It was home time and students poured out of their college. One asked a friend "do you think he'll strike again?" Then they looked around and pressed themselves against white walls. Sounds of pounding feet drew near. Two boys charged out through glass doors, causing other students to scatter in alarm. One youth looked as if a vampire was after him. His pursuer wielded a piece of copper piping. They charged past flowerbeds and a staff car park. The pipe wielder was gaining on that other boy. Sweating and gasping they ran towards a gap in a hedge.
Someone stuck their right foot out from behind green foliage. Pipe Wielder tripped over it and hit hard tarmac. Blood spilt from his lips. The weapon fell from his hand with a clang. A middle aged man emerged and sat down on top of the youngster. That second boy glanced back, then stopped running.
"Thanks Rob," he said. "Thank you."
"Don't mention it Billy," the older man replied. Then he rounded on Pipe Wielder. "Stay away from my apprentice!" he snarled, "do you hear me?"
"Please don't hurt me any more!, I won't do it again."
A crow flapped overhead. Anxious students gathered around Rob and his captive. "Back off!" Rob snapped. "The show's over."
Shaken people obeyed. Rob calmed himself and released Pipe Wielder. They got to their feet. Nearby the logo on a Citron resembled stripes on a corporal. Rob was about to make his captive apologize when another person caught his eye, causing him to pause. She was a woman near his age, with skin the colour of bronze, and she stood glaring at him.
"Cotta," Rob said.
"Mr Horan," she replied.
It had been a week since she rejected him; did she have to look at him like that now? Rob explained what had happened. Cotta's expression didn't soften.
"They have tutors to discipline students," she reminded him.
"Well I don't see them lining up to help!"
"I can't hang around," she said, "I'm going out tonight, to the Ithica restraunt with Mike.
"That'll be Michael Bennel," Rob thought. Like Rob that man was a plumber, but new to the area so they didn't know each other well. Out loud Rob said "I hope you have a nice evening." He tried to keep cynicism out of his voice but didn't succeed.
Cotta replied without warmth, saying "thanks, I'm sure I will." Then she walked away. Images of butterflies graced her top.
Rob made Pipe Wielder apologize to Billy, then Rob and Billy got into a van. The older man took the wheel and drove away, over a speed hump, having promised his apprentice a lift home.
"Why did he attack you?"
"He's on drugs isn't he. Anyone would've done for a target."
"Where did you learn to fight like that?" Billy asked.
"I grew up in a rough area," Rob explained. "Most of us boys ran wild. Then I went to college and met Donna." Memories of his late wife still brought pain, but he continued. "She was studying catering and of course I did plumbing. Donna sorted me out when otherwise I'd have gone off the rails."
They had the van's radio on and it broadcast a news bulletin. The police were admitting they had no leads in a murder investigation. Two women had been stabbed on different nights and the force was under pressure to make an arrest.
"Mum won't go out at night because of that," said Billy.
"I don't blame her."
Rob dropped Billy off at his house, then the plumber returned to his pebble-dashed semi. Both armpits felt sticky with sweat. While he ate his evening curry, Rob wondered what had drawn him to Cotta. Could it be that, having failed to save Donna, he wanted to save and protect someone else? Was that why he felt protective towards Billy? If so then how rational was that? Cancer had taken Donna and he could hardly have punched its lights out. Then again, what was rational about love and grief? Her favourite soap opera came on T.V. Rob changed channels with a lump in his throat and a tear in his right eye. "Why are we here?" he wondered silently. "What's it all for?" Donna would've distracted him with some household chore, but now there was no one to shake him out of it. He spent a couple of hours watching T.V., floating in the river of memory with spice fading on his tongue.
Rob moved and switched on his laptop, then logged onto the internet. He wanted to learn more about Cotta's new man. Sure enough, Bennel had a website and a Facebook page. He was shown standing by his van, half a gang in one body. Below his picture sat a list of skills and services. In addition to plumbing, he coached under-privileged boys in rugby, and had helped some into playing professionally. Rob recognised two boys for they attended the same college as Billy.... the one where Cotta was standing in for an administrator during maternity leave.
"What am I doing?" Rob asked himself. "Shouldn't I distract myself from him?" Part of me wants to know what he's got that I havn't."
Something on the Facebook page caught Rob's attention. That must be a mistake. He scrolled down and there it was again. The plumber frowned and reached for his phone. He tried to ring Cotta but she didn't answer. Rob paused for thought. Part of him wanted to stay at home, but another wanted to tell her about this. He dragged himself out to the van and started its engine. She hadn't given any time for her date, but this was about when most people would finish an evening meal. Rob waited for a cat to cross his path, then pulled away and made for Ithica, for the Greek sailing ship on its logo.
