The rules break like a thermometer,
quicksilver spills across the charted systems,
we're out in a country that has no language
whatever we do together is pure invention
the maps they gave us were out of date by years.
"Twenty-One Love Poems"
"Who do you love, Tim?"
Pembleton heard his own words strain the narrow air between them and doubt assailed him. First rule of interrogation: don't ask too loaded a question until you know the answer in your head, not just suspect it in your guts. Nine times out of ten you miss the mark and it jacks you up.
Tim blinked, as if a bright light had been thrown into his eyes, his skin looked suddenly bleached. "Leave me alone, Frank, " pressed from between his teeth, then deliberately, gravely, he closed his tell-tale eyes.
And the tenth time you hit the mark so dead center that it folds in on itself and excludes you.
Oh, no, no way. The rights of the box didn't apply to Bayliss' dining table. Tim didn't have the right to remain silent here. No warnings required here, no little initials to get, no forms to fill, nothing to cramp Frank Pembleton's style. "Don't be childish. Closing your eyes doesn't make me go away." You'll let a sick fuck like Fields get to you, but you won't let me? How dare you?
Tim pushed his chair back, tried to get up, but Pembleton had taken the next step by then, put himself between Tim's legs. To stand, he'd have to slide against him, or maybe shove him, even hit him, but touch him somehow. If he pushed the chair back again, he was going to come up against the wall. Guess which'll yield less, baby. He gripped Tim's shoulders, "I'm still here. You feel me, you hear me," his hands tightened without amnesty to the flesh padding the bone, "What're you going to do next, cover your ears and hum to yourself?"
His arms restricted, Bayliss bent his elbows and dropped his head down, pressed into his temples with the heels of his hands, taming something wild inside his skull, trying to keep it from escaping.
Timmy's got a secret, Timmy's got a secret, hummed insidehis head, silly, silly Tim-mee, secrets belong to me.
He was gripping the wide shoulders so tight that the muscles in his own arms were thrumming. "Open your eyes." Stop trying to negate me. "Open. Your. Eyes."
They flew open, glittered fever-bright, flashed with anger. "Get away from me, Frank!"
"Who do you love, Tim?" he repeated. Caught in the cadence of the sing-song spinning around his head, it came out like a taunt. So go ahead, scream me into silence if you can.
"Stop it, what're you doing? Just stop it! What business is it of yours?"
He pressed all the scathing voices in him into a single breath, leaned, and exhaled it into Tim's ear in one quiet option, "Tell me it'snot." Go on, tell a lie.
Tim shuddered at his breath, his words, and maybe at the lips grazing his ear, told him nothing.
"You can't, can you?" When he inhaled, Tim's hair rode the in-drawn air, fluttered against his lips, his cheek, Tim's smell entered his nostrils and for some reason he thought of burnt matches. "Then tell me itis." Come on, tell the truth.
Tim said nothing.
You foolish idiot. It's my specialty, breaking through silence, cutting through bullshit -- Iam the man. I can reach in your throat -- his mouth sealed Tim's -- suck out the truth -- such soft, pliant tissue to set itself so defiantly against him, a quivering malcontent yet to break -- open your mouth, before I open it with my teeth. Good boy. Now where's your truth, or do I have to dig it out with my tongue? Okay, all right, I will.
What're you doing, a part of him clamored, you never meant to take itthis far, but the rest was busy crowing, crooning at Tim: Admit it, you wanted this. Suddenly all resistance crumbled and Tim was desperately drinking him in, I was right, you want this, inhaling him like all life's breath to be consumed in one heaving gulp -- wait, no, I'm wrong, you need it. Need me.
No. No, no, no. I'm not good with need. I'm lousy with need.
Tim's hands, turned to tight fists, bunched his shirt front around his suspenders and held him fast. Instantly, his chest flashed hot --No -- and he shoved at Tim. I don't want to know anymore -- stop, don't tell me! Tim's hands, now turned to flat-palmed denial, pushed away at his chest. Instantly, his anger flashed hot -- No -- and he yanked Tim back. I want to know everything -- don't stop, tell me more!
Tim pulled on him, Frank pushed -- Stop that!
Tim pushed at him, Frank pulled -- Stopthat!
Push and yank, pull and shove, and the chair tilted, wobbled for an instant, gave up its footing. Could've been the conventions gone crashing, as it spilled them both onto the floor in a jarring tangle, flung down together by gravity, neither able to get free of the other to catch their bodies. Not that far to the carpeted floor, but he felt their headlong fall was continuing and gaining a terrible energy. It was going to be a long time before they were grounded again.
I knew it, he remembered dizzily, Iknew a chasm was going to open under me.
Hard to breathe here, at fast compressing altitude, he had to gasp for oxygen, finding Tim's breath in his lungs, blowing his own into Tim's, getting dizzy, too little air, or maybe too much, too blood-hot, his pulse beating adrenaline-frenetic in his ears, Tim's heart slamming into his chestwall, too, a second heartbeat fused with his. Stray energies of desire, nascent one second, charged-potent the next. Like all blazing life, easier to end than to moderate, and inconceivable to end --Tim's mouth tore away from his, "What do you want from me?" almost sobbing, "Damn you, what do you want?"
What I always want, the truth. Truth is God, the only God, bless us Father for we're going to sin. "What do you think?" We're shattering custom, Tim, what'd you expect, the thin wafer and watered wine of tidy custom? Sacrament is flesh, sacrament is blood, it was always so. You can feel how well our bodies know it. "I want you. Now."
"Oh, God," Tim seemed to breathe his last protest as his eyes fluttered closed.
A joint, fevered fumble to loosen, undo, peel, open, part anything to get at skin and flesh, both a little manic, a lot egotistical, trying to brand themselves into the other, and finally, within their ill-conceived, intemperate clutch, Tim reached between their bodies and with unflinching precision aligned them to join.
A moment's hesitation burned in the fire of inevitability -- "I'm going to hurt you," Pembleton said, just a warning before the fact.
He understood the necessity for pain: Tim's landmark for him. All right, then. Nothing easy. Your way --he pushed and realized it was going to hurt him, too--our way.
It didn't feel possible, but unskillfully, accepting full life and full agonies, sharing sharp, short breaths of forked pain, they fastened and, raw nerve to raw nerve, locked together. Tim's arms and legs felt like they were sending taproots into him.
"Look at me," Pembleton growled, struggling to outbear the insatiate need to move, now. He wrung loose Tim's hands until he could pull back enough to see him, panting beneath him, bowed into his body, "Look at me." The light-brown eyes opened, so large, as if in astonishment, caught and clung to his, but blindly. "Look at me!" A spasm of pain in them and Tim started shaking in his arms, now connected too immediately to the cut-glass agony of this hard passion. "Tell me one thing," God, there wasn't enough air to breathe, let alone talk. But he needed to know more he needed to breathe --I want no room in you but for me-- so he managed, "Did he do this to you? I have to know, did he?"
"Wha -- Chris? No."
Him again. Who the hell cared abouthim? "No. No, not him."
"Oh -- oh, God…"
"No. This, no. Never."
"It's just us then, right?" Assure me we're not bludgeoning a corpse here, we're not joined as a hostage to a fetid ghost. "This is us, nothing else?"
"You'n me, Frank -- oh, Christ," he shook hard, "How can…?" convulsed around Frank, "How can it be - anything --else!"
"You and me," he felt the current building inside, volatile, clenched his teeth against it. "Together, right here, right now?"
"Just us, Frank, nothing --no one else. Just us."
"All right. All right then." He thrust hard with his hips as he sealed and pierced Tim's mouth again, somehow imagining that, deep enough, and he'd meet his own flesh, come to complete circuit within Tim's body, he'd reach Tim's heart and connect there -- with the next frantic push, the next or the next, if Tim just curved into him a little tighter, if he could claw Tim closer, breach harder, sink deeper -- but no. No, he wasn't going to make it, a massive, wild crackling in his veins, held in place by such fierce pressure that he knew he was going to short-out -- again no, he wasn't alone in this. Coupled fast to him, Tim wasthe connection, they were complete. When he cried out he knew he'd let go of Tim's mouth, but no matter, they were a full circuit, unbreakable now, approaching flashpoint together. So ready and so tight, so impossibly tight as Tim tightened down on him, too, he moaned, gasped and growled. Covering his mouth with his arm, Tim didn't. Finally, so immediate, he shouted. Shuddering in spasms, Tim bit his own arm and didn't.
The pleasure of it was almost a side effect, recognized only in the wake of its rampant rush, settling in after the fact like a soft, slaked backwash.
So much could've been said, perhaps needed to be said. But as they lay stranded together on the floor, their limbs and eyes caught in each other, caught in this newotherness, there was a truth between them too spartan for words -- the raw truth of their barefaced, naked and completed act.
Frank simply said, "Bed." Anything else would require the effort of a lie.
"Yes," Tim answered, just as simply.
Maybe they'd been too acutely joined to completely disjoin just yet, but as they struggled out of the tangles of their clothes and to their feet neither quite let go of the other. It was awkward, yes, but there was a curious grace to it, too, as if they were newly poured together and still malleable. With the same odd, silent intimacy, they detoured to the bathroom and diligently washed up. The first time any word was uttered was when they were in bed and Tim started to turn outward. "Don't!" Frank snapped, and pulled him back around, "Don't sleep face away -- I don't like it." Tim leaned toward him until their foreheads were touching, closed his eyes. "Good," Frank breathed, "That's good," and closed his eyes, too. With murmur of skin on skin, their bodies found ways to fit with one another as they fell asleep.
A siren rose through the nighttime modulations of the city, a jagged sound that never failed to half-wake Bayliss. Sleep tugged him back and he was following when he drowsily realized he was sharing breathing space. Drifting on peaceful time and humid oxygen, he knew he'd loved tonight. It was an uncomplicated thought, made him feel soft and quiet inside his skin and, oh, so warm. He tugged up his lover's name toward the surface his memory --Frank-- and smiled to himself as if at a secret, naughty and sweet, and a little illicit --
Shocked to motion, he was out of the bed and standing before he knew he'd moved, trying frantically to bolt down everything unbolted by the night. It was a dream, had to be, a dream that hadn't yet realized the dreamer was awake, just a dream, that's all, because it hadn't happened. It simply hadn't happened.
Bedclothes lay in stagnant coils in the light slanting from the street lamp outside the window and the bare bulb left on in the bathroom across the narrow hallway. An uncertain light, but nothing uncertain about the man sleeping on the bed, naked and so dark against pale sheets -- sothere. So emphatically there, too, in the memory of Bayliss' senses, his body, from the first unexpected, dumb wonder of the flesh to the feeling of being sledge-hammered open to light.
First thing, he had to remove his eyes from the tug of the bed and everything it held. Next, he had to cover himself. Not easy, the first. Such a vibrant fact. Frank. In his bed, and dear God, there was no possibility of invincible ignorance anymore. His feelings were ruthlessly clear now, his knowledge of Frank's body excruciatingly sharp -- I know what your body does, I know what our bodies can do together.
He still hurt from it. But the raw ache now, or even the earlier hothouse of ripe pain he hadn't known he could bear only reminded him he'd never before felt so alive. Now, on the nearer side of reason, he had to unlearn all that. He wouldn't live on self-pity. Turn away. Good. Now put something on.
That objective didn't prove to be an easy one either. For some reason, a robe, a warm-up suit, underwear,anything but suits, weren't coming to hand. Then came the order from the bed.
"Cut that out!"
He spun around, stripped of all refuge, stood there dumbly
"What's the matter with you?" Pembleton grumpily demanded to know. "First decent sleep I had in two weeks, and you're stumbling about the room with all the grace of a hippo. It's too early for this, get back in bed."
He barely side-stepped hysteria. "Oh, no. No, forget it. I'm never getting into that bed again."
Frank condescended to open one eye. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't thisyour bed?"
"Yeah, well -- " shivering part with cold and part with the shakes that follow the rush of adrenaline, "I mean, I'm never again getting in it with you."
