "Girls' two hundred butterfly's up next. They've all got huge shoulders and tiny tits."
"You would notice the tits," said John, snickering.
"Shut up," she said. "Lane two is Meredith Stone. She's on my team, but she's going to get her arse kicked by Shirley Thorpe-Huskins. Her times are amazing, and she's probably going to be swimming for England in Barcelona."
"So Meredith'll sink like a-"
"Shut up!" said Harry, laughing. "You're awful!"
Swimmers, take your mark.
Butterfly was slightly more interesting than freestyle, though not by much. Harry was right about the tits. None of girls had anything on Bridget Moriarty, who was still chatting with Mum. But no sooner had her smile lit up his mind's eye, it faded into a pale torso rippling with lean muscle inverted over a cement platform. John gave a mental shrug. He was nineteen. Looking at a pair of galoshes the wrong way made him get hard.
"Do you know any of the divers?" asked John.
"Not really," said Harry. "They're mostly short, skinny public school poofs and girls who failed at gymnastics."
John snorted. "And you say I'm awful."
"They're fun to watch, though," said Harry. "The show-off from Harrow's the next big thing, but I don't think he's got staying power."
"Is it common for them to burn out?"
"It's hard not to," said Harry. "It starts out as something you love, but between the hours of practice when all your friends are out doing fun things, and the coaches who only care about your race time and call you a fat cow when you don't improve, and the parents who keep pushing you back to them because it's the only way you'll ever distinguish yourself- well, can you blame anybody for wanting to run screaming in the other direction?"
John was silent for a moment. "I wouldn't."
Harry gave him a crooked smile. "Too bad you're not Mum," she said.
"Yeah," said John. He slid his hand down between them and squeezed her wet fingers.
They watched the following races and dives without further discussion of the future, and Harry's running commentary on the girls' dives had John guffawing into his hand. The ponce from Harrow did a triple thingy that impressed Harry in spite of herself, while John preferred watching him stretch and prepare to walk to the edge of the platform. John had to smile. He and Harry were a pair, weren't they?
At long last, it was time for the final race, the boys' medley relay. The Brighton team was expected to place, according to Bridget, despite the fact that the boy anchoring the relay wasn't the fastest. There was a team from the posh Derby club, but their backstroker had to have rotator cuff surgery, and his replacement was only thirteen and wildly inconsistent time-wise. The backstrokers jumped into their respective lanes, adjusted their goggles, and hung gibbon-like from the blocks.
Swimmers, take your mark.
They pulled themselves up on the blocks, nearly completely out of the water, poised to start.
At the starting tone, they dove backwards, bodies arching out over the water before splashing underwater and powering themselves with powerful kicks as far as their lungs allowed. When they burst to the surface, their arms began to rotate swiftly and powerfully.
"Lane two got water up his nose," said Harry.
Sure enough, the boy was making horrible faces with every stroke.
"Will he vomit, do you think?"
"That happens sometimes," said Harry. "They have to close the pool for hours before they'll let people back in."
"Don't puke, lane two," said John. "We all want to get medals and go home."
Fortunately, lane two didn't puke and finished his leg of the race tied for third.
John glanced at Brighton's swimmers and spotted the boy who had undoubtedly replaced Dr. Moriarty's son on the team. He was one of those teenaged hulks that had hit puberty at age eleven and spent the years most boys were going through growth spurts putting on muscle mass. Either that, or he had been held back in classes for several years- the boy's blank, droop-eyed expression certainly suggested the possibility.
The breaststrokers were finishing up, and the Brighton and Derby butterfly swimmers were in, yanking their bodies further down their lanes with every stroke.
"Check out the caveman anchoring the team in four," said Harry, indicating the hulk from Brighton.
"Will he sink, d'you think?"
"I saw him do the four-hundred free," said Harry. "He looks like a Neanderthal, but he's fast. He looks pretty tired, though."