When he arrived at the restraunt its car park was full. The plumber found a space on a street nearby, close to a hedge. He got out, then noticed a narrow passage between houses. It was badly lit, but he recalled that it made a shortcut to Ithica. Brown shod feet carried him into it, past graffiti on brick walls. He scented roasting lamb.
Then a large man stepped from black shadows and blocked his path. Rob caught his breath. They had met before and it hadn't ended well.
Two minutes later, Cotta and Bennal emerged from the restraunt and walked down that same alley. His leather jacket merged with that night. Rob was nowhere to be seen. They nearly stepped in a jet puddle, then veered round it.
"How's the rugby going?" she asked.
"Very well," he answered. "You know that boy who attacked his classmate with a pipe? Perhaps rugby would help him."
"Mmm... it'd give him something other than drugs to do."
"Yes but its more than that," said Bennel in his velvet bass. "It makes you feel part of a team and it gives you something to aim for. By the sound of it your student's in a dark place. I'd like to help in clearing that darkness."
Cotta raised her eyebrows and smiled. "How could I refuse?" she asked.
"I need to tie a shoelace. You go ahead and I'll catch up."
"Yes of course."
Cotta walked off, past graffiti in yellow paint and under a dark window. Bennel made no attempt at tying any laces. He drew a knife from under his jacket, clenched it tight and raised it to strike her.
Powerful fingers gripped Bennel's wrist and twisted it. He dropped the steel blade with a cry of pain. Cotta spun round. Three police officers were wrestling with Bennel, muscles bulging and teeth grinding. They pinned him to the ground, holding his face against weathered tarmac.
"Michael Bennel, I'm arresting you for attempted murder," one of them snapped. "You don't have to say anything....."
Cotta looked on and her heart pounded against her breastbone. She panted as if running a marathon, then leaned on hard bricks for support. "Thank you," she gasped, "thank you."
Bennel was dragged to his feet and into an unmarked police car, then handcuffed to the steering wheel. An inspector picked up his knife and sealed it in a plastic bag. Cotta left the alley and joined the inspector in her car. A street lamp illuminated them.
"Well done Sergeant Kelly," said the inspector. "Are you all right?"
"Yes ma'm. Hold on, I know that man."
One of the officers was marching Rob to the car. The latter's face was white and sweat dampened his hairline. On seeing Cotta his cheeks turned pink again and he nearly managed a smile.
"Last time we met, I broke up a fight he was in," the officer said. "He was my first arrest."
"That was years ago," Rob reminded him. "I've changed since then."
Cotta smoothed things over for Rob, then explained that her colleagues had set a trap for the killer and she was the decoy. "I'm sorry he grabbed you," she concluded, "but we couldn't risk anyone interfering at that stage."
"No, of course not," said Rob. "I understand now."
The engine of a motorbike cut through cool night air, then faded in the distance.
"We'll have to get back to the station," said Cotta, "but thanks for trying to intervene."
"Bye Cotta," Rob replied, "and I hope Bennel gets locked up for life."
"Don't worry, he got caught in the act didn't he."
Days went by. Rob gave Billy another lift to college. As the boy went in, Cotta walked up to Rob's van. He dropped a window, unsure of what to expect. A cool breeze touched his face. Two cyclists peddled by.
"I want to say a proper goodbye," she explained. "It wouldn't be right to walk away, or send a text."
"I'll miss you," he said while fumbling in his brain for something more meaningful. Then he blurted "I thought you needed someone to look out for you, but I was wrong."
"I had to play a role, didn't I. It came hard, turning you down, but how could I attract Bennel with you on my arm? Please forgive me."
"There's nothing to forgive."
Cotta glanced back, to a crowd of students passing through the doors. Then she said "Billy still needs you, not the way you thought I did, but he does. Hold onto that." She paused for a moment, then asked "how did you know Bennel wasn't a plumber?"
"There was a mistake on his Facebook page," Rob told her. "I never thought he was a murderer, but when I saw that I knew he wasn't a qualified plumber."
"What was the error?"
"He mentioned a young rugby player who was struggling with maths at college. He claims he reassured the boy by saying he failed at maths too. If so, how did he get to be a plumber? We need arithmetic for volume formulas, 90 degree and lateral joints, sizing pipes for water flow and more."
Cotta nodded. "You've lost me with some technical terms," she admitted, "but I get the general idea."
They said their goodbyes, then Rob drove away over a painted speed hump.