"Bit late, if you ask me." Frank snorted. "The genie's left the bottle."
Tim grabbed Pembleton's pants --and how in holy hell had they ended up draped ever so neatly over the chair during the night's frenzy!? When everythinghe had been wearing had apparently ended up in another dimension. "Here, put your genie back in your pants, Frank," he threw them at him. "I'm not…I won't…I'm not -- " He couldn't find a word of disclaim or get it past his lips. Never mind recant, he was simply hoping not to remember so keenly. He cast about and wailed, "How come I don't have a stitch of clothing I can put on?"
"Maybe because you didn't unpack from your trip?" Frank reasonably suggested. "I saw a suitcase and a full laundry bag by your front door." With a flick of his wrist, he tossed his pants back onto the chair. Damned if they didn't manage to land in another tidy configuration.
Bayliss gaped at them. Unreal. Fucking unreal.
Pembleton rolled onto his back, stretched his arms over his head and told the ceiling, "I always knew I couldn't do casual. Nothing new there."
Watching him, lush brown and native to earth, Bayliss felt the cutting edge of the self-pity he had been trying to forbid to himself, all entangled with a sudden and helpless pang of lust like the blowback left over from the night's crime.
"I literally trip over Mary in Central Park, fall in love for real for the first time," Pembleton matter-of-factly expounded, "and she's my wife for life. I take on a rookie for a partner, make one close friend in the whole of my adult years -- count 'em:one, and I fall both in love and in lust with him."
He felt his heart lurch, stumble, and Frank was looking at him with damnable composure and saying, "Goes to prove, I can't do casual."
He couldn't just stand there --still naked!-- feeling hopelessly stranded in an impossible mixture of pleasure and pain, shame and guilt, desire and rectitude, and listen to Frank talk so casually about not being able to be casual. "Lust? Lust --" No way to deny it, was there, when they were still wearing each other's smell? "Okay, all right, lust. It was just a line we crossed, that's all. We crossed it because we didn't know we could. I mean, we weren't watching for it, see what I mean? So now we know it's there, we can look out for it, so it's not a problem, never gonna be a problem, ever again, okay?"
"You're babbling." He seemed amused by it, almost indulgent.
"That's lust, okay? So much for lust. As for love, no. No, you didn't. You didn't fall in love with me. You can't, you're not free to love me and that's all there is to it."
"Bayliss, you're an idiot. A well-meaning idiot, but youare an idiot. What do you mean that's all there is to it? I may not be free to do anything else it implies," grimacing to acknowledge his obvious fallacy and continuing nevertheless, "but I'm certainly free to feel any way I damn well feel. Besides, don't ever tell a black man he's not free to do something."
"Frank -- "
"What's in here," any other man would've indicated his heart but Pembleton, being Pembleton, tapped his temple, "nobody can put any chains on."
"Frank -- "
"It's true. Carry it.I will."
"Don't you understand? You love Mary.I love Mary. Mary trusts me, and this is what I do? She trusts me, Frank, she trusts me with your life, she trusts me with her children -- oh, dear God, if Olivia hates me I'll kill myself!"
"Jesus, Tim! I don't know if I should laugh at you or shoot you. Nobody's going to hate anybody. If anything, we're mired in the opposite problem."
"No, we're not," he clung to it like a mantra.
"Okay, no, we're not. So what the hell happened tonight? I mistook you for Mary? Trust me, the differences are obvious. You confused me with Rawls?"
"Trust me, those differences are obvious, too." Only in part a comeback. The rest, heart's own truth. He'd never felt in danger of wanting to lose himself body and soul to Chris.
"What explanation's going to suit you better? Partners that stay together deviate together? I'm a greedy son of a bitch, and if you could be had, you had to be had by me? I'm possessive and I won't share my partners?" He leaned up on his elbow. "So maybe there is some truth to most of that, but why would any of it have any truth if there's no bigger truth. Imagine something that doesn't exist, somethinguncreated. Go ahead, imagine it, fix a good picture of it in your head. Describe how it makes you feel, tell me all your reactions to it."
Caught by the way Frank's teeth bit into the words and his tongue rolled and savored them --oh God, his ripe, abundant mouth-- Bayliss had to take a few seconds to actually hear them. "Uncrea -- that's silly, Frank. You can't react to something that is not."
"Exactly. The games we play around each other, what we do to one another, they are effects, not the cause." He held out his hand. Instinct or habit sent Bayliss close enough to take it before his brain caught up and made him stop at the edge of the bed. "Come on, Tim, it's the only excuse we have for what we did," he gave a small, almost sad smile, "and what we did is the only compensation we're going to get for it. So come here. It'll be morning soon enugh. Until then, come here, come to me."
So that was Frank's limit. A night's folly, forfeit to light and reason in the morning.
Okay, then. Limits were good. There was safety inside limits. And granted within, the full measure of its measured-out freedom.
And right then, just then, he didso crave Frank's mouth.
As if his strings were cut. One second Tim was standing by the bed and shivering. The next, Pembleton found him in his arms. He'd known Tim would come to him. He'd called, Tim would come, day follows night. Still, the abrupt fall caught him by surprise. And it was exactly that, a fall. In Tim's eyes, too, he knew: a fall. From grace.
Tim was wrong, of course.This was grace. Disgrace would've been taking a man's body and denying his soul, prying open his heart and shrugging it off as a moment's provocation. If that was morality's price, what price morality? What to do with a considerable armful of Tim Bayliss past the provocative moment was a whole different question he only hoped he could answer. He had no compass for this territory.
A single utterance of his name burdened with so much uncertainty that he realized Bayliss didn't have a compass, either. Not forhim. Oh, how sweet, to know Rawls' tutelage had fallen short of investing Tim Bayliss with any kind of superior edge over Frank Pembleton. It made a world of difference. "Yes," he liberally granted whatever Tim needed permission to do.
To take his mouth. First like a wish. That was good, Frank liked that. Then like a riot. If Tim gave him a moment to think he could've decided if he liked that less or more, but over and over, Tim lifted his head and lowered it again, as if coming back was his only reason for leaving. A single-minded determination he'd last seen in his son at his wife's breast, an artless combination of need and greed, but Tim was no child -- feeling a little breathless himself now, -- not at all a child, a man -- Tim stealing his breath with missionary zeal -- a large man -- the heavy mechanism of his heart running faster than Frank's, deafening him to his own more-guarded rhythm --too large -- Tim pressing into him, flattening him from thinking -- too heavy -- an avid cadence to the lift and sink of his body, the hardening bulk of his sex -- and too damned much on top of him!
He lunged upward, rolled them over and shoved Tim away to the side, but Tim didn't seem to mind, an even bet if he so much as noticed, still seeking his mouth with the same side-blind need. How could he have known this about Tim, how readily naked he was to passion, how quick to arouse? And how silent.
Belatedly aware of their distance, Tim opened his eyes, his hands darted between their bodies, touching him in random places, touching himself in counterpoint, as if trying to decode them both with light, urgent fingers. "I can stop. I should stop, huh?"
Probably. But how long was he going to let his will take away Tim's? "You should do what you want."
Tim didn't point out he had been doing that until he'd found himself cast off. One of his hands skimmed down Frank's belly, asked to go further.
Oh, don't bare me there, I may have misspoken, but he lifted his hips off the sheets.
Long fingers found the soft, blind organ, cupped it in warmth, with restrained pressure kneaded it, stroked it with its own sheath of skin, felt tender, felt good, it loved what it was given but didn't ask for more. The lust Pembleton had claimed didn't seem in a hurry to claim him back and it wasn't something he could fake. Looking at Bayliss' eyes already guarding themselves against expectations, he knew he wouldn't want to fake it anyway. He watched Tim accept it, pull his hand back to cover himself. Not to seduce or make do. Hiding his desire, probably feeling unseemly about it in absence of Frank's.
"Oh, Tim, it's not you." He prayed he wasn't lying. "I've been on Lopressor since the stroke, it's one of the side effects. The doses are smaller now and I have a sex life again, but I don't have a lavish one. Iwant to make love to you," as soon as he said it he knew, about that, he wasn't lying. "So let me. Tell me how." He replaced Tim's hand with his, knowing his own pleasure and trying to translate it into Tim's. "Is this okay? You like this?"
"Oh, God, yes, but -- " he shuddered, pushed up into Frank's palm, "No, this is fine."
"What? Tell me." Silence. "What do you want instead, baby?Tell me."
"Feels cold without you,all of you -- please," he grasped Frank's shoulder, tugged. "Cover me."
Of all words, those two. Two men and one history, in two words. A given on the street, guarding their lives. In here, these unguarded moments. Wedo have a right to each other, it occurred to Pembleton, it is a marriage when one life pledges the other. It felt like stone-tablet truth as his body partnered itself to its mate.
All at once, it made creation's own sense to let truth burn outward through his skin, speak its own mind. He took hold of Tim with entitlement, kissed him with conscious pleasure, felt Tim's heat spread through him and track down a core of warmth in each of his cells as well. A tame answer to Tim's fever and fret, but enough to feel shared-out to each other. Being wanted so feverishly wasn't half bad a high, either. He liked Tim's restless hands that couldn't decide where they wanted to be, curving around his head, grappling his shoulders, arms, tracing his sides, his back, testing his spine's flexibility, dipping into hollows, cupping swells, unwilling to let go of any part of him but desperate to get to the next. The odd blend of their bodies excited him, their full lengths pressed into one reactionary form, struggling to match pulses to an unmatched beat. True to their nature, in here, out there, discordant but holding fast, holding so god-damned-blessedly fast because theywere discordant, and it took effort, it always took effort, just now the effort was muscular --"It's good," he acknowledged, "lovin' you, 's good."
Must've been waiting to be sure of its acceptance, for lust arrived suddenly, filling him, whipping him into arousal with a speed that took his breath away, then Tim took him in strong hands at the tops of his thighs, heaved, took the ground out from under him, and he was falling --up. He grabbed the first thing that came to hand, the headboard, braced himself and hung slanted in mid-air, feeling tide-hoisted, feeling he'd crash down, how long could Tim hold him like that? Long enough to slide under him and find his center, keeping him levered somehow. Aswarm with anticipation, he couldn't worry about how, just tried not to upset their balance and waited, finding it a wonder the taut-thrum of his nerves couldn't be heard -- oh, God, the pure, animal loveliness of Tim's mouth opening for him and, hunger for hunger, filling itself with him, their joining all the more vivid for being dark against light, and he was held aloft or let sink into ravenous, liquid heat, his heart under hammer, his lungs laboring, his pleasure laboring to extend itself, to reach where it must go --
--he felt his blood ignite and could only listen to its roar, until that one stretched instant, clutch of
inevitability like fear in his belly, and he stopped hearing, snagged on the intense, dense pressure, gathering--
--it came upon him so fast, the first hard pulse, the sear and surge, he didn't have time to cry out, then he didn't have the breath, no sound left him, just the quickliquid flow…pulse…flow…pulse… flow…
Haltingly taking on flesh again, he felt legs unclasp his ankles and realized why he hadn't been able to find the support of his knees earlier. His sweaty fingers slackened, started to slip from the headboard, and Tim pulled him down, slow and careful, as if things could break in his hands. In the mild aftermath Tim was allowing him, soothing him into, there was room to think. How he wished there wasn't. He hadn't turned on that fast and that hot, twice now, or felt so high in a long time. A very long time.
"It's theintensity." Now he understood what Mary had meant. That early heart-stopping need, the dying-of-want urgency, even the clumsiness of a joy so new that the smallest touches had the greatest import, they had all been spent to pay the price of loving long and loving often. He had just rediscovered in breach what he and Mary could try but never quite recapture again. It was simply the irreversible aspect of time and it broke his heart.
He propped himself on his elbows, looked down at Tim, lying tight-locked around his neglected need, whose body didn't yet know how to presume on its partner and would never learn. The comfort and assurance of two bodies in complete knowledge and perfect fit, the root-depth ofthat joy granted to him and Mary every normal day, the reverse, more generous aspect of time. The time he was not going to have with Tim. That, too, broke his heart.