The hulk was pressing his goggles into his eye sockets with the heels of his hands. He flexed his shoulders and swung his arms forward to loosen them up to swim, but he still had the blank, exhausted look on his face that concerned John for reasons he couldn't name. The Brighton butterfly swimmer had a stunningly fast turn and was leaving the other swimmers in his wake.
The other relay anchors were on the block, stretching, shaking their arms, and adjusting their goggles, but the hulk was bent over in starting position, his eyes fixed on the swimmer flying towards him. Three strokes. Two. One.
But instead of exploding off the block, the boy from Brighton rocked back on his heels and dove into the water in an almost lackadaisical way.
Harry winced. "Awful start. He'll have lost his team half a second."
John could hear Bridget tutting behind him. Idly, he wondered where her son was. He hadn't seen him since the fifty metre freestyle, and that had been nearly two hours ago.
Suddenly, Harry's hand closed on his forearm. "John. John, there's something wrong. Oh my God!"
Her last words were screamed, but they were lost in all the shouting as the boy from Brighton began to have some kind of fit in the middle of his final length. The other swimmers had left him far behind and were clearly unaware there was anything going on. The stroke judges both leapt into the pool fully clothed, but the boy's powerful limbs were flailing uncontrollably, and the water was over two metres deep.
Several of the boys who had finished the race saw what was going on, and they swam over to join the stroke judges and attempted to get the boy out of the water, but as suddenly as the fit had started, it stopped, and the boy went limp. There were now six people surrounding him, attempting to hold his face above water.
"He's not breathing!" one of the stroke judges called to the medic, who was waiting at the side of the pool with a wooden backboard.
They floated the unmoving body over to the side of the pool, strapped him on to the board, and lifted him out of the pool. The medics began chest compressions and artificial respiration. A couple, the boy's parents by the look of them, were screaming to be let near their son, but the lane and stroke judges were trying to give the medics space to work. Soon, the ambulance crew that had been stationed outside the pool arrived with an oxygen mask and a trolley. They lifted the backboard and patient atop the trolley and strapped him down before wheeling him out of the pool area, the boy's parents following in their wake.
The pool area was chaos as the officials began to confer, though John doubted it was about the results of the race, given the number of parents they were sending away.
Harry was pale. "He was fine before the race. You saw him. We were joking about..." she trailed off.
John pulled his sister close, not caring that it was leaving a wet area on the front of his t-shirt. "It's all right, Harry. It didn't happen because of what we said."
"I know that, you prat," she said, her voice muffled because her face was pressed into his shoulder.
"Good," said John, looking at the knot of officials. He wasn't all that far in his medical training, but it was obvious that the boy had gone into cardiac arrest, something that otherwise healthy young men didn't do. Now a policeman had joined the buzz of activity near the pool's edge and was herding curious eyewitnesses back to the stands. To John's surprise, he spotted a familiar figure dressed in a Harrow track suit watching the officials through narrowed eyes. Up close, he was even more arresting than he'd been from afar, with pale eyes to contrast with the dark, close-cropped hair. But what drew John's attention most was his pursed lips and drawn eyebrows. He wasn't sympathetic or curious. He was angry.
Clearly unaware of John's scrutiny, the boy spun on his heel and strode off in the direction of the boys' locker room.
John gave Harry a reassuring squeeze. "I'll be right back," he said.
"They're fine. They don't need any medical students," said Harry.
"Obviously," said John. "But if you must know, I'm going to the loo."
Harry scowled. "How can you think of your bladder at a time like this?"
"I didn't think you'd appreciate me wetting myself while hugging you," said John.
Harry wrinkled her nose. "You are disgusting."
"I aim to please."
John was grateful the pale boy had a significant head start so it wouldn't seem as though he was following him. The boys' locker room was a cavernous cement room containing rows upon rows of lockers and showers and toilets at the far end. John made a show of walking purposefully towards the toilets so as not to look suspicious, but he glanced at the lockers to the right and left as he continued toward the back of the room.
The room was deserted, which he supposed was unsurprising, given that someone had probably just died in the middle of the final event. But the pale boy had entered, and John hadn't seen him leave. Where was he?
Suddenly, the lights went out.
"Hey!" shouted John, stopping where he stood and feeling for the nearest row of lockers. He nearly cracked his shin on the wooden bench in the middle of the aisle.
He stood still, listening. He could hear nearly silent footfalls somewhere to his left. He hardly dared to breathe. From nearby, there was a mechanical chunk followed by the sound of a locker door being slammed.
There was a curse from his left, and the sound of running feet.
He stepped out into the aisle and grunted loudly as someone ran into him, knocking him flat on the ground.
Someone was lying on top of him, and his arms were pinned to the floor by unseen hands.
"I know what you did," growled a voice that sent shivers up John's spine. "And I will know how."
John swallowed. "Listen," he said. "I think there's been a mistake. I-"
The lights came back on, and John was looking up into the face of the boy from Harrow. And oh God, what a face. Cheekbones like flint knives and eyes that bored through your retinas, and a long, lithe, muscular body that was holding him against the floor. John couldn't control a shuddering gasp and prayed that the boy wouldn't notice his sudden arousal.
No such luck. The boy's eyes narrowed.
"Who the fuck are you?"
"I-" began John. To his mortification, his voice cracked for the first time since he was fourteen. "I was just going to use the toilet," said John.
"If you were going to the toilet, why were you in the same aisle as his locker?"
The boy's smirk was as ugly as his mouth was beautiful. "Don't tell me you didn't realize that Carl's locker was here."
"Stop playing stupid."
This startled a laugh out of John. "Sorry, not playing. Is Carl the boy who drowned?"
"How do you know he's dead?"
"I didn't say he was dead," said John, testing the boy's iron grip by turning his wrists. "I said he drowned. That much was obvious."
The boy looked at him measuringly. "Medical student."
"That's right. My sister swims for St. Mary's."
The boy's pale eyes were taking in every detail of his face until he threw his hands in the air. "Shit!"
John gave him a half smile. "It's not a top tier school, but it's not that bad."
The boy waved a careless hand at him and strode off down the row of lockers. "I couldn't care less about your sister. My primary concern is that the murderer seems to have gotten away."
John followed him. "What on earth are you talking about? He had a seizure. He might have had epilepsy or something."
"Carl didn't have epilepsy," said the boy, leaning toward a locker and sticking his head against the combination lock that secured it.
"Fine. He had a congenital heart defect. Or he ate some bad sausages before the race. Or-"
John sighed, and the boy gave him a dirty look, but seconds later the lock was open, and so was the locker.
"Hah! See!" the boy gestured to the rather messy contents of the locker.
"So Carl died because he was a slob."
"If he died of a bad sausage, then where are his shoes?" asked the boy, gesturing at the locker with a triumphant flourish.
"In his swimming bag," said John.
The boy looked at him in disbelief for a moment, then raised his fists to his head. "No, no, NO!" he shouted. He kicked the locker next to him several times and beat his fists on the bench.
John took a few steps away from him. "Look, I'm sorry about what happened to your friend, but-"
"Carl wasn't my friend," the boy snarled. "He was a bully, a peon, a small-minded wanker whose only talent was making people give him second chances. As far as I'm concerned, he got what he deserved."
Even as the vitriol poured forth from the boy's mouth, he sat down on the bench and wrapped his arms tightly around his torso.
Instinctively, John sat down next to him and put his arm around the boy's shoulders. He stiffened, but relaxed a moment later.
"I'm sorry," said John.
The boy shrugged, but didn't pull away. "You know what would have made him maddest?"
"That he lost the race for his team?"
He felt rather than heard the boy chuckle. "That, and I'm the only one who knows he was murdered."
"And I'm just wallpaper, is that it?"