Well, at least there wouldn't be time to give lie to the quiet stun and wonder in Tim's eyes as they watched him. The stroke had revealed too many of his frailties to his wife, its aftermath had exposed to her every last privacy of his body. He couldn't help feeling less like a man for having needed her care like a helpless infant. Tim's eyes right now made him feel like something rare and exotic, desired unbearably, and he loved it. He stretched his body luxuriously, lazily, yet to locate all his bones. Tim trembled under him, his hips rose, lifting Frank. Still silent. Almost a saintly silence. That thought brought the first suspicion. Saintliness always roused Frank's suspicions, not an advantage to a Catholic.
He slid off to the side, made a pillow of one of Tim's arms for his head, stroked across the wide chest, down to his belly -- two lovers of one gender. No, not an alien feeling, stranger than that, the sense of being matched in details, almost too fundamental. Under his hand, Tim was arching his back, stretching his long body as if wanting to thin his skin and bare his nerves. Frank fancied that, any more, and he might bare his heart -- silently. Tim's head dug back, his throat worked convulsively, but only short, harsh gasps left it. Frank reached down, cupped his erection just for a moment, so alive in his hand, root to crown, ran his thumb over the blunt, swollen tip secreting its desire. Tim caught his breath, held it so tight that his ribs showed like slats trying to come through his skin, his need eloquent in every line of his face, his teeth clamping on his lip, and you're not going to ask for a damn thing, are you?
He remembered the night on the pier-turned-confessional, the single tear down Tim's cheek, Tim's finger like prohibition in front of his mouth: Shhh, quiet.
Don't speak, the child had been told, don't tell, and the one time he'd gathered his courage and told, asked to be protected, his own father hadn't listened to him. Scared of being heard, then scared of being unheard, had he muted his voice back then? Got it mixed up with what was happening to him and carried it into his adult sexuality?
He suddenly decided hehated this silence, he didn't want to hear it. His own blood cooled, he'd found a whole new fervor: to hear Tim. He tucked Tim's body under his again, took his mouth, long and hard, bit at his lips, prodded with his tongue at the metallic tincture of the sore flesh. Come out and tell me to stop, he thought, what are you doing hiding in a place where drowned things float? Come back up. Then he was at Tim's throat, wanting to rip off its silence, if necessary, with his teeth, trying to reach another place, a place he knew still existed in Tim, where innocent sexuality abided, ingenious, unafraid of its voice -- let me hear you. Say my name. No, scream it.
Tim was more than ready to release his body if not his voice. His hands made handles of Frank's hips, pulling him firmly back and forth across him, trying to satisfy himself between their bellies. Not yet. He lifted off, moved his lower body to the side, and when Tim tried to twist into him, he grasped the ridge of one hipbone and pinned him back. Tim whimpered quietly. Nope, not enough. He gripped his erection, stroked it, once, twice, then slid his hand down, forcing the tight-drawn balls down and away until he could make a ring of his thumb and forefinger and hold them back. A cruel pressure, he knew, for this long an arousal, but it was the best way to keep Tim on edge, prevent him from going over.
He leaned into the wide ribs trying to mesh with his own, fastened his teeth on the thin skin of the collarbone, then crawled down, to the nipples, bit, licked, again and again, circling pain about with pleasure, and when Tim thrashed and blindly reached for himself, he grabbed his wrist with his free hand to forbid him. But he'd imprisoned himself, too, so he just waited, no give, no take, it had to break.
There, as if it has been fully ready in the throat for a long time, finally, finally, Tim opened his passion-stained mouth and cried out, "Stop it. No!"
"No what?" Holding him back by fierce pressure, "What don't you want? Tell me."
"Letgo, I can't stand it, let go!"
He did. Immediately. Tim sobbed in relief, then in renewed frustration, for he was still stretched tight, still on the verge. "Please," he asked, all he asked.
"What do you want? Now tell me what you want."
"Ido please, so tell me."
"Help me come, please."
If he'd said let me or make me, Frank thought he might have released his wrist and let him get on with it, or wrapped his own hand around the shaft and quickly stroked him off. But he'd saidhelp me. So he scooted back, bowed his head and gave Tim his mouth. Some things were done simply because not doing them was unthinkable.
"Notnow, I'm too close!"
That's the idea.
"No, don't, you'll hate it."
Let's find out. Now Tim was struggling to ward off the inevitable. Trying to hold himself back, at long last he forgot to hold back the sound of his passion, a manic jargoning at first, a chance vulgarism here and there, a sharp keening next, then his name, over and over.
Like bruised fruit, the taste of his sex, ripe to bursting over his tongue, the tight slide of the shaft with the moist tempo he could barely believe he was creating with his own mouth, and all at once he had to lash Tim's hips down with his arms to keep some control, had to ride out the rest, listening to Tim's voice scaling the sharp rise of pleasure, then the surfeit of it, feeling the tender crown suddenly flare and hearing his name scream out from Tim's mouth, full-throated, unfettered --there.
It reminded him of the milk from Mary's breast, a lot thicker, much too real a taste for comfort, but like the milk, so completelyentire. Like life.
Guess what? I didn't hate it.
Tim's hands were pulling him up, gathering him like a security blanket over himself, trying to crawl under him, burrow into him, and softly, softly, he was sobbing dry sobs. "Shh, it's all right," Frank told him, "it's good, we're good, we're fine."
"I love you," Tim buried in the flesh of his shoulder.
"Yes, I know -- I'm sorry, baby."
That was all Tim wanted to say from hiding, he knew. When Tim's arms fell away and spread out, he slid lower, propped himself on his elbows, feeling like he was resting on a great big sprawling starfish stranded at ebb-tide, watching Tim's expression subside into peace with each calming beat of his heart. After a while Tim smiled as if at a secret and imparted like one, "I can't believe you'd do that -- oh, Christ, youdid that."
"Yeah, well…." It didn't seem right to say, Neither can I. "But I'm still not taking you dancing." A second to catch on, and Tim laughed softly. A lovely thing now, his voice, sated like this and flexible to so many shades, from sad to delighted. He laid his cheek on the hollow between Tim's shoulder and chest, hearing the sound well up from its source and leave it behind. "That's better." Tim's hands came back, stroked his shoulders. "Don't you feel much better?"
"You don't have to be a genius to figure that one out, Frank."
"I don't mean that." He raised his head, met Tim's eyes. "You have no idea, do you? You're a grown man, Tim, and you certainly fuss and complain and yell enough when something doesn't suit you out there. No reason to hold back in here, either, nobody's telling you to stay silent anymore. It hurts, it feels bad, the word is: Stop. Trust me, you have a big voice now, they'll hear you. If it feels good, quit biting your lip, your arm, open your mouth and let it out. You're no longer anybody's victim, and martyr doesn't suit you." He dropped his head back down into its comfy nest. He could fall asleep right there. "Let me tell you, no fun watching you act like either." He closed his eyes and let Tim digest at his own pace.
After a long minute, "I never noti --that's why you kept pushing me."
"What'd you figure, I was kinkier than you'd thought?" He had to take time out for a yawn. "No need to put up with that, either, unless the kink happens to be yours as well."
"I…I never realized. Nobody ever said anything."
"Who else knows you're the only man to ever get into Gee's face and say Eat me? I mean, after that, whatcan't you say?"
"How do youknow that?" Tim's voice squeaked with surprise.
Good. It had lightened the tone as he'd hoped. "He told me. He couldn't believe it. Which is why your hide's not nailed to his wall." Tim had to do the rest by himself, weigh, measure, portion, do whatever methodical plods did to fit new thoughts into their heads. He was getting way too sleepy.
"Hmm?" He was almost asleep, dammit.
Surely no sufficient cause to disturb him. "So?"
"So I'm not comfortable, get off me."
Teach 'em to tell and first thing, they tell you off. He rolled to the side, tugged at Tim to lie near. Covers were pulled up over him, and Tim's hand cupped his head close again, his fingers tracing the contours of his skull, finding the long, thin scar over his ear. He touched it end to end lightly, carefully, as if he thought it was still painful. Hypnotic, those feather-light fingers, up and down, up and down. "Don't ever die on me, Frank," was the last thing he heard. Or maybe the first thing he dreamed.
The alarm clock went off. Pembleton blindly reached but couldn't find it in its customary place. A longer arm reached over his, shut it off. Oh.
Wintry gray morning was spilling in from under the half-raised shades, distant static of voices and sounds of early traffic came from the street. Tim pulled his warmth away from his side, cooling places across his chest and thigh marked the spots he'd already removed his arm and leg from. He turned his head, saw a smile track over Tim's face, mostly in his lucid eyes, their pupils contracting with the light, making the wide irises look more transparent than usual. There were dark smudges under his eyes, slightly puffy, as if he hadn't slept much. Bless him, he didn't say good morning, or anything else, even when Pembleton smiled at him. He knew when to stay silent. That one, he had down pat
Pembleton swung his legs out of the bed and sat up. Tim climbed out by his side to stand. In the unforgiving morning light, he looked pale and thin, the blue veins under his skin visible. And hard used. Bruises springing up, their placements specifically sexual, a too explicit map of their night. Before he could walk away, Pembleton reached, took him by the hips and pulled him back. He lay his forehead into the small of Tim's long back and held him there.
'Love often enters in the name of friendship' -- Ovid, ninth-grade Latin. The benefits of a classic education, the ability to spuriously commit borrowed philosophy. One of the ways he'd figured Jesuits kept their distance from earthly matters. Didn't quite take on me. I'm also going to remember your scent, your taste, your heat within, your --
With controlled deliberation, Tim's fingers wrapped around his wrists and removed his hands. "It's morning, Frank." He let go and walked out the door, across the hall, disappeared into the bathroom. Frank Pembleton had set the rules and Tim Bayliss would obey them. To the last letter.
He didn't know if he wanted to bless or curse Tim's courage. He wondered if Tim, on the other side of the door closed between them, felt the same dilemma.
But in many ways, it wasn't over. Their foundation was there, they were still partners. Pembleton was also still a husband and a father. He got up to call Mary, tell her he'd stayed with Tim, and he'd try to be home early that evening. For last night, he wouldn't have gone to confession even if he were given to ritual confessions. In equal measure, he'd done right and he'd done wrong. Placebo of penance was too paltry a thing for the absolute rightness of one and the utter wrongness of the other.
This is it, Tim Bayliss told himself in the mirror over the sink, this is the point I must crawl back into my own skin and stay there. This morning, it was too tight a fit. His rib cage felt shrunk around his heart, it hurt. You're the one I didn't know where to stop, he'd read somewhere once, struck by the odd phrasing. Didn't sound at all odd now.
So what are you going to do, his reflection stared back at him, think of last night as an ordeal from now on?
No. How can I? He had to accept wanting was okay, having was not. So okay, I didn't know where to stop. I will learn now. I promise.
He shaved, left a new blade and a toothbrush out, took the fastest shower he could, knowing anyone trying to mix patience with Frank Pembleton would have it blow up in his face, and dried off quickly. Just as well not to linger over his body that carried too many imprints, temporary on the surface, indelible under it. When he came out, Frank was standing by the door, casually naked in the smooth ebony of his skin, making Tim feel ridiculously self-conscious about the towel he'd wrapped around himself.
"Hope you left me enough hot water." He glared into bathroom door as if he could read the secrets of its innards, too, "This place looks old enough to have one of those minuscule tanks."
"It's been remodeled. Don't worry, there's plenty of water."
"Bet you don't have an extra toothbrush."
"I'm single, Frank, it's mandatory. Next to the soap dish."
"Oh, yes," as if that reminded him, "Mary says hi." While entering the bathroom, he pointed out there was nothing in the Bayliss kitchen that might approximate morning fare. Which was a small mercy, he expounded while closing the door, for how could one stomach anything within sight and smell of the congealed remnants of the dinner on the table?