"Don't be absurd," said the boy. "Even if you'd managed to arrive at that conclusion, you haven't any evidence."
"Neither do you at this point."
"But I'm actually likely to find some eventually, and you aren't."
"Your vote of confidence is terribly flattering."
"It wasn't meant to be."
"That was sarcasm."
"I'm aware of that. I was attempting to be dismissive."
"It'd be far more effective if you weren't resting your head on my shoulder and sighing."
The boy stopped himself mid-sigh, and John laughed. "You don't have to be ashamed of it. Whether or not you liked the kid, something awful happened to him, and witnessing such a thing does things to you."
The boy raised his head and looked at him inquisitively. "You're not training to be a psychiatrist, are you?"
"Good. You'd be terrible at it."
"Glad to know. I'll stick to specialities that involve patients being unconscious."
"Why are you really here?" asked the boy suddenly. "You said you had to go to the toilet, but you haven't made a move in that direction, even though I've been discouraging you from continuing to converse with me."
"Anyone ever tell you you're a bit of a cold fish?" asked John, trying to avoid answering the question.
"For my family, I'm positively effusive," he said, expression flat. Clearly John's misdirection hadn't fooled him.
"Sorry for intruding on your investigation," said John. "I'll just get back to my mum and sister."
"Wait," said the boy. He grabbed John's upper arms and held him in place while pressing his lips to John's.
John's eyes widened in surprise, but his lips decided to take over, pressing themselves against the boy's pale, full mouth. He tasted of chlorine and Lucozade, with a tinge of salt, and John couldn't get enough. His eyes fluttered shut as the boy's tongue brushed his lower lip, and John's hands seized the boy's forearms and squeezed them encouragingly.
The boy inhaled suddenly and pulled back. His eyes were slightly unfocused, and patches of pink had appeared on his cheeks and lips.
"I see," was all he said as he stood.
John, whose heart was still racing, covered his confusion with a cough. "I'll see you later, then?"
"Doubtful. You're in medical school, soon to be followed by many years serving in the Army. I haven't even taken my A-levels yet. Our chances of meeting again are slim to none."
"So that's why..." John trailed off with a demonstrative gesture.
"No, I did that to see why you followed me. Now I know."
"That wasn't the only reason!" said John, hotly. "You were acting suspicious."
"I was suspicious. I knew the murderer would have to remove any evidence pointing to the modus operandi, and now I know that all this was meant to be a diversion. He's long gone with Carl's swimming bag and shoes."
"Right, good luck with that. I'll let you know if I see anybody with an extra pair of trainers."
The boy was crouching on the ground in front of Carl's locker examining something on the ground. "Fine."
"Thanks for the kiss. It was, ah, different."
Cool grey eyes flashed up to meet his. "You're welcome."
When John got back to the stands, Mum and Harry had packed up their belongings. Mum and Bridget were exchanging contact information.
"They've cancelled the awards ceremony," said Harry, who had pulled on her track suit and combed out her hair. "They'll send the medals in the post."
"Any word on Carl?"
"Was that his name?" asked Mum.
"We haven't heard anything yet," said Bridget. John marvelled at her beauty once more, but she looked decidedly peaky. Then again, everybody John could see wore similar shocked, disbelieving expressions.
Mum sighed. "I suppose we'll hear about it in the news."
"Those of us with boys on the team may hear sooner. I'll call you when there's news," said Bridget. "Despite the circumstances, it was lovely meeting you, Annie."
"You too, Bridget. Thank you for talking to John."
She smiled. "My pleasure. Shall we go, darling?"
John blinked in surprise. He hadn't noticed the skinny boy standing just behind Bridget. He followed his mother down the stands and gave John a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Thanks for cheering for me," he said, hoisting a large swimming bag over his shoulder.
The wink took John by surprise.
Naturally, Harry noticed.
"Poof," she murmured as she brushed past.
John glanced back towards the locker room and smiled.