Really,this from a man who could linger in a room choked with the rotting stench of a two-week-old corpse and claim it wasn't bothering him because he wouldn't let it bother him?
However, it was so blessedly normal, putting the runaway world back on its tracks. "I'll buy you breakfast at Jimmy's," Bayliss offered through the door.
"Over my dead body."
"Stand between me and the coffee and find out." The water came on.
No need to think of you as an ordeal. Youare one. He went searching for his glasses, finally found them where he didn't have the slightest recollection of leaving them, on the dining table among the lamentable leftovers. He unearthed his last set of clean underwear from his suitcase and an older but laundered shirt from the back of the closet, knowing Frank was going to get grumpy again when he realized he had to don the same clothes he'd worn the day before. Well, he'd offer to put in his breakfast order, and all right, with coffee, while Frank went and remedied his sartorial purity from his locker. He'd order decaf and hope he won't end up wearing it.
He was almost dressed when the phone rang. He sat on the bed and picked it up. "Hello?"
"Good morning. Hope I didn't wake you."
"Hi, uh -- " for a crazy instant the name eluded him, " -- Chris, no. No, I was awake."
"I was reading the morning paper. Congratulations."
"Are due to others." Too late-breaking for the previous morning, the capture of the priest-killers must be making a splash today. How strange that to him it felt like it had happened days ago. "AllI did was play dress-up."
"Does this mean your nights are free again?"
"Well, yeah, but -- " Frank's standing naked in arm's reach hadn't done it, Chris' voice intruding through the phone wires was doing it. Making him want to stay curled around the spent night and keep it safe from strangers. "I mean, no, I…"
"Hey, it's okay if you're busy. I wasn't trying to pressure you."
"No, I know that." How long can you forage in memory, he asked himself, until it turns caustic and you can't even cherish it anymore? "I just mean I never know when I'll get another red ball -- I mean, another urgent case, but barring that," ithad to be an act of will, "yeah, I'm free."
"If you're up for company, how about if I came over tonight, brought along dinner?"
"Sure, that’d be great," he'd said before it dawned on him that, okay, dinner and company might indeed be great, but after two weeks away on vacation and work, Chris would expect him to be up for more than that. Jesus, the diluted touch of another body when he'd known the one all temper and fire and wit and audacity -- but Chris had completed a cheerful checklist --"What's your pleasure for dinner?" "Surprise me." "Eightish?" "Fine." "Can't wait, missed you." – and rung off while he'd mouthed the easiest responses.
An act of will then. He stood up, stripped the bed as if in defiance, started making it up with clean sheets. They might be using it tonight, if Chris wanted to. Belatedly, he remembered he was carrying tell-tale signs on his body. But he had no idea and less say-so on Chris' activities while away from him, neither expected exclusivity from the other, shouldn't be a problem.
Frank came out of the shower, started sorting through his clothes. Bayliss tried not to remember the deep, fluid movements against his fingers of the muscles that animated the beautiful slope of his back, his lush buttocks, his thick, solid thighs.
"Who was that on the phone?"
No sense avoiding it. "Chris."He watched Frank register it, turn and register the fact he was remaking the bed, saw the squall gather in the tight set of his jaw and the tyranny of his eyes. "Hope Mary wasn't worried about you," he put in. Come on, Frank, give me a break. I'm trying very hard to give myself one and it's killing me.
A clipped, "No." But the squall passed harmlessly. "Tim."
"I'm not fair and I'm not generous. I'm certainly not forbearing."
"No, really?" They could exchange a smile over that. A small thing, but a vast relief; their easy rhythms were intact.
"But I do want you to be happy."
"I'm trying, Frank."
He allowed Tim to get on with the bed and turned to dress.
It used to be taken for granted that when the detectives of the Homicide Unit congregated at their usual watering hole for some beers to wrap up the day, Frank Pembleton wouldn't be among them. He used to be the odd man out then, when the usual watering hole had been the Wharf Rat and the crowd included Stan-the-Big-Man, Crosetti and the son he'd never had, Thormann, Beau Felton and Kay Howard --hestill missed Kay-- and Munch would be sitting at the table. The rare occasions Pembleton had appeared on the edges of their gathering had been treated as the mountain coming to Mohammed, too disconcerting for its unexpected looming. They didn't use to invite him then. Now, six years later, the watering hole was the Waterfront, Munch was behind the bar, the faces had changed --not for the better, in Pembleton's opinion-- and they still didn't invite him; now it was taken for granted he'd be there. The blame lay with the man sitting across the table and going, "Wow," like a wide-eyed ten-year-old. Tim Bayliss, Frank Pembleton's voucher into the fold. "Wait a minute, wait a minute," Tim continued, and asked into Giardello's angels-should-fear-to-tread expression, "Gee, you were a prisoner of war?"
"I'd rather not talk about it," Gee rumbled after a long, searing glare.
Giardello's guest, Ilya-something-Poliakov, the Soviet ex-agent now called Sam, was willing to fill in the blanks, "I was still with the KGB, in Hanoi, I tried mind-bending El Diago for over four months.He convinced me to defect."
"You talked him out of being a communist agent?" Pembleton asked Gee. He'd have liked to ask about the story behind the name El Diago the defector applied to him, but Gee, sitting at the head of the table buttoned up tight in his coat --while Frank Pembleton was in shirtsleeves. When had times so changed?-- did not look to be in too sharing a mood.
"Me -- " after another forbidding pause, Gee decided on one of his devil-on-a-dare smiles, " -- and three hundred thousand dollars."
It lightened the mood, beer glasses were raised, smiles were traded all around. 'We dance round in a ring and suppose,' Pembleton agreed with the poet, 'but the Secret sits in the middle and knows.'
A Soviet brain-washing expert wearing Lands End casuals and toasting his prisoner from a far-away jungle as a friend in a Fells Point bar, the unexpected glimpses into Gee's past, Ballard casting too many hopeful glances at the door for Falsone she'd said would show up, Gharty casting disappointed glances at the bar for Billie Lou's absence and imagining his panting for her to be his secret, Pembleton and Bayliss sitting business-as-usual amidst their colleagues while less than a day earlier --
-- best not gothere.
Kellerman and Cox had been drinking together at the bar. Pembleton now saw her lean and give him a long, involved kiss. His back to them, Tim didn't see it. Would it bother him if he'd seen? A few days ago, when Kellerman had been spoiling for a fight with him in the locker room over her, Tim had pointed out his relationship with Julianna Cox was of the past. But he hadn't missed the opportunity to stress that Mike's relationship with her was even further in the past. Maybe not anymore.
But Cox broke the kiss, got up, exchanged a few more words with Kellerman and walked out of the bar without looking back while Mike stayed behind, got another drink, tossed it back, asked for yet another, drained half in one swallow and huddled over the rest. He didnot seem to be over the moon. At his rate, he'd soon be under the barstool.
"Another round?" Munch called out to their table. Gharty lifted a hand, but when Gee waved Munch's offer away and nobody else spoke up, he rose to go get it himself. Gee was back to glaring darkly, now at Kellerman's hunched shoulders.
Falsone came through the door and Ballard perked up immediately, waved at him. Oh, hell. Seattle was okay, he didn't mind her as much now as when he'd first found her transferred from that city and ensconced in his squad during his absence. Gharty was still an asshole, but the day's case had been Tim's, and Tim had got along just fine with him while Gharty was being helpful with background work, so it was all right having him at the table providing he didn't talk out of turn. But Falsone was such an oblivious idiot. Maybe he should remember he'd told Mary he'd be home early and leave now.
Or maybe not, since Ballard was getting up instead of asking Falsone to sit down. "Congratulations or commiserations?" she asked him.
"Hi," Falsone greeted the table's occupants, and told her, "Congratulations."
"Youwon," she squealed, gathering her coat, "How wonderful! Let's go have that dinner."
"Actually, I lost."
"I lost the custody case, but it's still congratulations." He smiled at her while she frowned questioningly at him, "Tell you over dinner -- you're still buying, right?"
"Cheapskate." She made it an endearment, waved like an afterthought at everybody else and flounced away with him.
"I owe a dinner, too," Gee told Sam. The man had been invaluable to solving the wannabe spy Akton's murder fast. "Italian?"
"What else, El Diago? We'll talk of old times."
Gee's eyes said there'd been too much of that already, only his mouth smiled at his guest. "Let's go -- goodnight," he told Pembleton and Bayliss. Gharty had stayed at the bar, would see no reason to come back now.
On his way out, Gee leaned toward Kellerman and said something to him. Mike morosely watched him leave, then motioned at Munch with his empty glass. Munch took it out of his hand only to put it aside, "You heard the man, Mike, go home."
"Give me another one."
"You had enough. Go home."
"This isn't the only bar, you know."
"This is the only bartender who has to answer to Gee, so sit there if you want, but no more booze. Why don't you have a cup of coffee instead?"
"Shove it." He seemed to find it funny, gave a brittle laugh, "No, no, never mind, I'll just shove off. It the night for all God's children to shove off." Unsteadily, he walked to the door.
"Gohome, Kellerman," Munch called out after him.
Bayliss had turned to watch the minor altercation. He checked his watch as he turned back around. "Ready to leave?"
In a hurry, Tim? "No."
Bayliss had started to slide his chair back, but he stopped. He also checked his watch again.
Got it the first time.Don't push it. "It's not every day a nut walks into the squadroom bristling with explosives and his incompetent thumbs on the triggers. Takes a while to decompress from that. Have another beer with me."
"Thanks, but no, I don't want another beer."
"Have one anyway."
"No, really, Frank, I have to go."
Oh, let him wait. He motioned with his empty glass, "Hey, Munch, two more."
Munch aimed a glare at him over the black rims of his glasses. "I'm sure I haven't seen you drink yourself legless. Wanna put 'em to use?"
"How often do you get paid forhis beer?" Pembleton indicated Bayliss, "If I'm paying, you can -- "
"Never mind, John," Bayliss raised his voice to interrupt, then he lowered it again, "I mean it, Frank, I don't want another beer. I'll get you one if you do, then I have to go."
"Lotsa things you have to do -- tell me, why was one of them cozying your face into fifty sticks of dynamite ready to go off if that nutjob stumbled one more time? Did you miss that the QRT had arrived? The cut-off switch wastheir job."
"Oh, come on. If one of them approached Boyles, he may have been terrified enough to let go. How far could any of us have run in the meantime? We were all in it together. I didn't seeyou leave. You know as well as I do Nelson Boyles was just a straw soldier. He was no real threat."
"Yeah? Well, the dynamites were. And one day we might underestimate someone at the wrong time -- so cut it out with the stupid heroics."
"All right, Frank, next time someone wants to blow up the squadroom, I'll let him. I'll come across the street and have a beer with you instead, okay? May I go now?"
What would you do if I said no? "Hand me my jacket, I'll walk out with you." By the time he put it on, Tim was in his coat and handing him his. What's the rush, Tim? What would you say if I asked?
As they were leaving the Waterfront, Munch was calling after them, "Oh, sure, Bayliss, just leave me behind here by my lonesome again, go ahead, suffer no pangs of guilt, spare me no thought."
Get in line, John. Timmy has a date tonight. His car was parked in front of Jimmy's, he knew it, Tim knew it, but when he turned left out of the bar, in the opposite direction, in the direction Tim had to go, Tim didn't react past a double-take, quietly fell into step with him. Well, we all know three's a crowd, so what are you going to do if I keep walking all the way home with you? Who do you kiss off? Behind door number one, we have -- relax, I'll turn back at the corner of Ann. Oh, this is Ann, so maybe I'll turn back at the next one, or maybe I'll --
But Tim had stopped at the corner himself, looking off toward Fell angling away to the Marina. Pembleton looked to see what had drawn his attention. Kellerman was there, leaning into the lamppost right before Margaret's. Tim hesitated for a few seconds, then heaved a sigh, "Dammit," he mumbled, and he was off, heading for the man apparently just standing and communing with the evening.
No, scowling at it, Pembleton saw as he followed Tim and approached Kellerman, who exchanged it for scowling at them. "Hey, Mike, what's going on? You okay here?" Tim asked. Why he felt he had to bother, Pembleton had no idea. Personally, I don't care, he made sure his expression told Kellerman, I wouldn't even be here except for the overgrown Boy Scout.
"What'd you care?" Kellerman growled.
"Cut it out, Mike, I'm here, I'm asking. You need anything?"
"How about a drink?"
"Forget it. You need anything else?"
Kellerman threw a glance at Pembleton. Istill don't care, he let his face say.
"Yeah," Kellerman looked away, mumbled, "But she's gone."
"Yeah, as in no longer here, left, drove off, blew outta here, quit this popstand,gone. As in not coming back. Catching on now?"
"Not really, no. What happened?"
He pushed off the lamp post, slapped it with his palm, kept slapping at it in punctuation, "Theyfired her. They wanted her to falsify an autopsy. 'Cause they didn't want to pay blood money to some dead sucker's crippled widow. She couldn't do it and they fired her. No sense fightin' City Hall, so she left, quit this miserable city, said goodbye, got in her car and drove away, and she's never -- " His hand turned into a fist to punch the post, but Tim quickly grabbed his wrist, probably saved him from smashing his bones and got zero appreciation for his trouble. Kellerman yanked his hand back, "Why am I talking to you?" he snarled. "You think you have some sort of better claim on her, you smug son of a bitch. So yes, she said goodbye to me and she left me, so go ahead and gloat, what difference does is make? She's gone and you can go to hell!"
He spun around and headed toward the Marina. It was too bad about Cox, she'd been a terrific M.E., but good riddance to Kellerman at the moment. However, Tim called out after him, "Mike. Hey, Mike?"
"What!" was thrown over a hunched shoulder.
"I had no claim, Mike. I didn't count."
It made Kellerman pause, glance back. "Huh?"
"Think about it, she didn't say goodbye tome."
What Kellerman's reaction to that was, Pembleton had no idea. Right then, he had no desire to look at anything except Tim's beautiful face, his clean, clear face. I think you're the only truly good man I know.
Mike must've taken his consolation and left, likely not appreciating Tim's generosity in offering it. Now Tim was looking at him, patiently waiting on him. Sometimes you shame me. "Go on, Tim, get on home. I'm off. And, uh -- " it was bile in his mouth, but he bore with the taste and made himself say, " -- have a good night."
"You, too. Goodnight, Frank." He smiled softly before he turned and crossed the street toward Ann.
Pembleton backtracked toward the other end. Providing the kids gave her a chance, Mary would be keeping the dinner warm. He could only hope she'd managed to rid his house of the Whelans.
"So, who do they get to milk the lion?" Bayliss asked, boneless on his couch and gazing fondly into the opaque depths of his drink.
Rawls smiled up at him from his cross-legged position on the floor, on the other side of the coffee table laden with a large selection of appetizers from the Middle Eastern market. He'd stayed true to theme and brought over the region's traditional drink, a biting, strong brew that had to be diluted with ice water, which turned the clear liquid pearly white and explained its name: Lion's Milk. "It's made of barley. I think the idea is, you have to be brave as a lion to drink it."
Bayliss giggled, literally giggled, and Rawls decided he’d been as patient as it was humanly possible to be. There the man sat with his long, long limbs carelessly sprawled, head thrown back, throat bared, beautifully flushed, and totally unaware of how appetizing he looked as he stroked the moisture off the sides of his glass. He had a habit of doing that, absently toy with glasses, mugs, anything wrapped by his elongated, expressive hands ElGreco would've killed to paint, totally oblivious to raising the onlooker's blood pressure.
Rawls unfolded himself, pushed the table enough to let him kneel between Tim's legs, slid his hands up the parted thighs. Tim put away his glass and readily leaned in to be kissed. He tasted different tonight, the sharp anise from the drink, smoky flavor of cumin, sweet-bitter cinnamon -- a more exotic feast and perfectly willing to be sampled. Rawls couldn't help biting down lightly on the wide, sensual lips, worry them a little between his teeth, trail his mouth down Tim's neck, feeling slightly cannibalistic, wanting to mark him where he'd been marked already by someone else mouth, the evidence of some recent intimacy strewn like confession beads around his throat. He'd noticed as soon as he'd walked in, hadn't asked, wouldn't ask. It was the price of getting involved with a bisexual man.
He unbuttoned Tim's shirt, pushed it past the broad shoulders and Tim did the rest. Sliding up the undershirt and unsnapping the corduroys, he laid his cheek on Tim's midriff, where the warm flesh smelled more like Tim, and when he turned his head, tasted just like Tim. Reacting to his kisses and his stroking through the layers of cloth slower than Tim, though.
"I'm…uh, guess I'm a little tired tonight," Tim said. Tentative, almost apologetic.
You're not a little tired, you're more than a little expended, but that's all right. "Don't worry about it. It just gives me more time to make good use of -- unless you were telling me to stop."
"No, I just meant, might take a while."
"Not a problem." He leaned up, lapped at the tender skin behind Tim's earlobe, whispered into his ear, "Let's go to bed, let me take the time and make you want it." I'll take what's left, and then the next she will have to take what's left, round and round it goes, where it stops --stop getting melancholy. You're dying to love him, so love him. "I will," he said, more to himself than to Tim, "I'll love you slowly. I'll feed you pleasure the way I've been watching you eat that food, morsel by morsel," he heard Tim's breath catch, "let you savor it until you tell me you want more. You tell me what you're hungry for," felt a long tremor course through Tim's body, "and I'll give you your fill, any way you want it, so come on, let's go to bed."
In the bedroom, Tim seemed to want to bare him without interference. He stood still for it, then pushed Tim onto his back and stripped him to his underwear, climbed on the bed and straddled him. It reminded him of the last time he'd had Tim's hips between his legs, Tim's hands gripping his thighs harder than they gripped them now, when they'd both been naked, erect and hot -- hope you'll want to be inside me. Want you as close as I can get you tonight.
Keeping his weight on his knees and elbows, he bent to Tim's mouth, not to devour as his own blood cried out for, just to tantalize, tempt. Over and over, until it was Tim grabbing his head and sealing their lips, until he was about to lose himself in the moist depths of the long kiss, but an uneasy sound from Tim's throat crowded in, "No, wait," he gasped, squirming away.
Rawls sat up immediately. "What's wrong?"
"The light," he groped toward the night stand, "turn it on. Please, I need to see you."
He'd have just as soon kept the shadows. He didn't care to see any more clearly the imprints of a stranger's passion on the body his own passions craved, but the urgency of the plea left him no room. He reached and turned on the lamp. For a split instant he thought he saw panic in Tim's eyes, but the lids shuttered out the sudden light, and when they opened again, Tim looked calm, even smiled at him. "It's okay," his hands roaming over Rawls as if he required redefining, "Come on, come back," he tucked Rawls' head into his shoulder.
So easy to nestle there like a natural shelter. The fretful pulse at the base of Tim's neck beat against his lips, and he opened his mouth to it, on the warm, salty skin of the long throat that had fascinated him from the beginning. Obviously, not only him -- quit that! His hands slid up and down Tim's chest, abrading his own palms and the small, tightening nubs under them with the slight grain of the cotton shirt. Tim hissed in a breath, so he pushed the discomfort of the shirt up out of the way, slid lower, licked at a nipple -- a little too warm to his tongue, too swollen.
Women left love bites, nail scratches, yes, but sore nipples? Maybe he had to take his expectations down yet another notch -- What did you go looking for in Disney World, Tim? But no, the bruises had no yellowing yet, they were more recent. You found it here somewhere and you found it rough. Did youwant to find it rough or did it just turn out that way? Oblivious, Tim was pressing up into him, sliding, rocking against his length, his fingers blindly combing his back. You promised to come back and you did, you seem to want to be here with me now, so all right, I won't ask which road you took.
The shirt bunched up under Tim's arms bothered him. It looked like a surgical bandage around a chest wound, made him shiver suddenly with undefined dread. Maybe he was working on a brand new nightmare, a special edition for those who started to care about a cop. He coaxed Tim to lift up and pulled the shirt off. He had mottling high up on his arms, too, as if someone had held him down and -- no, he wouldn't ask. He was used to not asking. Leaving the tender nipples alone, he took his mouth and hands to the broad arches of the ribs, the smooth hollows below them, to the supple swell of the belly underpinned by the corded strength of muscles, as surprising as an ambush hidden under a fine vulnerability. All mobile now, flexing to friction Tim's hips against him in sensual cadence -- oh, yes, you do want me. He pushed the boxers down, took the lengthening, arching shaft into his hand, the skin feeling too delicate for the live power filling it, stretching it thin and sensitive to his fingers. Tim's desire was suddenly precipitate, hot, and unexpectedly vocal, as if he was caught in a high-octave sensation and had to give voice to it. Perfect, Rawls thought, getting dizzy with the musky, carnal scent of his lover filling his nostrils, you're perfect and you're mine. He lifted his head to take Tim into his mouth --
-- more mottling. Might as well be finger prints left on a crime scene, of thumbs that had dug into insides of the blades of the hipbones. Not all that mine, are you? He scooted back, Tim's hips followed him, eager for him, and he could see the marks of the fingers attached to those thumbs, belonging to hands more or less equal to his. He moved up, stropping up the long body as Tim adhered to him in mindless abandon, spread his hands, matched the mottled circles on the hips lifting up into him and could read their history on the fair skin like Braille in soot. He pulled away to look at the beautiful lust in Tim's face, raw, flawed, and asking for more than he could bear. "So where did you find him? Did you go back to the Floss?"
"Huh?" Always easily lost in a sensual fog, Tim was vague and so lovely with it.
He could have cried at imagining what a predator would have done with that. "Oh, Jesus, please tell me you had enough sense to keep it safe."
"Wha --?" Tim shook his head. "I didn't go back. Why would I go back there?"
"What arethese, Tim? A woman’s hand didn’t leave these marks." His fingers dug into the bruises of their own volition; he had to think to loosen his hold. "You were with a man and you've let him fuck you." He wanted to ask 'who,' but what did it matter, what difference could a name make?
Only a short hesitation, then, "Yes."
It hurt. More than he’d thought it would. Under skin, flesh and bone, it hurt like hell-fire. He could only say, "Please, at least tell me you used protection, please?" Tim's eyes shied away. "Christ, Tim!"
"He has no risk factors. I just hope I didn't give him one." His eyes returned, met Chris' directly, unblinkingly, and he added with that damnable honesty of his, "'Let' had nothing to do with it. I wanted it more than I wanted my next breath."
And there it was, the name. Unasked, unspoken, unwanted, but there, as ifit had the right of claim. "I see. So you got the one you've been wanting all along."
"Frank Pembleton," he put in unnecessary syllables, who else? "I should've known."
"No!" Sheer panic in Tim's eyes. "What -- what're you talking about?"
He had to laugh at himself. "I'm not surprisedhe went for it." Given half a chance, a safe chance at that, a lot of straights took a bite of the forbidden. "But you're so crazy about him that I didn't think you'd dare risk everything else between you two."
"What are you -- ? Chris,no, you got it all wrong, you don't -- "
"Oh, stop it, what're you so scared of?" Not of hurting me, that's obvious. That I'd hurthim? "I wouldn't breathe a word of it, what makes you think I can be that vindictive?"
"Idon't. Chris, please, I -- it was a mistake, my mistake."
I doubt it, but it doesn't matter. "I'm not assigning blame, Tim. I know I don't own you, I know you can't help what you feel, it's just that -- " it was going to come out like condemnation if he said it, and he shouldn’t say it, but it was his worst demon and came out anyway, "Why did he have to hurt you?"
"He didn’t hurt me," Tim hastened to defend, and that was fine, that was no more than expected, if he had just stopped there it would've been all right, but he went on, "He freed me."
He might as well be hearing Lee, looking at him with desperate plea in his almond eyes, you don't understand, you can’t know how itreleases me, showing him his delicate, torn wrists as if to prove the holy ecstasy of stigmata, it unchains me.
Suddenly there was nothing, no remnant of heat or passion left in him, except the old wound in his center and another layer of carapace already trying to form around it. Until it hardened, it was going to ache miserably. Again.
"It shouldn't've happened, it'll never happen again." Tim's fingers scribbled question marks on the side of his face, "Chris?"
"It's okay," he took the hand in his, and it curled defenselessly around his kiss on its palm, "You're going to be okay, you'll see. Relax." He laid Tim's hand aside, slid lower on the bed. He'd never believed in provoking a need only to leave it needy.
"Wait," Tim said.
He looked up. "What?"
"Areyou saying goodbye?"
The odd inflection reminded him that he'd asked the same question the last time they'd been together. What could he say? "Yes." Tim's head dug back into his pillow. "I'm sorry."
"Then I wish you'd just go."
"Let me -- "
"Please, Chris,go." He rolled over, away.
All right. Or maybe all wrong. But all right.
He got up and dressed. Tim didn't stir. Except for the tightness across his shoulders, he could've been asleep. "Tim, Iam sorry." Less an apology than stating his truth.
"It's okay, just -- " muffled, " -- turn the light out."
The better to seehim with? He bit his lip, did as asked and left.
There was a note stuck on the outside of George Bayliss' front door. Tim transferred the grocery bags to one arm, snagged the paper, opened the door and walked in. As usual, the television was on. He doubted its circuits would recognize an 'off' command anymore. "It's me," he called out, wondering why he bothered. Nobody else ever came through that door. He put the bags on the kitchen table, turned on a light and read the note. It was from the local laundry, informing him they'd stopped by but hadn't found anything to pick up on the stoop.
"Why didn't you put the laundry out?" he asked, walking into the living room. "Why am I paying them to pick it up if you're not going to bother?"
"Don't like putting my stuff out there," his uncle petulantly told the flickering images on the screen. "They'll get stolen."
"If they don't get stolen when they're clean, trust me, nobody's going to steal them when they're dirty. All right, I'll take them in this time. Next time, don't forget."
"Where were you, Timothy?" A pitiful whine.
"What did I say when I last came and brought all those supplies? Didn't I tell you I was going on vacation?"
He looked up accusingly, "You said two weeks. It's been months."
"No, it hasn't. It's been two -- okay, it's been three weeks. I was busy, I had to take a personal day today to catch up on stuff." While he was signing out for it, Stivers had been signing off for court. Frank had immediately figured he was getting saddled with Falsone for the day and had made his displeasure clear to Bayliss at some length. Well, at least he was back in Munch's good graces, having spent the time tending the bar. Not that Munch had done anything with his freedom from the Waterfront except sit on the other side of the selfsame bar and wag his chin.
"It was months," his uncle insisted.
He sighed. "Whatever. Did you eat tonight?"
"Cereal. The milk's gone sour."
He sighed again. "Come in to the kitchen. I'll open up a can of soup."
He put away the groceries while the soup heated, poured it in a bowl and put it in front of the old man. "Be careful, it's hot."
"I need a shave."
"I can see that." Judging by the nicks and cuts, he'd made a few efforts at it himself. "You need a haircut, too. Eat your soup, then I'll take care of it. You know, if you're going to live in pajamas, you need to change them more often. Tell you what, I'll change the linen if you'll take a shower and put on clean pajamas."
Too bad Bible-loving Tony had turned out to be nuttier than the usual lot traipsing through the Waterfront and Munch had fired him. He'd been doing a good job of cleaning the bar and Bayliss had planned to hire him to clean this house regularly. It certainly needed it, smelling stale, damp with the water stains spreading halfway down the walls like a disease nobody cared enough to treat.
"I wasn't worried, Timothy," his uncle said as he was leaving the kitchen, "I knew you'd come back."
Felt like chill fingers down his spine. Why am I doing this to myself? "Yeah, fine." Just don't tell me what a good boy I am.
In the bedroom, some of the paneling was curling away from the floor trim. He'd have to bring a hammer and nails and fix them. He stripped the sheets, pulled the covers off the flattened pillows, looked down and considered the bed skirt someone had bothered to drape around the bed, probably the widow his uncle had married for twenty minutes about twenty years ago. Frayed, yellowed, and dirty, it looked like it could've been hanging there that long. He went to the foot of the bed, lifted the mattress enough to slide it out.
A plastic bag fell out from between the mattress and the box springs. No bigger than a sandwich bag, no more full than would be filled by a sandwich, it seemed to contain…photos?
Of course, the cop in him matter-of-factly said, every pedophile has a stash. You know that. The rest of him stood frozen, the sheet dropping from his suddenly nerveless fingers, and looked at it lying on the floor like some dead thing putrefying before his eyes, don't touch it, oh please, don't touch it.
Used to dead, putrid things, the cop picked it up, pulled out the photos and looked at them. Don't be silly, he admonished, you're so used to seeing yourself in every abused child that you just think they're all you.
But theyare all me. Every single photo. Some of them cut out from group shots, the rest of his family and friends excised from him. All of them.
Yes, I guess they are, and the cop was nowhere to found. It left the abomination inhis hands, the photos limp from being enclosed by plastic, faintly sticky to his fingers from --
Old photosdo get sticky, he tried to tell himself, but his stomach was having none of it. It heaved violently. He dropped the photos and barely made it to the bathroom.
It took a while to purge it. Dry heaves took longer. But at the end, once he'd rinsed his mouth, washed his face, scrubbed his hands and turned the faucet off with his elbow, there was a light-headed sense of relief. Martyr doesn't suit you, he remembered Frank saying. At last something long toxic in him seemed gone.
I'm never coming back here again.
He took a clean towel out of the linen cupboard, went to the bedroom and gathered the photos in it without touching them with his bare hands. There had to be more. He couldn't have been the only focus of the man's sickness. The small pouch he'd made of the towel only contained the pick of the litter, the one kept closest to hand, thespecial one.
For a few seconds he thought he may not have vomited out all the poison, but it passed.
He should probably look for the rest. But the house was crammed with half a century of detritus, stacks of crates, shoe boxes, papers, magazines and phone books going back more years than he'd been alive choked every corner, every shelf and drawer overflowed with clutter. He was too tired. What difference would it make now anyway? If he'd opened his mouth once he'd grown, done something useful about it then, maybe that would've made a difference to some child somewhere.
He remembered Jim, shortly after his acquittal, holding his first son and talking about the terrible legacies fathers leave their sons, wondering if the baby boy in his arms would grow up and also kill someone else's son one day. Bayliss wondered if it had ever occurred to his own father that his only son would become a man and hold from other men's children the protection that had been held from him.
He went into the kitchen, searched in the cabinet under the sink for something more instantly flammable than terry cloth, found an old can of paint thinner. He pried the lid off, smelled it. It'd do. He took a book of matches, put it in his pocket, went and sat across from his uncle who was peering at him with worried, watery eyes, instinctively alert to something amiss. "Listen to me. I'm leaving now and I'm not coming back. I'm going to call Social Services, get someone to come in regularly and help you out. If necessary, I'll hire someone. You'll be taken care of. But I'm not coming back here again. Don't expect me, don't call me, don't…justdon't."
"Why don'tyou tell me why?" The old man's face with its tracework of broken veins left from too many bottles looked blank. "You know what I'm talking about." He peeled the fold of the towel until the photos showed. "Why me?" The gnarled fingers made a sudden grab for the bundle with the same mindless possessive greed he'd seen in every other addict. He yanked them away before they could be touched. "You have no right to them! You had no right to me! Why? Why did you do that to me?"
"You loved me."
He couldn't believe his ears. "What!?"
"You were such a sweet boy. The rest, they were hooligans. You were so good, the most beautiful little boy, such trusting eyes. You had so much love, but you were quiet, nobody noticed how much you wanted to be loved back, I did, I loved you, and you loved me, too, you did, you do, you came back. All these years and you came back."
He believes that. Dear God in heaven, hebelieves that.
Nothing to do, nothing to say --and please all mercy, no more to hear. He got up and walked out of the kitchen. "You'll come back, Timothy." Never. Out of the hall. "You'll see, you'll be back." Never, not ever. Out of the house.
In the dirt yard with its few patches of grass yet to be choked out by weeds, he found a clear spot, put the bundle down, drenched it with the paint thinner and set it ablaze, throwing the book of matches into it for good measure. It flared instantly, consumed itself fast and died down, leaving an oily char on the ground and thin tendrils of chemical smoke in the air. He kicked some dirt over it, turned to leave.
His uncle had been watching him, his backlit shadow and the paler blotch of his face behind the glass of the window. Once you're dead, I just might come back and burn the rest to the ground. He was still at the window when Tim swung the creaky iron gate closed behind him. There's no one to wait for, old man, you're alone. Cheer up, from all evidence so far, I might share the same fate one day.
God, it was cold. He got in his car and drove away.
It wasn't going to rain after all, the heavy-bellied clouds had blown over, leaving in their wake thin streamers, all blazing with the colors of the sunset. Pembleton started toward the car, but Bayliss seemed to get stuck in the small rock garden of Priscilla Owens' apartment building. He put on his best let's-go-let's-go face, found it wasted, when without sparing him a glance Tim walked to the low brick wall enclosing the garden and stood there, watching the bay. Okay, itwas a nice sunset, as lovely here as from Owens' westward apartment. Pembleton joined him.
Bayliss leaned into his palms on the wall, looking off into the horizon. "Well, at least she has a beautiful view."
"Yeah." Want it, she'd asked when he'd pointed it out, should be available this time next year. Maybe sooner, of course, if Doctor Roxanne Turner decreed her patient's life wasn't worth living anymore. And if the dying woman missed seeing a few more sunsets, oh, well. He hopped on the wall, facing away from the view toward the building. Okay, fine, a nice sunset, which just meant the pollution in the air was thick enough to poison, andhis primary concern was upstairs in the brick building, injecting something or another into her patient's veins in the name of mercy and calling it palliative care.
Tim put his head back, closed his eyes and heaved a sigh or replenished his lungs with the cooling air, cleared his mind or got it into another muddle, whatever. Let'sgo, Pembleton wanted, because right then, while he sat with his shoulder touching Tim's, the thrown-back head in profile, the expanse of Tim's throat, his slightly parted mouth reminded him of too many things he shouldn't go around remembering, especially during work. Tim turned his head and looked at him across the short distance of their two shoulders, his eyes the color of warm honey in the fiery light. Do you know how often you smile while being kissed, your lips pull, their corners curl, and suddenly I was kissing your smile?
Quietly, softly, Tim asked into his eyes, "What are we doing, Frank?"
A bit late to ask, Tim --
But Tim continued, "We have no case here. Why are we trying to invent one?"
"What the fuck do you mean we have no case here?" Jerked too fast back into reality, furious at having allowed himself to leave it at all, his sudden anger crashed into its usual breakwater. "If you didn't have some slack-jawed adoration thing going for doctors --remember the other angel of mercy you couldn't even put handcuffs on?-- you'd be the first one screaming we have a serial killer here!"
"Jesus, Frank!" he backed up a step, "Sometimes I wonder where your heart is. That woman up there is thirty-four years old and she's been dying for eight years, she's going to die alone -- "
"Don’t get off the subject, our case is Turner, not Owens --yet. Besides, she has a companion. Someone opened the door."
"A hospice worker! And I don't care if she has a family bigger than the Waltons, in the end everybody dies alone in their own body. She was pleading with us, Frank. Her doctor is her last consolation, her only hope of death with some dignity, and Roxanne Turner isnot a monster. You were there, you heard it all, her colleagues, her patients, they're all saying she's a great doctor, a caring doctor. She loves her patients enough to hate their suffering, is that a crime? She devoted half her profession to bringing new life into the world. She's devoting the next half to easing old or worn life out of it. Either way, it's deliverance. What's so damn wrong about that? You think Priscilla Owens will thank you to stop her?"
Pembleton came off the wall to his feet. "You want a job someone'll thank you for, go sling burgers at McDonalds. Let all those happy folks give you many happy thanks as you hand out happy meals. Me, I'd rather keep taking the garbage out. I can breathe easier." He yanked the car keys out of his pocket and headed for the Cavalier. After a few steps, Bayliss caught up with him. "For your information, I don't know what holiday yours is taking, but I knowexactly where my heart is. I speak for the dead."
"No higher calling, yes, I know." Bayliss mumbled. They were halfway to the station when he took a deep breath and continued, "Haven't you ever thought that maybe, just maybe it's better to protect the living?"
"She doesn't protect them, she puts them beyond all protection, what are you talking about?"
"Forget it." He looked out his window. "I don't think I was talking about her anyway."
"So what're you saying?"
"Never mind. Just…never mind."
They stopped at a traffic light. Impatient, Pembleton drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. "Let's go see what Gee has to say." Giardello might let him have a go at the revered doctor. Handled right, he might even be the one to suggest it. "If I can get her in the box, I can at least put her on notice that I'm watching her every move from now on." The light turned green and he put his foot hard on the accelerator. "One way or another, I'm putting Dr. Turner out of the God business." From the corner of his eye, he saw Bayliss shake his head and grimace. "What?"
"Dr. Turner is not killing Priscilla Owens. MS is killing her. If there's any injustice here, it's God's. You want to look at it that way, every murder we get is God's own handiwork. So now what, we must be greater than God for we apply justice to his injustices?"
"If you like."
Bayliss slid low in the seat to be able to lean back into the headrest, told the top of the car, "Gotta tell you, Frank, it's getting a little too lofty for me up where you are."
He ignored Bayliss, busy thinking: deliverance. A good point Tim had raised. I can use that.
Pembleton wasn't in sight when Dr. Turner walked into the squadroom. Bayliss told Judy to track him down, thanked the doctor for coming, got her a drink and showed her into the interview room. It was likely to be the last courtesy she'd find here. For a few minutes, he stayed with her, his casual comment on the weather leading them to chat about the Mexican vacation she'd been dreaming about for years. She didn't seem to expect to get there any time soon. Pembleton came in and ended the conversation.
"Where're you going?" he demanded as Bayliss headed for the door.
"Home." Frank had yet another cup of coffee in his hand. Right then, Bayliss didn't much care. "Home. I'm not in this." I want no part of it. "Vaya con Dios, Doctor," he wished Turner and left her with Pembleton. He went to his desk, shoved the autopsy reports into a file, carried them to his partner's desk. For all the good they'll do you. He started for the coat rack, but his feet carried him to the other end squadroom, into the observation cubicle.
"No abortion, no murder, no suicide, no euthanasia," Frank was listing the Four Deadly Sins According to Pembleton. Three short of God's list, but give him time.
"No nuclear war, no capital punishment," Turner countered. "Doyou believe in the Seamless Garment of Life?"
"I'd like to. It'd logical, consistent. No moral, metaphysical contradictions."
"What," she made a derisive sound, "a homicide detective who doesn't believe in capital punishment?"
"Well, feeling's one thing, reality's another. I'm a cop, I have to embrace contradictions." He approached her and hitched his leg on the corner of the table at her elbow. "Capital punishment is wrong --and necessary."
"You see, I don't let doctrine stand between me and my patients, either," she started to reason with him and Bayliss wished he could tell her to save her breath. Frank wasn't looking for reason, he was looking for the jugular. "But I don't murder any of my patients."
"Fine." Right on top of her, taking advantage of his position to look down at her, and probably taking advantage of the smoke wafting up at him from her cigarette. "I accept that."
"You do?" It threw her, Bayliss could tell. So could Frank, of course. Now he'd keep backing up until she stopped watching out for him and he could strike.
"I know how slippery definitions can be -- semantics. The more sophisticated the mind, the slicker the pavement." Almost companionably, "I think you really believe what you do is not murder."
"No, no," she didn't buy into it, "that ain't nearly good enough, and please, do not patronize me."
"Okay, fine." He straightened and backed all the way up to the plate glass window. "Forget about the murder. I no longer suspect you of murder. I absolve you of that."
Did you miss her speech patterns, Frank? She's still rooted in plain Southern earth, that's not going to impress her, just piss her off, make her dig her heels.
"I don't need absolution."
"Come on, Doc, weall need absolution."
"Speak for yourself!"
Told you. Frank knew error when he'd made one. He was letting a long lull distance him from it. When he started again, he was polite, "I hope you realize you're free to go anytime, you're not under arrest, you're not a suspect -- not for anything I can charge you with under the laws of the Great State of Maryland." Well, politeness never lasted long with him.
"What would you charge me with if you could?"
"I don't know." He'll be coming at you now. "How about…hmm?" He approached and took the seat across from her. There he is: "Playing God?"
"God doesn't make housecalls. We do. You and me."
"I don't play God."
Right, Frank. There’s a whole choir of angels laughing their haloes off up there.
"That'sexactly what you do every day. You decide who's innocent, who's guilty." She was proving to be his match. Bayliss felt like cheering her on aloud. "You say, 'Okay, you, I'm gonna let you go, but you, I'm gonna get you."
He could only see Pembleton's back, tell his movements by the play of muscles through the stretch of his shirt across his shoulders, but he was so familiar with his body language that a few clues sufficed. His head steady, he was bringing his coffee cup up to his lips, and he'd be taking a small, deliberate sip to draw her attention to his mouth. His next words would be barely more than a breath, and Bayliss instinctively strained to hear:
"I'm gonna getyou," he took her words and whispered them back at her, now turned into a private, potent promise, half threat, half seduction. I'm gonna get you, it seemed to echo on Bayliss' side of the one-way mirror, slide into him, a cold needle in the bloodstream, pumping something molten into his veins.
Goose bumps shivered on his arms, heat skittered down his spine. He hadn't always been aware of how Frank used his sexuality in the box, had he? Maybe he was only recognizing it now, now that they'd been introduced, recognizing it all too vividly, explicitly. Maybe I should get out of here.
"I avenge the dead," Frank was informing the doctor.
"Is that why I'm here, because you think you need to speak for my patients?"
"Somebody's got to."
"Who the hell are you? You didn't hold their hands when they were screaming and hollering all night long," she was angry, "you didn't mop up any mucus or diarrhea, or their vomit, you didn't clean the pus out of anybody's sores," spitting out the gut-churning details of her reality into his face, "or throw your body across theirs to keep them in bed while they were thrashing around in their death throes with bile and blood gushing from every orifice. How dare you presume to speak for my patients?"
It won't work, he wanted to shout at her, it won't work for your heart's bleeding out of your mouth. The only ones he loses --Wilgis, Pratt, Rausch-- are the soulless ones. The ones weak enough to have a heart, a conscience, they don't stand a chance. Even knowing his every single move was no help, or Tim Bayliss wouldn't be standing there snagged on memory and renewed longing, feeling raw and exposed as ifhe were on the blind side of the mirror.
I gotta get out of here.
Frank's voice was velvet soft one minute, "Everybody says you're a great doctor, you care for your patients, you love them even," scalpel-sharp the next, "but you can't bear it, can you? It all takes too damn long, God, or nature, or whatever you want to call it. Can't just let them die, so youdeliver them, right? Just like you used to deliver babies."
Another chill sluice, another flash of heat. Listening to Frank take the words he'd used to defend her only a few hours ago and turn them into a weapon against her. All's fair in love and war, Frank Pembleton style.
I'm so damned mad at you. I want you so damned much.
Two thoughts in one, equally imperative. Inseparable. Sick puppy, Frank had once called him. After he'd shared the smoke filtered through his lungs and blown through his lips: You're a sick puppy.
"There are no dead people on my conscience, canyou say the same?" Dr. Turner was asking as Bayliss left the observation room.
He thought to grab his coat, didn't think to put it on, the friction of the jagged edges of conflict inside him inured him to the cold, even when he found himself outside. He walked past the draft tunnel of the arched opening to the garage, stopped at the cast-iron railing separating the sidewalk from the inlet of water between the piers. He watched the lazy, coiling wash against the algae-stained stones, the soft splash of the bay rocking the tugboats in their berth next to the headquarters.
His anger would pass, he knew. They'd survived the early days, the jostling to re-fit each other after Frank's stroke, the bitter acrimony over the Parsons case -- hell, they'd survivedJim, and nobody in the squad had taken that bet. This too would pass. The most Pembleton could do was get an administrative censure against Dr. Turner from AMA for, maybe, mismanagement. She wouldn't suffer anything more than that. If he managed to stop her, though, many others would suffer. The thirty-four year old woman whose only hope for a future was an easy death, the old men and women in that hospice waiting for the same mercy, they'd all be left alone with their suffering.
He finally noticed he was squandering all his body heat, standing in the open between the land and the harbor -- 'In splendid isolation.'
Another one of those who-knows-from-where snippets that seemed to swim around his brain and come up for air at odd moments. He didn't know who had said that, either, but he was damned sure there was nothing splendid about isolation.
Noreen, arriving late for the dinner shift, told Chris Rawls he might want to take a look outside and see if he had any lingering interest in what the evening had wrought.
There he was, Tim Bayliss, out on the street in the cold and dark again, this time occupying the stoop of the stairs to his apartment like a stray, involved in a study of his hands. Needlessly, he noticed Tim had cut his hair short. Even more needlessly, he remembered how his hair had felt like wet, heavy silt to his hands after the shower that first morning. "What is it with you, Tim? Do you have something against being warm?"
Bayliss tucked his hands under his arms and kept looking at him with already-kicked puppy eyes. "No -- against being alone."
I'm not going to pet him, Rawls sternly told the instant meltdown that threatened his insides, I refuse to pet him anymore. "A common ailment." But okay, he'd let it get Tim one shot at it. "Tell me what brought you back tomy door. If it's a lie, make it pretty. Or try a truth, but tell me something."
"You won't like it."
"Then it better be true."
"You'll hate it."
"Okay, I'm warned."
"This case we had last few days, hell, it's not even a case, but try telling that to -- anyway, Frank was interviewing -- no, he was supposed to be interviewing, but he was interrogating someone and I was watching, from behind the glass and I, uh -- " a breath, as if to fortify himself to continue, " -- I don't much like Frank tonight." He took one look at him and averted his eyes. "Told you."
"You're right, I hate it." Your honesty will be the death of us yet. In fairness,he was the one who had demanded it this night, so he had to say, "For some reason, though, I can't hate you." He waved off Bayliss' attempt to speak, knowing damned well the man was sure to make it worse by attempting to make it better. What Tim thought could top that charming flattery, Rawls didn't care to find out. Nothing would change the fact that tonight Tim was contented least with what he loved most and was here looking for the consolation prize. One of those cut-rate stuffed toys hanging in the hawkers' stalls, waiting to be handed out for small comfort to the losers at the carnival. "There a slight catch, of course -- is there a you without him?"
"There has to be. It happened, Chris, but it's never going to happen again."
Your wishes notwithstanding, he didn't say.
"It hurt you, I know that, and I'm sorry. You did nothing to deserve it."
"Yeah, it hurt, but I hope you know, Tim, I didn't leave you because you'd slept with someone else." He'd learned to live with that a long time ago.
"I know. I also know I've done nothing to deserve you, so if you tell me to take a hike, I'll go, I won't bother you again. But I just…I wanted to try. Ihad to try. You see, what I said about Frank, a lot of the time I don't like me very much either. But I liked me with you. With you, I felt good about me."
What could he do, tell him to go and watch him walk away dejected into the night? Because he'd failed to love someone he could have? "Come on, let's go inside. If we have to be miserable, at least we can do it in some comfort."
"I don't want to be miserable. I don't want to make you miserable, either. Believe me, Chris, I don't."
Rawls sighed. "I know, Tim," I've been down that road before, I know what paves it. "Let's talk about it upstairs."
"No." A definite shake of the head. "I can't, no."
"If we go inside, I'll be begging you to take me to bed."
Now a lick of heat threatened to help the meltdown along.
"I'm sorry," Bayliss found it necessary to apologize. "It's funny, you know, I thought -- at first, I mean, I thought it'll be a breeze. Guys know guys, I can relate to a guy, how hard can it be? It's not true. I'm no better at it with you than with women. I just have to face it, it's not you, it's not them, it's me. When you walked out on me, you misunderstood what I said. I knew it, I knew why, but I didn't correct you. I couldn't find a good reason to ask you to stay. Not because I didn't care about you, I did. Ido -- "
"But not enough," Rawls concluded for him. Not nearly enough. Not as much as Pembleton. Damned if Tim didn't nod. What could be done but accept that the nature of this pretty beast was his inability to lie, or even dissemble? He decided to let it pass. "Go on, this is where you explain to me how I was wrong."
"I, uh, I have a history. From way back. It left me feeling -- " he brought his hands out of hiding, scrubbed them against each other, caught sight of what he was doing and stilled them. "I always felt I had no voice in what I let happen to me, and Fr --" he cut off and instead, pleaded, "Oh, Chris, I can't explain it. Not here, not yet. But what I said, it wasn't what you thought. I was talking about a healthy thing, believe me. Can you just please believe me?"
He took a minute to consider. "Okay." Altogether possible, wasn't it, he'd cut Tim off because that particular knife had been rusting away in his own guts for so long? "What else do you want me to believe?"
"I don't know. I'm just now trying to figure it out myself. I have a lot to figure out."
"And all you want from me is some company while you're going about it."
"No, of course -- "
"Whatever," he interrupted firmly. Somebody ought to teach the man how to quit while he was ahead. Actually, it looked like somebody had to teach him how to tell he was ahead. "If you don't mind, that's all I'll count on. If you'll pleasantly surprise me one day, I'll be pleasantly surprised. Come on, come upstairs." He couldn't help it; he said goodbye to useless resolutions and reached to pet Bayliss' head.
"You sure? I meant what I said."
"I'm counting on it -- damn you." But why not? It was one of the commonest living acts.
"Chris -- "
"Get your ass off my stoop and up the stairs before I remember I have too much sense to let you do this to me again."
"I swear, Chris, I don't want to do anything to -- "
"Yeah, I know," he interrupted, but you will. "One want at a time, okay? Move it."
Tim Bayliss did.
After an awkward, depressing half-hour, Pembleton bid goodbye to the nice Mr. Kaufman and his 'sweetpea,' as he called his daughter. A ruthless part of him could even appreciate the irony of the nickname the father used with boundless affection toward his damaged child. Carla was sweet, a hell of a lot more sweet now than she'd been when he knew her in college, before some incompetent surgeon had left her with a brain the size of, let's face it, a pea. After some difficulty, she'd recognized him. Now that he'd left, she wouldn't even remember he'd been there. Being unmemorable was never an easy pill for him to swallow.
He stepped over and around the puddles left over from the morning rain, mixing with the oils from the day's traffic and swirling viscid rainbows on the cement, got into his car, drove away. One of the reasons he lived in Baltimore was Carla. Her family was native to it and she had brought him down with her one spring break, introduced him to the misnamed Charm City. He hadn't exactly liked it, Baltimore being a city you had to learn to love despite itself. Probably the reason it had fit him better than his own native grounds.
Carla had been such a bright, talented young woman then. If she'd ever noticed they were of different races, it was because differences flavored the ordinary. She'd been his friend through college until her brain tumor operation, his sex partner the times when the notion took them, both of them too intense about choosing their individual paths through life to spare more than physical intensity for each other. She'd been an aspiring singer with a voice like rich brocade, a voice angels would envy. Maybe they had, and taken it away from her. At least her ability to make music with it. Carla doesn't sing anymore, he'd told Roxanne Turner, an epitaph for a living woman.
He knew why Dr. Turner had asked him if he had any dead people on his conscience. People assumed cops went around lethally wielding their weapons. Not true. He had only ever fired at the targets of the firing range, never once into living tissue, hoped he would never, ever be forced to, wasn't sure he could even if forced. Why her question had brought Carla to mind across so many years and he'd told her about it, he didn't know.
No, that wasn't true, either. He'd never killed with a gun. Without one, though….
Mostly, he didn't allow people living space in his life. On the few occasions he did, he knew he made them fight for every breath they took there. He'd always assumed they could be discarded if they became cumbersome, as he had done when he had decided he couldn't deal with a broken mind. He still couldn't. He'd left the Kauffmans and wouldn't be going back. However, lately he'd learned if he choked out the precious few who persevered --two, only two yet untired of loving him-- he'd be the one strangled. Last year's trial separations from both his partners had taught him that lesson. He didn't care to learn it again.
He rounded the last corner, pulled to the curb, stopped the car. Reaching for the door handle, he looked up, saw the street sign on the corner --Aliceanna and Durham-- and only then realized where he was with a jolt. As shocking as the sudden jar of a wrong number at midnight. A very, very wrong number anymore, but here he was. The subconscious was a bitch.
Tim's windows were totally dark, and his jeep was nowhere to be seen. Pembleton wondered where the jeep was parked tonight, thought he could probably find it as if he'd driven and parked it himself, but did he really have the slightest right to make it any of his business? The fact that it was making his jaw ache from clenching was irrelevant. Had to be. He finally let go of the door handle.
What was he doing here anyway? Okay, he hadn't wanted to listen to Tim all day, had treated him miserably for having a different opinion, but hardly the first time he'd done that and unlikely to be the last. It was long woven into the fabric of their partnership. Everything would be all right in the morning. Tim would be late as usual and manage to miss breakfast anyway. Pembleton would make the effort of bringing a grilled cheese sandwich and something healthy to drink, like orange juice -- no, not bitter enough for Tim. Grapefruit juice -- and everything would be just fine.
He put the car back in gear and drove home.
No one's fated or doomed to love anyone
The accidents happen
"Twenty-One Love Poems"
End of Part 3
As soon as the door closed behind them, Tim crowded him up against it, "Chris?" he asked in passing, his inflection already sexual, covered his face with kisses, his skin night-scented, still cold. True to his warning, he was all haste, his fingertips lying problems away as they unbuttoned, unsnapped, unzipped, made inroads for themselves.
Nothing in life's ever where you look for it, is it, Tim?
Tim took his mouth, deeply, hungrily, pressed up against him, asserting his nature, priceless and masculine, and the same urgent intoxication was pouring into him. Okay, if he can't be bothered to try and keep you --you wouldn't be here if he'd tried--I'll chance it, I just won't call it love. Yet.
Any more and he was going to be standing naked in the narrow entrance while Tim was sweating in his coat, gone in record time from cold to hot. He pulled away, "I still have a bed," turned him around and pushed him toward it.
He stripped Tim where they stood, by the side of the bed, revealing to his senses the smooth, sparse flesh neatly following the long, elegant bones, took a step back and looked at him, full-laden, on wanton display. It made him ache sweetly and he stripped himself while Tim watched with such clear, clear eyes.
He pushed the covers off in a hurry as Tim grabbed him, tumbled them both onto the sheets, pillowed himself on his body as their mouths opened to each other. So deliciously simple to let go and submerge into the senses, forget to be anything except a sexual being. He dug in his heels and shoulders, arched his back, driving himself up into Tim, quick, tensile strength driving Tim down into him, both driving each other to a tender mania. Equaled in want and need, banded together, what wonderful labor, just like this, more than enough…
I'd call it love if love
didn't take so many years
but lust too is a jewel
a sweet flower and what
pure happiness to know
all our high-toned questions
breed in a lively animal.
…not enough, not enough, and Tim rolled them over, spread his legs, wrapped them around Chris, lifted his hips into him. As soon as Chris' eyes widened in comprehension, he knew: I'm only using him. I'm using this gentle, kind man. No other warning, he was face to face with his dark side Frank had been pushing for him to find, see, recognize. He almost couldn't. He'd expected it to be ugly. Mostly, it was a needy thing. And right then, his need was too great for his scruples to take on. Urgent, he tugged at Chris.
But Chris was pulling away, sitting back on his heels. "Why, Tim? If you think you owe it to me, you don't."
"Didn't think I did."
"Then what is it? Do youreally want to?"
What has want to do with it? Just -- "Do it."
"Tim, wait, I -- " He let himself be pulled back in between Tim's legs, but held himself off on braced arms. "You're not ready for it."
Forme, Tim knew he meant. "Get me ready."
"I didn't mean right now."
"I do. Now."
"Tim, please -- "
"Are you sure?"
Chris sighed, but his eyes were rapt, avid. "Turn over."
He went so slow and took forever, and when he finally entered it didn't hurt nearly enough, and Tim sobbed in frustration, needing a riptide of sensation instead of the gently, carefully doled out feeling that wasn't pain, that wasn't yet pleasure, a pale ghost of both, and he told Chris, "Come on, please, come on." But all he got in return was Chris hushing him, soothing him, and dammit it wasn't enough, not nearly enough, it should be acute, emphatic, and Tim reared up, pushing back, and yes, that hurt -- "Tim, no, don't!" Biting into the pillow, clenching his fists around the sheets, clenching his whole body, clamping like a vise around Chris, "Jesus! Tim, no, please, don't push me." Rocking hard, come on, come on, come on, "Dammit, Tim, I can't take -- oh, damn," come on, come on, and finally --
The raspsaw of friction added that keen edge of pain -- pleasure goes deep, pain goes deeper -- and when the pleasure came it came hard, and --Oh God, yes!-- he could let it open his throat, he could scream with it, until he was too hoarse to shout and growled with it, and it was huge, it was hot, and if it wasn't as obliterating as he needed, finally, that was good, for at the very end he kept just enough sense not to let Frank's name pour out of his throat…
I needed a language to hear myself with
to see myself in
A language like pigment released on board
blood-black, sexual green, reds
veined with contradictions
bursting under pressure from the tube
staining the old grain of the wood
like sperm or tears
but this is not what I mean
…his throat hurt, but he kept calling, "Tim!Tim!" He knew he couldn't get to the building in time, couldn't beat the spark borne on the harbor wind, and now the smells were almost tangible:
thick and cloying and sweet: blood,
pungent and acrid and salty: fear.
The street, the building, the air itself seemed to breathe. In.
The smell of blood and fear mingled -- Iknow that smell.
Air stilled. Stone and mortar, steel and glass held their breath for an instant…
Smells like death.
He'd awakened from this dream before, so he knew, as soon as he jerked awake, he knew it was a dream. But the feeling of loss was too real, smothered him as if some unholy thing had sealed his mouth with its own, was stealing his breath. He had to gasp to breathe, couldn't quiet down the plaintive sound that escaped. Sounded like grief.
Mary mumbled something that could've been his name, rolled toward him. He intended to tell her it was nothing, to go back to sleep, but he found himself burrowing into her instead. Only half-awake, Mary cradled his head to her sleep-warm breast, stroked his shoulder, patted his back soothingly, "Shh, it's all right, Frank, it's all right."
He clung to her, loving her like life itself, missing Tim like life aborted. He must've grown a second heart. One would have surely burst.
"I'm here," she said, pulling him closer, holding him tight. "Easy, I'm here."
She didn't know she was consoling him for Tim. He could tell her --I had a bad dream, Mary, about Tim-- and she'd hold and soothe him just as sweetly. If he ever hurt over Mary, he knew Tim would do the same, offer the same sweet comfort.
He was a lucky bastard --tears burned at the back of his throat-- he was such a lucky, lucky bastard.
Good-by to you whom I shall see tomorrow,
Next year and when I'm fifty; still good-by.
This is the leave we never really take.
Perhaps the harshest fact is, only lovers --
And once in a while two with the grace of lovers --
Unlearn the clumsiness of rare intrusion
And let each other freely come and go.